For this, I am pulling from the Nadje Al-Ali and Deborah Al-Najjar collection entitled We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War. The image used here is also used as the jacket art for the book, entitled Iraqi Landscape 2005 by Hashim Al-Tawil.
“Father was whisked off in a black Mercedes,
Through a night hole hastily sprung,
Emerging on the other side to the warmth
Of an interrogation cell.”
“Shadow of their Former Selves”
The first thing I notice about this stanza of the poem is the second line: “Through a night hole hastily sprung” where the predicate and subject in the syntax have been inverted in the sentence. It still grammatically makes sense, but it doesn’t take much to see the difference between “Father was whisked off in a black Mercedes” and “[Father was] through a night hole hastily sprung.” What does this syntactical inversion do?
For me, my experience reading this, that second line threw me out – I was confused and I didn’t really know what it was saying. I was forced to re-read the line so I could understand. So, there’s this pause then. A stop that interrupts the otherwise consistent syntax of the stanza and the poem. In the same way, the father in the poem’s being taken was a brief pause in the regular on-goings of the poem.
Most of the readings acknowledge that the experience of the Iran-Iraq War, the sanctions, and then the 2003 invasion and on-going occupation were all a slow cakewalk, each step different and more severe than the one before it. But most of them acknowledge a specific moment where it’s obvious there is no going back – a pause in the syntax of their ongoings where an inversion occurs.
I want to hastily resist pushing all of these pieces into a one-size-fits-all understanding of the obvious plurality that Iraqi art and experience showcases in We Are Iraqis, so I will digress on this point – with the acknowledgement that while Al-Ali and Al-Najjar demand the collection’s mosaicity, the very existence of this collection seems to be an attempt to invoke that collectivity while still demanding “collection”’s lack as a term.
Back to Abdulrazzak’s third stanza, second line: I’m also drawn into the words (whether it’s because in English the syllable stresses are on these) “night hole” and “hastily sprung.” The term night hole is not one I’m familiar with and after an extensive google search it seems to be an Abdulrazzak neologism, but I’m guessing from the fourth line of the stanza that the night hole is perhaps the keyhole? door of some sort? that leads into an interrogation cell. And yet it isn’t called a keyhole or door. It’s called a night hole. What is the effect of calling it a night hole? A hole is a hollow space in an otherwise solid body or surface. To call it a “night” hole, as if its very existence depends on the time of day seems to imply that the darkness (literal and figurative – invoked from the first line “black Mercedes”) of night is something the hole requires. A hole is also defined informally as a small unpleasant place. But this unpleasant-ness or this informal image of the hole seems to contrast the “warmth” in the third line. The whole both requires its night-ness and its warmth. Now I’m thinking of a damp, hollowed out place in the ground. The warmth from the dirt. But the warmth doesn’t come from the dirt in the poem, it comes from the interrogation cell, from the interrogation. “warmth of an interrogation cell” – So the interrogation is heated? Is what makes the hole warm and nightly the interrogation combined with the feeling of being whisked off in a black Mercedes.
To spring means to move or jump suddenly upward or forward. He was sprung into the interrogation cell’s warmth via the night hole. But to spring also means to originate from, as in “to spring forth from.” Thus, Father was not only hastily thrown into the warmth of the interrogation /interrogation cell, he has also come from that night hole. I don’t know that there could be a more perfect understanding of this piece than being both sprung into and sprung from. The speaker’s parents are simultaneously themselves and shadows of their former selves. As Sinan Antoon puts it “I am forced to return [home] every day, but not to a physical space … Thousands rot…selling their future after having been robbed of their present and past” (25). Father is both originated from the night hole and sprung into it the same way Antoon’s Barbarian is both forced to return home “as much as [he tries] not to” and home is the place from which he originated.
What does it mean to be the shadow of one’s former self?
Just briefly, displacement is where I want to move with this question. To say the speaker’s parents are not themselves, not their former selves, but shadows of their former selves. That’s three degrees of displacement. Refugee status is granted to those who apply and are accepted by the U.N. as people who have been physically displaced for fear of violence or death. But what about emotional displacement? Could a shadow of one’s former self be the definition of an emotional refugee? This relates to a notion of both being sprung into and sprung out of one’s home because the emotional refugee may not ever truly be ‘displaced’ the same way one can be physically displaced. Instead, in a muddled way, saying someone is a “shadow of their former self” still acknowledges the self in there. In other words, this emotional displacement – status as an emotional refugee – may be the experience of being both simultaneously sprung out of home and sprung into home.
However, again I want to be careful not to lump all refugees into any sort of box. Nor do I want to try and take this poem as an understanding of The Refugee, as in all refugees. So, while I’m beginning to reach for larger scaled understandings of the refugee experience, I want to acknowledge that making statements about the emotional status of a refugee neither acknowledges the complexity of humanness that exists in every refugee nor can it ever be complete in its definition in the same way the human experience can itself never be completely explained.