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street poets
starting iraq’s cultural revolution on the corner

Faris Harram
Rather than turning to graffiti to gain a mass audience, one Najaf poet* launched a series of literary readings on the street. In this way, he hopes to get more Arabs reading and revive the country’s cultural life.
12.10.2011  |  Najaf

As I focussed utterly on my friend’s face, I completely forgot what we were doing: namely, dragging a huge, oversized table around the central part of Najaf city, in southern Iraq, searching for a suitable place on the street to put it down. A street, which would soon be crowded with people.

I forgot because I was studying the face of my friend, the poet Mahdi Shalaan. I was trying hard to receive the messages that the expressive folds and wrinkles on his face were sending. Because this 50-year-old seemed full of the joys of life today, altogether different from the way I’d seen him before. His joy came from the fact that he was resuming his cultural duties, duties that he had neglected for 15 years. During those years he had not written a single poem. There was no point, he said; instead he had devoted himself to caring for his family, providing for them by selling books in a small store.

As I pondered Shalaan’s life story, I lost track of what was going on around me. I contemplated the years that had passed him by as he tried, on one hand to become the kind of poet his fellow country people would read, and on the other hand, to be a good family man and father. I certainly wasn’t concentrating on the here and now or where we were placing that table. Eventually we would put it down in front of rows of waiting chairs, near a tent filled with book stalls. And this was all happening on the occasion of Najaf’s being named the Islamic Capital of Culture for 2012.

Our shifting of the table was the result of a kind of campaign initiated by Iraq’s intellectual elite: they wanted to encourage a public discussion that would, quite literally, take place on the street. The main topic up for debate was the drastic devolution in our society’s reading habits as well as the disappearance of an everyday audience for culture.

I too had strong personal feelings about this campaign – because I too am one of the poets “wounded” by this state of affairs. Not wounded in an artistic sense but in a cultural one. Wounded because of a loss of readers, and with their loss, a lack of social influence through poetry, my work.

Many of my friends told me that they thought that this debate, I was so keen to see take place on the street near my friend Shalaan’s tent full of books, could be nothing more than a small adventure, especially in light of the way things are in Iraq today. But as it turned out they were wrong.

"Americans read 11 books, Arabs read quarter of a page, per year"

Before the fall of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime in 2003, there was not one single institution – neither governmental nor non-governmental – that really set a strategic goal of developing culture in Iraq. Nothing was done to try and improve the relationship of the individual Iraqi to books and literature. Hair raising statistics, both international and local, indicated the decline in reading in Arab society and only worsened the already acute depression Iraqi poets were labouring under. The poets I knew all had the feeling that, outside of a certain intellectual niche, the general public would never again read their poems, or even be interested in them.

One could lose sleep over the shocking figures we heard about: on average, every American reads 11 books a year and every Englishman reads seven. But in the Arab world, the reading count per head was a quarter of a page per annum. It was hardly surprising then, that even the best known, contemporary Arab poets never sold more than 5,000 copies of a book.

In a modern world where people are regularly bombarded with popular culture and sporting news, the crisis in poetry is obviously a global phenomenon. The big difference here though is that it has more to do with the general nationwide crisis and problems that affect opportunities for reading in our everyday lives. That’s certainly the case here in Iraq and also in other countries in a similar situation.

Yet for some incredible reason the inhabitants of Mesopotamia are still crazy about poetry, and that is regardless of their level of education. It’s just that the poems that most people like best are the folkloric kind, that often don’t go beyond oral tradition. These kinds of verses are popular at folk festivals; they’re often recorded or used as the lyrics for simple, naive songs.

But as for the poems that are written in literary Arabic – this is the “fuhsa” written form used in educational institutions in Iraq as opposed to the colloquial Arabic spoken on the streets – well, the masses are hardly interested in those kinds of poems.

Even the good old living room library has become a rarity in this day and age. I’m not ashamed to say that from when I was younger up to this very day, I have yet to enter a private home and find a private library with a deliberate and distinctive variety of books in it. Not outside of a certain intellectual milieu anyway. Not at my neighbours’ houses, nor at the homes of relatives and acquaintances. Neither in Najaf nor in Baghdad. Yes, it’s true that in religious households, or in the homes where religion is practised, you will often find large collections of books. But from one end of those libraries to the other, I don’t consider them to hold anything that I would describe as cultural.

"Saddam Hussein\'s poet puppets"

It is the middle class that facilitates the spread of knowledge and aesthetic values throughout society. The systematic destruction of the middle class under Saddam Hussein equalled the systematic destruction of an audience for culture in Iraq, and thereby any readership for Iraqi poets. For example, tens of thousands of civil servants, doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers and university professors were sent to the front during the long war between Iraq and Iran during the 1980s. Those who were not killed or left to languish in prison, now carry a distorted vision of life around with them. Another example involves the thousands of bogus academic qualifications that were given out to Iraqis whilst the international community imposed sanctions on the country and the Iraqi education system broke down. The degrees were never deserved, nor studied for, by many individuals. And these newly minted “professors” are a part of the problem now – they’ve passed on their lack of knowledge to a new generation of Iraqi youth.

The poets that emerged during Saddam Hussein’s reign make for another tragic example. In its own unique, dictatorial way, the Hussein regime presented special poets to the Iraqi public, using widespread advertising and media campaigns. In this way a certain group of poets – whose work was, at best, of a mediocre standard and at worst, terrible – became as famous as football players or pop stars. They became public figures who featured almost daily in the papers and on television and who read their work everywhere. As a result, the general public believed that these individuals were Iraq’s “real” poets.

This is also how the Iraqi poet came to be perceived as close to the state. And the people became used to the fact that their local poets were nothing more than literary guardians of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Meanwhile any poets who had their own point of view completely vanished from public view.

One surprising thing did happen during Hussein’s time in power: one of the real poets, whom almost nobody had heard of, managed to get a poem published. This was a poem that could have embodied an entire generation’s attitudes toward life and living. A poem that could have satisfied society’s thirst for spiritual sustenance. And this was important.

"How can Iraq’s poets help in rebuilding their shattered land today?"

Today, as I write this brief history, I cannot help but ask this question once again: how can Iraq’s poets help in rebuilding their shattered land today?

It is not odd that a poet such as myself – someone whose work the general public does not know – might like to think that the answer to this question lies in the poetry itself. But I know that publishing very specialised attention-getting kinds of poetry or scrawling my verse onto walls and street corners will not help me contribute to any national solutions – even though it would be fun and it would ensure that the masses see my words. That sort of thing would not help at all when it comes to the decline in literary traditions and readerships, or the loss of aesthetic values.

That is the reality that I grapple with everyday. And it is the reality that many of my colleagues in poetry grapple with too, until their heads hurt in fact. In which other ways can we contribute to our country’s reconstruction, we wonder? There must be other ways. Ways that are faster, more obvious and more widely distributed than verse. For example, writing columns in newspapers, essays and articles, or appearing on television and radio shows – and then using these mediums as platforms for the discussion and analysis of national affairs. We can also participate in conferences and seminars and ensure continuous discussion with the individuals around us. In such unpoetic action, we, the poets, are united in one goal: the spiritual reconstruction of our society.

Of course I find it sad that poetry itself cannot achieve these aims. It just wouldn’t work, the audience for it just isn’t there. And it was this thought that brought me back to the street and led me to seriously contemplate how a new, future audience for culture could be shaped in Iraq. The fact that in July 2010, I was voted chairman of Najaf’s writer’s union allowed me to realise one of my boldest ideas. We would place a huge table in the middle of the street in Najaf’s crowded city centre, near a small book fair, and using a loudhailer we would talk about ways and means that educated Iraqis could return to the joys of reading.

Which returns us to the big table on Najaf’s street. Indeed this initiative was so successful that it developed further and was in fact repeated many times, right up until the last event, last month, on Sept. 21. At this last event, Professor Abd Alial-Khaffaf, the dean of the Arts Faculty at the University of Kufa here in Najaf, gave a reading on the street corner.

Media from right around Iraq have covered our street readings and we managed to get many important Iraqi cultural figures to participate – and all this without separating the readers from the bustling street life in this neighbourhood.

Despite all this though I have to admit that I am not entirely sure that our scheme has changed the thinking of the general public, those who could potentially partake in local culture. This experiment actually seems more symbolic to me. We simply wanted to remind everyone that, when it comes to the discussion of Iraq’s future, there are still voices missing. Or at least, voices that have been repressed. And they belong to the country’s intellectuals.

Truly decisive initiatives, the ones that will have a real impact on the reconstruction of a society where a poet can truly live – and work - as a poet, must come from the state. Those initiatives must be strategic and they must be radical. They must give shape to any government measures for social development. They must begin in the educational sectors. And it is from there that we will build a new national identity for Iraq.

*This story will be published in Ich und Iraq magazine, a German-Arabic publication, at the end of 2011.