In War and Me, the first memoir by poet Faleeha Hassan, popularly known worldwide (thanks to Oprah’s website) as the “Maya Angelou of Iraq,” the author describes a life in which war follows her like a shadow. Bloody armed conflicts led by former President Saddam Hussein and provoked by the Ba’athist regime; the devastating losses of family and friends; struggles within a society resistant to the idea of a woman having agency—these conflicts laid a devastating, yet fruitful foundation for Hassan’s work.
Hassan knew loss even in her earliest days, when she was the only surviving infant of a set of twins, making her the first child born to her large family. She grew up in Najaf, Iraq, roughly 150 kilometers south of Baghdad. A simple error she made during her childhood—not closing a door tightly enough—condemned the author to forever feel responsible for the death of her young brother Ahmad, who crawled through the opening and fell into a cooking fire outside. Thereafter, Hassan writes, she was viewed by her chronically ill mother as a “harbinger of misfortune” for their family.
But the young girl could hardly shoulder the blame for the misfortunes to come. In September 1980, brewing tensions erupted when Iraqi forces surged into Iran, starting a war that Iraqi citizens like Hassan were assured would last only ten days. It would rage on purposelessly for the next eight years. The author, only thirteen years old at the time of the invasion, likens the claustrophobic, nauseating feelings she had at the start of the war to being consumed by something vile:
“From the beginning of that ninth month of 1980, I was obsessed by a feeling of revulsion—as if a large snake had swallowed me. At every moment of the day, I felt I was nearing its gastric juices, even though I frequently struggled to ignore the vicious sensation. The announcement of this war made me feel disgusted by everything—even myself.”
The war felt personal, but Hassan points out that citizens did not have the right to vote for it, even though young Iraqi men were expected to fight in it. Descriptions of the bodies of “martyrs” being returned to their families as their mothers wailed with grief demonstrate the conflict’s ability “to grind up young men and transform memories of them into words on black posters.” Bodies piled up as the people of Iraq struggled to find any sense of normalcy amid a volatile situation.
Hassan uses gut-wrenching depictions to illustrate the suffocating feelings of life in Iraq during her early years, but despite the frequently challenging nature of the book, it is worth noting how welcoming Hassan is throughout. She aims to be brutally honest about her experiences, many of which clearly remain painful, but her tone invites us in. Her readers are never the target of the occasionally (and justifiably) bitter feelings she expresses, nor does she presuppose that we have any prior knowledge about the region and its conflicts.
She explains how feelings of hopelessness grew during the Iran-Iraq conflict as “years passed during which every beat of their waking hours sounded like the drums of war.” But then, to the astonishment of Hassan and her fellow Iraqis, the fighting abruptly ended in a stalemate during the summer of 1988. This calm was short-lived. On August 2, 1990, citizens woke up to the news that Saddam Hussain’s forces had invaded Kuwait under the pretense of wanting to liberate the small nation from the purportedly “corrupt cabal of collaborators that ruled them.” Hassan compares the state of shock and horror that washed over her when she heard the news to what Gregor Samsa must have felt when discovering himself in the body of an insect. Unfathomably a new war had begun before “we had time to enjoy inhaling even a sniff of peace.”
Economic sanctions punishing Hussein’s illegal war trickled down to the people of Iraq, many of whom went hungry. “We poor people were left to our own devices,” Hassan writes, “held prisoners by this embargo, while our government and wealthy people became richer and more avaricious at every moment.”
As a modern reader, it’s difficult not to think of Russia’s war in Ukraine when reading about how much harder life became for an average Iraqi due to actions taken by their authoritarian government. Hassan, while exploring her outrage at how brutal these years in Iraq were, wonders whether there would have been a way to punish Hussein, the true culprit, without depriving the innocent citizens of the things they needed to live. It’s one of many places in War and Me where Hassan’s history evokes important questions about today’s geopolitical power structures.
The blockade eventually ended in late 2003, when US troops entered Iraq. The global community no longer held Hassan and her people economically captive once Hussein was removed, but it came at the cost of yet another seemingly endless war in Iraq.
Through all this bloodshed, chaos, and fear, Faleeha Hassan came of age and miraculously managed to not only excel in school, but to go on to become a teacher, fulfilling her father’s wishes. She had always hoped to pursue a higher education and realized that dream in 2006 when she earned a master’s degree in Arabic language and literature from the University of Kufa. Throughout the memoir, her dedication to her studies is the one constant in her life; her only condition for entering what eventually turned out to be a disastrous marriage was that she be permitted to keep pursuing her degree.
The author’s poetry is what earned her the reputation as the “Maya Angelou of Iraq,” but she proves how apt the comparison is in War and Me, a book highly reminiscent of Angelou’s first and most famous memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Both authors aim to tell the stories of their early lives and the hardships they endured; these books are documents of truth containing no balm to soothe the heartbreak inside. As such, neither is intended to make for easy reading in the emotional sense; rather, their power is in seeing each author’s worst days transformed into art.
The resemblance to Caged Bird goes beyond this conceit. Just as Maya Angelou’s mentor, Mrs. Flowers, introduced her to the world of books, so too did reading and learning became a respite for Hassan. She recalls falling deeply in love with the works of Gabriel García Márquez and eagerly anticipated her turn with the limited number of copies that were secretly circulating among members of Najaf’s Writers and Artists General Union. She used her time with those borrowed books to copy, by hand, word for word, her favorite Marquez novels into notebooks provided by the school in which she was teaching. In one of War and Me’s most powerful and illustrative images, those notebooks featured Saddam Hussein’s image on their covers. Nothing could better symbolize Faleeha Hassan’s commitment to a creative life than compiling the words of her favorite author behind the watchful dictator’s back.
The author’s entry into the literary world proves to be the lightest and most inspiring section of the book. It’s disappointing that Hassan doesn’t spend much time describing her creative process, but there does come a moment of realization, as she begins discussing her efforts to get her poems published, that she, through all of life’s struggles, had never stopped writing.
Hassan went on to publish several collections of her poetry which were at first openly challenged by the all-male poetry community of Najaf. Her work gained her a standing in the literary world, yet that notoriety also spelled out the beginning of the end of her time in Iraq: Hassan heard through the grapevine that her name had been placed on a list of writers and artists worthy of execution. Fearing for her life, she fled the country, and eventually sought refugee status in the United States, where she immediately faced harassment merely for being Iraqi.
It’s here that Hassan ends her harrowing memoir. A 2014 profile of the author in the Philadelphia Inquirer seems to imply that she has found some much deserved peace, but perhaps she’s saving her more recent stories for a second memoir.
In the early pages of War and Me, Hassan states her purpose for writing the book was simply to tell her story, but the memoir’s accomplishments go far beyond this goal. Her skill as a poet creates haunting phrases that draw a deep emotional response from the reader—William Hutchins’s artful translation preserves the beauty and impact of those words. Hassan gives the citizen’s view of life within Iraq during those years defined by war and shows the restrictive nature of being an Iraqi woman, trapped in an abusive marriage as the legitimacy of her poetry is questioned because of her gender.
The most powerful revelation of all is the strength of character Hassan built during those years. In response to the horrors around her, “all I could do,” Hassan writes, “was fashion a spirit of dent-proof stainless steel and to don it—a spirit capable of confronting events that were both unexpected and unavoidable.” War and Me is a remarkable demonstration of what a woman can do to survive.
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