The 'Maya Angelou of Iraq,' a refugee living in South Jersey, publishes a powerful memoir
The Philadelphia Inquirer September 1, 2022
(Tribune News Service) — Writer Faleeha Hassan had a strange dream.
She was in a public library in her native city of Najaf, Iraq, searching for a book of poetry by French writer Louis Aragon.
Hassan was miffed when told she couldn't borrow it. But as she left, a librarian called after her.
"Faleeha! Take this! It's Aragon's pen. Use it to write whatever history we have left!"
When Hassan awoke from that dream over 30 years ago, she prayed that God would let her write her own story one day. In August, "War and Me," a memoir by Hassan, now 55, was published by Amazon Crossing.
Early reviews have been enthusiastic.
"Hassan renders her harrowing experiences in an authentic, heartfelt manner, offering important testimony of personal and national courage," Kirkus wrote in one of its coveted starred reviews.
"Her poignant tale of survival is one that readers won't soon forget," said Publishers Weekly.
In an interview from her home in Gloucester County, New Jersey, Hassan, now an American citizen, said she did not write this book for accolades.
"Maybe one time, one leader will read my book, and he will change his mind to have another war," she said. "That's my goal."
"War and Me" is a deeply personal view of what years of wars and international sanctions did to the people Hassan loved. She was just starting middle school when Saddam Hussein's government announced it was closing schools for 10 days until "certain victory" in its war with Iran.
"But the war did not end in 10 days," she said. "It lasted eight years, and all my friends were killed in the war or went missing in it."
Hassan describes in the book the ongoing impact that seemingly endless conflicts and their bitter aftermath have on average people: poverty, shortages of food and medical care, inequities, loss of security, danger and fear.
"War and Me" is the author's own story too.
Hassan writes candidly about the challenges of being an independent-minded woman in her society. Deeply devoted to her family, she took the unheard-of risk of traveling to the front lines to find one of her brothers and her father who were both sent to fight. She fulfilled her father's dream for her of becoming a teacher and her own dream of getting a graduate degree, earning a master's in Arabic literature from the University of Kufa.
As a female poet, playwright, writer, and editor, Hassan succeeded despite the many male members of Najaf's cultural scene who resented this audacious young woman from a working-class family and wanted to see her fail. She went on to publish 25 books — poetry, fiction, nonfiction, plays. Her poems have been translated into 21 languages, and she has won literary awards throughout the world.
She's even been described as "the Maya Angelou of Iraq."
But in 2010, her success forced her to leave her homeland and most of the people she dearly loved. Hassan learned that year that her name was on a list of writers and artists marked for death by a militant group. She was stunned; she was not aligned with past or present regimes, and her writing was not political. But there was no way to appeal.
For a while she went into hiding in Baghdad with her two youngest children. Then they fled to Turkey. Her older children chose to stay in Iraq with family. In 2012, with the help of the United Nations, Hassan and her younger children were granted refugee status. They resettled in the United States, in New Jersey.
"War and Me" touches only briefly on Hassan's life in this country.
Chances are, few of her Turnersville neighbors know the quiet woman is an acclaimed poet. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and her fiction for the Pushcart Prize. She has also self-published three books of poetry since coming to America.
But like many refugees, safety comes with sacrifice. Hassan came here as a single parent with two young children. Over the years, she has worked to make a life for herself and her children, stepping in as a substitute teacher in local schools. But she does not have the career that she had in her home country. "War and Me" was written in Arabic and translated by William Hutchins, a professor emeritus at Appalachian State University.
Attending community college now, her son Ahmed, 20, is working toward becoming a teacher like his mother. Zahraa, 22, her daughter, is studying biology and aspires to become a doctor.
"What I like about America is the mix of people," Hassan said. "You go outside and you will see the different people, the diverse people. And I love trees. The place I live has so many trees. I like the nature here, the fresh air."
But she also has found some people, even in this land of diversity, are distrustful of a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. Not everyone has been kind.
In "War and Me," Hassan makes the suggestion that her readers say "Salam" or "Good day" the next time they see such a woman.
"She may be an Iraqi poet who would like to tell you how great her children are doing in their school," she wrote.
Of course, she misses her family in Iraq. Her parents died before she left. A brother has passed away since. Grandchildren have been born. She said she communicates to her daughters there every day. Because she is the oldest in her family now, her siblings seek her advice on important matters. And when there are family celebrations, she and her children join in via WhatsApp.
Hassan hopes "War and Me" puts her closer to the career she left behind. She is working on a novel, and she has written a book of poetry. But for now there is her memoir and, with it, the memory of a long-ago dream and prayer.
"I think of my mom and father, and also my grandma. I have them with me because I was lucky enough to include them in this book," Hassan said.
"I have all my life in this book."
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