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Journal, Day Five
While overseas in Iraq, I carried a few books with me in my assault pack (like a medium-sized backpack). I wanted to learn as much as possible about the people of Iraq, their culture, their history. I wanted to know more of the history layered into the earth. . . .
. . . Ibn Khaldun’s The Muqaddimah (An Introduction to History)—the classic Islamic history of the world—was very intriguing and eye-opening for me. The following poem I wrote from out of this study.
Dreams From The Malaria Pills (Barefoot)
Tamaghis ba’dan yaswadda waghdas nawfana ghadis
He’s coughing up shrapnel, jagged and rough,
wondering if this is what the incantation brings,
those dreamwords shaping desire into being.
He’s questioning why blood is needed, and so much,
why he’s wheeled through his hometown streets
on a gurney draped in camouflaged sheets.
Ibn Khaldun takes each piece of metal from him:
These are to be made into daggers,
precious gifts, the souvenirs of death.
You carry the pearls of war within you, bombs
swallowed whole and saved for later.
Give them to your children. Give them to your love.
Here are the liner notes at the end of my book which describe in more detail where this poem began. . . .
Dreams from the Malaria Pills (Barefoot): Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) wrote The Muqaddimah, An Introduction to History, translated by Franz Rosenthal (Princeton University Press, abridged edition 1967, 2005). It is the classic Islamic history of the world. Ibn Khaldun writes:
In the Ghayah [The Ghayat al-hakim, ascribed to the famous tenth-century Spanish scientist Maslamah b. Ahmad al-Majriti] and other books by practitioners of magic, reference is made to words that should be mentioned on falling asleep so as to cause the dream vision to be about the things one desires. These words are called ‘dream words’. In the Ghayah, Maslamah mentioned a dream word that he called ‘the dream word of the perfect nature’. It consists of saying, upon falling asleep and after obtaining freedom of the inner senses and finding one’s way clear (for supernatural perception), the following non-Arabic words: tamaghis ba’dan yaswadda waghdas nawfana ghadis [These magical words seem to be Aramaic.] The person should then mention what he wants, and the thing he asks for will be shown to him in his sleep.
(pg. 83, The Muqaddimah, An Introduction to History).
This incredible book is filled with amazing insights and knowledge. Likewise, I carried Iraqi Poetry Today, from the Modern Poetry in Translation series (no. 19, from King’s College London and guest edited by Saadi Simawe). I’d like to share a couple of poems from that anthology. . . .
I am the Voice
I am the voice of the mountainside
I am the hammer in the labourer’s hand
I am the sickle in the peasant’s hand
I am the enemy of reactionaries
I am the vanguard of progressives
I am the colleague of the oppressed, whomever or wherever
I am the opponent of the oppressor, whether near or far
I am the comrade of the peshmerge, and of revolution
I am the voice of the workers, whether in London or Paris
I am the sympathizer of the students, whether in Istanbul or Tabriz
I am the hand of the martyr
I am the voice of the Kurdish people
I am a Kurdish revolutionary
I refuse to yield to the likes of Al-Jamail, Shimon and Hitler
I refuse to bow to the arms merchants and warmongers
I am a fighter like Che Guevara
I am a comrade of Ho Chi Min
I am a supporter of the Tudeh, whether in Awaz or Tehran
I am a patriot and militiaman, like Salvador Allende
I am a protector of my people like Gandhi and Nehru of India
In the Congo, I am the voice of Lumumba
In Bolivia I am Neruda
I am Castro in Cuba
I am the voice of Kebuchi in Jerusalem
I am the voice of Makarios in Cyprus
I am the voice of Newab and Gorki
I am the voice of Martin Luther King among American Negroes
I am the voice of Jegerkhwen, Mahmoud Darwish, and Lorca
—Jigerkhwen (Sheikh Mus Hasan Muhamad), an Iraqi Kurd, translated by Muhamad Tawfiq Ali
And another sample poem. . .
I have washed the mountain,
I have washed the stones and the snow,
and I have washed the sand.
I have washed the pebbles
and the wind that clings to the trees.
I have washed the mountain,
I have lit the paths
and the back ways around the mountain.
I have lit the caves and the stairs
and the hideouts in the folds of the mountain.
I have washed the summit
and every crevice of the mountain
so that my loved ones might pass
in the forenoon of the mountain day.
I will kiss my beloved’s tears
and her other gestures.
I will kiss my beloved’s drowsiness
as she teeters on the edge of sleep.
I will kiss my beloved’s insides.
I will kiss the air that sleeps in her lungs.
I will kiss the fluttering of her eyelids.
I will kiss the sway of her flowing dress.
I will kiss her deep wound covered with roses.
I will kiss her laughter before it issues from her lips.
I will kiss her thoughts before they form.
I will kiss her evanescent scent.
I will kiss her breath before it alights on the pillow.
I will kiss every inch of my love.
I will kiss her voice,
her cool shadow,
the colour of her discontent,
the shape of her delight.
I will kiss her intuition,
her fiery mind.
I will kiss her dreams
while she is deep in sleep.
I will kiss her stirred imagination.
I will kiss the gentleness in the edges of her clothes,
the elegance of her steps,
her dalliance with the wind.
I will kiss her desperate panting
and her lust coagulated in silk.
I will kiss her reflection in the fountains,
her appearance in mirrors.
I will kiss her flanks and her curves
and the space underneath her nails.
I will kiss the sunset as it glows on my beloved’s cheek.
I will kiss my beloved’s heartbeats
and her apprehensions.
I will kiss her feelings as I sleep,
intoxicated beneath her sky.
—by Hashim Shafiq, translated by Saadi A. Simawe with Ralph Savarese, Ellen Dore Watson and Melissa L. Brown
Please note that Ellen Dore Watson is one of the translators. This astonished me when I revisited this poem after returning to America and beginning to put the manuscript together. Why? Well, she was the editing ‘coach’ I first worked with while putting Here, Bullet together (a very cool part of the editing process employed by Alice James Books, the publisher). When I was in Iraq, I wrote “R&R”—a poem which feeds off of this love imagery and longing. It is, in my own way, in artistic conversation with Hashim’s poem.
The curve of her hip where I’d lay my head,
that’s what I’m thinking of now, her fingers
gone slow through my hair on a blue day
ten thousand miles off in the future somewhere,
where the beer is so cold it sweats in your hand,
cool as her kissing you with crushed ice,
her tongue wet with blackberry and melon.
That’s what I’m thinking of now.
Because I’m all out of adrenaline,
all out of smoking incendiaries.
Somewhere deep in the landscape of the brain,
under the skull’s blue curving dome—
that’s where I am now, swaying
in a hammock by the water’s edge
as soldiers laugh and play volleyball
just down the beach, while others tan
and talk with the nurses who bring pills
to help them sleep. And if this is crazy,
then let this be my sanatorium,
let the doctors walk among us here
marking their charts as they will.
I have a lover with hair that falls
like autumn leaves on my skin.
Water that rolls in smooth and cool
as anesthesia. Birds that carry
all my bullets into the barrel of the sun.
I bring all of this up for two reasons.
First, as writers, I think it’s crucial that we not only learn and research and study the emotional world the poem offers, but that we discover as much about the world of the poem as well. That is, if the world of the poem is scuba diving, for example, then let’s learn something about what it means to dive as well. Let’s learn something about the ocean depths, the currents, the strata of life buried in the ocean floor.
Secondly, there are millions of people in Iraq. There are hundreds of thousands of Americans (and those from many other countries as well) involved in the war in Iraq (they are either there, have been there, or will soon be there). My own story, my own act of witnessing, is only one voice from among the many stories which need to be told. Still, no matter how small and insignificant I might feel within so vast an experience, as a writer I must speak to what is wrong in the world. As writers, and artists, I believe we must give witness and testimony to pain and conflict and loss.
I would like to end my part of this journal with the following thoughts. . . .
Alhazen of Basra
If I could travel a thousand years back
to August 1004, to a small tent
where Alhazen has fallen asleep among books
about sunsets, shadows, and light itself,
I wouldn’t ask whether light travels in a straight line,
or what governs the laws of refraction, or how
he discovered the bridgework of analytical geometry;
I would ask about the light within us,
what shines in the mind’s great repository
of dream, and whether he’s studied the deep shadows
daylight brings, how light defines us.