Poetry by Iraqi Women in Translation

“Definitions” by NADIA AL-KATIB


Co-translations by AMIR AL-AZRAKI and JENNIFER JEAN

Poems appear in both English and Arabic.



“Definitions” by Nadia Al-Katib and “A Shadow” by Nermeen Al Mufti are co-translated poems, which means that Amir Al-Azraki (who grew up in Iraq and speaks Arabic fluently) and I worked together to fashion these translations. He would do a raw translation, send it to me, then I would tinker with it using a variety of poetic devices employed in American English poetries. Once I’d composed a new draft, I’d send it to Amir and we’d have several conversations about the piece until we felt we had done our best by the original poem. Sometimes he’d pose questions to the poet for clarification. He’s able to do this because we’re only working with contemporary women poets writing in Arabic. This choice, and our translation work in general, is an outgrowth of the “Her Story Is” project which Amir co-founded, with playwright Anne Loyer, to bring together Iraqi and American women artists for collaboration, exchange, dialogue, and connection. To be honest, I feel honored that these “Her Story Is” writers have trusted me with their creations–especially, since I’m unfamiliar with Arabic. Always, I make every effort to represent the artist’s Truth in the best possible way.

In “Definitions” all my editorial decisions were guided by the speaker’s urge to define. The raw translation: “My tale, a maiden/ Not led by innocence” became “My story? I’m a girl/ tempted.” In the latter version it’s clear the speaker seeks to self-define and to own the effect her emotions have on her actions. Additionally: “My heart is poorly/ stored” shows a reality separate from how the speaker defines herself. But, I wanted to use the line break to emphasize the multi-layered metaphoric state of her emotions in a poem that touches on romantic love. At one point in the raw translation, the speaker shifts to third person—but, in English that shift seemed to undermine the poet’s urge to self-define, so I kept the first person point-of-view throughout: “The level of truth ascends/ As the joy of her tale/ plummets” in the raw translation became “The more truth I know/ here, the less joy// I know/ everywhere…” This change reflects the speaker’s agency and presence in her story, as well as the fact that she is the story (of love) itself: “my feet can’t run/ in your gorgeous garden—// where death/ overtakes the body of/ my story.”

When we were going over “A Shadow,” Amir explained that the “they” is the violent patriarchy and the agents of the patriarchy in Iraq. The speaker feels she needs several layers of protection from this threat. The “shadow” is a force of good which protects the self who is able to embody hope and imagination. In the end, the speaker wonders if sharing her real self, her dreaming self, will make the patriarchy see dreams–and change for the better. But, there is a real, life-threatening risk in this kind of vulnerability. I put the entire poem in the present tense to convey this tension better: “One day/ They discovered that” became “today, they/ discover.” And, I included “somedays” and “But today” to add a narrative quality which grounded the poem. Punctuation was actually a key to this piece–my additions worked with much of the raw translation so that the finished version sounded more natural in American English. But, I also made sure to keep some linguistic strangenesses: “Will they seize my shadow?” Whenever I do this, it makes me feel like translation work can stretch English because it’s very difficult to lean on expected phrases when translating. For instance, the end line highlights the difference between similar abstractions: a shadow and a dream. Using shadow in this way in English seemed unexpected at first. Then it occurred to me: often our darknesses are useful for long periods to protect us; but, if they’re used too long, and especially if they’re used when no longer necessary, then those darknesses turn into monsters. We turn our strong selves into monsters.


Nadia Al-Katib

My heart is a pear
your pocket can’t contain—
my heart is poorly

stored. It starts to rot.
My story? I’m a girl
tempted into

a wonderland.
The more truth I know
here, the less joy

I know
everywhere. Our meetings
are marked by the knife

of the past.
And, my feet can’t run
in your gorgeous garden—

where death
overtakes the body of
my story. Should I repair

your wings for you?
To fly?
Out of this love



Definitions by Nadia Al-Katib



لن يتسعَ لها جيبُكَ



سوء التخزينْ



لا تقودها البراءةُ

الى مدينةِ الملاهي

كلما إرتفعَ

منسوبُ الصدقِ

في الحكاية

غرقَ الفرحُ

كلُّ لقاءاتنا


حتى ما إنتهى منها

بمديةٍ في ظهرِ الحكايةِ

عندما لا تهرولُ قدمي

في باحةِ دربِكَ


أنَّ الموتَ

تسلقَ جسدَ الحكاية

هل كان علي

أنْ أُرممَ جناحيكَ

لتطيرَ بهما

خارج الحكايةِ؟


Nermeen Al Mufti
A Shadow

To run is to hide
behind my shadow.

If they discover my act,
will they seize my shadow?

Somedays, I leave it at home:
Oh, my shadow!

 Hide in my eyes!
But today, they

discover I am dreaming.
They threaten

to gouge out my eyes…
Would they do that?

They’d discover me in my eyes.
Or they would think

I am a dream.


A Shadow by Nermeen Al Mufti


اختبئ في ظلّي،

و ان اكتشفوا فعلي،


سيصادرون ظلّي؟

اتركه في البيت


اختبئ في عيني،


اكتشفوا انني احلم

هددوني بقلع عيني

هل سيقلعون عيني

و هم يكتشفونني بهما

و يعتقدونني حلما؟!


Nadia Mahmood Mohammd was born in Dohuk in 1968 and has a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Tikrit in Tikrit. She is currently a teacher, poet, and short story writer. Among her works is a collection of poetry titled Al-Tawqi’: Ghaima (Signature: Cloud).

Nermeen Al Mufti was born in Kirkuk in 1959 and has a BA in Translation from Mustansiriya University, Baghdad. Her diploma in journalism is from the International School of Journalists IOJ in Budapest, Hungary; and her MA in Political Science is from Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. She is a human rights activist, journalist, poet, and short story writer. Among her works: The Diaries of the Dying Man: Short Stories, and Wounds in the Palm Tree: Stories of the Eyewitness in Iraq.

Amir Al-Azraki is an Assistant Professor of Arabic language, literature, and culture at Renison University College, at the University of Waterloo. As well, he is a Theatre of the Oppressed practitioner, a literary translator, and a playwright who works seamlessly across cultures to highlight and facilitate discourse and interchange through his work. Al-Azraki is the co-editor and co-translator of Contemporary Plays from Iraq.

Jennifer Jean is the author of a poetry collection, titled The Fool. Her honors include: a 2018 Disquiet Fellowship to write in Portugal; a 2017 “Her Story Is” residency to collaborate with Iraqi women artists in Dubai; and, a 2013 Ambassador for Peace Award for her activism in the arts. Jennifer’s work has appeared in: POETRY Magazine, Rattle Magazine, Waxwing Journal, Crab Creek Review, Consequence, The Common, and more. She is the Managing Editor of Talking Writing and the founder of Free2Write Poetry Workshops for trauma survivors.

Poetry by Iraqi Women in Translation

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