Iraqi Poets Collaborate in Paris On Multilingual Ode to Baghdad

Article Summary
This is the story of two poets, Ronny Someck and Salah Al Hamdani, both Bagdad natives born in the same year. Though Someck left Baghdad at two years old, he met Hamdani in a Parisian club, and the two signed a contract on a napkin to jointly print a book of poems — a book that was published this week to many positive reviews.

Poet Ronny Someck left Baghdad at two years old. He met Iraqi poet Salah Al Hamdani in a Parisian club, and the two signed a contract on a napkin to jointly print a book of poems — a book that was published this week to many positive reviews.

“The two of us were born in the same city, the same year. Perhaps we passed by each other in our baby carriages next to the Tigris?” Someck waxes enthusiastic and talks about the exciting phone call in Arabic between his mother and his writing partner.

The telephone in the house of Daisy, mother of poet Ronny Someck, rang a few days ago. From the other end of the line came congratulations in Arabic. The caller identified himself as Salah Al Hamdani, calling to hear from her a bit about Baghdad in the old days, the place where he and Daisy’s son experienced their childhood but could not remember as adults.

“The two of them spoke Baghdadi Arabic, and Mom got very excited,” says Ronny Someck. “After she hung up the phone, Mom told me that Inshallah [God willing], one day we’ll both perform together in Iraq. I answered, 'I can only hope that it should come to pass.'”

About a week ago, the book Baghdad-Jerusalem was published in France. The book, 160 pages in length, features poems by Someck and Iraqi expatriate Salah Al Hamdani on alternate pages. Hamdani’s poems appear in Arabic and in French translation while Someck’s poems appear in Hebrew and in French translation. The book of poems was pronounced a major success in literary reviews, and the book merited unprecedented compliments — certainly for a work which was written in Arabic and Hebrew. “I met Salah two years ago at a Parisian club during a poetry evening,” recalls Someck. “By the end of the evening, we hugged each other and had become fast friends. I was familiar with several of his poems that had been translated into Hebrew and English, and he was familiar with my poems translated into French, so our instant friendship seemed natural. We met several months later at a poetry festival in the southern French city of Sète. He approached me and told me of his dream — to publish a poetry book together with me.”

Did you ask him how you attained such honor in his eyes?

“Of course, and he told that he had three reasons: First of all, because he likes my poems, the second reason was because he likes my poems very much, and the third reason was that he likes them so much that he wants our poems to appear together under one bookbinding in a kind of poetry ping-pong. So I agreed.”

An instant collaboration

Someck and Al Hamdani were both born in 1951 in Baghdad. “Sometimes I amuse myself with thoughts that his baby carriage passed by mine when our mothers strolled along the Tigris river. I left Baghdad at the age of a year and a half, while Salah left later on. Ever since then, I have tried to build a bridge in Israel between East and West, and Salah sings love songs to Baghdad in the same Parisian coffee shops in which Albert Camus and Sartre drank their café au lait. And by the way, the coffee that Salah and I like is usually black.”

This is not the first time that Someck has collaborated with an expatriate Iraqi poet. “Twelve years ago, I already published a book in Paris that made a lot of noise and sold well, with excellent reviews,” he recalls. “So when Salah turned to me, there was great excitement on both sides. Within ten minutes of our [verbal] agreement, he came to my table with his publisher, offered me a table napkin and proposed that we sign the contract there, in the coffee shop. That’s the kind of encounter that usually happens only in our imaginations.”

What attracted you to Salah?

“His writing is very Arabesque, a poet with very Eastern roots but whose years in Paris caused the tree growing from those roots to blow in a Western wind. To a certain extent, those are the very lines that I would write on my own calling card. The reviews published about our book noted that we both try to combine Eastern spices with French wine, in the same poetic bowl.”

Did anyone criticize your collaborative venture?

“At the same festival in which we decided to publish the book, several radical Arab poets approached Salah and asked why he was collaborating with this Israeli. He answered them that my writing, the writing of this Baghdadi fellow, is much closer to Middle Eastern existence than their writing. He relates to me as a poet who uses much Western material, but whose musical scale is strictly Arabic.”

Nevertheless, did you have any differences of opinion?

“Our fundamental argument was about types of Arak [an anise liquor] — whether we prefer Zahlawi or Lebanese.”

The two will soon depart on a trip to poetry festivals, with the hopes that Hamdani will also visit Israel in the near future. “The book is called Baghdad-Jerusalem in the Margins of Fire,” says Someck. “In the book there is the fire of poetry and the fire of two people, each of whom took his private glowing ember to a different place, but ultimately we return to a joint poetic campfire.”

He has never visited Jerusalem, and you live in Ramat Gan. How did the book get its name?

“In this case Jerusalem does not refer to the actual city; instead it is a kind of metaphor of place. A place whose boundaries are like the rope boundaries of a boxing match, where you are always hearing the sounds of boxers and feel their sweat. And in this story, there has to be a knock-out.”

Memories of the Gulf War

Although Someck left Baghdad when he was less than two years old and has lived in Israel ever since, in many places he visits in the world, people choose to introduce him as an Iraqi. “Some festivals list me as Ronny Someck from Baghdad because they are uncomfortable presenting me as an Israeli,” he says, “but when I get up on the stage it is completely obvious that I am an Israeli, and I have never hidden my identity.”

What kinds of memories does Iraqi trigger in you?

“During the Gulf War I sat in my home in Ramat Gan, ‘Area A,’ and waited for war. Every night, the American General Schwarzkopf used to point out different places on the Iraqi map with those pointers that lecturers use, including the bridge on the Tigris and other sites. Not a second passed before my mom called and told me to take a good look because that’s where she used to take me in my baby carriage; we hiked on that bridge and ate fish there. After we finished the conversation and hung up, the general showed the same pictures and said, “We have just blown up that bridge now.”

And how did you feel about that?

“As if they took me on a tour of the place in which I was born in instant-photo, then burned the picture up. They showed me an instant-photo and I was all set to use my imagination to transform it into a bona-fide photograph I could hold onto for eternity. Then comes the next slide, and it’s all gone. With Salah I feel, for the first time, that I can be together with another human being in the place where both of us were born, each one of us with his own poetic camera. Together, we try to transform our individual instant-photos into a collective eternal photograph. I would love to translate his poems into Hebrew because he is an excellent poet. This is not just the nostalgia of an expatriate for the country that expelled him. Instead, we are talking about the person who looks in the mirror and a second later, shatters that same mirror — and the glass slivers scatter on the floor of the room and in every direction.”

Found in: paris, jerusalem, israel, iraq

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