From street bards to Hussein, everyone's a poet in Iraq

In Iraq, there is a saying that beside every palm tree, you will find a poet. To give you some idea of how many poets that is, there are 25 million people in Iraq, and 38 million palm trees.

In this country, poetry is like national therapy, a cure for ills in the body politic.

"As Iraqi people, we like to celebrate our state, our country," says Harith Ismail Turki, a professor of English literature who is, of course, also a poet. "People sometimes resort to poetry, not as a way to escape, but as a way to mitigate the agony inside themselves."

The palm tree proverb, for example, was coined by urban intellectuals during the Baath regime to describe a time when poetry served two masters: Often used to praise Saddam Hussein, it was also one of the few safe ways to criticize the government. But now that Mr. Hussein sits in prison, where he spends his days writing poetry of more vigor than quality, Iraqi poets have a new injustice to protest: the US military presence.

"Don't trouble yourself with the dirty Americans, and don't trouble yourself with her dirty servants," chants a heavyset man, stepping into the middle of an admiring circle of men. In a poem addressed to the renegade Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, he compares Paul Bremer to the founder of the Baath Party, Michel Aflaq: "Why does the family of al-Sadr threaten America?" he sings, as the men around him clap rhythmically. "People were loyal to Aflaq, and now they have became loyal to Bremer / But we will always be ready to fight with you whenever you want."

Picking up the theme, another poet tries to outdo his rivals. "Look, people, the eagle of Kufa came home to his city," he cries. "Moqtada, the Eagle of Kufa, to whose will both America and the Governing Council submitted! / He has at his command al-Mahdi soldiers who are ready to sacrifice their souls."

Cheering, the men begin to jump up and down, waving daggers and Kalashnikovs in the air.

A vernacular poetry

You won't find these verses in any anthologies or literary magazines. These anonymous poets star on a compact disc, a low-quality digital video of a tribal gathering that you can buy in Sadr City's Mraidi market for a couple of dollars. Intoning their poems in low, dramatic voices, the poets are singing a traditional form of Iraqi oral poetry called darmee, with a complex and untranslatable rhyme scheme and a rollicking, irresistible rhythm.

Sometimes called "popular poetry," darmee is composed in the spoken slang of Iraq's Shiite south, not the written Arabic of classical poetry. Pop singers like Kazem al-Saher, "the Iraqi Elvis," take song lyrics from old darmees. Often performed in groups in a freestyle competition, darmee is a bit like Iraqi rap.

Shiites from the south of the country began composing darmee when the country was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. While classical poetry dwelt on elevated historical themes, like the prophet Muhammad's battles, darmees bemoaned everyday woes: faithless lovers, cruel landlords, heartless females.

"During Ottoman times, darmee poets addressed the women - either to complain or to praise," says Abu Hatem, a poet and scholar who lives in Sadr City. "Sometimes a woman, if she missed her lover for a long time, might write one herself."

Abu Hatem, who treasures the folkloric poems, has nothing but scorn for contemporary darmee. "They represent the primitive stages of the mind," he says. "Sometimes they praise someone by a darmee, and this person doesn't deserve it."

He won't cite specific examples, but Iraqi poets still relish the memory of May 1, when a poetry reading at the headquarters of the Iraqi Communist Party erupted in scandal. When one poet got up to recite a darmee, another poet stood up in the audience and denounced him. "You scoundrel," said the heckler, "you used to write poems praising Saddam Hussein!" Kicked offstage by the Communists, the turncoat poet hasn't been heard from since.

Allusions to 1917

In Iraq, poetry and politics have always intertwined. In 1917, as revolt brewed in Iraq against British rule, the Iraqi poet Saad Salih sent a letter to another poet, asking him to spread rebellion and enclosing a poem: "Oh, Ahmed, stand and call the brave free men of Iraq," he wrote. "Perhaps blood, pouring over the earth, will utterly cleanse our disgrace."

The image - of blood rinsing away national shame - lives on to this day in a poem called "A Page of Miracles" that is dedicated "To Fallujah: the City of endurance and Jihad." Dated May 10, 2004, for the day American troops left Fallujah, the poem honors the Fallujan fighters.

"The precious blood of your people has washed away / The disgrace of their submission to the enemy, of those who accepted humiliation and lick the boots of those who invaded our country," writes poet Muhammad Said al-Jumeily. "The blood which watered our fields / Will remind us forever that we should take revenge."

In stirring language, Mr. Jumeily likens Fallujah to a banner, a sword, a moon, a light, and a castle: "You are a castle, in which young men became old / When they fought the marines."

Naming specific neighborhoods in Fallujah, he celebrates their ouster of American troops: "Ask people in al-Sinaa about the American herds which / Lick their wounds after being defeated. / Remember al-Nazzal and remember how the American armor melted / And how it proved to the world that the mythical glory of America is false after their defeat."

The irony is that Jumeily used to write poetry denouncing the Baath regime. "He never hesitated to state - even in front of the governor - his revulsion and abhorrence publicly," says Mr. Turki, who knows Jumeily. "I saw the bitterness in his eyes against the ex-regime."

Swift, Shaw, and Jumeily

A grave and bespectacled young poet who loves Jonathan Swift and George Bernard Shaw, Turki makes photocopies of "A Page of Miracles" for all of his friends. He's not anti-American, he just wants people to see the battle of Falluja through Fallujan eyes.

"It is a celebration of the die-hards," explains Turki, who teaches English literature at Anbar University in Ramadi, close to Fallujah. "They are celebrating their heroic actions and the Iraqi exploits. They believe that they won, because they prevented the American troops from reentering the city."

During the Fallujah uprising in April and May against the US occupation, Turki's classes stopped. When he came back to the English literature department, he found the black banners that commemorate the dead. Many of his students, most of whom were from Fallujah, had been killed in the fighting.

Turki, who teaches Orwell and Shaw to students from Fallujah, hopes that Iraqi poetry can help Americans identify with Iraqis.

"Somebody might come read our poems to try to understand us better," says Turki. "And they might find some kind of mutual understanding."

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