Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

From Baghdad to Athens

A homage to Buland al Haydari


To begin with, nothing can be obliterated from the news, especially not in with regards to what is happening in Baghdad. Since coming under attack after March 21st 2003, the city has to endure every day new upheavals, bloody encounters and fierce infighting. Instead of measuring up to a certain quality and dignity of life, daily hardships have increased. There is no constant source of electricity or water, many people are without jobs and riots in slum areas are making it difficult to distinguish ‘insurgents’ from people just showing ‘resistance’.

As the Herald Tribune puts it in an editorial, August 10th, there is a “reconstruction fiasco”. It may be attributed, as does the paper, to bad or no planning by the Pentagon for the post-war period. The editorial suggests that if experts of the State Department with greater knowledge about the complexity of nation building especially in a cultural environment like the Arabic and Islamic world had been involved right from the beginning, ‘the good faith of Iraqis believing that the overthrow of a dictator would improve their living situation would not have been squandered’.

But here the image making media process simplifies too readily the reality. For what good is planning, when the Western methods do not match the ingenious way a city like Baghdad had organized itself. No one wants to admit it but it may have had a higher degree of sophistication than now under American tutelage and understanding of how systems work. A mere functional approach is thus missing the point. Then, as a planner at Columbia University in New York pointed out the American military has no good record when it comes to treating cultural heritage either in the United States or abroad. Altogether it should not be forgotten that Chomeiny led a revolt against further Westernization: a kind of oversimplification of life because of being solely in favor of more consumption to keep the economy going. That leaves the real living process outside any official, social and economic structures and makes it harder to speak about cultural differences once that happens what James Clifford explained in his “The Predicament of Culture”, namely when the otherness disappears and culture appears to be the same everywhere.

There need to be made out of many reasons some further connections between Baghdad and Athens. This can build on previous experiences. For instance, the former mayor of Athens, Tritsis, was one of the few who dared to go to Baghdad when missiles lit up the night sky as shown live on CNN and no one knew then in 1991 where the ‘desert storm’ would end. He made already at that time and shortly before he died a connection between Baghdad and Athens. He showed as a politician with love of the city what it means to act in solidarity with other cities if they come under the threat of destruction. As a planner he showed equally where dreams of livable cities can lead to, namely by safeguarding the Plaka around the Acropolis and by dreaming about the re-introduction of the tram into Athens as a way to emphasize more public than private transportation, he laid the groundwork both for the Unification of the Archaeological Sites and for the new tram system inaugurated for the Olympic Games August 2004.

Solidarity shown in such a way with another city results out of a deeper knowledge of how much cities are vulnerable to forces of destruction unleashed so easily and recklessly in war time and yet what strength cities have inherently so as to still safeguard life between squares, houses and a web of roads. It is both frightening and amazing what Baghdad has to endure. With the Tigris river running through it, that location marks the beginning of one of the oldest civilizations on earth and helps to understand why these people are above all so proud. Here the ability to give dignity to life means also living in the knowledge whenever its borders are trespassed then many terrible things can happen very quickly. The abyss is never far away and one wrong step would do to change everything in life – almost faster than the Greek term ‘dike’ for fate can suggest.

Of interest is the affinity to poetry in Baghdad or in the cultural life of the Iraqis. It is as if they believe more in the power of the imagination and hence do not succumb so easily to the images put out by the American inspired way the media deals with when it comes to distinguishing daily life from news stories. The clash of civilizations or cultures is a wrong presumption, for life being almost the same everywhere, the subtle points make all the difference. It is how you say ‘love’ in your own language, how you explain the roots of your parents and what you shall do once older, that is able to have a family of your own. Man’s destiny has always been to find out what is best suited for oneself by raising the voice. The tongue curls up and sounds are produced, sounds uttered in the knowledge of the difference between an angry shout and a poetic prophecy about how long the affinity to the city of Baghdad will hold under which conditions. To name these conditions in a poetic reflection of life itself is urban culture and therefore a part of human reality.

Human reality can be best confronted by means of poetry since it does justice to both complexity and life expressed best in simple forms (mind you not the simplification of image producing forms of advertisement as if that is reality: the one the majority desires to lure all away from points of differences, deviations and subtle forms of understanding life). To dignify life matters as does the ability to speak about life with dignity. Such self understanding reflects itself immediately in the language used daily.

Most of the poets are in reality philosophers, reasoning with themselves and the curtailments that life imposes upon them and people in general. Sadness but also wonder mix with a dash of hope while everything is restrained by a sense of pain especially if things do not go well. The latter is due to some things being impossible but then there is also war. When that happens, it shatters everything and not only window panes. Poetry becomes then the last resort to uphold dreams and to dispute the fake images.

In other words, once war shatters everything, including the last concepts of morality and more important to future generations of the dreams about peace, then poetry must take over. It has to give people the confidence and help them to recover their lost speech based on the belief that peace and indeed a way to resolve man’s conflicts peacefully does exist. Thus poetry must descend into the greatest of all poverties of mankind: the poverty of experience when it comes to preventing war and to upholding peace. Indeed, people know and recognize it immediately once a poem touches upon true speech, for then everyone listens since they feel and hear the human voice speaking up in that poem.

The world knows since Second World War about the power of persuasion by propaganda, but after 911 a new term has replaced this method of manipulating people into thinking more in terms of fake reality rather than asking what reality are we speaking about if the poetic dimension is missing? There was created in clear propaganda terms after 911 by the affirmers of retaliation the new method of propaganda called ‘public diplomacy’. It came into full view when Powell justified in the Security Council the pending invasion of Iraq even though his own experts at the State Department had cautioned him that the reports about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction were not reliable. Indeed, no propaganda can be effective if the leading figures in such tragedy do not convince themselves that what they are doing is true and rightful. The capacity of man to rationalize and to believe he is speaking the truth while really lying is awesome. Often there is no defense against it other than reminding ourselves of that important observation that whenever such tremendous decisions are about to be made, ‘the voice of reason’ does speak up unexpectedly and it is up to those assembled in order to give their consent or not to decisions made already outside these assemblies e.g. House of Congress, General Assembly of the United Nations, House of Commons etc. of legitimization in the eyes of the public, but recognizes that voice and gives it the legitimacy to speak on behalf of all people not present but whose lives shall be affected in one way or the other by the outcome of that decision.

The going to war over Iraq is such a tragedy where many failed in not preventing this act of revenge by the United States. After 911 the American government just wished to retaliate for having been shown to be “vulnerable” itself, that is the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York. That edifice became a symbol for everything, but still today nothing is said about the unequal equation when one compares the destruction caused in New York with what the Coalition Forces have created in Baghdad since March 2003.

The invasion of Iraq was justified with ending the dictatorship of Hussein and hence with a kind of occupation that would lead to a dictated transformation towards ‘democracy’ (however defined). The illusion was nurtured that by disposing a dictator a threat in the potential use of weapons of mass destruction would be removed. Implicitly they even suggested naively that proud people like the Iraqis would follow the command to democracy obediently on the heels of an induced and enforced change of regime. Nothing of that proved to be true nor followed in practice.

Poets have song often after war about the foolishness of man to enter that fray of seeking glory and justification of own values in and through war. Nothing is more contradictory and dangerously illusionary than the claim through war to be able to prevent war. Rather it sets the precedents for the next one, or simply said, all the weapons produced must be used one day for otherwise no new ones can replace them. The ongoing business with war feeds of stroking so often false conflicts when in fact democracy depends upon the free spirit of man. This means living the truth rather than squashing it.

However, democracy without cultural development is inconceivable. The investment in the future is to safeguard the truth, in particular that there are peaceful solutions but in need of being worked out. Like the work of the weapons inspectors deemed by the USA as ineffective, their alternative solution into bombing Hussein into submission when in fact it is the people of Iraq that have to suffer the burden of those missiles raining down upon them shows what crude methods are applied when there is this lack of truthfulness.

Democracy without respecting the freedom of others can never be stamped upon others. People are never obedient if something is enforced upon them. How should they be able to test the binding powers of all agreements, the main one being the constitution, if there is no trust and faith in other men and women? As such democracy has to be based on peace and social cohesion, and not upon an intricate web of connections contradicting all ethical and cultural values by trying to get ahead in the game to secure another business deal, to obtain favors and to follow the greed of gathering in still if not more wealth, then at least victories. Life is after all about the freedom to live in truth with a free conscience.

What Iraq is experiencing since having been overrun after March 21st 2003 by tanks and smart missiles, including cluster bombs, is that the 'free human spirit' can sift alone through corruption, treachery and abuse, in order to give true human relationships a much needed breathing space. So there is no road leading to Baghdad, if democracy as a truly livable form is replaced by the kind of anguish Ancient Greeks knew already. It is an anguish due to not really knowing how to distinguish between the anguish when at war compared to being at the Games. [1] Baghdad’s anguish is of a different order altogether in these days:

Anguish, anguish.

Streets are empty. Windows shattered.

Doors bang against the only half left standing walls.

Some shadows cross the streets stained with blood now dried in dust.

Profane words are written in charcoal on a door:

“Here we lived. Here we prayed. Here we sang and no one answered our songs.”

There are many beautiful refrains in this world, refrains that some would say, they are heart rendering. They can make us cry and with this moisture the soul begins to reflect once again beauty in life, honesty in words spoken, all while listening to humane thoughts spoken in wisdom as to how things should be dealt with.

Nothing is gone, lest our memories of the good things. Let us be touched by this silence of watching eyes of the children peeking out of the corner to see new streets to cross and to grow up in. The men are waiting for jobs as the women for water and electricity. Streets filled with people anxiously waiting do not dread the silence. They dread the harsh measures imposed upon their city having become unrecognizable.


It may well be that we circle like vultures over the ruins of Baghdad now that the oil prizes keep climbing and yet our society has not found an alternative to a car driven consumption greed. Our society wishes the status symbol of the day, namely the jeep, to be connected to nature and to military power. The main model are the special jeeps used by the American soldiers driving towards Baghdad.

The symbolic connection involved shows how meanings are injected into people’s minds. For instance, the connection to nature is suggested by a brand of cigarettes forever casting its smokers as cattlemen. New is nowadays again the linkage to military power through the jeep. It suggests liberation as was the case when American soldiers drove into French, Italian and then German towns as Fascism was beaten back

However, the connection to the military symbiosis does not end there. Women have started to wear jeans bearing the colors of camouflage. Still, it seems to be that the current yearning for the four wheel drive of the Jeep is to have the power so as to outdo all other cars on the road. It is symbolic of the wish to bypass all those left behind by such kind of society disorientated due to a lack of values upholding life.

Privilege is a race to have the nose just ahead and to enjoy something others cannot. This perversity of luxury based on the denial of what should be fulfillment of basic needs by everyone has always haunted our times. Here people lavishing on a yacht to music and champagne, there the poor ones hardly able to walk due to sickness and lack of food can make them be passive, just passing away the day in the shade of the trees – so the image told by an American who was in Nicaragua just before the outbreak of the revolution. It explains what made it imperative to overcome ‘social injustice’.

There is an obvious gap between the rich and the poor in this world but there are also many invisible differences perpetrating the negative or non society: one not caring about others if it does not pay. It can mean also the one third society: with one third living in or near poverty, one further third has to take care of them while the final third is free enough to live the comforts modern society has brought about: a technical standardized way of life with fast cars, mobile phones, second homes and digital cameras for security purposes.

Social and human equality has no meaning if it cannot be sustained by economic and social reality. Philosophically Ernst Bloch connected this with the condition that everyone should have free access to the community. Nowadays modern societies are like semi feudal worlds in which access can only be gained by paying first before allowed to continue on one’s way. The many independent workers who live of temporary work and perform them without legal and social securities are exposed every day to changing conditions. That means people cannot earn independently from land and other possessions their money so easily as to be truly free. Instead many end up in semi or real forms of slavery and are subject to all kinds of abuse at work, at home and in the streets wherever they go since others sense who is protected, who is not. But only the wealthy and influential ones can afford their body guards and other means of protection. That gives them both power and other privileges while not succumbing so readily to the law of the land nor of the communities which may or may not exist as cohesive bodies well aware as to which rules they wish to follow, which not. Instead the modernization process has made everything into such transitory condition that no one is sure what laws apply, which ones no longer all along while it becomes mundane to demonstrate one’s own freedom from the law while demanding that the law is enforced so that all the others toe the line drawn between winners and losers in such a game of endless negotiations with regards to having or not in the transitory period the power to do something or not. The question never asked is, however, important to realize, for it leaves out the question about what people can do and work together so as to make life possible for both the individuals and the community of man at large.

Repeatedly reforms in Ancient Greece meant just that: breaking the power of the Rich before they would become not only too powerful, but also discontent since then they want more and if there is nothing more to be gained, they seek the status that goes with seizing power in order to obtain official positions e.g. post as ambassador. Too often they assume positions without necessarily having the qualification except that they have so much money that it can speak for itself. With it goes the claim that they are successful. It is not hard to imagine what develops out of such position and privilege grabbing privileged class. For one, and here Ancient Greece showed already the outcome, they will form the worst of all governments, namely dictatorship, if not that unjustified power is wrested out of their times before no one can challenge them anymore.

In war, these privileges and differences become even stronger, for war is not only about the destruction of cities, but also a manifestation of these differences. It is the cities that suffer when the privileged ones involve once again everyone in the anguish of war. That anguish must be understood with regards to the outcome of war since not directed merely at urban centers, their buildings and bridges (during the invasion into Iraq only one bridge over the Tigris was slightly damaged) and where the majority of people live, but equally and much more focused at the organizational capacity of the city (Lewis  Mumford, The Story of the City).

Unfortunately Baghdad 2003 - 2004 shows in that sense the perverse side of the Western logic towards oversimplification and therefore how it intends to uphold its power of abstraction. That suggests another reason for having invaded Iraq and in particular Baghdad. For war is like the burning of books a negative revolt against complexity identified so readily with intellectuals and poets who seem always to make life to appear more complicated than it is actually. But cities is not merely houses and the memory of the city goes beyond the capacity of the people who dwell within its borders to grasp all the meaning of that city. It is like New Yorkers bearing the unbearable side of their city without forgetting to love every minute of the life it brings about. So war upon a city is nothing but a reactionary response to the kind of complexity and cultural subtleness Western minds cannot come to terms with. As such the poet Buland al-Haydari gives a moving account what it means to witness the destruction of the city from ‘within’.


The City Ravaged by Silence

Baghdad, that captive, forgotten

Between the corpse and the nail.


Baghdad was not besieged by the Persian army

Not seduced by a mare

Nor tempted by a hurricane nor touched by fire.


Baghdad died of a wound from within

From a blind silence that paralyzed the tongues of its children


That captive was not a homeland

It was just a prison

Wrapped with black walls and guardrails

It was not a night beyond which we say day lies

Baghdad, that captive, forgotten

And ravaged by the silence

Only a desert inhabited by death

Known only to the stones.


One day it almost became…at a certain time

A thing in secret

A secret restlessness in the stillness of a room

It almost became a promise in two eyes

A vow in blue films

In which we almost lived a dream

Paper boats borne by the air, flowing

Lightly, seeking no anchor,

No mooring on a blank

We wished it would turn into lightning, revealing desire



-- Listen….listen

And so listened, and listened closely

But I heard nothing

-- Listen…listen


And I laughed…Here’s the meow of the cat in the neighbor’s house

There…A rustle of small leaves

Pay no attention…It’s only the meow of the cat

Only the rustle of the trees.


A hand knocks on the door four times

The anxious heart pounds a thousand times

-- Listen…Don’t you hear? Don’t you see something…?

I see a shadow lurking behind the window

I can almost see in the dark of its eyes…yes

In the darkness of its eyes…yes…my tear-streaked face

For tomorrow the report will be prepared

The grounds will be prepared for killing you inside us, with us, Oh Baghdad

We must confess, we’re the corpse and the nail

And you, forgotten between the corpse and the nail.


-- You were awake until the wee hours

-- We were awake until the wee hours…but we

-- What does it mean…? What does it imply…?

On the chair with two broken legs

Above the black table

Near the flickering lantern

There were white papers, yellow papers like pus

There was an open book

Like an exposed secret

And the remains of two pens

What does it mean that you read…that you write

That you stay up until dawn

What goes it mean…? What goes it imply …?


We will be executed in Baghdad’s main square

With a signboard larger than Baghdad on both of our chests

(Understand…you may not be executed…understand…you may be spared)

You are forbidden to read….to write

To talk…to cry…even to ask

What Baghdad means

What it means to be human or an animal

To be more than a stone forgotten in Baghdad

You are forbidden to be more than the two legs of a harlot

Or the two hands of a pimp.


Baghdad died of a wound inside of us…of a wound from within

From a blind silence that paralyzed the tongues of its children

Baghdad was ravaged by the silence

So that we have nothing in it, it has nothing in us…except death

And the corpse and the nail.


Buland al-Haydari

- translated by Hussein Kadhim and Christopher Merrill


Indeed, Baghdad was already under bombardment in 1991. That time is encapsulated in a poem by Sonja Skarstedt, who describes war as a “state of extreme” that sets in even before tanks grind through streets and soldiers burst into houses.

In 1995 the precedent to POIEIN KAI PRATTEIN (“to create and to do”), namely the Touch Stone group brought together fifteen poets, fifteen planners, philosophers, architects, scientists and scholars in Crete, to discuss the conditions of urban life under the theme “The Myth of the City. Nikos Stavroulakis warned then about cities like Sarajevo being destroyed. He linked the destruction of cities to forcing a single cultural brand on a city. This would wipe out those urban structures which choose to retain different cultural identities, capable of challenging the other in order to enrich the overall civilization.

There is another danger: ‘ethnic assertiveness’ as pointed out by L. Baeck. It is linked to cultures feeling absolutely threatened such as Catalonians or the Irish by the further encroachment of global culture upon their local and regional distinct cultural dispositions. As if they repeat the mistakes of national cultures, their response is very absolute, even violent.

Brendan Kennelly attempts to understand this especially in his epic poem about Judas. He relates to subsequent developments as experienced in Northern Ireland as to what outbursts of violence can happen once challenges are perceived no longer as challenges but as threats to one’s own value system based on convictions. By perceiving anything challenging the own value assumption as a ‘threat’ to the own cultural identity, a violent response seems to be justified. Of interest is what Brendan Kennelly points out: not seen in this development is that prejudices have been transformed into convictions and thereby everything rests on values not to be challenged. He adds the thought how difficult it is ‘to unlearn learned hatred’.

Poets have been trying to mediate between different value systems and still ask in the midst of turmoil resulting out of misunderstanding and harsh reactions, what can be done to overcome the tendency towards violent clashes?

Stevan Tontic recalls in his poems “Poems from Odyssey to Penelope” what it means to live in exile in Berlin while the city he comes from – Sarajevo – is being destroyed. His poetry is written out of love in an attempt to survive under those conditions. As the case with Odyssey, much depends on faithfulness even in most difficult and testing times. Both man and woman experience that test of love differently. Their experiences are aggravated by separation and a kind of different helplessness. In both cases it can mean silence, passivity and resistance while knowing what will follow if there is a break in faithfulness, love and solidarity. On the other hand, passive endurance can become a form of both outer and inner resistance in order not to succumb to the trivialities as imposed by a war situation. Such resistance means poetry is based on the faith in fellow human beings.

If Stevan Tontic writes in exile during the destruction of Sarajevo poems narrating what it means to have the beloved woman left behind a city under siege, then appropriate to such experiences is the poem by Michael D. Higgins called ‘Exiles’. As former Minister of Culture of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins asks a different question and links thereby the city to the promise made 1945 at least in Europe never to start war again. To this he adds the question but what kind of cities do we want in future? Should cities be made only for consumers or give space to diverse people so that they can try out and attempt different models of life?

On the contrary war coerces everyone into a single logic of orientation: defeat or victory, with us or against us! War demands the kind of conformity an authority having the tanks and war planes wishes to have from people if they are to underline willingly that it is most powerful nation. This is not democratic acknowledgment but power seeking its own recognition no matter the costs. Such kind of coercion is not freedom, but a destructive force. It leaves creative energies without any chance to invest in the future while itself such power assumes the greater the feats, the more to be gained out of victory.

In search for a different future while remaining close to ancient sources, the Spanish poet living in Athens, Pedro Mateo, expresses in his “Canto Bagdadi” how poets are affected by the overall war situation. This war is ongoing, permanent, and therefore a brutal test of any lyrical belief. As we know already from Adorno, there is the question if it is still possible to write poetry after Auschwitz. Paul Celan had an answer while Guenter Grass made into his favorite color grey in order to mark the period of mourning needed after the end of Second World War and all of its atrocity.

Consequently to poets finding the words to express something is like a difficult navigation through emotional seas of mankind. One word too much in the direction of happiness has to be avoided just as much as the pain felt must not drown the words in that pain. With the poem the poet must still be able to reach the other shore and once alive allow ‘normal’ life to continue. As was the advice of Rubenstein to those who did manage to survive the concentration camps, for he said to them: ‘you will not do anything else but what you have done before: bake bread, cut the hair of other people, repair cars, fix houses, teach your children values of life and continue life as simple life’. Indeed, that is not much, but also not little!

To avoid stranding on the beach of triviality, it becomes important in this ‘Poetry Connection’ to see not only how the poets respond to one another, but how in their poems similar things are spoken of. Often it appears that they do not realize that the other expresses a similar viewpoint. Perhaps one day we will be able to reconstruct the history of poetry like the development of the sciences and see that certain discoveries were made almost around the same time period.

There is one outstanding connection: the poetic hope that man is reasonable and can free himself from war and all the destruction that goes with it. He needs to find freedom from the kind of perverse logic advanced by Tony Blair who claimed at the outbreak of the war in Iraq: “to safeguard peace you must risk war”. Such justification of the invasion and occupation of Iraq is like saying before the new can be build, you must destroy the old. That is but an insane argument.

Man needs maturity when facing the challenges of life, not blatant heroism nor power at the command of one’s finger tips made possible by pushing the button. Rather man has to grow through experience. Moreover he needs to retain in his memories especially those experiences that point a way on how it is possible to continue life while overcoming potential conflicts in a peaceful way. That is why Michael D. Higgins linked the promise Europeans made after 1945 as to “never again war” to the way the world responded to the crisis in former Yugoslavia. For the bombardment of Kosovo is such a broken promise. He comprehends war as a defeat of diplomacy: the ability to remain in dialogue as was the original design of the United Nations. Such a broken promise was repeated when the United States with the support of the United Kingdom sidelined the United Nations and started the war in Iraq. It makes all the efforts to regain consciousness and therefore premises for rational politics that much more urgent.

All this finds resonance in what Sam Hamill calls poetry to be: a part of Enlightenment. Kant defined originally the Enlightenment as a movement of thought and inspiration so that man frees himself from fear and begins to be reasonable. In his letter calling for actions on 11th of September 2004, Sam Hamill says that “the many faces and voices of poetry in the world connect us all to one great family. The uses of our art are countless, but the political remains one of our responsibilities. Poetry is one of a thousand paths to a more enlightened life.”

Out of such an appeal there follow new connections between poets in the world. Thanks to Sam Hamill the Poets against the World have given a space on their website for the voices of poets to be heard. Equally it is interesting to see how Sam Hamill connects to Europe, to what poetic memory there exists. It dates back to Ancient Greece as much as to Chaucer and his Cantons. Poetry becomes here a means to relate to new circumstances without forgetting what has been articulated already in the past. In “Pisan Canto” Sam Hamill connects not only to Pedro Mateo’s poem as a way of telling a story that cannot be really told, but also to how mixed emotions can become explosive. They are often followed by a set of wrong reactions (the controversy about Erza Pound’s affinity to Mussolini not to be forgotten) and forever there after the question is but how do politics and the arts combine to make a humane life possible?

As to the war in Iraq and how it has affected the people there, especially in Baghdad, that is still to be told. On the Western side, certain things need to be recapitulated in order to understand that war.

The response by the U.S. government to 9-1-1 was to highlight the threat of terrorism in such a way that it would appear that the whole of the United States was in danger of being targeted by an all-out attack from coast to coast; when in fact only the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington were targeted. However, because these buildings had such a highly symbolic meaning in terms of U.S. power, these attacks were taken ‘personally’ — by America, i.e. its ability to defend itself. The inherent target of these attacks - America’s manner of conducting business and imposing its power within the global village, as well as the American way of life, including the American dream — was glossed over.

The Middle East crisis provides sad and blatant evidence that the policy of retaliation amounts to nothing more than revenge, creating conditions whereby an entire region becomes a biotope for violence as expressed through suicide bombers and political assassinations. And ‘terrorism’ becomes a key term with which to justify even the beating back of opposition by violent means.

In Iraq violence has been transformed into a first lashing out after the invasion by Hussein of Kuwait, then it was followed by sanctions that hurt especially the children and finally there came the invasion leading to occupation. Now, 2004 everything is done to create the appearance of democracy but it is enforced without legitimacy. It reminds what Andreas Papandreou once wrote after Greece was suppressed by the Junta: “democracy at gunpoint”. This can never be the solution.

The major Athenian question has become how to stay connected to reality in Iraq while the Olympic Games take place in Athens. There was once the quest for connecting the Games to the bid for Olympic Truce but after 911 this has faded into the background and made way for all encompassing security precautions as if Athens stands to be attacked. As a matter of fact the city has come under siege by not only the Olympic family but by NATO troops and other security forces. The question of the Olympic Truce has been pushed all but into the background. Connected with the Olympic Truce is, however, the crucial question: how to keep cultures open to challenges that will not be mistaken for what U.S. President Bush calls threats to justify going to war.

The fact that the Games take place in Athens under such conditions provokes by all claims to be linked to Ancient Greece and the original meaning of the Games based on Olympic Truce the opposite. For in Ancient Greece, Pericles said in his ‘Funeral speech’ that an active citizenship — not armies — was needed to protect Athens.’ What the modern Olympic Games demonstrate in Athens 2004 is a different order prevails and with it a political philosophy completely alienated from that ancient past. Insofar as the organizers will have to comply with the demand of the leading powers, in particular the United States, to participate in the worldwide stamp of an all-out war against ‘terrorism’, active citizens are not called upon but security experts.

The question can be reformulated: how to organize Olympic Games in future if to be based on the Olympic Truce rather than ignoring the realities of war? It would mean above all not to silence those who wish to articulate what they feel and think deep in their emotional ‘selves’?

That question is certainly different from those seeking to secure ‘security’ by transforming the Olympic Games of Athens 2004 into a military exercise. The original meaning of the Olympics shall be lost if only competition for the sake of fake security prevails. Instead active citizens should speak up and articulate what Athens and the world needs once the Olympic Games are over, namely peace and this first of all in Baghdad.

The poets seeking a linkage to the Olympic Truce have to first of all make this connection between Baghdad and Athens before articulating what they feel and think deep in their emotional ‘selves’. In part this leads to a new genre of poetry to include the urban reality under siege of war or semi war. They will have to seek linkages to the Ancient Myths in a way that helps them to articulate their visions for the future but they have to do this from their vantage point: the present or Athens 2004.

This Poetry Connection is only a beginning and a very modest at that. It is done in realization that not many care once engulfed in this sensation and spectacle of the Games what poets have to say. It is like those courageous men who climbed onto the roof of the Olympic Stadium to have it ready in time. Once the Games are under way, they shall be forgotten. But peace to become possible requires many and really countless unnamed persons who contribute day by day to make this world just a bit saner. If poems can express some thoughts, then that is strife for peace is not much but also not nothing but something to go on. The poetic wish would be to convey such thoughts of peace to those living in Baghdad so as to remember the names of their streets while walking through Skoufa, Ippokratous, Akademias etc. in Athens.

[1] See for an interesting explanation of the word ‘agony’ in the article by Thomas Cahill, “When the Games were everything”, International Herald Tribune, Wednesday, August 11, 2004, p. 7


the state of extreme

by   Sonja A. Skarstedt

General Whitebomb initials his final decree
perched on the edge of the last ravine:

"In accordance with my last hour on earth
I hereby proclaim The State of Extreme.”

His minions far below uproot corpses like weeds
as they hunch over the finite horizon

as their stegosaur bodies rampage
through forests of decapitated trees
leftover mortar sears their pores —

Where would we go?

Our roads vivisectioned
our shelters reduced to powder
our sustenance sunk
into barrels of plutonium
our metallic skins
devoured by more falling metal.

Their leader reminds them:

“Remember, you aren’t worth
the shrapnel impaling your feet.”

Toxic residual clouds clash behind him
sputters of grenade and bits of bullet rain down
as he surveys the shredded topography —

are we so mildly shocked by annihilation?

a dying eagle streaks past him
its talons pull slashes of sky
as its beak cracks open:

“Be prepared when I give the first signal.”

His voice’s escalation
is tangier than nitrogen
his eyes black as bats
as he calculates both sides
his mouth pink with foam
hails a dragonfly whose blades
scorch the air:

“Even nature submits to my control.”

Why should we listen?
Our brains are long poisoned
our bodies protrusions of muscle and bone —
as we try to push rations into the dying mouths of children:

is anything more painful than starvation?

The sun a broken circuit in the general’s eye
catches the descent of enemy moths —
on board the last dragonfly
he tests its combustible patterns.

The republic of General Whitebomb congeals
under the weight of red-clogged lungs
millions of eyes explode, legs burn
and arms curdle into a river of caterpillar soup.

His next plummet tastes descriptively red:

“All needs feed the same concentric goal
I have achieved the spiral axis
the absolute vortex:
five minutes from now
war will no longer exist.”

Calm as a dying asteroid General W takes aim
at the dragons’ retreating hum
his arms form a praying mantis
his smile all tenterhooks
twists his face, a severed gridiron

he blesses his warriors’ liquefied remains
and spits out stars and moons
no further questions sting his brain
their corrosion ignites his ribs
the sky devours itself

colourless as mealworms his armies
define the last pinnacle on earth
pall after pall
of infinity.

(written by SAS, 1992, in response to Gulf War I)


canto bagdagi

Pedro Mateo


Ved cómo al mar asesinó una gota,

Cómo a la luna apuñaló una estrella.


-         Epitafio de un guerrero –

Ibn al-Zaqqaq


Oíd cómo a la vida mató una bala…

El pensamiento, la mente, el corazón

Y todos los resortes hábiles del cuerpo

Contrarios son a la muerte brutal.

El cielo anda vestido de gris y traje negro;

La arena virgen del desierto anuncia

La expansión de la peste blindada.


¿El raso horizonte sigue siendo azul y blanco?

¿Bajan del mismo color las aguas de los ríos?

¿La sombra fresca bajo las palmeras es clara?

¿Dónde sonrisas, miradas turbadas, arrebol

Ante la presencia momentánea del amor?

La tristeza se aposenta en las caras

Como un pájaro parásito y tuberculoso.


Oh soledad bien amada en horas de creación,

Los muertos queridos a ti se abrazan;

Junto al cauce salado por tantísimas lágrimas

El imperioso ardor de la herida cauterizas.

Oh tiempo – otra vez el tiempo férreo,

Viejo enemigo que apaga entusiasmo y deseo –

Tú, mucho mejor amado en horas del amor,

Secarás los cálices de plata de los lagos,

Pero arruinas los ojos y los labios.


El solo hecho de vivir es una delicia.

La amistad entre los pueblos será fe jurada,

Dulce como la pulpa madura de los dátiles.


Pedro Mateo

11 – 04 - 03


Being Anxious

- from the series of poems called "Odyssey to Penelope"


Stevan Tontic


I know:  I left you behind in a safe place,

In a friendly orientated circle,

In the house, painted white that same spring.


Your pillow is like the smelling rose bush,

The meadow rings around your smiling ankles;

The animals, that you call and caress at the threshold,

Believe, that you are immortal,

And that you are indeed.

Only here, in the night, I hear

-         hear beyond the seven seas –

the murmuring of the henchmen underneath your window

and the hailing down of the axes around your body,

I hear it

And cannot fall asleep.



the iraq

by      Hatto Fischer

No one can be complacent

When yet again soldiers

Search houses and leave

Women and children in fear

By forcing them to stand against the wall -

What show of power is that?

A scene in a news cast by CNN depicted it.

The soldiers claim: these people are

Not telling the truth, and only when

We take the mother of all mothers away

As if arrested, then the others shall cry:

"Stop! We will tell you everything what we know!"

As a follow-up to the road map

Baghdad in post Hussein times reveals

Different rules matter. Now power is direct.

The work of soldiers is no longer to shoot to kill,

But to get these people as potential informers to talk.

Fore mostly, they claim, Hussein himself

Is providing a lot of information

About the whereabouts of insurgents,

As they are called and yet since Judas

It is known the story of traitors erases

Over and again those voices in need

To be listened to, if peace were to prevail.


What can be noted in such times?

No wings of silence, no winds of dust

Exist in the desert outside the city.

Only horizons elongate into the blue

When children paint to see their future stars

In search of convictions that life continues

and that nothing is in vain what they do

Since the earth shall still exist in the year 18 372.


Sober thoughts need truth, even if the hand

Given by the mother to the child quivers

As soldiers burst again into the houses of Baghdad

Out of fear for their lives in a strange land

They have occupied without knowing the reason why.


As to the protection of the hand giving shade

When the sun stands high, there will come the time

That all these occupations cease and recede like water

Drying out till far away the cry is heard to stop the war.


Athens 23.12.2003


A Pisan Canto


Sam Hamill


You can fly all night above the Atlantic

in time to see the bluest, brightest dawn

emerge as you cross the Alps, wingtips glinting,

horizon a blue-yellow haze—

and glide down over green and brown farmlands,

olive trees in the breeze,

pine trees and olive trees, down

as the sky grows brighter,

into Milano—


and I, emerging from the bowels of Hades,

having tasted the Lethe,

emerge from the dark night of my nation,

from my own darkest night,

bruised by a diffidence that faltered.


But to depart is not

to depart from the way.

"Caritas!   Caritas!" my Olga sings,

bringing the heart of the Greek,

ancient and modern, into her adopted tongue.

Caritas, Kannon—

a temple is not a business…

Who would betray

a monk’s vow of service?


Sail not into an artificial Paradise

built of fashion and money—

place they crucified Il Duce the second time,

and who can blame them?

And now another Boss in the White House,

exporting a fascist state,

man of some fortune

whose true name will come—

but enter the new old world, old errors repeated,

Pavese's workers and hookers

rubbing shoulders on a train with lawyers

in suits that cost more

than my hermitage in the woods.


I am not Odysseus, but a monk in a poet’s order,

a traveler in Toscana, a tourist in Venice.

"Travel not merely to see famous places,

not merely to appreciate the past,"

the haiku master instructed, "but to learn

to accept the kindness of strangers."

Such kindness I have known, almost more

than one can bear,

and suffering also, and

not a little anger on my journey.


The journey itself is home.


I'll take my coffee in the Piazza

and learn to say Please and Thank you.

I am not an Ezra, calling upon his gods

in his hour of desolation,

'though I've desolation in my hour,

not the panther in the cage,

studying Confucius.


I know Chung Ni, poet that I am,

I know the master; call me

son of Lu Chi who barred the door—

two decades on the classics.

Great tragedy of my generation, KR said,

is that it's no longer possible

to know the poetry of the world.


"To extend one's knowledge to the utmost,"

Ez sez as K'ung-fu Tzu.

Peace begins only in the heart:

the poem as koan or case:

the model given is not the answer,

but provides

a direction: "I will GO to the door/

I will BE a romantic..."

fer instance, Creeley's idiomatic measure

I put on a blackboard years ago

and challenged the MFAs of a fine institution,

"Go ahead and scan it."

The great heave to free the American line

from the dictates of the iamb.

Composition by line because it's more honest

than the beat of the metronome.

Charlie Olson saw th’advantage

of the typewriter, first time,

in Saint Liz, visiting Ez, reading a script

of the Pisan Cantos.


All Romance, from them A-a-rabs.

Bombing the cradle

of civilization, this President smirks,

translating the Spanish for "shrub"

into "bush," which passes for humor,

I suppose, in some parts of Texas.

Oil and blood also from the cradle,

savagely rocking,

man of what god, what destroyer?

I will not surrender my Constitution:

Madison stood for something:

a little dignity, a little justice

the right to read and speak in peace,

to follow the romance them A-a-rabs gave us.


And rhyme, too, from the Arabic,

and the holy calligraphy of the Aleph:

mixed in Provence with French and Italian,

Langue d’Oc changed western poetry forever.

All born between the Tigris and Euphrates,

the cradle the Shrub has rocketed.

Drop no bombs on a people

whose poetry you have not read!

And if your song is not at least

as beautiful as silence,

keep your mouth shut,

the Arab proverb says—

traditions brought into English, perfected

by "our brother Percy"

as he strolled the Arno in Pisa.


And not far from Pisa, nearby in Coltano,

the home of the DTC,

built by the Fascists to house a fair city

of Commies and Catholics

who opposed'em, then by the Allies,

where the panther was caged

and the Pisan Cantos begun.

Fifteen minutes by car these days

from the noble old Royal Victoria Hotel,

haunt of Dickens and D'Annunzio

(I read their guest book)

where Lady Churchill observed,

"The hotel

is quite adequate."


Fifteen minutes by car,

across the Arno to narrow roads

canopied by red-barked pine,

through farmlands with soil

the very color of oil, Piero behind the wheel

and Alessandro in the back,

offering directions—to Coltano,

village the size of a thumbnail,

ragged old schoolhouse with rusty gate,

a mill, the well kept manor

beside the impoverished,

the smell of last's night rain,

and a tiny store like those in mountain villages

in Japan, smelt-like fish

soaking in olive oil,

blocks of cheese, olives,

a pork round, all under glass,

where we went in for directions.


Immense tragedy

in the old partisan's stooped shoulders,

but grit in his eye, gravel in his tongue

when we asked the whereabouts

of the DTC:

"Are you fascists?"

Then, reassured, pointed the way...


We walked east and then back, north and then back,

rich black earth of the fields,

tethered dogs barking, tails wagging,

long-tailed doves

along the power line—mud everywhere—

"'Fifth element,

MUD,' sd Napoleon"—

and you can still smell sweet mint

Ez smelled under his tentflap,

in his cage, old lion

calling up his gods

in his hour of desolation,

the poet not yet broken

over "stupid suburban prejudice,"


and here a white horse at roadside

munching lion's tooth, a favorite in salads,

slightly sweet, about the size and shape

of dandelion leaves,

and beyond the fields,

gray marbled clouds over Taishan,

hardly a mountain at all

by Chinese standards—


Chinese standards by which he measured the man,

Legge's Four Books, the Ta Hsueh,

foremost among them,

great learning

demanding exactitude—

to know the root

and have an orderly mode of procedure—

an orderly mode of procedure

born of respect for one’s elders…

of finding a noble tradition…


Mon frere may speak of justice, libertá,

but all dignity is in the deed,

in the friendship or allegiance sustained,

nor is Paradise artificial,

but is one's own good nature.


Odi et amo. Catullo on the banks of the Po

felt the shiv in his back

and lived to tell... and lived to sing

his glorious invective.

And another:

Et tu, Brute?

Who would unmake the word’s temple?

A grinning daemon

with poisonous charm,

wearing a mask of Janus.

I woke in a sweat. Who would unmake

the house of poetry,

who ignite my inferno?

I crossed over the Arno,

stone arch of the bridge just at daybreak,

below the clock tower,

grieving, and there were three white birds on the water.


The first step into hell

is to demonize,

to create an other: Berlusconi

calls his detractors commies,

and Bush says his support terror

as he shreds our Constitution,

a pox on Madison's endeavors,

the rich serving the rich

no less than in feudal manors,

the American Medici

lining the pockets of the shamefully rich

with Arab blood and Arab oil,

and where are his splendors,

our Texas Medici, where

his hallmarks of civilization—


ash and rubble and a smirk;

cluster bombs, smart bombs…


with a bang and then a whimper, Possum.


Alessandro says the children

are rapidly forgetting

how all this has happened before.

Hence a school program

“to keep the memory alive.”


Dove sta Memora?

Lest one's former friends forget—

ah, Catullo! the worst indeed is the one

who once was an ally,

who once was our partisan.

Dante had a place for those who defiled the word.

I've seen Ugolino's cell, worn old hall

in the corner of the piazza

across from the elegance of the Medicis'.

Dante, under sentence of death,

composed his hell, he made his Paradiso.

He damned and praised.


In Coltano, I remembered,

and in Venice,

and on the radio in Firenze—

American poet on Italian radio again,

sixty years later,

to speak against the fascists—

if poetry is a poet’s religion,

what happens to the practice

when a sacred trust is broken?

Kannon, Kannon,


a President telling lies that lead to slaughter,

reporters repeating lies that lead to slaughter,

and what's  a little feces in your burger

if it don't impede production

and thereby assures a profit?


contra naturam


A moth escapes through a smoke hole

and nations crumble. A President lies

and a nation lies in rubble. When

one's allies can't be trusted,

the arts of even poetry will suffer,

and when there is no harmony in the heart,

when there is no loyalty to the word in one's heart,

there can be no allegiance.

No humanitas.


With usura

we have entered another age of savagery,

antiquities of Baghdad plundered,

wonders of the world sold for profit,

no house of good stone,

no manufactured Paradise of word or wood,

no temple made of words,

no real conviction, no sacrifice for the common good,

nor character in the man,

nor integrity in the work,

nor in the poem,


no Hikmet to rise from the bilge

and look up at the faces of his oppressors

with a song in his heart

and courage enough to sing...


no don Pablo Neruda,

no real conviction.


Art aint a bean-counter’s business.

Though the beans need counting.


What is made to endure,

what is made to live with,

cannot be commodified,

is one with nature.

Is nature. Is our nature

healing the heart with a song.

To be makers, not destroyers.


In Coltano, where the poet was caged,

I remember.

And found, finally, just south of the road,

beyond the narrow stand of pines,

a simple flag, a small hand-tied cross

in a little square of junipers,

an indentation in the ground

where a stone had stood

till the mayor of Pisa took it down

to quell the bickering

of the Reds and the Blacks,

but bickering is eternal—


now just a sheet of paper, a few sad facts

protected from the drizzle

by plastic, where the fascists held

35,000, a small city,

Alessandro said, now long empty fields

of silence, furrows cut straight

where Ezra sat, held by the Allies,

reading the clouds,

searching the horizon

for the white baptismal dome,

for the alabaster tip of the tower,

caged panther

with his Four Books of Confucius,

not yet assaying

the pain and wreckage of his hubris.


Ol’ Ez, the Idyho Kid,

lost among the Medicis.

And even despite his errors, his wreckage,

there is great beauty

and not a little wisdom.


Just weeks before, Camilla drove us out

to Rivalta,

the great medieval mansion

miles across broad fields,


storehouse hung with thick hams

and strong cheeses,

wine cellar stacked to the ceiling,


and across a dinner to die for

looked at me with piercing eyes

and cried, "Too many mistakes!

We make mistakes!"

Gray and I praised her,

and our friend Sara praised her,

and Camilla cried, "Too many mistakes!"


Sweet Camilla, an Ezra,

so beautiful, so determined

to orchestrate perfection: the struggle

to organize the lit-fest, to find

the rose in the steel dust,

flower of the eternal

in the transitory heart of the traveler.

The flower that is

the lesson of the Buddha.


Oh, Italia, what people, what kindness

in the hearts of people—

the mayor of San Giuliano

brought me to talk with the council

and gave me the rainbow banner:

Pace, a token.

Arturo brings me my poems from Bolzano,

freshly into Italian,

and poems too from Alessandro.

And when I speak against the war,

there are tears in Sara's eyes

as she translates

into the French: Vaison la romaine,


birthplace of western Romantics—

first time, she says,

she's ever wept in public.

And tears again, listening

in Livorno.

Aieee! Thales cries,

they have hope

who have nothing else.

Where there is Kannon,

there is Kali, the destroyer.

To believe in poetry

is to believe the heart can be opened,

and in the commerce of the heart,

thrift is ruin.


Le Paradis n'est pas artificiel

Olga has embodied it in her song,

and old Billyum,

translating Neruda, almost anonymous

in the snows of Spokane.

The translator’s art is provisional

conclusion, the art

of the invisible. And I too

have found life among the dead.

It’s all there— not in the gift

but in the giving,

living up to those few chosen words

we can stand by

and die by when that time comes—

just a few words,


[because it is so very difficult

getting news from poetry,

news that stays news]


libertá, justice and mercy,

a little love to thaw the heart in dead winter,

a little conviction we can live by.


Hayden embodies it,

and sweet William—

what is made to endure, to live with.


I have tried to build a Paradise,

a temple for poetry.

Now it threatens to crumble.

Is this my hubris? Paradise

revealed by the eye of its maker?

I am not

the megalomaniac Ezra,

though I love him,

grieving for his errors,

but am an American

where his cage once was,

where the old man called upon his gods.


I have my own errors to live with.


"When studying the work of the Masters,

I watch the working of their minds."


Here the long furrows for planting,

deep rows of pine lining the roadway

to and from Coltano,

gray doves silent,

farm dogs and manor dogs still barking,

and out behind the store, a small club

where Partisans still dance on the weekends,

the good smell of woodsmoke,

everything passing.


Palms together: gassho.

Kannon, Kannon, tomorrow

the long road home,

long road stretching out behind:

the journey itself is home.


I lie awake in my narrow bed,

sweating, on the banks of the Lethe,

listening to the voices of my dead:

“These running dogs

of the Capitalist bourgeoisie,”

KR intoned, and, “I write poetry

to seduce women… and to overthrow

the Capitalist system—

in that order,” and his grand guffaw.

And Old Tom,

devoted to a lost revolution,

“Times comes,

I got my gun.” And he did.

And he killed a man.

And it tormented all his days. Who could sing

like no one sang in his

great Irish joy and Irish sorrow.

And dear Denise

who found compassion

even in “those groans men make,”

her simple cotton dresses and her tea,

like steel in her conviction.

And the wars came and the wars changed.

Another Third World country.

We stood for something—

the word writ large:

to be makers, not destroyers.


Un poeta contro Bush

Un poeta contro la guerra

I have made a gift, whatever  it’s worth.

I stand for something.


The line between being murderers

and the accomplices of murderers

and true resistance

does actually exist—cf.

Albert Camus—

and me in a Marine Corps pup tent,

Okinawa, forty years ago—

and a line between

duplicity and truth.

By a few clear words and long practice,

the vision.


A few words can change a life,

which is a world.

I gather my masters

in my hour of desolation.

The answer is in the poetry.

The poetry

is my answer.

Rumi after

September 11;

Hikmet in the face of oppression;


and Hayden and Merwin,

Adrienne, et alia

for almost anything—

but always the mystery—

kado—the way of poetry.


Kannon, Kannon,


the poem is a mystery, no matter

how well crafted:

is a made thing

that embodies nature.

And like Zen,

the more we discuss it,

the further away…


Well, at least I have a few masters.

I have my practice.


Hayden says since his ex

spiffied up

the little barn where he wrote through all those years,

“It don’t smell like cow piss

when it rains any more.” Who knows something

about Troubadors and the way of poetry,

about a Paradise made of words, knows

there is no Paradise,

but there is Hell also within it—





by Michael D. Higgins


No it is not the end of history.

Nor is it a possibility exhausted,

Not yet the end of ideas.

It is the time of a single idea,

Crippling, vicious and deadly,

Closing us off,

From what we imagined of a world

We have not managed to create,

Rejecting the possibility,

Of hope,

Of a better version of ourselves


And in the new intolerance

We may not speak of prophecy.

We may not make a criticism

Of the choices made

In our name.

The mind of war is being remade,

New demons invented,

And language gives way

To description

Of demons.

A picture is being drawn

Of those less than human who differ

An old vision of freedom

From hunger, fear, abuse,

Has faded in the terrible times.

We are invited to forget an old promise

That ours was a world to create.


Out of the depths we cry

We shrink in fear.

Few break the silence.

But then light flickers

In hope

In resolution


We must make our own answer.

Our liberation from the nightmare will come.

Our exile will end,

Not from the making of miracles

But from the strength of will and heart



That we make our own history

With heart and head.

We make our common fate.


We move on and recall

That old promise,

Not rejected,



Michael. D. Higgins, from An Arid Season



Baghdad still alive – the gap between two poems as a measure of time allows to see if meanings of a city despite having been ravaged by war can be kept alive?


Athens 15.6.2006

After Baghdad was invaded by American and other coalition troops, and all of this started at the end of March 2003, there was no knowing of the outcome. The invasion was completed by troops moving in where before missiles and bombs had already struck. Decimation of the enemy it is called in military jargon; in reality, it is the civilians that huddle in silence inside their houses and await what will come next. There was no truce to come.

When the Summer Olympic Games were held in Athens 2004, the war in Iraq did not respect the Olympic Truce and so poets connected to safeguard at least something. In the United States it was mainly thanks to an initiative of poets around Sam Hamill and others. These poets began to challenge the military language, of how with them politicians want to sell an invasion as bringing of democracy and instead they offered a compassionate, everyday view of things without excluding human pain.

In that context I began to read this poem by Buland al-Haydari. It struck me when he said “Baghdad died of a wound inside of us” for “we are the nail, the city is the corpse”. It is a powerful image, almost Jesus Christ like, but unsure who dies for what, there is no sense to make out of such sacrifice. This becomes apparent when Buland al-Haydari says the meaning of Baghdad died inside of us. He means that the city will never be again the same after such an invasion.

When the Persians invaded Athens, the Athenians had gone thanks to interpreting in a clever way the advice of the oracle at Delphi. She had recommended that they hide behind wooden planks. At first, the Athenians took this to mean to stay behind their wooden fortification, especially of the street linking Athens to Piraeus. But then they thought how absurd. They knew that the Persians would come with their fire arrows. It would be too dangerous for them to stay in the city. They would burn alive. Then they had the brilliant idea to interpret wooden planks as meaning ships. The decision was made to evacuate everyone from the city. The Persians came, destroyed everything in sight, but as Marx said afterwards, they did not destroy the Athenians. When the Athenians returned to their city, they had their memories intact and with that they could rebuild the city.

It is amazing on how this story continues with Baghdad. It is after all a question as to how memories of a city are kept alive despite what has happened since March 2003.

Now, June 2006, the “Poets against the war” have sent another beautiful poem. This one is by Salah Al Hamdani. Again it is about Baghdad but written by someone returning from exile and with the allusion: "if you were a woman, Baghdad!"

(see http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2006/oct/axislit/baghdad_beloved.pdf)

Compared to the poem "The City ravaged by silence" describing the death of the meaning of Baghdad as it were, here is a poet trying to keep her alive with his memories.

It is significant that he speaks in the personal I. Too many poets tend to describe war situations in moral formulas and then they forget that the personal note, the individual, does make a difference.

If poetry is about emancipation, it can elongate that ray of hope called sun when the sky is blue but the immediate history not forgotten. For terrible is the truth: 'soldiers still their thirst on our tears!'

I like the image of women brushing us with their hair when they bend over us.

Always there is love and without hesitation it bequeaths us with touches of life - through the hands, through what is love.

There are lonely moments and still many others forgotten or forsaken.

But after reading that poem you just keep wondering about the nature of these poetic insights into a city still alive despite of it all. Even more so I keep wondering about the gap between two poems only to be bridged by some grace as measure of time.


Second post-script:

Who takes the responsibility for Iraq spiralling into sectarian violence?

by Hatto Fischer

Athens 26.2.2006


Western silence about its own responsibility for having invaded Iraq makes it doubtful that political consequences are drawn in time to prevent further waves of hatred sweeping Muslim masses. After the bombs ripped apart the golden roof of the Samarra shrine, Western media focus again solely on Iraq and indicated that the responsibility lies with Iraq. As if wishing to say we have nothing to do with what goes on there but see, they cannot get their act together. The bombing of the holy shrine took place Wednesday, by Sunday the Western newspapers identify two important trends: American foreign policy is without stating so reaching a climax of crisis culminating in an absolute failure in Iraq while the religious war in Iraq itself shows a country going beyond the era of Saddam Hussein by being driven towards sectarian violence.

Two examples of Newspapers underline these two tones:

The New York Times carries the news as follows:

“After a bomb exploded in Samarra at one of Iraq's most sacred Shiite shrines on Wednesday, many young Shiites ignored his pleas for calm, instead heeding more extreme calls and attacking Sunni mosques and killing Sunni civilians, even imams, in a crisis that has threatened to provoke open civil war.” – ROBERT F. WORTH and EDWARD WONG, Younger Clerics Showing Power in Iraq's Unrest New York Times, Published: February 26, 2006


In Top of Form

Bottom of FormWASHINGTON Reuters conveyed the news that  “U.S. President George W. Bush made a round of phone calls on Saturday to Iraqi leaders of all sects, urging them to work together to calm violence that has raised fears of an all-out civil war. Bush commended Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Sunni political leader Tareq al-Hashimi and others for showing restraint, the White House said.”

In this query about the most recent events in Iraq, two questions are crucial to be answered insofar as politics requires an analysis of what is happening not only in Iraq but throughout the world for it is crucial how the West responds. An indication of by-passing the need to name reality is the declaration that the destruction on Wednesday of a major Shiite mosque may be “a suspected al Qaeda bombing.” Whenever something like this happens, blame is immediately given to those terrorists and more concretely to the al Qaeda network (as recently as well when an attempt was made to attack oil rigs in Saudia Arabia). It distracts from Western powers being responsible for this continual violence in Iraq.

Clearly the Western media point out only what consequences this has in Iraq itself for the destruction of the shrine “triggered waves of reprisal attacks against Sunni Muslims.” This is underlined by the fact that “more than 100 people have been killed in the gravest crisis since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the strife threatens the Bush administration's hopes of withdrawing its forces from the country.”

If anything, the Bush administration has to take the full responsibility for having invaded Iraq. There is no other way to rationalize away such grave political mistake. The many people killed by now in Iraq since March 2003 when the decision was made to invade and to take over control in Baghdad is of such huge tragic dimension that the silence of the West, its politicians and media, is becoming a clear cut burden in finding solutions not merely in Iraq, but at international level.

Bolton was installed in the United Nations by President Bush despite Congress opposing his appointment; Bush used the artificial possibility to make the appointment while Congress was in recess. Certainly the President has such power and possibility to side step Congress but it is not advisable to ignore certain objections. Otherwise American foreign policy will go astray by being wrong footed and just clumsy. Still, it is an indication that in the recent debate in the United States about a company in Dubai being allowed or not to take over the ownership of certain American ports a common American voice was saying that “the USA is an empire and as such has it not necessary to outsource its port.” Such open admission to be an empire means political thinking is shaped by other than just national interests in the narrow sense. Nor would security concerns suffice to explain the position Congress wants to take in opposition to President Bush who favours such foreign ownership. Rather the repeated question is whether American politics are entering such a critical phase that all classical mistakes are aggravated by no critical voice being around to give developments both at home and abroad another dimension than merely exporting violence.

To remind, Bush justified the invasion of Iraq among other things by taking the war against terrorism out of the US and into what he made Iraq into, namely the territory of the terrorists. War as exporter of violence means to produce more violence to justify the means as the process unfolds. It is an absurd hypothesis but it has been accepted by the American mainstream and its politicians. The United States have not experienced a similar attack like 9/11 since then on its own territory. So there is viable proof for such an ideological premise made into a sophisticated doctrine by Rumsfeld insofar as he promotes the permanent war as keeping everyone busy, i.e. in fear of still further violence, while saying everyone can feel safe at home. Such a premise explains the blindness to the very fact as pointed out by critics that Iraq is not absorbing terrorist violence and thereby distracts them from attacking directly the United States insofar as Europe had to bear the brunt (Madrid bombing, London bombing), but that it has become instead a training ground for more terrorists. Naturally the blame is shifted to countries like Syria and even Iran for providing crucial support but the key turning point of Iraq in this elongation of violence has never been refuted. It should be recalled that the Bush administration linked via media speculations 9/11 to Saddam Hussein although it was known then and has become a widely accepted fact that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda had nothing to do with one another. Again the critics say now Iraq is much closer to this fact than it was the case before Saddam Hussein was toppled.

This then touches upon the crucial justification to topple Saddam Hussein as he was a brutal dictator and thereby his removal by violence, but a violence of war brought onto Iraq from the outside, is still justified even though it violates all Western values. The invasion left the country not merely stranded but without own protection against any form of violence whether from the inside or from outside. Since the West never questioned the method deployed, namely regime change by violent means and moreover by not internal forces but external ones, and therefore has not understood what this means for democracy based on free, equally non violent changes in power, the victim has not been merely Iraq, but Western democracy.

Here then the indications are that Western politicians fail not only to perceive the violence inherent in its own foreign policy, but does not understand the Islamic movements. Louis Baeck states the main reason for a lack of an open discourse at international level is that

From the point of view of western neoconservative or fundamentalist commentators who are influential theorists of the prevailing discourse, these multiple ways of asserting identities will inevitably lead to a clash of civilizations. From a hegemonic perspective, Western publicists judge the policies and practices of other civilizations on the basis of principles and ideals prevailing in the western world. According to this method, the non Western cultures are judged according to criteria which are not theirs. [1]

Some warned the United States from entering Iraq with force; this place housing signs of the oldest civilisation should have been treated with respect for its people. Cultural means should have been used to further mutual understanding and trust, and thereby give Iraqis the space to make their own emancipation from dictatorship but under their own terms and in knowledge of all the pitfalls, including religion succeeding in taking over power. But by entering with tanks and soldiers, not only precious cultural heritage has been smashed but fibres of human understanding has been twisted by now into coils of misunderstanding leading to fear and violence.  Without the United States taking full responsibility for the grave error made when allowing Bush to invade Iraq, no lesson shall be drawn either now or for the future. After Viet Nam there had been some hope that lessons would be learned; now there exists the proof that this was a hope in vain.

[1] Louis Baeck, “Islamic views on globalization”, ed. Jean Tardiff for www.planetagora.org 2005


Third post - script

Athens 25.10.2012

In an exchange with Irish poet Gabriel Rosenstock, he forwarded to me a Haiku poem that struck a note.


A billboard in Dublin, seen during the IMRAM festival, with a haiku in Irish (attached).
Original text by Janak Sapkota, Nepalese haijin (haikuist), studying in Finland.
Irish translation by Gabriel Rosenstock.

morning dew -

a street in Baghdad

blood glistens on a tree

To read more of Janak's beautiful work:


That is a powerful Haiku - to go from dew to blood, and thereby think of Bagdad.

It can continue what is to be found on this page of 'Poetry Connection' with the seeming title: 'From Bagdad to Athens' and with that special dedication to the poet Buland al Haydari.

When with the World Poetry Movement delegation in Paris and Brussels in March 2012, Bas Kwakman told us that he had invited once to his poetry festival in Rotterdam two poets: one who had fled from Bagdad to America and wrote from there about the destruction of that city, and the other an American who stayed on in Bagdad after having gone there as a soldier. To have these two on the same stage and read their poems from the opposite ends of perception must have been an incredible experience.







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