We are the Iraqis


-Kadhem Khanjar is part of a performance collective, ‘The Culture Militia’, and it was helpful to be told this by our bridge translator Alice Guthrie at the start of the workshop – read aloud it has an incredible cumulative effect and made me think of the Beat poets (and Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ in particular) as a depiction of a generation. Although performance poetry can often seem simplistic though – designed to be understood on a single hearing – the more time we spent on this poem the more complexities it revealed.

In the first line, for example, the inked arms clearly belong to the American soldiers, and we learnt that tattoos would be very alien to Iraqi culture and a symbol of otherness. But the leaflets are also tattooed in a way – inked with taboo markings – and carry down the soldier’s arms so that they touch (or even hit) the sleeping women, violating what should be a safe space. In other lines we tried to maintain an ambiguity too. One of our workshop members told us that cock-fighting is still practised in Iraq, and the line ‘we fight with the roosters and wipe away our blood’ seems to refer to this. But are they fighting via the roosters, or actually battling the cocks themselves? We wanted to maintain the possibility of both readings. (Is the rooster sectarianism? The US?)

There were also long discussions about vocabulary, particularly that relating to war. Alice’s original bridge translation had children collecting ‘shells’, but she explained these were cartridges, not seashells. Even ‘cartridges’ though, might evoke a more innocent image to an English reader – that of ink cartridges. In the end we settled on ‘shot-casings’. We also swapped ‘bomb-dough’ – which created a mixed metaphor – for the brand name ‘Semtex.’

Similar debates raged around whether dog’s noses could scratch, the right verb for the action of snapped prayer-beads, whether the united shoulders were carrying a coffin and in what way people waiting at bus stops are like ‘washed shoes’. Although we (just) got through the poem in time, it feels like we could have easily spent another two hours discussing this rich portrait of a people and a country.

Clare Pollard, Poet-facilitator