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Celebrating the Wounds of Exile with Poetry

On a recent visit to the West Coast, I reconnected with an old friend who had been forced into exile because of the Iraq war and its consequences. She was driving, I was in the passenger seat. She was telling me about the many hardships she experiences daily just to make ends meet in America. Panic attacks, sleepless nights, stress, and the constant fear of not having enough money to make ends meet. I thought to myself, these problems are hardly experienced by refugees only. Millions of Americans experience the exact same challenges on daily basis. I also thought about how such experiences are examples that show that the struggles and challenges of refugees are not different than those of millions of other Americans. Therefore, refugees and millions of struggling Americans should see each other as natural allies not enemies, as media and politicians constantly try to pit them against each other.

As my friend continued to fill me in on her life as a refugee, a song by an Algerian singer was playing in the background. In a mere coincidence, the song went, “Do you want to hear my news? To hear about how I was forced to drink from this glass of sorrow? I blame and complain to nobody but myself. I have nothing left but to endure this day. To tear up in a time that is not mine.” As the singer sang this line, I noticed a tear rolling on my friend’s cheek with her eyes focused on the road. My friend’s tear combined with the words of the Algerian singer capture so much about how millions of displaced people around the world feel. They speak about what it means to be forced to live in a time and a place that do not belong to them. It is to my friend’s tears, to the millions of displaced lives all over the world, and to mark my own thirteenth anniversary in displacement this month I write today.

Once upon a time, displaced people had a time and a place. They had a place in which they made plans about what to do with their future and their lives. Their time and place were prematurely destroyed and stolen from them. These people were then forced to exist in times and places that are not theirs. They were forced to learn the art of living and flourishing in the same empire that stole and destroyed their time and place back home. It has been thirteen years since I left Iraq, and after a long silence, here I am writing to toast and celebrate my thirteenth anniversary in exile with you. Many things have happened since the 2003 occupation of Iraq. The worst thing that happened is that Iraq has been forgotten. Even worse, or perhaps precisely because of this forgetting, many new Iraqs have been destroyed and added to the imperial list of oppression and domination since 2003. But, how can Iraq be forgotten? Isn’t forgetting it precisely the reason why many other Iraqs are being created around us without having enough people take notice? Are there still some naïve people out there who believe that what happened there will not happen here, albeit in a different shape or form? Are there any naïve people who believe that humanity can go on surviving with this brutal war machine? Are there still naïve people who divide our planet into “here” and “there”?

It has been thirteen years since I discovered that Camelot never existed. That one can never escape the raging fires and the destruction left behind at home. That displaced people can never forget what happened, unless they lose their memory, or die without leaving any trace behind. Through all these years, I have been trying—in vain—to succinctly capture the experience and the reality of refugees. The best way I can express it for now is inspired by the story I shared with you at the beginning of this piece. Let me try this again: A refugee is someone who was forcefully taken out of their time and place. They were then placed in another time and another place that insist on dehumanizing them. It is a tragedy. The ultimate paradox and irony of this tragedy is that, in many cases, those who caused their displacement and those who hate them in their newfound “homes” in exile are the same people! In this way, they leave no place for a refugee to feel at home or even alive. Ghassan Kanafani captures this ugly reality chillingly as he writes: “They steal your bread, then give you a crumb of it…Then they demand you to thank them for their generosity…O their audacity!”

Another painful irony is that, in exile, many refugees strive to stay alive, while watching an absurd show of fraud politicians, experts, pundits, academics, and journalists on the empire’s payroll fighting about over them merely to serve their own careers and fortunes. Some promise to imprison refugees, some promise to build walls to stop their influx, some promise to deny them any human rights, others promise to publicly shame and attack them. Many ask refugees to “fuck off and go back to their countries,” forgetting that their empire left nothing to go back to.  Yet, conveniently, nobody promises to stop waging wars against refugees. Nobody promises to stop destroying and economically exploiting the places from which refugees escaped. They discuss everything except the actual solution to the refugee crisis, which is simple: stop waging wars of any sort against other people! Everyone loves hearing themselves talking about the refugee crisis, but almost never talking with refugees in meaningful and honest ways. If they talk with them, it is only to depict them as victims or villains in the unjust courts of the empire’s arrogance. They defend them or hate them, depending on the direction in which they wish to advance their fortunes and careers. It all depends on what they need to put on their CVs at any given time or in any given situation. The last piece of this absurd game is that the careers of every self-appointed mouthpiece for refugees are almost always dependent on paychecks paid by those who directly or indirectly run the military-industrial-complex, the biggest producer of refugees. This last piece is precisely what makes breaking the vicious cycle almost impossible. And such continues the game, all while refugees are sitting and watching in bitter silence.

For the last few months, I have been scrambling my wounds and preparing to put them on paper like a dice throw to find the right way to celebrate my 13 years of displacement. I could not think of a more meaningful way to do this than through poetic journalism! Today I want to share with you eight poems I wrote over the last few years. The poems seek to unpack some of the countless complex feelings, ideas, and experiences that displaced people go through to make sense of a world that has lost its senses. The poems I share with you are wrapped in shiny gift papers and colorful ribbons purchased from the finest American and European shops of alienation. It is my hope that they shall destroy the walls that block us from understanding each other and replace them with bridges to help us reach each other. With each poem, I include the date in which it was written, because at the time of writing I tried to capture things in the most honest and genuine way possible. As I look back at these poems, I am neither proud nor embarrassed. I simply see them as a record of their time and how each work, in a sense, explores multiple meanings of home, exile, and everything that happens in between. I dedicate these poems to all the people who were prematurely cut from their times and places. To each human soul that wilted and lost its fragrance in exile. I dedicate them to all the beautiful people on this planet who insist on creating a world that grants dignity to every human life and every other living creature. So, let’s toast and say: cheers, my friends! Here’s to 13 years in exile! Here’s to your health and mine! I apologize in advance for not saying “here’s to a good luck,” because I do not believe in luck. And if good luck does exist, I don’t need it anymore.

Poem # 1

Waiting

She caught herself waiting by her bedroom window.

A window facing a quiet street,

where a car or two passed occasionally.

Otherwise, it was a motionless place.

The tree branches outside danced

Whenever the winds flirted with them.

Although she habitually sat by that window

every day, for years and years,

She never noticed her habit until today!

When she realized that, she felt heart sick and upset.

She didn’t know whether she was angry at herself

Or at the time she had wasted waiting.

What upset her even more

Was that she wasn’t waiting for any person to arrive,

Not even for the postman

Who no longer brought her any personal letters.

She was not waiting for a lover

A friend

Or for parents.

All those she once loved are long gone.

What was she waiting for all these years?

She asked herself this question a thousand times that day,

And she waited for her inner voice to answer.

She must know today!

It suddenly occurred to her that

Since she was a child,

She was waiting for the arrival of a person

Who she could never name or describe.

She could never put a body or a face

On their ambiguous figure.

It was a person who only visited her imagination

In the form of a shadow.

She realized that all her life,

She was yearning for something that she couldn’t name,

And thus, she remained waiting,

Wishing to find out one day

What or who she was waiting for.

February 9, 2013

 

Poem # 2

The Vase

The bouquet of flowers in the vase is two weeks old,

Or maybe a little older?

They are all wilted and dead now.

The scene is much like a mass grave,

Each flower has died in its own way.

The first flower—the biggest in the bunch—

Opened as widely as it could.

Each of its petals dried up.

The second one seemed as though it had tried

To bend itself towards the end of her life,

It broke her neck as she dried in silence.

The third flower tried to close after opening,

As she felt her life was coming to an end.

She died closed.

The fourth flower looked like she had started to sacrifice herself

For the sake of everyone else around her.

She, too, dropped most of her petals,

And died naked, except for one or two petals.

The fifth flower didn’t have time to open,

Or perhaps she realized the futility of opening up in such a tight vase.

She also wilted and dried prematurely and half-opened.

The sixth flower died very young,

Before having a chance to bloom.

The colorless water in the vase is now yellowish and dead.

Yes, waters die too.

For colorless waters, death can be colorful.

April 12, 2013

 

Poem # 3

The Eternal Friends

The three eternal friends, Time, Loneliness and Death, met at a small old café.

“You won’t last long. I will destroy you at the end,” said Time to Loneliness.

“And I will drain every minute and every second in your life.

Nothing will give you joy no matter what you do or how hard you try,” Loneliness responded.

After a short silence, once Death pronounced its sentence, Loneliness vanished and Time passed.

June 20, 2013

 

Poem # 4

The Meaning of “Home”

As I travel from one city to another

From one country to another

From one sorrow to another,

I encounter thousands of faces:

In streets, shops, parks, and cafés.

They all ask me the same painful question:

“Where are you from?”

As if they know, I am from a place that lost itself and lost me

On a long, cold, and sad winter night.

They ask me: “What is your country known for?”

I tell them: “My country is known for exporting sad stories,

refugees, and displaced people.

All those who were cursed by being born in it.”

Similar questions continue to be asked in cocktail parties,

In hypocritical and mediocre gatherings,

In conferences and boring meetings.

Some pretentiously ask me: “How do you define ‘home’?”

I respond with Ghassan Knafani’s words ringing in my ears:

“Home is for all of this not to happen.”

April 19, 2014

 

Poem #5

The Cats in the City

Location: an Arab city.

Time: the age of defeat. The twenty-first century.

General atmosphere: “fancy” neighborhoods.

Expensive houses painted in tombstone colors.

Beautiful and well-maintained gardens.

Flowers that no one dares to smell.

Imported cars.

Imported devices.

Imported clothes.

Imported foods.

Endless consumer shops for anything and everything.

Between every other restaurant,

there are shops selling cosmetics and souvenirs.

Between every other consumer market,

There is a worship place.

All consumer shops are built skillfully

On the scab of the same old wound;

A wound that can flood the city with blood and death

With the slightest fingernail scratch.

As I walk farther from the city,

The consumer shops vanish.

The lights are suddenly dimmed.

The cheering and the hustle and bustle of the consumers go silent.

I see myself in total darkness.

I am alone hearing nothing but the sounds of my footsteps,

And the meows of hungry stray street cats,

Covered with the ashes of daily existence.

A thin and hungry cat approaches me,

She meows in despair and starvation,

Begging me for her bite of the day (or the week?)

I throw her a small piece of my sandwich.

She picks it up and runs away

To celebrate her temporary gains!

She leaves me alone wondering in darkness:

What reflects the reality of this city more

The “fancy” neighborhoods I saw earlier,

Or the starving cats in the darkness?

June 8, 2014

 

Poem # 6

Photographs from Distant Places

(1)

In distant villages,

You always see the same scenes:

Farms

Cattle

Worship spaces

Small local shops.

Just basic the things humans need

To endure life.

(2)

“Can you stay with me forever?”

She asked him in the airport,

While hugging him tightly in her arms.

“Sorry, I can’t. My flight leaves in two hours and a half.”

He responded with an artificially caring voice,

As he kissed her on her right cheek.

(3)

I was walking in one of Bucharest’s old streets,

In a neighborhood that looked harshly beaten

by Time,

And severely damaged by development and globalization.

I saw a poor homeless man

Combing his dirty hair

In a side mirror of a modern and expensive car!

(4)

The shape and the color of the eyes don’t matter.

What matters is that,

As soon as you gaze into them,

You know that they have seen a lot.

All eyes that dare to bear witness

To what they have seen are beautiful.

(5)

A stranger asked me how I chose my path in life.

I told him: “I never chose anything, my friend.”

My path has always been like someone forced to sit

In an airplane on a long flight.

Forced to sit with the condition

Of keeping the seatbelt on at all times,

Until the end of the flight.

Here I am still sitting with the seatbelt on.

I can neither move

Nor walk.

I can’t even throw myself

out of the plane’s emergency exit

To end this forced flight!

(6)

After years of searching and observing,

I discovered that despair’s favorite hiding place

Is under business suits and tuxedos.

Under jewelry and expensive night gowns.

Despair dances at the tables where

Expensive wines of corruption

And delicious dinners of betrayal are served.

(7)

Oh, my poet friend,

Did you know that

The bouquet of fresh flowers in that vase

On your table is not a source of inspiration or creativity?

The vase is just a reminder

Of a flower massacre that took place recently

In a field

Where these poor flowers happened to be.

It was their fate to have their already short lives cut shorter,

To wither and wilt in your vase,

While breathing the not-so-fresh air

In your room,

As you sit down at your table

And write your vain words.

(8)

Under authoritarian regimes,

99.9% of the population vote for the dictator.

Under capitalist “democratic” regimes,

99.9% of people love buying and consuming products

Made and sold by the same few corporations.

Awe to those societies where both regimes meet

to create a united vicious alliance against the people!

To create a “nation”

Of customers, not citizens!

(9)

The post-revolution leaders are scavengers not hunters.

They master the art of eating up

The dead bodies and achievements

Of the fools who sacrificed themselves

For the “revolution” and its ideals.

Is this the paradox and the irony of all revolutions?

(10)

Every person is ugly if you take a close look at them,

And beautiful, if you take a closer look.

(11)

Just as wheat fields can’t thrive

Under the shadow of other trees,

Intellectuals, too, can’t thrive under the shadow

Of any power or authority.

(12)

We waste so much time trying to change others.

Others waste so much time thinking they are changing.

What a waste!

October 20, 2015

 

Poem # 7

The Problem

The problem I have, my friends, is too complicated.

It is not only that I no longer have a home,

Or a roof over my head.

It is that I no longer wish to have one.

I confess to you; however, that

Even if I wished to have a place to call home,

My wish would be impossible to realize,

Because I have been erased from everywhere.

Yes, the mercenaries

And those who worship the dollar notes,

Under the names of religions and ideologies,

Have erased me from history.

They have revised and rewrote my story.

Everywhere I go,

I find them lurking and waiting for me,

To blockade me,

To suffocate me,

And to steal from my mouth

The few crumbs of bread I have left.

And so, I repeat, my friends,

My problem is too complicated.

I don’t have a home,

I no longer want a home,

And I couldn’t have a home to shelter me,

Even if so I wished in my wild dreams.

June 1, 2017

 

Poem # 8

Exhaustion

Salima sat in the fancy hotel room

In the evening time.

Here she is again in another foreign city,

Attending a conference discussing “human rights”.

Her eyes roamed the room.

She suddenly felt a severe chill in her body.

She suddenly realized that she is exhausted,

But her exhaustion is not that of one day,

It was one of a lifetime!

It fell upon her abruptly.

The thoughts of the bygone years

Nested in her head,

Were suddenly awoken.

One thought after another.

She realized at that moment

That she is tired of responding to

The same absurd questions

About her origins

Her ethnicity,

Her religion,

Her hobbies,

Her favorite foods,

Her education background,

Her age,

And her occupation.

Questions asked frequently by people who don’t care.

She suddenly realized

That throughout her life,

She never found a friend who could really understand.

The evening was about to draw its dark curtains.

She remembered that ever since she was a child,

She had been hiding her favorite words and writings

In notebooks that nobody will read.

She has been murmuring her favorite tunes,

In places where nobody could hear her.

The evening was about to draw its dark curtains.

She realized that her true thoughts and feelings

Lived nowhere expect inside of her head,

And there they will most likely die.

Her head had become like a prison for her thoughts.

The evening was about to draw its dark curtains.

She suddenly realized

That she had wasted so many years of her life

Looking for someone who might understand.

And each time she thought she had found one,

She found herself in yet another prison.

She looked through the window of the fancy hotel room

And saw that the darkness had covered the entire city.

September 9, 2017

 

More articles by:

Louis Yako, PhD, is an independent Iraqi-American anthropologist, writer, poet, and journalist.

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