In February, in a hospital in Baghdad, I met 13-year-old Jassim. Suffering from a virulent form of leukemia, he was lying listlessly watching his small world of the ward through huge dark eyes, made larger by the contrast with his beautiful, pale, almost translucent skin. His thick black, curly hair shone as if it had been polished, belying his precarious state of health.
Until he became ill he had been selling cigarettes on the streets of
his home town of Basra, southern Iraq.
Child labor is now an endemic tragedy in a country which had previously deemed good education so paramount that parents were fined for not sending their children to school.
Basra, Iraq’s ancient second city lying literally in the eye of Desert Storm, was bombarded mercilessly in the 1991 Gulf War. The six-fold increase in childhood cancers in Iraq has been linked to the use of missiles and bullets coated with depleted uranium (DU) waste from the nuclear industry. On impact, they left a residue of radioactive dust throughout the country.
‘If DU enters the body it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences’, states the US Army Environmental Policy Institute. The residual dust, traveling where the wind blows, remains radioactive for 4,500 million years. There is an epidemic of cancer throughout Iraq, but in Basra it is an explosion.
As I sat down to talk to Jassim, the doctor mentioned that I made my
living by writing. The transformation was instant. He sat up,
his face lit with animation and excitement, and he produced an exercise
book from under his pillow. Mickey Mouse decorated the cover.
Inside, in beautiful Arabic, were poems he spent his days writing.
He was going to be a poet when he grew up. They were extraordinary
in their craft and talent, with an insight far exceeding his years.
One, called Identity Card, read:
The name is love,
The class is mindless,
The school is suffering,
The governorate is sadness,
The city is sighing,
The street is misery,
The home number is one thousand sighs.
He had collected quotes special to him. ‘Life does not take into consideration our passion,’ was one, and another: ‘I asked death, what is greater than you? Separation of lovers is greater than death.’
I have written much about Jassim, and his poem has been widely published.
Three weeks ago as I write, a friend went to Iraq and I sent with him the clippings of the articles, specially bound, and asked that he be sure to deliver them to Jassim. Last night my friend returned and telephoned. ‘How is Jassim?’ I asked.
Jassim had fought – and fought. He lost the battle just before
my friend arrived. He never saw his poem in
print – and now he is just another statistic in the ‘collateral damage’ of sanctions.
I had told Jassim of poems living on, and quoted to him James Elroy Flecker:
Since I can never see your face
And never take you by the hand
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.
Rest in peace, little poet: 1985-1998.