‘Citizen of this world’: Portland provides refuge for Iraqi poet

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PORTLAND — Arabic teacher Kifah Abdulla is an artist and writer who friends describe as a Renaissance man.

But creativity has provided a lot more than pleasure to the newly naturalized U.S. citizen.

Abdulla credits his imagination with helping him survive eight years as a prisoner of war in Iran during the Iraq-Iran War.

In “Dead Still Dream,” an Arabic and English book of poetry that Abdulla published this spring, he tells the story of his years as a soldier and prisoner through the “dreams” he created in his imagination to help sustain him during that period.

In 1980, fresh from earning a degree in biology from the University of Baghdad, Abdulla was captured by Iranian soldiers during a mandatory term of military service. His first prison, an indoor stadium, had no windows, little food and only a few toilets for thousands of people.

“It was horrible,” Abdulla said on a crisp fall day in Portland, the city he calls “my place” and whose residents he calls “my people.”

“The prison was a tiny place. We couldn’t clean ourselves. Every day I find almost 90 bugs in my shirts and trousers. We lived in a horrible situation, almost like we were dying every day and every night. This is where the story started for my imagination, my dream. It was a way for me to survive,” he said.

In the book, Abdulla describes the world he created in his imagination: “I dreamt of a small window … Nesting in it are my memories / I cultivate in it lush dreams.”

To give him hope, Abdulla conjured up a world with trees, the sky and colors, a place where he could spend time with loved ones and feel happy and at peace. In reality, he and his fellow POWs constantly were sick from tainted food and overflowing toilets. They were tortured for information about the Ba’ath regime, endured constant attempts at brainwashing, and many died.

Abdulla’s poetry appears in Arabic on the left hand pages of the book opposite an English translation by Portland resident Brook DeLorme. DeLorme, owner of an organic clothing company in Portland, started taking Arabic lessons in 2013 from Abdulla, who teaches privately and at the Language Exchange in Portland. Abdulla asked DeLorme to translate his poetry a year later.

“These poetry translations began as language lessons and resulted in this book,” DeLorme writes in the foreword. “Kifah’s life story, which is the subject matter of these poems, is compelling and challenging, frightening and inspiring.”

Abdulla chose to publish the book so others could read his story and DeLorme’s translation. He also wanted to share the “beautiful” Arabic language, “a language of art, literature, music, philosophy and love that existed before the politics and is very different from the politics,” he said. “I hope to be the ambassador of the Arabic language in Maine.”

To that end, he and DeLorme have an Arabic-English website, arabiclanguage.me, for people interesting in learning Arabic. They also host a 3 p.m. gathering every other Tuesday at Dobra Tea in Portland for anyone who wants to speak or learn the language. The two just finished co-writing “Mountains Without Peaks,” a book in prose about Abdulla’s life in Baghdad before the war and his time in the military before his capture by Iran.

Abdulla and DeLorme seek to promote love, freedom and peace, themes they write about on their dual-language website. Abdulla’s colorful abstract paintings and his clay and wire sculptures, which have received funding from the Maine Arts Commission and have been shown in several exhibits in southern Maine, also celebrate these values. So do the live poetry readings he performs to the accompaniment of musicians.

He has no interest in promoting any group, country, region or religion.

“I don’t want to represent Arabs as a group. I don’t want to represent anything to do with beliefs. As the poets John Keats and Rumi said, my religion is love,” he said. “When people ask me where I’m from, I say, ‘I’m from this planet. I’m a citizen of this world. The U.S. Constitution is my belief. That is what’s important for me. I respect all people’s beliefs.”

After his release from prison camp, Abdulla returned to Baghdad to discover he was a persona non grata. Many Iraqis suspected the POWs of being brainwashed by Iran, he said. Tired of having to hide his status as a former POW, Abdulla left Iraq and spent nearly two decades of his life as a refugee, first in Jordan and then in the Netherlands. In 2011, Abdulla moved to Portland to be close to his two sons, who had moved here with his ex-wife. On Sept. 16, he officially became a U.S. citizen.

“To become a U.S. citizen – that was a great event in my life. For years I felt I was a burden as a refugee. After the ceremony, I felt light. I had changed my title. I am not a refugee now. Now I feel free,” he said.

On Nov. 8 at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Abdulla, age 60, voted for the first time in his life.

Freelance writer Wendy Keeler lives in Cape Elizabeth.

Former prisoner of war Kifah Abdulla in Portland with his Arabic and English book of poetry, “Dead Still Dream.” (Courtesy Kyle Dubai)