I Don’t Think There is Anything Near or Far that Could Ever Fix This: a Photo Essay by Joumana Altallal

The photographs in this essay were taken by Joumana Altallal in the cities of Najaf and Baghdad between December 2019 and January 2020. This was her first trip back to Iraq since fleeing as a toddler with her family in 1998.

“I don’t think there is anything near or far that could ever fix this.” Baghdad, January 1, 2020.
Wadi al-Salam, December 30, 2019

Buried in the family vault, in chronological order of death: Kamila, Jassem, Adib, Raouf, Nadira, Hafiz.

The color has mostly washed off the tombstone’s engraved names, so my father offers to pay someone to re-paint them. My father’s cousin responds the problem is everyone uses the cheapest paint.

Even out of this, the dead are cheated.

Wadi al-Salam, December 30, 2019

Adib leaves from Diwaniyah to Basra to pick up his college diploma, planning to return by train to Najaf to meet his sister Nahda at Wadi al-Salam. At the last moment, he decides to take a taxi.

Nahda waits and waits, calls without an answer. It is seven days after her wedding. This is the first time she has gone to sleep before Adib returns home.

Al Najaf International Airport, January 4, 2020, seven hours after the assassination of Soleimani.

My father flees to Kuwait to escape conscription when he receives a call telling him Adib has died. He does not yet know that this is the beginning of a long string of deaths that will reinforce his entrapment. Raouf: Kuwait. Nadira: Lebanon. Hafiz: United States.

Kadhimiya, Baghdad, January 1, 2020: My birth home.

In 1997, my mother rushes through the streets of Kadhimiya in her nightgown, clutching my infant body to her chest. The top of a plastic toy lodged in my throat. Squeaks of almost-breath. The neighbor’s son—a young Iraqi soldier— happens to be home and sees my reddening face. He reaches inside to gag me. In this home, I die and am brought to life. In the back of my mother’s closet in a three-inch resealable bag is the chewed plastic toy. How far we carry a thing so that we may forget it.

Joumana Altallal is a Zell Fellow in Poetry at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. She works with Citywide Poets to lead a weekly after-school poetry program for high school students in Metro-Detroit. Her work appears in Glass Poetry, Mud Season Review, Bayou Magazine, and Rusted Radishes, among others. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference, Napa Valley Writer’s Conference, and the Radius for Arab American Writers. You can find Joumana on Twitter: @joualt.

Categorized as Issue Two