“I Want to Speak, I Want to Hear My Voice”: A Q&A with Sabreen Kadhim
Sabreen Kadhim is City of Asylum’s poet-in-residence from Iraq. She has published poems widely in Iraqi magazines and newspapers, such as Al-Sabah, Al-Taakhi, and Al-Zamaan newspapers as well as Al-Esbuaya Magazine. She was the winner of the 3rd UNESCO Poetry Contest in 2011 and jointly won the Iraqi Youth Poetry Festival competition in 2012 (organized by the Culture For All Association). Her debut poetry collection, I Introduce Myself To Water, is awaiting publication. She also reported for Al-Hurra TV.
In an interview with Sampsonia Way, Sabreen discussed poetry, gender identity and its contribution to her development as a writer, her work as a journalist, and the importance of telling joyful stories.
Journalism was something I had always wanted to do. When I started I chose to be a reporter, a correspondent, instead of a host. It’s just who I am. I like traveling and working hard. I do not like to get ready and sit at a desk and announce the news. I started work when I was about seventeen and a half years old, and was studying at the time at University. Every story was like a new adventure. And I was a part of real society, but it wasn’t what I expected. I worked all the time, I kept up with, and I worked, five channels of television. I was a reporter and correspondent at all of them. I faced, in a different way, all the same challenges repeated. A talented woman must work really hard, just to feel she has reached the equality between her and her colleagues. In so many fields, we have to work hard as women just to convince everyone that we are satisfactory, and we are professional. We do our work well, sometimes better than others, but we don’t get the same response or results. A man and I may do the same work, but when a man gets a grade of one hundred percent I get a twenty percent. Why? Because I didn’t marry, and because I am young, and a girl. So, the problem is not about just gender. People are going to hate you more when they see you, as a young person, and a talented person, with your own ideas, opinions, working hard to reach the points of what you want to do. I don’t know why, but they will become your enemies.
Then there is the case of independence. It is really not easy to have independence in Iraq. There is a lot of sectarianism, there are big political parties which are based on sectarianism, there is a weak government, there are militias, and there are people who try to shut journalists mouths. They do not just say, “We are going to get you in trouble.” They say, “We are going to shoot you if you don’t shut your mouth.” And “You are a woman, and it’s easy to break you. We will just say you are a bitch.” And they did. They said about me “She’s a bitch.” In our society, we have to be more careful, because they say “You are a woman, you are weak, we can just say ‘She is a bitch,’ and then we will break and destroy you.”
When I made the decision to go, and to keep moving on, I was ready to hear and face all of these things. But I didn’t expect it to be this huge. In reality it was something even bigger than what I expected. Even if you expect something bad, reality is going to give you something worse.
In spite of all the difficulties you faced, and the difficulties Iraq is facing now, why was it so important for you to tell joyful stories, in addition to reporting on war conflict and suffering?
I spent a lot of time searching for and focusing on joyful, happy stories. Because anyone can now go and google “Iraq,” and you will see a lot of bombs, smoke, death, blood, women in black crying, and guns, armies, soldiers, and the military. But there is something else. There is the humanity of normal, daily life. I’m a Baghdadi girl, and when I finished my work, I would go and have fun with my friends. We would drink coffee and share our ideas. We would have our artist’s projects and we go and get advice about them. We wanted to improve things. We wanted to do something and that’s where a lot of civil carnivals and events started. What we think about, how we live, it’s this kind of life that we live that is hidden to others. I wanted to put something from this life in media, in television, so that other people could see it, including Iraqi people. When Iraqi people look on the daily news it’s just killing, death, ISIS, Al Mosul, and ISIS is taking a new region and Kurdistan and government are disagreeing about something. Even the Iraqi people, they want to see something and smile, and to feel that they have a normal life, and there is not just troubles and there is not just black. It’s really nice for my family to see this on TV and my neighborhood, all the other Iraqis. There is something: there are young people there is this beautiful woman in that fashion show there is a cultural event, there is a young guy who did something. Let’s tell this kind of story about Baghdad and Iraq.
Can you talk about one of those community arts projects that you did- you organized a huge reading festival in Baghdad?
Yes, I’m Iraqi, I Read. We started in 2011-2012, and it was a really big dream for us. As young people who want to read and we started seeing that books had become a really strange thing. If anyone opened a book to read, it was strange, but if we compare that to a guy holding a gun and running to shoot someone- that is normal. So, there is something really wrong.
Guns are normal to have, but books are not normal.
Yes. So we wanted to do something to let people read more. After 2003 there has been a really big amount of sectarianism, and Iraqi people don’t feel safe anymore when they live with each other. There is a Sunni side and a Shia side, there are militias which support these two sides and there is also the Kurdish army which supports the Kurdish people, and there is ISIS, and everyone is afraid of ISIS. We don’t have a strong Iraqi army so people go more and more and more to the sectarian armies for protection. That means more blood and no one cares about education, and no one cares about knowledge and reading about science and what’s going on in this world. We are going towards being traditional groups who are jumping and shooting and that’s it. People know about Iraq’s big civilization, so it’s really sorry that we have reached this point. Before 2003 there was hope. Saddam fell down and the new Iraq, an amazing time for Iraq was born. But it never happened. Instead, a worse version of Iraq was born. Iraqis are the people who discovered the alphabet, and we have to do something. All of us, independents, volunteers, activists, journalists, writers, we came together and as friends and young people and we wanted to do something. It was impossible but we said, “Yes, we can do something somehow and it will be real if we believe.” And we did do something, and we called it I’m Iraqi, I Read. We are the people from this big civilization and from this alphabet that no one else had before us. So, I’m not Sunni, I’m not Shia, I’m not Kurdi, I am Iraqi. All the people who believed in this in 2012, 2013, 2014, came together, and even now, in 2016, other members have started to make another I’m Iraqi, I Read. Hundreds of people went there, just to read, from different ideologies, and different beliefs. They had different opinions, they were women, young girls, men, families, kids, students, teachers, everything. This is the good version from the new Iraq, we come together and we read! There is woman without a scarf, there is woman with a scarf, and they just stand beside each other and read and this becomes truth! It’s possible! But it takes a long time.
You talk about how reading can change the way that people think, and change the way that they think about themselves, and the world. What writers influenced your view on the world and influenced your own writing?
Let me start with the way that I first started reading books. I’m from a family that didn’t have a library. This is a surprise to people, because they think that I became like this- a writer and poet- because I come from a family who loved and who lived with books. In the summer time I used to escape from our house to go to Sadr City to the library and read. I started to get advice from books. I had a lot of questions and no one would answer me and so I went to find these answers inside books, especially on topics where there are a lot of red lines- religion, political issues, and gender. There were a lot of things I couldn’t ask and get a normal answer about at home. I started to read in Sadr City Library, and it’s funny, it was called Saddam Library, and it was called Al-Khomeini (the Iranian leader) library, and now its call Al-Sadr (the Iraqi leader) library. All Iraqi cities are like this. They took Saddam’s name and then someone else’s name and then religious names.
I started by reading about the society, I especially wanted to know more about our society. There is a writer, his name is Ali-Adwardi, I started by reading him. Then there is another Iranian writer, his name is Ali Shariati, he wrote about religious issues, and people who think like me. Why do we have to become robots and do something, like pray or wear a scarf, so that god will please us? Robots don’t believe in anything. But if we believe in beauty and the goodness of all people, god will be angry because we didn’t do certain things. So, I started to read about these ideas from Ali Shariati books, and then, I took years to read poetry, and I enjoyed it. It gave me the answers about my own emotional questions.
I was really interested in Sylvia Plath’s work and also I was interested especially in Emily Dickinson. I appreciate that there was an Iraqi translator who did good work translating Emily Dickinson. It was really nice to read a translation that was good to Emily Dickinson because otherwise I would have to Google it and read what people had tried to translate. There is also a big list of poets who are from the Middle East, some still alive and some dead, that I read, as well as the very classical poets, like the William Shakespeares of Arabic poetry. So I read many different things, I still read many different things. Then, I gave myself space. If I had read about society, and religion, and poetry, and then read about gender, I would have started a big revolution! So I gave myself time to breathe and to adjust and think about all these things. Then, I started to read about women and gender. I started with The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir. This was really amazing. I finished it and then went back and read it again, and then finished it and went back and read it yet again! It was an answer to me. I felt like I was thirsty and I wanted to drink water a lot, and I found this and it told me a lot of things that no one told me about it so, it was my water. But I didn’t make the revolution yet.
Now, after reading so much, you have written your own collection of poetry, it’s called I Introduce Myself to the Water and it’s awaiting publication. Can you describe the process of writing those poems and how you brought that collection of poetry together?
It was my first collection, but I still have not published anything, and it is not going to be the next step. I will do it, but I am going to give myself more time. Because a side of me is a journalist, I stand in front of lights all the time. But the writer side, I want to give him, or her, more space, more time to be hidden. I can’t, as a writer, as a poet, behave in the same way a journalist would, continuing to work all the time and publish quickly. I now have three collections and a several more text poems written, and I hope to put it together and publish it one day.
In all that I write, I just try, I try, I really try, to say what I want to say. This is because I feel that there are a lot of things that have happened to me, and a lot of people that have tried to shut my mouth. I want to speak, I want to hear my voice. My voice is not just this voice, it’s my soul and heart voice. Sometimes, when I didn’t hear this voice for a long time, I felt like I was lost. I wanted to reach myself again, and I kept still sometimes, relaxing and meditating until- Oh! Here I am again! This quiet time alone tells me what I want to say, and sometimes lets me know who I am, and what I want to do. Sometimes I’m surprised because I write something, and no one chooses the line for me, or the object about which I am going to write, only I write it, I choose. When this happens it is really nice to find your voice, and to hear your voice again. I can look at it and I am really happy because other people who are going to read it they will be able to imagine, what I mean, what the feelings look like. I know what exactly has happened with these words. I write especially about myself, as if I’m standing behind a big window and looking towards all of this life. I am a part of it, but I’m not. There is something like glass between me and the whole world, and it has given me this feverish type of thinking. This is amazing, this is awful. If humanity wants to survive we must do more, because I look from this window at what happen in my country: there is war, since I was born until now. Iraqi has faced war and war and war. Of course, it is not good to face war, but I feel I have seen so much of life. I keep looking at it and I feel I am part of it and sometimes I feel shame because I am a part of it. There are a lot of things humans do to each other and it’s really awful. But the world can be nice, also.
You have also done a lot of work in translation. Why do you think that translating texts, between English and Arabic is so important?
It’s really so important because if we speak about different cultures and if we speak about cultures across borders, people can know each other and live together. The words and art and music come together. That’s why its important. It’s also important to live in the same century. For example, there has been a lot of translation from English to Arabic, but when I want to speak about the modern writers, we don’t have that. We need to have a clear idea about what is going on now. Are these writers alive or dead? How do they write? What do their lives look like? What is their own way of writing? I was really curious, when I did translation with the Iraq Reel Festival, about two young poets and two old poets from Scotland. I wanted to know if there is just one style in modern writing or not. So, I am happy that I can show others how people write, how they feel, how they look at their lives and what happened around them. And also how they express themselves and how they catch their voices.
Are there certain things that you feel are very unique to Arabic as a language that can’t fully be put perfectly into English?
I think maybe you could call it violence of the language. There are specific things in the Arabic language and there are specific things in English also. Translation is not really easy. It’s a responsibility, and you must be honest and take care and be professional, and at the same time, creative. So, it’s all these things together. It’s also working on a project that is not my work, so I especially care about the meaning, more than the words. The words, the language, and how I am going to write it, this is second to meaning. If I get the meaning, that’s the most important thing. If I translate a work from meaning to another meaning, that’s really scary. The poem cannot just look like the same. I want to go to the same meaning directly. Maybe I will explain it with different verbs or different nouns, that I can choose from my Arabic language to translate, but the meaning is the same.
It’s nice, because usually, no one can go to and ask a writer or a poet, “What do you mean?” But we did it! We were laughing and we didn’t expect to ask this question but when we started this work we had to ask it. What do you mean? Why did you choose this verb exactly and not this verb? Why did you position this line like this? Sometimes writers play with words and we tried to catch it and ask, “Why do you play with words in this way?” Then I would find something in Arabic to play with words in the same way. So if the writer or the poet wrote one line, I was careful to translate it to one line, not two lines or three. If he started with a verb, I tried to start with a verb. But I really care about the meaning first.
Why do you think it’s important for writers to be in conversation with each other and have a community?
We want someone who understands us, and sometimes this is another writer. I don’t have to explain all these emotional feelings and such, he knows already! So I’m going to go to him and tell him that I think about this and I feel worried about this, or I have gotten writer’s block because of this and it has been happening for a long time. We need someone, a writer, an artist, a painter, a human, to understand us and to go directly to what we want to say, not to have to explain to someone who doesn’t know you and what you think about and what you do. So, you don’t need to take more time to explain. So it’s important to choose the right people to talk to, who go through the same things. I like to hear the stories and to hear writers talk about what is behind their work, how they write, and why they wrote something and how they published their book and what is behind the book. I love these stories, and sometimes I enjoy the poems more if I know the story behind them.
What do you see as similarities or differences between the challenges that women face here in the United States versus in Iraq?
What I have already figured out is that women’s challenges are the same, but they face them in a different way. Since being here in the United States, what I have seen and now believe, is that women have not fully reached their rights yet. Not anywhere. I had already heard and known about Europe, and the United Kingdom, and the Middle East of course. But it was upsetting, because I was a big dreamer who, like all dreamers, thought that women could get their rights here. But here women have the same challenges. It’s not like Iraq, it’s not like what women in Middle East face. Here it is in a more modern way. I hope it will be changed. Women do their best to make change, I have seen that. They work and they work hard. They go and they get new positions and they start change and they work together. They work hard and it’s really good. I believe that if anyone wants to get their rights that they cannot wait the point of another one giving them. No one will say, “This is your right. I’m giving it to you because I appreciate you.” No one will do that! We must say, “This is my right, I will take it and put it in my bag.” Yes! I have met a lot of strong women, brave women who really know what they need to do. I’m not speaking about teenagers who know and behave like teenagers. I am speaking about this kind of woman, who knows this game we have to play. I hope something will change everywhere, but women can’t get their rights if they don’t start from somewhere on this earth, the United States, the United Kingdom, or Europe. In these places women have more rights than other countries and other areas. If we want change, we have to go to the top to get it. In the Middle East, for example, in the United Arab Emirates, they started a new ministry, the Ministry of Happiness, and the new minister is a young woman. That’s exciting because if we want to reach human rights we are going to have to start a ministry of happiness. We need to start caring about women’s happiness, and allow them to get their rights.
Another thing about the United States is that it is a place where many different people come together. There are different racial identities, and different ethnic identities, which is very positive thing, but the country still has its problems. What has your experience with race been in the United States?
All young people, love Hollywood movies, and when I was growing up, I knew about the United States from movies. I speak English now because of the movies. So when I come here this was another thing which upset me- I didn’t see a lot of different communities. People invite me somewhere, and when I go and it is just Black people or just white people in a community. I have seen this everywhere. When I was young I watched Martin Luther King movies, and read about this revolution to get rights, and I thought it was something from history and that people had gotten their rights. But since I have been here I have seen just two couples in which one person is black and the other is white, just two. And I think “Huh! But it wasn’t like this in the movies!” I feel like a lot of people welcome me somewhere because they think I am white. I wonder, what if I were a Black Iraqi woman? There are people in Iraq with dark skin, and in our society people do not let their daughters get married to Black people. They don’t respect them and they don’t give them positions to work and sometimes they won’t be friends with them. Here, the same thing happens. It is not like what the movies try to say. The movies try to say we are past this and everything is normal now, but that is not what I see.
I belong to somewhere where we don’t accept each other and look at the Iraqi experience because of that. By the way, if I feel like I’m a victim, I am going to be more violent, and beat and kill and get drugs. Yes, it’s true. If I feel like I am a victim and no one gives me my rights, how become educated and get work? What can I do? We have to listen, and know what others think and experience if we want to let this society live in peace together, instead of as Sunni and Shia and something else. We have to start actually accepting each other, not just saying that we do. It is easy to say, “I accept all people from different cultures- from Iraq, Germany, France, everywhere.” That is good, but what about people from your own country who don’t agree you? Why do you not become friends with them?
How do you think that reading literature is tied to that process of people accepting each other?
It’s not all the time, really. I have met a lot of people who read like all the time. They read tons of books, and they can give you a really good speech abut history, philosophy, music, everything, but they are not good humans. Books are an important part, but they are not the whole thing. It’s about looking at ourselves and trying to change ourselves, to sometimes fix ourselves. We can ask our friends who know the mistakes we have made and our flaws, and if it is something we feel we are ready to change we can change it. We can also go to a book to read in order to become better. This is one way books are useful. Sometimes you can’t find a human, you find a book to talk to you about yourself and to tell you how to change.
Can you talk about some other projects that you are working on now that you are here in Pittsburgh?
One is the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon. This is a project I completely agree with. They focus on editing Wikipedia by women editors because they figure that only about twenty percent of Wikipedia has been edited by editors that are women. They want to increase this. It is an international project because there are women from Europe and from the United States and when they spoke to me I was really interested in doing something. But I told them, our problem with Wikipedia in the Middle East it is not the issue of gender, because we have another big problem. We have to resolve it and then think about women editors. There are a lot of people who speak in Arabic, and would be happy to join this project and to improve and edit Wikipedia Arabic, but the main problem now with Wikipedia Arabic is that there are a lot of terrorists and radical people who write on Wikipedia Arabic, and people don’t trust Wikipedia Arabic’s information. When I want to read something and I want to read facts I go to Wikipedia English because sometimes Wikipedia Arabic doesn’t give me the right events, or say what happened. It gives to me fake information, or an opinion, the opinion of radical terrorist people.
The second thing is that we need professional people to do it, because there are people who want really to do something nice but it’s not enough. If you have the idea, you have to get the skills also. We need people who will work in a professional way. Not anyone can go and edit Wikipedia. Someone told me “Sabreen, I am going to make something to give to you in Wikipedia Arabic!” I told him, “It’s nice that you want to do something but there is a lot of things to do! There are a lot of women writers, and activists, and a lot of things about Iraq that no one knows, that no one has added to Wikipedia Arabic. We cannot just speak about ourselves, not in Wikipedia.” We need to give all people a chance to work on Wikipedia, to focus on these problems of missing information, and information which needs more added, and information which needs more resources, so that we can trust Wikipedia Arabic again. So that’s what will be the next step. There are different reformers, and there are a lot of people interested in Iraq and in women there and experiences of journalists and writers. So I will go to them and tell them what happened.