An Excerpt from Faleeha Hassan’s ‘War And Me’

To coincide with the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, we publish this excerpt from Iraqi poet and writer Faleeha Hassan’s memoir War And Me, which appeared in William Hutchins’ translation from Amazon Crossing in 2022. In her book, Hassan tells the story of her coming of age during the war between Iraq and Iran and offers a personal perspective on love, loss, education, and society in times of conflict. She begins her narrative: “From the events I recount in this memoir, you will understand that next to my name in the Unknown World or beside it at the moment I was born, the only comment inscribed must have been: ‘Faleeha Hassan will coexist with war for most of the years of her life.'”

From WAR AND ME: A Memoir by Faleeha Hassan (Chapter 2)

Cover of ‘War And Me’

Although 1980 was not an auspicious year for a birth, in its third month my sister Hala was born—the final grape in our bunch. That was exactly six months before the disaster. This year and the following ones tattooed all Iraqis with loss and death.

From the start of this year, we had witnessed and heard about unfamiliar events, ones that our ears and eyes found off-putting. We anxiously attributed them to random opinions, but a saying that was often on the tongues of people was: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Everyone expected a fierce, blazing conflagration to erupt after smoky rumors circulated with the speed of lightning from one person to the next. These suggested that clashes and serious military attacks had occurred between the Iraqi and Iranian armies. And then there was the September 17 televised appearance of President Saddam Hussein, dressed in a military uniform, during which he declared null and void the Algiers Accord reached on March 6, 1975, ending the struggle between Iraq and Iran. On that fateful day in 1980, the president had that era put to rest. It was the end to the secrecy around events occurring beyond the Iraqi public’s eyes and ears. Suddenly, overnight, all the information that had leaked out on the street from soldiers returning from the borders became a bloody reality that spread across all the following days. Even my subsequent academic success was deprived of its joy, and I received my marks as suspect gifts that brought me no delight.

From the opening day of that school year, which began as usual on September 1, before the events of the catastrophe floated to the surface, where their brutality could be seen by the naked eye, I sensed that something I could not fathom or describe would definitely occur. It would be more brutal than my mother’s illness and more profound than her deep-rooted grief at the loss of my brother Ahmad. I could almost feel the delicacy of its frightening, smooth, effortless advance as it drew closer till it besieged all of us like some giant serpent, depriving us of our vivacity. Teachers—who were at the time an excellent source of news we were not yet allowed to know—whispered to us anxiously: “The Iranian Army launched an attack yesterday on our borders!”

“The Iranian Army bombarded the cities of Khanaqin, Zurbatiyah, Mandali, and al-Muntheriya.”

“They occupied the district of Zain al-Qaws.”

“Our government hanged the prominent religious authority Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr!”

“Sitt Najat’s son died as a martyr at the borders last night!”

“Iran has closed the air space between it and the Gulf states!”

“Iran will inevitably occupy Iraq in a few days!”

I couldn’t share any of this with my family, because any leak that found its way to the ears of government spies—who had sprung up suddenly everywhere, like weeds—no matter how innocent the words were, would wreak havoc on my family. I did not want them to be branded a “fifth column,” since that label would easily and quickly send all of them to the gallows, together with all our cousins, even those four times removed, or to life imprisonment without parole. Each whispered comment dug the trench between me and any peace of mind that much deeper. This gap quickly increased in size till it became a deep ravine, and I could no longer pretend that my day at school had been a regular school day filled only with lessons and learning. No matter how hard I tried to divert my gaze from those whispering mouths, the news issuing from them drew my ears to them. All I could do when I returned home was to climb to my house’s roof and begin to whisper to myself what I had heard, trying to liberate myself from those suppurating secrets. Then I would climb back down to pursue my day’s chores, while remaining hypervigilant.

President Saddam appeared on the official state television channel, Channel One, with a stern expression, wearing his khaki uniform, in which he always appeared from that day till the end of the war, and in a serious, stentorian voice, commanded the Iraqi Army, almost all of whose legions were stationed on Iraq’s borders with Iran: “Combat them, fearless stalwarts!” Everyone took to the streets—not to support the decision to go to war, which had been announced September 22, nor to protest against it. We as a people had no right to reject or accept. We were simply puppets swayed by decisions issuing from the mouth of the government and its president. I, however, attributed the enormous turnout in the streets to the burden that all those secrets had imposed on our breasts, which exploded with a single shout: “With our spirit and blood, we will sacrifice ourselves for you, Saddam!”

At least now, everyone shared the war’s news, no matter how brutal it was. Such information was no longer considered the monopoly of one group, and everyone, both men and women, became political analysts. Their commentaries, which were not informed by military expertise but by their imaginations and which totally contradicted views expressed on television, quickly became a way for people to escape the terrifying question that troubled all of us and limited our ability to make predictions. It was what we asked everyone around us once, and ourselves, repeatedly: “What do you suppose will become of us?”

From the beginning of that ninth month of 1980, I was obsessed by a feeling of revulsion—as if a large snake had swallowed me. At every moment of the day, I felt I was nearing its gastric juices, even though I frequently struggled to ignore the viscous sensation. The announcement of this war made me feel disgusted by everything—even myself—but I did not encounter those gelatinous gastric juices of the serpent’s digestion until a few days later, in the courtyard of our school.

That day, when the sun should have been shyly sending kisses to our cheeks after suddenly emerging from behind the clouds and leaving us surprised by its beautiful and warm September glow, I woke to find nothing overhead but a thick layer of stale yellowish air. Perhaps the angels had inhaled the kisses before us, leaving behind only exhaust to stifle us. This layer of stale air weighed so heavily on our house that it formed a roof over it. I felt no desire to eat breakfast when I saw it. So, after washing my face with soap and water and brushing my teeth with the banana-flavored toothpaste my father had given me, I put on my school clothes. Then I put my bag on my back; hid it beneath my abaya, which made my bag look like a hump that had suddenly fallen asleep on my back; opened the door gently; and left before my siblings began to wake. (My mother and grandmother had started to take turns walking my siblings to school and bringing them home when I enrolled at the middle school the previous year.) 

I walked quickly, attempting to flee from that thick layer of suffocating air, but it quickly covered the entire street, and I sensed that it was spying on me, intent on suffocating me. I met several girls who looked just like me in their black abayas, which also hid the humped protrusions on their backs. I felt unable to smile at them as I typically did each morning. I entered the school quickly and, as soon as I traversed the corridor from the courtyard to the classrooms, began to tremble, and the palms of my hands started to perspire.

A student approached me when she saw me trembling and asked, “What’s wrong with you? Do you have a fever?”

Even my voice shook when I replied, “I don’t know. I don’t feel right.”

“Perhaps you’re hungry. I’ll buy you a sandwich from the school store,” another girl offered.

“No, thanks. I don’t feel hungry,” I told her in the same quavering voice. I took my seat in the classroom and tried to pull myself together, but my physical tremor affected my spirit. I sorely missed my grandmother, because she alone would have been able to explain what was happening to me.

“Line up!” shouted the class proctor in an unexpectedly loud voice after the bell rang in the courtyard. I filed out with the other students, dragging my body forward as best I could.

A clamor erupted as one student after another asked versions of these vexing questions: “What’s happening?” and “Why this sudden roll call?”

Typically, courtyard assemblies occurred only at the end of the week; Thursday morning, to be precise. All the same, every girl took her place in the orderly ranks facing the Iraqi flag on its pole. Our teachers rushed to join us from numerous administrative offices and line up between us and the flag, facing it. When everyone had found her place and silence prevailed, the school principal, Madam Nazanin, who was dressed in a black suit, a white blouse, and a gray jacket, took her place before us.

Then she said, “As-Salam ‘alaykum wa-rahmat Allah wa-barakatahu. Greetings, my excellent teachers and dear students. I am honored to bring you our sage government’s decision, which was announced last night, to close schools for ten days, until our certain victory over the infidel Persians is announced.

“Long live the army! Long live Iraq! Long live the president! Long live the Arab people!

“Now I ask you to go back to your classrooms and prepare immediately to return home. Stay safe.”

Even though our Kurdish principal’s speech was concise, hearing each word drew me closer to the gastric moment I had imagined. My body started shaking violently, and I fainted and collapsed to the ground. No one around me paid any attention, because everyone was deeply stricken by astonishment, terror, and incredulity.

This was what my antennae had been sensing since I woke that day: ten additional days of home confinement, even though I had repeatedly prayed that God would end summer break quickly so I could return to school. Perhaps some spark was setting fire to my foggy life. I slowly raised my body from the ground once the courtyard had emptied almost completely. Supporting myself with the walls, I entered my classroom. I sat surveying the other students, many of whom were incredulous about what was happening. How could a war waged on distant borders force the closure of all our schools? One girl, though, was hoping this closure would last for the entire school year. Some other students supported this hope. Then a discussion broke out between those who embraced the closure and those who rejected it. I gained control of myself and pulled my abaya on. I carried my backpack in my hand and departed, walking slowly back to my house, trailed by my disappointment. I wondered: What if the war didn’t end in ten days? What would become of me without school?

Faleeha Hassan with her book


Faleeha Hassan is a poet, playwright, writer, teacher, and editor who earned her master’s degree in Arabic literature and has published twenty-five books. A nominee for both the Pulitzer and Pushcart Prizes, she is the first woman to write poetry for children in Iraq. Her poems have been translated into twenty languages, and she has received numerous awards throughout the Middle East. Hassan is a member of the Iraq Literary Women’s Association, the Sinonu Association in Denmark, the Society of Poets Beyond Limits, and Poets of the World Community. Born in Iraq, she now resides in the United States.

William Maynard Hutchins has translated many works of Arabic literature into English, including (for Amazon Crossing) Mortada Gzar’s memoir, I’m in Seattle, Where Are You?, which was long-listed for the PEN Translation Prize for 2022. Hutchins holds degrees from Yale University and the University of Chicago and has taught in numerous institutions, starting in Sidon, Lebanon. He is now a professor emeritus at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.