by: Ryan Croken, t r u t h o u t | Review http://www.truthout.org/112908Y
While these characters express a range of sentiments - anger, valor, resilience, desperation, uncanny hospitality - they share one thing in common: they are all undeniably human. In working towards, as Kathy Kelly, author of the book's foreword, puts it, dispelling "the dangerous notion that only one person live(s) in Iraq, the notorious dictator Saddam Hussein," Smith-Ferri transforms a hazy crowd of very foreign foreigners into a collection of individuals who are extremely relatable and very much "like us." In the world of "Battlefield," people have been turned back into people, and, consequentially, the doors to empathy and communication are swung open. Suddenly re-humanized through the thoughtful deftness of Smith-Ferri's art, the crisis flares in our hands. Iraq is no theoretical quandary. It becomes personal, intimate, active. As the poet continues to bring Iraqi voices to American ears, we realize that these are not conversations to be overheard, but to be absorbed dir ectly. "Tell the American people we are not their enemies. / Tell the American people we love them, / but we must have our lives back!" The message is clear: if you are an American person, these people are speaking directly to you.
"Tell my story ... tell my story ... tell my story ... " After hearing "these same three words" over and over again while traveling around Iraq and through neighborhoods in Jordan where uprooted Iraqis struggle to survive in exile, Smith-Ferri becomes explicit in his intention to relay the insights, appeals and agonies of a deeply misunderstood country.
Here on this page I spill Suad's words,
jagged obsidian chips that lacerate this paper,
its blood marking the hands of everyone who reads this book.
All of this storytelling begs the question: how do we listen? Thusly marked by Suad's bloodied words, how do we respond? "Battlefield" does not answer these questions for us. It is a window, not an instruction manual. It invites us to contemplate our interconnectedness with another people in a world where borders - cultural, linguistic, geopolitical - have been erected to prevent the recognition of a shared humanity. Literally and literarily, Smith-Ferri crosses these borders and bears witness to previously inaccessible realities. After visiting a bomb shelter that became a tomb for over 400 Iraqis after two "very smart" American missiles slipped into the ventilation shaft and incinerated everyone inside, Smith-Ferri is slammed with an inter-culture shock of such bare-faced enormity that it kindles a sudden dark enlightenment:
My eyes were never meant to see this,
to flare like torch, sudden with knowledge,
like windows, to open on this illuminative dawn,
but like tinder in its box (named American, middle class)
to remain cold, untouched,
and far from flintstone truth.
Smith-Ferri's "flintstone truth" burns at the heart of his stories, whose ultimate lesson is perhaps that we ourselves are a part of them. This realization of suddenly being a part of the plot destabilizes the cozy illusion that there are vaguely bad things happening somewhere way over there in a strange land that many of us can't locate on a map. The battlefield has come home. The wounded are laid bare before us. "Fighting them over there so we don't have to think about them over here" loses its absurd currency. Distance is capsized, walls are torn down, and we find ourselves fighting this war not only on our shores, but in our own hearts and minds. What is our obligation to Suad? Where do complicity and culpability lie? "These poems strip us of our innocence," Kathy Kelly observes. "David prods us to be uncomfortable"; he prods us to become sensitized actors in a drama that is already difficult to observe from the air-conditioned mezzanine.
"Battlefield Without Borders" offers brutal, vivid and tender portraits of the fallout of the modern American-Iraqi engagement. Its lessons should be at the forefront of our minds as we try our best to figure out how to respectfully assist in the reconstruction of a country whose history and future have become inextricably linked to our own. More information about the book can be found at its Web site, www.battlefieldwithoutborders.org. All proceeds from the sale of the book are donated to Direct Aid Iraq, a grassroots humanitarian relief organization aimed at providing urgently needed medical care to Iraqis displaced by the sanctions, the invasion and the ensuing occupation. Information about Direct Aid Iraq is available at http://www.directaidiraq.org/.
"Battlefield Without Borders"
Iraq Poems by David Smith-Ferri
In January, 2007, Haley’s Publishing will produce a volume of poetry I wrote, with a beautiful Foreword written by Kathy Kelly. The book is entitled Battlefield Without Borders, Iraq Poems. I wrote about two thirds of these poems while in Iraq, after encounters with Iraqi people, in a wide-range of settings –– from hospitals to homes to bomb sites. The remaining poems have been written since, during the escalating terror and insanity of the current war and occupation. Marcia Gagliardi, the publisher at Haley’s, is generously donating her proceeds from the sale of this book. And my partner has generously agreed to match Marcia’s donation, so that for every $14 book that is sold, $12 will go into a fund for Iraqi victims of this war. You can read some of the poems here.
In December of 1998, Art Laffin, an activist, traveled from Washington, D.C. to Ukiah, CA, where I live, to give a slide presentation about his recent visit to Iraq. Iraqi people, at the time, had been living for eight and a half years under a crushing economic embargo, about which I knew next to nothing. What Art provided was a primer in horror and in a compassionate, hopeful response to it. From him, I heard stories of doctors, trained in Europe and the United States, unable to treat diseases because of a lack of equipment and medicine. I saw pictures of young children dying of diarrhea, dying in their mother’s arms. And I wanted to do something constructive in response.
I also learned about Americans who risked large fines and prison terms because they violated federal law by traveling to Iraq and bringing medicine and clothing to Iraqi hospitals. These were ordinary Americans, who scaled the sanctions wall and returned with pictures, stories, heightened understanding, and new information not reported in the media. I decided to visit Iraq for myself – to be able to speak from personal experience. Eight months afterward, in July, 1999, I visited Iraq for the first time, as part of an eight-member fact-finding delegation organized by the Chicago-based group, Voices in the Wilderness. The purpose of our trip was to gather first hand information about the humanitarian crisis caused by international economic sanctions and the terror caused by the policy and practice of "no-fly zone" bombings.
Three years later, in September, 2002, in the frightening run-up to the invasion, I returned to Iraq. On this delegation, I had three goals. First, I wanted to interview Iraqis – in some cases people I had talked with on the prior trip – about the threat of war. Surely, I reasoned, it should matter to us what people in Iraq think, how they perceive our possible actions and how they might respond. Second, I wanted to investigate the likely real life consequences of a United States military invasion on ordinary Iraqis. Last, there were a few families in Iraq with whom I’d maintained indirect contact, and I wanted to see them and talk with them and their children. I knew that if war did come, this might be the last chance I’d ever have to see them.
During each trip, I visited people who lived at the edge of a precipice, and whose point of view had the clarity that only comes with proximity to death. I met with a wide range of people –– doctors, patients, clerics, lawyers, teachers, taxi drivers, waiters, shoeshine boys, shop owners, business people, UN program directors, et al. I encountered anger and terror, to be sure, but also a remarkable depth of hospitality and warmth, intelligence and goodwill. The encounters were intense and emotionally charged, not only those which occurred at bomb sites and hospitals, but also ordinary meetings with people in a bakery or hotel lobby or restaurant.
In these circumstances, my urge to write became a need to write, a need to process and give form to experience so I could share it and remain sane. Below is a sampling of the poems. The book is dedicated to Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, and to Barbara Lubin, Driector of the Middle East Children’s Alliance, for their steadfast and nonviolent opposition to war in the Middle East and the compassionate example of friendship and solidarity they’ve set at great personal risk.
My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. And please consider buying a copy of the book and supporting the fund for Iraqi victims of war.