[Painting by Hadi Ziaadini – Sanandaj/Senna Kurdistan, Iran]

In looking for information on how Kurdish poets remember the tragic events of their most recent holocaust I came across an interesting article by A. Salar. Rather than getting drowned out by the clamor in the daily clashes, let poets speak for the defense of our common humanity.

Kurdish Poetry and Iraq’s Totalitarianism

by A. Salar

But Iraq’s totalitarianism is not just about political control; it is also about cultural control, and here I use the term culture very broadly to include the arts, literature, city planning, appearances, etc. In terms of culture Iraq became totalitarian in the mid-1970s when the state suddenly became rich as oil prices rose dramatically. The state used the money to extend its control over all sources of information and subjected virtually all artistic and cultural activities to of ficial censorship. The result was that when Saddam Hussein went to war against Iran in September 1981 he had countless poets, intellectuals, and writers ready to turn their pen against the Iranian “enemy,” and to describe Iran as cowardly, inferior, and vicious.

What Saddam Hussein’s totalitarianism has done to literature in general and to poetry in particular is this: it has turned the poet, the writer into a lover (at least on the surface) of militarism (which is really what the state is all about); into a lover of guns (though the state won’t allow him to carry or own one); into a lover of a language that idealizes, that falsifies, that has no room for doubt, for question, for gentleness; in short, into a lover of a language that duplicates, extends, and legitimates the state’s use of aggression and brutality against all forms of dissent. As one Saddam supporter said in an interview in 1986, the language of the arts, especially of poetry, must “glorify blood, bullets, the names of weapons, cannons, armoured vehicles.” And as one army commander said at a writers’ conference organized by the state in 1988, “You writers, you poets: you have made us love our weapons; you have made us take pride in killing Iranians and other enemies of the state: you have made us see life inferior to dying for the state and its leader.” And as the state itself had emphasized, poetry had to make its point clearly and unambiguously; those who would try to be like a T. S. Eliot the state would consider sick mentally and would deal with them accordingly, even doing away with them if need

This was then the frightening reality that Kurdish poets in Southern Kurdistan (better known by its colonial name, northern Iraq) had to face until the establishment of the Safe Haven in 1991. Many chose to be silent; many wrote inside their souls; many wrote poems that were overtly apolitical. But even such poems could get one into a lot of trouble as Abbas Abdullah Yousif, a highly gifted poet and writer, discovered in 1981. He had written a poem, called “Cat,” simply to show his love for the animal. He was dragged repeatedly into interrogation rooms, asked to explain any hidden meaning, and why on earth he liked cats. But the poem was precisely that: a poem about one human being’s fascination with cats. Here it is:

What’s a bakery
home garage
town
without a cat?

For, at least, a cat scares me
For, at least, a cat kills the rats for me
For, at least, a cat eats my leftovers
For, at least, a cat makes me think of darkness
For, at least, a cat awakens dead desires

A cat hides under a carriage
Watches television
Scratches its ears
Sits on a chair
Stays awake all night
And, best of all, fights

You’ll see cats on mount Qafa
Also among ruins of a mill
Leaf through a woman’s journal
And you’ll see cats
You’ll see the word written all over my
neighborhood walls.

Freed at long last from this frightening reality in 1991 when most of Southern Kurdistan was declared a Safe Haven by Britain, France, and the United States, poets like Yousif are now busy trying to find out how they survived as poets under Saddam’s totalitarianism in the 1980s. They are trying to remember what exactly they composed in their souls, where they buried their manuscripts, and what it was like to be a poet living in fear, constantly.

[Excerpt from an article published in Kurdish Life, Number 12, Fall 1994.]

Daniel Martin Varisco