By Constanza Vieira
MEDELLÍN, Colombia, Jul 7 (IPS) - The shout "I am Iraq!" was heard echoing through the streets and plazas of this northwestern Colombian city during the 16th International Poetry Festival of Medellín -- founded here as a fight against fear. The Colombian armed conflict, which has dragged on for decades, was added in late 2001 to the U.S.-led "war on terror", which Iraq has also been living since March 2003.
The Colombian government is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, backed by attack helicopters, spy planes and advisers for its counterinsurgency fight. The most acclaimed poet of the festival, among the 70 invited from 40 countries, and whose works were heard -- according to the local press -- by around 150,000 people, was Iraqi Muhsin Al-Ramli, 39. His poem "No to Liberating Iraq from Me", which he penned in Madrid on Mar. 30, 2003, just 10 days before the fall of Baghdad, caused a sensation at the festival, held Jun. 24-Jul. 2. "This ink spilled in your newspapers / is the blood of my country. / This light pouring out of your screens / is the sparkle in the eyes of the children of Basra," begins the poem. Al-Ramli told IPS that in his homeland, the cradle of Arab literature, even today letters are written in verse, and that until recently people would go to the Basra market to purchase poems. The poet lives in exile in Madrid since his brother Hasan Mutlak was hanged at age 29, in 1990, after a failed attempt to overthrow Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein (1979-2003). Mutlak, too, was a writer, and in intellectual circles was considered the Federico García Lorca of Iraq (the acclaimed Spanish poet was killed by the Francisco Franco dictatorship in 1939). Al-Ramli, also a novelist, playwright, narrator and journalist, translates his own poems into English and Spanish. "This one who is sobbing in the darkness of his exile / is me; / Orphan after you have killed my parents: Tigris and Euphrates; / Widow after you have crucified my soul mate: Iraq," was heard once and again in the voice of Al-Ramli on the various stages of the poetry festival. "I tell parents to teach their children 'No' as their first word," Al-Ramli told IPS, to underscore his indignation about what is occurring not only in his country, but also around the world. "Ay... you, gentlemen of the war / Listen to me: / No to the party of military men on the roof of my house. / No to the executioner that you have proposed / or are going to propose. / No to the bombs of your liberty falling over the heads of my people / No to liberating Iraq from me or me from him. / I am Iraq." And later in the poem: "Go back to your movies across the ocean. / Leave me what is left / of the minarets, the mausoleums of my ancestors, / of the tombs of my family... / And drink from the cups of petroleum until you are quenched." In Medellín, passersby recognised the poet in the streets and greeted him with, "Yo soy Iraq!" (I am Iraq!), and he would answer, "Yo soy Colombia!" "Take what you like and leave, / leave me alone / with the shot-down dreams of my sister, / with palms engulfed in flames on the banks of Mesopotamia, / with the bones of my father / and my afternoon tea," Al-Ramli reproaches the invading forces. The Medellín festival is known worldwide for attracting huge audiences -- a cross-section of the population, including office workers, housewives, students, the unemployed, teachers and just about anyone who is curious -- to fill city plazas and auditoriums in order to take in some poetry. People who attend the festival often say that when the poets read aloud their verses, they express things that the individuals in the audience may feel but for which they themselves lack the words. "Poetry continues to be useful for people. To illuminate their versions of events and of feelings, or ideas that are not altogether clear in this world," Al-Ramli said in a conversation with IPS. The poets even headed to Colombia's prisons to hold readings. The Iraqi went to the high-security Itagüí prison, near Medellín, which amongst its inmates holds drug traffickers and members of guerrilla groups. Al-Ramli anxiously awaited that visit. "I am from an entire country that is in a hard prison. So I made contact with the people who are in prison" in Colombia, he said. "Iraq, a brother to me, my land is bleeding like you are, my heart burns like fire when I see the pain of your people, who are my people," wrote an inmate, who signed it "Javier", on a piece of paper he gave to Al-Ramli. "I hope you hear these words that flow from my soul. And receive this embrace from your brother who in Colombia sheds tears of blood upon seeing the invasion that destroys your heart," continues the prisoner's poem. "It was like an answer to my poetry," said Al-Ramli. "The inmates also feel the pain of what is happening outside." Javier was one of the approximately 20 prisoners who was allowed to spend time in person with the poets in the prison library. The other inmates watched on closed-circuit television. Among those present, some had bruises on their faces, but could not talk about such things. Al-Ramli believes Javier "is a political prisoner." Colombian poet Allan Luna, born in 1957 in the department of Nariño on the border with Ecuador, is not widely known, but was invited to read his poetry at the Medellín festival. He had heard an officer from the Colombian air force as he described "with pleasure the capacity of the bombs, the model, the mechanisms of precision" used in his lethal work. "He enjoyed talking about how the bombs were fired. About the consequences? He had no idea. The war is conducted in his head, like the movies of Vietnam," Luna told IPS. Baghdad, the city of "One Thousand and One Nights", fell under U.S. control on Apr. 9, 2003. That same month in Colombia, Luna wrote the poem, "Vuelo" (I Fly). "No soy un criminal cualquiera. / Yo vuelo. / Mis presas están allá abajo. / No veo sus ojos ni oigo sus gritos. / Vuelo. / Sé que me están mirando. / No sé cómo se llaman, ni quiénes son, / No necesito saberlo. / Me basta con saber dónde están, / Para dejar caer sobre ellos / Una lluvia dolorosa." (I am not an ordinary criminal. / I fly. / My prey is there below. / I don't see their eyes or hear their cries. / I fly. / I know they are watching me. / I don't know their names, or who they are. / I don't need to know. / It is enough to know where they are, / To let fall upon them / an agonising rain.) "Lo mío es la muerte y después una cerveza./ No conozco la guerra. / Aún no me han derribado." (My mission is death and afterwards a beer. / I don't know war. / They haven't yet shot me down.) Luna read this poem before audiences in Medellín and it was published in the festival's collection by the magazine Prometeo (Prometheus), produced by the festival organisers. (END/2006)