In 2000 I was admitted into the English Department of the College of Languages at the University of Baghdad. It was one of the most exciting events in my life. I have always had a great passion for languages and literature. Finally my dream had come true. I was going to learn the arts of writing and speech. Little did I know that as our knowledge increases, so does our desire to maintain silence and hide from the world whose face is washed every morning with the blood of countless innocent people. Coming from Kirkuk in northern Iraq, I found Baghdad, like most big cities in the world: big, exciting, interesting, rich, poor, hot, cold, restless, sleepless, and cruel at one and the same time.
During the first few weeks of class, I started chatting with a female student who was also in her first year, but in a different section. She was short, wore a veil, had a healthy and extremely shiny skin; green eyes, and dressed conservatively with beautifully matched colours most of the time. Our first conversation was about English poetry. We shared a great passion for poetry. We both found much more truth in poems than in the rhetoric of those who write to flirt with the power of their time, or those who only speak the “truth” once the word “former” becomes attached to their job titles. We both believed that powerful writing is a combination of madness and reason, observation and courage. In the first year, our poetry professor focused heavily on the Romantics.
My new friend, let’s call her R, and I had lengthy conversations about the poems of William Wordsworth. One of the poems that we discussed early on in our friendship was She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways, the beautiful, yet melancholy story of Lucy. She told me: “Many Iraqi women are like Lucy. They are beautiful in every sense of the word. They have beautiful minds and souls, yet they live unknown, and die unknown.” In fact, she pointed out, Wordsworth’s Lucy was even more fortunate than these Iraqi women who live under constant pressure from religion, society, politics and tradition. “At least Lucy was known to the poet who appreciated her beauty and immortalized it in his work. Many brilliant Iraqi women, victimized by society, live and die without having anyone to tell the world about them.”
Her admirable interpretation of the poem as well as the way she connected it to the lives of Iraqi women enhanced our friendship. As a male, I found that this interpretation can apply equally to many Iraqi men. I have never separated the struggle of men and women in our society, for one cannot be free without the other.
Lady of Shalott. Wikimedia commons.
We both enjoyed comparing and contrasting English poems from different periods to the status quo of Iraqi society. Our friendship continued to flourish with time, and I learned more about her life. She came from a wealthy, observant Muslim family in Baghdad. She told me that she enjoyed a total freedom inside the house, but that she was taught to be cautious when dealing with strangers outside: “My parents are more concerned with people’s gossip than with religion per se,” she said once. She also shared with me that her parents knew that we were good friends, and that they had enjoyed listening to the beautiful classical Turkish music on the cassettes she had borrowed from me. She often wrote me letters, even though we were able to speak face-to-face most of the time.
In fact, most girls at the University were free to communicate with guys, except those coming from more conservative families, or from families that have to put on the cloak of conservatism to avoid gossip. She often wrote me beautiful letters expressing her thoughts and feelings about our friendship. Her letters were well-written and eloquent, but were signed with a male name. She chose a male pen name so that no one would ever know the real identity of the writer if the letters were found by someone else. I took that with a grain of salt, mainly because I understood her family’s position on the issue.
Our intellectual friendship continued throughout the four years of college, and on the last day (Graduation Day) in 2004, we said goodbye to each other with tears welling in our eyes. She handed me an envelope that contained a card with a long letter in which she recounted some of our greatest conversations during the four years of our friendship. I could not hold back my tears as I read the words in her letter. On our last conversation, we talked about a poem that we studied in our fourth year at College, and which resonated greatly with our lives then—one year after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. I shared with her how I found the poem to resemble my life in Iraqi society, especially after years of living under the UN sanctions that plunged all Iraqi people into total isolation. Here is part of our last conversation as preserved by my best friend and worst enemy, Ms. Memory:
Me: “As every day passes, I feel Iraq is turning into one big prison, and I feel just like The Lady of Shalott living in a tower surrounded with four gray walls.”
R: “True. Like her, we are under some unknown curse just because we are born in Iraq, and the way we are blocked from and attacked by the world is even worse than the lady in the poem, because she could at least see things and shadows in her mirror. I wish we could see the shadows of the outside world even through a mirror like that of the lady of Shalott.”
Me: “That is what I was thinking about as the professor analyzed the poem in the classroom, but the ending of the poem changed my life in a way that I neither understand nor can explain. I feel that the message we get at the end when she takes the boat to leave for Camelot, regardless of the consequences, is serious and eye-opening. As much as I don’t know where my “Camelot” may be, I feel that I must just get a boat and go away, very far away from this tower called Iraq.”
When I graduated in mid-2004, the Iraq invasion was entering its most critical and dangerous stage and I never heard from her after that. I had her phone number, and tried to call her several times after I returned to Kirkuk, but no one picked up the phone. I still wonder what had happened to her and her family. I hope that she found her “Camelot” in the end. I know I never found mine, because life finally taught me that chasing after Camelot was nothing but an illusion; it is like chasing a mirage in the middle of a desert. I learned that we are condemned to live in the same old city, and that all the means of transportation in the world cannot take us away from the ruins of a city that lives forever within us.
It has been almost ten years since I graduated from the College of Languages in Baghdad, and it seems that all the languages of the world are no longer able to capture the indescribable damage of the wars on the Iraqi people. Perhaps this is why I often struggle with every word I try to put on paper: there is always a voice within me screaming, “It is all useless! The world has gone totally deaf and blind!”
But then another voice comes: “Sitting in a dark corner and closing your door and windows is also useless!” And so, until the world decides to open its ears and its eyes, do I have any choice but to bleed on the endless snows of my blank pages?
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