Sajjad Jawad, Poet from Iraq

Motaz, be patient because Iraq is our Iraq

And we love it in a way that our enemy sees as a strange love

My right hand will forget me if I forget the waters of the Tigris

or a date palm planted on infertile land.

From Sajjad Jawad, “Far or Close,” translated into English by the author

Sajjad Jawad, his wife, Methal, and their two boys, arrived in Indianapolis as Iraqi refugees in 2010. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) coordinated their move to the United States. After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Mr. Jawad worked with the U.S. National Iraqi Assistance Group, a civil affairs division of the U.S. military, and then with the U.S. Institute of Peace, where he was senior training program specialist assigned to train Iraqi officials in conflict management skills. Because of his work, he said, “I was granted the special immigrant visa to travel to the United States.”

The Tigris River, here traveling through Baghdad, figures prominently in the history of human civilization. Credit: Dominique A. Pineiro, Wiki Commons.

Sajjad Jawad grew up in a family of readers and writers. His uncle is Abdel Khaliq Al Rikabi, an award-winning novelist who wrote The Filter and The Seventh Day of Creation, among other works. Jawad, who attended the University of Baghdad, drank from the same well of contemporary Arabic literature. He is not a professional writer, but an amateur in the best sense. He loves the written word and much of his life has been devoted to translating people’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences into different idioms and languages.

Sajjad Jawad used those skills to guide others through the many levels of American bureaucracy essential to creating a new life in the United States. From the moment he arrived in Indianapolis, “I volunteered to help people at the Families and Social Services Administration office, schools, banks,  hospitals, courts, and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles,” he explained. “In one case, I stayed with another Iraqi in the emergency room from 3 PM until 7 AM next day.” He also helped others figure out how to use Individual Development Accounts, which are designed to assist people with low incomes save money for a home purchase or education. That’s how his own family became home owners.

Methal and Sajjad Jawad purchased their first home in Indianapolis in 2012. In 2015, they became U.S. citizens. Credit: Sajjad Jawad.

Sajjad Jawad praises all those who smoothed his transition to the United States. “Indianapolis warmly welcomed my family and me.” A local mosque gave them two cars–he won’t name the mosque out of respect for their desire to remain anonymous. One of his son’s teachers at Nora Elementary School also donated a used car for the family’s use.

His volunteering eventually led to paid employment at Catholic Charities Indianapolis Refugee and Immigrant Services, one of the community partners of Arab Indianapolis. Sajjad Jawad’s first job was to continue the kind of work he did as a volunteer. “In March 2012,” he said, “I became the Manager of Employment Services.” Then, three years later, he was named supervisor of employment services.

Ahmed, Sajjad, and Mohammed Jawad enjoy an Iraqi dinner in Detroit’s Ishtar Restaurant. Credit: Sajjad Jawad.

His wife, Methal, is still learning English, but she is such a hard worker that, even without language proficiency, she has become the kitchen manager at a local Chick-Fil-A. She and Sajjad are proud of their two boys, Mohammed and Ahmed, both of whom have been educated in Indianapolis.

His only regret about living in the Circle City is the relative dearth of Iraqi-style Arab food. He particularly misses Iraqi preparations of shawarma, kebab, tikka (which other Arabs sometimes call shish taouk) and Quzi, often known as the Iraqi national dish. He travels to Detroit to eat at his favorite Iraqi restaurant.

He also misses the land of his birth and his extended family members who live in Iraq. His poem, “Far or Close” speaks of how they remain close to his heart even as they are physically far away. In 2018 he displayed this Arabic poem and its English translation on Indianapolis’ Monument Circle as part of a Community Competition to Prevent Islamophobia. The poem is addressed to two of his nephews and his niece, who is all grown up now–she is a physician and a mother. “Far or Close” is full of longing but it is also a sweet, intimate embrace of a country often associated with violence and destruction rather than the life-giving properties of its rivers and its people.

Brick Street Poetry curated the “Muslim Voices in Indianapolis” public poetry exhibit on Monument Circle in 2018 in which Sajjad Jawad’s “Far or Close” appeared. Credit: Helen Townsend.

%d bloggers like this: