Iraqi poet al-Hamdani visits Israel

Poets and fellow Iraqi exiles Salah Al Hamdani and Ronny Someck found they had a great deal in common: both were born in the same year in Baghdad, and both share a love of the
land where poetry likely began. Ilene Prusher wrote in Haaretz:

A groundbreaking meeting in the Middle East peace process took place
this week, part of a secret back channel that could change the face of
the region.

Scratch that. Rephrase, as writers are wont to do, with less hyperbole and more happenstance.

The groundbreakers in this event were poets, not politicians, and the
back channel is not so secret. Salah Al Hamdani, an Iraqi poet jailed
under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and now living in France, is in
Israel this week, in part to acknowledge and celebrate his deepening
friendship with the poet Ronny Someck, who was born in Iraq and came to
Israel with his family at the age of 2.

Both men discovered a little
over four years ago, during a poetry festival in France, that not only
were they moved by one other’s writing, but they were both born in
Baghdad the same year.

“When I realized that he was born in Baghdad
in 1951, I came to a realization then: I have a Jewish brother who lives
in Israel,” Al Hamdani told an audience gathered Monday night to hear
the two men interact and read from their works as part of the Jerusalem
International Book Fair. “I ran to meet him, because I thought, maybe he
looks like me. And we do look like brothers, right? Especially around
the head,” Al Hamdani joked with the crowd in a theater of the Jerusalem
Cinematheque, running a hand through his thick white shock of hair and
gesturing to Someck’s bald head.

They do not actually look alike,
but they share a love of the land where poetry likely began, with the
Epic of Gilgamesh, and both have deep, gravelly voices that rumble so
low, it’s hard to fathom that someone can sound so manly and so poetic
at the same time.

“I speak to him, Ronny speaks his Iraqi as he
feels like it,” Al Hamdani continued, eliciting more laughter. “And we
understand each other, beyond the words. From there, two Iraqis in exile
sitting in France, we came to realize that Baghdad needs us.”

Al
Hamdani proposed a collaboration, and Someck agreed. In 2012, the two
men came out with a joint book of poetry, “Baghdad-Jerusalem,” with
their work appearing in French, Hebrew and Arabic. The next year, Al
Hamdani took up Someck’s invitation to come to Israel for a poetry
festival in Haifa — largely a quiet visit. But this, Al Hamdani’s second
visit to Israel, amounted to his first appearance in Jerusalem and Tel
Aviv to attend a major literary event.

“I’m here and I will return
here to meet the Jews of Iraq. They’re my family, they’re my blood,” Al
Hamdani said in French, his comments followed by interpretation into
Hebrew. “There’s a lot to say about all the problems between Israel and
Palestinians, and Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians, but these
are not what I’m here to talk about.”

In a separate interview, Al
Hamdani said he “lost some friends” when his connection with Someck and
his travel to Israel became known. Many other poets, writers and artists
in the Arab world hold that any kind of cooperation with Israel amounts
to “normalization” that should be avoided, particularly in the face of a
complete meltdown in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“I can’t be
dictated to about where I should go, any more than I was able to
tolerate living under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein,” Al Hamdani
told Haaretz. Referring to the late Palestinian poet, he said: “Even
Mahmoud Darwish wrote and spoke Hebrew. Should he be ostracized for
that? I do have my critique of Israeli policy, but I think it’s for the
Palestinians to work out a solution to this conflict with Israel, and I
don’t think someone from Iraq or Saudi Arabia or Qatar can decide for
them. In the meantime, I am proud to be here, and proud of what the Jews
of Iraq contribute to my culture.”

Another poet was also involved
in bringing Al Hamdani to Jerusalem: Gilad Meiri, director of the Poetry
Place, a literary project working out of a community center in
Jerusalem. Meiri was present at the festival in Sète, France, when the
two men signed a contract to do a joint poetry collection on a
coffee-stained café napkin.

“We see the terrible racism now in
Israel toward outsiders, so it was very important for us to bring Salah
to the fair to send a message of openness and coexistence — of
multicultural realities,” Meiri said in an interview. “Moreover, the
fair’s roots have been more focused on commercial interests, and so the
position of the poet at the fair is not that high. Bringing an
international poet like Salah Al Hamdani to the fair means raising the
profile of the poet. Most Arab poets don’t want to do any kind of
artistic cooperation with Israel or feel they can’t, and he’s engaging
with us in an amazing and wonderfully warm way.”

At the book fair
event, Meiri — accompanied by the music of Luna Abu Nassar, an Israeli
Arab musician whose songs move flawlessly between Hebrew and Arabic —
read a poem he’d written about Katamon, a West Jerusalem neighborhood
populated by wealthy Christian Arabs until 1948. The sale to a developer
of a plot of land that had been the place where Meiri watched years of
Hapoel Katamon soccer games helped him relate to the Palestinians’
feelings of loss and longing, he said.

In reaction to this, Al Hamdani told the audience that this poem, like his very presence in Israel, was a statement.

“He who is in exile, he is doing a political act. My presence here is
itself a political act. And in a way I am taking a certain risk. There
are those who would like to take our heads off for this and see us
dead,” Al Hamdani said. “When I come here, I bring memories, I bring
messages. The poem on Katamon, what, there’s no political meaning there?
Of course there is, and that is a natural thing.”

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3 Comments

  • Yes, Bataween. I expected. Mel Brooks once explained himself by saying that out of every 10 Jews, "nine are breast beaters, and the tenth is a crazy", he being a 10th.

    Reply
  • I think Meiri is exaggerating. 'Terrible' overstates the problem, and the people who shout loudest about it end up getting the Israel Prize!

    Reply
  • Is there in fact "terrible racism" in Israel, or the sort of tensions you would expect in the context?

    Reply

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