‘There’s No Room For Poets, Unless They’re Dead’
Zuhair Al-Jazairi, editor in chief of the “Voices of Iraq” news agency, stated in his popular book, Harb al-A’jiz (The Helpless War) that every Iraqi individual has more than one story to pass on. This statement summarizes a new feature in Iraqi social dynamics that stems from the dramatic, sad, disastrous events that have taken place there during the last few decades.
In contrast to the common belief in the Arab world, poetry has lost its position in Iraqi cultural discourse and stories have become one of the main features there. However, poetry still has its uses: Political powers need a “poet” in certain ceremonies to generate enthusiasm and gain more supporters. The necessity for a “poet” also still exists within tribal entities and political parties in political gatherings and religious ceremonies that have multiplied in the post-2003 years. Meanwhile, genuine poetical production stayed in the same old position–an elitist field that never has been part of the main social segment’s concerns.
However, storytelling is on the rise. Many Iraqis in exile, and also foreigners who had the opportunity to visit the country in the post- 2003 era, have observed Iraqis’ new talent for storytelling that can take the audience from love affairs to struggles with the former regime’s oppression machine without forgetting stories of surviving the embargo and the sectarian violence in recent years.
Personally, I love to listen to taxi drivers’ stories, with their diverse experiences on many routes, to the point that a driver called Wisam approached a US Military convoy on Hwy 1 south of Baghdad and jeopardized my safety during his storytelling episode. While he was busy telling me his story of surviving the embargo years by working odd jobs in Jordan, he forgot to pay attention to a “stay back 100 meters” military sign attached to the end of an American military vehicle on the road which placed our small car, for few minutes, as a target for Americans’ “friendly fire.”
Another driver who refused to reveal his real name insisted that he was a “good source of information” because he used to work as a colonel in the former Iraqi Army. He added, with a certain voice, that he already knew that Saddam was a “hidden spy” for the Americans and therefore they will never hang him but will hang his duplicate. He stated that Kuwaiti hands had executed the 2003 looting that took place in the Iraqi National Museum as an act of retaliation. After he transported me from one bank of the Tigris to another, I paid him the taxi fare with shivering hands, overwhelmed with conspiracy theory stories.
Faris al-Khidhir, an Iraqi painter and cartoonist, summarized his struggle with sectarian violence in a sarcastic tone. In 2006, Faris left the National Theater in his car to pick up his wife from his in-laws’ in a Sunni neighborhood. Because he was well-known in this neighborhood as a Shi’a man, and not as a secular artist, some Sunni militia shot him in his neck (very close to his neck bones). As he told the story, the main objective of the sectarian violence was to ruin his marriage. So to save the country from possible civil war, he fled with his wife to Cairo, Egypt.
Mohammad Rahama, my former classmate, told me his long emotional story of surviving through oppression and the embargo years until he reached his final refuge in Norway. Subsequent to the former regime’s loss of control in the south in the months that followed the 1991 uprising, he became a fugitive from the authorities while his wife and his only son were under arrest in the secret police building in Basra. When his son died in secret police custody, they released his wife and he determined to flee the country with a false passport. He lived in Jordan for few months and managed to make a deal with a smuggler that would take him from Jordan to Cairo in an airplane with another false passport.
He flew from Cairo with the same false passport to an Eastern European state to join a group of asylum seekers with the same plot: Walking through some wild forest to cross the German borders. During his walking for one cold long night, Rahma realized that an eight-year-old Kurdish Iraqi boy had lost his family during the trip and the boy was terrified of being alone. He kept the boy with him in his long walk through the German borders. He did many risky arrangements for both of them to avoid the German authorities and to find a lead for the boy’s family until he finally reached the parents in one of Berlin’s quarters.
For many forthcoming decades, Iraqis will keep telling their own tales and some of them will record their experiences in the forms of novels and short stories or even documentaries with the hope that the rest of the Middle East will learn something. Thus, Iraqis will articulate their painful days outside the poetical tools that they used for centuries.
Enough evidence in hand confirms the rise of the narrative art versus the poetical products within the Iraqi cultural discourse. For instance, Iraqi novelist Ali Bader published 12 novels between 2003 and 2012, and Muhammad al-Hamarani had published his dazzling novel before his sudden death(1970-2007) about the disenfranchised minorities in Iraqi marshes and their struggles in stunning narrative that captivate readers’ senses from the first few lines. Even though she overwhelmed her text with many political implications, Inaam Kachachi published her novel, El-Hafida Al-Amreikyia (The American Granddaughter) that provided a well-done narrative about the controversial theme: the American invasion to Iraqi in 2003.
I personally wrote poetry for over 30 years and could not find it as an efficient tool to deliver my own vision and suffering. I have reached a point of having no answer for the main powerful question: Why am I writing poetry? I therefore started recording my own experience in narrative form because of my late awareness that I live in the “novel age” where no room is left for poets, unless they are dead.
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Faris Adnon is the author of مظلة من كلمات. He was born in Diwaniah, Iraq in 1966 and was forced to leave his homeland in 1991. He entered the USA as a refugee in 1992. He contributed to an Iraqi poetry anthology in Spanish named Gilgamesh Curse in 2005 and his first poetry collection, مظلة من كلمات, was published in Beirut in 2009.