Iraqi poet seeks to heal her homeland with words
Iraqi-born poet Amal al-Jubouri may not have the Hollywood recognition of Angelina Jolie, but both women are artists who have decided to use their talents and profile to help the victims of war.
When al-Jubouri, one of foremost poets writing in Arabic, met Jolie this year, she urged the actress and U.N. humanitarian envoy to go with her and see the worsening hardships in her homeland. Jolie has already visited Iraq in previous years.
“I said: ‘Iraq is burning, Angelina.’ She told me she would love to go to Iraq,” al-Jubouri said of her meeting with Jolie, a special envoy for the refugee agency UNHCR.
“I would love to join her on a trip to Iraq – not as an official visitor where they would not let her see the reality – but as a woman and mother whose voice would be crucial in this dramatic moment of historical displacement,” al-Jubouri told Reuters at a cafe in London, the city that is now her home.
Al-Jubouri, 47, who fled Saddam Hussein and took political asylum in Germany in 1998, was one of the first exiled writers to return to Iraq after his fall.
Her anthology “Hagar before the Occupation, Hagar after the Occupation”, about the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, has received awards for both its Arabic and English language versions.
Today, in addition to poetry, she uses blogging and video to help traumatized Iraqis cope with the horrors they still face, founding an online TV station to show what is happening inside the country, aiming to overcome sectarian divisions which threaten to break the country apart.
Soutuna, Arabic for “our voice,” posts videos from disparate groups that show their experiences of the conflict and document the life and culture of minorities, which otherwise go unreported.
“Soutuna has come up as a way to empower the people and build hope for a new society,” al-Jubouri said.
She also posts testimonies from Iraqis on a Facebook blog which include accounts from a massacre at the former U.S. Camp Speicher in June, where, according to a U.N. report, about 1,500 Iraqi soldiers and security officers were captured and killed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.
The rapid rise of the al-Qaeda offshoot that has declared a caliphate straddling Iraq and neighboring Syria has been well documented, including the group’s policy of killing anyone not conforming to its strict version of Sunni Islam.
What has been less reported are the stories of ordinary Iraqis who have risen above the sectarian violence, something al-Jubouri hopes to put right.
“I was in Erbil when I met people from Tikrit who told me the stories of how Sunnis hid fellow Shias despite the prospect of death at the hands of Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIS) if they were found out during the Speicher massacre. There is a different story,” she said.
“Daesh is a global movement beyond Iraq and the Sunni-Shia conflict. The Iraqi people want to get beyond this and also beyond the sectarianism, which has caused so much suffering.”
Even for a poet, some of what al-Jubouri has heard – such as the experiences of the ethnic Yazidis who fled from ISIS fighters – has left her lost for words.
“Daesh kidnapped one young man’s children and wife and they called him and said they had slaughtered them. All I could do was hug the man. We were both crying and he hugged me like his own sister,” she said.
“I was determined to provide a voice for the voiceless.”
That includes through her poetry. A recent collection in Arabic called “The Paradise Beneath Your Feet” is a meditation on mothers losing their sons in Iraq’s sectarian killings, executions, mass graves and wars.
“Poetry in the Arabic world, especially modern poetry, is connected with emotion and rhetoric,” she said.
“It (her own style of poetry) needs something very concrete and direct – a style which does not have a long tradition in Arabic as it does in English.”
Al-Jubouri believes in the power of poetry which, she says, saved her when she came to the attention of Saddam Hussein as a teenager in 1984.
“A very close friend, who was also a writer, recorded me and presented it to Saddam Hussein. I was not even 18. He nearly put me to death by doing it and exposed me to questioning, interrogations and a life under surveillance,” she said.
“Poetry during that whole period was my only salvation and I attempted to commit suicide five times. It also allowed me to understand what it means to be scared.”