Poets from a War Torn World
Of the four essays in Poets from a War Torn World, the first two are about mysticism in modern
Arabic poetry, and the other two are about literary philosophy in modern Hebrew poetry. All four
essays focus on the 1960s and 1970s— a time when poets hoped that through their writings they
could help bring peace to a war torn Middle East.
Reuven Snir’s introduction is in clear simple language. It provides background knowledge that will
assist the general reader who has no previous knowledge of specifically Arabic or Hebrew poetry.
Otherwise, the introduction and essays are of interest to scholars, students and the general
reader—those interested in poetry, poetics or diverse cultures.
The four essays include Aviva Butt’s translations of entire poems, so that the book is also a
collection of poems which are enjoyable to read. The leading poets under discussion in three
separate essays are Adunis (Adonis), Mahmud Darwish (Arabic poets) and Natan Zach (Hebrew
poet). Rashid Husayn (Arabic poet) is mentioned. The last essay, A Surge of Poetry, deals with
the creativity of the Hebrew poets Natan Zach, Yehuda Amichai, Meir Wieseltier and Asher Reich.
Natan Alterman is mentioned.
On Screenwriting and Love and Politics is a book by screenwriter Aviva Butt that invites the
reader to take an up close view at writing a film script. Written in an engaging and literary style, the
book attempts to illuminate the emotions, theories and process that go into creating a screenplay.
As a special appendix, the book includes the author’s latest full-length screenplay Blue Mist. About
this screenplay, she comments: “I write about love and politics. My screenplays are theatrical
feature films on Middle Eastern subjects. This time with my screenplay Blue Mist, the world
situation and the Middle East come to New Zealand.”
The book also features an introduction from Gaetano Nino Martinetti, an award-winning
cinematographer who contributes his views on the role of cinematography in making movies.
|SEE THE ABOVE BOOK: BAGHDAD: THE CITY IN VERSE ed. and trans. Reuven Snir (HUP
2013) for translations of Adunis’ two poems on Baghdad:
COMMENT ON Adunis’ two poems on Baghdad:
And two screenplays by Aviva Butt:
As portrayed in his poem May poetry press its lips to Baghdad’s breast, Adunis’ impression of Baghdad
under the dictatorship is accurate. Only the darkest moments of Baghdad’s history are called to mind.
Adunis writes in 1969. The situation worsened from 1991 with George Bush’s abrupt ceasefire ending
the First Gulf War and the ensuing American-led economic blockade. The blockade, euphemistically
called “sanctions” was enforced militarily by air and by sea until the Second Gulf War in 1993.
In my screenplay titled Love Under an Umbrella (2001), I depict the situation in Baghdad between the
two Gulf wars. The “political hammer” (to quote Adunis) knocked the “anvil” of Baghdadi neighborhoods
in the same manner as described by Adunis in 1969, and there were in addition the above outlined
external pressures. To accurately convey the emotional and human story, I worked with an Iraqi poet,
so that the screenplay is an original screenplay by Aviva Butt with poetry by Rammahi (Abid Ali al-
Afrawi). The protagonist Maher says that he sits in a world of blockades. In his own personal blockade,
he enjoys his awareness of existence and watches far off stars glowing. As with Adunis’ poem, the poet
of Love Under an Umbrella makes a sharp distinction between day in Baghdad and night. With dawn,
Maher says, he sees his baby daughter’s face and thin body. He sees a world of “blockades, war and
starvation”. Above all, he lives in fear of every passing shadow. Rammahi writes the original Arabic
poem that Maher sings: “In my kaleidoscopic blockade/My soul split into two scenes/The birds are
fearful/And my hand shakes/And I am fearful/From afar an informant watches me. . .
In the first two stanzas of his poem of 1969, Adunis describes the fear that there will be an informant
and the fear of the consequences. The informant could be anyone—a neighbor, a friend, a relative or
family member or just a passerby. Adunis could only have understood this because he is a poet-
prophet with special vision. It is unlikely that anyone in Iraq would have explained to him that Iraqis were
living in an ‘upside down society’; and it is even more unlikely that anyone outside Iraq would have
believed him if he had published his poem in 1969 when he wrote it.
To reinforce the terror that ensured absolute political control, Adunis tells us that “the dictator’s mind is
devoted to composing specific encyclopedias that hunt human beings and tame them.” Torture was the
common means to “tame” Iraqis, which is to say, make them compliant. Iraqi citizens were tortured
even at local police stations and despite “torture” being against the law! In Love under an Umbrella,
Maher together with his friend Ali is brought to the local police station (mode-riyat al-amn al-aama). Ali,
a schoolteacher, on the word of his pupil, is accused of sedition. The gravity of this offence was all the
more since the regime’s definition of “traitor” was an Iraqi who was unenthusiastic about the dictator or
his regime. In this light, Adunis’ line “. . .each struggles to be the regime’s parrot, the most eloquent of
them all” makes sense. In Love under an Umbrella, Ali is tortured and his mutilated body is dumped into
Maher’s cell. Then, Maher is released. Nearing home, Maher witnesses the bombing of his house. His
wife and two babies are killed and some of the neighbors injured. Adunis refers to such punitive
demolitions in his line “My friend J lives in what seems to be a palace. He said to me: It is easier for
this house to be destroyed than for me to open one of the windows you see before you.” In Love
Under an Umbrella, we hear the reaction to such events from Maher’s neighbors: “Crazy poet! What
grief have you brought down on us? Blockades, war, starvation. That’s not enough for you. Shut your
big mouth. Your wife and children are buried under that rubble,” and “That wasn’t any American plane!
This must be some sort of punitive demolition. What have you done?” and “Our houses, our families!
You’re crazy. You’re crazy. Your big mouth! Kill him. Traitor! Spy!“ So Maher becomes a refugee in
his own country; he leaves Iraq and walks through the desert to Jordan.
Maher and Ali live in Madinat al-Thawra (now Sadr City), a Baghdadi slum district largely populated by
immigration from South Iraq with a mainly Shiite population and a concentration of poets. The glitter
and sparkle of the Euphrates and Tigris still in their eyes and hearts, the devout Shiites and poets of
Madinat al-Thawra remained defiant during the dictatorship and in the aftermath of the Second Gulf War.
In his poem Time crushes Baghdad’s body written in 2005, Adunis tells us that the Iraqis have been
unable to return to the “river of history”. The poet in a manner of speaking writes a love poem for
Baghdad; it serves to console lovers of the land of the two rivers for the tragedy they must come to
grips with: “Night almost spreads its stars on Baghdad’s body/Murmuring, sleeping, she waits for the
prophet of waking/Putting her cheek on the sand, she waits for the prophet of waking/She would be
pleased if the earth were a book that she could seal/With her moans while being possessed by the
prophet of waking. . .” At present, the poet says, it is impossible for Iraqis to return and pick up the
thread of their lives in what was their homeland. Baghdad is a sort of “sleeping beauty” awaiting a
prophet to come and rouse her. The first stanza of Adunis’ poem hints at the immediate history behind
this situation. It portrays the hope in the immediate aftermath of the American-led invasion of 2003:
“Tigris’ lips are shivering, life a jug nearly broken. . . O angel sleeping beneath her naval, when will you
arise?/Spurt upwards, O you unseen water/You alone have defeated the desert.”
The poet fervently desires the artesian wells from the beginning of civilization to rise and defeat the
desert with the pure sparkling water of renewal. But, the jug that contains the shared soul of the Iraqi
people is cracked only to be shattered by the actuality of the invasion.
Adunis barely mentions the “iron roof upon Baghdad’s shoulder”. He is not interested in American
aspirations and oil wells—the Iraqi people likewise. My original screenplay In Blood I Come (2005) is
about the indeterminate period immediately after the invasion. Towards the end of this screenplay, the
protagonist Khalil, an Iraqi journalist, makes a sort of pilgrimage to save the lives of the villagers he
grew up with, who are under siege. Wearing kafiyeh and riding a donkey, he passes deserted cars by
the roadside. He passes a petrol station. A sign reads: No Petrol. He looks into the distance and sees
skyscrapers under construction. He goes to a place that looks like Madinat al-Thawra and approaches
a person who looks like Muqtada al-Sadr. Khalil says: “We trust you, Shaykh. Please take us under
your wing. Please include us as your followers.” The Shaykh (Shiite religious authority) says: “You
know of course that we have only the same kind of fighters that you do. We fight with personal
weapons and our fighters are ordinary people from all walks of life.” Khalil replies: “Shaykh, we are
asking out of desperation. My pen, my words bring no success. Change nothing.”
It seems that the punishment the Americans and their allies inflicted on the Iraqi people and their dashed
hopes in the aftermath of the Second Gulf War was the last straw—more than they could bear. Adunis
is right. Baghdad rests her cheek on the sand, and also Basra and all of Iraq.
April 1, 2012
|SEE BELOW FOR
COMMENT ON Adunis’
two poems on Baghdad:
And two screenplays by
|Professor Shmuel Moreh's memoirs
written in Arabic commemorate his
death in September 2017.
Baghdâd mon Amoure:
Reminiscences on the Jews of
|Books on the Middle East: its Literature and Poets.