Part 2: The Fighting Poets


On May 11, one day after US marines conducted their last patrol into Fallujah following their decision to pull back and hand over to a Fallujah Brigade after a bloody month-long siege, hundreds of dignitaries gathered under a long tent in the city 50 kilometers west of Baghdad for a poetry celebration organized by the National Front of Iraqi Intellectuals.
It was staged in front of the unfinished Rahma Hospital, and a podium was placed on top of the rough gray stairs at the hospital's entrance, with the front's emblem and Iraqi flags draped on the podium. Tall columns and arches framed the background. Graffiti on the walls of the hospital read, "Long live the mujahideen and the loved ones of Mohammed", "Victory is Fallujah's and defeat for the infidel America" and "the Fallujah martyrs are the lights for the way to the complete liberation of Iraq".

Clerics resplendent in their turbans, tribal leaders wearing white kafiyas, or headscarves, businessmen, military and police officers and men in Ba'athist-style matching solid-color open-collar shirts and pants called "safari suits" sat on plastic chairs under a long tent shading them from the noonday sun. Banners hung on the sides of the tent and walls of the hospital made clear the sentiments of the moment: "All of Fallujah's neighborhoods bear witness to its heroism, steadfastness and virtue", "The stand of Fallujah is the truest expression of the Iraqi identity", "Fallujah, castle of steadfastness and pride" and "The martyrs of Fallujah, Najaf, Kufa and Basra are the pole of the flag that says God is great".

Above the podium, tough-looking men wearing sunglasses and grimaces looked down on the crowd. A banner above them described the event as a poetry festival to support Fallujah against the occupation. Cans of soft drinks and bottles of water were provided for the honored guests.

"Hey Fallujah," called one poet, "when I wrote my poem you were the most beautiful verse inside it and without your stand I could not raise my head again." Another poet, with the strong accent of Shi'ite southern Iraq, declared: "Fallujah is full of real men." Bridging the Sunni-Shi'ite divide, he referred to the important Shi'ite martyr Hussein, who is venerated for defying Sunni tyranny: "From the 'no' of Hussein Fallujah learned so much." He continued that just as "Hussein was supported by 70 of his followers, we have to be like his followers and end the internal strife ... I have a brave friend from Fallujah and I came from Karbala." He led the audience in chants and hand-clapping, calling for unity between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

Another Shi'ite poet from Baghdad, Falah al-Fatlawi, declared that radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Army of the Mahdi militia "awoke for Fallujah, and Sadr's voice from Najaf" declared the value of Fallujah. "We will never sell it," he said, "people sacrificed their spirit for Fallujah, one heart, one line, Sunni and Shi'ite for Fallujah!" Mohammed Khalil Kawkaz recited a poem called "The Fallujah Tragedy" in a barely intelligible local accent. "Fallujah is a tall date palm," he said. "She never accepts anybody touching her dates, she will shoot arrows into the eyes of those who try to taste her, this is Fallujah, your bride, oh Euphrates! She will never fall in love with anyone but you ... Americans dug in the ground and pulled out the roots of the date palm."

Choosing an interesting metaphor, given the recent decapitation of American Nick Berg, he announced: "We will slit the throats of our enemies!" and added that "the earth hugs the destroyed houses ... the women burned and the children suffered, calling to the governing council, you are deaf and dumb O governing council! You found honor in meeting him who pillaged Fallujah [the Americans]."

He cried to the Euphrates River, asking it why it did nothing to help the city: "Oh Euphrates, what happened to you that you just lay down? Get up and fight with your waves and swallow this country [US] and the others [the coalition], stand with Fallujah! You are the Iraqi flag, they tried to change you but they cannot, for you are her love! Oh Fallujah, you are my blood, my eyes, my everything! All the mosques say God is great and call for jihad, as the Americans bomb their towers! No honor, no justice, no right, nothing, but we have the scarved ones [mujahideen] who will restore all, he brought them, prisoners, hostages, like a wolf and he negotiated and sold them in the market! He who did not bleed for you [Fallujah] is dishonorable!"

Another poet shouted, "Congratulations on the victory of the revolutionaries, your heads will always be high and the one who wanted to conquer you hangs his head low!" A poet from the southern Shi'ite shrine city of Najaf sang, "I brought with me all the love from Najaf to this city and I send it as kisses to the people of the Anbar."

A 12-year-old boy from Najaf followed him, and the microphone was lowered to accommodate his small stature. He wore a pressed white shirt neatly tucked into his jeans, and he waved an arm angrily, pointing a finger at the sky. "I came from Najaf to praise the heroes of Fallujah!" he shouted, and ended by calling to God, screaming, "Ya Allah! Ya Allah," and then burst out sobbing. Older men escorted him off as he wiped away his tears, and he was embraced and kissed in succession by the dignitaries in the front row. He returned to recite another bellicose poem, this time brandishing a Kalashnikov as long as he was tall.

Listening to the hyperbolic poems amid a devastated city I was reminded of Ma'rouf al-Resafi (1875-1945), nicknamed "the poet of Iraq". A teacher, writer, translator, journalist, historian and politician, Resafi traveled for much of his life and settled in Fallujah, from which he fled in 1941 to Baghdad when British troops and mercenaries attacked it. He wrote famous poems in tribute to Fallujah, including one that went:

Oh Englishmen, we will not forget
Your cruelty in the houses of Fallujah
Sanctioned by your army, wanting revenge
Its parasites dazzled by Fallujah's inhabitants
And on the defenseless you poured a glass
Of blood mixed with betrayal
Is in this the civility, and loftiness
Your people claim to ascend to?

Seated majestically in the center of the crowd, prominently next to the chief of police, Colonel Sabar Fadhil al-Janabi, Sheikh Dhafer al-Ubeidi, the guest of honor, rose to speak, a white scarf framing his dark-bearded face and a gold-braided translucent cape draped over his shoulders. "There was never unity in Iraqi history like this," he said, describing the event as "the wedding day for Fallujah". Muslims had not felt such joy, he said, since Saladin liberated Jerusalem in 1187. Silencing the enthusiastic crowd, he continued: "I don't like clapping, so if I say something you like then say 'Allahu Akbar' [God is great], which is in accordance with our traditions. Clapping is for poets, not religious leaders."

Dhafer warned that Zionists, imperialists and Masons were leading the occupation and inciting sectarian war. "The meaning of Fallujah has become victory," he told them. Fallujah was now haram for the Americans, he said, religiously prohibited, until judgment day. "And Iraq will be haram for America until judgment day." Dhafer wished peace upon the crowd and descended to shouts of "God is great!"

As the tribal leaders seated behind Dhafer parted and lumbered out of the tent, holding their gowns up slightly with one hand, I stopped one of the guests, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Zowabi, to ask him about the event. "It is a victory celebration," he told me. "It is a message that all Iraqis are one people, as you saw, and there are many well-known people here from all Iraq." I asked the chubby sheikh if the battle would continue, and he laughed, answering, "Fallujah is part of the victory, but there are more battlefields. There will be a popular rebellion in all of Iraq."

I asked him what political plan they had for the rest of the country, and his answer was typical of what I have been hearing in Iraq for the past 13 months. "We want a national government that represents the Iraqi people," he said. When I pressed him on what type of government, he said, "We want any government that satisfies the Iraqi people." And did the tribal leader want a democracy? "We don't hate democracy, we believe in democracy, but it should come from the Iraqi people. We have our own special democracy that takes Iraqi history and culture into consideration." He explained proudly that "the first code of laws on Earth was Hammurabi's code in Iraq, before America even existed", referring to "priest king" Hammurabi (circa 1792-1750 BC), who united all of Mesopotamia under his 43-year reign of Babylon.

Zowabi's companion, a tall, gaunt sheikh with a thin mustache, told me, "We don't want freedom or democracy if it comes from America." Another sheikh cut him off, shouting, "How can you tell a foreigner that you don't want freedom or democracy? He will tell the whole world." The interrupted sheikh did not respond, telling me only that "America should leave today, before tomorrow".

NEXT: The Fallujah model

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