The Yellow Palm
by Robert Minhinnick
The Yellow Palm
There's no sign of this poem in my notebooks. I wrote it in my head and put it straight on to a computer.
'The Yellow Palm is a ballad with a deliberately repetitive refrain - "As I made my way down Palestine Street'. In a way it's a song lyric and I've used it a good deal in my public readings. People react well to its rhythm and rhymes.
'The Yellow Palm' is about events in Baghdad. I was in Iraq in September, 1998 to make a film about the use of uranium in warfare, and its effect on uranium miners, solders and civilians. The project involved travelling all over the UK, USA, and Iraq.
I remember one interviewee telling me about the hundreds of types of palm tree found in Baghdad, and the effect of traffic pollution and warfare on those trees.
Palms are hugely important in Iraq as a source of food. It was common to see great mounds of dates in the city, harvested from the palms. And as Baghdad has extremely hot summers, the temperature sometimes reaching above 50 degrees Celsius, trees are vital for shade and cooling the air.
'Palestine Street' (I use the English name, not the Arabic) is a major thoroughfare in Baghdad. The Tigris is the great river that runs through the city. A 'muezzin' is responsible for calling people to prayer at a mosque, sometimes very early in the morning.
I've heard muezzins' voices in several cities, such as Baghdad, Amman and Tirana, and always been struck by their plaintive quality. Of course, we also hear such voices in UK cities. 'Blood on the walls' of the mosque refers to a strange story I heard in Baghdad of invaders of the city who spoke 'a mountain language' (which means a 'primitive' language) murdering one of the boys who helped the muezzin and writing words in his blood on the mosque walls.
The reference to 'cruise missiles' harks back to the first Gulf War in 1991, known to Iraqis as 'the Mother of all Wars' when Baghdad was bombed by the USA and UK. In 1998 I visited the 'Museum of the Mother of All Wars', which was specially opened for our film team. I subsequently wrote about the museum in my book of poems, 'After the Hurricane'. 'Salaams' are greetings.
The songlike structure of 'The Yellow Palm' owes much to traditional ballads, also to poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, WH Auden and Charles Causley, and to song writers like Bob Dylan who took English and Scottish ballad structures and gave them fresh relevance.
That visit to Iraq continues to influence my writing a good deal. In 2010 I publish my first collection of short stories, 'In Goliath's Country' (Seren). It contains 'In those days there were lions in Iraq' and 'El Aziz: some pages from his notebooks', both of which are partly set in Baghdad and Babylon.
In 2008 I published the collection of poems, 'King Driftwood' (Carcanet). In that book, 'The Yellow Palm' is combined with other Iraq lyrics in the long poem, 'An Opera in Baghdad', which is written for performance.