CONTEMPORARY IRAQI POETRY
IRAQI POETRY TODAY
Edited by Saadi Simawe
ISBN 0-9533824-6-X (paper) $16.95
For two decades, since the Iraq-Iran war in 1980, Iraq has been the focus of numerous political, economic, sociological, military, and geopolitical studies. However, very little has been published on the Iraqi literary tradition. Modern Iraq has produced a highly complex literature of survival in response to various realities of oppression and to challenges of modernism. This is the first major collection of modern Iraqi poetry available in the West.
A Week in Books: Where are the Iraqi voices?
By Boyd Tonkin
22 March 2003
“Have an informed opinion,” ran the slogan in the chain-bookstore display above a selection of newish titles about “Bush, Blair and Iraq.” This was imaginative, educative retailing, free of gimmicks and rich in intellectual nourishment. Yet something about it still rankled. This rack of very well informed opinions came from British investigative reporters, French media philosophers, American policy-wonks—most recently, the ex-State Department analyst Robert Kagan, whose much-cited essay Paradise and Power instructs sybaritic Europeans to get real and assume that “we have only just entered a long era of American hegemony.”
But where were the Iraqi voices? Only a few have played any role in the published debate. Now an advocate of “regime change”, the Iraqi Kurdish exile Kanan Makiya (aka “Samir al-Khalil”) revealed the hubristic horror of Saddam’s rule more than a dozen years ago in The Monument and Republic of Fear. Since then, the long-suffering prey of bombers and Ba’athists have been argued over, rather than argued with, across a thousand learned volumes.
All the more welcome, then, that the remarkable book-length Modern Poetry in Translation should have chosen this week to release its survey of Iraqi Poetry Today. MPT has a rare and precious talent for illuminating the world’s more perplexing places in a blaze of verse—recent issues include a pioneering collection of Palestinian and Israeli Poetry.
Guest edited by Saadi Simawe, Iraqi Poetry Today gathers work from 40 living or recently-deceased writers, with Jewish and Kurdish as well as Arab voices. Inevitably, only a handful of the poets now live in Iraq; otherwise, places of exile stretch from Geneva to Harvard.
This is a yearning, wounded literature of resistance, remembrance and survival, of secret truths told at home and lonely insights honed abroad. Wistful and wry tones prevail. Neither gung-ho Western liberators nor Third World sentimentalists will find any comfort here. These writers loathe dictatorship, which they curse with a fine rhetorical glee; equally, they mourn the guiltless victims of war and blockade. “Santa Claus ... comes in military uniform,” laments the Baghdad-born, Detroit-based Dunya Mikhail, “and every year distributes to us/ some red swords/ toys for orphans/ artificial legs/ and photos of absentees/ to be hung on the walls.” There are many poems here which have the power to alter the emotional flight-path of hawks and doves alike. Literature complicates matters mightily.
I thought, repeatedly, of Joyce’s prescription for the displaced author: “Silence, exile and cunning.” Except that Joyce chose that rebel trinity; but these Iraqi poets had it chosen for them. “Baghdad died of a wound from within,” rages “The City ravaged by Silence” from Bulland al-Haydari (one of the real revelations here), “From a blind silence that paralysed the tongues of its children.”
Iraqi Poetry Today reanimates the cliché that calls any invaluable work with doubtful prospects “a labour of love.” As Saadi Sadawe writes in his moving preface, “Translating Iraqi poetry and publishing it in English had become for me a desperate effort to save what remains of Iraqi humanity and culture in the face of a brutal dictatorship and war.” His effort succeeds, gloriously. “Although I lost faith in politics long ago,” Simawe concludes, “I still believe in the power of the word.” We should try to share his hope.
Poets for peace:
Saadi Simawe on bringing Iraqi poetry to a wider audience in the West
Saturday March 1, 2003
Two years ago, I worked with Daniel Weissbort, translating Palestinian and Israeli poetry. As a result of our conversations, we conceived the idea of devoting an issue of Modern Poetry in Translation to Iraqi Poetry Today. We hoped that translating poetry might contribute to the appreciation of other civilisations and even to peace in the Middle East. It seems our dream has failed. Our hope for peace in the Middle East has all but disappeared after the horrors of September 11, 2001.
In spite of these international, national and personal challenges, our faith in poetry abides. We continue to believe in its ability to represent the best aspects of human culture. I felt that translating Iraqi poetry and publishing it in English had become for me a desperate effort to save what remains of Iraqi humanity and culture in the face of a brutal dictatorship and war. As the drums of war clamoured throughout the Islamic world, I could not help feeling like the Chinese student who, in 1989, stood in the path of tanks in Tiananmen Square, exemplifying Ernest Hemingway’s belief that human beings can be destroyed but not defeated. Although I lost faith in politics long ago, I still believe in the power of the word, and especially in the power of translation.
The globalisation of capital threatens to extinguish the spirit of each culture, but one positive change has come with this movement. It has shed light on the importance of translation. Translation can, of course, be seen as a tool that facilitates the globalisation of capital and thus contributes to the overall deadening of cultures, but when poetry is translated, it works against these effects. The particularities of one culture, expressed through poetry, can be appreciated by readers of another because of translation. My work on translation from Arabic into English and vice versa has thus been immensely spiritually rewarding, for in the process of translating, I have discovered and rediscovered many aspects of my own culture.
My work has also been intellectually challenging, for in order to translate certain words, idioms, phrases and cultural significations from Arabic into English, I have to transmute myself into an English-language reader. That experience frequently provides me with a unique double perspective on both the Arabic and English languages. Therefore, I have begun to realise the importance of collaboration between native speakers of the source language and native speakers of the target language in any effective translation. More specifically, translating poetry requires not only familiarity with the two languages, but also knowledge of the poetic sensibilities of the peoples and literary traditions of those languages.
Hence, most of the poems translated in Iraqi Poetry Today have been read and emended by American poets working with near literal translation. This collaboration, when successful, results in “Arabic” poetry that is transplanted into English without losing its particular Arabic signification. Since absolute translation is a myth, and since the literal translation is spiritless, if not meaningless, in most cases, such collaboration is essential in establishing a linguistic and cultural conduit between the two languages. Even if the translator has mastery over both languages, the translated work should be reviewed by experts in the two languages. Of course, even the best translation is inevitably the outcome of one particular interpretation, which accounts for the existence of multiple translations of classic texts such as the Iliad or the Arabian Nights.
As a society and culture, Iraq is ethnically and religiously complex. Some of the Iraqi Arab poets are ethnically Kurdish, Chaldean, Jewish and Sabean (or Men-daien). Since 1980, when the series of wars began, it has been difficult to find significant sources of Iraqi poetry and the new generation of poets who began writing under sanctions do not have access to publication.
Sometimes we wonder what the value is of rendering Iraqi poetry into English at this historical juncture. Whether we like it or not, English has become the world language, and thus has come to belong to people of all nations. Hundreds of the poets who live in exile have lost their audience and have begun either to write in English or to get their poetry translated into English or the language of their host country. The outcome of this hybrid poetics has become an important feature of western modernism: a phenomenon that has not yet been significantly explored. Some of the reasons for this neglect may have to do with the fact that major critics in the west are not familiar with, and some not even interested in, the languages of the colonised.
A majority of the Iraqi poets in Iraqi Poetry Today live in exile in the west. Five still live in Iraq. The Iraqi poetic styles range from traditional to modernistic to experimental and the major themes covered include love, war, fascism, sanctions, torture, prison, exile, communism, Sufism, nationalism, feminism, homeland, exile, colonialism and selfhood. In broad terms, the movement of modern poetry in Iraq between 1900 and 1945 began with the ancient traditional form inspired by neo-classical themes under European influence. In the early 1950s, the pioneer poets, al-shu’ara’a al-ruwwad, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Nazik al-Mala’ika, stimulated by their reading of western modernist poets such as TS Eliot and Edith Sitwell, began what is termed now al-sh’ir al-hur, free verse - free, that is, from the confines of the traditional two-hemistich line. This poetic revolution, which began in Iraq and spread through the Arab world, introduced new imagery, new metrical patterns and a new sensibility. In the 1960s, Iraqi poets, like poets all over the world, obsessively experimented with new stylistics and new philosophies. Many of them, rebelling against traditional thought, embraced existentialism, iconoclasm and nihilism that introduced the aesthetics of ambiguity and solipsism.
During those dynamic and sometimes chaotic years, the prose poem, qaissidat al-nathr, was born and faced fierce resistance, even from the practitioners of free verse. Although the battle against the prose poem is not yet over, one can clearly see that prose poets, like Fadhil al-Azzawi and Dunya Mikhail, have successfully proven in their powerful lyricism and intricate rhythms that prose poetry is legitimate and cannot be considered just prose.