Black Iraqi Woman

Shortly before my father died, he whispered to me longingly: “Daughter, treasure this, because it authenticates your heritage to our kinsfolk!” When I accepted this object, I discovered it was a stone with inscriptions I did not understand and delicate, mysterious lines. He continued, “It is a keepsake from our great-great grandfather and can ultimately be traced back to Bilal, the Holy Prophet’s first muezzin, and his father, who was the king of Ethiopia.” I accepted this small heirloom, which I carried everywhere with me in my handbag. The person who shared my life under the title of “husband,” however, threw it down the drain at our house, thinking–as he told me–that it was a fetish. From then till now I have endured successive exiles. So I wrote this poem to explain the secret of my skin color–given that I am a native of al-Najaf, Iraq–spiritually, mournfully, and poetically!

My father said: “You were born quite unexpectedly,

Remote from Aksum, like a beauty spot for al-Najaf-‘the Virgin’s Cheek.’

Your one obsession has been writing, but

The sea will run dry before you arrive at the meaning of meaning.”

He affirmed: “During a pressing famine,

I devoted myself to watching over every breath you took.

I would thrust my hand through the film of hope

To caress your spirit with bread.

You would burp, and

I would delightedly endure my hunger and fall asleep.

I could only find the strength to fib to your face and say I was happy.

I would feel devastated when you fidgeted,

Because you would always head toward me,

And I felt helpless.”

Aksum! They say you’re far away!

“No, it’s closer to you than your exile.”

“And now?”

“Don’t talk about ‘now’ while we’re living it.”

“The future depresses me. How can I proceed?”

How can the ear be deaf to the wailing from the streets?

Aksum, you have colored my skin. Al-Najaf has freshened my spirit.

She knows and does the opposite.

She knows that I inter only dirt above me, and

That I deny everything except spelling out words:

M: Mother, who went walking down the alley of no return.

F: Father, who hastened after her.

B: Brother, who never earned that title.

S: Sister who buttoned her breast to a loving tear, no matter how fake.

………………….There’s no one I care about!

The trees tremble some times, and we don’t ask why.

My life surrounds me the way prison walls surround suspects;

I am the victim of a building erected by a frightened man.

With its talons time scratches its tales on me,

And I transform them into a silent song

Or, occasionally, a psalm of sobs.

Father, do you believe that–the roots have been torn asunder?

Fantasies began to carry me from al-Najaf to Afyon

And from Afyon to nonexistence,

Yellow teeth stretching all the way.

“History’s not anything you’ve made,”

One American neighbor tells another.

He’s surprised to see me.

“Who are you?” he asks when he doesn’t believe his eyes.

Would he understand the truth of my origin if I told him I was born in al-Najaf

Or that Aksum has veiled my face?

I have walked and walked and walked.

I’m exhausted, Father.

Is your child mine?

Show yourself and return me to the purity of your loins.

Allow me to occupy the seventh vertebra of fantasy!

Don’t eject me into a time I don’t fit.

I need you.

I ask you:

Has my Lord forbidden me to be happy?

Am I forbidden to preserve

What I have left

And sit some warm evening

Averting my ear from a voice that doesn’t interest me?

Answer me, Father!

Or change the face of our garden

So it changes….to what they believe!


Faleeha Hassan

Faleeha Hassan, who is currently in the United States, was born in Najaf, Iraq, in 1967. She earned an M.A. in Arabic literature and has published several collections of poetry in Arabic: Being a Girl, A Visit to the Museum of Shade, Five Titles for My Friend-The Sea, Though Later On, Poems to Mother, Gardenia Perfume, and her collection of children's poetry, The Guardian of Dreams. Her works of Arabic prose include Hazinia or Shortage of Joy Cells and Water Freckles (a novella). Her poems have been translated into English, Italian, German, French, and Kurdish. She has received awards from the Arab Linguists and Translators Association (WATA) and the Najafi Creative Festival for 2012, as well as the Prize of Naziq al-Malaika, the Prize of al-Mu'tamar for poetry, and the short story prize of the Shaheed al-Mihrab Foundation. She serves on the boards of Baniqya, a quarterly in Najaf, Sada al Nahrain (Echo of Mesopotamia), and the Iraqi Writers in Najaf association. She is a member of the Iraq Literary Women's Association, The Sinonu (i.e. Swift) Association in Denmark, the Society of Poets Beyond Limits, and Poets of the World Community.

William Hutchins

William Hutchins, who is based in North Carolina, was educated at Berea, Yale, and the University of Chicago. He twice has been awarded the National Endowment for the Arts grant for literary translation, first in 2005-2006 for his translation of The Seven Veils of Seth by the Libyan Tuareg author Ibrahim al-Koni (Garnet Publishing), and again in 2011-2012 for al-Koni's novel New Waw. His translations have appeared in Words Without Borders, Banipal Magazine, and here in InTranslation. His translations of Arabic novels include Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street, and Cairo Modern by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (Anchor Books), Basrayatha by the Iraqi author Muhammad Khudayyir (Verso), The Last of the Angels (The Free Press), Cell Block 5 (Arabia Books), and The Traveler and the Innkeeper (American University in Cairo Press) by the Iraqi author Fadhil al-Azzawi, Return to Dar al-Basha by the Tunisian author Hassan Nasr (Syracuse), and Anubis (The American University in Cairo Press) and Puppet (Texas), also by Ibrahim al-Koni. His translations released in 2012 have been The Diesel by Thani al-Suwaidi (ANTIBOOKCLUB), Return of the Spirit by Tawfiq al-Hakim (revised edition, Lynne Rienner Publishers), The Grub Hunter by Amir Tag Elsir (Pearson: African Writers Series), and A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi al-Ahdal (Garnet).

Black Iraqi Woman. Copyright (c) Faleeha Hassan, 2014. English translation copyright (c) William Hutchins, 2014.