How to Live in Exile: The Poetry of Amal al-Jubouri – Jeremy Paden



A translated poem, affirms Willis Barnstone, “dwells in exile” and “lives forever between home and alien city.” I begin citing from Barnstone’s “An ABC of Translating Poetry” because these two phrases, while speaking about the art of translating, signal some of themes in Hagar Before the Occupation, Hagar After the Occupation. Written by the Iraqi poet Amal al-Jubouri, translated by Rebecca Gayle Howell with Husam Qaisi, and published as the inaugural collection in Alice James’ series of poetry in translation, this collection of poems is about exile, wandering, and foreignness. But it is also about using language to mark out a place to be, about finding a way to speak and name the atrocities of both Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and the American occupation. It is a collection about learning how to live in exile, when exile names not only the state of living as alien in another country, but as alien in one’s own country, now war-torn and plundered.

The second to last poem of the collection, “Poetry Before the Occupation,” begins 


Your beckoning eyes guided me

to my country


bringing Berlin to the streets

of Baghdad


Before the womb expelled me

you were my cord to the placenta


I was your creation

No—your goddess


I, your heiress

You, my slave

You, my god 


Before the occupation, as this poem suggests, al-Jubouri was a poet living in exile in Berlin. As her official biography shows and this poem hints at, while in exile she worked tirelessly as poet, translator, and literary activist creating cultural spaces for East/West dialogue. هاجر قبل الاحتلال .. هاجر بعد الاحتلال (Hagar Before/Hagar After), published in Arabic in 2008, is her fifth collection of poems. Though relatively unknown in English, al-Jubouri has been an important voice in both contemporary Iraqi and Arabic poetry ever since the clandestine publishing of her first collection in 1986, Wine from Wounds, when the poet was just 19. After studying English at the University of Baghdad, she became a well-published translator of English and American poetry, a freelance journalist, a producer of cultural programming for Iraqi television, and the founder of a publishing house known for its translations of English language literature into Arabic—Al Masar (now East West Diwan). In 1997 she sought political asylum in Germany, but in 2003, two days after the Ba’ath party fell from power, she returned to Baghdad.


The poems of Hagar Before/After, written between this return and the publication of the collection in 2008, provide a poetic testimony of the first five years of the American occupation of Iraq. While biographical details pepper the poems throughout, Hagar is much more a book about poetry as witness and response to war, violence, and suffering, and about the poet struggling with her chosen medium, than about registering a personal reaction to the American occupation. 


Rebecca Gayle Howell, a 2010/2011 Fine Arts Work Centre fellow in poetry, whose work on these garnered her the Jules Chametzky Prize in Literary Translation from The Massachusetts Review, began this project as part of her MFA work at Drew University. She has stated that she felt drawn to al-Jubouri’s poetry after first stumbling upon a poem written by the Iraqi poet in response to the atrocities of September 11, 2001. 


In al-Jubouri Howell saw a poet writing in and from the conflict, the war-zone, and as there was no sustained translation of al-Jubouri’s work in English, Howell wanted to bring her voice into the American conversation surrounding our involvement in Iraq. As Howell reveals in her translator’s preface, she is not fluent in Arabic, but translation is not always a matter for poet and translator alone, as Barnstone writes in his ABC of translating poetry, under the entry F for friendship: 


If [a poet does not know the other’s tongue], a third person, a friendly and responsible human dictionary, can be an intermediary. Enter the informant.

The poet reads the source text or makes conscientious use of an informant to read it. With the informant scholar, the poet translates the poem. The informant is a dictionary, not a poet, useful as a dictionary but risky as a poet. 


Howell’s “friendly and responsible human dictionary,” Husam Qaisi, is a Palestinian who has lived in the U.S. since 2003 and a close family friend. In the collection’s preface, Howell writes about their painstaking process of breaking the poems down to their most basic syntagms and constructing word charts of synonyms. The final translations, in turn, were read and approved by al-Jubouri.


Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, though never mentioned directly in the Qur’an is an important matriarch of the Islamic faith. In Arabic the middle consonant is a soft ‘j,’ “Hajar.” Her name, which can mean “stranger” or “wandering,” contains within it the word ‘hajj,’ or the pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five pillars of Islam. In fact, the procession between mount Al-Safa and Al-Marwah and the drinking from the Zamzam Well, among other rituals, reenacts Hagar’s wandering in the desert after her separation from Ibrahim. As to the specific reasons for this separation, the literary tradition contains a variety of stories. Al-Jubouri’s poems draw on the history of Hagar’s wandering in order to define her and her children as exiles. “To My Lord Iraq,” the prologue poem, rises out of the image of Hagar wandering among the mountains thirsting for water. And, while “Hagar Before…” presents her as one who wants “to come home,” “Hagar After…” has her searching “for her old face” as she wanders through a city where “streets wear blindfolds.” This last poem ends with a bitter twist; freedom is turned into a repudiated child. The last lines ask, “And freedom?/ A bastard child/ An orphan// Without a name.” 


As stated in the introduction of this review and as noted in the poems that directly name Hagar, exile is woven throughout the collection. In “My Daughter Before the Occupation,” al-Jubouri writes, “my daughter used to ask me why we were here / I called it exile She called it my country.” Then, in a poem titled, “My Soul Before the Occupation,” the poet exclaims, “[my soul] was buried alive in the grave of exile.” Should one think, though, that exile is a state of being that belongs to “before the occupation” and that “after the occupation” some sort of return home is possible, “My Mouth After the Occupation” belies such hope. It ends asserting, “I’m terrified of losing truth / and look—it’s already gone // Exiled with God’s tongues.” 


The book is comprised of three sections and the prologue poem. The untitled first section is made up of fifty paired poems that alternate between before and after the American occupation, sketching out Iraq’s geographic, domestic, psychic, and spiritual landscape. The second section, titled “The Cantos Chapter,” is a series of lamentations on suicide, martyrdom, the loss experienced by all involved in the war, and also a wailing address to George W. Bush. The third section, “A Farewell to Poetry,” returns to the before and after pairing with two poems titled “Poetry Before the Occupation” and “Poetry After….” After having catalogued the devastation of war, painting a fractured picture of Iraq both before and after the occupation, and mourning over the dead and the living, this section asks if poetry is possible in the wake of devastation.


This brief summary of the structure of the collection, however, fails to point out the other ways in which al-Jubouri weaves her fragments into a whole. Indeed, another way to look at it would be to state that the collection is one long poem with a coda that bids adieu to poetry. This reading would note that, with the exception of the final pair of poems, the entire book unfolds within the inclusioof an address. The collection opens with the title of the short prologue poem “To My Lord Iraq,” while the final line of “We All Lost,” the last poem before the section “Farewell to Poetry,” ends with the apostrophe, “O- My Lord, Iraq.” Inside this envelope al-Jubouri sings her elegy.


Both the use of the inclusio that binds section one and two together and the placing of the poems from the first section within the opening poems “My Country Before/After” and the closing poems “Baghdad Before/After” are framing devices meant to hold the grief poured out in poetry. There are many other such correspondences that show how tightly woven a cloth this collection is. Highlighting this one, I think, is sufficient to note the difficulty of translating the work. Indeed, a translated poem is a poem wrenched out of context and set adrift in another, a poem exiled from home by the very act that tries to make it available to others.


Hagar is written in open Arabic verse, which relies on rhythms and near rhymes, repetitions and near repetitions, as well as aural puns that are simply impossible to reproduce in English. In the introduction to the collection, Howell speaks of the difficulty of translating this poetry, noting, among other examples, the way that al-Jubouri puns on “Abu Ghraib,” the infamous military prison, and “abu gahrib,” or father to strangers. These references come from the last poem of the collection, “Poetry After the Occupation,” where the “cheap cell” and “barren prison” of poetry is both an “Abu Ghraib” and an “abu gahrib.” 


Contemporary American poetry, at least the strain into which Howell has chosen to translate the poems, is characterized less by repetition and more by compression and concision. She has found a gnomic economy of diction that serves her well. This can be seen in her excision of words. Where al-Jubouri might repeat the word ‘photographs’ or ‘loneliness’ at the beginning of a line or section in poems such as “Photographs Before the Occupation,” Howell dramatically limits repetition. Though al-Jubouri repeats the word ‘photographs’ three times, in Howell’s version the word only appears in the title. After opening the poem with the word ‘photographs’ as the first word of the phrase, al-Jubouri places the word by itself on a line in order to break the poem into thought or image units. Howell, as mentioned, has chosen not to reproduce the anaphora, instead she uses stanza breaks to communicate these thought units.


We were sure our faces would live on

in your silver light, your tyrant frames


Deposit box—

with you, we fought against all we lost:

our youthful balance, valor,


our vigor, saved

for those aged days

soon to come 


As with everything in this collection, the photographic home people thought would preserve their faces becomes a map to find their dead loved ones.


One of the advantages of translating open forms is that their openness extends that freedom to the translator in regards to stanzas, line breaks, absence of rhyme, and so on, and Ms. Howell has made much of this freedom. Though she has followed the basic organizational logic of “Photographs…”, for instance, she has chosen to drop “our vigor” down to the last stanza. On the one hand, this ties the second and third stanzas together; but it also introduces a more radical fragmentation to the poem that captures the spiritual dislocation of the collection. For the most part, these sorts of decisions and freedoms do not call undue attention to themselves. Most of al-Jubouri’s poems are short, and Howell’s poems are, at times, a sort of visual mirror image. This iconic similarity breaks down, as it must, in the longer poems, especially in the last poem of the book, “Poetry After the Occupation.” This is in part due to the freedoms Howell takes in her line-breaks, the fact that she prefers a short line, and also her choice to use mostly unrhymed, unmetered couplets.


One place where Howell has chosen to embrace repetition, though, is in the Cantos chapter. As opposed to the shorter fifty poems in the first section that rely heavily on compressed images, here the poems are longer, modern-day laments. Howell’s language, thus, leaves off her Dickinsonian terseness to embrace repetition and anaphora. “O— / Goddess of Sorrow / Goddess of Wounds / Goddess of Endurance” opens the poem titled “The Suicide.” And in “We All Lost,” quite differently than her approach to “Photographs…,” Howell repeats ‘Baghdad’ every time al-Jubouri does, for a total of twelve times. She likewise repeats ‘alone’ a total of 22 times, so that the lines read “Baghdad was not looted alone alone,” or “Alone Baghdad did not burn alone.” The choice is smart and inevitable, as the poem is essentially a repetition of these two phrases with a change in the verb, the interjection “O— / O—,” and the apostrophe “O—My Lord Iraq.” The repetition of the long o in the interjection and in ‘alone’ aurally reinforces the wailing of this mourning poem.


The final section of the book, “Farewell, Poetry,” brings together the wandering Hagar, the exiled poet, and the lamentation over the devastated land in a lyrical abjuration of poetry. If before the occupation, says the poet, poetry’s “beckoning eyes guided me to my country,” now “You have lost the way” and have “become / too weak to hold my grief.” The exile suffered, as hinted at in the earlier assertions that truth is “Exiled with God’s tongue” and that freedom is an orphan “without a name,” is an exile from language and art. The war is now a war between poet and poetry. Al-Jubouri cries, “I used to walk, head in the clouds / thinking, Maybe peace will rain upon my people,” but she has found that poetry has abandoned her. She used to believe that both poetry and she came “from Paradise,” but now finds poetry to be full of “promises, hollow and looting.” Near the end of the poem, she names herself “the progenitor of stories;” however, though she is “pregnant with memories,” she tells poetry, “You are not the one who will stretch my womb / with a harvest of fruit and dignity… You’re not fit for Hagar.” In the final lines of this last poem “classical verse” shatters and turns into “prose” and “regret.” 


Though I am not as familiar with the Arabic tradition, in the modern West, at least, the atrocities of war have caused poets to call into question the value and power of lyrical poetry. At the same time, as Sarah Maguire has noted in her essay titled “Singing About the Dark Times: Poetry and Conflict,” “silence is no option.” The perspicacity of lyrical poetry is precisely what is needed in times of war to make sense of chaos. However imperfect a vehicle, however much poets might lament the failure poetry, it is still the best medium we have to bear witness to the suffering and give voice to the exile.


Maguire’s essay also gives us another way to think about the translation of poetry in dark times. She affirms, “Translating poetry is the opposite of war.” The collaboration between al-Jubouri, Howell, and Qaisi is a testament to this truth. It is not that they find a way around the problem of translation; it is that Howell, relying on Qaisi’s fluency, and entrusting herself to al-Jubouri’s vision, has written beautiful, moving, and passionate poems in English that try to welcome the stranger among us, letting the one our nation has called enemy speak in our own tongue.

Translated from  Arabic by Rebecca Gayle Howell and Husam Qaisi



Jeremy Paden was born in Italy and raised in Latin America. He is Assistant Professor of Spanish and Latin American literature at Transylvania University in Lexington, KY. His essays and reviews have appeared in Colonial Latin American Review, Calíope: Journal of Renaissance and Baroque Poetry, the South Atlantic Review, and other journals and books. His poems have appeared in such places as the Atlanta Review, Cortland Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Naugatuck River Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, among other journals and anthologies.

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