New Internationalist

Endpiece

Issue 307

E N D[image, unknown] P I E C E
The little poet

For Jassim, a tribute - and an obituary, by Felicity Arbuthnot.

In February, in a hospital in Baghdad, I met 13-year-old Jassim. Suffering from a virulent form of leukaemia, he was lying listlessly watching his small world of the ward through huge dark eyes, made larger by the contrast with his beautiful, pale, almost translucent skin. His thick, black, curly hair shone as if it had been polished, belying his precarious state of health.

Until he became ill he had been selling cigarettes on the streets of his home town of Basra, southern Iraq. Child labour is now an endemic tragedy in a country which had previously deemed good education so paramount that parents were fined for not sending their children to school.

Basra, Iraq’s ancient second city lying literally in the eye of Desert Storm, was bombarded mercilessly in the 1991 Gulf War. The six-fold increase in childhood cancers in Iraq has been linked to the use of missiles and bullets coated with depleted uranium (DU) waste from the nuclear industry. On impact, they left a residue of radioactive dust throughout the country. ‘If DU enters the body it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences,’ states the US Army Environmental Policy Institute. The residual dust, travelling where the wind blows, remains radioactive for 4,500 million years. There is an epidemic of cancer throughout Iraq, but in Basra it is an explosion.

As I sat down to talk to Jassim, the doctor mentioned that I made my living by writing. The transformation was instant. He sat up, his face lit with animation and excitement, and he produced an exercise book from under his pillow. Mickey Mouse decorated the cover. Inside, in beautiful Arabic, were poems he spent his days writing. He was going to be a poet when he grew up. They were extraordinary in their craft and talent, with an insight far exceeding his years. One, called, Identity Card, read:

The name is love,
The class is mindless,
The school is suffering,
The governorate is sadness,
The city is sighing,
The street is misery,
The home number is one thousand sighs.

He had collected quotes special to him. ‘Life does not take into consideration our passion,’ was one, and another: ‘I asked death, what is greater than you? Separation of lovers is greater than death.’ He watched my face intently for my reaction to the content of his little book. I was lost for words.

Eventually, I said: ‘Jassim, you must fight as hard as you can and get well, because you are already the most astonishingly talented poet. If you can create art like this at 13, I cannot imagine what you will have achieved by the time you are 20.’ I said he was going to be part of Iraq’s great, ancient, literary tradition, in the country that brought the world writing.

He glowed. Did he know, I asked, of the saying that ‘books were written in Egypt, printed in Lebanon and read in Iraq’? And that it’s only by reading and collecting the special phrases, facts, words, all the time, that one can write, just as he was doing? He didn’t know and, so ill but totally absorbed and enthused, carefully wrote it all down. I told him about poets and their lives and quoted lines special to me – and he wrote them down and glowed again, that someone understood his passion and spoke the language of his thoughts.

I have written much about Jassim, and his poem has been widely published. Jassim’s life depended on a European aid agency returning within ten days with the chemotherapy he needed.

Three weeks ago as I write, a friend went to Iraq and I sent with him the clippings of the articles, specially bound, and asked that he be sure to deliver them to Jassim, to show him his first printed poem – and I thought of his face again lighting up.

Last night my friend returned and telephoned.

‘How is Jassim?’ I asked.

The aid agency didn’t make it. Jassim had fought – and fought. He had hung on, but he lost the battle just before my friend arrived. He never saw his poem in print – and now he is just another statistic in the ‘collateral damage’ of sanctions.

I had told Jassim of poems living on, and quoted to him James Elroy Flecker:

Since I can never see your face
And never take you by the hand
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you.You will understand.

Flecker sent his ‘words as messengers, / The way I shall not pass along.’ He asked a ‘friend, unseen, unborn, unknown,’ to ‘read out my words, at night, alone: / I was a poet, I was young.’

Just like you, Jassim.
Rest in peace, little poet: 1985-1998.

Felicity Arbuthnot is a frequent visitor to Iraq and reports on the terrible impact of sanctions on the Iraqi people.

For further information and suggestions for action, contact
the Emergency Committee on Iraq, Room 501, Millbank, London SW1A 0AA,
Tel: (+44) 171 219 2874, Fax: (+44) 171 219 2879,
e-mail: George.Galloway@binternet.com

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