The American Ear, The Iraqi (Literary) Voice

Yesterday, reader Abd-Elhamid Taha (@hamid_taha) brought a video of Dunya Mikhail and translator Elizabeth Winslow reading from “The War Works Hard” to my attention.

The video brought back a jarring memory of the first time I came in contact with Mikhail’s poem, the titular work of her award-winning collection. I was teaching a literature course at the University of Minnesota, and — as was my habit — I had each student bring in a poem or poem-like object, read it aloud, tell us a bit about it, and lead a discussion about the text.

A student whose name I no longer remember brought in “The War Works Hard.” This must have been 2006 or 2007, so the US-led War on/about/of/within Iraq was still squirming uncomfortably on the edges of the American conscience.

Now, apparently, things are different. Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon said in a recent interview with Al Akhbar that the “withdrawal” narrative has largely led to Iraq’s disappearance from US public discourse. Antoon: “The discursive curtain is down (not that it was ever fully up anyway) and there isn’t much to discuss or bother about.” Antoon talks, in the interview, about a “collective amnesia.”

But back then, in 2006 or 2007, when I was on a long-ish visit to the US, the students weren’t amnesiac: US soldiers were coming and going, and all of this was regularly and vividly in the news.

So Iraq was a subject of several of the students’ poetry presentations. Literature, of course, is used and abused as a way of learning about the world, and many see it as a more “real” way of coming into contact with the other. And why not? On its face, literature seems like a really good way of seeing “what the Iraqis think about Iraq.”

So it was understandable that this nameless student, trolling around for poetry, turned up “The War Works Hard.” And it’s not surprising that it spoke to her.

Some scientists think that reading literature makes us more empathetic.  This may be true, although I doubt it’s because literature helps us understand “the other,” just as I doubt that Iraqi literature offers “a marvellous array of answers to questions we did not know we wanted to ask.”

Yes, literature is a way of escaping the moment; the parochial self; the unhappy rootedness of our existence. As Antoon says, better we all were clouds. But if (some) literature makes us more empathetic, it’s because this literature creates a wonderful, painful, terrible way of coming into contact with, and wrestling with, the self.

Dunya Mikhail’s poem should have been a way to do that, I think. For many of the students, it was. In fact, maybe it was a more vivid experience because the (nameless) student took the poem very earnestly and directly. She read the poem as though it were about the “other,” these strange Iraqis, and she presented war as an excellent business, good for Iraq, good for the grave-diggers in particular.

What’s wrong here is not that this particular student did a particularly bad job reading the poem. What’s wrongly wrong, I think, is that I didn’t guide her approach. She was looking through the poem, as though it were as a telescopic lens for viewing the way-far-off-and-way-far-weird “other,” instead of as a mirror on the self.

See the video (skip to 2:12 for the readings):