“War wants us to think in binaries,” Stacy Peebles, author of Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq, once commented at a discussion on writing war. Indeed, thinking in binaries allows us to reduce the many challenges, complexities, and ethical quandaries of war in favor of a more manageable either-or approach. For those who not only think about war but write about it as well, it would be easy to fall into such a trap. Judging by the title Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation, one might expect the Iraqi poet Amal Al-Jubouri’s new book to treat the periods before and after the war as a dichotomy.
In fact, Al-Jubouri does not provide the reader with a simple paradigm of before and after—the occupation, of course, being the invasion of Iraq by American and British forces. As Alicia Ostriker notes in the foreword: “We are not presented with crude opposites.” The bulk of the collection is made up of pairs of poems that address a concept as the poet views it pre- and post-occupation, from the most grandiose aspects of life (death and love) to the most quotidian (soccer). But while before and after might seem to imply respectively good and bad, or happy and unhappy, Al-Jubouri makes it clear that life before the occupation wasn’t exactly a panacea, either. To say that after is necessarily worse than before would be too easy.
There is, however, a certain terror of the unknown in the after poems that is not manifested in the before poems. In “My Mother After the Occupation,” the speaker describes her mother’s old fears as preferable to the unfamiliar ones the occupation brings. The mother
was anxious, like all the old women
. . .
We’re sick of you, Democracy
There used to be one president
There used to be one fear
There used to be one Party
All the wars, one war
This anxiety is present even in the natural landscape. In “The Tigris After the Occupation,” the river
the Green Zone’s eyes
the Palace’s eyes
the invader’s grunts
running toward thirst—
a visa to the unknown
Additionally, the after poems often show how people have become short-sighted in the occupation’s wake. Whereas the before poems tend to focus on history and the past, after the occupation the present is all that matters. In “My Daughter After the Occupation,” the speaker’s daughter
knows no one but her grandmother
whose face has more wrinkles than the city’s
And that’s all she wants to know
There is some ambiguity here. Are we to interpret that the daughter is so isolated that she knows no one besides her grandmother? Or that she knows no other old people because they have all disappeared, and with them their past and history? Either way, the occupation has left the child stripped of a past and even the desire for one.
Ambiguity is a constant in these poems of exile and loss. The city of Baghdad is “both abuser and victim”; the post-occupation mouth “shouts No! Fearless, / though my tongue fears arrest.” In the process of trying to give voice to complex and fragmented thoughts in the occupation’s aftermath, the tongue and the mouth are not as one. The titular reference to Hagar exemplifies this uncertainty. According to Islamic tradition, Hagar, and not Sarah, is the legitimate wife of the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham). Because of Sarah’s jealousy, Hagar is forced to wander in the desert and eventually becomes a founder of the holy city of Mecca. Thus the word hajj (Arabic for pilgrimage), which usually refers to the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are expected to make at least one in their lives, shares its etymology with Hagar’s name. Ironically, Al-Jubouri is less concerned with pilgrimage than with its darker twin, exile. As the poet now lives and writes in Berlin, the subject of exile is deeply personal.
When we write about war, we write it as a personal rather than as a distant historical event, beginning not at a definite and specific start date but in medias res. Al-Jubouri claims in “The Suicide” that “The War was never there / The War was right here.” The external is internalized until it becomes irrelevant in comparison with personal pain. War’s effects are also palpable in terms of physical pain. In “My Body Before the Occupation,” the speaker likens her body to
Ammunition for wars to come
A loaf of hot bread
aching to be eaten
In these metaphors comparing the body to unused potential, she implies that the occupied body is not sacred but meant to be exploited. Nothing in this world of war is of sacred value: “In a free market / slogans sell you.” This confusion of the sacred and the superficial is apparent elsewhere; the poem “My Mother Before the Occupation” concludes with the line: “Absent savior Useless charm.” What use is a savior if absent? A charm is superficial, a spell or incantation that can produce a miracle in an instant. While a savior also deals in miracles and the supernatural, charms fall under the realm of religion and not magic. Here the shallow is confused with the substantial, the cheap thrill with the truly miraculous. In war, in the absence of a saving grace or divine intervention, people will settle for poorer substitutes.
Al-Jubouri sometimes takes the notions of contradiction and ambiguity a bit too far. “The only dictators in the country,” she writes, are “death and Nikah Misyar.” Nikah Misyar, as the endnotes explain, is a kind of marriage that is held to be legitimate for Shi’ite Muslims. This arrangement is usually practiced by already-married men who wish to have relationships with other women without the rigorous financial and moral burdens of polygamy under Islamic law. Though supposed to be a mutual arrangement, in which the woman can demand full and equal treatment if she chooses, it is often instead an arrangement of convenience. I wonder about aligning something so temporary and short lived with something as permanent as death, especially in a time of violence when death is ever-present.
Bizarre mixed metaphors such as this one pepper Al-Jubouri’s collection. Loneliness is “a bed // that ambushed us”; pictures “leav[e] the self’s border / packed into a suitcase.” Several of the poems read like strings of metaphors that can leave the reader’s head spinning, as in “Poetry Before the Occupation”:
Before the womb expelled me
you were my cord to the placenta
I was your creation
I, your heiress
You, my slave
You, my god
You came from Paradise
and so did I
My cheating lover
A number, a zero-sum
These brief and often counterintuitive metaphors could have been more closely examined or fleshed out; instead, their power is lost in a confusion of terms, or perhaps in the gap between English and the original Arabic. Arabic poetry is marked by compression; each word carries a great amount of weight. The translator has prioritized mimicking the compression of Al-Jubouri’s work over other features such as rhyme and musicality: “[The poet’s] music was largely untranslatable; instead, I stayed faithful to the poems’ most distinguishing element: compression—the control she asserts over the chaos of her subject matter.” English also has more synonyms than Arabic. Where Arabic has one word, English might have several. Thus while English employs different words to convey nuances of meaning, these can all be encompassed in one word in Arabic.
It is possible, therefore, that the poems feel jumbled because certain metaphors or images have not been examined in enough detail or given the space they merit. However, any translator would be hard-pressed to explain how a border can be packed into a suitcase, or how the “you” of “Poetry Before the Occupation” can be an umbilical cord, a god, a slave, and a cheating lover, all in the space of three stanzas. It is the work of the poet to draw connections between the ideas she presents and to provide a focus, allowing each poem to coalesce into a unified whole.
The long final poem “Poetry After the Occupation” is much more powerful and shocking than its companion. Here Al-Jubouri characterizes poetry as a “sly cheat” whose “daughters are whores.” We are reminded that art falls short, failing to encompass reality while continually giving us the false hope that it can. In desperate times especially, poetry is weakened and unable to bear its own weight, and yet its progeny, its disciples, end up selling themselves to it. Poetry is portrayed as
My secret religion,
exposing us, unarmed
unable to defend against fate
Where does the fault lie here: in art’s shortcomings, or in the artist’s own impossible expectations? For all poetry’s failings, it does serve a function, especially where war is concerned. As we are reminded in the foreword, “Art destroys silence.” By creating art, the artist in wartime counteracts the silence forced upon her by the cruelty of Occupation and a tyrannical government. In “My Mouth Before the Occupation,” Al-Jubouri writes:
my tongue led me to this curse:
protests that silenced me
then seeped from me, eternal
How does one begin to speak or write about war? According to Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried and other acclaimed novels about the Vietnam War, “You do it sentence by sentence, line by line, character by character, even syllable by syllable. You have to have a poetic sensibility—that language matters . . . You dive into that wreck and try to salvage something.” We continue to write, O’Brien says, “to elevate our own suffering so that we can look at it and take a certain . . . pleasure out of our awareness of error and failing and sin, just by the awareness itself.” In Al-Jubouri’s poem, the use of the word “seeped” is especially telling. What needs to be said will find a way out, even involuntarily.
Liza Katz is a poet and translator whose work has appeared in Clarion, Exit 13, and North Central Review.
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