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The Transformative Power of Poetry in the Midst of Violence

June 24, 2010

From the HuffingtonPost,

Kim Rosen

It’s 2006, at the height of the Iraq war. On a bombed-out street that was once a beautiful section of downtown Baghdad, a large tent has been erected, in the midst of explosions and clashes. It is the first of what will turn out to be many gatherings of poets in an initiative called the “Freedom Space.” There, while Sunni and Shiite militias roam the streets, men and women from both factions gather to speak poetry. The Shiites sit opposite the Sunnis, thinking it will be a competition. But by the end of the event, all are embracing and dancing together — because the poems from both sides voice the same words, the same longings, the same wounds. I learned of this miracle from Yanar Mohammed, the founder of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), which sponsored the Freedom Space. “It was ping-pong poetry,” Yanar exclaimed, “with this ball of magic being bounced from one side to the other. They all turned out to be on the same team!” There were 25 people in the tent at that first gathering. By the time I spoke with Yanar in 2008, the movement had proliferated throughout Baghdad and the surrounding areas. Large monthly events in central locations were drawing hundreds of listeners. Smaller weekly events brought together poets and musicians from all factions. Even soldiers from both Sunni and Shiite militias had joined the celebration, volunteering to guard the space and speaking poetry from the stage. Some had left their posts in the army, Yanar told me, because they saw in these poKim Rosenetry gatherings a more powerful form of peacemaking than any militia. I spoke with Yanar just after the March Freedom Space event, which was held in honor of International Women’s Day. It was at the Theater 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 together. It’s been several years now since my conversation with Yanar, yet I think constantly of the brave men and women of the Freedom Space, and their testimony to the peacemaking power of poetry. One story that continues to haunt me is that of Amen al-Salmawi who was one of the shining stars at the first Freedom Space. “You know, there are some poets who can hypnotize an audience. Amen was like that,” Yanar told me. “Though he couldn’t have been more than 23, when he delivered his poems he was really charismatic and outspoken. Everybody fell in love with him. But then on the breaks he was so shy he wouldn’t even talk. He just smiled and nodded.” Click here to read the full article.