war made into a poem: a remarkable Iraq memoir

Joanna Bourke in The Telegraph:

Turnur_in_mosul_2947502bIn 2003, an earnest American army sergeant called Brian Turner was deployed to fight in Iraq. Unusually, he stuffed an anthology of Iraqi poems into his rucksack. One of the poems was titled “Every Morning the War Gets Up from Sleep” by Fadhil al-Azzawi, a highly acclaimed Iraqi poet and novelist. In the early hours of the morning, Turner recalls how he and his fellow soldiers would kick in the doors of suspected Iraqi insurgents; they would force the men to kneel; they would zip-tie them with flexi-cuffs and pull sandbags over their heads; they would offer chocolates to the terrified children. They would then turn off their night-vision goggles and read al-Azzawi’s poem:

“Every morning the war gets up from sleep.

So I place it in a poem, make the poem into a boat, which I throw into the Tigris.

This is war, then.”

This extraordinary image of heavily armed soldiers reciting the exquisitely sensitive poetry of an Arab intellectual appears about a third of the way through Turner’s memoir of military service in Iraq, My Life as a Foreign Country. Turner doesn’t mention al-Azzawi by name, but he does cite parts of his poem. In an interview al-Azzawi gave last year, he recalled that his mother had not been impressed when he confessed that his ambition in life was to become a writer. “What is the real job of the Arab poets?” she scoffed. Surely it was “nothing but selling their praise poems full of lies, to this sheikh or that governor, to this vizier or that king”. The young al-Azzawi solemnly replied: “I promise you, I will not be like these people.” That is the reason a soldier like Turner reads his poems. Like al-Azzawi, Turner also refuses to write “praise poems full of lies”. His memoir is an uncompromising story of violence and beauty, searing trauma and a dreamlike circulation between the past and the present. There is no future.

More here.