The poet composes by inquiry; the citizen of a representative democracy fulfills his duty in a similar way. We the People are the keepers of our language, of its rich, varied, and living expression. The poet's role is to keep public language healthy and vibrant, a natural articulation of what it is to be in intimate relation to the human and natural world. The very antithesis of the apologist for torture or of the torturer himself, whose abuses of language serve as justifications for violence, the poet can ill afford to flee or turn away. He or she cannot afford to abdicate an artist's hard-earned sense of proportion in an era of hyperbolic plaint.
The Kurdish poet Dilshad Abdullah documents the fear of imprisonment, torture, and execution that he and millions of others experienced on a daily basis under Saddam Hussein.
The war has begun
It is not discomfort or death that Mr. Abdullah aims to escape, but instead the senselessness and brutality of war. In a desperate place, he seeks to keep his humanity, to do to others no harm, no wrong. Presumably Mr. Abdullah could have availed himself of Saddam's generosity toward poets who wrote in praise of the Iraqi military and its campaigns against Iran and Kuwait, to say nothing of Saddam's "beneficent" rule. But then he would have aligned himself with a tyrant, betrayed his own people and implicitly turned his back on such poets as Fawzi Karim, a fiercely independent and, by disposition, nonpolitical Iraqi Shiite. Mr. Karim let his negative opinions of Baathist censorship and other lack of liberties be known in cafés and other public places. Forbidden to publish as one consequence, he wrote a book of essays on the need for political freedom and eventually fled into exile, knowing that prison and torture awaited him.
Each sail not counted as yours, oh policeman of the border,
In a more recent poem, Mr. Karim writes with an exile's longing and sense of belonging still to the people he left behind. He speaks of the Karkh neighborhood of Baghdad where he grew up, and particularly of friends who refused to cooperate with Saddam's regime and died too soon.
And I cloister myself in my past,
The novelist Elena Lappin, writing in Slate, quotes Mr. Karim commenting on the changing conditions of poets and writers in post-Saddam Iraq: "We should now learn to treat political ideologies not as secular religion to be subscribed to blindly and used as weapons, but as interesting books; we should study them, and then put them back on the shelf, where they belong. For this, we will need a lot of time, and patience. But I am an Iraqi poet: my time is like water."
Poets against war Newsletter - Winter 2006
A Winter Sun: Writing Against Torture
Part II: Speaking Freely: Poetry, Torture, and Truth
December 2005–January 2006