Iraqi poet and multimedia performer Umar Abdul Nasser speaks to zenith about performing in a Mosul basement under ISIS, making life-long friends in Poland and finding fresh inspiration in the footsteps of Goethe.
zenith: Googling the word ‘conspiracy’ is tantamount to opening the Internet’s Pandora’s box. Why did you decide to use it as the title for your latest work?
Umar Abdul Nasser: Conspiracy is a special project released on Youtube and Facebook in November 2019, that blends poetry and speech with music and video. It was written in Germany and produced in Poland, but it takes its inspiration from the recent demonstrations in Iraq, which began on 1 October 2019, and now have lasted more than 100 days. I use the word ‘conspiracy’ ironically. The government is always the same, only the portfolios change. We’ve had most of the same politicians in the government since 2003, that’s about 17 years of murder, corruption and theft. When people say: “This government is corrupt, and we want a change.” The politicians say: “No, no, no it’s all a conspiracy, there’s someone else behind this.” If you’re loyal to Iraq and you want to build a better country, it’s a conspiracy.
“Each time, we have risen up and stood against them and against their corruption,
They cried: This is a conspiracy!” – Conspiracy (2019)
What do you make of recent events in Iraq?
When the demonstrations began, I was afraid that they might develop in the wrong direction. The first two weeks were terrible because they tried to the stop peaceful demonstrations by using snipers. The weather was hot, so many of the protestors were shirtless with only Iraqi flags draped across their shoulders. Everybody could see they were unarmed yet they were killed anyway. The Internet was shut off, and Iraqi TV channels didn’t cover the protests. TV channels that did show them had their offices attacked, and their staff kidnapped. More than 600 people have been killed in the 100 days since the protests began, and then 25,000 injured, some disabled for life. In mid-January, Ahmad Abdelsamad, a famous journalist based in Basra, and his cameraman, Safaa Ghali, were killed. They had posted footage in which Abdelsamad criticised how the security forces randomly arrested protestors in the city. I couldn’t imagine just one of the murdered and kidnapped losing their dreams. It could so easily have been me.
What role has creativity played in the protests?
Creativity has been very important during these protests. Not just in the hands of artists but of normal people. Tuk-tuks have become a symbol of the demonstrations as people use them to ferry away the wounded or dead, and transport food to the protestors. Every one of us tries to support the other so they can keep working. For artists like me, this is what's important. It’s something unconscious. Sometimes you get tired of the government always stalling and always trying to distract us. They have no interest in solving any of our problems. But when I see some graffiti in Tahrir Square or hear songs from the protests, it spurs me on to continue my work.
Is it difficult to participate in events taking place in Iraq from Germany?
Some days I’ve felt completely exhausted to the point where I couldn’t even concentrate on my life here in Germany because of what was going on in Iraq. You try to escape. To find a safe place where you can work in peace. But we’re not just escapees, I want to share experiences from Iraq while seeing another part of the world. When you’re on the ground, you can talk to friends and make jokes together. But when you’re looking from afar at the situation, it’s more complex because you can’t share the situation with those around you. You’re just left waiting to glimpse at what’s going on through the small window that Facebook gives you.
What have been the effects of the recent US-Iran tension in Iraq?
This is another nightmare. We’re afraid it will become another proxy war, and that Iraq will be part of this war. We use the word ‘tails’ to describe those who always follow other countries, like Iran, around. Iran, I mean the government not the Iranian people, has been one of the biggest problems in Iraq in the past few years. They’ve exploited the Iraqi government to gain more power in the country. While the USA have done the same. When the USA wants to kill Suleimani, they use Iraq. When Iran wants to respond, they do so on Iraqi soil. They both do so because it’s far away from their own countries. And that’s how it’s been for years, countries using Iraq to play out their conflicts. We are angry that we can’t just have normal diplomatic ties with other countries. That’s one of the reasons why people turned out in such large numbers on 3 January after Suleimani’s murder. We don’t want to be a battleground for other countries’ wars anymore.
How is it to be working in Weimar, Germany’s city of poets?
Weimar has provided me with fresh inspiration. I love working in this city. My mind is awash with ideas. I feel so connected to the literature, poetry and history here. My work focuses on universal themes; peace, love, humanity and everyday life. But being in a city like Weimar can give you new perspectives on old ideas. The more German I know, the more I can delve into that rich heritage. But it’s step by step. I’ve only been here for six months.
Before Weimar, you lived in Wroclaw. How did you find yourself in Poland?
My two years living in Wroclaw were very special to me. I was invited by a Norway-based organisation called ICORN and Wroclaw was one of its host cities. They actually invited me to come when Mosul was under ISIS’ control, but I couldn’t leave then. I didn’t go to Poland just to meet Iraqi people, to eat Iraqi food, or to stay within the Iraqi or Arab community there. I wanted to find like-minded people to work with and to be inspired by. I made a lot of good friends there, from Poland and elsewhere. We had a great time performing music and poetry together. And we still keep in touch. I recorded ‘Conspiracy’ with some Polish musicians.
What did you know about Poland and Polish culture before you left Iraq?
I just knew a little about Poland’s experiences during the Second World War. But having lived in the country, I now know a lot more about the history and literature there. I like Polish society. That might sound strange to some people, even to the Polish themselves. There’re many faces of a society, but for me it was a very positive experience. Polish people have been through some harsh experiences, and it’s made them humbler in my opinion.
Did you have any negative experiences there?
Sometimes people weren’t so open. For example, there was an old woman on the tram who was saying some things on the phone and looking at me that I didn’t understand. My Polish friend then told me she wasn’t saying anything nice – something about me blowing myself up. But I was never in any dangerous situations. I have mostly nice memories of my time in Poland. I’ve seen two kinds of people during my time in Europe. Those who are closeted, a bit aggressive, and who make me feel uncomfortable with how they look at me. Some people are not open to foreigners, especially to those with darker skin. Others are more welcoming. They understand that special places like Weimar and Wroclaw belong not just to those who live there but to the whole world.
“I am half bird, half tree
One dreams of taking root, the other to the skies.” – Bird and Tree (2019)
What was it like to be a poet in Mosul?
Danger has been ever-present in my life. I was born in the 80s during the war between Iraq and Iran. I started as a poet at 15, that was back in 2000 when Iraq was still under Saddam’s dictatorship. My generation couldn’t see any hope of safety. Every time we would open our eyes, we would see wars. My final high-school exams were postponed in 2003 when the Americans came. Then the civil war broke out in 2005. That was especially dangerous. As a poet, you want to speak about these events, so we cautiously put on some concerts with musicians and other poets. Back then, even if you were a little bit well-known you could get killed, because they didn’t want you to spread any ideas that were different to theirs. Because during the civil war, even having the name Umar was enough to get me killed.
Were you able to perform in public under those conditions?
I used to perform with a violinist and composer-friend from Mosul called Ameen Mokdad who I met in 2011. Each Friday we would sing songs and read poetry outside the Digla Mall shopping centre. Those who gathered to watch us found it all strange. While we were performing outside the mall in March 2014, famous Mosul TV presenter Wathiq Al-Ghathanfari was killed. We were afraid each time we went out, but we couldn’t just do nothing, we had to do something. In 2012, Ameen and I, together with many other young artists from the city, put on a two-day festival called Talents from Nineveh. It proved much more popular than we expected, about two hundred people came. Each time we came together we expected someone would blow themselves up. Then, in 2014, ISIS came. That changed everything.
Did you continue performing under ISIS?
It was intensely dangerous, but I couldn’t stop. I continued to publish poems challenging ISIS and their values from inside Mosul. Between June 2014 and 2017 I uploaded my work secretly to YouTube and Facebook for everyone to see. I thought that they would not expect somebody to do something so crazy. Although it was dangerous, I couldn’t stop. Some people say that writing poetry is a luxury. For me, it was the only way to scream against what was happening. My last space of freedom. They had taken everything else from us, but they couldn’t steal this space where we were free.
Why did you finally have to leave Mosul?
It was more than just one situation. ISIS for me was just the result of many causes, chief among which was the current government. Under ISIS, if you crossed the line, you were killed, and lines were drawn in such a way that leading a normal life was impossible. I realised that rather than wait for someone to kill me, I would try to get out. I attempted to escape many times, either by myself or with friends. We were queuing up to get out. I was both unlucky and lucky. Unlucky not to have escaped but lucky, unlike some of my friends, to still be alive.
How did you finally get out of the city?
I waited for the Iraqi military to start their anti-ISIS operation in Mosul. When it finally began in 2016, the fighting was intensive, especially in our adjacent neighbourhood on the left bank of the river Tigris. Many times, I was shot at while bringing water back home from a well as the pipes had burst. I remember when ISIS came to my house early in the morning in the middle of winter where my extended family was hiding, 44 people in all. They demanded that we leave the neighbourhood with them so they could use as protection from the impending attack. We were about to leave when the Iraqi counter-terrorism forces arrived. That afternoon they took our neighbourhood from ISIS, but just three days later ISIS attempted to regain control. I couldn’t imagine myself under their rule ever again, so we left. Dodging gunfire and clashed between the Iraqi army and ISIS, we walked from house to house, relative to relative, until we managed to escape with just the clothes on our backs to Baghdad where we stayed for a few months.
Do you want to return to Mosul someday?
Not to live. I haven’t been back to Iraq since I left in 2017 but I would return to do some projects and collaborate with people in Mosul, Baghdad and other cities. After all these experiences, it’s very hard for me to return to Mosul because its connected to the memory of the prison the city became under ISIS. A huge part of the city that I loved was destroyed. I don’t want to see that. The old city used to be my favourite. I always went there to take photos or just to walk around and enjoy an Arabic coffee. That part is gone forever.
Your work involves both music and poetry. How would you describe yourself as an artist?
I don’t use music as background to my poetry, it’s a main part of the project. Sometimes Arabic poetry is accompanied by music. Maybe the poet meets the musician for the first time at the event and the musician plays something when the poet starts to read. This is not for me. I want to create something which is close to the structure and the style of the music. As I experimented with connecting poetry more intimately to music, my performances became something different to reading poetry from a book, a more multimedia and universal experience. Many of my poems start out as a reaction to a certain piece of music. I’ve found this a great way to show my audiences Arabic poetry in a new light. It’s important to reach people with my work because the power of art is not to change things directly, but to influence people and introduce them to something new. It becomes more of a performance than just a poem.
Who has been most influential on your work?
Musicians more than poets have shaped my work. I love the music of Nazem al-Ghazali, an Iraqi soul singer from the 50s and 60s. His style was very modern compared to the traditional Iraqi music from the southern countryside which I also loved. I’ve also liked Andrea Bocelli and Yanni for a long time. I remember that when I was a child my father ordered his cassettes in rows: two for Oriental music and two for Western music. I grew up with this mix of styles. I listened to Abba, The Eagles, Julio Iglesias, and Demis Roussos but I would say that Um Kulthum, Fairuz and the Rahbani brothers have had the greatest impression on me.
How do these artists inspire your own performances?
I want to combine all of these influences. I’m working on a project called Bridges of Love, which started in 2018, and we have performed in Poland and Sweden. It aims to create bridges of understanding between different cultures through combining their music and with my Arabic poetry. The last edition of the project featured Marcin Wisłocki, a Polish blues guitarist, composing some music using an Arabic scale while Iraqi musicians played the work of the famous Polish singer Marek Grechuta. I want to stage the next concert in Germany.
How do you depict the Iraqi nation in your work?
I want to show Iraq in a positive light, though a side that is real, not just the Iraq of my dreams. For example, hundreds of Iraqis descend on Baghdad’s al-Mutanabbi Street at the weekend in search of books from booksellers that line the thoroughfare. People from all walks of life meet friends, discuss music and poetry and drink tea in the backstreets filled with cafés and makeshift galleries. As you walk to the end of the street on the banks of the Tigris, you find al-Qushla, an old clocktower, which on Fridays opens its doors to dozens of artists of all ages to perform their work. This is the Iraq that I’m eager to show people. Not the one in the hands of the government.
“I belong to whom I belong.
Why must I define my belonging, why confine it?” – New Belongings (2016)
What does the term exile mean to you?
While I’m here in Weimar, I have the freedom to travel, which I like. In Iraq people can’t just go from country to country so easily. You have freedom of speech here, freedom to work where you want in peace, but you lose something. You lose the feeling of stability. This is the hardest part for me. It takes something from you. I built up a network of friends in Poland. Then because of legal requirements I find myself in Germany, where I have to start all over again and I don’t know what will be next. I don’t really consider myself a foreigner. But I’m not an EU citizen, they can work freely here, without all the paperwork I have to face. My rights are not the same as theirs. There’s no escaping that. I’m fighting for my rights here. My passport still says Iraqi. Those who find their nation at war always have to choose either between a homeland without freedom and peace, or peace and freedom without homeland. This is the suffering of exiles.
Umar Abdul Nasser is a poet and multimedia performer based in Weimar. He is a fellow of the joint scholarship place of the PEN program Writers in Exile and the association ‘Weimar – City of Refuge’. He will give his next performance at the Literaturhaus in Dortmund on 13 February 2020.