This piece was first published during the “Poetry for Peaceful Coexistence” Forum held in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, in October 2010.
The first statement issued by the Najeen Group for Culture and Arts, based in Baghdad, predicted Iraq’s future. The statement was issued in April 2003 by the group, which defines itself as collective of professional Iraqi artists and art students in Baghdad who survived various conflicts (“najeen” means survivor).
“This war is not over,” the statement said. “And the conflict that remains is our own. The war conducted by remote control and with missiles, from a distance, has ended. But the battle at close quarters has just begun. A battle between love and hate, a combat between compassion and cruelty, has just started. We have survived “their” war. Now we find ourselves face to face, with only ourselves to confront. How will our lives go on?”
At the time, a lot of people asked us what we meant by these sentences. A lot of them were upset by the pessimistic tone they heard. In fact, even my colleagues inside the Najeen group asked me about this because it was I who wrote the statement, which was later approved by the group. Journalists also asked me this. And every time I was asked these kinds of questions I would also question myself: had I exaggerated? Was I really that pessimistic?
The first weeks after the US-led invasion of Iraq which toppled the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein were relatively peaceful. However gradually violence based on sectarian and ethnic divisions started to grow and eventually Iraq was drowning in killings and conflict, with the fighting peaking between 2006 and 2007.
Politics, intellectualism and religion all contributed to the end of any opportunity for peaceful coexistence in our country. Add to this agitation by the Baathists [the banned political party that Hussein led] and Iraqis began to fight one another, forgetting the fact that the US was present in the country. Instead of using words of humility and peace – the kinds of words our country has been waiting for, for decades – we heard speeches about revenge and hate. They were speeches spurred on by intellectuals, political leaders and religious leaders and they opened the doors to hell in Iraq.
It was the battle between love and hate, the combat between compassion and cruelty, that we had predicted. And as they became a war, those battles motivated one section of Iraqi society after another. Even trade unions took part in the sectarian strife and were affected by thoughts of revenge. No political candidate could win based on his qualifications alone; any election was always due to vengeful thoughts and sectarian alliances.
On satellite television, talk shows were highly charged, bristling with tension and hatred. And that emotionally charged rhetoric in the evening would be echoed the following morning, in marketplaces, in taxis, by passers-by and in various murderous acts.
During those violent days, in 2006, I remember walking through a predominantly Sunni Muslim neighbourhood in Baghdad, on my way to visit Iraqi director, Uday Rasheed, an old friend of mine and a member of the Najeen group. As I walked I did wonder what I was doing there. After all I was a Shiite Muslim and it was quite possible that I could be murdered simply for that. But because I missed Uday so much – he had just come from Berlin – I went into that neighbourhood where I stayed overnight at his home.
We sat together in his garden. And we cried together for what was happening in Iraq. Uday’s brother told me stories about Shiite Muslims who lived in Sunni Muslim areas, like this one, and who were being killed. I told them similar stories about Sunni Muslims living in Shiite Muslim neighbourhoods.
Rather hilariously, my father-in-law called me while I was dining together with Uday and his brother. My father-in-law is a staunch Shiite Muslim and he was unaware that Uday and his brother were Sunni. I revealed this and then told him that Uday and his brother were sharpening their swords in order that they might kill me. How we all laughed!
Uday was, and still is, one of the friends who most loves my writing and my poetry. Because of this, I helped with some of his first movies. One of these was the first feature film to be produced in Iraq after 2003; it was shot in Baghdad between 2003 and 2004. The crew came from every kind of sect, all over Iraq, and none of them really cared about their religious backgrounds. I watched them during the filming: when we finished work we’d sit together and read poetry. It was as if the poetry protected us, like a fortress, an inoculation against the disease of sectarian rivalry.
In 2010, the World Poetry Forum was held in Najaf. It was attended by around 200 Iraqi poets and writers. The aim of the Forum was clear: to show that poetry could help create a peaceful society. The slogan was “opening new doors in Iraq with poetry”.
On the last day of the Forum I shared a table with Ahmed al-Saab, a poet and a Sunni Muslim from the city of Fallujah, which is a predominantly Sunni city. Najaf is an important religious centre for Shiite Muslims and with tears in his eyes, al-Saab told me that, considering what was happening in Iraq after 2003, he had not thought he would ever make it to Najaf. But he had been made welcome. In fact, he told me, one of the local shop keepers had refused to charge him for his purchases out of respect for his coming to Najaf. Despite being frightened to say the name of his hometown out loud, al-Saab had confessed to the shopkeeper that he came from Fallujah.
A similar story was told by female poet, Ikhlas al-Taei, a Sunni Muslim from the mainly Sunni city of Ramadi. She had gone shopping in Najaf and in one of the women’s clothing stores, she told the shopkeeper she came from Ramadi. The shopkeeper then refused to take her money – when she insisted on paying, he would only take a small symbolic amount.
Bringing Sunni Muslims to Najaf had been one of the major challenges faced by the organisers of the World Poetry Forum. We were not so much worried about security, we were more concerned that the general public would harass them or say things that would hurt them. But the respect and love the locals showed these strangers was real. The Sunni Muslims returned to their homes and wrote many stories about the warm welcome they received.
Poetry can play a distinctive role in the rebuilding of our nation. It can create a safe, spiritual environment that opposes hatred and vengeance. Today almost all of Iraq’s cities hold at least one poetry festival. These kinds of festivals unite Iraqi poets, regardless of religious sect or ethnic origin. Poems are recited in the morning and in the evening the poets gather in hotel lobbies, in playgrounds or on the streets, and carry on with their attempts to rebuild Iraq through words and the spiritual nature of poetry.
The poets do all this as though they are oblivious to what is really going on in Iraq. They do this as though they’re unaware of what politicians and religious leaders are trying to do, as though they cannot see the machinations working to fuel fear, distrust and betrayal.
It is true that those holding opposing views may start a war. It is true that an idea can turn a neighbourhood into a graveyard and a country into a military theatre of operations. But poetry doesn’t hold a grudge. Poetry is an expression of compassion against cruelty, love versus hatred and peace versus war.
I say all this because I see the unending war in my land, I feel the recycled pain. I still write poetry and I read poems written by my fellow Iraqis, of all religions and ethnicities. I love them all and I believe that poetry can help in this land’s slow evolution toward peace.