Fire (ح.ر.ق)

Rijin Sahakian

The Book of Dreams

Photo by Rijin Sahakian

In the summer of 2020, pandemic shutdowns and far-reaching fires in California kept residents like myself inside for weeks. A muddied orange glow shifted the skies for days on end and I, with the many others, mourned the loss of life and land, stunned by the enormity and physical transformation the flames wrought. A renowned writer and climate change activist based in San Francisco shared on social media a story about the fires and Baghdad. I thought for a moment that the connection between the extreme environmental costs of waging war on bodies and earth, and its implications for sites beyond Iraq’s borders, had been made. But the story was not about Iraq’s burning oil fields, the soaring emissions of heavy military machinery, the razing of trees and foliage, or the less readily understood generational complications of survival.

The story was a recounting of a man living in the U.S. who felt the need to go outside despite the hazardous air. He had felt the need to breathe it in, just as in the days of the Mongol invasion of Iraq when the great library of Baghdad was burned. It is said that the ink from the books turned the river black and residents drank its waters in order to retain some of the knowledge. But when will we drink from the waters, or breathe the air, of all that has burned in our far more recent wars in Iraq? When will we retain any of the volumes of knowledge falling heavier than the ash from our wildfires out of our global wars?

Winter suspended the fires in California and brought a visit from my father’s only sister. She had left Iraq bitterly in 2007 after living through the Iran-Iraq war in the border city of Basra, arranging flowers in emptied missile shells to decorate her living room and proudly serving wine she’d fashioned from figs. One morning she mentioned that my grandfather had kept a book of dreams. A book of interpretation and his own recordings in Armenian script, which he carried with him from Yozgat. At the age of thirteen, he came home to find his family members murdered. Leaving Turkey by foot, he would first arrive in Beirut and soon after make residence in Baghdad. A camp had been set up for surviving Armenians and Assyrians. He would marry, have children, but return to Beirut often for treatment at a hospital, also set up for survivors. He would pass fifteen years before my birth at that same hospital, and it was in its gardens that one of two photographs I have of him was taken. My aunt showed it to me the day she told me of the book, the drives they once took from Baghdad to Beirut to visit him, the letters he used to write. I saw his eyes for the first time and a kind of awe made its place in me—his hard face, soft quilted jacket. During the short time I lived in Beirut, I made an attempt to find that hospital. I was told he was buried in an adjacent cemetery. I asked the friend who invited me to write this piece to help me navigate the site. The trip was hollow. I had been given the name of the wrong hospital, I would later learn.

Maybe one day I will go to the right place. Maybe he will be there, or maybe it will be as futile as the trip I had dressed up for, a white dress stuck to me in the humid heat of a congested Beirut summer, a clothing choice as foolish as the excursion. What did I think would happen? Would I hold an impromptu funeral for a man I’d never known? Would my friend have pointed out his name, Sahak, in a language I didn’t understand and a family history his own children were predetermined to never piece together? 

A hundred years after Sahak fled Yozgat, his grandson, my cousin, along with other men, would light a fire in a Turkish prison where migrants were held. Unlike Sahak, my cousin wasn’t alone, he’d fled Baghdad with his wife and young daughters Marya and Natalia, carrying the smallest  on his shoulders in a reverse journey to Yozgat from Baghdad.

In the early years of the 21st century brutalization of Iraq, they too were on foot through Turkey, attempting to escape the state’s officers. Sleeping behind rocks and tumbling over them, meeting others along the way; they were hunted, and all eventually captured, the women separated from the men. Put into jails they called camps, the men waited fourteen days then set the place alight. Natalia, barely a teenager at the time, moved fast to meet her father, all of them escaping in the flames.

Natalia is now a young woman, she recounts the experience as a childhood memory. She’s happy, she says. She likes Toronto; she’s made close friends. I love her and want to hug her, to close in all the years. I wonder if she stumbled over the same rocks Sahak had. I wonder what he wrote in that book of dreams, if his interpretations lined up with the descriptions inside.

I wonder what the book holds as it now lays in Beirut, in the apartment of another of his granddaughters, another of my cousins, waiting with another family. It is their fourth year of waiting since leaving Baghdad, not to seek treatment in Beirut as he had, but for papers that may or may not arrive.

Did he know what would come? Did he see it? Did the visions kill him in that hospital? Or was it more simple. A body, wrought by all it had witnessed, and the disease survival brought with it, letting go. I have only seen one other photo of him, taken from a distance. On a low hill, an outline of his figure sits on his heels, an animal nearby. Would it have hurt him to see what became of his children and their children? Or would he have felt relieved, knowing they had left? Did he love that city the way his children would? Two sons dying in the city they refused to leave. Did his dreams ever reveal that Baghdad would be rocked, again and again, by fire? In the layers of man-made destruction, the equivalence to years of uninterrupted volcanic eruption.

The hills didn’t hold my feet at thirteen. Well before Natalia was born, I had long been at my destination, in America. In the winter of ‘91, wrapped in the warmth of blankets and approved documents, I dreamt of streaming lights in a green sky. I told my best friend the next day, and a few days later the Gulf War began; on the screen those same lights, that same green sky. My friend ran to me at school, telling me excitedly that I must be psychic. I spent the next month watching the green lights again and again, narrated with maps on the news and merchandise sales of yellow ribbons and toilet paper rolls stamped with Saddam’s face. I knew they thought we all looked like him, my father deflected the stares. A few years after the first war’s end, I would go with my mother to Baghdad. Laying in the dark before sleep came, sharing a room with other cousins, all grandchildren of Sahak, they whispered to me of the nights that shook their homes, the sky exploding. They thought all of it, the whole world, was collapsing. The ground never stopped its tremble.

A decade after those nights the invasion would begin, and soon there would be no bed to lie in. There would be no home and no place to go home to. Home would become Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden. It would become a screen of posted gatherings, a birth, and every so often, the death of someone you vaguely remember. The Book of Dreams is written in letters I cannot read. Several nights before writing this, I dreamt of mountains and snow. I walked over the peaks, and came upon the large carcass of a strange animal in front of me. Looking closely, I saw this was not the only one. They were all around me, their dark hair, skin and hooves in frozen bundles. My friend appeared, the same childhood friend who, three decades ago, told me I must be psychic. The snow falling, she told me it would be ok, that we would get home. But I knew she was wrong, that she was from a different place. I looked into the night and down the deep slope. The fur of an animal as large as a buffalo was exposed, half buried in the glowing night ice; it lay motionless a few feet away from my own. This was a search with no end. Up in the sky, miles from the ground and covered in wet snow, we are burning.

* * *

Iraq is a country built, it is said, on an ocean of oil. The shallow seas and the creatures that once floated within them dried up, buried and materialized over millions of years into the fluid that would eventually run the future. The intensity of the earth’s heat transformed once living creatures into resource; millions of years later, the living creatures on that land too would become a resource for what is called advancement. The sacrifice of Iraqi life, screened worldwide in 1991 and named the first Space War by the militaries that executed it, would be used to roll out to record audiences,the technology running this era of global movement, transaction, exchange. GPS, wars on terror, misinformation, the accumulation of wealth derived from the attempted extermination of people and human experience alike.

It is said that, on Iraq’s richest oil sites, one can throw a rock and see the smoke rise. From time to time, the viscous liquid will seep out of porous segments of Earth, creating black pools and streams on its surface. In occupation upon occupation—from America’s coalition to Daesh—wells are burned, gas flamed, oil leaked into homes, into the throats of the living and generations of the unborn. And still, there are other ways heat and its aftermath reconfigures life.

Artist Sajjad Abbas writes to us from Baghdad, where he has witnessed the combustion of cars, bodies, and opportunity. His work documents and responds to the afterlife and continued resistance to the greed and indifference that fuels the insatiable burning of Baghdad.

Early in the historic Iraqi uprising of 2019, the activist and poet Safa al-Sarray was killed by the expulsion of a tear gas canister to his head. Prolific novelist, professor and poet Sinan Antoon continues his work of illuminating the poets of Iraq as yet another form of resistance in his  translation of  several of al-Sarray’s works. Antoon does this for those of us who only knew him as a symbol, one of many who will never have the chance to share their words with a world they were cut out of.

In large, sweeping views, and in the smallest details of personal and physical landscape, artist Jananne Al-Ani takes the violent media saturation of Iraq and reverses its course through an evidencing of experience -its imprint on land and in the trajectory of lives. Her images, and the deep research comprising them, resurrect history and its bodily imprint with a helming that is authoritative, loving, in their hypnotic evocations.

Artist Rheim Alkadhi has spent several years researching Majnoon (crazy), one of the largest known oil fields, named for the incredulity of its size. In southern Iraq, Alkadhi uses a transformative, intimate mode of cataloging to construct alternative narratives of its saturating presence and the infiltration of its name. In an experiment of image and language, she takes from the field’s most enduring presence, the flame, to reveal a site that produces far more than prodigious crude.

Medical anthropologist and musician Omar Dewachi has provided comprehensive, original research on the intricate and wide ranging effects of the Iraq wars on the human body and their relationship to the systems of medical care meant to address them. From the simple wound to profound migration, Dewachi’s work is focused on the most vulnerable, critical material of war, our flesh.

In this issue, contributors take on the constant of flame and the desire to burn. What it demands from us and the new compositions it leaves behind. In the context of Iraq, each reconfigures this force, in the established context of extraction through fire and its corresponding resistance in physical, written and imagined form.