Questions: Leilah Nadir. Additional questions: James Byrne.
Born near Basra, Iraq, in 1934, Saadi Youssef started writing poetry at the age of 17. Subsequently he has published over 30 collections of poetry, a volume of short stories, two novels, several essays, and four volumes of his collected works. Twice exiled from Iraq, he has lived in many countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, including Syria, Lebanon and Paris. He has translated major international poets from English into Arabic, including Walt Whitman
, C P Cavafy, Federico Garcia Lorca and Vasco Popa. His own poetry has been translated into several languages. Without an Alphabet, Without a Face (Graywolf Press, 2002) was translated by the Libyan/American poet Khaled Mattawa and won the 2003 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. Saadi settled in the UK in 1999.
LEILAH NADIR: Generally, there wasn’t much Western interest in Iraq after the first Gulf war, but since the invasion in March 2003, Iraq hasn’t been out of the news for a day. Can you remember how you felt as an Iraqi in exile on March 20th, 2003?
SAADI YOUSSEF: I happened to be in Amsterdam that day, the day the bombing of Baghdad began. I remember that my reaction was shock, I was half-paralysed for hours, I couldn’t move, make my legs move. I knew that terrible times were ahead for Iraq. When a country is subjected to occupation by massive force, the consequences are very painful and dire for the people for a long long time. It will take decades to get out of this mess, this pit.
For half a century, the Iraqi people have been submitted to suffering and killings. You know, it took half a century to get the British out of Iraq in 1958. It will take another half century to get the Americans out. It is a wild country even now. I saw a film recently, a Turkish film about Iraq, the title translates as "The Valley of the Wolves" and it is about Turkish Special Forces in Northern Iraq who are arrested in Kurdistan. It is truly a 'valley of the wolves.'
How do the two occupations of Iraq compare?
In both cases there was an initial first shock, everyone is stunned. After that, in a very very short time, there were demonstrations in Baghdad demanding a withdrawal of the occupation.
It was the same after the British occupation. At first it was quiet, nobody moved, then in 1920, there was a revolution. It takes time for a nation that experiences political occupation to resist. Iraqis don’t like people to be ruling them.
At the beginning of the current occupation sections of the political parties struck a deal with the Americans. But now there are cracks in the wall and the opposition parties are openly stating anti-occupation positions. The Shia parties signed a contract with the Americans and British. They feel they are right to have power because they are the majority of the population and they have been persecuted. They have a right to have a say in politics. They are a major force in the parliament. But even now many MPs are opposing the occupation. This is a new factor, voicing their opposition. The US has even been from time to time raiding the offices of the parties of their former allies.
The US is obviously a major player. They have all the threads of politics in their hands. Iraqi people know that well, it is very clear. The politics on the surface mean nothing.
Do you plan to go back to Iraq?
I will never go back. I was invited to go with a private television team. They were ready to go with me across the border, but I declared my position live in an interview on Syrian television that I would not go. My return at that time would have been highly symbolic and would show that I was siding with what was going on there. It was a moral decision connected to a deeper principle in Iraqi culture.
There is a very important tradition in Iraq of the poet as a symbol. For example, Marouf Al Rusafi was a poet who was seen by the Iraqi people as a national hero, because he was publicly against the British-imposed regime, against the monarchy. He went from being a member of parliament to a very poor man, selling cigarettes in Fallouja, being in need, without privileges. There is also the nationalist poet Mohamed Mahdi Al-Jawahiri who died ten years ago in Damascus but who lived in Karradah in Baghdad. I want to continue this great heritage even now.
There is a saying in Arabic that is often said in reference to falling in love, but I think of it when I think of going back to Iraq: The first is like sugar, the second like torture and the third will take you to the cemetery. Really when I first returned to Iraq in 1959, it was sweet, like sugar, everything was fine, the ‘58 revolution had made everyone optimistic and I had a good job. Then in 1972, I went back and the first months and the first year was very good, but slowly things started changing until it became like torture. Now it will certainly put me in the grave if I go back.
JAMES BYRNE: Now that you live in England, does it give your writing a sense of freedom?
For sure! It gives me a real sense of freedom. I can express myself freely, in an unconditional atmosphere of liberty. For the first time in my life I’m enjoying the peace of mind that derives from personal security. No more fear!
LEILAH NADIR: Will you live in London for the rest of your life?
Yes, I like London. I have lived here for seven years. For the first time in my life nobody is interfering; I think freely, write freely, without hesitation.
What does censorship do to your creative process of writing?
I left Iraq for freedom of the mind and I paid heavily for that. In the long run, that is the way of the artist. With all my moving around, it has been important, I started changing my way of writing. I was in Algeria in 1964, during their newly gained independence. The scene, my contact with people, affected my poetry in a very positive way. French people were very important there, and so when I went to Paris later, I was very involved in the cultural life.
At first it was good in France. But then I had to go to the French police about my resident documents and they said that other Iraqis were co-operating with them. That they were a major power and 'we have to know what is going on in the Iraqi community. It benefits us both, it is an exchange'. They wanted me to give them information. That is why I had to leave France in the end.
You would stop writing once you would make a deal like that. You would not be free. Freedom of expression is in a direct clash with authority. But here in England you can say what you like, you can go to demonstrations. There is a margin, a great margin. For example, twice I have been invited to Literature Festival at London’s the South Bank. I was reading my poem, America, America, and was applauded by the people. They paid for their tickets. This was an amazing experience for me.
JAMES BYRNE: America, America is an incredible message to the war machine. Ultimately in the poem nature is transformed by war into a series of apocalyptic images; the date palm ‘falls black’ in your hand, ‘trees die pummelled’ and Iraq is a land waiting to be flooded. Despite this there is a subtle implication in the poem that military colonization can do its worst but that history and culture preserve the land. How do you see the future for Iraq post-occupation?
This poem in particular addresses the American people, referring to many aspects of American culture, even using the Blues to appeal. In the meantime the poem gives in detail the horrors of war.
A nation as Iraq, with a civilization of thousands of years, has the right to rely on its history, in this awful moment. It’s a kind of witchcraft!
What would you consider to be the level of responsibility involved for western poets writing about the 'war on terror'?
If western poets are so keen on writing about the 'war on terror', let them write about all that is terrorizing our planet: the gun boat, the aircraft carrier diplomacy, the civilian’s shooting spree, the blunder of a poor nations wealth…terror has many headgears, it is not only turbaned!
LEILAH NADIR: There was much talk of giving freedom to Iraqis through the invasion, after living under tyranny for so long. What do you think of freedom in Iraq now?
There is empty freedom in Iraq. There is no authority now, no government. The papers are censored: it is the Bullet-in-the-Head kind of censorship. Under Saddam there was at least a minimum level of individual security, but now there is nothing.
How connected do you feel to Iraq after being away for so long?
I follow the news, but then I have to stop. I get terrible nightmares, my nerves get on edge. It prevented me from writing, reading, sleeping, working, so I stopped. But from the artistic stance what Iraq means to me now, from about a decade ago until now, is that I am connected with scenes from my childhood. Scenes, nature, people, it was an innocent period, full of colour, magic and it is very vivid. I consider this a treasure, I can use it, I can draw on it, refer to it in my poetry.
JAMES BYRNE: You have spoken about the imbalance nostalgia can bring to poetry and of how the best poets control their experiences. Can nostalgia be seen as a limiting influence?
What I meant by nostalgia is its destructive impact when it turns as a kind of sickness. The artist is a creator, so he has to enjoy a full control on his world, in order to reshape it and change it. As for me, it was necessary to deal with nostalgia in a rational way. Dismiss most of it, and make use of the promising and encouraging in it, as childhood scenes.
LEILAH NADIR: Are you able to keep in contact with your family in Iraq?
My family are still there, in Basra and Baghdad. Lots of them. Until the Fall of Saddam, no contact, no nothing. Then after the war they started to email and phone and send photographs of their children and give news.
JAMES BYRNE: Like many Iraqi intellectuals and poets you have been persecuted for your beliefs and have spent time in various Ba'athist prisons. How difficult has it been to separate your artistic and political commitments?
Even if the separation of the artistic and the political seems impossible due to entangled links and approaches, one has to do it in a way or another. Art is more strategic and moral than politics which tilts always towards the tactical and the immoral
In his introduction to Without an Alphabet, Without a Face, Khaled Mattawa mentions your greatest contribution to contemporary Arabic poetry as preserving the 'dignity of personal experience'. Some of the most powerful poems in this collection were written during the Israeli siege of Lebanon and transcend individual witness to form an extension of the real. Days of June for example assumes a political standpoint if we read it in the context of you travelling with Palestinian fighters at the time. How difficult was it to write these poems whilst honouring the real or the 'dignity' of the personal?
Personal experience is a must, for me, in writing poetry. Direct experience is the primary condition to obtain the right of writing your poem.
In Beirut 1982, when the city was under siege, I tried to have my material directly from the dangerous spots. During the first days of the siege, starting with the 4th June, I began to write personal poems. The first raid came upon the Sport Centre while I was writing a poem tracing the Virgin Mary in the poetry of Rilke. The transformations of Mary started taking place reaching her last transfiguration in the poem entitled Mary Comes, which I wrote on the 25th of July.
During the raids where did you pick up the material of the poem?
I used to be constantly on the move—before the air raids reached their barbaric intensity—visiting nearby positions, talking to fighters, going to risky spots, spending the night at times with young fighters in dark shelters, turning on broadcasting sets, straining my ears for news from here and there, I used to feel that my life was gushing forth in such a way that if death arrived it would be a crowning. The artist reveals his reality, purifies it and picks it out. He raises his very reality into a beacon on mountaintop.
LEILAH NADIR: You spent time in Syria, what was the climate there like for a writer?
Syria, nowadays, is the only Arab country that doesn’t censor secular books. It’s always been like that because the Ba'ath Party in Syria is secular and is always facing Islamic fundamentalists as their enemies. It is a more secular culture. You can publish anything in Syria. Five volumes of poetry, of my complete work were published in Syria. And my recent poems, The Last Communist Goes to Paradise. But it is very important to me that at last a collection of my work is available in English and to have an English readership.