Words Against Weapons. The Poetry of Kadhem Khanjar

He screams against sectarian violence and the self-proclaimed Islamic state. He mourns the victims of yet another car bomb destroyed by terrorists, and he challenges death by running on a minefield, while declaiming his verses. Kadhem Khanjar is much more than a young Iraqi poet whose works have been translated abroad. He is the creator of the Militia of Culture, a collective of Iraqi poets who are using their poetics to fight against the transmission of the deadly semantics of the militias which have consumed the lifeblood of Iraq since 2003. In a country shocked by the many armed groups that escape state control, Khanjar and his colleagues from Baylon, south of Iraq, have decided to create this militia (the only one unarmed in Iraq) to change the country using verses and rhymes. Culture against weapons. Performances on the battlefields, against violence. All with a clear mission: to make poetry known, and to use its transformative power to create something constructive out of the rubble.

Khanjar started to write during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. At that time, he was just 13 years old, and he was forced to stay at home to avoid bombs. He had just one poetry book in his home library, and after having read it several times he decided to start writing. He continued to write for the last 15 years, early developing a certain degree of poetic maturity. While following – on line – poetry and drama festivals in Western countries, he started thinking to organize his own performances. But while Western ones were held in bookstores, universities, and sometimes in small scenic squares, he decided to organize his performances and readings in the middle of a minefield, inside the carcass of car bombs used by terrorists, and in a destroyed nuclear reactor.

“I do not distinguish my poetic from my activist self. In the minefield I was no longer a poet but a potential martyr” he says, while participating in the demonstrations that gained momentum in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, in October 2019. Yet another opportunity that has shown – as the poet denounces – how easy it is to be shot dead in Iraq, often a battlefield of war or clashes by proxy, such as those between the United States and Iran.

Iraqis are shot dead in a battlefield, in a minefield or even in the street during a demonstration. And indeed, the denunciation of the perpetual state of war that ravages Iraq since, at least, 2003 becomes a sort of national manifesto, filled with bitter irony, in one of Khanjar’s most known poems:


We are the Iraqis

The American soldiers in the helicopter throw leaflets with inked arms onto our sleeping women on the rooftops

We are the Iraqis

Daily at breakfast our mothers dish up sectarianism, we chew it until we consume our mouths

We are the Iraqis

We make iron doors for our houses so we rust behind them

We are the Iraqis

We fire when one of us dies until we kill the other

We are the Iraqis

We fight with the roosters and wipe away our blood

We are the Iraqis

At the checkpoints military dogs rub their noses against our eyes

We are the Iraqis

We plant graves in front of our houses (…) [1]


Yet Khanjar does not seem to be content with a poetic denunciation, however sharp. “Normally poets write”, he says. “Iraqi poets often write about bombings and death. But for us, writing was not enough. To speak the unspeakable, we felt that we needed to exchange writing for action. We needed to face death and no longer just talk about it”, Khanjar explains, while showing his performances in Najf cemetery, the biggest necropolis in the world[2]. Here Khanjar and the other Militia poets recite their verses, lying on the ground next to the bombs, to show that death is something that all human beings share. In order to speak to death, the Militia also performs in a kind of graveyard made up of the burn out carcasses of vehicles that were used in car bombings.

“We pretend to use culture and poetry to elevate death into something better for the future of the Iraqi human beings. These cars were used to kill dozens of people. Now we want to transform it in a cultural stage”, he adds, insisting on his idea of being connected with his own reality.

“A fourth of all land mines on this planet are found in Iraqi soil. It’s unbelievable! But violence here has become so commonplace that we don’t even realize it anymore”, he says to explain why he decided to risk his life to perform in these fields. “We want poetry to enter the daily life of every Iraqi. Poetry should not mark distances between people. Poetry is not elitist; it talks to everyone. This is the reason why we also perform inside ambulances, because these vehicles are part of our daily life. They have become coffins on wheels, because they transport people who are already dead or limbs that have been torn to shreds. Iraqi ambulances have become hearses; that is one of our greatest tragedies”, adds Khanjar.

Part of his work is also available, translated, in France, UK, Netherlands, Germany, and Italy. Here, one of Khanjar’s poems has been published in In guerra non mi cercate (“Don’t look for me at war”), the first Italian anthology of Arabic poems produced in the period that follows the so-called Arab springs:


Black flags

The flags raised

on your streets and our streets

on your bridges and our bridges

on your broken eyes and our broken eyes

on your dead and our dead

the flags are our waving hatred

the flags are knives of fabric


Born in 1990, Khanjar figures as one of the youngest poets in the anthology. His link to the socio-political arena makes him an interesting figure in Europe, where the trend is to see in the poet, at least the Arab poet, a witness of societal changes, if not an engaged voice in the political arena. The originality of his writing, built on a powerful use of personification and metaphor, makes him a respected voice in the Iraqi cultural scene.



[1] https://www.poetrytranslation.org/poems/we-are-the-iraqis

[2] https://observers.france24.com/en/20150429-iraqi-poets-flirting-death-mines

The author thanks Ms. Elena Chiti, the translator of Khanjar’s works into Italian.

Cover Photo: Tapin2 / Vimeo

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