The Poet’s Gate: Colla in Iraq

baghdadcentral‘There are many societies where poetry plays a central role,’ says Elliott Colla in his outro to Baghdad Central, ‘But perhaps it is only in Iraq that the public repertoire of poetry includes modernist verse that is at times radically experimental… To educated Iraqis, none of the poets in Khafaji’s mind would be unknown. In fact, many of them are household names.’

This Iraq aftermath, with Pentagon greenzoners toting PowerPoints in the ruins of Aflaq’s dark dream, is sometimes horrific (the protagonist Inspector Khafaji, a deserter from the military police, is mistaken for a senior Ba’athist and thrown into a cell with captured jihadis) and sometimes funny: an Iraqi interpreter, hired to translate a British officer’s talk, trips over the word ‘benchmark’ which he relays as ‘sign of the bench’, ‘trace of the long seat,’ and ”imprint of the worktable’… Other words like ‘synergy’ and ‘entrepreneurism’ wreak even more havoc.’

Hired to train new recruits, Khajafi is drawn into a murder investigation, and the thriller function kicks in. But Arab poetry is entwined with the story. The lines of Abul-Qasim al-Shabbi – ‘For he who is not embraced by a passion for life will dissipate into thin air/At least what all creation has told me, and what its hidden spirits declare’ contrasts with the box-ticking literalism of the coalition authorities: a sign describes to Khajafi a warning siren (‘High Wailing Tone. 1. Secure all classified documents. 2. Close all windows, lock all doors. 3. Immediately leave building’) just in case we weren’t aware. Another chapter opening para recalls an obvious line from Dante: ‘When you visit the American zone, leave your dishdasha at home. Wear clean clothes. Wear pants. Iron your shirt. Better yet, wear a jacket and tie. And while you’re at it, wash the blood off before you get to the gates.’

Colla is a teacher of Arabic literature at Georgetown University and in this debut he wears his knowledge lightly, the politics sometimes not so lightly, but the atmosphere he creates of the urban Middle East is so accomplished it’s dazzling. ‘The chaotic, frenetic movement of men and women and children walking and driving and riding and going. The dance of the city, its messy pulse. Its life. Its life despite.’ There are passages where you can breathe the cordite in the air and hear the sounds where the planes go.

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