Iraqi Poetry Today

Buy this book from Amazon.comEdited by Saadi Simawe and Daniel Weissbort
Zephyr Press ($16.95)

by Jeffrey C. Alfier

Paul Fussell once described British soldier-poet Edmund Blunden's decision to write the autobiography of his war years as "memory conceived as an act of reconnaissance." In Iraqi Poetry Today, one finds a spirit kindred to Blunden, even though for most Iraqis, war and loss are not events solely relegated to the haunting past; instead, the events are ongoing and in most cases are inherited parts of their futures. It was thus the hope of co-editors Saadi Simawe and Daniel Weissbort that a new translation of Iraqi poetry into English would contribute to the appreciation and cause of peace in the Middle East. Though their dream has been disappointed in the current atmosphere of violence, they still find an abiding faith in the endurance of the poetry they compiled in this anthology of forty poets. Hence, theirs is a serious attempt to "save what remains of Iraqi humanity and culture in the face of a brutal dictatorship and war." Under the current turmoil of post-war Iraq, Simawe and Weissbort's compilation is needed more urgently than ever.

The task of translation is never easy, requiring close attention to the poetic sensibilities and literary traditions of the peoples whose literature undergoes the delicate translation route, as well as to the particular challenges of vernacular language. Simawe and Weissbort's editorial process was complicated further by near endless warfare which disrupted the process of finding sources of Iraqi poetry, especially that written since the 1980s. Yet even after the poetry was found and translated, the editors noted the scant attention paid to poetry in translation by the English-speaking academic communities. Undeterred by academia's rebuff, the volume under review here represents several major styles of Arab and Kurdish poetry, and the range of subjects is expansive.

Structurally, the book is arranged alphabetically by the poets' last names. As an interpretive aid, many of the poems have endnotes to assist the non-Arab and non-Islamic reader. Kurdish poems are noted as such under individual titles, and included in the prefatory material is a brief introduction to Kurdish poetry by Muhamad Tawfiq Ali. The book closes with two commentaries, one on Fadhil al-Azzawi's German poems, and another on Egyptian poet Muhammad Afifi Matar's long poem, "Quartet of Joy." These two additions offer absorbing discussions of the translation process between Arabic, English, and German. There are also biographies of the translators as well as the poets, a feature that helps to inform the context of the poems. Simawe and Weissbort are joined in the translation efforts by many others, including the poets themselves. At the time of printing, all but five of the poets lived in Western exile.

Intelligence operatives looking for Islamic fundamentalists among these biographies will be disappointed. Instead, we have what to some readers may appear as a nexus of contrasts—doctoral students, journalists, educators, a youth counselor and author of children's books, a man who once served as Iraqi Kurdistan Minister of Culture, a computer manufacturer, graduates and students of American universities, poets who are also playwrights and essayists—in other words, a large assembly of prolifically published writers whose world views span a wide breadth of politics and religion. Although broadly regional, the poems are far from being culturally naive or parochial. Rather, they evoke solicitude beyond specific Iraqi locales such as the Tigris or Euphrates rivers, as they embrace the gods, kings, queens, literary dissidents, warriors, and cities of both ancient Iraq and the ancient Western world. This is not to say that these poets are pampered expatriate elitists. On the contrary, most of them are quite familiar—through their own experience or that of their families—with prison, exile, poverty, and war. For many of them, there is no return to Ithaca.

One of the inspiring features of Iraqi poetry is that it is both historically informed and critically powerful, expressed with a refreshing array of complex, compound, absolute/paralogical, and submerged metaphors, all of which undergird a powerfully alluring imagery. As such, many of the poets here exemplify what Arthur Symons once said of William Ernest Henley, that he provided "a daring straightforwardness and pungency of epithet." In "Every Morning the War Gets Up from Sleep," Fadhil al-Azzawi reminds the world:

Every morning the war arrives
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The slain fill the wilderness and the guns howl forever.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Children are raped in prison
while Arab radios chirp about morality.

Evocative as well is the symbolism. Consider, for instance, Mahmoud al-Braikan's "Meditations on a World of Stones," where the poet writes:

A goddess of a forgotten world
had cracked under the reverberation of thunder
and sucked the shapeless lightning.

One of the prime subjects treated by Iraqi poets is the oppressive regime that existed under Saddam Hussein. In "Dragon," Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayyati reminds the world of the man and his reign:

A dictator, hiding in a nihilist's mask, has killed and killed and killed,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Satan used to be an original,
now he is just the dictator's shadow.

Indeed, several poems speak elliptically or directly to such dictatorships whose perpetuity was often reinforced by communal reticence, as Bulland al-Haydari cites in "The City Ravaged by Silence":

Baghdad died of a wound from within
From a blind silence that paralyzed the tongues of its children.

Dictatorship is also impugned for its comprehensive—albeit presumptuous—attack on civil liberties. In Hashim Shafiq's "Picture of a Tyrant," the poet asks:

Why have the landscapes of imagination that used to fly with our
kites disappeared?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Who gave you permission to build all these fences around our mouths
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Why do you always search my poems for weapons?

Under such conditions, war and dictatorship imbue many poems with terrible ironies such as we find in the transcription of Muzaffar al-Nawwab's oral poetry:

A child tried to cover the corpse of his grandmother
For it is shameful for a grandmother's thighs to be exposed
They gunned him down, and he fell, right on top of her thighs . . .
There, there, my son, it's alright, this way
her thighs will be covered.

Such verse is starkly redolent of British Great War poet Siegfried Sassoon's "Glory of Women." Indeed, throughout the volume there are powerful indictments of war's relentless hold on Iraq and the region in general. In "Wars I," Sinan Anton writes:

I saw another war
and a mother
weaving a shroud
for the dead man
still in her womb

Exile, another prominent theme, is often inscribed in subtle depths of elegy. In a dedication to the late Senegalese poet Leopold Senghor, Bulland al-Haydari speaks of how:

From a blind time that sneaks barefoot
From among
The dust of the road and the edge of my broken window.

Mahdi Muhammed Ali informs us that sometimes all the exile wants is what is taken for granted in the homeland. As such, in many exile poems there is an intense element of dispossession. Thus, Fawzi Karim writes:

Who are we? Fury of a blind man
being led by a thread of loss,
dice thrown down on the night's page
without even an echo of their

Sometimes abiding dispossession brings about a near uncharacteristic sense of despair, as Badr Shakir al-Sayyab expresses in "Love Me":

I lost faith in the Arabs,
In Mecca, in its prophets,
Its caves and its valleys.

Not all the poems concern homeland, exile, or war; many are simple love poems redolent of a Sufi inheritance, and employ erudition beyond Arab literary and cultural borders (several, for instance, offer allusions to Greek mythology). In addition, as one may expect, the United States is not spared from the poets' inquiry. In "America," Dunya Mikhail writes:

Stop your questioning, America
and offer your hand
to the tired
on the other shore
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Who said that the sky
would lose all its stars
if night passed without answers?

When Iraqi artist Layla al-Attar was killed in her home by an American missile attack in 1998, Jawad Yaqoob referred to Americans as "the lovers of killing." And yet, there are sharp words for mankind at large, such as Murad Mikha'il's "Three Flags," or Salah Niazi's "The Thinker between the Bronze Shield and the Human Flesh."

Some of the volume's entries are simple poems of patriotism, like Kurdish poet Ahmed Herdi's, "God's Freedom Lovers." Related to this, some of the Kurdish poems are more or less common revolutionary polemics such as Jigerkhwen's "I am the Voice," a poem which invokes the revolutionaries of the past. And the compilation has a unique twist in Ronny Someck, an Iraqi-born Israeli Jew whose poems, translated from Hebrew, provide a refreshing psychology to traditional metaphors:

The moon is the nightlight of Dr. Freud.

Intriguing as well is his use of imagery and symbolism:

In the leaves
nostalgia has shut down the wind turbines of the grains of sand

In the Arab world, poetry is not something obscure or circumstantial, relegated to the academy or the back rooms of cafes; instead, it is a vital part of existence and is therefore unquenchable. Those who skip over Iraqi Poetry Today will forgo one of the supreme opportunities of the current hour: to embark on an enriching journey into an often marginalized and misunderstood nation. Simawe and Weissbort's compilation is one of meticulous research and labor that, outside of a few unremarkable poems, is an immense literary contribution to a world with an exigent need for tolerance and understanding.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004