Vivid Language from Iraq's Constitution Final results are still awaited a week after Iraqis voted in a referendum on the constitution. Most observers assume the document was approved. The preamble to the constitution contains language that is often stirring. Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi-born poet and filmmaker living in New York, discusses the preamble with Debbie Elliott.

Vivid Language from Iraq's Constitution

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Iraqis are still awaiting the results of their vote last week on a new constitution. It's believed to have passed, but officials are investigating reports of irregularities and suspicious early vote counts, 99 percent in favor of the document in some districts. Leading up to the referendum, much was said about the constitution's controversial articles on federalism and power sharing and the rights of women. We thought we'd take another look, though, at the preamble. Preambles assert the basic principles of the society. The language of the Iraqi preamble struck us as eloquent, so we decided to take a closer look with Sinan Antoon. He's an Iraqi poet, novelist and filmmaker who currently teaches at New York University.

Welcome to the program, sir.

Mr. SINAN ANTOON (New York University): Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: Do you have a copy of the English version of the preamble in front of you?

Mr. ANTOON: I have one, yes, that's translated by the Associated Press.

ELLIOTT: Would you mind reading me the first paragraph?

Mr. ANTOON: `We, the sons of Mesopotamia, land of the prophets, resting place of the holy imams, the leaders of civilization and the creators of the alphabet, the table of arithmetic on our land. The first law put in place by mankind was written. In our nation, the most noble era of justice in the politics of nations was laid down. On our soil, the followers of the prophet and the saints prayed, the philosophers and the scientists theorized and the writers and poets created.'

ELLIOTT: These words sound quite poetic in English. I'm wondering how they sound in Arabic.

Mr. ANTOON: To my ear, they are poetic, but the thing is to me personally I'm not a nationalist, and I grew up in Iraq where, you know, this very same language with a few tweaks was used by Saddam and his propaganda to kind of project this nationalist Baathist image. So this is where it's problematic. But being a product of that culture and knowing its history, which is important not just for Iraqis but for humanity, I mean, there is something to be said without cultural superiority, that that land did happen to produce, you know, the first major epic Gilgamesh from which big segments in the Old Testament are inspired by that, and it did produce important contributions to humanity.

ELLIOTT: Later, it also seems a little dark. It refers to the pains of sectarian oppression, the tragedies of Iraq's martyrs, the ravage of the holy cities, the grief of mass graves. What's the overall tone as Iraqis read that part?

Mr. ANTOON: That's all legitimate. Of course, there have been terrible tragedies and whatnot, but I do not understand why that should be in the preamble. I mean, why specify all these massacres and whatnot in a constitution that's trying to bring the nation together and supposedly, supposedly, take it away from the sectarianism that Saddam reinforced? But I must say here that it's important for us to understand that the way politics has been organized since the United States occupied Iraq reinforce sectarianism because in a way if you remember that Governing Council that existed for a while, the way its members were chosen was according to their sect. They're putting next to every person's name Sunni, Shiite or whatnot and, hence, sectarianism was really institutionalized to that process and you see it here in the draft of the constitution.

ELLIOTT: Is there anything in here that clues you to think that maybe this document had not been written entirely by Iraqis?

Mr. ANTOON: Yes. What really raised the red flag for me was the article about how private property is sacrosanct. Private property is something that's acceptable, but the word sacrosanct, why all this emphasis on private property? Why not the rights of the individual are sacrosanct? And we must remember that one of the first laws that Bremer promulgated when he was the leader of the Iraq...

ELLIOTT: You're talking about Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority there.

Mr. ANTOON: Yes. One of the first laws that he promulgated was to open the country entirely for foreign investment and allow foreign companies to reinvest zero inside the country, meaning take all of the profit outside. So this emphasis that is sacrosanct is really telling, I think.

ELLIOTT: Sinan Antoon, a poet, novelist and filmmaker, was born in Iraq. He's currently at New York University.

Thank you for speaking with us, sir.

Mr. ANTOON: Thank you so much.

ELLIOTT: You can get an in-depth look at the Iraqi constitution at our Web site, npr.org.

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