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Where Words Melt Walls: The Peacemaking Power of Poetry

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It's 2006, at the height of the Iraq war. On a bombed-out street that was once a beautiful section of downtown Baghdad, a large tent has been erected, in the midst of explosions and clashes. It is the first of what will turn out to be many gatherings of poets in an initiative called the "Freedom Space." There, while Sunni and Shiite militias roam the streets, men and women from both factions gather to speak poetry. The Shiites sit opposite the Sunnis, thinking it will be a competition. But by the end of the event, all are embracing and dancing together -- because the poems from both sides voice the same words, the same longings, the same wounds.

I learned of this miracle from Yanar Mohammed, the founder of the Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), which sponsored the Freedom Space. "It was ping-pong poetry," Yanar exclaimed, "with this ball of magic being bounced from one side to the other. They all turned out to be on the same team!"

There were 25 people in the tent at that first gathering. By the time I spoke with Yanar in 2008, the movement had proliferated throughout Baghdad and the surrounding areas. Large monthly events in central locations were drawing hundreds of listeners. Smaller weekly events brought together poets and musicians from all factions. Even soldiers from both Sunni and Shiite militias had joined the celebration, volunteering to guard the space and speaking poetry from the stage. Some had left their posts in the army, Yanar told me, because they saw in these poetry gatherings a more powerful form of peacemaking than any militia. I spoke with Yanar just after the March Freedom Space event, which was held in honor of International Women's Day. It was at the Theater Hall of the technical university in downtown Baghdad. Though armed guards surrounded the space and the sound of bombs punctuated the poetry, inside an audience of a thousand -- Sunni and Shiite -- danced, wept, and cheered together.

It's been several years now since my conversation with Yanar, yet I think constantly of the brave men and women of the Freedom Space, and their testimony to the peacemaking power of poetry. One story that continues to haunt me is that of Amen al-Salmawi who was one of the shining stars at the first Freedom Space. "You know, there are some poets who can hypnotize an audience. Amen was like that," Yanar told me. "Though he couldn't have been more than 23, when he delivered his poems he was really charismatic and outspoken. Everybody fell in love with him. But then on the breaks he was so shy he wouldn't even talk. He just smiled and nodded."

One evening a few months after the first Freedom Space took place, Amen was exchanging improvised poetry with a group of friends when suddenly the door was flung open and al Qaeda militants, who believe poetry is heresy, sprayed them with bullets. Amen was the first to die.

Poetry can indeed be dangerous to those who would perpetuate war. Amen is neither the first nor the last poet who has been killed for speaking verse. Whether the war is in a conflict zone, on the senate floor, or at the dining room table, it doesn't stand a chance in the presence of a poem spoken from the heart. When you speak or hear a poem that lays bare your innermost feelings and expresses the depth of your longings, questions and wisdom, the walls that sustain our separate positions tend to dissolve, at least for a moment.

In the course of writing Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words, I met or read about dozens of people who have experienced a poem's capacity to melt separation. A Maasai girl recites a poem she wrote about the horror of Female Genital Mutilation at a community ceremony in Narok, Kenya and all of her elders are educated. A suicidal teenager reads Maya Angelou's poem, "Phenomenal Woman" to herself everyday like a prayer and dissolves the walls of her own self-hatred. Jacques Lusseyran, imprisoned in Buchenwald concentration camp, recites the poetry of Baudelaire and finds himself surrounded by a crowd of men, echoing the words in German, Russian, Hungarian. Even Socrates, who was known for his disparagement of poets during his lifetime, immersed himself in verse as he waited for his execution. Poetry, he explained to his mystified followers, can melt the separation between the world of matter and the world of spirit, thus easing the transition of dying.

I think of the poets of the Freedom Space every day. They help me remember that no wall -- between people, countries, cultures, generations, even between this world and the next -- can withstand a good poem. Whether it is a line by the 12th century poet Rumi: "Your pure sadness / that wants help / is the secret cup," or a poem by Audre Lorde about the "tree of rage": we are called into presence by the resonance of truth. And when we are present, we are open to feeling. And when we feel, the rigid boundaries that divide us from each other can melt, and then, for a trembling moment, there is no separation."

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