Tahrir and the Poetry of Witness

The Utopians of Tahrir Square: Dr. Anba Jawi and Catherine Temma Davidson

Introduction by Catherine Davidson

The Utopians of Tahrir Square contains poems from 28 young Iraqi poets whose work responds to the protests for human rights that took over Baghdad’s Tahrir (Freedom) Square in 2019. Bringing these poems to life in English was the product of a long collaboration that began on a rainy night in London, during the height of the protests. Anba Jawi, a writer from Iraq who was a regular member of our poetry class at Exiled Writers Ink, came to the group with a heavy sadness. Eyes red, missing sleep, she had been following the protests on Facebook night after night, full of  frustration and grief.

Anba Jawi

Youthful protesters had been gathering by their thousands, setting up barricades and taking over a disused parking structure they called the Turkish Restaurant, after a real restaurant that had once been housed at the top. They were standing up against the sectarianism, corruption and cronyism that had infected Iraqi politics in the wake of the American invasion. They called themselves the generation of the 2000’s. They had transformed an urban desert into a kind of vibrant, protest festival, with lectures, music, dance, painting, song – and poetry.

So many of them are poets, Anba told me. And they’re killing them.

This is what had been keeping her awake. Security forces surrounding the protests had responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Hundreds of protesters had been killed, and thousands more injured.

Anba Jawi, a writer from Iraq who was a regular member of our poetry class at Exiled Writers Ink, came to the group with a heavy sadness. Eyes red, missing sleep

I asked Anba whether she would consider translating and sharing some of the poems. She said yes, and asked if I would help. Our project led first to a live reading in December 2019, connected by video to Tahrir Square and broadcast via Facebook to more than 1000 people around the world, and ended this month with an English language collection published by Palewell Press, drawn largely and with permission from an anthology published in Iraq.

Tahrir Square Iraq, So many of them are poets, Anba told me. And they’re killing them. photo by Ziyad Matti

The poets range from well-known and established writers, some of whom published multiple books, to those just starting out – putting together their first collections or having only begun to publish on-line. Their poems bear witness to a unique moment in Iraqi history, when an uprising for human rights nearly transformed a country, and almost certainly changed the lives of all who joined it. That flash of history was not unique to Iraq. In fact, as Gideon Rachman pointed out in the Financial Times, 2019 saw many similar uprisings take place around the world – from as disparate places as Chile, Iran, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Bolivia, Algeria, Sudan, and Venezuela.

Recognising their importance, Anba and I felt a strong compulsion to bring these poems to life in English. She would do the first version of the poem, then we would look at it together and discuss each line, each word. Our discussions often took us down side alleys and byways of both languages until we agreed on a word that could sing as well in English as it had in the original. Now the book has been published, we share an overwhelming feeling of relief to be passing on the gift we had been given.

I think that sense of relief is part of the nature of witness poetry, and it is worth considering, briefly, what that means. Not everyone will have heard this term, one that is becoming more common in discussions of poetry from around the globe that tries to document state violence, and the human resistance to it. Yet around the world and throughout time, witness poetry has been important.

Demonstrators in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, photo Ziyad Matti

The 2014 edition of the Norton Anthology, Poetry of Witness is a thick volume, tracing this tradition in the English language. The book begins with Thomas More in the 1500’s, writing against the tyranny of Henry VIII and ends with the Kashmiri poet, Agha Shahid Ali, writing from exile in America about the disintegration of his multicultural, multilingual country. As long as there has been collective trauma, there have been poets who have felt compelled to narrate it – not only for their own sense-making, but out of a belief that a poem might make it out from the battlefield and into the hearts and minds of the rest of the world more easily than any other art form.

In her introduction to the collection, American poet Carolyn Forché talks about witness poetry as an act of faith in the ethics of otherness. A witness poet writes to capture an act of violence, a moment of resistance, a protest, an injustice, out of a faith that language can connect us through time and space to the other who will mark, notice, record and ultimately make meaning out of what seems senseless, brutal and implacable.

Forché retells the story of Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet, who lived through the persecutions of the Stalin era. Her husband was disappeared, and her son taken away to prison. The story goes that she was standing in line with the mothers and wives who waited by the prison walls for news of their loved ones, and was asked if she could write about the experience, and she said she could. Although Akhmatova had to burn her poems after they were memorised by her friends, she wrote out of faith that they would find their way out of her time and space to the listening ears of a wider world.

The great Russian poet and acmeist, Anna Akhmatova

Akhmatova was right, although she could not have really known how far and wide her fragile words would have flown. Her poems have outlasted the particular Ozymandias of her era.

Poetry is the most minor of art forms in the popular imagination, yet it seems uniquely suited to the task of bearing witness. Like a feather, it can slip through prison bars, travel on the lightest of winds, land far away smelling like cordite, singed at the edges, but still able to speak a truth that resonates inside us.

The first poet in our collection, Safa’a Al Sarai, uses this very metaphor. Safa’a was born in 1993 in Baghdad. From an early age, he was involved in protesting the Iraqi regime. He was a poet and a painter, who also completed a degree in computer science. Like many of his generation, he was unable to find work, despite his evident qualifications. He had managed to secure a position, finally, two weeks before he was killed by a direct hit of a gas cannister to his head.

Poetry is the most minor of art forms in the popular imagination, yet it seems uniquely suited to the task of bearing witness

Safa’a’s poem appears in our book with permission of his brother. In it, he writes about a naïve generation that “loaded vows” on the “wings of doves”, promises that were like “letters written on paper made of fear.” At the end of the poem, he calls on his companions to “keep going”; to “go on.”

Safa’a appears as a figure in many of the poems; after his death, he was named by the BBC as one of five iconic faces of protest in 2019, and even today, he can be recognised in posters, street art, t-shirts and banners, with his soulful eyes and Christ-like beard.

Safa’a was a long-standing campaigner, but some of the poets write about being taken by surprise by the force of their own response to this moment. Maytham Radi, an electrical engineer and one of the most widely published poets in the collection, writes about the moment when a life of conformity breaks into resistance: “Living in a city of yes/speaking as if I yes/and laughing like yes”, a safety “smashed and shattered in the form of no”: “a small no/a no that dreams when the world steps on him, it will cause some tiny pain.”

The youngest poet in the collection, Fouad Al-Hassan, was born in 2001. A member of the Yazidi community currently living in a refugee camp, he writes about what it might be like to live in a “normal” time, something as unimaginable, in reality, as changing his name.

“What if my name were other than Fouad/I mean what if I were a normal person?/Someone who doesn’t think about death/before sleeping, any more than Azreal would?” His images are heart-breaking in their seeming simplicity: “What would happen if rain fell on us/instead of the veil of rifle bullets?” What if is a question about how history has robbed a generation of their futures. Yet the act of writing is still an act of faith in that future.

In her essay at the end of the book, Anba writes about how moved she was by the young women in the collection. We have translated multiple poems from six remarkable young women. They represent a cohort that faced a double jeopardy in participating in the protests. While women were particularly targeted for assault or kidnapping, they were also often under strict orders from family members not to get involved or leave the house. They went out anyway – and dared to write about it.

Nour Darwish, an Arabic Language graduate who was unemployed at the time of the protests, recounts sneaking out against her parents’ wishes to bring apples to young men on the barricades. There is no doubt that the sense of being together in a moment of collective change and history-making was also intense and powerful, akin to the sensation of falling in love. Strangers supported each other, offering free medical care, food and books. “Tuk Tuk” drivers offered lifts or carried the injured away from the front lines.

In an interview with Anba, Nour described herself as “scared and happy” to be with other protesters “sharing this extraordinary time.”

Nour’s poem, Small Eyes Heave describes the young demonstrators with surreal, vivid images: Their feet move on their own/Walking in the street/Entering dirty hospitals/In new, ripped jeans…. Her last two lines mix vulnerability and defiance together: They have small shoulders/Mother/Shoulders that eat their backs while dancing.

Sama Hussein, the talented young poet

The final poem in the book belongs to Sama Hussein, a talented young writer who gathered most of the poems and was a key supporter behind the scenes. Born in 2000, she is still a student, but at the age of 19 has already published her first collection. The speaker in Sama’s poem imagines a time in the future when I will not carry a banner and protest/I’d rather carry a rose and perfume. God was wise, she writes when he made Iraq a male/to love him the way a girl loves doll’s houses.

Patriotism animates many of these poems – Iraq/the homeland/mother country – patriotism and solidarity. These are not poems of a generation that has been crushed; they are idealistic, hopeful, not cynical.

Sadly, as we know, Covid shut down the streets in most of the world. State violence and oppression has not ceased. While the protesters in Chile turned over their Pinochet-era constitution and the country has elected a new, young President, elsewhere, there are fewer signs of lasting change. Things seem as if they may be getting worse. Despite the creativity and energy of the protesters in Lebanon, the collapse of the currency has been followed by an exodus of those with enough mobility to flee. In Iraq, the President resigned but the young poets Anba knows report fears of being hunted down and disappeared while the eyes of the world are turned elsewhere. In the two countries where I hold citizenship, the US and the UK, civil rights also feel under threat.

Yet, if anything, this book reminds us that young people are born with hope, and will continue to demand a better world from those who have failed them.

Catherine Davidson is a dual UK/US citizen who grew up in LA and lives in London. Her novel based on stories about Greek mother and grandmother, The Priest Fainted was a New York and LA Times notable book of the year.  She has won awards for her poetry in both countries. She teaches Creative Writing at Regent’s University and is the former Chair of Exiled Writers Ink, an organisation the supports the voices of refugee writers. Most recently, she has published The Orchard with Gemma Media, a novel about genocide, family and apricot jam.

The Utopians of Tahrir Square is a collaboration with Dr. Anba Jawi, a writer born in Iraq who moved to the UK to complete her PhD in Geology at UCL. In 2004, she was honoured with an MBE for her services to the refugee sector. She publishes in Arabic and English; a chapter from her novel, The Silver Engraver, was included in the TLC Free Reads Anthology in 2019.

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