Singing Iraq: poetry by Salah Niazi

Salah Niazi
11 August 2003

The three Iraqi poets whose work is featured in openDemocracy – Fadhil Assultani, Salah Niazi, and Hashem Shafiq – all spoke at an event at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in May 2003. Read here extracts of their discussion about language, literature and patriotism.

Don’t miss too the work of the Kurdish poet Choman Hardi.

The Abode

Did you say civilisation?
My abode is the crossroads of the ages:
The Gardens of Babylon
Are hanging on the wall,
In which rivers nearly flow, and birds swim in the sky.
And there stands the sentinel of my gate:
A Sumerian lion.
Soothsayers are gazing
From the balconies of the miniatured Nineveh on my desk.
A fragment of a handle from an old jar –
I see in the blueness of its clay,
The thirst of men who are melted in the sands of time.

Don’t you hear Sinbad in the drawing room?
Jinns in his saddlebag, he spins yarns,
How often he forgets what he was telling,
His handmaids are painted on bowls, painted on platters.
They have embroidered verses on their robes:
Implying virtue but insinuating fornication.
Their anklets tinkle with beauty,
And their feet are not unlike buds of cotton and henna,
A cascaded brook when they bend down,
And when they rise, a bird hovering over a twig.

They have embroidered verses on their robes,
Implying virtue but insinuating fornication.
Bit by bit they strip the bark from their twigs.

This is my abode,
The roots are shooting up with songs
But whence comes the mysterious wailing?

How a buzzing silence lurks in the instrument of music,
The waters flow, but I hear something of thirst in the waves.
The air blows, why is it hard to breathe?

Why do lungs shrink and breathing is sticky in the trachea?
Thus the hedges round the house are swollen with roaring.
Whence are anxieties engendered like dizziness,
The earth rocks and the bed is made to stagger.

Did you mention civilisation?
Don’t mention the night,
The city seems listening for a coming foray.
She falls down unconscious, how long is a single night!
As if destruction lies hidden beneath the stagnant highways,
Silence is so thundery in the crowded darkness.

The corridors of the habitation are hissing,
The ceiling rocks to and fro.
I hear bolts slide open
As if the wind with claws of hungry wolves,
Like a thunderous guffaw at a wake.
I sleep and I rise on a single thought.

When people of bridled cities sleep,
They sleep with swelling of their bodies,
As if ants crawl in their bones,
Migraine worms split their skull.

When they wake, they are diminished.
Why does the fearful man become even smaller and smaller?
When sleep enters me and my soul surrenders,
I listen to the tumult of the swelling,
To the ants crawling in the bones,
To the migraine splitting the skull.

When thunder rumbles I say there it is, an assassination,
And if lightning flashes I say it is a coup.
I sleep and I wake with one single thought.

From Flat-hunting

I was flat-hunting
The area is tedious with noises that repelled
Long and dark were the tunnels of my headache.

Suddenly a young sparrow
Alighted in the middle of the road.
The edges of his beak were still yellow
Like undried paint.
He was turning, picking up dust, hopping
Perhaps for the first time.
His beak and his legs, like sticks, are put on trial.
How proud was he with his first self-reliance
His wings were quivering
Like a young plant in cold winter sunlight.
Intoxicated by his first experience
He chirps like a bell.

A dark brown car was approaching.
In confusion he flew low in front of it
He was sent up into the air
Three metres higher than the height of the car.
He fell as though wingless
Like a small and mouthless cotton-wool ball.

In my palm, he is stiff
His body is still warm
How soft his feathers
His open eyes are like two sesame seeds.
I can see no proper shroud to wrap him in
No grave to bury him in.

Inside a new envelope, I sealed him
With the tip of my tongue, with no address.
I put him on the grass solemnly and silently.

I was just flat-hunting
The area was tedious, with noises that repelled.
Long and dark were the tunnels of my headache.

From Back from war

Outside the barracks
Folk are waiting apprehensively
As if at the hour of the trumpet.

The war is over
The survivors are coming back,
At a distance, the military lorries are in sight
Guns are heaved up lengthwise
Above the soldiers’ heads
As if floating up to their necks
These are the remnants of the still-alive-and-kicking
Shoulders are without epaulettes,
Uniforms without buttons,
Their arms are just like oars in a dry river
Plying from one arid wave to another
Crying Noah, Noah, Noah
Remnants of those still-alive-and-kicking.

In an assembly like this
There is no grieving for lost limbs,
Any strap of a person is enough
The important thing is still to be alive,
Lost limbs are of no concern.

Every soldier on the coming lorries
Is counted as alive and dead – both at once
Alive and dead both at once
Uncertainty and certainty
Life and death
Are interwoven now

In a moment, the truth will be made plain,
The dead will be dead forever,
And the living will be in part alive.

Critical moments are, no doubt, shattering
They can save, or otherwise kill, in an instant
Like a flash of lightning, unawares it catches you
Like a flood, it does not give you time
To collect your belongings
Or put on your clothes half decently.

In such a gathering
Joy and grief soon will be two separate things
And selfishness will show itself
As the most powerful element in man’s nature.

She is like a stricken boat
A woman searching for her son
Is like a stricken boat.
Inches away, an embrace
So strong that
There will be no dividing them.

Feasts and obsequies
Are two neighbouring trees
Their fingers are interlacing now
But how different they are.

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