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Mahmoud Saeed

Lecture DePaul University, Chicago: 11.15.2006
You can read an Arabic Version of this lecture if you click here

Half a century ago, there was no television in Iraq, and there were very few radios. Most radios could only be found at cafes and life was simple. In spring and fall, people returned to their homes at the beginning of the evening-right after dark. Workers would be tired from a long day of work-hungry for their dinner. The evenings stretched late into the night, and people stayed up visiting and chatting with their families and friends until it was time to go to bed. In winter, the nights were so long and cold. After dinner, people sat around the fire drinking tea, watching the chestnuts roast in the hot ashes, and enjoying each other's company.

The beautiful images and memories of these nights are etched in my mind and heart, especially the long cold nights with many relatives visiting and sitting together around the fire. I remember the red, shimmering charcoal in the iron hearth, the noise of the cracking shells of chestnuts and the taste of the hot red tea. The highlight of the evening was listening to stories that shaped our minds and filled our hearts with excitement and happiness.

When we were young, mothers, grandmothers, old aunts, or any adult who had a story to tell, were our story tellers. Our eyes were fixed on the story teller's lips, as we were ardently longing to hear the words that took us on far away voyages, welcomed us to kings' palaces, invited us to princesses' wedding parties, dances, and concerts; and allowed us to dive deep into history, to accompany Gilgamesh, with our hearts trembling with fear and sympathy for him throughout his adventures, in his quest to discover the secrets of living and dead. We would grieve for Eshtar when she went on a deadly adventure to visit the kingdom of death, defying fate and tradition.

We laughed joyfully celebrating the demise of the historic beasts that frightened children. These were our bedtime stories.

During summer, different kinds of stories were told. Stories for adults were told at street corners and in city parks. The grounds of the parks were covered with mats and filled with people sitting, one next to the other, surrounding the storyteller.

The storyteller sat on a chair. On his right he had a sword in its sheath, and on his left, he placed his large, heavy walking stick. He would read from his very large, old, volume of stories including: Antara, Saif bin Dhey Yezen, Abu Zaid Alhilaly, and many more. He used his stick and sword to illustrate some of the dramatic scenes. He told the stories of our heroes and legends with great passion. One of the most famous heroes, and our favorite, was Antara bin Shadad. Antara's story, as many of you might know, is a unique Arab tale, full of dramatic events, morals, and values told in numerous chapters. Antara was black in color because his mother was an African slave. He was a very strong, brave, honest knight, and a great poet. He was the perfect man in all accounts.

It is said that Shakespeare was inspired to create the character Othello after reading Antara's story. Antara fell in love with his cousin Abla, a very beautiful, free, young woman. She was renowned for her intelligence and beauty. She refused to marry numerous kings, princes, and chiefs of tribes. She was in love with Antara. Her father and Antara's father refused to let her marry Antara because of his color and his mother's status. When an enemy attacks the tribe and Abla is kidnapped by one of the other tribe chiefs, in desperation, Abla's father and Antara's father approach him and promise to let him marry Abla if he rescues her. Furthermore, his father promised to recognize him as his legitimate son, like all his other white free children, if he succeeds in his mission.

Antara remains an inspiration and a legendry hero in our history. He captures the hearts of the readers with his poetry which is filled with beautiful imagery and descriptions, and strong moral and ethical messages expressing strength, chivalry, and honor. The readers can easily sympathize with his pain and struggle for justice. His conduct is the embodiment of honor, bravery, and pride. For example, he never strikes anyone from the back; he never starts a fight, and he always warned those he fought and gave them a chance to retrieve and save their lives. These are the morals and ethics that our generation grew up with.

The last time I heard a storyteller in Iraq was in 1952 in the city of Mosel. Storytellers might have survived a few years after that date in some parts of the country, but they had certainly disappeared by 1956 when television was introduced in Iraq. Later, I heard a storyteller of a different kind in Morocco, in 1981 in the city of Tangier. He was very smart and wise. He was a strong orator. His story had a purpose and a target audience. He started by saying, "Look my brothers, when God created men he divided them into four kinds, all of them run, but three run after a mirage, and only one runs toward the truth. One of the three runs after women. When he sees any woman he chases her. These kinds of people regard women as candy; and because he is still a child who did not grow up, he always wants to taste all kinds of candy. This is impossible, so he runs after a mirage and will never feel satisfied until he dies. The second kind runs after money. Even if he gets a mountain of gold, he wants more. The third kind runs after power, and if he succeeds in becoming a king in his country, he looks for other countries to invade. All these kinds of men are in hell. Only the fourth kind, the one that runs after knowledge, will live a happy life. This kind will go to paradise."

The storyteller then opened his bag and presented his audience five beautiful stones, each of a different color. He raised the green one and said, "If you take this one now, you'll not look at any other women with lust, except your wife; and she will act the same. You will live in total happiness." Then he raised the blue stone and said, "This is the contentment stone. It makes you not yearn for money, and will kill your wife's demands. It will stop her from forcing you to buy her new clothes, jewelry, luxury house items, or cosmetics." After that, he raised the red stone and said, "This stone kills the evil in your spirit. It makes you respect others, prevents you from committing any offenses, and prevents you from taking advantage of others to gain power.

So your conscience will be clear and you will live a very happy life." Then he raised the yellow stone and said, "If you get this stone, your children will love and seek knowledge." Then he added, "All these stones will make you happy, but if you live happy, some people will envy you, and they will want to destroy this happiness. This is the nature of man." He raised the black stone and said, "So this black stone will prevent them from doing so. Buying it will cost you only a few extra dollars." I was astonished how he sold all this wisdom, intelligence, and eloquence for a very cheap price! I told myself maybe he keeps a contentment stone in his pocket.

If we return to history, we find that the profession of storytelling is very old, may be hundreds of thousands of years old. People in different places in the world had their myths and legends which they told to generation after generation. It is believed that the first written myth in history was the myth of the great flood. It has been established that it was first recorded during the Sumerian era. This myth influenced the major religions in the Middle East. The Sumerians wrote many other myths; the most famous was the story of Gilgamesh which is about seeking eternal life, but the most fascinating one is the story of Ashtar.

There is something in common between all myths of the ancient world. They all included a struggle between good and bad, love and hate, truth and lies, either with or against humanity. The myths of Mesopotamia had strong moral messages. For example, there is a similarity in the quest of the Greek Prometheus who defies the gods. His adventures focus on stealing fire to help people; and that of Gilgamesh who seeks to unravel the secret of life and death. After numerous near fatal adventures, Gilgamesh finds the plant of immortality, but a snake eats it while he was taking a short nap. Then Gilgamesh concludes that an alternative to immortality is to live and try to make his wife and children happy.

Mesopotamia continued to be the center of story telling. History books suggest that during the Abbasid period, the profession of storytellers was very popular. At one time, religious leaders, philosophers, artists, and politicians united in an attempt to prevent the storytellers from telling their stories. This was driven by envy, greed, and self interest. At that time, attending storytelling gatherings was very popular. The listeners filled public places on Friday, the day of rest and worship. This led those groups to ask the Caliph to issue a decree preventing storytellers from practicing their profession. The philosophers said, nobody comes to their serious study sessions, the artists and the singers said their customers decreased as well. The most persistent were the religious leaders who claimed that the storytellers distracted people from remembering and mentioning God. The Caliph told them you all gave me limited personal reasons and I want common public reasons. If you provide it to me, I'll prevent them from telling their stories. But no one gave the Caliph an important reason as he asked, so storytelling flourished, and the number of new stories and novels greatly increased during that period.

At that time, one thousand and one hundred years ago, the short stories appeared as an independent genre of literature, they were called "Maqama". Many writers wrote short stories. Alhamadany and Alhariry were two very well known writers, and if you read some of their short stories today, I believe that you will find them very enjoyable. At the same period, the great novel "Alfu Leila wa Leila" appeared. This novel was named "Arabian Nights" in Europe, and was later translated to most of the world's major languages. It inspired many great writers around the world for more than a thousand years. This novel was unique because it depicted the lives of all Arab societies and classes, providing us with their education, problems, kindness, cruelty, love, hate, and all other aspects of their lives. Women were forbidden from reading a few novels in some religious societies; one of them was "Alfu Leila wa Leila". This novel described some sexual relationships, not too explicit, but because the writer was interested in depicting the true lives of his characters. His writings attracted and continue to attract readers, researchers, and intellectuals for more than twelve centuries. Many kingdoms died, many kingdoms prospered, some conquerors succeeded and others failed, but storytelling continued to flourish in Iraq. The storytellers were now called writers and novelists.

This continued through 1921, when modern Iraq was born, the authorities prevented many literary works and magazines from being published inside Iraq. One or two issues of some Iraqi magazines would appear in the market, then the authorities would withdraw these magazines' permits and no more issues would be published. As a result of this ban, the Iraqi writers and poets had to send their work to Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian magazines. Even with these constraints, Iraqis became the leaders of modern poetry in the Arab world. The new, contemporary poetry was introduced by Iraqi writers -- three pioneer poets, Nazek Almalaeka, Assayyab, Al Baiaty, were the leaders of this new movement. When the first revolution took place, in 1958, the new government then established many magazines; intellectuals had their golden period because of this freedom. But things changed in 1963 after the military took over and the Baath Party started. The new government attracted the intellectuals.

It rewarded artists, poets, and writers with gifts and favors for supporting its cause and ideology. If they were not inclined to support the government, they were advised to remain neutral.
As a result of this direction, many intellectuals remained neutral and refrained from criticizing the authorities' policies and practices. Then the government changed its policy, and informed the writers that if they were not with them, they were against them, and that there was no place for neutral artists or writers. Everyone who cooperated became rich - they were paid more than they deserved. They received privileges like salaries, gifts, cars and so on.

But even this did not last. When the UN imposed its embargo and sanctions against Iraq, the intellectual's privileges were the first to be cut by the government. Under the new circumstances, the wages of most Iraqi intellectuals ranged from 5 to 8,000 Iraqi Dinars, the equivalent of three to four dollars a month. This income was not much different from that of the majority of the rest of Iraqis during that period. This hardship lead writers and artists to resort to selling their families' jewelry and valuable items, their household appliances including their refrigerators, air conditioners, furniture, and televisions in order to maintain even a subsistence standard of living.

Hospitals became a familiar scene for Iraqis. Due to economic hardships, Iraqis including intellectuals and non-intellectuals sold their internal organs to feed their families. Many of the intellectuals left Iraq to other countries, in hope to avoid these harsh realities. Most intellectuals welcomed the changing of the Baathist regime in 2003 or stayed neutral. After a few months, they realized that unfortunately this era is not much better than the last one. Now, the whole society was under the control of the militants. A new kind of pressure was imposed. The militants issued many lists containing names of writers and poets that they proclaimed should be killed or punished because of their cooperation with the previous regime. One of the names on one of the lists was Attwar Bahjat, a newscaster of Al Arabia TV channel, who was assassinated. Thousands of professors, officers, doctors, and writers were also assassinated.

The new lists compiled by the militants reflect their brutality, lack of moral values, and lack of human compassion. The lists contain about six hundred names. The first name on the list is that of Kamal Abdul Alla. He is a great blind poet in his sixties; another name is Abdul Khaliq Alrikabi, a well know disabled novelist. The list includes many foreign writers, and about twenty of the best female poets and writers in the Arab world. The poet Dunia Mikhaeal is one of the people on the list. She is currently living in Detroit, where she moved since she married. She has a family, and a daughter. She won many prizes for her poetry. Another female on the list is Lotfia Al Delimi; she is one of the best Arabic short story writers and one of the best translators from English to Arabic. I could tell you about so many more on the list of targets. But even more dispiriting is the news of 11-14.06, they killed 7 doctors in one day, 160 professors were killed during one year, three of them were very famous: Isam Alrawi, Muhammad al Dhahabi, and Najdat Alsalihi. And they assassinated more than 11 thousand ex-officers from the previous army. In summary, Iraq now is the center of bloodshed and chaos.

During the period of the last regime, the Iraqi people were able to see bridges, but these bridges were so difficult and dangerous to arrive to and pass. Now, there are no bridges at all, and it seems that for authors, poets, novelists, intellectuals, and ordinary people, there is no hope to find another bridge.

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