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Miracle in Baghdad:
Poetry as Peacemaker

Saved by a Poem

Adapted from Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words by Kim Rosen (Hay House, October, 2009).

Miracle in Baghdad: Poetry as Peacemaker

Can someone really be saved by a poem? In Kim Rosen’s new book, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Poetry, Rosen says, is a healing medicine, especially needed in these times of global and personal uncertainty. In fact, poetry’s popularity seems to be soaring in direct relationship to the growing instability of the world around us. As financial and natural resources dwindle, many are turning to the resources of the heart. A poem can be a kind of nondenominational prayer, a companion through difficulty, a salve for the wounded, and a direct connection to an inner source of joy, peace, and inspiration.

Poetry is the language of the soul. From below the surface of your life, the truth of who you are calls to you through the poems you love. Even if you have been touched by only one poem, or just a single line heard at a crucial moment and remembered, those words are an invitation from within you. When you take them in and speak them aloud, every level of who you are—your thoughts, your words, your feelings, and even your physical energies—comes into alignment with what matters most to you. You are receiving and giving voice not only to the poem, but also to your own soul.

One of America’s great poets, Stanley Kunitz, said a poet’s work is not only to avoid clichés of language, but also to avoid clichés of thought and feeling. Clichés are familiar patterns of reaction that arise automatically, without consciousness. These habitual responses can be the cause of much suffering because they lead to the same painful situations again and again. As William Wordsworth said, “Not choice but habit rules the unreflecting herd.” Because it goes underneath conventional thought, poetry can cut through these patterns, waking you up to the vibrancy of the moment.

In this way, filling your mind with poetry can offer a profound, paradoxical medicine. It strengthens the mind and disarms it at once.

In the “Aha!” that happens when the mind bursts open—at a breathtaking metaphor or an insight or a chiming among the words—all levels of being human come into alignment. You feel a sudden integration of body, mind, heart, and soul. The fragmentation that many experience in the multitasking onrush of modern life cannot withstand a good poem. Whether it is a mystical song by Kabir asking, “What is God?” or a poem by June Jordan about being homeless in New York City, you are called into presence by the resonance of truth. And when you are present, you are open to your feelings. And when you feel, the rigid boundaries that divide you from others can melt. In that moment, the man sleeping on the subway vent, the child shot in Falluja, the little girl in the FEMA trailer, and your own mother, whether or not she seemed to love you, are no longer separate from you; they are you.

On a bombed-out street that was once a beautiful section of downtown Baghdad, a large tent was erected on August 28, 2006, in the midst of explosions and clashes. It was the first of many gatherings of poets in what came to be called the Freedom Space events. There, while Sunni and Shiite militias roamed the streets propagating terror, men and women from both factions gathered to speak poetry together. The Shiites sat opposite the Sunnis, as if it were a competition. But by the end of the event, they were embracing and dancing together because the poems from both sides voiced the same words, the same longings, the same wounds.

There were 25 people in the tent at that first gathering. Since then the movement has proliferated throughout Baghdad and the surrounding areas. Large monthly events in central locations draw hundreds of listeners. Smaller weekly events bring together poets and musicians from all factions. Though some of these gatherings are held in areas where people have been killed for speaking poetry, more and more are risking their lives to be a part of the surge of hope shining from the Freedom Space. Even soldiers from both Sunni and Shiite militias have joined the celebration, volunteering to guard the space and speaking poetry from the stage. Some have left their posts in the army because they see in these poetry gatherings a more powerful form of peacemaking than any militia. The Freedom Space of March 2008 was held at the Theatre Hall of the technical university in downtown Baghdad. Though armed guards surrounded the space and the sound of bombs punctuated the poetry, inside an audience of a thousand—Sunni and Shiite—danced, wept, and cheered.

Yanar Mohammed is the founder of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, which sponsors the Freedom Space. She is a pretty, petite powerhouse. Each time we meet, the first thing that strikes me is the gentleness of her voice and dark eyes. Yet this soft-spoken woman has become such a fierce champion of women’s rights in Iraq that there have been several threats to her life and the government has prohibited her from appearing on television. As I watched her speak to an outdoor gathering of activists here in the U.S., her light jacket blew open and the waves of her jet-black hair flew freely about her face. She told us that she could no longer go out dressed in this way in Baghdad. I tried to imagine her shrouded in the headscarf she must wear to protect herself from violent Islamic fundamentalists as she negotiates the streets of the war zone that was once her neighborhood.

Yanar was a successful architect until the Iraq War. She and her family lived in a beautiful home in the suburbs of Baghdad. But when she witnessed the violations happening to women as a result of the occupation, she could not remain silent. The movement she founded, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, runs several women’s shelters and helps women who have been unjustly thrown into prison, forced into prostitution, threatened with “honor killings,” or caught in the sex-trafficking trade.

It was only by chance that the group began hosting poetry events. The first was a favor Yanar did for the young man she had hired to guard the office of the organization. Adham was a gentle being and the gun he had to carry as a guard seemed a strange counterpoint to his quiet, kind eyes. But only a year earlier, not knowing where to turn in his urgency to take some action to save his country from the destruction he was witnessing, Adham had come close to becoming a suicide bomber. His friends had talked him out of it, and now he was pouring his passion for peacemaking into speaking poetry instead.

When Adham asked Yanar to organize a poetry event for a group of his friends, she balked at first. What did poetry have to do with women’s rights? The young man confessed he had been eavesdropping on the conversations going on inside the office he guarded. “You women are talking about what really matters: freedom and life,” he explained. “And so are we. That is what our poetry is about.”

Yanar agreed to host the event on one condition: that there be equal numbers of Shiite and Sunni poets invited. She had no idea that that first Freedom Space would birth a movement that would spread rapidly throughout Baghdad and the surrounding areas, touching the lives of thousands.

Poetry is a powerful force in Iraq and always has been. As Yanar explained to me how some poets are heroes in her country and have tremendous influence on popular opinion, it was hard for me to conceive of a culture so different from my own. There, “poetry is like food and drink”—even and especially in the midst of war. Ibrahim al-Shawi, an Iraqi blogger, writes, "For centuries, poetry was the first religion for many people. Their collective wisdom, their history and heritage, their values and ideals, their pride and achievements are all preserved in poetry lines."

A well-loved speaker at the poetry gatherings is a young woman who goes by the name of Hind because it is too dangerous for her to use her real name. When she takes the microphone at a Freedom Space event in downtown Baghdad, a hush falls over 1000 people. Many have heard her speak poetry at previous gatherings and have been waiting with anticipation for her turn on the stage. Hind does not write poetry; rather, she has a gift for learning poems by heart. As she moves from a classical Qasida (a highly structured ode with intricate rhymes and rhythms) to the work of modern Iraqi poets, the textures of her voice change to meet each poem. The whisper of an intimate love poem breaks open into an emphatic shout that fills the auditorium as she speaks the truth of the eighth century female mystic Rabia al-Adawiyya: “I am a Doorkeeper of the Heart, not a lump of wet clay!” In moments she even sweeps into song, like an osprey lifting onto the wind, singing the verses that pour out of her memory in a voice at once delicate and fierce.

It is almost impossible to conceive that this young woman had only recently been rescued from a nightmare of forced prostitution, torture, and imprisonment. After being kidnapped in her late teens, Hind was bought and sold repeatedly in the sex-trafficking industry that has become rampant since the occupation. When the last brothel that bought her was ambushed, she was thrown into the women’s prison. This is where Yanar and her co-workers found her.

"We asked her if she wanted to change her life," Yanar remembered. “She did not believe it could happen. When we told her that we had a shelter for women and that she could work with us, she wept. ‘But I have an 11-year-old son,’ she said. ‘What will happen to my son?’” Of course, her son was invited to come with her. "And that is why," Yanar told me, laughing, "in many of the newspaper photographs of our activists, there is often a young boy in the picture!"

As Hind embarked on her recovery from the years of trauma, she discovered tremendous healing in learning poetry by heart. Like most people from her village, she could neither read nor write. But this did not diminish her genius for remembering and speaking poetry. The inhabitants of southern Iraq, where Hind was born, have been deprived of development and education for many decades. In spite of this, Yanar told me, they are known to have a talent for poetry. “Expressing their emotions comes spontaneously. They are so eloquent! In their spare time, when they are sitting among their families or their tribes, they speak in poetry together.” I could hear Yanar’s profound respect for these people for whom “the only tool for expressing the chronic deprivation, pain, and anger is poetry.”

In the West, when we think of a talent for poetry, we usually associate it with writing poems. But in Iraq and many other countries, poetic ability is not confined to composition. Many, like Hind, have a gift of memory that is startling to those of us in the Western world in whose minds, overcrowded with modern multitasking, such indigenous abilities have been lost or submerged. Al-Shawi writes, “People in the countryside and the desert have truly astonishing capacity to remember poetry . . . I have met people who can remember 50 lines of a poem after hearing them once. The rhythm and the music in the words of course help. I once met a Bedouin who in the course of an (extended) evening must have recited several thousand lines of poetry, covering almost three centuries of his tribe’s and region’s history.”

Within a short time, Hind learned dozens of poems by classical and modern Iraqi poets and began delivering them at the Freedom Space events. “She has become one of the most well-loved voices,” Yanar said with pride. “Just imagine turning your life from being a symbol of evil, which is how she was seen when she was a prostitute, to being a source of joy and a figure of strength for other women. After spending years of her life being treated as a sexual commodity for very bad men to enjoy, now she speaks so openly and passionately to crowds of more than a hundred people. She always knows the right poem to say at the right time and is not a bit bashful.”

Yanar’s voice was full of awe for the talent of all the young poets who have constellated around the Freedom Spaces. “They call me their Princess of Poetry,” she admitted shyly. “I am very proud of that. I cannot write one word of poetry or recite it, but these young poets have taught me to feel it more and more.” Then her voice clouded as she thought about the burdens that the younger generation of Iraqis must live with. “They do not know how to respond to the constant fighting, to holding a machine gun, to mullahs trying to gain power over them, to American tanks that come into their towns. But they do know how to feel and speak it out loud. And if we start feeling out loud with each other, this is a first step to being stronger within ourselves in the sea of barbarism that we live in.”

Later in our conversation she added softly, “It happens many times during the Freedom Spaces that we hear the bombs going off, left and right. We give it a moment or two of silence. Then we go on with the poetry.”

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Adapted from Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words by Kim Rosen (Hay House, October, 2009). Copyright© 2009.

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Kim Rosen Kim Rosen, MFA, author of Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words (Hay House, 2009), has touched listeners around the world with poetry’s power to awaken, inspire and heal. She is the co-creator of four CD’s of spoken poetry and music and has delivered poetry in a wide spectrum of venues from the crypt of Chartres Cathedral to the New Orleans Superdome. Combining her devotion to poetry with her background as a spiritual teacher and therapist, she has given inspirational keynotes, workshops, trainings, retreats and private sessions in corporations, colleges, high schools, nonprofit organizations, retreat centers. For more info on Kim, or the book, visit www.kimrosen.net.

Other writings by Kim Rosen:

  • V-Report from Kenya: 10 Year Old Girl Dies from FGM
  • Madoff and Miracles: How I Lost My Life's Savings and a Poem Saved My Life

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