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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

In Eyes of Inana female Iraqi poets reveal life under Saddam Hussein

Iraqi female poets tell their story in the powerful new anthology, Eyes of Inana, Saeed Saeed reports.

A visitor walks past a book display at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Frankfurt. AFP
A visitor walks past a book display at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Frankfurt. AFP

The Frankfurt Book Fair had its fair share of celebratory book launches, but none more powerful than the writers of the female Iraqi poetry anthology Eyes of Inana.

On Friday, three of the contributing poets, Samarkand Al Djabiri, Iman Al Waili and Salima Sultan Nur, presented German translations of their work. Highlighting the significance of the occasion, the trio draped their tables in the Iraq flag and organised an usher to pass out dates to the audience as they described how this seemingly impossible project came to reality. Initiated by the German cultural organisation, the Goethe-Institut, Eyes of Inana collects the writings of modern female Iraqi poets who lived under the repression of both the former Saddam Hussein regime and the terror of ISIL. With the original Arabic edition published in 2013, Friday's session celebrated the re-release of the German edition.

With more than 40 poems collated, the collection is a searing and passionate account of lives seemingly in darkness, as the women detail their battles with extremism, misogyny and grief.

“When we grew up, fear was introduced to us through the children’s stories our mothers told us,” said Nur. “Then, it grew to become something that walked among us daily. Now, it’s got to a stage where it is part of our households and is part of our everyday lives. It has become a familiar visitor, so now we are not scared of it.”

The Basra poet’s poem Blue and White, which she read out at the book fair accompanied by a live German translation, details a women trapped in a cell “whose walls are blue” as she “doesn’t think about anything except a poem, as silent as a white stone”.

Nur says Iraqi women know exactly what she is talking about. “Perhaps I have to explain that here more clearly, as you may take it literally,” she says. “That cell could be a home or family, but also it could be her body.”

The way misogyny courses through Iraqi society is a major theme of Eyes of Inana. It was partly that reason why the book could have never been published without the support of the Goethe-Institut.

The international organisation, based in Munich, was responsible for providing the funding for the book’s initial publication in Arabic. “If it wasn’t for them, this book wouldn’t have been here. It is as simple and really as painful as that,” said Al Waili, who lives in Baghdad.

“When the idea was floated, all the major Iraqi publications said no straight away. It was as if they didn’t consider that we had something to say or express. Those who were sympathetic to our cause just gave some kind of encouragement and lip service, but they didn’t truly support us.”

This austere and conservative view regarding the opposite sex is a return to a more rural mindset, said Al Djabiri, who is also from the capital. “It is like we are going back in time towards a village mentality,” she said. “You are seeing the return of concepts such as shame, haram and halal [forbidden and permitted], right and wrong, and paying recompense, and women are bearing the brunt of it. We are fighting at home, at work and in the greater society.”

This fighting spirit came from Al Djabiri’s father, whom she states was a scientist executed by the Saddam regime after he refused to take part in creating chemical weapons for the army.

Dedicated to her father, Al Djabri’s heart-wrenching poem Martyr is also included in Eyes of Inana, where his loss is the kind “where words fail” and is akin to a forest “where no rabbits roam”.

Speaking to The National after the presentation, Al Waili said the women were part of a tight-knit group of female poets residing in Iraq.

“We keep in touch and follow their work through the internet,” she said. “Many of them publish their work on social media and YouTube and they tell their stories, which we can all relate to.”

A larger international audience will now get the opportunity to gain an insight into this burgeoning movement when Eyes of Inana receives a French and an English translation by the end of the year. Al Waili hopes the English publication will result in festival appearances for some of the poets in the compilation.

“That would be another important step in showcasing our talent on an international platform,” she said.

“The message we are giving is that we have something of our experience to share. Basically, we are here.”

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