Iraqi poet Naseer Flaiih Hassan arrived in Iowa City in mid-September as part of The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. Although he worked in architecture for nearly 20 years in Iraq, he describes his truest identity as being that of a poet. It was only after the fall of the Ba’athist Regime in 2003 that Hassan has been able to pursue this passion, but the roots of his poetic works–which tie deeply to the pain and suffering he endured under Saddam’s dictatorship–date back decades.
Hassan spent two weeks in an Iraqi prison when he was 17 years old. His uncle was an anti-Saddam politician and, although Hassan himself had not committed any crimes, having politically divisive relatives was reason enough for a brief detainment.
“This short experience had a very bad effect on my soul,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep because of the voices of screaming women who were tortured and raped, begging the executors not to harm them. Of course, this is simple compared to what happened to the others who suffered real torture. There are very brutal ways of…”
Hassan began to trail off, collecting his thoughts for a few moments amidst the quiet hum of nearby college students. His tone was reflective.
“I think when I got out of this experience,” he continued, “I became much more aware of what a knock on the door might mean.”
The poet avoided becoming outwardly political, but he did resist the dictatorship’s influence. He refused, for example, to join Saddam’s brutal and ubiquitous Ba’ath Party, the dominating political force in Iraq from 1968 to 2003.
“I had to pay a lot for that,” Hassan said. “But, I think now I am proud of it.”
Mentioning his family’s history of opposing the Hussein regime, Hassan continued with a smile, “I cannot be the black sheep in the herd, you know?”
In fact, Hassan lost several relatives under Hussein’s regime. In 1980, an uncle was given milk laced with poison, slowly inducing organ failure over the following two days. Another uncle was executed for poking fun at some Iraqi propaganda during the Iran-Iraq War, prompting Ba’athist officials to confiscate the relative’s home.
“They told his family that if they want their house, they should buy it again,” Hassan said, lamenting the lengths Hussein’s dictatorship went in order to humiliate its dissidents.
“When Saddam’s regime executed someone they sometimes gave the corpse to the family and asked the family to pay the price of bullets,” Hassan said. “Just like, ‘Your son is not a human being even, and doesn’t deserve to be executed even for one penny. You should pay for that.’”
These traumatic experiences have played an instrumental role in shaping Hassan’s poetry. His five line poem titled “Theft” involves a man who, upon looking out a window, finds war gazing back at him. “When he returned from his sadness,” the poem reads, “he was forty.”
Hassan’s work often examines the perception of time under an authoritarian regime, noting how that perception becomes skewed when an individual is exposed to traumatic events on a daily basis. He notes how, in the United States, it is common to break up time based on landmark events. The Second World War, The Vietnam War and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, to name a few examples, all play a large role in how we view and compartmentalize contemporary history. When one is living under an oppressive regime, where the losses are constant and unending, however, this subconscious method of segmenting time begins to erode, according to Hassan.
“You wake up when you are forty and wonder, ‘What happened?’”
This realization was part of the spark that prompted Hassan to pursue poetry on a professional level nearly two decades ago. Having to stay in bed, unmoving, for months after suffering a slipped disk in 1996, his thoughts turned inward. Hassan describes this year as being “the most important year in [his] poetic experience.”
“When we were very young we had much hope, and then I began to [realize] that okay, this is the cruel reality of life that you might live and grow up and get old and die under the same dictatorship and the same regime,” Hassan said. “It seemed our twenties finished and we started our thirties, you know, and nothing happened.”
Hassan dedicated his free time to poetry after having his existential epiphany, but chose to publish only a few select poems to avoid unwanted attention. When “Theft” was published, to Hassan’s chagrin, the word “war” was replaced with the word “clouds.”
“If you were a well-known person or writer under Saddam, you could not be left alone,” he said. “They will reach you and knock on your door and ask you to write, for example, for the dictatorship.”
While Hassan did not seek to publish his work during this time, he wrote privately and held readings among a small group of friends. With the fall of the Ba’athist Regime in 2003, however, he was finally free to publish his accumulated works.
Over the last five years, Hassan has published several books of poetry, as well as translating a number of Western poets into Arabic. His efforts are an attempt to reintroduce to Iraq something that was lost during the Ba’athist Regime.
“The dictatorship of Saddam tried every possible way to make the new generation shallow and to cut its roots to the past,” he said. “All the poetry and all the cultural activities were in one direction, which should be complimentary of the dictatorship and Saddam. In this kind of atmosphere, everything deteriorated.”
Hassan noted that the culture of Iraq is now fragmented. Over the course of several decades, as Iraqi artists emigrated from Iraq to escape Ba’athist persecution, Iraqi culture has separated into two spheres, with one existing inside Iraq and the other existing outside. Hassan says he simply wants to fill that gap.
“I think we are in a cultural desert and I’m trying to just put some trees here or there,” he said, smiling. “I’m not going to make it green, but I can make a few trees.”
As our interview began to wrap up, Hassan paused and said with some excitement, “You know what was the most intimate feeling after Saddam’s fall? That this earth and these trees and these streets and this air and this sky started to belong to me, and I belonged to it.”
Hassan looked up and smiled.
“Can you imagine?”