About a month ago, I ran into one of my poetry students at a writing event. Anba is a former scientist from Iraq, and she is usually beaming with energy. On this night she was down, dark circles under her eyes, her posture drained. When I asked her how she was she told me she had not slept for a week.
“I keep looking at the posts from the protests in Baghdad and it’s breaking my heart.”
“What protests?” I was ashamed not to have heard.
“Since the beginning of October, young people have been gathering in Al Tahrir Square to stand up for democracy and against corruption. The government keeps picking them off, one by one. Hundreds have been killed by sniper or gas canisters aimed right at their heads.”
I told her I was sorry, and also sorry I knew so little about it. She started showing me pictures from Facebook feeds: young faces, laughing, dancing, couples holding hands, Tuk Tuk drivers who’ve volunteered to help transport people and supplies, volunteer medics, and everywhere, the Iraqi flag flying.
“They’re so full of creativity and energy — cleaning the parks, setting up food stalls, making music. Everything’s offered for free!”
“People keep sending me poems,” Anba continued, “and they are amazing.”
“Stop looking at Facebook,” I told her, “and start translating those poems.”
So that is what she has done. For the last month, Anba has been back and forth on-line to a group of young poets who have shared their work with her. She has started translating, and stopped feeling helpless.
A few of her correspondents responded that they can’t write; they’re too heart-broken and involved in the moment. But many others have gone in the other direction, as if poetry were air and they need to breathe, as if they can’t help themselves.
The poems are powerful and beautiful, each one unique, and yet all linked by a sense of the importance of this moment, the shock of the violence, grief and somehow a belief that space and time can be transcended through language. The youngest poet is 19; the oldest in his 30’s. Most are in their early 20's.
The protesters come from the “generation of the 2000’s” — Iraqis who grew up free from the shadow of a murderous dictatorship and are now demanding an end to corruption and paralysis in their country. They’ve been promised democracy and believe they deserve it. They are risking their lives for it.
(If you didn’t know about these protests you can read about them here. Protesters continue to be killed, up to this very moment.)
As I helped Anba edit the poems and watched the poems emerge from the jumble of language into English words that reflect each unique voice, I felt as if the protests are not happening far away but very close.
As an American/British citizen, I feel connected to these young protesters. Both my countries have been involved in the history of Iraq; we cannot exclude ourselves from its story. As a mother, I am awe-struck by the young energy awakening all around the world standing up against authority, and I am heartbroken at the loss of life and promise.
Our plan is to share the final drafts at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden. Drama students from Regent’s university will read them out in English. We were hoping to live broadcast from London to Iraq and back, but on Thursday, during a technical rehearsal, gunshots and screaming interrupted the work; the technician helping was killed. It is too risky to do this now live, but we hope to tape the event so that the young protesters can hear their words being spoken in their English versions in London.
Will it make any difference? This is a question I am turning over, as I, too, begin to lose sleep over the protests, having gotten to know the hopes and creativity and visions of strangers across the world.
Poetry can seem like the most fragile of art forms; a poem is ephemeral and hardly makes a dent in what we think of us the stream of culture in the world. Yet, somehow, I have faith that these frail words can penetrate — beyond their moment, into the wider world; they can last, longer than those who write them, and become more powerful and explosive each time they are shared and experienced. Poems that started out as small as an atom have grown and grown in force and power through time and space. Each time a poem is read or shared, a small burst of light erupts. Poems survive after real bombs grow silent and travel farther than bullets or missiles.
That is no consolation to someone facing a bullet or a missile right now. I wonder, like Anba, how can these young people in the midst of violence in Baghdad write poetry?
Then I think: how can they not?
Two examples of the power of poetry to cross time and space have come into my life recently. I am teaching a class on Emily Dickinson — a poet I have found impenetrable and vexing at times. Yet reading about her life, I am astonished to think these hundreds of small letters to the world were written by a recluse, and now — here they are, growing and growing. Even Apple TV has made a series about her, and the Faber edition of her work is three inches thick.
On a podcast I love here in the UK, the Poetry Exchange, a member of the public is asked to talk about a poem that has been a friend to them through life. A nurse from Holland talked about her shock at Brexit and the way people she considered friends and co-workers started treating her as other. She spoke about the poem, “De Cedar,” written during the Second World War; in it, a speaker imagines a tree growing in a backyard that is invisible to other eyes, those who only see rubble and waste. To the nurse, the poem was about how in the darkest times, it is possible to have a different vision — a solidarity and faith in humanity that others may not see or share.
For me, the tree has become an emblem of poetry itself: something that is sacred and vital, but all too often concealed in the public forum and treated like dirt.
As I find my heart breaking about the loss of life, and the way the vision of the protesters — of a better, more democratic, free and equal society is being crushed by power and cruelty, I will do this one thing that I can do: share the story, share the poems and hope that as they release themselves from the ground that formed them into the more permanent air, they become like birds whose wings grow stronger with each reaching.