Photo courtesy of Ali Habash
“Love and war never meet except in poetry, people who lived the war can agree to that.” These words, penned by Iraq-born poet and journalist Ali Habash, capture the essence of his latest poetry volume Another Life. I spoke during National Poetry Month to the intrepid poet and one of his translators about his first book published in English.
Habash was born in Iraq’s capital city of Baghdad in 1965. His poetry has been published in Iraqi and Arab newspapers since 1985. His debut book of poetry, Years without Cause, was published in 2001. Habash worked as a journalist for Al Khaleej newspaper in the United Arab Emirates from 2003-2009, during which time his second volume, Rockets of a Happy Family (2005), was awarded the Diwan Poetry Prize. He was featured in the 2004 documentary Voices in Wartime.
Habash escaped civil war in his homeland in 2010, leaving behind all of his belongings and memories (as he put it, “everything that defines me”). In exile, he moved to the United States, homeland of writers he admires, like Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Miller. He settled in Des Moines, Iowa.
At age 19, Habash recalls, he read a translation of Whitman’s magnum opus, Leaves of Grass. “In spite of the time and place differences between me and Whitman, his work has gotten me, and I felt as if he was living with me in Iraq … I think that Whitman is the great teacher for modern American poetry.” At that same age, a copy of Miller’s The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud was, he says, “always with me.”
Another Life begins with a nod to Habash’s journalistic past with a quote from fellow Iraqi poet Wisam Hashim: “He who knows poetry well, gives it to his lover, and he who doesn’t / give it to the newspaper.”
“I haven’t vented through my old press job the same way I did in poetry,” Habash said. “Press is designed for daily consumption. Sometimes you encounter astonishing and unforgettable events; however you will still forget these events because you are merely a part of dramatic scene in the place and time that you live in.”
On the other hand, Habash said, “I have never felt alive except through poetry, because when I write a poem I feel I exist in this elegant world, and when the poetic moment comes to me quickly like a thunder, and when I spontaneously transform these thoughts on papers as poem, I feel as if I have added a spiritual thing to this world that is filled of technology.”
The poems from the first section of Another Life were written in less than a month while living in Des Moines in 2015. The second part of the book contains poems written when he was still in Baghdad. The work is a compilation “different thoughts here and there” — words he jotted down while sitting in a bar, on the bus or at his house.
“Sometimes the inspiration to write would come to me when I am in a deep sleep,” Habash said. “Most of my poems are reflection to my life and some events that I went through here in Des Moines.”
“[Another Life] is different because it is a compilation for more than ten years away from Baghdad in a different culture — thus it has to be different than what I have written and published in the Middle East,” Habash said. “This experiment describes how [I can] live far away from home, especially for an Iraqi poet, because it wasn’t very easy to adapt to new principles and world when you are a poet, coming from different background and with different cultural principles and beliefs.”
Habash continued, “In my mind I am always divided in two halves, one half in Iraq and other half is in here. It is nearly impossible for the eastern cultures to be westernized and the western cultures to be eastern due to long historical events that have happened.”
Habash’s quest for appropriate talent to help carry his words across international barriers, including those of language, was unsuccessful until 2015, when he contacted Iraqi-British poet and freelance translator Dikra Ridha. Translating literary works from one language into another, while maintaining the integrity and nuance intended by the author, has always been a complicated issue, “especially when it is translated from Arabic to English,” according to Habash.
“Like any dreamer I dreamt of having this book to be translated into English,” Habash said. “I also felt that my fate after I moved to United States is depending significantly on this book. When I received my first copy of the translated book I felt so happy that I was revived and was full of hope thriving to deliver my ideas to the American readers.”
Ridha’s debut poetry pamphlet, There are no Americans in Baghdad’s Bird Market, was published by The Tall Lighthouse in 2010. Her work drew the praise of Tim Liardet, professor of poetry at Bath Spa University, who wrote, “It is her wealth of tragic imagination that enables Dikra to evoke the murderous war-zones of Iraq with such intensity.”
Also assisting with the book’s translation is American poet Dan Veach, founding editor and recently named editor emeritus of the Atlanta Review. His poetry collection, Elephant Water, won the 2013 Georgia Author of the Year Award, and his translation of “The Seafarer” won the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize at the Evansville Review.
The Atlanta Review published the first English-language collection of poetry from wartime Iraq, later released as Flowers of Flame by Michigan State University Press in 2008, co-edited by Veach, Soheil Najm, Sadek Mohammad and Haider Al-Kabi. It was around this time that Habash first contacted Veach.
When Ridha’s translation of Habash’s original text was delivered to Veach to study, he said he was most impressed by “the voice in the poetry — honest, personal and vulnerable.” He also praised the book’s title poem, saying that it “just sparkles with poetic flashes in a rushing stream of consciousness.”
“Ali Habash is a poet who can merge personal with the historic events in a way that is touching and convincing,” Veach said. We are likely to need many more like Ali before we’re done.”
In his poetry, Habash depicts the “experiment of war,” its psychological and ideological aftermath and the shift of war from frontiers to homes, streets and schools. He said that poetry alone cannot change the world or the direction of war, but is able to document the event in “its own beautiful way.”
Despite Habash’s love of the craft, he feels poetry no longer plays a major role in society, and is not considered “a way to social renaissance.” He said the art form and its influence have regressed significantly of late, courtesy of widespread technology, mass communication and social applications for newer generations.
“Sometimes I feel shy to introduce myself as a poet because globalization, fast pace life and work has isolated poet from life and made poet an individual hobby. However, it still exists and can’t be taken down by any force in the world.”
Mike Kuhlenbeck is a journalist and National Writers Union UAW Local 1981 / AFL – CIO member based in Des Moines, Iowa. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 220.