Every Morning the War Arrives
Jeffrey C. Alfier reviews Iraqi Poetry Today, edited by Daniel Weissbort and Saadi Simawe
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, the nineteenth in a series of the publisher’s Modern Poetry Translations, 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 they believe 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 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. This effort is further complicated by vernacular language that presents its own challenges. 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 disappointingly the scant attention paid to poetry in translation by the English-speaking academic communities where many do not consider such work as ‘creative writing.’ 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 notes at the end which assist the non-Arab and non-Islamic reader in interpretation and meaning. The Kurdish poems are noted as such under individual titles. 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 not the only translators. There are many others, including the poets themselves. At the time of printing, all but five of the poets lived in Western exile.
What do readers find among these biographies: Islamic fundamentalists? Hardly. Instead, there is a sort of nexus of contrasts: doctoral students, journalists, educators, a youth counselor and author of children’s’ books, editors, a man who once served as Iraqi Kurdistan Minister of Culture, a computer manufacturer, translators, graduates and students of American universities, and poets who are also playwrights and essayists; in general, 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 naïve 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:
Evocative as well is the symbolism. Consider, for instance, al-Braikan’s “Meditations on a World of Stones,” where the poet writes:
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:
Indeed, several poems speak elliptically or directly to such dictatorships whose perpetuity was often reinforced by communal reticence, as Al-Haydari cites in “The City Ravaged by Silence:”
Dictatorship is also impugned for its comprehensive—albeit presumptuous—attack on civil liberties. In Hashim Shafiq’s “Picture of a Tyrant,” the poet asks:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Sometimes abiding dispossession brings about a near uncharacteristic sense of despair, as Badr Shakir al-Sayyab expresses in “Love Me”:
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, America is not spared from the poets’ inquiry. In “America,” Dunya Mikhail writes:
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.” Relatedly, 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.
Finally, 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:
Intriguing as well is his use of imagery and symbolism:
In the Arab world, poetry is not something obscure or circumstantial, relegated to the back rooms of pricey cafes. Instead, it is a vital part of existence and is therefore unquenchable. Those who pass on Iraqi Poetry Today will forgo one of the supreme opportunities of the current hour: to embark on an enthralling 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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