Saturday, March 5, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 25: “Asymmetries” + Salih Altoma + Dunya Mikhail

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 25: “Asymmetries” + Salih Altoma + Dunya Mikhail

If today you hear his voice,
harden not your hearts.
            --Psalm 95:8

I woke up thinking about what I’d written in relationship to the scripture readings yesterday, wondering if I’d missed the point entirely. After all, the passage I quoted was Jesus’s message about God’s commandments; they were to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your might, and to love your neighbor as yourself. I immediately launched into a critique of the coerciveness of institutional religion, and completely bypassed the call to love. As I was tossing and turning, in the wake of dawn, I thought again about this second commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. I’d not considered, again, how the commandment is grounded on the idea of loving oneself. My dear colleague, the late Chris Roark, once wrote a beautiful letter to his children, and he began with the idea of loving oneself as the core of all love. And that, made in the image of God, that means loving the God in us that loves us. How hard that is for me, to accept myself as loveable. But how can we love anyone if we can’t find what’s loveable in ourselves?

(And then, as if to return myself to the other problem, the problem of the coercive God, in today’s reading from Hosea, the image of an abusive God recurs, like a nightmare: “Come, let us return to the LORD, / it is he who has rent, but he will heal us; / he has struck us, but he will bind our wounds.” Suffice to say that I only accept this sort of formulation if one considers the notion of Process Theology, in which God actually changes, becomes more humane. Otherwise, I refuse to accept an abuser God as much as I refuse to accept an abuser human.)

Today’s poem from Sand Opera, “Asymmetries,” was inspired by a visit that Amy and I made to a Spencer Tunick exhibit as MOCA Cleveland; his work involves massive photographs of masses of clotheless people seen from a cold distance. His work is unsettling and beautiful, and reminds me at once of how easy it is to dehumanize, and how vulnerable we are at our cores. Alongside “Asymmetries,” I’m sharing a poem by the great Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail and a dossier of writing by the Iraqi scholar Salih Altoma, who was a friend and guide during our time together in Bloomington, fighting against the brutal economic sanctions against Iraq. He has devoted a good portion of his life to bringing Iraqi voices to America, through essays, reviews, translations, and even op-eds. 


Longing to grasp the familiar, names
            against the anonymous
appendages & naked flesh, a nipple the eye
            could nuzzle, to hide in
dark islands of hair, I near the photo—

            as if the body erotic
could shield against the camera’s scalpel.
            In its distance, the bodies
without faces line a riverbank, shade
            into some darker shadow,

obeying the desire of gravity. I’m thinking
            of Iraq, how they lay out
each disinterred nest of femurs & ribs
            on separate sackcloths,
trying to punctuate the run-on sentence.

            After making love, once,
you said every face, split in half, fit
            so precariously, so comically,
we spent the next half hour shading one side
            of our faces in the mirror,
then the other. This world is centaur: half
            daydream, half nightmare,
not knowing if we’re awake or dreaming.
            Wandering the gallery, we drift
onto an imagined balcony

            & gape at the traffic
of bodies jamming the crossroads, im
            -mobile sculpture of
pure fact, dangling odd-angled & earth
            -bound us.

“Bag of Bones” by Dunya Mikhail

What good luck!
She has found his bones.
The skull is also in the bag
the bag in her hand
like all other bags
in all other trembling hands.
His bones, like thousands of bones
in the mass graveyard,
his skull, not like any other skull.
Two eyes or holes
with which he saw too much,
two ears
with which he listened to music
that told his own story,
a nose
that never knew clean air
a mouth, open like a chasm,
was not like that when he kissed her
there, quietly,
not in this place
noisy with skulls and bones and dust
dug up with questions:
What does it mean to die all this death
in a place where darkness plays all this silence?
What does it mean to meet your loved ones now
with all of these hollow places?
To give back to your mother
on this occasion of death
a handful of bones
she had given to you
on the occasion of birth?
To depart without death or birth certificates
because the dictator does not give receipts
when he takes your life?
The dictator has a heart, too,
a balloon that never pops.
He has a skull, too, a huge one
not like any other skull.
It solved by itself the math problem
that multiplied the one death by millions
to equal homeland.
The dictator is the director of a great tragedy.
He has an audience, too,
an audience that claps
until the bones begin to rattle--
the bones in the bags,
the full bag finally in her hand, unlike her
disappointed neighbor
who has not yet found her own.

Excerpted from The War Works Hard, San Francisco: New Directions, 2004.



Dunya Mikhail was born in 1965 in Baghdad. She received a degree in English literature at Baghdad University, and has worked as Literary Editor for The Baghdad Observer. Facing increasing threats from Iraqi authorities for her writing, she fled to Jordan and then the United States. She is graduate student in Near East Studies, Wayne State University where she teaches Arabic. In 2001, she was awarded the UN Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing. She has published four collections of poetry in Arabic and her first collection published in English, The War Works Hard, was translated by Elizabeth Winslow in 2005 with a PEN Translation Fund Grant.


“Most of my writings serve as documents of witness; they document what I saw. In Iraq, there are no editors because they have censors. They don’t care about the quality, they care about the ideology, and that is how they use their editing scissors. There, they are watching every work and they can put you in prison--they care that much! Here, you can write whatever you want but no one cares? It is very ironic. I noticed a change in my writing when I came here: I didn't need to use symbols anymore. My language and my poems became more direct. For example, in the poem “Bag of Bones,” I used the word “dictator.” I would have used the word “Zeus” in Iraq. I do not know if not using symbols has made my writing more powerful or less powerful but I wanted to peel away some of those masks and shields that burdened me.” From a Legacy Project Interview with Dunya Mikhail, April 21, 2005

Tormenting Memories: 1991-2016 
Salih J. Altoma
Professor Emeritus/Indiana University


Bush’s choice: magnanimity or catalyst of horror/ The Herald Times, January 10, 1991 (p. A5)
By Salih J. Altoma, director of Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University

In the next few days, President Bush faces a fateful choice: either to emerge as a man of magnanimity, peace and vision or to go down into the annals of Arab-Muslim history as a new Hulagu, heir to the Mongolian conqueror who sacked Baghdad in 1258, or as a leader of a new American crusade.  Man of peace, because he will spare the world indescribable horrors of a war that is neither necessary in our search for a settlement, nor conducive to friendly relations between America and the Arab/Muslim world.  Man of magnanimity, simply because he is the leader of the sole super power vis-à-vis, a small developing country which has not recovered yet from the devastation of an eight year war with Iran.  Iraq, which is dependent 70% on imports mainly from the U.S. and Europe, is no Germany, not a super power or an “evil empire.” Saddam Hussein is no Hitler. Using what is perceived as insulting, arrogant, and threatening language (including four letter words) is counter-productive.  It is not the hallmark of a great democracy.  It breeds precisely the kind of response, which impairs our search for a peaceful resolution.

As for Vision, it must rest on a careful reading not only of modern history of Arab-American relations, but also the history of confrontations or relations between Islam and Christianity, and the recent ascendancy of Islamic fundamentalism. Of all Western countries, America has been blessed by more positive ties with the Arab Muslim world.  It has never been involved in a colonial occupation, nor has it been directly responsible for killing thousands of Arabs or Muslims, or in destroying their cities, or desecrating their religious and cultural heritage.  America has bequeathed to the Arab world many cultural and technical resources: American universities or other institutions have operated or are still operating in Baghdad, Beirut and Cairo and elsewhere.  Thousands of specialists in all fields received their training in American institutions.  One of the most influential Arabic literary schools flourished in New York and Boston.  More constructive examples can be cited. 

Our forces in the Gulf were sent not in order to promote democracy or to defend human rights.  Their mere presence in Saudi Arabia has rekindled old animosities and unleashed religious fury the like of which we have not seen in decades.  Mr. Bush is perceived not in Iraq but in Mecca, Tunisia, Iran and other parts of the Muslim world as wearing the mantle of a new crusader leading a new American crusade, even worse than the earlier waves of Christian crusades (11-14th centuries).  It is from Mosques in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere that Koranic verses (esp. V 54-55) are recited in which dependence on non-Muslims is condemned and those Muslims who seek it, under one pretext or another, are cast as non-Muslims.  Only men without vision, with lost memory, can ignore the ramifications of what has already taken place in the region.  America, without war, with a legacy of so many positive contributions, has earned needless hostility, and its innocent citizens have been subjected to regrettable acts of terrorism.  Will Mr. Bush, or does he, have the vision to read what the future will hold for us if the war breaks out?

There is still a dim hope that Mr. Bush will spare the American people and the world a disastrous war in the Middle East, a war fraught with horrors and unpredictable ramifications.   America will win the battle for obvious reasons, but it will leave to posterity a legacy of human carnage, ecological devastation of an unprecedented scale, economic ruins including the very oil fields it seeks to safeguard, and the desecration of cultural and religious treasures spanning six thousand years of Iraq's history, "the cradle of civilization", the center of the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization (750-1258). It is up to Mr. Bush to make the fateful choice in the next few days. 


It's time for the United States to back off collective punishment
Guest column: Salih J. Altoma   January 14, 1999

"The holiday atmosphere renders even more intense the suffering for all that has happened in these days to the Iraqi people, in the face of whose drama no one can remain indifferent.” The Pope
"If we are capable of sending 400 missiles, let's now build 400 schools. Replace war with education, bombs with books, and missiles with school teachers."
UNESCO Director General Federico Mayor
"What they have done is very dangerous to the Western position in the Middle East because it strengthens all the extremist groups against all the regimes which have been friendly to us. We are seen very much as Mr. Clinton's poodle." (Lord Healy)
"An Arab-Muslim capital is in flames at the hand of a new crusade, but this time led, not by Richard the Lionheart but by Clinton the Liar." (Galloway, Labor MP).
It is an irony that even Scott Ritter (of UNSCOM), who was accused by the Iraqi government as a spy, joined other American dissenting voices by describing the operation as "a horrible mistake on the part of the United States."
Such negative reactions demonstrate increasing opposition to American-led military strikes. However, they tend to be more concerned with the fate of an individual leader, a government and other military questions than with the fate of a whole nation that has been subjected to genocidal sanctions. As for "the legacy of human carnage" mentioned above, I can only cite a few facts: More than a million Iraqis have died, "6,000 civilians die each month, one million children under 5 are chronically malnourished, 200,000 Iraqis died in 1991 as a result of the war (according to a former analyst from the U.S. Census Bureau) and tuberculosis cases have soared more than 500 percent  whereas 10 years ago Iraq was comparable to parts of the European Union in terms of quality of life and health conditions. Only a few days back (Dec. 29, 1998) The New York Times cited more disturbing facts under the headline "Iraq Is a Pediatrician's Hell: No Way to Stop the Dying." This is not to mention other catastrophic setbacks in cultural, economic, educational, and scientific fields or the dispersion of thousands of Iraqis (writers, artists, poets, physicians, and other professionals) into countless diasporas. In brief, this disaster has by far eclipsed all other disasters which Iraq endured in its history, including Hulagu's barbaric sack of Baghdad in 1258.
Who is to blame? First and foremost the Iraqi leader, his regime and other Arab governments for failing to resolve peacefully their problems or to take a united stand against foreign intervention. Others blame Arab and Muslim governments for not ignoring the non-military terms of the sanction. Many more believe that U.S.-led economic sanctions and U.S. bombardments of Iraq bear a great share of responsibility for the suffering of the Iraqi people over the last eight years.
What should be done? As Catholic Bishops stated in their call for end to the sanction, "it is time for new thinking and new approaches." It is time for all concerned citizens to demand an end to both economic sanctions and senseless military action. It is time that America as a super power should take the lead in banning outdated acts of collective punishment aimed at a whole civilian population whether in Iraq or elsewhere.


Campus - April 06, 1999
Citizens protest sanctions against postal mailings

by Kate Zangrelli, Indiana Daily Student
When his sister became ill, Salih Altoma, a retired IU professor, put some vitamins and aspirin in a box and addressed it to Iraq. At the post office, the clerk typed in the country's code -- 194 -- and placed it on the scale.
The message blinked in green across the screen: "maximum weight for this service exceeded."
The package was refused.
The scale read 3 pounds and 8.7 ounces.
The clerk said, "Twelve ounces, that's it. You can only send letters."
According to the U.S. Postal Service International Mail Manual, Americans can only mail "personal communications" to Iraq.
Fifty members of the Bloomington Coalition for Peace in the Gulf attempted their mailings Monday as part of a protest against economic sanctions imposed on Iraq.
"We refuse to sit idly by when sanctions forbid aspirin, rubbing alcohol, clean sheets and clean syringes," said group coordinator Phil Metres. "We ask our fellow Americans to join us in ending this barbarity, invisibly sanctioned in our names."
Bloomington resident Tad Cook, a member of the organization, carried a package of Naproxen and Tums addressed to Albaladyat Clinic in Baghdad. His package remained unsent, on the curb in the spitting rain Monday evening.
"It's an inhumane policy of denying millions of people medicines -- and other nonmilitary supplies," Altoma said. While his sister waits in Baghdad, the 450 caplets of Tylenol will return to his closet in Bloomington.
BCPG has arranged an appointment for Thursday with U.S. Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.). Metres said the group will present a petition signed by about 400 Monroe County citizens.

Who speaks for children suffering in Iraq because of U.S.-led sanctions?
Guest Column: Salih J. Altoma.
Herald Times January 19, 2001

"More Iraqi children have died as a result of sanctions than the combined total of two atomic bombs on Japan and the recent scourge of ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia"
— New York's Center for Economic and Social Rights, May 1996.
"How Many More Iraqi Children Must Die? Lift Economic Sanctions Now."
— Pax Christi USA, November 2000.
"I think it is possible to re-energize those sanctions."
— Colin Powell, December 2000.

What a strange coincidence for the people of Iraq to endure two "apocalyptic" events which took place about the same time of the year.
For more than six centuries, Hulagu, the Mongolian leader who sacked Baghdad in 1258, served as the most hated symbol of barbarism in Arabic writings. According to historians, Hulagu's siege of Baghdad began on the Jan. 16-17, 1258, forcing the Caliph in power at that time to surrender unconditionally a month later (Feb. 10, 1258). It was the Caliph's hope that, by surrendering, Baghdad and its people would be spared more disastrous consequences. But he was executed and Hulagu's soldiers went on for a week slaughtering indiscriminately large numbers of people, destroying and burning many of Baghdad's civilian quarters, its renowned libraries, other cultural and religious centers.
Estimates of the number killed range between 800,000 and two million as stated in Arabic sources, though some modern Western historians suggest a more conservative figure that still exceeds a hundred thousand.
Two points need to be stressed. First, it was the "barbarians" from the East who were involved in the making of the earlier disaster, which put an end to the golden age of the Arab-Islamic civilization. Second, although Hulagu's invasion was repelled two years later in 1260, his legacy of carnage, in human, economic/environmental and cultural terms, was of such a magnitude that he became in Arabic literature a widely used symbol of barbarism up to the present.
On the other hand, the Gulf War which began on Jan. 16, 1991, and the sanctions imposed on Iraq since 1990 have been authored by the U.S. and other highly civilized Western governments who pride themselves on being the champions and promoters of human rights. History will tell whether or not their deeds practically surpassed the devastation caused by Hulagu's infamous invasion. But by now we know certain disturbing facts which suggest this possibility. Only a few can be cited in this limited space.
Some 90,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Iraq exposing the population to their depleted uranium. The latter has been linked to the rise of cancer cases among Iraqi children as it is linked today in Europe to cancer deaths of soldiers who served in Bosnia or Kosovo in spite of the Pentagon's repeated denials.
The U.S.-led air strikes destroyed most of the country's industrial complexes, sewage pumping and water treatment stations, railroads, oil refineries, bridges, power generating plants and other civilian facilities.
Roughly 200,000 Iraqis died in 1991 as a result of the contaminated water (according to a former analyst from the U.S. Census Bureau). More than one million civilians, mostly children have died from malnutrition and disease and several thousand children under the age of five die every month because of the sanctions, according to a congressional letter addressed to President Clinton on Jan. 25, 2000.
We may ask, with such terrifying facts in mind, "Who cares?" Not President Clinton who remarked, " the sanctions will be there until the end of time or as long as he (Saddam) lasts." Certainly not Secretary of State Albright who is quoted as saying "We think the price is worth it" in her answer to Lesley Stahl's question "'we have heard that a half million children have died ... more children than died in Hiroshima. Is the price worth it?" (CBS "60 Minutes" interview May 12, 1996).
Who cares if our media are more concerned with Saddam Hussein than with the ordeal, suffering and death of millions of innocent people? Who cares, or should care, if the sanctions are increasingly viewed to be genocide, a weapon of mass destruction, or a new form of barbarism whether in American and European writings or in the literature of the Arab and Muslim world?
Who cares? Only a small, but growing segment of informed American citizens: students, religious leaders, educators, physicians, writers, veterans and others who dare to speak out against indiscriminate economic sanctions on moral, humanitarian and political grounds.

America, the Gulf War, and Arabic Poetry

By: Salih J. Altoma

There has emerged since the Gulf War a corpus of poetry and other literary works, which is highly critical of the American action and policy in Iraq and the Middle East in general.  Contrary to what American policy-makers or certain Middle East specialists may like to believe, the anti-American attitude is not limited to so-called state-sponsored literature, pro-Saddam Hussein writers or extremist groups hostile to America.  This attitude is featured in the broadest spectrum of views or currents active in different parts of the Arab world.  In my judgment, at no other time in the history of Modern Arabic literature has America been so negatively portrayed as it has during the past few years.  This is largely due to U.S. military involvement in the Gulf War and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, which is perceived as being anti-Arab or anti-Islam.

To illustrate I have selected several poems which reflect a wide range of themes relating to the Gulf war.  The poems were written by two leading Iraqi poets, Lami’ah Abbas Amarah and Sa’di Yususf, who are living in exile, mainly because of their opposition to Hussein.  Both are in their sixties and are graduates of the same college in Baghdad (Higher Teachers Training College) which produced some of the greatest contemporary poets such as Nazik al-Mala’ika, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati.  Both poets hail from southern Iraq, which experienced the most devastating phase of the Gulf War and its aftermath.  Amarah from the city of Amarah and Yusuf from Basra.

Amarah, who belongs to the Sabian/Mandaeans, a small ancient religious minority in southern Iraq, and who presently resides in California, focuses in her poems on the cruelties of the Gulf War and the horrors, which innocent civilians endured.  Being herself originally from “Amarah,” where many Sabians have lived, Amarah alludes in her poems to memories, sounds and scenes reminding her of happier and more peaceful days.  She, like other Iraqi poets, employs the date-palm as a symbol of pride, defiance, goodness and fertility.  Her poem entitled “Tears on a Sad Iraqi Face” refers, forexample, to a popular love song associated with palm trees of Samawah, a city in southern Iraq.  The poem’s context, however, is obviously not of love but of vicious cruelty.  Elsewhere in the same poem, Amarah identifies her sense of pride and defiance, now wounded or tarnished by the war, with that of the palm tree.  In her poem “Lee Anderson,” Amarah brings into focus the affinity of the California palm-trees to their Iraqi roots (Bahri, Hillawi, Khadrawi and Zahdi) though she also included Deglet Noor, an Algerian brand.  Perhaps there is an obvious irony suggested by the fact that kindred Iraqi palms have not escaped the horrors of the war.

In these and other poems dealing with the Gulf war, Amarah reminds us of al-Khansa’ (d.645), who was known for the passionate and poignant elegies she dedicated to her two fallen brothers.  Amarah’s present-day lamentations, however, embrace a whole country and people devastated indiscriminately by the war.  Note her references to the Amiriyyah civilian shelter which was bombed during the war, the suspension bridge over the Tigris, the palm trees that have been “martyred,” the songs that were silenced, the destruction of Basra – one of the earliest centers of Arabo-Islamic civilizations – and the killings of thousands of innocent children.

Yusuf’s poem “America America” offers a more elaborate or complex exposé of the cruelties and devastations inflicted on Iraq and a whole innocent population.  As a poet, Yusuf is known for his commitment to the cause of the oppressed and for his personal struggle against repressive regimes, colonialism, and foreign-including American-interference in the region.  It is therefore logical that in this poem he alludes to negative symbols or icons associated with America.  At the same time, however, Yusuf reveals his respect for and  admiration of what he regards as positive American contributions in different fields, hence, his reference to figures such as Jack London, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.  Perhaps it is relevant to note here that Yusuf translated into Arabic selections from Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” in 1976.  Yusuf’s poem “America America” skillfully blends several voices with constant flashbacks to America and Iraq, including the voice of the American soldier longing to go home, the voice of the average Iraqi victims who were deprived of their right to live, as well as the voice of the poet himself.  All voices are employed in such a way as to suggest America’s responsibility for the war’s tragic consequences, though in passing Yususf also implicates Hussein.

Aljadid  Issue No.21 (Fall 1997):16

                        God save America'
                        my home, sweet home

The French general who raised the tricolored flag over the prison where I was jailed thirty years ago called the prison a fortress!
Generals see only two dimensions for the surface of the earth:
what stands out of it: a fortress
what is flat: an open field.
how ignorant the general was!
but the "Liberation" was more knowledgeable about the topography
as its first page photo reveals an Iraqi youth
charred behind the wheel of his truck on the Kuwait-Basra highway
while the TV sets, the spoils and the identity of the defeated,
were left intact in his truck
as if they were in a display window in Avenue Rivoli.
the N-bomb is extremely smart
it distinguishes between a man and his identity

God save America
my home, sweet home
how long will I walk to Sacramento
how long will I walk to Sacramento
how long will I walk to reach my home
how long will I walk to see my daughter
how long will I walk to get to Sacramento!


God save America
my home, sweet home

I, too, like jeans, jazz, Treasure Island
I like the parrot of [Long] John Silver
New Orleans's windows
I like Mark Twain, Mississippi’s boats
Jack London's dogs
I like Walt Whitman's beard
Abraham Lincoln's Brigade
I like the fields of corn and wheat
the aroma of Virginia's tobacco
but I am not an American
is that a valid reason for the Phantom's pilot
to send me back to the stone age?
neither oil nor America do I want
neither the elephant nor the donkey
pilot, leave for me my thatched-roof hut
leave alone the truncal bridge
I want neither the Golden Gate Bridge
nor the skyscrapers
I want my village, not New York
why did you come from Nevada's desert, armed to the teeth?
why did you come to Basra
where the fish swim up to the steps of homes
No pigs graze here
I have only buffaloes chewing water lilies
leave me, soldier,
leave for me the floating reed hut
the liberty of the fisherman
leave for me the migrating birds
and take your roaring iron-birds
your Tomahawk missiles
I am not the adversary
I, who wade up to my knees the rice swamps
leave me with my damnation
I don't want your day of resurrection

America, God save America
my home, sweet home!

let us exchange your gifts!
take your smuggled cigarettes
but give us potatoes
take James Bond's gilded pistol
but give us Marilyn Monroe's giggles
Take your drug's needles
but give us medicines
take the blueprints of your model prisons
but give us rural homes
take the books of your missionaries
but give us stationary to write poems on
take what you don't own
but give us what we own
take the flag's stripes
but give us the stars
take the Afghani(goateed) beard
but give us Walt Whitman's beard fluttering with butterflies
take Saddam Husayn(Hussein)
give us Abraham Lincoln
or give us none( no one)

Now, I look across the balcony
across the summer's sky
Damascus revolves, dizzying among the TV antennas
then it sinks, deeply, in the stones of walls,
the towers,
the ivory arabesque
and it disappears from the balcony
and now
I remember trees
the palmtree of our mosque in Basra
the bird's beak
the child's secrets
the summer's dining tables
the palmtree, I remember it, I touch it
I remember it falling dawn, black, frondless,
a bridge of lightning's creation
and I remember the mulberry tree
falling, snapped under the ax,
so the stream may fill up with leaves,
birds, angels, and green blood
I remember how the blossoms of the pomegranates scattered on the sidewalks
(the students leading workers demonstration)
the trees are dying
not standing
the trees are dying


God save America
my home, sweet home
but, America, we are not your captives
your soldiers are not Allah’s  soldiers
we, the poor, have the land of drowned gods
gods of sorrows molded into a clay
and blood in a song
we, the poor, have the Lord of the poor
rising from the ribs of the fellahin
uplifting every head
America we are the dead,
let your soldiers come!
he who kills a dead will resurrect him
and we are drowning ,my lady
we are drowning
let the water come...

Damascus, August 20, 1995 

Published in aljadid No.21 (Fall 1997): 17

Tears on a Sad Iraqi Face

By Lami‘ah Abbas Amarah (Lamea Abbas Amara)

I rested my head on an Iraqi chest and wept
His heart endured the same sorrow as mine
He caressed and calmed me; I slept.
Branches of sadness, interlaced between
Our souls cry even in our silence.
O wailing heart, O most beautiful eyes
I have ever seen
What has united us?
The cruelty of this war?
The passion of love? 

O sad face from my homeland.
What tears what love can wash that misery?
O my family, now only terror fills their hunger,
Fills their thirst.
O the panic of resurrection.
Is there any road that does not lead
To destruction and Hell?
Any shelter for them?
What age do we live in? An age of barbarism?
Or an age of civilization,
Disgraced by its deeds in Amiriyyah. *

This is the gloom of a defeated knight,
His hands paralyzed,
His forehead bearing the brunt of destruction,
All the sadness of the burning palm trees
All the wailing songs of the south,
All the echoes of lamentation
O palm trees of Samawah
How much cruelty can exist in this world?
Seventy thousand children, sweet as dates
- No, even sweeter- have fallen,
Along with your burning leaves, for what sins O palm trees of Samawah?

Like a headstrong mare I was.
I tripped not   
Nor was I easy to subdue
Possessing the palm trees' pride
My homeland's ageless hospitality.
My pride was to starve, rather than to bend, defiant, like the palmtree.
Alas!  My own guide one day led me
To forget my pride
Lo!  Now I stretch out my hands asking for charities,
Dispensed by the same hands that destroyed civilization

(*)The poet alludes to the infamous bombing of the Amiriyyah shelter in which more than 400 civilians mostly women and children were incinerated.

Published in aljadid No.21 (Fall 1997): 17

“Burnt Palm Trees”

From Lami’ah Abbas Amarah’s poem “Lee Anderson”

Images of burnt palm trees
Standing erect in black columns
Like women in mourning
Like the widows of Baghdad
Like the bereaved women of Baghdad
Burnt palm trees stand erect as far as the eye could see
Unburied martyrs
Monuments to a barbarous war
Eulogized by the wailing winds:
Victims are even the date palms! Even the date palms are victims! Even the date palms!’

California 1991

Malpais Review 2.2(Autumn 2011):34-35.

A Letter to President Bush
By Abd al-Razzaq Abd al-Wahid (1930-2015)

With mud and stones
We erected the ladder of civilization
Leading to the rise of man
Now your turn has come
To turn its edifice
Into mud and stones

Baghdad  January 1991


By Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati

When I visited Nicaragua following the triumph of the Sandinista revolution, I spent a long time in the company of Ernesto Cardenal, the poet who became Minister of Culture. I had read many of his poems [before], but he read a poem that attracts attention:


Somoza got out of his palace and rode in the car
The car proceeded in Somoza Street
And stopped at Somoza Stadium
To unveil the statue of Somoza

This poem epitomizes the model of the dictator who seeks to place himself everywhere.  It presents the dictator's words in a most objective and transparent manner without any comment. Sarcasm free of animosity. *

*  Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati and Muhyi al-Din Subhi. al- Bahth `an yanabi` al-shi`r wa al-ru'ya. Beirut:  Dar al Tali`ah, 1990.

Waiting for the Mahdi*

By Muhammad Ali Shams al-Din

We have been waiting too long for the Mahdi,
Until he came
But the names in some of their renderings deceived us        
The people said:
Al-Abbas is the Mahdi
We looked:
Al-Abbas was like a prophet
Captivating like a legend                  
Tall, taller than our dreams
He walked
And we followed him
As the river follows its course
We were poor,
And mixtures of Zanj and vanquished peoples
But the poets
-who were the first to believe this miracle-
half-way in the desert noted a certain thing
Ambiguous between fire and water,
Between the great miracle and the egregious lie   
So they hid behind their tears
And waited for another Mahdi
To come out from another cave.            

Beirut February 26, 1991.

(*)According to the majority of the Shi’ites, al-Mahdi the 12th and last Imam has been concealed by God since his disappearance in 878. He is expected to reappear to deliver mankind from injustice and tyranny.
AlJadid 58/59 (2007/2008): 55.

The Clay's Memory*
Salam al-Asadi
The night is a descending myth
a forest of black snow
a sky of mud spitting out its mute ashes over all homes
thus we appear as a blend of tears and dust
no distinction between our children's frightened eyes and the palmtrees' wounds
or between the silence of the schools' empty classrooms and the sad rumbling of the
no difference between the bitter gasp, the sigh of withering souls,
the trees' smoke, the planes' thunder,
or between the fragments of bodies buried in the mud
and the veils of drowned women floating on the river's surface like numbed shivering
black spots
the river that was stunned by the disaster
a storm that sweeps all things into a bottomless abyss
the howl of the planets, rubble, haggard faces, bewildered eyes, agitated palmtrees, and
the bowels of the dead, children's corpses, and sparrows trembling against closed


Shakir Mustafa said...

Thanks to Professor Salih Altoma and poet Dunya Mikhail for this collection of works. And thanks to Phil for the beautifully painful verse from Psalms. Iraqis' cries were met with deafening indifference from those in power. That near universal consensus to hardening the heart was broken by Millions and millions who stood with Iraqis in their ordeal. Dunya's poem and Salih's writings and translations show respect for history, and for the urgency of bearing witness. We are reading Salih's pieces from 25 years ago, while George W. Bush looks for more places to hide. Theirs will be the brighter pages for years to come.

Shakir Mustafa said...

Thanks to Professor Salih Altoma and poet Dunya Mikhail for this collection of works. And thanks to Phil for the beautifully painful verse from Psalms. Iraqis' cries were met with deafening indifference from those in power. That near universal consensus to hardening the heart was broken by Millions and millions who stood with Iraqis in their ordeal. Dunya's poem and Salih's writings and translations show respect for history, and for the urgency of bearing witness. We are reading Salih's pieces from 25 years ago, while George W. Bush looks for more places to hide. Theirs will be the brighter pages for years to come.