Poet and translator Zêdan Xelef, 28, stands for a portrait outside the Persian Center in Berkeley, on March 5, 2023. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)
The first time Zêdan Xelef saw United States soldiers, they were 8 years old. It was 2003 – the start of the U.S. war in Iraq.
“We would run behind their tanks and they would give us cookies and things like that. But I also knew they were killing other people elsewhere,” said Xelef.
Xelef is from the Sinjar District in Iraq, and they’re Êzîdî, one of the country’s religious and ethnic minorities. Once the war began, life destabilized in their region. They describe it as more of a civil war. They say fighting broke out between Muslims and Êzîdîs in their village and their family was forced to move to a Êzîdî-only village.
“For us, the terrorist attacks and the kidnappings were very common,” said Xelef.
But at a poetry reading earlier this month in Berkeley, a collective gathered to remember a different kind of loss – one to the memory and culture of Iraq.
The bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street
On March 5, 2007, a car bomb exploded on Baghdad’s historic Al-Mutanabbi Street, known as the street of the booksellers. Over 30 people were killed and more than 100 were injured. The reverberations rang around the world.
Beau Beausoleil, a former bookseller and poet based in San Francisco, remembers the day.
“If I was an Iraqi, that's where my bookstore would've been. And as a poet, that would be my cultural community that had been attacked,” said Beausoleil.
In the days after the attack, Beausoleil organized a literary response. It took the form of an anthology of prose and poetry commemorating and reflecting on the tragedy.
“I like to say that wherever someone sits down and picks up a book to read or sits and begins to write towards the truth, it is there that Al-Mutanabbi Street starts,” said Beausoleil.
The reading at the Persian Center in Berkeley was one of more than 15 taking place on that day worldwide commemorating the attack on Al-Mutanabbi Street.
“This was more than just a car bombing in a place where we were involved in a war," said Persis Karim, a member of the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here collective, who helped organize the reading in Berkeley. "It was an attack on culture, an attack on ideas, an attack on freedom of speech, and it represented the sort of the worst aspects of what happens in war and occupation and invasions by other countries.”
Reflecting on the war
In front of an audience of few more than two dozen, Xelef recited a song their grandmother, who was a farmer, used to sing before going out to harvest in the fields. Xelef sang the brief verses, almost like a prayer, in their native tongue, Kurmanji, a northern dialect of Kurdish.
“The song is about one morning when the villagers go to harvest from the land. It’s springtime and there is fog. The villagers are like happy animals because of the green pastures, and the song depicts a scenery of dancing animals like deers and goats,” explained Xelef.
As Xelef got older, memories like these became increasingly under attack. In 2007, a car bomb destroyed an Êzîdî oral history archive, containing recordings of the very songs their grandmother would sing.
Xelef was among the many Êzîdîs who fled to the slopes of nearby Mount Sinjar looking for safety from ISIS.
“I was trapped on the mountain because the entire region was controlled by ISIS. But not the mountain itself,” recalled Xelef. “We would get attacked from ISIS every day for a week. We made it to the top of the mountain and they told us that President Barack Obama announced an international coalition against ISIS, and the coalition was able to open a passage for the people who were besieged on the mountain.”
Xelef was able to make it to a refugee camp for the internally displaced on the Turkey-Syria-Iraq border, and reunite with some members of their family. But, they say, not everyone made it.
“I did lose my grandmother, but she wasn’t killed by ISIS,” they said. “She died of thirst on the mountain.”
Eventually, Xelef got a job at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. They moved to Oakland a year ago, and they are currently pursuing a master's in fine arts in poetry at San Francisco State University. They’re also working to preserve the Êzîdî oral histories like the ones their grandmother taught them.
They say they believe the war, with all of its attacks, be it the looting of Iraq's National Museum in 2003, or the destruction of the Êzîdî cassette tape archive in 2007, or the attack on the book market on Al-Mutanabbi Street, was an attack on memory and imagination.
“All of these memory deposits that were attacked — my work is concerned with memory. Memory of the land, memory of the people, and my personal memory,” said Xelef.
Rana Alshalyan, from Basra, Iraq, says the war is regrettable.
“We wish that it never happened. If we wanted change, it's supposed to be from the inside. Not from the outside. But it was hard,” said Alshalyan. “Saddam Hussein was a dictator who killed his own people. Nobody thought his regime would be changed someday. So they thought the American government might help the Iraqis. But, that was just stupid.”
As the United States marks 20 years since it began the war in Iraq, projects like the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here collective are working to identify the toll it inflicted on the country — not just in dollars or lives, but in ways harder to quantify.
Beausoleil, co-editor of Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, says the book and its annual readings are not a project of healing.
“My feeling is you cannot heal the wounds until you identify all the wounds. And all the wounds we have left on the body of Iraq both literally and metaphorically will be coming to the surface for generations,” he said.
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