Mark Pirie: A Cry to the Gulf

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    Mark Pirie: A Cry to the Gulf

    مُساهمة  Admin في الخميس أبريل 25, 2013 7:25 pm

    A Cry to the Gulf: The Poetry of Basim Furat: Exiled Iraqi Poet


    You did not say farewell
    To those who turned your life
    Into a cesspool,
    Brimming with pain.

    You blessed them
    And moved on
    Without looking back.
    So, they followed you.
    (Basim Furat, ‘No Looking Back’)

    An exciting new voice in New Zealand and world poetry is the Wellington-based Iraqi poet, Basim Furat. Entering the country as a refugee from Jordan in 1997 he has steadily emerged as one of his adopted country’s most gifted new poets. Since his arrival here his work has appeared in translation in many literary print and on-line journals, including JAAM, Takahe, Poetry Aotearoa, Black Mail Press, Southern Ocean Review, Poetry NZ and brief. As well a major article has been written about him in The Dominion Post and he has read at many poetry venues in Wellington and around New Zealand. In July 2003 he was among the featured poets at the “Poetics of Exile” conference held in Auckland, New Zealand, and later that year he also read at the First Wellington International Poetry Festival.
    Furat writes predominantly in a romantic and passionate vein (which is often abstract and Symbolist in its endeavours) and his work stands out for its strong conviction to the sense of struggle — not just of the self in exile — but also of its conviction to the sense of struggle of his homeland, Iraq. HeadworX, a specialist poetry publisher in New Zealand, has recently released his first book translated into English, Here and There, making his work increasingly worthy of extended critical discussion. In this brief introduction to his work so far I have decided it is best discussed by categorising it into three major themes: ‘Love and Loss’, ‘The Poet of Exile’ and ‘The Poem as Protest’.

    Love and Loss

    I cry aloud to the Gulf:
    ‘O Gulf,
    Giver of coral and death.’
    My words return
    In the echo of a sob:
    ‘O Gulf…’
    - Al-Sayyab (1926-64)

    Love and loss as with this quotation from one of the great Iraqi poets, Al-Sayyab, is a recurrent theme in Furat’s poems. Usually it is invoked in a number of ways and with several layers of meaning. Furat, instead of writing a simple love lyric addressed to one person i.e. a woman, a mother, a father, or even himself or his childhood, usually addresses two or more things, including and predominantly his homeland, Iraq.
    In the Modern era leading Arab poets like Saadi Youssef, Abdulwahab Albayati, Sargon Boulis and Adonis have revolutionized Arabic poetry by introducing what Allen Ginsberg would identify as ‘the revolt of the personal’.1 This is a style that also involves a break with traditional poetic methods, i.e. the use of rhyming lines. It seems that Furat follows this line of thought, maintaining the importance of his homeland in the context of loss to his individual self. His poems therefore can not be read as straightforward love poems in the Western Romantic or Classical Arab sense but as complex and multi-layered poems with a dearth of Arabic meaning. This technique is most striking and original in his first book, The Vehemence of Cooing, published in Madrid, Spain, in 1999.
    This book contains several pieces republished in English translation in Here and There that are predominantly written about a beautiful Bedouin woman but at the same time can be read on another level as love poems to his homeland. As such the imagery is rich and passionate in unrequited love and yearning for the person and country he is writing about:

    You smile accompanies me like my breath
    I smell in it the odour of the sea
    And the aroma of the orange
    I smell in it the perfume of my sad home
    The smile of my home that is hiding deep sadness
    And you are hiding under your smile
    The sadness of my home
    You are my home, are you not?
    Oh, you my pain and the pain
    Of the bought country
    You are the whole of my sadness
    And the sadness itself…
    (‘A Cold Lesson at the End of Love’)

    You are my holy soil
    Your eternal morning is budding with poems.
    You are the wave,
    We crown your childhood with your glamour…
    (‘Honey is fermenting on your tongue’)

    My love…
    May the wilderness gather the remains
    Of a passion moaning in your hands,
    A passion of cooing,
    A passion of departure,
    A passion of the poem in exile
    Which recites a wailing for her roving poet
    Between the dust of dating or the rain of memory…
    (‘Suicide’)

    The skill in this poetry is its knowledge, for it is Furat’s considerable reading knowledge that allows his poetry its depth of meaning and complexity. Each line and image he uses must find a symbol, whether of historical, religious or mythological importance2:

    The madness of the heart which is astray in your forests
    From the Babylonian Joy till the last poem of Al-Sayyab
    At the midday of Basrah -
    Unattainable…
    (‘Probability of Two Rivers’)

    You imagined
    That my cities were destroyed
    My carriages broken in the desert
    It seems you have forgotten
    That I have been
    In love…
    (‘A Cold Lesson at the End of Love’)

    It is this knowledge and learning that sets Furat’s poetry apart from many of his Iraqi and New Zealand contemporaries and places him instead in the tradition of the great Modernist poets (whose abstract style and symbolism revolutionized European poetry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries).3
    This complexity of meaning shows even in his more simpler lyrics such as ‘Coming to be’, ‘I Love You Not’, or in the poem to his New Zealand wife, ‘Jeanette’ (first published in English in Here and There): ‘All cities are nothing but jawary / Practicing singing / And getting confused before the chants of your lips….’ Here Furat uses an Arabic image to explain the difficulty of communication between the two lovers’ cultures. Such imagery is freshly novel and innovative in New Zealand poetry. The poem, ‘Coming to be’, is short enough to be quoted here in full:

    My father:
    An ancient sadness;
    My mother:
    A book of sadness.
    When my father opened the book,
    I came to be.

    Note the careful construction. Two images are conjured up and given their weight by the final two lines. Firstly, the image of the father as ‘an ancient sadness’ and, secondly, the image of the mother as ‘a book of sadness’. Furat uses the words ‘ancient’ and ‘book’ to ascribe to the father and mother the relevance of on-going Arabic traditions and the sense of history, which makes them who they are. Ultimately, of course, his parents’ history and their make-up, their individual symbolism, is how Furat’s life, in the final lines, is formed. His own life becoming: a repetition of mistakes, failures, and sadness. This idea is similarly expressed in his long poem ‘To language of light I lead the candles’:

    My mistakes:
    I am my mistakes,
    The mistakes of my father:
    A mistake that is being repeated,
    My mother is a mistake awaiting a mistake
    Due to a mistake,
    I am a mistake counting my steps and
    Make a mistake…

    Perhaps the most complex of Furat’s poems on love and loss is ‘The Howl of the Fox’. Many Arabic critics have commented on this poem in reviews and articles. It is a poem rich in mythology and religion native to the Southern Iraqi city Karbalaa (also the poet’s city of birth). In this poem Furat uses mythology to evoke the tragic loss of his father. Again, a sense of history being repeated is at the heart of this poem’s meaning. The people of Karbalaa supplicate to Al-Hurr, ‘to give them my father’s handkerchief / That still clasped his arm / To stop the bleeding from the Ommawi sword.’ Here, his father becomes the martyr through his death, not just of his present-day people but of history as well. Furat likens his father to the legendary hero Al-Hurr, a reminder of the past history and tragedy of the place in which he is living. On another level, his father’s death in this poem is also marked by the departure of the Al-’Alqamy River which ‘wipes its tears’ and absconds ‘with two hands glowing with fertility and regret’. In mythology this river diverged from the city of Karbalaa to protest the killing of the Imam Al-Husain Bin Ali Bin Abi-Talib. Once again the poet’s father becomes likened to another martyr — this time a mythological one. It is this use of symbolism that adds the energy, complexity and solidity to Furat’s poetry.

    The Poet of Exile

    I am overburdened with agonies
    My homeland knocks nightly on my door
    Should I open it?
    I, running away impetuously
    From the narcissism of wars
    I, a firm believer in day break with no grudges,
    As well as that shrivelling tremble before the onset of dusk
    (‘Here and There’)

    The second major theme in Furat’s work is one of exile. He often refers to himself as the ‘Exiled Iraqi Poet’ in New Zealand publications and the first and last sections of his book, Here and There, address this predicament, e.g. ‘To language of light I lead the candles’, ‘No Looking Back’, ‘Infinitely South’ and ‘I crossed the borders accidentally’ or his New Zealand poem ‘Here and There’. Most of these poems were originally published in Arabic in his critically acclaimed second book, The Autumn of Minarets.
    A newspaper article, in The Dominion Post, 18 October 2003, reveals Furat’s reasons for fleeing Iraq:

    In 1993 he read a poem in public that criticised the regime.
    “I used a description of the worst prison in Islamic history as an analogy for Iraq under Saddam’s regime. What happened 1000 years ago is the same as now.”
    Luckily, a friend with connections to the Ba’ath Party that used to control Iraq warned him that because he had spoken out against the regime his life was in danger.
    Furat fled Iraq for Jordan less than a month after his poetry reading.
    He spent four years in Jordan working illegally as a photographer. “Life in Jordan is very difficult for Jordanians, not just for outsiders,” he says.
    In 1996 he applied for United Nations refugee status. After showing his poetry to the UN officials, he says he was granted refugee status quickly.
    Refugees cannot choose where their new home will be and Furat says he cried on the plane to New Zealand.
    “It is too far away. I thought, ‘How much money will it cost to come back?’”

    This description of Furat’s trauma and reasons for fleeing Iraq are common to many poets of his generation and also of the previous generation that fled the Iraq-Iran war. As the poem ‘My Rank: Defeated’ indicates, Furat ‘Got sick of wars / And found comfort in the shade of exile…’. A glance through the contributor’s notes to the Arabic-English magazines Joussour or Banipal reinforces this. The notes show that many of the contributing poets are exiled in many European countries as well as Australia and the UK where the magazines are respectively published. This fate of the poets has meant that much contemporary Iraqi poetry centres on the theme of exile and displacement from their homeland. The poetry of these exiled poets is often filled with memories, evocations of past lives, lost family, lost childhood, political anger, and homesickness i.e. a yearning for home and a sense of nostalgia.
    Writing on exile, the Palestinian critic Edward Said, in his 1993 Reith Lectures, considered that:

    …once you leave your home, wherever you end up you cannot simply take up life and become just another citizen of the new place. Or if you do, there is a good deal of awkwardness involved in the effort, which scarcely seems worth it. You can spend a lot of time regretting what you lost, envying those around you who have always been at home, near their loved ones, living in the place where they were born and grew up without ever having to experience not only the loss of what was once theirs, but above all the torturing memory of a life to which they cannot return. 4

    Furat’s poetry is no exception to this. His poems mentioned above fit this criterion, and perhaps the centrepieces of his exilic5 poetry are ‘Infinitely South’ and ‘I Paint Baghdad’. The poem ‘Infinitely South’ uses his place of exile in New Zealand as the starting point for a letter home to his family, his people and his homeland:

    And I say: In the far away
    There is something calling for remembrance
    In cities exhausted by the sea
    I dump my dreams
    I have souvenirs from wars
    And from cities: wounds
    I have the tears of reeds,
    The sighs of date palms,
    The revelation of oranges
    The blood of myrtle
    There …
    On the map of my childhood
    I leave my innocence pierced
    By the rot of the military
    Whose barracks stole me from home
    And threw me into exile…

    The poem continues to evoke the distance between the two nations, New Zealand and Iraq: ‘All things point to you / But nothing reminds me of you’ or ‘Once you think of home / You are swallowed by exile’. The poem is a way for the poet to reconcile his anger, his personal grief in exile: ‘I exchange the splinters of bombs with roses and poems / The aggression of bombardment / With Mulla Othman Al Mousilly’s lute / And the Maqams of Al Gubbanchi’. The poem uses the symbol of the South of Iraq in its title but now finds itself positioned even further South, infinitely south, in New Zealand, an original idea in the context of Arabic poetry:

    There’s no south behind me so I can say:
    Here’s my homeland
    Nor is there south in front of me to cut through
    I am the absolute south
    Equipped with a long history of war and tragedy

    In ‘I Paint Baghdad’ Furat explores his time in Baghdad before his exile and also evokes childhood memories. This poem depicts the personal pain of his exile through images of childhood innocence destroyed by ongoing wars in his home country. This poem resonates strongly and has been much praised by Arabic critics:

    I am without pleasures, or glories
    My dreams have all but let me down
    Isolated in a most far-flung Diaspora
    Elegized by my calamity
    And guided by my wreckage
    I chase the trails of childhood
    And stitch together my aspirations
    That have been trampled by tanks
    I spot the signs of fear, pouring from my pockets
    And as the sea is similarly isolated
    It begins to share with the exile its estrangement…

    Furat’s dense approach to imagery is nowhere more complex and difficult than in this poem:

    Now stars rest on the lap of sea creatures and shine for me
    By one hand I mend my heart,
    By the other I care for the rose not to fall into delirium
    I care for the balconies not to crumple into a swamp flushed with heaven
    The ocean clutches me, as it falters with my innocence
    Doubts climb the edges of time
    Piles of syllables scramble on the sides of words

    I made you hear my song, yet you only made me hear my burning
    I led rain to your door, its fingertips slipping against my forehead
    I set loose my lullabies to the gardens,
    As I appeared before an inferno of the butterflies
    And my destruction was witnessed by the flowers and by the sparrows…

    The imagery and personification used here of flowers, gardens, butterflies, balconies, oceans, roses, has multiple meanings in Arabic and holds religious and mythological resonance in the Arab world that perhaps we, as Western readers, miss at first glance.

    The Poem as Protest

    The only loser of the wars was me.
    So, I hung them up reluctantly
    And went searching for myself
    And destruction was whinnying in my shoulder…
    (‘I crossed the borders accidentally’)

    The final major theme in Furat’s work is the ‘Poem as Protest’. Furat’s poetry is often a cry of protest at the destruction in his homeland and its effects on family members and his people. There are a number of ways he evokes this in his poetry. Whereas in the work of other Iraqi poets the political message is all and directly raised, in Furat’s work it is usually evoked through descriptions of life in Iraq.
    A frequent strategy is the symbol of the mother figure. The portrayal of the unhappiness of the mother figure in his exilic poems is a way of forging a criticism of his homeland’s destruction. This image of the mother in Furat’s poems is bleak, sad, and painful:

    My mother is
    Verses of Henna defeated by love.
    She became widowed,
    Her lovers’ longing leaning towards the end of the night.
    Now, agony empties its wailing upon her bosom,
    Her memories run over by wars…
    (‘The Howl of the Fox’)

    My mother arranges the stars, which are mixed
    With her hair,
    And drinks tea in which she dissolves her sadness…
    (‘I crossed the borders accidentally’)

    War also has its anthems
    Those that drenched the bosoms of mothers
    With wailing and anxiety
    Its windows wide-open for waiting
    With no-one approaching
    Its doors eroded by sadness…
    (‘Infinitely South’)

    Elsewhere Furat uses childhood memories as a way of evoking the innocence that has been destroyed by ongoing wars and fighting:

    Those ashes of wars suffocated my soul
    And dried the oil of childhood at my door…
    (‘I crossed the borders accidentally’)

    I have stolen the memory of my forgetfulness

    I have painted a clear sky through which to escape
    Only for it to be robbed by rockets
    I have painted a brook and have said: Al-Hussainiyah River it is
    But the airbases take me from it
    I have painted a minaret and a palm tree
    Lonely, I have been arrested, but still I held onto my mirror…
    (‘I Paint Baghdad’)

    This style clearly owes much to his reading of European Modernism translated into Arabic. It is very abstract and expressionistic in its imagery. It reminds one of great Expressionist paintings such as Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1895), e.g.: ‘And the screams of guns have dripped from my chemise (‘I Paint Baghdad’)’.
    In another way, the poems ‘Departure’ and ‘Inhabited by bleeding’ introduce a further strategy. In these poems Furat uses his own people’s suffering at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime and indeed of previous wars and conflict in Iraqi history as the symbol. The New Zealand poet and social critic James K Baxter has written that: “The poet or prose writer who turns his eyes from the fact of human suffering is involved in human betrayal,”6 and it seems that Furat is of a similar critical disposition. Furat himself has said that, ‘his family suffered under Saddam’, and he can list ‘a frightening number of relatives that were victims of the regime, counting them on his hands’.7 Nearly 50 of his family were martyred and to not address this would be, for Furat, a form of betrayal, hence the strong conviction in his protest poetry:

    Those who light my candle
    Their departure is emaciated
    And their destruction is suspended
    In remote regions of life…
    (‘Inhabited by bleeding’)

    Friends depart
    Followed by dreams
    Lighting deep their paths of alienation
    Their intimacy is forlorn
    Their roads are fading
    Their strength is failing
    Their wishes taken by surprise
    To commit suicide … commit suicide . . . commit suicide …

    They draw spring as a patch for them
    And never return
    Only to find autumn eating into the map of the country
    They seek the help of the two rivers, but destruction in its full attire
    Is running in an area called home…
    (‘Departure’)

    A feature of these poems is the recurrence of the word ‘destruction’. Furat is uncompromising in pointing the finger at Saddam’s regime and on a deeper level the way of life in Iraq that has always been violent and savage. Its history has been woven together by complex power struggles and wars not just involving the US or neighbours like Iran but also with civil conflicts between opposing Northern and Southern Iraqi Muslim groups: the Sunni’s and the Shi’ites.
    A final strategy of Furat’s is the use of his self as a symbol of protest. Perhaps his most sustained and potent protest is the poem ‘1 March 1967’. This poem is named after his birth date, and the date of birth of the poet was during another war, the Arab-Israel war — a very symbolic gesture.
    In this poem as with the use of the mother, his own life becomes the symbol for the pain and suffering of his people and his homeland:

    I am Basim Furat … O God!… do you know me?
    Police stations are tattooed on my skin, and my mother
    Does not see the splinters when she combs my youth.
    She dissolves wax and myrtle over my dawning
    With her aba that looks like my days,
    And sweeps away the warplanes, drawing me as she pleases.
    Is this because I carry my nation in my shirt pocket
    And beneath my tongue two rivers are rumbling?

    I run after my death, and my corpse follows me.
    My nation is a long autumn: a flood of nausea…

    Here, as with previous quotations, it can be seen that the use of a symbol is the major technique in his poetry. By using this method he creates dense and multi-layered imagery and escapes the trap of proselytizing in much of the simplified political poetry of his Iraqi contemporaries. Perhaps this is why Saadi Youssef considers Furat’s poetry to be ‘the outstanding panorama of exiled Iraqi poetry’. In the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, the evocation and depiction of destruction has always been a stronger way of portraying the human cry of protest. Some of the great European Modernist poets have used this method. One thinks of Apollinaire’s abstract First World War poems or
    T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, as precursors to Furat’s style and way of thinking. It is after all, this knowledge of history, mythology and his reading in Arabic of European poetry methods that sets Furat’s work apart from many of his Iraqi contemporaries i.e. their more traditional methodologies and gives Furat’s work greater resonance and power in the context of world poetry, particularly English or French.
    Furat is an emerging poet to watch not just in New Zealand poetry but in world poetry, and if he does return to the Arab world, his resettlement in New Zealand has at the very least led to some surprising and innovative poetry. As Edward Said would say, this is the ‘pleasure of exile’:

    Because the exile sees things both in terms of what has been left behind and what is actual here and now, there is a double perspective that never sees things in isolation. Every scene or situation in the new country necessarily draws on its counterpart in the old country… an idea or experience is always counterpoised with another, therefore making them both appear in a sometimes new and unpredictable light…8

    This for me is what makes Basim Furat’s poetry a real addition to New Zealand literature. His collection, Here and There, will remain the first book of Arabic poetry to be translated and published here, and possibly will become a defining work of its era in the South Pacific, given the recent surge in refugees into New Zealand due to uprisings and conflicts afflicting many countries in the early twenty-first century.

    Mark Pirie
    Wellington, New Zealand
    May 2005

    Notes
    1 Ginsberg wrote this in his Foreword to the Bengali poet Sunil Gangopadhyay and is probably meaning the movement in American poetry that finds its precursor in the work of Walt Whitman and now spans the breadth of American poetry from the Beats through to the present-day ‘Generation Xers’. See Allen Ginsberg, ‘Foreword’, in City of Memories, selected poems, Sunil Gangopadhyay, translated from the Bengali by Kelyan Ray and Bonnie MacDougall (New Delhi: Viking/Penguin India, 1991), p. xi.
    2 Through this method Furat draws further comparisons with Al-Sayyab who revolutionized Arabic poetry from Classical to more Modern ways of thinking.
    3 I’m thinking here mainly of Modernist and Symbolist poets such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Arthur Rimbaud, or T S Eliot. These are poets who Furat has said he has read and been influenced by in Arabic translation.
    4 Edward Said, The Edward Said Reader, eds. Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin, (London: Granta Books, 2000), p. 379.
    5 A term used by Edward Said.
    6 James K Baxter, Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry (Christchurch: The Caxton Press, 1951), p. 16.
    7 Liz Smith, ‘Poetic Justice’, in The Dominion Post (18 October 2003), p. E21.
    8 Edward Said, The Edward Said Reader, eds. Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin, (London: Granta Books, 2000), p. 378.

    Sources
    Al-Sayyab. ‘Song of the Rain’. Translated by Basima Bezirgan and Elizabeth Fernea. Source unknown.
    Banipal, Magazine of Modern Arab Literature, No. 1, February 1998.
    Baxter, James K. Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry. Christchurch: The Caxton Press, 1951.
    Furat, Basim. Here and There, a selection. Translated from the Arabic by Muhiddein Assaf, Abbas El Sheikh, Abdul Monem Nasser and Yahya Haider. Wellington: HeadworX, 2004.
    Joussour, Bridges for Liberty and Creativity, Australian Quarterly Literary Magazine, No. 5, 1998.
    Said, Edward. The Edward Said Reader. Eds. Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin. London: Granta Books, 2000.
    Smith, Liz. ‘Poetic Justice’. The Dominion Post, 18 October 2003, p. E21.
    Youssef, Saadi. Without an Alphabet, Without a Face, selected poems. Translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Gray Wolf Press, 2002.



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