From page 34…
Miracle in Baghdad
In the center of the Iraq War, on streets where explosions punctuate the air, Yanar Mohammed and a group of Sunni and Shiite poets gather people together to share poetry’s magic against all odds. They have founded the Freedom Space that I wrote of earlier, where brave and passionate poetry lovers from all over the country come together to share their inspiration.
Yanar is a pretty, petite powerhouse. Each time we meet, the first thing that strikes me is the gentleness of her voice and dark eyes. Yet this soft-spoken woman has become such a fierce champion of women’s rights in Iraq that there have been several threats to her life and the government has prohibited her from appearing on television. As I watched her speak to an outdoor gathering of activists here in the U.S., her light jacket blew open and the waves of her jet-black hair flew freely about her face. She told us that she could no longer go out dressed in this way in Baghdad. I tried to imagine her shrouded in the headscarf she must wear to protect herself from violent Islamic fundamentalists as she negotiates the streets of the war zone that was once her neighborhood.
Yanar was a successful architect until the Iraq War. She and her family lived in a beautiful home in the suburbs of Baghdad. But when she witnessed the violations happening to women as a result of the occupation, she could not remain silent. The movement she founded, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, runs several women’s shelters and helps women who have been unjustly thrown into prison, forced into prostitution, threatened with “honor killings,” or caught in the sex-trafficking trade.
It was only by chance that the group began hosting poetry events. The first was a favor Yanar did for the young man she had hired to guard the office of the organization. Adham was a gentle being and the gun he had to carry as a guard seemed a strange counterpoint to his quiet, kind eyes. But only a year ago, not knowing where to turn in his urgency to take some action to save his country from the destruction he was witnessing, Adham had come close to becoming a suicide bomber. His friends had talked him out of it, and now he was pouring his passion for peacemaking into speaking poetry instead.
When Adham asked Yanar to organize a poetry event for a group of his friends, she balked at first. What did poetry have to do with women’s rights? The young man confessed he had been eavesdropping on the conversations going on inside the office he guarded. “You women are talking about what really matters: freedom and life,” he explained. “And so are we. That is what our poetry is about.”
Yanar agreed to host the event on one condition: that there be equal numbers of Shiite and Sunni poets invited. She had no idea that that first Freedom Space would birth a movement that would spread rapidly throughout Baghdad and the surrounding areas, touching the lives of thousands.
Poetry is a powerful force in Iraq and always has been. As Yanar explained to me how some poets are heroes in her country and have tremendous influence on popular opinion, it was hard for me to conceive of a culture so different from my own. There, “poetry is like food and drink”—even and especially in the midst of war. Ibrahim al-Shawi, an Iraqi blogger, writes, “For centuries, poetry was the first religion for many people. Their collective wisdom, their history and heritage, their values and ideals, their pride and achievements are all preserved in poetry lines.”12
Though she claims she herself is not a poet, Yanar’s words are so alive with rhythm and imagination that it felt as if she were speaking directly into my heart. “How do you respond when you have in your cell phone, let us say, 30 phone numbers of your loved ones?” As she set up the scene, I had a foreboding about where we might be going. “And maybe eight of them have died already. But you were talking to them only yesterday or last week!” She was speaking in particular about a young poet named Amen al-Salmawi who was one of the shining stars at the first Freedom Space. “You know, there are some poets who can hypnotize an audience. Amen was like that. Though he couldn’t have been more than 23, when he delivered his poems he was really charismatic and outspoken. Everybody fell in love with him. But then on the breaks he was so shy he wouldn’t even talk. He just smiled and nodded.”
Amen came to the first Freedom Space with a group of other poets from the Sunni suburb of Salman Pak. They sat opposite a group from Sadr City, a Shiite area. “There were wonderful poets on each side,” Yanar remembered. She told me how a Sunni poet would recite a poem that would trigger someone from the Shiite side of the tent to speak his or her poem because it voiced the same theme or longing. This, in turn, would inspire a poem from the opposite side, and so on. “It was ping-pong poetry, with this ball of magic being bounced from one side to the other,” Yanar told me. “They all turned out to be on the same team!”
One evening a few months later, Amen was exchanging improvised poetry with a group of friends when suddenly the door was flung open and al Qaeda militants, who believe poetry is heresy, sprayed them with bullets. Amen was the first to die.
“He will always be with us in the Freedom Spaces,” Yanar said emphatically. “You might find this very naïve, but we keep an empty chair among the poets and we put his picture on it.”