Poems from Iraq

Inclusion is a common practice here, at the main mosque in Kirkuk, Iraq. Sermons and prayers are offered up in all the languages of the city: Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish, Turcoman, and Persian. Women lead prayers just like their male counterparts do. When I asked to observe their worship—a contemporary manifestation of Sufi practices that span centuries—Sheikh Yusuf, the spiritual leader, replied, “You, a stranger, a woman of a different religion, come here to me. Some would criticize me, ‘How can you let her in here?’ But the truth is that you and I deal in creation, God’s creation. I confront you as a diamond of God.” As we spoke about my interest in the mosque, originating in nineteenth century Kurdish poetry, he said, “You, a stranger, you came through the invitation of [my colleague] Sheikh Pirot, but the purpose of your visit is this: knowledge.”

“Knowledge” carries particular meaning in Sufism. It is not something to attain or hold, but a process, a striving. As I watched the women worship, I could understand their ecstasy. They see their prayers as polishing the mirror of their hearts, to better reflect God and all the divine qualities. The Sheikh’s wife, Sheikha Sunbul, a spiritual leader among the women, pulled me aside as the prayers concluded. She was worried, she said, she didn’t want to anger me, but, she said, she had to ask: If I felt such devotion myself, why wasn’t I a Muslim? She meant no offense, she said, she was only curious. We were so similar.

At the Sheikha’s question, a line from the poem “I Worry,” by the nineteenth century Kurdish poet Wafa’i came to mind, “Don’t try to convert me. I am love’s infidel.” She grinned at the quotation, understanding, perhaps, what I meant to tell her. I might not be Muslim, but the similarity she saw between us was real. We both belonged to love, to the striving for knowledge. Jamil al-Zahawi, the nineteenth century Baghdadi poet, says, “Oh, nation, knowledge then / knowledge then knowledge: that’s our duty.”

What more could I say to my own country now? Knowledge then knowledge then knowledge: that’s our duty. A duty we will always pursue, an arrival we can never make. The three poems included here come from Iraq, a country whose citizens we have banned from arrival in our country. These poems, which are all new to English, come from poets who are all new to English and are the heritage of a people we could understand far better. Mahwi, another nineteenth century Kurdish poet and a Sufi, first wishes, “On this doorstep, in this place, let me rest a while,” but quickly answers himself. No, he says, “A lover must live doorstep to doorstep, city by city: leaving.”

-Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse


by Jamil al-Zahawi
trans. Lana Kamaran and Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse

I think of nature, I observe,
            So, they count my thought as atheism.
My strength? I am human, I think.
            The more I search, the more I suspect.
I am in love with truth
            And say it publicly among witnesses.
Oh, mind, why do you travel in suspicion?
            Why does closure abandon you?
At night the flowing stream is not safe.
            Safety is on the ridge, the valley’s back.

There are dimensions to the galaxy that
            End past my knowledge.
As it ascends, the imagination corrodes,
            Returning exhausted from its climbing.
I learned that creatures have descendants
            Who are no different from their forefathers.
Time in its circulation does not
            Connect the limited with the eternal.
And electricity, an infant knowledge,
            Is still controversial.
And our bodies manifest Him
            And so do our souls within our bodies.
And the galaxy is one among many
            Non-existent things broadcast across space.

by Salim
trans. Savan Abdulrahman and Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse

Silence your call and crow tonight, rooster!
Leave me to my beloved’s neck, to pleasure.

I won’t depart my sweetheart’s shores for the cry of poultry,
Not until the governor and timpani shout, announcing morning.

My beloved’s glance is an arrow
Blooded by my liver and heart.

The eyes order the glance, “Aim for the heart.” The lip is an army.
The regiments of the eyelashes are disciplined as French legions.

My beloved’s hair softly obscures her breast
As the handle of a cane masks its burdens.

I comb the illusion’s hair, describe its face,
I adorn the daughters of my thought.

Ascetic, go. You have no business advising me.
Friendship with frowning mullahs has dulled you.

Oh, backwards era, who can I tell about your cruelty?
You have a ruthless heart. You love oppression and anguish.

People these days don’t stand with art. Seek hope
Salim, in nothing. You work for nothing.


by Nali
trans. Shene Mohammed and Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse

In this world, the drifter is best: immaterial, detached.
During the day: among people. At night: quiet, detached.

Image: a performance, sunk in attachment, like anyone.
Reality: drunk with divine petitions—hidden, detached.

So what if the world awards him head to toe?
His existence is non-existence: content, detached.

On the surface, a bright peacock, deluded beyond delusion,
Underneath, a gray dove, essential, detached.

Tekiye, sheikh: all are traps of attachment.
Nali will go on, drunk on ruins and detachment.


All translations come from Kashkul, a research collective in Sulaimani that bring together American and Iraqi researchers, translators, and artists. All members of Kashkul–Kamaran, Abdulrahman, Mohammed, and Levinson-LaBrosse–share an on-going project to bring 19th century Iraqi poetry into English. More information about the project and bios for translators are available at http://kashkulistan.com