Sunday, March 12, 2006
Iraqi 'Dead Poets' Society' - Shattered Dreams
'My mission was to try and rehumanise our society'
Abdullah al-Baghdadi, 41, a poet, lives in the Karrada district of Baghdad
- On 9 April 2003, when I saw the statue of Saddam being hauled to the ground in Baghdad's al-Fardous square, I had such hopes for the future. Seeing the tyrant lolling on his back with a rope around his neck was the ultimate in poetic justice. It opened up all sorts of possibilities for artists and intellectuals in Iraq. Previously half-formed thoughts and ambitions began to solidify in our minds.
- Inspired by the name of the movie, I decided to form an Iraqi Dead Poets' Society - so named because all of us had spent the past 35 years like dead men walking. I contacted all the poets I knew. It wasn't easy; all the phone lines were down. I sent letters and taxis and messengers across Baghdad, hunting down the pens that I knew could help beat the sword. And the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
- I would find a suitable venue, a 'Poetry HQ', and we would meet weekly for readings of our work. All the poems and poets banned or suppressed under Saddam would have a chance to live and breathe again. We would issue a monthly magazine in both Arabic and English. We would invite poets from the West to come and share their inspirations with us, to bypass the artificially imposed barriers that had been in place for far too long.
- We would also form a poetry club for the youth of Iraq, who had been starved of all beauty under the Baathist regime. I remember how three years ago I had this passion - I felt it almost as a mission - to rehumanise our thoroughly brutalised society.
- I also wanted to override the images of concrete blast barriers, barbed wire, suicide bombs and mortar shells that were threatening to take hold of our imaginations after the first few months of liberation. I believed all that had been destroyed could be recreated again, in verse, by us poets. Any destruction of any thing means the death of part of a poet's soul.
- It took six months to find a building by the Tigris, where the society would meet and enjoy the intoxicating air of freedom. In 2003 we could write and read whatever we wanted. But then, like a slow trickle of acid on to our foreheads, the same intolerance we had seen under Saddam began to reappear. One poet was threatened; one was kidnapped; one was killed; one fled abroad. History repeated itself. We had begun once more to create a policeman inside our heads, bigger and more frightening than the policeman who stands on the street. Our pens were cuffed and our hearts imprisoned.
- And then on 31 December 2005, our building, Baghdad's nerve centre of verse, was wrecked by a bomb. Al-Qaeda nihilists? Angry Saddamists? Irate Iranians? Hopeless Americans? I neither knew nor cared. Was our society the intended target? Again I did not know or care.
- But of this I was certain. There I stood, just me, alone again, squinting through the dust and debris at the total eclipse of my dreams.