I think no one can resist tears when reading this painful interview with a poet from Iraq who was forced to take part in a war for nearly a decade, with no belief in it, only because his dictator leader Saddam Hussein , supported by America , had decided to defeat popular revolution of neighboring country Iran. And now his country has been invaded by the same warmonger America. His words seem like unbelievable nightmares but I believe in this saying by a West Indian poet, Derek Walcott :
“For every poet it is always morning in the world, and History a forgotten insomniac night....The fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world in spite of History."
Who is Soheil Najm?
Born in Baghdad in 1956, Iraqi poet Soheil Najm is the managing editor of Gilgamesh, an Englishlanguage magazine about Iraqi culture and a Member of the Iraqi League for Defending Iraqi Reporters. He is the author of several books of poetry, including Breaking the Phrase and Your Carpenter O Light. He has widely introduced Iraqi readers to contemporary world poetry and prose. Some of his works:
Contemporary English Poetry, The Falling On The Earth-Ted Hughes-Selected Poems, Serpent And Lily- A Novel By Nikos Kazintzak, The Gospel According To Jesus Christ - A Novel By Jose Saramago , From Modernism to Post – Modernism (Selected Studies) and Edward Said-Bill Ashcroft And Pal Ahlawaliah.
1-As a poet, what is your interpretation of the word "Country" or "Motherland"?
Soheil: When I was a child, they taught us in the primary school that
the "country" means everything to us. It is attached to the blood in our arteries,
it is more important than our mothers and fathers. It is something holy. Every
Thursday, in the morning the pupils used to raise the flag of Iraq and sing the
national song with enthusiasm. At that time I loved the word "country." In my
youth when they took us as soldiers by force and during the first Gulf war between
Iraq and Iran, I discovered another meaning of the word "country,” it is a "phantom,"
it is a fake, especially when I saw my innocent colleagues dead in a war we didn't
believe in it at all. So I hate this word that was used, and still being used,
badly by the greedy politicians and the haughty generals. For now, I am afraid,
it has another new meaning, a more complicated one. So although I live now in
Iraq, and can't live in another, but I'd love to, because I think I no more believe
in geography. I mean I see myself, in the deep of my mind, that I am an international
2- Have you noticed? In these days, American and European feminists feel
deep responsibility about Eastern women, especially Muslim wives! In their view
men who belong to Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan, treat their daughters and wives
like slaves. I have in mind their wide sympathetic words in magazines and e-magazines
on Nadia Anjuman for example. Do you see any link between this kind of thinking
and political reasons? I, personally greatly suffer from their judgments. It seems
even English language poets, knowingly or unknowingly, are justifying war against
these countries, even those who have many poems against war. Please let me know
Soheil: Edward Said, the Palestinian thinker, dealt with this subject
very deeply in his books. However, many of the western reporters who wrote about
the east were reflecting what was in their minds, but not the real life. What
they have in their minds about our reality is just a hypothesis they already believe
in, without reasonable discussions or facts. Let me talk about Iraq because I
know it better. We have here in Iraq a special experience of what is called Western
liberalism. For me, it was a mistake to overthrow the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein's
regime by all those armies. It would have been better if Saddam had fallen at
the hands of the Iraqis themselves. But the bigger mistake the Americans made
was in dealing with the Iraqi people after the fall of the tyrannical regime.
The Americans were responsible for the looting, the plunder and the fires at first,
and later on they were also responsible for the shedding of blood in the civil
war and the explosions because it was they who had opened the boundaries to the
killers of Al-Qaeda, with the help of some of the countries around Iraq, because
every one of these countries had the intention of protecting themselves, as they
presume, and let the Iraqis go to hell! It is really ridiculous to take revenge
on the dictatorship by destroying the entire country. If the western invaders
had known the nature of the Iraqis well, and the east in general, and the complexities
of their ethnology, they might not have put this beautiful and civilized country
in this horrible chaos. What had the Iraqis got until now from the democracy of
the west? This lack of understanding that led to commit crimes began with the
planned plundering of Iraqi Museum, notice the symbol here, notice the civilized
imperialism, and not ending with the splitting of the unity of Iraqi people and
letting the reactionary Islamist forces be the leaders of the scene.
Intellectuals of the west should read the underlined thoughts and see the whole world as partners of one new world. They shouldn't rely on rumors and naive reports which, I am sure, have, political aims. They should not judge ahead. Western intellectuals should discuss with us how we understand human relationships, and let us exchange ideas, not weapons. Although I read many reports about abusing women and children and also about the white slavery in the west I am sure that there is no relationship between real Islam and the slavery of women. Extremists are found everywhere as I presume. It is really ridiculous to think that men in the east, in general, treat women so badly. We should put this idea firmly in our minds that the first right among the human rights is the right of any people to have their own specialty in their customs and beliefs; all others should respect that and don't disapprove of their tastes or norms, or think that their beliefs are false, bizarre or wicked because they are different from us. If there is a serious problem or dilemma in one part of the world, the people throughout the world should feel responsible about it, and consider it their duty to find a fair solution for it.
3- Please tell me what is the difference between Soheil Najm, as a poet,
before America's attack on Iraq and after that?
Soheil: I see myself and most of the Iraqis were struggling to get their
freedom from one of the worst/ strongest dictatorships in the history of the world,
but unfortunately when they got it, they were suffocated first by the hands of
the Americans, and secondly by the hands of the countries around Iraq. Iraqian
literature under Saddam's regime was lacking the liberty of expression. The writer
or the poet had to be very symbolic if he dared to criticize any tyrannical political
phenomena. Sometimes we use the historical symbols or the myths to hide the real
meaning. Many of our colleagues were sent to jail either because they criticized
Saddam publicly or through their writings in an explicit way. I never forget a
friend of mine who was a short story writer; his name was Hakim Hussein, who was
executed because the detectives of the regime discovered that he was a fugitive
from the military service during the first gulf war. No doubt most of the Iraqis,
especially the intellectuals, were so pleased to put down the dictatorship, since
it was their first opportunity to express themselves freely for more than three
decades. But, what a pity, they got an unsystematic freedom at first and later
on Iraq became one of the most dangerous places in the world for the writers,
and until now more than eighty writers have been killed and hundreds of them left
their homes and chose to be refugees inside or outside Iraq. It is so clear that,
in the name of defending democracy, actually they look after their interests;
my country now is a field for worldly forces, who are fighting to take revenge
against each other without any respect to the humanity of the Iraqis. I really
accuse the foreigners for their greediness and the uncivilized, selfish Iraqi
politicians who are running after power for all the slaughtering of the good Iraqi
people, scientists, artists, reporters and poets, and for killing the hope of
the good Iraqis to live in peace just as any other people in the world, and to
participate with them in the creative process to find a new, democratic and civilized
world as that known by the Iraqis since the ancient times.
4 - What is your idea about the Iraqis who left Iraq? Please let me know
your impression about this poem by Ana Akhmatova, when many poets and writers
left Russia after revolution:
I am not of those
Soheil: Now you are putting your finger on the wound. The case
in Iraq is very different and very complicated. I guess all the Iraqis love their
country but the pity is, for four decades they, especially the poor, have got
nothing but pain and collective symmetries. Nobody may be aware that Saddam's
regime (the Ba'athist) distorted the social fabric of the Iraqi people. They killed
many of the original ethics. You know for instance that the Muslim cares a great
deal about his neighbor and his family. The Ba'athists succeeded to make the neighbor
spy on his neighbor, or even on his family. Some of the people went far with that.
A father shot his son because the latter refused to participate in the war against
Iran. The Iraqis lived a horrible life in the past and they are now. Because of
the corrupt politicians, death has been attacking the Iraqis everywhere. Every
house has its disaster, every one has either lost one of the member of his family
or one of his relatives, or at least one of his close friends. Families buried
alive only because one of them said no to dictatorship! Dr. Raji al-Tikreety,
accused to be a conspirator, Saddam let his wild dogs eat him! Who experienced
our agony and horror? The Iraqi poet, Sa'sdi Yousif, described Iraq as the country
between two swords, not two rivers! After the fall of Saddam's regime, the terrorists,
the Ba'athists and the Islamists did the worst thing in the entire human history
by slaughtering a person, like a sheep, only for his or her identity! In short,
I don't blame persons who left Iraq, especially those whose lives were threatened,
although I like them to stay to fight the wolves, as Ana Akhmatova suggests, with
those who are inside. The armies who came to defeat Saddam's regime, and by the
way defeated everything, from the security to the flourished history, from opening
the borders to the terrorists to bringing looters and let them steal and burn
the rest, those armies should protect the Iraqis and help them to rebuild their
who left their country
For wolves to tear it limb from limb.
Their flattery doesn’t touch me.
I will not give my songs to them. Yet, I can take the exile’s part,
I pity all among the dead.
Wanderer, your path is dark,
Wormwood is the stranger’s bread.
But here in the flames ,the stench ,
The murk, where what remains
Of youth is dying , we don’t flinch
As the blows strike us , again and again.
And we know there’ll be a reckoning,
An account for every hour …there’s
Nobody simpler than us, or with
More pride , or fewer tears.
5 - If somebody philosophically consoles you with these words: “Your predicament
is just a tiny spot in the whole universe and the whole time. Try not to take
it seriously and it automatically goes away,” What will be your answer?" *
Soheil: Yes, this may be true for the ordinary person, but not for the
poet. The real poet is a member in Prometheus's team. However small I am, I still
believe that the poet and the intellectual in general, is the prophet of his time.
He must have a message, without it he is just a crazy person playing with the
words. However, dealing with the inside of the human being, the role of the poet
in the whole history is the most sensitive among the functions people do. I think
the poet, especially in the east, considers the existence, the responsibility
of the whole world as his predicament. From that he or she gets the spiritual
enrichment. The poet, as a matter of fact, is the doctor of the soul. He has the
ability to put his hand on our illness, he has the ability to predict but no one
else. This is his eternal job. Before the philosopher and anybody else, he is
the only person who can go deep in our mind and make too much discoveries. Moreover,
the poet may concern about the very small things but he sees these small things
as small worlds and interact with them seriously. This is what interesting in
the poets' creativity. For me, the poet as a human being, is just a line on water;
but as a creative and spiritual power, he or she will live a very long time and
will never end as a name only, but will turn to be a symbol for all the humanity
to learn from as we now learn from the first poetess in the history, the Iraqi,
Sumerian, poetess Enheduanna.
6-"O your life, your lonely life
What have you ever done with it,
And done with the great gift of consciousness?" **
Soheil: I am afraid this question needs a philosopher to answer it, not
a poor little and modest "poet", presumably, like me. But to answer it, roughly,
I must say that I have a feeling of wasted foolishly the pearls, the years, I
have got. May be because "poets" are such big dreamers and they are idealistic
by nature, or may be because of the hard times I lived under the sovereignty of
the taboos. Deep within myself I see that life is an ordeal from birth to death.
Moreover, everything in this life makes me embarrassed and astonished. The ugly
embarrasses me like the beautiful. The magic of the rose, the miracle of the childhood,
the delicacy of the woman confuse me. But what about the wars, the extremism,
poverty, famine, hatred, selfishness..etc.? From that feelings I found myself
embarrassed too when somebody calls me a poet, because I found that we use this
word so easily these days. That is why loneliness is my companion always even
when I am among my beloved people. Consciousness is painful sometimes.
7 - What would you have lost as a poet if you had no war experience? Do
you believe that a writer must write as a witness, not as an observer?
Soheil: Throughout the history of literature we have read the most remarkable
literary works which depict the life of the people during the wars. Maybe here
the reality of humanity is disclosed more deeply. You could see the good and the
bad more clearly. The instincts, that Ted Hughes devoted most of his works to
explore them in man and nature, we can encounter them face to face. As for me,
the war experience was not my direct subject. As a matter of fact, what attracts
me is the subject of the fate of the human beings in this world. I think more
about the philosophical problems, like death and birth; maybe there is an indirect
effect of the experience of the war, but contemplation in the details of life
as a whole, from very simple issues to the determination of destiny issues, is
what has taken me to the poem.
8 –"What is your interpretation of this saying":
"I still periodically feel like I should do something more “useful” with my life
and education than write poems that no one reads—this is a problem that all artists
have to confront." ***
Soheil: Yes, I agree with that. I do believe that there is an important
role for the intellectual in the real life as that defined clearly by the Italian
thinker Gramci. I can't stand a poet or a writer who, for instance, abuses his
family or who doesn't care about the political corruption in his country, or even
all over the world. I welcome any humanist activity. Even when the poet deals
with aesthetics only, he must be concerned about keeping the world around him
in prosperity and help people lead beautiful lives. That means he should have
a posture stands for any philosophy or behavior whether it is aggressive or peaceful,
bring the happiness for the people or disasters. Having the talent of excessive
sensibility, maybe he should not act as the guardian of the people, as if they
are orphans, but I guess he has some ethical responsibility for them.
9. Please tell me about the characteristics of Iraqi poetry today.
Soheil: There is a verse in Koran that says that you may hate something
when it is useful for you. The Iraqi roses (poems) flourish today everywhere in
the world. The historical facts proved that the Iraqis are talented in arts, especially
in poetry. At the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century, four
Iraqi poets, Assyiab, Nazik al-Malaika, al-Bayati and Buland al-Haydari, whom
we call the pioneers of modern poetry not only in Iraq but all over the Arab countries,
raised the banner of modernism in Arabic poetry. Today, because of the compelled
immigration, a new phenomenon is found, it is the intercultural phenomenon. Iraqi
poets’ experience is directly enriched from other cultures. You could find Iraqi
cultural groups in London, Paris, Cairo, Amman, Zurich, Hiroshima, Berlin, New
York, Sidney, Oslo…and so on. Many collections are issued in bilingual editions,
Arabic-Swedish, Arabic- English, Arabic – Denmark, etc. From the fifties of the
last century until now, poetry in Iraq passed through many changes in form and
in content. It moves from the classical form to the free poem and at last to the
prose poem. Iraqi poets inside or outside, most of them now write in the style
of the prose poem and very few poets write in the classical form or the free one.
I suppose there are three trends, the trend of the condensed and the deep evocative
poem, the trend of the abstract, ambiguous and symbolic poem, and the trend of
the simple and direct poem. The reader sometimes sees that these three trends
are mixed in the poems of one poet. I can say that egotism and ambiguity are some
of the defects of this poetry. On the other hand, pain and sadness are the remarkable
and prominent subjects in it. The Iraqi poets are at their best when they deal
with these subjects which go deep in the memory of the Iraqis not only now, but
from the old ages.
10-May I know how is your daily life in Baghdad?
Soheil:Three or four days of a week I go downtown, knowing that I may
die at any moment. It is a small circle from my house in a district south of Baghdad,
to my office in Hayfa Street in the ministry of culture where I work in "Gilgamesh,"
the journal in English that is dedicated to the Iraqi culture. I have been working
here only for the last four years, and before that I was out of work because persons
like me were considered as the opposition and no formal jobs were available for
them. Normally I can reach my office in half an hour, but in these days, because
of the horrible deeds of the terrorists, where you may encounter an explosion
at every turning, sometimes I need two hours or more to get to my office or at
other times I decide to go back rather than wasting my time in traffic jams. Living
in Baghdad, at this critical time is so difficult since there are no places for
you or your family to go to have fun or enjoy yourselves, no cinemas, no theaters
as in the old times in Baghdad. Besides, the destruction that was wrought on electricity
has left us with severe power shortage. One or two hours of electricity a day
is not enough even to make you think or contemplate peacefully. I believe I am
not a hero, and I sometimes may envy my immigrated friends who are in other places
of the world, far from car bombs and rabid killers, but I say to myself many times
that this is my destiny. It is a real conflict, I know that; nevertheless I have
to deal with it. Moreover, deep down I am convinced that I must stand with the
people around me in order not to surrender and let the reactionary forces take
the reins and I must have some responsibility in spite of these risks.
11- Let me finish my questions speaking about love. In spite of living
in such a world, where many children in the middle east hear the sound of falling
bombs before their mothers give birth to them, like mine ; in spite of all the
violence and wars and inhumane conditions, let me know which is deeper in your
heart ? Love's scar or war? And how is that depicted in Iraqi literature?
Soheil: No individual can live without love. This is an essential principle
in life. Love may live with man as long as he lives, but war doesn't. In spite
of that Albert Camus, the French writer, made an analogue between war and plague
and he said that you might think the war (the plague) would end tomorrow but it
wouldn't. That was what we, my colleagues and I, thought during the long , forgotten,
war between Iraq and Iran. We compare it with the ten-year war of troy. Nevertheless
it was ended at last and people in the two countries will never forget its disasters.
For me, I'll never forget the faces of my platoon mates, my ditch mates, they
were so kind and full with good expectations. I think this platoon was lucky in
one thing, that is, we never shot one bullet to the other side. I guess the deep
scars of war and the deep scars of love go hand in hand. In other words, dictatorship
killed many cases of real love, between man and woman, between man and his son,
and so on. Do you know what the intelligence and security forces of Saddam did
to many girls, or even to the families, who were accused to be from the opposed
forces? They were fiercer than the crazy dogs. In fact, we hadn't experienced
one war but many wars. The Iraqis lived in a state of war for more than three
decades and a half. Many times people live in two wars at the same time, a war
at the boundaries and a war inside the cities and villages, it is the war against
the tyrannical authorities. It’s a pity that until now, only few literary works
have been written about that era. I wish I were a novelist to write about the
incredible and surrealist facts. In poetry, yes, you can find a good deal, but
it is not enough, in comparison of course with the unbelievable things that happened,
and may still happen at the dirty hands of the Ba'athists. The bitterness of that
sometimes lead the Iraqis to create jokes about the dictator and his deputy Izzat
Ibrahim. For instance, when Saddam asked "What is the time now Izzat?" "As you
like it sir", answered Izzat. This is also to show the megalomania of Saddam.
And there are many facts about it, the simplest of them being that he let one
of the ministers (the minister of justice I guess) stay on the same chair for
two days just because he took a look at his watch during a meeting. Being very
abstract, brief and digested poetry cannot depict these horrible deeds. The novel,
the modern epic, and may be the dramatic works, plays and films, have the ability
to do that better and could be more credible and authentic. In many times the
experience of the war prevailed against, and sometimes killed, the experience
of love in Iraqi society. This contrast will remain, as I think, a rich subject
for all kinds of arts in Iraq.
* Adapted from " HateAffair," a story by Mehdi Mostafavi Kashani anIranian writer.
** Adapted from" all night, all night", a poem by Delmore Schwartz
***Adapted from Wendy Vardaman's answers to my interview with her.
The Farsi translation of this interview was published few weeks ago in an Iranian e-magazine:Firooze: