Jassim – the need to remember


Demolished vehicles line Highway 80, also known as the 'Highway of Death', the route fleeing Iraqi forces took as they retreated from Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. by TECH. SGT. JOE COLEMAN

Judith Morrison reflects on a young Iraqi poet whose life was taken.

In 1998, a young boy, Jassim was dying from leukemia, in a hospital in Basra, Iraq. As a result of the first Gulf War in 1991, in which missiles and bullets were coated in depleted uranium. This has been linked to the increase in childhood cancers in Iraq.

I first read about Jassim in the New Internationalist, November 1998. There is a photo of Jassim, a most beautiful young boy, his head resting on a pillow. His expression of extraordinary composure, saturated me with sadness and anger. Jassim was a poet. He wanted to be a poet when he grew up. He died in late 1998, because the chemotherapy he required came too late. This was due to sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations Security Council. These sanctions stayed in place until approximately 2003.

Today, if Jassim had lived, he would be 31-years-old. I have two children aged 33 and 35 years. I cannot but compare the circumstances that life’s opportunities have presented to them; beginning with where they were born, Australia! Jassim was selling cigarettes on the streets of Basra before he became ill.

Jassim is never far from my thoughts, and for many reasons. I continued to be saturated with great sadness and anger, but, alas greatly heightened. I cannot but think of all the children in the world, for whom life’s circumstances, such as premature death, suffering, persecution, poverty, war, sexual abuse, seeking asylum is their daily struggle – all caused by the adult world!

Jassim keeps returning to me, at unexpected times, and in different ways. Sometimes it is a moment of stillness, silence or reflection. Sometimes, a moment of grief that belongs to another child. I framed his story. I read his poem often (published in the New Internationalist), it brings sobriety and a deep emptiness.

On occasion, I try and imagine, what life would have offered him. What choices he would have made, or been available to him. His unwritten poetry. He was cheated of his journey from boyhood into manhood.

David Whyte, poet and philosopher in his poem, ‘The Lightest Touch’, said, ‘Good poetry begins/with the lightest touch/with a breeze arriving from nowhere….’ Given what has happened to Iraq in the years since Jassim’s death: sectarian violence, the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the ‘Coalition of the Willing’, the rise of ISIS – not ‘the lightest touch’, nor ‘a breeze arriving from nowhere’. How would his poetry, his language, have come from his soul? Yet, it is often poetry that can resonate with insight, truth and hope. Jassim was denied from following in the literary tradition of his people. For whom does his memory give reason to hold?

I am full of shame, knowing our borders would be closed to him, if he were seeking asylum in Australia today.

A poem by Jassim

Identity Card
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

A poem to remember a crime against a child

New Internationalist reader Judith Morrison, from Melbourne, Australia, writes:

In the November 1998 edition of the New Internationalist there was an article by Felicity Arbuthnot called the ‘The little poet’. It was about Jassim, a 13-year-old Iraqi boy – a poet – who died because the medicine he required to treat his leukaemia (a result of depleted uranium from missiles and bombs in the first Gulf War) arrived too late – because of the imposed sanctions. I framed this article and it has been hanging in my study ever since.

I often think of him and have written a few poems in his memory. When I look at his picture I am always overcome with great sadness and a strange longing. The other night, I was listening to a programme recounting the effect of the sanctions imposed on Iraq at that time and Jassim leapt onto the front of my thoughts. For the first time I worked out how old he would be today if he was still alive: 28. Then I wondered what life would have been like for him, given the history of Iraq since he passed away. I can only believe that he would have remained a poet!

This is a poem I wrote that night:

    A Crime Against a Child
    I dreamt you planted
    a desert flower, a flower
    that would grow with you
    and become a tent for your
    dreams, a place where the breath
    of the desert would keep hunger
    of the soul at bay, and the eye of dawn
    watch over you, lead you to where
    dreams are nourished –

    I awoke to follow your presence
    from my dreams. Tears from your
    unwrapped poetry bled the moment.
    Tears from years embedded within
    your memory, cascaded like a waterfall
    whose journey ahead is unknown –

    The passing years have brought
    death and destruction to the land
    of your ancestors; to the land where
    you ran with the desert wind; where
    your poems were born, where your
    heart sighed for all the broken promises –

      Identity Card (a poem by Jassim written just before he died)
      The name is love
      The class is mindless
      The School is suffering
      The governorate is sadness
      The City is dying
      The street is misery
      The home number is one thousand sighs

    Your poetry lives on so the desert will bloom again…

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