My poem, ‘Uruk’s Anthem’, is one of the longest ever written in Arabic literature (549 pages) and gives voice to the profound despair of the Iraqi experience. It has been described as beautiful, powerful and courageous – and at the same time nightmarish and terrifying. It took twelve years to write (1984–1996). During eight years of that time I was forced to fight in the Iran-Iraq War. Many of my friends were killed and I spent eighteen months in an army detention centre close to the border with Iran. Parts of ‘Uruk’s Anthem’ were adapted for the stage and performed in 1989 and 1993 at the Rasheed Theatre in Baghdad where the play received wide acclaim but angered the government. I fled the country with my family and sought asylum first in Amman, then Beirut and then Sweden, where extracts of ‘Uruk’s Anthem’, together with the poems of my lifelong friend, Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer, formed a play which was performed in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2014 as well as in Egypt 2007 and 2008. It was also performed in Morocco 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2014. Further extracts translated by Jenny Lewis and Ruba Abughaida (Singing for Inanna, Mulfran Press, 2014) have been widely performed in the UK and at international poetry festivals. Since 2004, I have been living in exile with my family in London. Uruk is the ancient Sumerian city of King Gilgamesh whose reigning deity was the goddess Inanna. Its remains are found near the Euphrates in Iraq.
Extracts from Uruk’s Anthem
Translated by Jenny Lewis, Ruba Abughaida and Dr. Elias Khamis
I climb the walls of the city
trashed by enemy aircraft
and see Ninkal with her hair spread1
over its ruins, lamenting as she beats herself.
Bulldozers scrape her off
so builders can smother her tombs in banking districts.
above (and my heart is afraid of heights)
above the chimneys
above the minarets
above the cannons –
the rancid breath of those trapped below dirties our vision and launches it into space to be raked by bloody claws –
and the tower of Babel becomes clear…
from the soot of factories
soil the museum exhibits
pilfered by Bedouins under their djellabas
and governments don’t notice
and the tower guard didn’t notice
his majesty passing.
When he asks for Gilgamesh’s plant –
Sir, it was eaten by a sheep, but wasn’t it your nose, pardon me,
that was sniffing that pile of shit…
But before he could see into the depths
they buried him in shit up to his eyeballs
…and then he saw everything…….
and nothing –
The invaders come after the tyrants,
the tyrants come after the invaders
and nothing happens…
they replace handcuffs
with other handcuffs
And time stretches out
while they keep going,
generation after generation
I sleep and wake, but I can’t find morning –
who stole it? – Oh cockerel exulting on city balconies…..
How long can I cure loneliness with writing?
I say to Gilgamesh:
If you saw what we’ve seen
you’d have pissed on it.
And I ask: is our life a prison?
Is my book a grave?
Is the door a dream for me to go through?
Did I risk death to glimpse a parallel world
beyond Milton’s imagining?
I lift my head from the lines to see
children playing with our legacy
fields of bombs
and young girls by the Tigris
washing their faces
so their beauty drains away to be drunk by the sea –
how many of our dreams did the sea drink
as we sat on the timeless stones of Babylon?
There will be no light more beautiful than the sun of freedom the day we smash down the doors and summon tyrants to judgment.
I hear the rattle of shop fronts, texts, and the screech of teeth against glass : worms wriggle from her cheeks the moment graveyards – I mean – skeletons –walk towards the city, issuing commands : the skeletons stretch out : people run away, so do electricity pylons, roads, farms and vans.
I wake to the sound of an ambulance
carrying my mind
to the operating room,
choked by the dust of dictionaries and nurses.
And my serum runs away down a tube of streets to the sea…
The Mongols come
riding our skinny horses
bursting into our blood
that’s blue as ink
or red as a bloodshot eye:
and British soldiers creep
into Sha‘lān’s house2
As the Umayyad armies withdraw from Sūrat al-Fath
I point to the horizon, black with aircraft droppings
and Abboud guffaws while showing the hole in his jacket
where the war went through…
Oh you … General, monitoring –
from a screen next to your bed –
the mortars pounding our cities
while chewing the stem of your foreign pipe
is this all that’s left of my homeland?
(You dead people rise up!3
and Would you have the courtesy to return my pitchfork?)4
My tears are stones – take them to the sea – rinse them in poetry –
from the stained urn that displays me to the creatures of the universe I leak out in words as an
exhalation of glory turned into stars…
I open the album
and cry for friends who were lost in the night of the battlefields,
the cities, the memories…
why does the war shatter me in two?
Why does night stamp like a soldier’s boot on my chest?
I try to write in darkness – stealing light from flares.
The bombardment began heavily tonight,
shaking us like sardines in a can.
We are not dead or alive:
And (… I was born, and died…)
And (…no mules or soldiers killed, no losses or gains…)
News bulletins make us switch to other frequencies
which crisscross the stony trench
carrying scum and capital cities in miniskirts, wars,
mass murder, exiled revolutionaries, an advert for a platonic, chocolate-flavoured love potion.
And tomorrow, who knows where we will be buried?
We who have no hand-span of land and can own no grave or shroud.
(The American bulldozers bury us, far away in the desert, then the wild animals dig us up, so our families bury us again, then the bulldozers of the Republican Guard dig us up, then we are buried by the…)
Why did you leave your country?
The dates were yours – the wine
and the Babylonian heaven?
It wasn’t that I was ungrateful, oh you that lay blame while lounging in cafés in exile –
but embers burn
only those who touch them.
I shall accept whatever God chooses for me in exile
I cross the streets, empty inside,
I bite on life with the teeth of my being
and rise up proud
with my anthem
I scratch the sky to make it rain on me.
Wherever songs flourish will be my home.
If I exchange one land for another
how shall I sleep
when this pillow is not your arms
(I warned them –
This isn’t land but the back of a whale;5
don’t burn it with the angry fires of war!
They laughed in my face,
and were shrugged off into the sea,
out of reach of their ships.)
I said: I waited for you……
to wander with you in the alleys (there’s no home for me
except the shade of a poem,
which I throw to the ground like a mat to sleep on)
hotels reject us
and strange roads rest on my shoulders
your tears wet my shirt
your eyelids tell me about the movement of clouds,
about the hunger of your two children in the land of palm trees……
We sleep and dream about dawn
but dawn is very far away –
it is still behind bars:
I saw the sleepy moon being carried in the jaws of a whale.
We sing while beating empty cans – oh
return our moon quickly!
But the whale turned into a monster –
the swallowed moon has been forgotten by children
Exile unites us and our homeland divides us.
So who sings to sad humanity
the song of forgiveness we carry inside us?
- Ninkal’s Lament is from the Book of Sumer ‘Oh city lament…/ Your sacred temples have been destroyed and your gardens are ruined…/ the barbarians have slaughtered your people…/ your people have been exiled and Ur is destroyed…’
- Sha‘lān Abul-Jun – one of the heroes of the post-1920 revolution in Iraq.
- A French sergeant in 1915, the last man standing of his battalion, who, when attacked by Germans, shouted ‘Arise, my dead friends!’
- From a revolutionary song which describes a peasant, who, after stabbing a British soldier with his pitchfork, asks politely for his pitchfork back.
- A reference to the story of Sindibad.
Suleimaniyah (a stable in the village of Shaikh Awsal)
Camp 575, Sheraton Al Basra, Prison in Kirkuk, Al Kufa, Baghdad, Cairo,
Amman, Sana’a, Aden, Al Khartoum, Damascus, Beirut …