Poetry Out of Trauma
Salah Niazi. Dizza Castle: Selected Poems. David Andrew, ed. (Hove, UK: Waterloo Press, 2014).
This is a welcome, long-overdue collection of selected poems by Salah Niazi, a leading Iraqi poet who has been living in exile in London since 1963.
Niazi (b. 1935 in Nasiriyyah, near the Sumerian city of Ur) has a distinct and multifaceted literary career. As an academician (B.A. in Arabic, University of Baghdad, Ph.D. from the University of London in 1975), he taught at a number of British institutions, and he has maintained an active role in conferences and cultural forums in Europe and the Arab world. His critical studies include an important theoretical attempt to identify or establish the poetics of the Epic of Gilgamesh (Fann al-shi’r fi malhamat Kilkamish) (2007).
Together with his wife, the novelist and short story writer Samira al-Mana, Niazi served as the editor of a pioneering quarterly entitled al-Ightirab al-Adabi (Literary Exile) published in London between 1985 and 2002. Covering numerous exiled Iraqi and Arab writers, the 50 issues of al-Ightirab are an invaluable record of the repressive political situation during 1980s and 1990s, in which Iraqi writers in particular struggled to pursue their literary activities.
In addition, Niazi published an autobiography Ghusn Muta‘‘am bi Shajarah Gharibah (A Branch Grafted into a Foreign Tree; 2002) that reveals what her regards to be negative aspects in the Arabic/Iraqi cultural heritage in contrast to his positive assessment of Britain’s cultural and literary traditions.
Niazi has translated into Arabic several works by Shakespeare (King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet), The Old Capital (a novel by the Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata, the 1968 Nobel Laureate in literature), and James Joyce’s most demanding work, Ulysses. Prompted by his desire to protect his health from the news of the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, Niazi decided, to paraphrase his words, to shun the war news by immersing himself in a very difficult project, namely a new Arabic translation of Ulysses, which took him several years to complete. It was published ultimately in four volumes (2001, 2010, 2014, and 2015).
As a poet, Niazi is not as prolific as other Iraqi poets of his generation; he published only modest amounts of poetry: eight small collections between 1962 and 2004. He also differs from other Iraqi poets in his preference for the expansive form of poetry, a form that allows him to reflect on a wide range of issues, multiple voices, and other devices related to his central theme. Many of Niazi’s poems have been translated into English and other languages and have been published in anthologies and literary journals since the 1980s. Apart from an earlier bilingual (Spanish-Arabic) collection of his poems La Luna de Bagdad y Otros Poemsas (2010), this most recent book, Dizza Castle (2014), offers for the first time in English a broad view of Niazi’s poetry.
Edited by the British poet David Andrew, in cooperation with the author, Dizza Castle contains 22 poems translated and published earlier over a long period by multiple (11 in total) translators. Admittedly, it is a thin volume, but it can be regarded as representative of Niazi’s poetic styles or forms (free verse, prose poem, short and long poems) and his preoccupation with national and universal themes.
It is regrettable that this collection does not include any preface or introduction relevant to Niazi’s work. Even the title, Dizza Castle, is left unexplained. Only a vague reference is made, on the book’s cover, to “Dizza Castle” as “an unforgettable study of how political violence intrudes into the everyday world.” No mention is made of the fact that the poem “Dizza Castle” itself revolves around a brutal military action against the Iraqi Kurdish city Qala Diza (Qalat Dizah), which was subjected to repeated military onslaughts during Saddam Hussein’s reign. In 1989, Qala Diza, a city of 70,000 or more, was flattened, and its inhabitants were forcibly expelled. It is this harrowing event (which some observers labelled as an “apocalypse”) which Niazi seeks to capture in the elegiac “Dizza Castle” (26-30).
By selecting this particular title for this collection, the poet skillfully foregrounds the former regime’s ruthless policy of mass punishments inflicted on dissenting voices, though no direct reference is made to the regime or the ruler. The poem itself, written in 1989, presents vivid details of the unspeakable crimes committed against a helpless minority. It also questions the morality of inaction or silence on the part of the international community (including the Arab/Muslim world). This is achieved not by any direct reference to the latter but by lamenting the fact that the surrounding mountains, which have sheltered Qala Diza for many years, were of no use in the face of the regime’s military onslaught:
Why do the mountains not unleash their rocks and fight/ Block the roads at least/What is doomsday waiting for?
Other lines reveal a few graphic details of the city’s ordeal:
One hundred thousand, said the paper/Dragged from their homes, tugged by their hairs/struck on their mouths with rifle butts/One hundred and thirty thousand screams besieged/Deprived of food, water and latrines/How many children have wet themselves from fear now?/How many old women, their necks bowed forever?/…not a blackboard, not a doll is saved in Dizza Castle…
The poem concludes with a powerful imagery referring to the city’s death:
The motorcade is in the front of the long lines of lorries
Leading the funeral cortege of Dizza Castle
Its end lost to sight
The collection includes more poems about violence, a theme that predominates in much of Niazi’s poetry since the early 1960s. This focus is not surprising, given the fact that he personally was impacted or haunted by events leading to his exile in 1963. Niazi, a consistently non-partisan voice, has closely followed, like other exiled writers, the news of subsequent wars, atrocities and repressive measures which have plagued his homeland. As examples, I refer specifically to “The Abode,” “Back from War,” “Horses on Tape,” “The Assassination of Mahmoud Braikan” (about the senseless murder of a major pacifist and non-partisan Iraqi poet, Mahmud al-Buraykan 1934-2002)1, “The Wind,” and “The Thinker between the Bronze Shield and the Human Flesh.” What is striking in these as well as other poems not included in this collection is their underlying disdain for wars and for violence-based political orientation or movements. As a consequence, they show no trace of the conventional celebratory tone regarding “heroic” acts, victories, real or illusory and misplaced optimism:
The war is over/The survivors are coming back/At a distance, the military lorries are in sight/
Guns are heaved up lengthwise/Above the soldiers’ heads/…These are the remnants of the still-alive-and-kicking/Shoulders are without epaulettes/Uniforms without buttons/Their arms are just like oars in a dry river/Plying from one arid wave to another/Crying Noah, Noah, Noah
Remnants of those still-alive-and-kicking (“Back from War”)
Niazi’s long poem “The Thinker” 16-21; only the first part has been translated in this edition) is as an illustration of the poet’s intellectual concern with violence and wars within a more global context. Inspired in part by Rodin’s The Thinker and The Gate of Hell, the poem seeks to unravel the nature of violence as a universal phenomenon, demonstrating that humankind has not only failed to eradicate it but rather has, in a sense, continued to nurture it as “our great legacy”:
In the seed of what philosophy has the practice of violence arisen?/ Like the semen in the father’s loin/Violence is our great legacy/Even our children’s drawings/From the very beginning/Look like wild jungles/Where battles are fierce, hot and red.
This is why the poet resorts to the use of numerous references, events, and allusions in support of his central theme. There is, for example, an obvious allusion to T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: the role of “hired vassals, the dark priests” and the state’s agents leading to Becket’s martyrdom. Other examples include familiar references to bombings, secret organizations, the khaki police, shattered cease-fires, activists recanting, and so on.
As a first attempt to represent Salah Niazi’s poetry, Dizza Castle is an important addition to the increasing number of Arabic poetry collections in English. It deserves wide attention among readers interested in Iraqi poetry or in the themes of violence and war in contemporary Arab poetry.
1. See al-Buraykan’s poem “Vacant City” Free Verse: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. Winter 2002.
Salih J. Altoma is Professor Emeritus of Arabic and Comparative Literature and has been affiliated with Indiana University since 1964. He has served as Director of Middle Eastern Studies (1986–91) and Chair of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department (1985–91). His publications include Modern Arabic Literature in Translation: A Companion (London: Saqi, 2005) and Iraq’s Modern Arabic Literature: A Guide to English Translations since 1950 (Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2010).