Interview with Soheil Najm

[Interview performed by Farideh Hassanzadeh]

"The Iraqi roses (poems) flourish today every where in the world."

"Being very abstract, brief and digested poetry could not depict these horrible deeds."

*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 every thing 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 person.

* Can we divide Iraqi literature after and before the historical events in 9th of April 2003?

Soheil: I see myself and most of the Iraqis were struggling to get their freedom from one of the worst/ strongest dictatorship through the history, but unfortunately when they got it they suffocated it firstly by the hands of the Americans and secondly by the hands of the countries around Iraq. Iraqi literature under Saddam's regime was lacking the liberty of expressing. The writer or the poet had to be very symbolic if he dared to criticize any tyrannical political phenomena. Some times we use the historical symbols or the myths to hide the real meaning. Many of our colleagues sent to the 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 with the dictatorship, since it is 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, by the name of defending democracy, actually they look after their interests, my country now is a field for worldly forces who are fighting to get revenge from 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 the power for all the slaughtering of the Iraqi good people, scientists, artists, reporters and poets or for killing the hope of the good Iraqis to live in peace as any other people in the world and to participate with them the creative process to find a new, democratic and civilized world as that known of the Iraqis since the ancient times.

* What is your idea about the Iraqian who left Iraq? Please let me know your idea about this poem by Ana Akhmatova when many poets and writers left Russia after revolution:

I am not of those 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.

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, for four decades they, especially the poor, have got nothing but pain and collective symmetries. Nobody may be know 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 about his neighbor and his family too much. 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 later refused to participate in the war against Iran. The Iraqis lived a horrible life in the past and they are now. Because of the corrupted politicians death has been attacking the Iraqis everywhere. Every house has its disaster, every one either lost one of the member of his family or one of his relative 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'adi 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 worse in the whole human history to slaughter 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 every thing, 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 country.

* 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 serious and it automatically goes away.” What is your answer?

Soheil: Yes, this is may be true for the ordinary person, but not for the poet. The real poet is a member in Prometheus's team. Whatever 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 interacts 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 be 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.

* What would you have lost as a poet if you had not war experience? Do you believe that a writer must write as a witness, not as an observer?

Soheil: Through the history of literature we have read the most remarkable literary works which are depicting the life of the people during the wars. May be because the reality of humanity discloses 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 mater 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, may be there is an indirect affect of the experience of the war, but contemplation in the details of life as a whole, from the very simple issues to the determination of destiny issues, is what taken me to the poem.

* What is your interpretation of Wendy Vardaman 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 concern about keeping the world around him live in prosperity and a beautiful life. 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 the excessive sensibility may be he should not be the guardian upon the people, as if they are orphans, but I guess he has some ethical responsibility for them.

* Could you tell us, briefly, about the characteristics of Iraqi poetry today?

Soheil: there is a verse in the Holy Koran says that you may hate something when it is useful for you. The Iraqi roses (poems) flourish today every where in the world. The historical facts proved that the Iraqis are talented in arts, especially in poetry. At the beginning of the second halve 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 enriching from another cultures. You could find Iraqi cultural groups in London, Paris, Cairo, Amman, Zurich, Hiroshima, Berlin, New York, Sidney, Oslo…etc. Many collections issued in bilingual editions, Arabic-Swedish, Arabic- English, Arabic – Denmark, etc. From the fifties of the last century till 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 in 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.

* Let me finish my questions with love. In spite of living in such a world that many children in the middle east hear the sound of falling bombs before their mother give birth to them, like mine; in spite of all violences 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 pullet to the other side. I guess the deep scars of war and the deep scars of love go hand in hand. In another words, dictatorship killed many 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 accused to be from the opposed forces? They were fiercer than the crazy dogs. In fact we hadn't experienced one war but 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 till now only few literary works have 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 by 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 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 could not 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.