In Their Own Words

Four poems by Kajal Ahmad, translated from the Kurdish

Were I a Martyr

Trans. Darya Ali and
Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse

I want no flowers,
no epoch of union,
no dawn of disunion.
I want no flowers
for I am the loveliest flower.
I want no kisses
if for a true wrist
I must hold some knight –
no epoch of marriage,
no dawn of divorce,
no widow's fever.
I want no kisses
if, along with love, I become a martyr.
I want no tears
over the coffin or me, a corpse.
I want no cherry tree of sympathy
dragged to the walls of my grave,
no flowers or kisses,
no tears or miseries.
Bring nothing.
Hold nothing.
I die as a homeland without a flag, without a voice.
I am grateful.
I want nothing.
I will accept nothing.

Translating these poems is an act of archaeology. I work with co-translators, unearthing with raw strikes of the shovel until I can see the lines of the poem and switch to gentle brushes. When I first saw the shape of this poem, the shape of its idea, my mind began to echo with its nothingness.

No flowers, no kisses, no tears, no miseries, no candy at the funeral, no financial or heavenly incentives. She commands the bereaved to bear nothing. She wants nothing.

The emptiness resounds in each line's negation: "I want no." At the end of four of the last six lines, "nothing" tolls like a bell. This nothing is a cousin to the winter of Stevens' "Snowman," the wintering to which Rilke invites Orpheus. Ahmad as a martyr has a mind of winter, she chooses to be ahead of all parting. Yet, Ahmad's character, the martyr, is not alone in a forest clearing nor is she mourning a lost lover. She is a political figure.

As Abdulla Pashew, another famous Kurdish poet, has said, "The poet is more than a poet in Kurdistan." Unlike in America, where the poet seems to belong mostly to other poets, Kurdish poets are public figures. Every personal choice means something. No personal choice is private. When Ahmad married, talk flew. She had betrayed her nation: she had married a Jordanian. Her husband, though a life-long resident of Jordan, descends from Diyarbakir, the heartland of the Kurdish ethnicity. Ahmad added in a recent interview, "And what if I had married a Jordanian? How is that a betrayal of my Kurdishness?" When Ahmad began to cover her head, once more talk flew. She has caved to the pressures of a male-driven society. She can no longer claim to be a feminist. It makes her more of a feminist to cover and say these things. It makes her less.

What Ahmad wants is to be a moment of nothing in this crowd of competing desires.

She uses the definition poem to re-conceive the politicized religious concept of "martyr." Were she to choose that death- lovely subjunctive—she would reject the offered incentives: forgiveness for all sin, eternal life in paradise, virgins in heaven, and financial assistance to the family left behind. The poet transgresses against the tradition of martyrdom. Not only does she want nothing, she commands those she leaves behind to cherish nothing as her final gift. Through gratitude, not anger, the poet transgresses against the tradition of martyrdom. She is replete. That is her revolution.


Trans. Darya Ali
and Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse

Among innocent kisses
the first button of my pink shirt
fell off.
Later, sewing,
her glasses like lasers fastened over her eyes,
the needle in her hands, like her fingers,
threatening, she spat out,
"Don't you put this in a poem!"

The intimacy in "Buttons" is small, like the poem itself. A reader, especially a western reader, could easily miss it. For certain audiences, a kiss is no longer scandalous, only an innocent beginning to adulthood and sexuality. A reader learns much in the poet's opening assertion: the kisses that caused this poem were innocent. She almost undercuts her first line in her second. What kind of kiss is so innocent it causes buttons to fall off? In a clever elision of the actors, the syntax places the blame on the buttons.

The poet introduces a woman, the speaker's mother, in the act of repair. This repair is more a cover-up operation. No one must know about the fallen button. There is much at risk here: her daughter's honor, the family's. So, the mother stitches. The daughter, sits beside her as she sews, in trouble, watching. Without bothering to look up, her mother sees the urge to watch and write, knows its danger, and warns her off.

The first intimacy is only implied. The reader never sees the lover. The second intimacy, caused by the first, is rebelliously complicit in both the act of love and of the poem. Love and the poem exist only illicitly.

Only once in three years have I witnessed a mundane moment of womanhood. A family of a musician I'd befriended invited me to their mountain home for dinner. In sight of Iran's border crossing, we boiled the rice Kurdish-style, the pot, bigger than the circumference of my arms, sat suspended over the open fire by two cinderblocks. The musician's mother taught me the word for "raisin." Qshmish. Delighted by the childlike sound, I teased that I would name my child that just so I could say it every day. They laughed and piled my rice high with roasted almonds and qshmish. After we had done dishes, as we served tea and sat around the warmth of the kettle, the women of the family fell to discussing hair removal. Universal girl talk. Where did the daughter-in-law go for her arms? Her moustache? After three years of being a constant guest, held at a certain distance, this intimacy was tender, the inclusion sweet. I didn't know I had a moustache. They informed me, just a small one. And had I ever considered my eyebrows?

Moments like these punctuate the daily relationships and desires of every woman. It is an act of bravery to kiss, just as it is to write the kiss. But it takes subtle courage to focus the poem on the mother, on one generation of women confronting another's changing definitions of innocence and honesty. There is love, there is threat. What does motherly love look like in a society that continues to prize virginity and sexual seclusion? Preventing the tryst or hiding the aftermath? How should a wife and mother preserve her family's honor? Stone the child or obscure the evidence?

Each generation answers these questions differently. As we translated these poems together, Darya and I got talking – about womanhood, our separate struggles to understand and define the word, what the word takes on in Iraq. She told me a friend of hers was afraid to go home. In her village, a woman made rounds of the neighborhoods, equipped to perform female genital mutilation. Neither her mother nor her aunt would call the woman in to their houses. One day, when her cousins were home, her aunt away, their grandmother took the opportunity.

Kajal portrays a gentle moment of this confrontation. She defines audacity not in having sought a kiss, but in declaring it sinless and bringing the missing button home to Mom. Mom, however threatening, sews the button back in place. The poem hints toward its wide margins: space where definitions can shift and family can be safe haven.

In the country of terror
I love the streets more than men

Trans. Mewan Nahro
and Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse

The street doesn't ask, Where are you now? And where are you
headed, you crazy girl?
The street isn't unjust and commanding.
It doesn't know terror.
Nothing of the street looks like men and
Nothing of men looks like the streets.

It tells me:
Go, cross over me.
Grow up:
Doesn't carry even the smallest load.
The wings of women who fly wilt
When they pass through the neighborhood of loving
An arrogant man of darkness, an ignorant boy.
The jar of life breaks
Without a doubt in the hands of its own heart.

That street —
It was nice to cross it with that someone.
Fate forbid us from loving each other.
My heart flew when I ran with that someone.
He let himself lag
So that he wouldn't pass me, so that I would run ahead of him.

Just one street is enough
For freedom to celebrate and cross over,
For children to cross and go to school,
For boys to look at girls and
For girls to laugh.

A street that carries my name
Should have no sculpture of famous men along its length.
Let it be broad, let it be broad, broad
As my heart.
Let it be empty in the morning and in the evenings
Like the quiet of a poem's house and
Let it be noisy at other times
Like my insides. Lips within lips.
I need a street
Empty of bloodstains,
A street that has never seen
Or known terror.
Let it be flawless, let it be flawless, flawless
Like the sex of these girls that are killed unjustly.
Let it be long, let it be long, long
Like their agony.

On that street,
We are all travelers
But I will remain a traveler.
The quatrains of Nishapur
Will not suddenly trust themselves
And madly drunk with love
Walk arm in arm with me.

In Sulaimani, Iraq, the city where Ahmad grew up, men use the street as one long café. Handcarts sell hot tea, sandwiches, and nuts roasted by blowtorch in steel tumblers. Men congregate for meals, standing in clusters around the carts or squatting curbside. Some build improvised shelters from scraps around the road. There, on worn and dusty couches or folding chairs or woven mats, they sit in the shade and smoke. In Saholaka, a district in the city named for a long-shuttered ice factory, men spill into the streets, blocking traffic as they wander past the carts and pop-up music shops. Women when they are on the road are in motion. The street is a line of transit to them, not a community.

Ahmad, in her poem, re-envisions that territory. She shows the street beneath the men. She turns her poem over to the street's speech. She claims that space, putting her own name on the street signs. In Sulaimani, the streets bear the names of classical Kurdish poets who have come before her. Why not hers, she asks.

The street that carries her name will be quiet as a poem's house and raucous as her insides. Lips within lips. The original phrase is, "Lip of lips." The metaphor indicates voice and fullness. Within one voice, there is another and another and another. As a reader, I can't help but hear a reference to other lips, to another fullness. While this may be over-reading, Kurdish is a language of the body. "Forgive" is "free your neck." "Confess" is "tread on your teeth." A common greeting is "I put you above my eyes." Children, when referred to affectionately, are those who "eat your liver."

It might have been more clear to translate "lip of lips" as, "How full is a human being?" This exact line lived in the translation for months. In the end, the metaphor and image found their way back in.

In the following stanza, Ahmad moves the reader between the street she desires and the reality. There are plenty of stories of the real-life terror visited upon women, which women pass along. Some may be urban legends while others are captured on smart phones and uploaded to YouTube. How many have I heard myself? Recently, a rumor circulated about a girl, her father's favorite, who didn't ask his permission before agreeing to marry the man she loved. Her father initially relented. Then, pressured by family members, he walked into her room as she slept and shot her. Another: the story of the young girl stoned to death by her town for having married in secret a boy of another religion. Let her street be flawless, Ahmad prays, as flawless, as pure, as the women who have died unjustly. Let her street be long, she prays, as long as their agony. It is the two-faced coin of the women she has known and the woman she is: desire and agony.

Ahmad's country, Kurdistan: a country that isn't a country, has known many terrors. Today, a terror that is new, but not new, has come to the Kurdish region.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has changed the balance of power in Iraq, in Syria, and in the broader region of the Middle East. Some Kurds see this as an opportune moment to achieve independence from their various states: Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. They do not wish to live under the Sunni extremism of ISIS or, south of the regions ISIS controls, the lesser Shiite fundamentalism that threatens. As Kurds try to work together across political, linguistic and cultural differences that have been embedded in them by centuries of oppressive regimes, fault lines become evident.

While this poem was written long before ISIS's rise to power, the conclusion of this poem could easily describe the current conflict. The poem closes by questioning the trust Kurds bear for each other, "The quatrains of Nishapur," an ancient city in what is now north-eastern Iran (a Kurdish area), "Will not suddenly trust themselves/And madly drunk with love/Walk arm in arm with me." The verses of Iranian Kurds, written in a different dialect, with hundreds of years of divergent history, will not, overnight, reveal themselves to her: an Iraqi Kurd. The poem ends in uncertainty. The poem ends without end, "We are all travelers/But I will remain a traveler."


Trans. Darya Ali
and Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse

The vague mirror of my time
broke because

it made what was small big

and what was big small.
Dictators and monsters filled its face.
Even now as I breathe
its shards pierce the walls of my heart

and instead of sweat
I leak glass.

Terror is a pattern in the mind. It takes time to teach; it is painful to learn. The mirror of Ahmad's era shattered because it reflected the inverted values of dictatorship. Those who were small in heart, the mirror rendered tall in stature. Those who offered the largess of acceptance were brought low. Those who weren't persecuted were taught fear. Those who were persecuted were taught fear. The lessons don't die with the teacher.

For the past three years, I have been a lecturer at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. I teach poetry writing, literary translation, and ENG 102: Critical Reading and writing. At various levels of skill and interest, I teach students how to be awake as they read: to their own responses to the text, to the other imagination that made the text, to the community that has formed around the text.

What do you hate? What do you love? Why?

Can you articulate, without embedding your own prejudice, what the text says?

What have other readers said about this text? How are they talking to each other? How do you assess their perspectives?

Dry as it may sound, these foundational skills of the academy are groundbreaking in Iraq. The idea of "just you and the text" is virtually non-existent in that education system. Desperate students have bluntly asked what I want to hear, or, barring that, what the experts say so they can regurgitate. There is such a deep history of interpretation it has become suffocating. Poetry books designed for popular consumption come with extensive footnotes on each page, sometimes taking up more than half the folio. What should be a rich intellectual community for emerging readers and writers to join sits as a yoke on their shoulders.

Teaching students to read a text for themselves is, small as it is, teaching students to see the world for themselves. Helping students argue with rather than at their fellow students, contained to the classroom as it may be, is helping them choose empathy even in moments of stress.

A 102 student of mine came into my class wearing the ankle-length pants and full beard of a conservative Muslim man. He didn't participate in the class discussions. His papers were bursting with energy and quotations from whatever text we read, but lacked any framing thoughts of his own. After class, I finally asked him why the disconnect. He said simply, "I don't think you really want to hear what I have to say."

He knew I was liberal. A woman. Western. He figured, better to leave well enough alone. Pass the class. Move on. I answered honestly. His ideas were important to the fullness of our conversations. Whether or not I personally agreed with him was not important. He began contributing. Stammering at first, he grew more sure of himself as I failed to descend on his opinions with the fury he anticipated.

One day, as we discussed cultural relativism, he said, "Women in America are raped more because of the way they dress." Rage surged against my eyelids. A barrage of no's lined up on my tongue. But if instinct is an itch, that day, I stopped myself from scratching. What an interesting hypothesis, I said. Let's look at its assumptions, I said. What do statistics tell us from America? We found answers. What do statistics tell us from Iraq. We found none.

It was at this point that a young veiled woman erupted. "Because we don't have any! And even if people tried to ask, no one would tell them!" The young man paused and considered.

The young woman came to me after the class. "I can't take it," she said, "he drives me absolutely crazy. Talking to him is like running your head into a brick wall, but brick must sometimes move. He never does!"

I asked her if she'd rather this young man be somewhere else, somewhere beyond our discussions. She thought, nodded, and said no.

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