Photo of Khawla Hadi, Kimberly Wedeven Segall and Marwa al-Mtowaq. Iraqi Voices Panel, March 2009; photo by Luke Rutan, Seattle Pacific University.

Iraqi Voices Project: Poetry Workshops, Alternative History, and Community Awareness

by Kimberly Wedeven Segall

The dead . . .
come in shifts . . .
in our dreams . . .
over the houses we left behind.

–Dunya Mikhail, The War Works Hard

How can universities work alongside communities to build understanding of the Iraqi refugee crisis? Historically, Iraq as a state was established in 1920, centered on Baghdad, and controlled first by the British and then by Iraqi governments. As the force of the state made demands upon the people, it caused its residents “to rethink existing political identities, values, and interests,” to engage in “strategies of cooperation, subversion, and resistance,” [1] as Charles Tripp argues, and to construct narratives “to understand and to justify their political engagement.” [2]

How do memories challenge the narratives the West has presented on Iraq? How does family memory record and preserve history, after so much history has been destroyed in the post-occupation loss of valuable historical records and objects from Iraq’s museums?

The Iraqi Voices Project, 2008-2009, was designed as a workshop forum. Reading and responding to Iraqi poetry, the workshop created a forum for telling stories of displacement in Iraq and building awareness of the challenges in relocating in Seattle, Washington. As the participants selected which poems to use, including poems that they had written, which images to present in the multi-media demonstration, and what memories they wanted to share in their campus presentations, the participants had an empowering sense of control over their stories, a sense of purpose in educating others about the lives of Iraqi refugees in their community, and the presentations were income-generating because of a grant from Lily Serve. Extending beyond the classroom, the project worked with refugee agencies, and built an understanding amongst the large audiences that came to the multi-media presentation about the history of Iraq and the lives of the displaced, the neighbors surrounding the students. While my original work in Iraq, living in Shaqlawa for a year from 1993-1994, recorded the important histories of Iraqi Kurds, and was published in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, this 2009 project focused on exiles from Iraqis, who claimed their national identity first, their Shi’ite identity second, with a clear hope for the end of political divides in their country.

Given the destruction of historical archives in Iraq, important work on the recording of oral histories, such as Nadje Al-Ali’s record of women’s lives and Iraqi feminist activism challenge many western narratives of Iraqi women’s passive roles. What remains unwritten is the need for interdisciplinary work between psychology and cultural studies as traumatized refugees are finding their voices after the silencing affect of violence. The American post-occupation policies to set up sectarian leadership with a different president each month for nine months, a division into states with no agreement on the division of oil profits between regions, unreconciled legacies over ownership in Kirkuk, as well as the loss of goodwill due to large civilian casualties, especially in areas like Fallujah, has led to bitter conflict. As Nir Rosen reports in Aftermath, tensions have decreased after Maliki’s battle with Sadrist militias, some who ran neighborhoods like powerful gangsters, wanting protection fees, targeting other identity groups, and killing any dissent. The trauma and unspeakability of the multi-sourced violence suggests a need to cross between historical and therapeutic models, which give agency to refugees to tell their stories and to be more fully recognized within their American communities. Further collaborative work is critical as Iraqi refugees arrive at trauma centers and the historical complexity of Iraqi history leads to tension and misunderstanding. Interdisciplinary partnerships provide a forum within communities to witness the stories of Iraqis, after the dislocating silencing of the occupation and loss of loved ones, which led to the desperate abandonment of their houses, their friends, their vocations, their lives in Iraq.

The importance of telling one’s story to understand the losses of the past is evident in a large-scale political forum in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Having lived in South Africa for almost two years, I witnessed many forums for speaking of the past, especially for survivors in South Africa. After working on a collaborative project with Xhosa survivors of torture at the Trauma Center, my current work suggests a dual importance for the act of witnessing: both honoring the survivors and awakening to a wide-spread American blindness towards historical complexity.

[1] Charles Tripp, A History of Iraq: Third Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 1. He has also written Iran and Iraq at War (1988) and Islam and the Moral Economy: The Challenge of Capitalism (2006).
[2] Tripp, A History of Iraq, 1.

Kimberly Wedeven Segall is Associate Professor of English, Seattle Pacific University, Affiliate Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies, University of Washington, and Director of the Iraqi Voices Project.