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October 2003

Checkpoints: Literature from Iraq

Image: Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Arlo K. Abrahamson, "Iraqis share a laugh with a U.S. Army soldier during an effort to distribute food and water," April 2008

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.

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,

from Outcast

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

from At the Borderline

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

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:

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

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

Homeland as Exile, Exile as Homeland

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?

from Scattered Crumbs

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

New Year

New Year, don't come to our homes, for we are wanderers from a ghost-world, denied by man. Night flees from us, fate has deserted us We live as wandering spirits with no

Waltzing Matilda

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

Love Song for Words

Why do we fear words when they have been rose-palmed hands, fragrant, passing gently over our cheeks, and glasses of heartening wine sipped, one summer, by thirsty lips? Why

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:


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