Torn apart by a civil war, a collective of poets from Babylon province, in the centre of Iraq, has recently conducted a series of performance pieces based on the theme of the violence that is destroying their homeland. During these performances, they literally flirt with death.
Ahmed Diaa is one of ten poets to make up this collective, alongside Kadhem Khanjar, Mazen Almaâmouri, Ali Taj Eddine, Ahmed Adnen, Ali Dharb, Abbas Hussein, Hassan Tahseen, and Wissam Ali.
“In the mine field, I was no longer a poet but a potential martyr”
Normally, poets write. Iraqi poets often write about bombings and death. But for us, talking was no longer enough. To speak the unspeakable, we felt that we needed to exchange writing for action. We needed to face death and no longer just talk about it.
We chose to confront land mines first because a fourth of all land mines on this planet are found in Iraqi soil. It’s unbelievable! But violence here has become so commonplace that we don’t even realize it anymore.
So, in early April, we went to a mine field in a region called Al-Kifl, near the city of Hillah in Babylon province.
Video sent by Ahmed Diaa and edited by France24.
When I walked onto the mine field, my first reaction was just plain amazement — I was stupefied. I suddenly became engulfed in the fear that I’d lose a leg or die. I said to myself: "I am no longer a poet, I am a potential martyr."
We advanced through the minefield very carefully, slowly placing one foot ahead of another. For us, this action involved even more risk than just death because we were also risking the possibility of being injured and disabled for the rest of our lives.
Poets reciting poetry on the ground, in front of tombs in Najaf cemetery. Photo published on Facebook.
We didn’t tell anyone where we were going, firstly, because entry into this zone is banned and, secondly, because we didn’t want to worry our family and friends. When we finally left the minefield, we were all surprised and happy to be in one piece.
Video edited by France 24.
This poetry project is made up of many different components. In March, we held another event in the cemetery in Najaf, the biggest necropolis in the world. We decided to recite our poems in front of the tombs because death is something that all humans share. No one can escape it. Each poet spoke directly to the camera. His only audience was the dead. Bodies don’t make any sounds, they just listen.
Outside of every Iraqi city, there is a kind of graveyard made up of the burnt-out carcasses of vehicles that were used in car bombings. After our experience in Najaf, we decided to go to one of these car graveyards in the Kifl region, in Babylon province.
The poets in the car bomb cemetery. Photo published on Facebook.
We were seeking a way to speak to the dead, to communicate with these souls and denounce all of this violence. Awhile ago, a child died in a car bombing in my town and I remember that we found his head three days later on the roof of a building. We realized that we needed to come to terms with this kind of grisly daily reality.
When we went into the car graveyard and we saw all these burnt shells, I said to myself: "What if I had been in this car? Or my mother? Or my friend?"
We slipped into the cemetery—the authorities ban access because some of the cars still have carcinogenic substances on them. We took off our shirts and climbed into these cars, just to be in direct contact with the cancer, with death.
We did our last performance action in an ambulance last week [Editor’s note: April 24]. We chose to read poems in an ambulance because this vehicle, which is supposed to bring people to a place of healing, has become a coffin on wheels. In other countries, these vehicles transport people who are ill or injured. But here in Iraq, ambulances only carry people who are already dead or limbs that have been torn to shreds. Iraqi ambulances have become hearses. That is one of our greatest tragedies.
A member of the poet's circle reading a poem in an ambulance. Photo published on Facebook.