Foreign Policy Blogs

Iraq in Verses: The Poetry of War and Hope

Recently, my mother gave me a book of Iraqi poetry. For those who know our family, this would come as little surprise. An erstwhile English major, I was raised on the written word by my librarian mother. In spite of my professional transition toward the political, I have kept my faith in the spirit of poetry – I continue to believe in its ability to capture the best aspects of human culture.

An Empty City

In one of my travels

I suddenly find myself

In a silent city –

Not a trace of life anywhere.

The doors of the houses are locked,

And the wind plays in the squares

But the city’s windows shine all night.

Who switched on the lights?

I saw in gardens all kinds of flowers

Bending their heads.

And I saw a ruined playground.

I knocked at many doors,,

I shouted:

Are they all dead?


Turned with what magic into invisible creatures

Then, suddenly, I saw the shadow of a woman

Stirring on a marble pedestal,

Trying lazily to arise from her ancient hibernation,

And I said: “Do you know who I am? It’s me Adam.”

But she did not know language.

-Mahmod al Braikan (trans. Saadi A Simawe)

The editor of this particular book noted that his efforts to translate Iraqi poetry into English had matured from an academic pursuit to a desperate effort to preserve a nation’s humanity after decades of dictatorship and war. I share his concern, and his devotion to the conservation of Iraq’s unique national identity. In a modest tribute to the enduring spirit of the Iraqi people, I have decided to ring in the New Year with a brief study of their unique and compelling verse.


Every evening when I come home

My sadness comes out of his room

Wearing his winter overcoat

And walks behind me.

I walk, he walks with me,

I sit, he sits next to me

I cry, he cries for my cry,

Until midnight

When we get tired.

At that point

I see my sadness go into the kitchen

Open the refrigerator

Take a black piece of meat

And prepare my supper

-Yousif al-Sa’igh (trans. Saadi A Simawe)

Since the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq hostilities in 1980, Iraq has been largely defined by conflict. Over the years, eloquent advocates and political analysts have produced countless military, economic and geopolitical studies of the country. However, their assessments have only told part of the story. To date, little has been published on Iraq’s highly complex literary tradition that offers testament to a nation’s endurance in opposition to violent realities of oppression and challenges to modernism.

The Beggar

In the temple of my soul, demons pray

In the court of my conscience, evil doers quarrel

And from my cherished illusion, I beg to be released

My path is covered with thorns

My freedom is buried under gold

My pride is hidden by ignorance

My sky is a space of hope

My earth is a field of greed

My death is proof of myself

Who will grant me love to live on?

Who will uncover the treasures of Time?

And, before morning, who will make me rich so I need not beg?

-Murad Mikha’il (trans. Sadok Masliyah)

The Arabic word for poetry can be defined as “meaningful speech which has rhyme and rhythm.” Traditionally, this has meant that the absence of any of these three features – particularly the rhyme – renders the verse as prose. However, since the 1960s, Iraqi poets have enthusiastically rebelled against orthodoxy in favor of new stylistics. Their work has been characterized by existentialism, iconoclasm and solipsism. Inspired by Western modernists such as TS Eliot and Edith Sitwell, Iraqi poets developed a style known as al-sh’ir al-hur, or free-verse, that expanded traditional boundaries.


Four children

A Turk, a Persian

An Arab and a Kurd

Were collectively drawing the picture of a man.

The first drew his head

The second drew his hands and upper limbs

The third drew his legs and torso

The fourth drew the gun on his shoulder

– Sherko Faiq (trans. Muhammad Tawfiq Ali)

This poetic revolution, which began in Iraq and spread throughout the Arab world, introduced new imagery, new metrical patterns and a new sensibility. Modern themes of nationalism, feminism, homeland, exile and colonialism balanced humanistic sentiments on love, war, torture and exile. One might imagine that it was necessary to shed the mantle of artistic convention to effectively dispute political reality.

In Old Age Gray Hair May Look Black (from “How L’Akhdar Ben Youssef Wrote His Last Poem”)

An old man at fifty

Squats in his room, occupied with lies and cigarettes.

Who will return to the toothless his milk teeth

Who will return to the grayhead the hair of youth?

Who can fill this empty head?

But in old age, gray hair can look black

And a lie may hold the truth

And cigarette clouds can look like a sky raining

And in his toothless gums, milk teeth may grow.

But in old age too

A man very old at fifty can fall

Dead in his room

Dressed in lies and smoke

-S’adi Yusuf (trans. Khaled Mattaw)

Iraqi writers have given voice to the dispossessed and rescued beauty from tragedy. Their willingness to peacefully resist persecution is admirable. Armed only with perseverance, dedication, and a rare eloquence, these writers have established themselves as the quiet heroes of Iraq’s struggle for unity, and models for all those who fight for social justice.



Reid Smith

Reid Smith has worked as a research associate specializing on U.S. policy in the Middle East and as a political speechwriter. He is currently a doctoral student and graduate associate with the University of Delaware's Department of Political Science and International Relations. He blogs and writes for The American Spectator.