I am the Iraqi poet Ayfaa Amen Alasadi. I was born in Baghdad, am in my thirties and I currently reside in France. I arrived here about a year and a half ago. Everything in this country is beautiful, but I don’t know the language, and they’re somewhat prejudiced against the English language, which I do speak. Still, I’ve begun to adapt both psychologically and socially, and I’m trying to learn the language, which will really add to my experience both on the cultural and personal levels. Of course, the acquisition of any new language is like opening a door onto a country’s cultural wealth, and for a poet, it allows access to all the things you’re trying to discover—sometimes even to things you weren’t trying to discover!
In any case, as time passed I noticed that I wasn’t really making a serious effort to learn the language. Maybe because I was moving around so much, constantly on the search for a city that resembled Baghdad. I tried living in Paris and Lille, the big cities, and I also tried four other cities besides, but I never arrived at that mental place from where I can write poetry in a way that allows me to feel comfortable and personally satisfied.
There are many breathtaking cities, but I don’t really want to live in any one of them, at least for now. Maybe they’re good travel destinations, nice to visit but not to live in. All cities save for Baghdad are cold and lonely. But I’d decided to come to France to finish a Master’s degree in law, or maybe in Arabic literature. I’m not sure. I decided not to decide on the exact field of study for my Master’s degree. Whatever I choose, it needs to be fit for a girl coming from Baghdad, carrying her dreams.
I suffered from writer’s block for several months after I first arrived. It was exhausting, it wore me down mentally. I felt useless, like I’d lost myself. But as soon as I was able to break that barrier, I wrote a poem about how useless I felt, and that's in fact how I got myself back.
Not writing means having no voice. From the minute I overcame my fear of writing—which happened after I managed to write my first poem in France—I kept thinking that if my poem survived it means I’d survived, that I’d succeeded. Then I made some French friends who spoke English, and a beautiful friendship arose between us. The kind of friendship where they want to know everything about you and the country you come from.
I decided to settle down in Bordeaux, a gorgeous city in the south of France. A city where the sun is tender, where everything feels warm, emotionally and psychologically. The people there ask me about Iraq because they truly care to know. Maybe it’s the city’s identity, its authentic nature and heritage and ancient buildings—even its ancient key—that’s made people here so culturally curious about Iraq’s cultural identity, and made them so eager to learn about Iraq from their close friend. They no longer have to get their information from newspapers. Now they can just call me and ask whatever they like about the news in Iraq, about culture and politics and anything else they care to know.
They asked me questions about Ishtar, about the Hanging Gardens, the Lion of Babylon and Hammurabi, who wrote the first law in history. They’d ask me about how people lived and how they’d managed through recent events. They’d send me news reports about Iraq published in the French media. They truly cared and wanted to learn.
I started teaching one of my friends Arabic. She was thrilled when she learned how to write her name in Arabic, happy like she’d really achieved something. Some of my friends tried to learn the Iraqi accent or expressions particular to the Iraqi dialect, so they could ask “how’s it going” and other things of the sort. This turned our knowledge exchange into a real pleasure. It wasn’t just these dry question-and-answer sessions. It was a fun, freewheeling discussion without any rules or formalities between us.
Once, my friends conspired to print a collection of my poetry in French. A decision they came to entirely on their own and through sheer chance. I’d sent them some of my work which had been translated by Dr. Mohamad Bin Amro, a Tunisian scholar. These were texts he’d chosen, having selected them from my writings on Facebook over the course of several years, and the translation was done at his own wonderful initiative. And so my friends surprised me by printing these translated poems out and distributing them amongst themselves. This pushed me to begin studying French very seriously so that I might be able to translate French books we didn’t have in Arabic, or vice versa, to translate books from Arabic into French. I even thought I might try writing in this beautiful language myself, and I’m still taking lessons now.
We can never say that we’ve totally learned a new language. As Arabs, we can’t even say we know Arabic in its entirety! But in every language you wish to learn, there are expressions or words that can’t be understood literally. They are encoded by the society, or by the language itself, and they also have to be learned in all their meanings.
France is a country wealthy in culture and knowledge. The kind of culture that enriches the writer on the personal, intellectual, and literary levels. But, my friend, true belonging to a society that isn’t your own is, in my opinion, impossible. Though we need at least a partial sense of belonging on these long journeys we take through life. It might be a personal, emotional, intellectual, cultural, or social sense of belonging. The important thing is to find a way to adapt, whatever way, shape, or form that might take. We need to preserve our minds, to find a new identity in line above all with our human identity and values. Those human values that transcend all languages, that do not adhere to borders or maps; the human values that guide our behavior toward ourselves as well as toward other people.
I can say however that I’m somewhat settled and stable. But even if I were in the world’s most beautiful city, its most vibrant and exciting city, I will always carry Baghdad with me. I will always see Baghdad as the queen of all cities and the crowning jewel of world civilization.
I am the Iraqi poet Afyaa Amen Alasadi, I live in Bordeaux in the south of France, and this is my story.
This summarised transcript of Haneen's story was prepared by Omar Alshikh, edited by Monzer Hayek and translated by Leena Mounzer