November 21, 2013
I had her phone number, and tried to call her several times after I returned to Kirkuk, but no one picked up the phone. I hope that she found her 'Camelot’ in the end.
2000 I was admitted into the English Department of the College of Languages at
the University of Baghdad. It was one of the most exciting events in my life. I
have always had a great passion for languages and literature. Finally my dream
had come true. I was going to learn the arts of writing and speech. Little did
I know that as our knowledge increases, so does our desire to maintain silence
and hide from the world whose face is washed every morning with the blood of
countless innocent people. Coming from Kirkuk in northern Iraq, I found
Baghdad, like most big cities in the world: big, exciting, interesting, rich,
poor, hot, cold, restless, sleepless, and cruel at one and the same time.
the first few weeks of class, I started chatting with a female student who was
also in her first year, but in a different section. She was short, wore a veil,
had a healthy and extremely shiny skin; green eyes, and dressed conservatively
with beautifully matched colours most of the time. Our first conversation was about
English poetry. We shared a great passion for poetry. We both found much more
truth in poems than in the rhetoric of those who write to flirt with the power
of their time, or those who only speak the "truth" once the word "former"
becomes attached to their job titles. We both believed that powerful writing is
a combination of madness and reason, observation and courage. In the first
year, our poetry professor focused heavily on the Romantics.
new friend, let’s call her R, and I had lengthy conversations about the poems
of William Wordsworth. One of the poems that we discussed early on in our
friendship was She Dwelt among the
Untrodden Ways, the beautiful, yet melancholy story of Lucy. She told me:
"Many Iraqi women are like Lucy. They are beautiful in every sense of the word.
They have beautiful minds and souls, yet they live unknown, and die unknown."
In fact, she pointed out, Wordsworth’s Lucy was even more fortunate than these
Iraqi women who live under constant pressure from religion, society, politics
and tradition. "At least Lucy was known to the poet who appreciated her beauty
and immortalized it in his work. Many brilliant Iraqi women, victimized by
society, live and die without having anyone to tell the world about them."
admirable interpretation of the poem as well as the way she connected it to the
lives of Iraqi women enhanced our friendship. As a male, I found that this
interpretation can apply equally to many Iraqi men. I have never separated the
struggle of men and women in our society, for one cannot be free without the
both enjoyed comparing and contrasting English poems from different periods to
the status quo of Iraqi society. Our friendship continued to flourish with
time, and I learned more about her life. She came from a wealthy, observant
Muslim family in Baghdad. She told me that she enjoyed a total freedom inside
the house, but that she was taught to be cautious when dealing with strangers
outside: "My parents are more concerned with people’s gossip than with religion
per se," she said once. She also shared with me that her parents knew that we
were good friends, and that they had enjoyed listening to the beautiful
classical Turkish music on the cassettes she had borrowed from me. She often
wrote me letters, even though we were able to speak face-to-face most of the
fact, most girls at the University were free to communicate with guys, except
those coming from more conservative families, or from families that have to put
on the cloak of conservatism to avoid gossip. She often wrote me beautiful
letters expressing her thoughts and feelings about our friendship. Her letters
were well-written and eloquent, but were signed with a male name. She chose a
male pen name so that no one would ever know the real identity of the writer if
the letters were found by someone else. I took that with a grain of salt,
mainly because I understood her family’s position on the issue.
intellectual friendship continued throughout the four years of college, and on
the last day (Graduation Day) in 2004, we said goodbye to each other with tears
welling in our eyes. She handed me an envelope that contained a card with a
long letter in which she recounted some of our greatest conversations during
the four years of our friendship. I could not hold back my tears as I read the
words in her letter. On our last conversation, we talked about a poem that we
studied in our fourth year at College, and which resonated greatly with our
lives then—one year after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was Alfred Lord Tennyson’s
The Lady of Shalott. I shared with
her how I found the poem to resemble my life in Iraqi society, especially after
years of living under the UN sanctions that plunged all Iraqi people into total
isolation. Here is part of our last conversation as preserved by my best friend
and worst enemy, Ms. Memory:
"As every day passes, I feel Iraq is turning into one big prison, and I feel
just like The Lady of Shalott living in a tower surrounded with four gray
"True. Like her, we are under some unknown curse just because we are born in
Iraq, and the way we are blocked from and attacked by the world is even worse
than the lady in the poem, because she could at least see things and shadows in
her mirror. I wish we could see the shadows of the outside world even through a
mirror like that of the lady of Shalott."
"That is what I was thinking about as the professor analyzed the poem in the
classroom, but the ending of the poem changed my life in a way that I neither
understand nor can explain. I feel that the message we get at the end when she
takes the boat to leave for Camelot, regardless of the consequences, is serious
and eye-opening. As much as I don’t know where my "Camelot" may be, I feel that
I must just get a boat and go away, very far away from this tower called Iraq."
I graduated in mid-2004, the Iraq invasion was entering its most critical and
dangerous stage and I never heard from her after that. I had her phone number,
and tried to call her several times after I returned to Kirkuk, but no one
picked up the phone. I still wonder what had happened to her and her family. I
hope that she found her "Camelot" in the end. I know I never found mine,
because life finally taught me that chasing after Camelot was nothing but an
illusion; it is like chasing a mirage in the middle of a desert. I learned that
we are condemned to live in the same old city, and that all the means of
transportation in the world cannot take us away from the ruins of a city that lives
forever within us.
has been almost ten years since I graduated from the College of Languages in
Baghdad, and it seems that all the languages of the world are no longer able to
capture the indescribable damage of the wars on the Iraqi people. Perhaps this
is why I often struggle with every word I try to put on paper: there is always
a voice within me screaming, "It is all useless! The world has gone totally
deaf and blind!"
But then another
voice comes: "Sitting in a dark corner and closing your door and windows is
also useless!" And so, until the world decides to open its ears and its eyes,
do I have any choice but to bleed on the endless snows of my blank pages?