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Checkpoints: Literature from Iraq

October 2003

Borders and their crossings are the theme of our first three issues: genre-bending in Iran, partition surrounding North Korea, and in Iraq, the danger zone between inside and outside, as Sherko Fatah writes of smugglers and minefields on the border with Turkey; Muhsin al-Ramli of prisons real and metaphorical at the outset of the Iran-Iraq war; Najem Wali of a soldier in Basra on leave from that conflict in “Waltzing Matilda,” and of the artist’s relation to borders in “Homeland as Exile.” In an excerpt from his novel Outcast and in his interview with translator Ammiel Alcalay, Iraqi-born Jewish writer Shimon Ballas defies the boundary between Jew and Muslim; while from a historical perspective, Maria Rosa Menocal harkens back to “The Culture of Translation” in medieval Baghdad and Spain, recalling the fluidity of boundaries between “East” and “West.” Poems by Nazik Al-Mala’ika, Saadi Youssef, and Badr Shakir as-Sayab (with a contemporary response by Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish) explore departure and loss as they seek a safe haven in language.

Five Crosses
We stopped in five stations and did not leave a souvenir. We did not shiver there, or get drunk, or strum a guitar. Five rivers of sand on the guitar. Five crosses made of silence: You are sad; I wipe…
Translated from Arabic
New Year
By Nazik al-Mala’ika
Iraqi poet Nazik al-Mala’ika greets the new year with mixed emotions.
Translated from Arabic by Rebecca C. Johnson
Waltzing Matilda
By Najem Wali
All I have left from this story is a white Caribbean suit, a Panama hat, and a cassette tape that I’ve carried persistently in my left shirt pocket. And a pair of white shoes which, if I hadn’t…
Translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth
The Other Body / The Other Home
By Adonis
Migration is another name for exile made gentler by the alphabet.
Translated from Arabic by Ammiel Alcalay & Kamal Boullata
Homeland as Exile, Exile as Homeland
By Najem Wali
Iocasta: What is an exile’s life? Is it great misery?Polyneices: The greatest; worse in reality than in report.Iocasta: Worse in what way? What chiefly galls an exile’s heart?Polyneices: The…
Translated from Arabic by Jennifer Kaplan
Trastevere Boy
By Pier Paolo Pasolini
The kid who sells roasted chestnuts at the end of the Ponte Garibaldi gets down to work. He sits in a groove in the parapet of the bridge with a small stove between his legs, looking no one in the face,…
Translated from Italian by Marina Harss
Valentine Puzzle Purse, Anonymous, British or American, 19th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Richard Riddell, 1981.
Love Song for Words
By Nazik al-Mala’ika
Why do we fear words? / If their thorns have once wounded us, / then they have also wrapped their arms around our necks / and shed their sweet scent upon our desires.
Translated from Arabic by Rebecca C. Johnson
from Scattered Crumbs
By Muhsin al-Ramli
Set in an Iraqi village during the Iran-Iraq war, Scattered Crumbs critiques a totalitarian dictatorship through the stories of an impoverished peasant family. A father (Hajji Ijayel), a fierce supporter…
Translated from Arabic by Yasmeen Hanoosh
A Stranger by the Gulf (1953)
The wind gasps with the midday heat, like a nightmare in the late afternoon And on the masts, it continues to fold, to spread for departure The gulf is crowded with them--laborers…
Translated from Arabic
from At the Borderline
By Sherko Fatah
Set in the border triangle of Iran, Irak, and Turkey, Im Grenzland [At the Borderline] is the story of an Iraqi Kurd who makes his living as a smuggler. Having bought a map of landmines from a former…
Translated from German by Andrea Heyde
The Culture of Translation
Throughout medieval Europe Arabic had a far more powerful impact on the transformation and shaping of culture than most narratives of our history reveal. This was true not only in Spain, where Arabic…
Nothing but Iraq (March 29, 2003)
I remember as-Sayyab screaming into the Gulf in vain: Iraq, Iraq. Nothing but Iraq. And nothing but an echo replies I remember as-Sayyab, in that Sumerian space A woman triumphed over the sterility of…
Translated from Arabic
At Home in Exile: An Interview with Shimon Ballas
This interview appeared in slightly different form in Keys to the Garden: New Israeli Writing, edited and translated by Ammiel Alcalay (San Francisco: City Lights, 1996). Ammiel Alcalay: Starting with…
Translated from Arabic
from Outcast
By Shimon Ballas
Dreams don’t come to us without being provoked externally, which is what happened to me yesterday when I woke up at five in the morning, precisely the hour I had intended to get up. I found myself…
Translated from Hebrew by Ammiel Alcalay
Completely Absentminded
By Mario Benedetti
He never considered himself an exiled politician. He abandoned his country out of a strange impulse that was forged in three stages. The first was when he was approached by four successive beggars on…
Translated from Spanish by Harry Morales
Berlin Bolero
By Ingo Schulze
“What a slimeball!” She pressed the glass against her cheek again. “And you go along with him. All this time you’ve been so stubborn. Then somebody like him comes along and . .…
Translated from German by Edna McCown