Art suppressed yet honed by war

Poetry: Censored and silenced by Saddam Hussein, the poets of Iraq are again raising their voices.

July 07, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The poet's voice was sure and strong, his reason for writing explained simply and honestly.

"People say poetry is from the soul but I disagree in my case," said Ali Al-Ghazali, a poet who at 70 is free to speak openly in the lyrical voice muffled for so many years under the dictator Saddam Hussein. "In my case, all of me - every part of me - is put into my writing. It is my gun, my cannon, my flower."

During the decades under Hussein, poets and other creative writers practiced their craft secretly or not at all. For all his brutality, Hussein was intelligent enough to recognize the power of language when infused with ideas and with passion, and he silenced writers suspected of using words as their weapons to oppose his regime.

Oppression still exists in Iraq, for bombings have made many people afraid to leave their homes, and fundamentalists who would oppose the honesty of literature that touches on the honesty of humanity - sensuality, sexuality, religious skepticism, spiritual exploration - remain a threat.

But in the steamy, broken building that serves as the offices of the Iraqi Writers Union, in the capital's busy Karada District, poets, novelists, essayists and short-story writers now gather daily to read their work aloud. They share photocopied versions of manuscripts that under Hussein would have led to a slashed tongue, a severed hand, years of prison, maybe death.

Outside the two-room building, a maxim painted on a wooden placard remains from the days of Hussein: "The nation without great poets will not have great politicians."

Inside those rooms, though, much of the talk, writing, ideas and passion are about the honesty suppressed under Hussein, about the war that still echoes.

"We still are not free but we are freer," said al-Ghazali, who was jailed for four years for his work. After his release he wrote secretly, hand-lettered pages of poems and short stories taped to the back of artwork hanging on the walls of his house.

"I was an expert at hiding it," he said. "I kept my thoughts hidden against the wall."

When Baghdad fell to U.S. troops in April 2003, his voice was no longer hushed. Hand to pen, pen to paper, he wrote:

Love and a sweet start

The dictatorship nightmare is over

Our eyes shut to it

Now open to peace

We will rebuild our factories

We will sow our fields

The bats have gone away

And we have the love of our children dancing

Singing free.

For all of human history, poets have been inspired by war and the courage and cowardice that it brings, the whispers of tenderness to parents suddenly childless, the victory of the battlefields, the ultimate failure of man. And perhaps because of so many wars in its history, Iraq has long been recognized as home to many of the best poets writing in Arabic.

Even under Hussein writers were held in esteem. On Martyr's Bridge Road stands a statue of the Iraqi poet Ma'ruf al Rusafi, a monument to verses in which he blamed Arab leaders for failing their people.

He wrote in the 1920s and 1930s, though, and those who could make their verse public under Hussein were forced to bury their honesty deep within the layers of prose or, in the case of others, submit to the dictator, dressing his propaganda in the clothing of art.

"If you were to write freely under Saddam, the ideas had to be his, not yours," said Kareem al-Walii, 54, who said friends warned him in 1979 that a short story he wrote and published in London questioning Hussein's regime had Iraq's secret police asking questions about him. "Real writers disappeared, either their bodies or their words. Liars got control of the art."

Al-Walii rarely left his house after he learned he was being investigated, he said. A work that the regime apparently feared was called "The Face," a story of two Iranian soldiers facing each other, rifles in hand, in a standoff. In the end, they put their guns down, recognizing that winning their argument meant losing their lives, an undisguised commentary on the Iraq-Iran war that Iraq launched in 1980.

"After that, I had to disappear," al-Walii said. "For 25 years I disappeared, and that makes you a tired old man."

Many of Iraq's best-known and most admired poets - Saadi Yousef, Abdel Wahab Bayati - went into exile and in that way avoided compromising their work. Some within Iraq simply disappeared and are thought to have been executed. Still others, like Hamid al-Mukhtar, spent years in prison.

During Hussein's reign, the writers union was the headquarters for poets salaried by the state, who could be relied upon to praise the leader, but also a place for other, less obedient writers to meet one another.

Members of the writers union hope to revive the art in Iraq, using their new freedom to critique one another's work and disseminate it more widely than was possible under Hussein, when writers who dared could use only one another as audiences, their ideas swapped only among those whom they most trusted.

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