Friday, November 14, 2003

What is it Good for? 

During last month's Poetry & Empire weekend at the Kelly Writers House, Tracie Morris challenged us to expand our understanding of poetry's importance, taking us out of our Americanism for a bit. She drove home the point that wondering whether poetry makes a difference isn't reason for a summit in most of the world. Its impact is (for the most part) widely appreciated & likewise feared. Its marginalization seems to be a Western, particularly American phenomenon. Or is it really so different?

I'm reminded of this as I read Tariq Ali's new book, Bush in Babylon. He recounts his conversations with Saadi Youssef. The Iraqi poet left his homeland in 1979, shortly before Saddam Hussein "officially" took power in 1979. Saddam had been calling the shots (quite literally) from the shadows for some time. Once the force became the face, Youssef fled because he "didn't want to write bad poems." Dissident poetry in the new regime would not be tolerated, so he left before the certainty of torture, death or silence became reality.

For years during his reign, Hussein sent emissaries to meet with Youssef, Muhammed Mahdi al Jawahiri & Mudhaffar al Nawab. Each of the Iraqi poets was in exile in different countries over the years- Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, France & England. Hussein’s agents pleaded with the poets to give a joint reading in Baghdad. Saddam didn't mind that they were communists, since the cultural cache he would receive from their return would be fruitful- citing their place in "our national heritage." He promised their safety "by the blood on my neck." It was hardly convincing, & none of the poets returned.

Fast-forward to 2003. Before the invasion, Youssef was placed on the colonial Iraqi Congress undesirable list. The imperial regime prevented (& continues to prevent) his return to his birthplace of Basra. The Baathists forced him to flee. The conquerors deposing the Baathists don't want him to return. What gives? Doesn’t "the enemy of the enemy" adage hold true in this case? Not necessarily. Because the latter enemy wasn't always the enemy.

Hussein killed communists through the seventies & eighties, until they were gone- one way or another. The CIA gave a wink & a nod (& weapons). So it makes sense that the invaders & their watchmen would discourage a return of an agitator. The sides haven't shifted as much as they seem. The new Governing Council (referred to by Youssef as "jackals") won't welcome a visionary poet back to the streets of an unstable city anytime soon.

Of course, times have changed since Saddam’s early years. The conversations on the Arab street often stem from the internet. The following excerpt is from a poem dedicated to Youssef's lifelong comrade Mudhaffar al Nawab, exiled in Damascus. It was circulated throughout Iraq in a matter of minutes, & it's quite popular. From “Jackals’ Wedding”:

I’ll go in your place
(Damascus is too far away from that secret hotel…)
I'll spit in the jackals' faces
I'll spit on their lists
I'll declare that we are the people of Iraq –
we are the ancestral trees of this land,
proud beneath our modest roof of bamboo

Upon receiving word of his newly tweaked undesirability, Youssef wrote a letter to the invader- General Tommy Franks*:

You will enter Baghdad, Sir, General; can I relay to you what Omar (the second Caliph after Mohammed) advised his general who was heading for Iraq?

Don't cut down a single tree, he said.

Trees & Iraqis were cut down- an inevitability of the invasion. Franks, Chalabi & Viceroy Bremer don't want to make tree/citizen connections, & they don't want their subjects to either. They're happier with the poets elsewhere, not muddying the liberator costume & keeping their enemies simple- blood thirsty Baathist relics & apocalyptic Islamists. This is arguably true to a great extent. But keeping the poets outside the border attempts to silence the voice of Iraqis who want a chance to explore their own ideas of liberation. Submission is/has been all around them. Rejection of the framework could prove disastrous for the conquerors, as well as the imams. The Koran 26:225-

Poets are followed by erring men. Behold how aimlessly they rove in every valley, preaching what they never practice.

Occupation forces, the Governing Council & fundamentalist zealots attempt to keep them out. Saddam tried to co-opt them. None of the above are worried about the "practice" of the poets. It’s the practice of their audience that they're worried about. Iraqis are reading Youssef amidst national chaos & discussing his poems in the street. The fear is their ideas could change, altering in turn, the options presented to them. Most Iraqis won’t be debating whether poetry makes a difference anytime soon.

Frank Sherlock

*Greg Fuchs lampooned the soon-to-be invader, dressing as a War Pig in the F15 New York City march against the war. He wore an army uniform & pig snout, introducing himself to passersby as "General Porky Franks."

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