The Divine Feminine: Iraqi poet hopes to raise awareness about women's rights through Iraq's goddess

The Divine Feminine: Iraqi poet hopes to raise awareness about women's rights through Iraq's goddess
The New Arab Meets: Tamara Albanna to talk more about her artistry, her deep connection to a homeland she barely knows and her hopes of keeping Inanna's spirit alive.
6 min read
09 January, 2020
Tamara's writing embraces spirituality beyond the Islamic religion of her familial background [Tamara Albanna]
Watching an Arabic channel on television at her home in Vienna, 40-year-old Baghdad-born Tamara Albanna welled up with tears when she saw the protests unfold on the streets of Tahrir Square.

During her last visit in 2002 – her only visit as an adult to her motherland – Albanna's heart for the country thrust her into a connection deeper than she'd ever known.

Her mission now is to encourage her sisters, both in and out of Iraq, to keep the spirit of Inanna – an ancient Iraqi goddess – alive and to remember where they came from.

The story of Iraq's ancient goddess and her descent into hell is a vibrant tale of fierce feminism. The Sumerians called her Inanna and the Akaddians called her Ishtar. For Albanna, a poet, author and artist, Inanna's story is a source of inspiration.

In an anthology called, Jesus Muhammed and the Goddess, Albanna wrote, "When I met Innana (Ishtar) I was enthralled. I couldn't get enough of her story and what she represented. After weeks of reading about her, studying her, and striving to understand her... I abandoned the work I was doing – statistic gathering to prove that women were victims of patriarchy and male aggression – and instead, focused on her message, and the message of the Divine Feminine."

Albanna's writing embraces spirituality beyond the Islamic religion of her familial background.

Her mission now is to encourage her sisters both in and out of Iraq to keep the spirit of Inanna, an ancient Iraqi goddess, alive and remember from where they came from

The New Arab speaks to Albanna about her work, her artistry and how she feels deeply connected to a homeland she barely knows.

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Her family fled Iraq when she was just a toddler in the early 1980s, shortly after Saddam Hussein's rise to power in 1979.

They first travelled to Kuwait, then to England, Canada and finally settled in Los Angeles.

Her father was a wanted man she tells The New Arab: "My dad was recruited by the secret police, the Mukhābarāt... You don't say no to Saddam, but because we came from a Shia background and we know that Saddam played [on] the sectarian issue very strongly, my grandfather used that to his advantage."

While her grandfather found excuses to pry his only son away from training and fighting in Iraq, the secret police and international authorities followed them and their family's every move.

Her father "did not feel safe," she says. "The consulate [in Los Angeles] informed my dad that they had an informant and knew who he was. It shaped the trajectory of our lives," she explained.

They were refugees. But even as a young girl, Albanna knew her "heart was elsewhere."

"I felt like I was straddling cultures. We spoke the language at home. I maintained a connection."

Her father instilled the love of their country and she was exposed to poetry, art and Iraqi music growing up. But it wasn't always easy, she explains. Her mother clung to religion and forced her to attend the mosque where she was frequently kicked out for questioning religious authorities. Her father turned to drinking and women as a coping mechanism for the land they lost.

But still, she felt a closeness to the spirit of belief that came with her family when they fled.

"As difficult as my relationship with Islam was growing up, I maintained the idea or the understanding that God is not gendered, for me that was always an opening."

Albanna went onto to University in Toronto, married an Iraqi man and give birth to two sons. But throughout her journey, her steadfast interest and desire to connect with her 'home,' was radically present.

She visited Baghdad in 2002, and she anticipated a war coming, but for the first time in years Albanna also felt
connected to herself and a community.

"I feel as though I carry it with me. It's with me all the time," she said. "People sound like me, they are me."

The visit inspired her poetry, which she published for the first time two years ago, in a book entitled, As I Lay By The Tigris and Weep.

She wrote, "My Motherland is in my blood
It courses through my veins,

When will I see you again,
Oh beloved land of my ancestors?

Will you ever stop bleeding?"

Her longing for Iraq became a call to participate in restoration efforts. After her visit, Albanna and her family moved to Dubai to situate themselves close enough to travel in and out of Baghdad. She taught English at the American University and connected with the Iraqi diaspora and women inside the country who were creating aid coalitions to help rebuild the country after the 2003 US invasion.

But as time went on and war broke out again in 2006 under US occupation, going back to Iraq became more
difficult and all her connections, plans and hopes seemed to fall apart.

She didn't go back, she couldn't. With her second child on the way, Albanna left for Vienna, where her husband's family lived and restarted there.

Still, the pride of Iraq stayed with her and she thrust herself into understanding the country and its ancient history.

Albanna said she saw a CNN report by Arwa Damon about women who were raped and impregnated by al-Qaeda fighters. "What the hell was happening to my people?" What the hell was happening to our women and girls?" she said.

The story ignited a passion in her. "Women have been fighting for their rights, since the monarchy, since the British
occupied it. Iraqi women are not wallflowers, they're not like that, we're not built like that."

As she continued to study, she stumbled onto stories of Inanna and the Sumerian people. "That was the
catalyst – this country is so rich with history and culture, they call it the beginning of civilisation.

"Now I call it the land of the goddess because I know there was a deep goddess culture there. I went into the
mythology, the underworld and it transformed my world view to the point of feeling this deep connection."

She writes poetry and anthologies exploring the stories of the earliest groups of people in Iraq, releasing her most
recent work Rosewater in 2019.

Iraqi women are not wallflowers, they're not like that, we're not built like that

Albanna educates others on the spirit of the goddesses and empowers other women through those stories.

Watching the protests in Tahrir Square gives her hope. "I see the spirit of the goddess working through these women, right now. I do not understand where they get their resilience from."

For Albanna, she believes something more is going on and the women who keep going out into the streets amid
threats of death, kidnapping and violence are giving her a sense of aliveness and solidarity.

She believes the role of women is vital to Iraq's future, peace and opportunity. But she also says they cannot forget where they came from and hopes her work and her connections will help younger women stay steady in the fight for their rights.

Albanna still dreams of going back to her homeland and being part of its feminist future. She emphasises that her two sons learn Arabic and hold onto their heritage, but says her own heart longs to touch the ground she was born on once again.

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