By Jonathan Maunder
Saadi Youssef is one of Iraq’s most well known poets and his work is renowned throughout the Middle East and beyond. He has translated numerous writers into Arabic including George Orwell, Federico Garcia Lorca and Walt Whitman. He fled Iraq in 1979 after Saddam Hussein tightened his hold on power, and lived subsequently in numerous countries. He now lives just outside London.
With current events in Lebanon in mind, when we met I began by asking Saadi about his time in Beirut during the first Israeli invasion in 1982. “I was there for three months of the siege. In that situation you can’t be safe for a moment, there is constant fear. One time I was walking on the street and a mortar bomb landed fifty yards from me. The writers and poets at the time played a very important role. There were many journals, which would publish work by the poets in Beirut; these would be sent out to those on the front line resisting Israel. They were very influential in this sense. The Lebanese Communist Party printed a daily newspaper, and during the siege many poets played a crucial role in maintaining it, as many of the journalists were out fighting. Writing poetry was a way of maintaining hope at a time of great horror”. How does he view the current Israeli offensive? “I think that what is going on at the moment is similar to what happened in 1918 after WW1 and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Then the whole region was redrawn and colonized by the west. Today I think we are seeing something similar, an attempt to re-colonies the region. It’s not only the US but the Europeans too. The French could be going back into Lebanon just as they did in 1918!”
Saadi started writing poetry in his late teens. I ask what caused him to start writing. “People, especially poor people in Iraq, appreciate poetry. It started for me as a political expression but after a while poetry reaches a kind of independence of artistic form. You can’t sacrifice art to politics”. The natural environment of southern Iraq - its date palms, birds, marshes - is a major influence on Saadi’s poetry, but he finds it hard to separate it from political realities, “I can be observing a tree, and watch how it is blown by the wind, and how it looks, but then I can hear the sound of war planes overhead. I believe nature repairs what war does to you. So it is hard to separate out my poetry and politics. On a surface level they are separate. But I think in a deeper sense they are very interwoven. Personal experience is the normal way of beginning any work of art”.
“When I write poetry sometimes it can mean meditating on an idea for a few days and then writing, or it can be writing first and then developing it. People need poetry; it helps people who maybe cannot get to a theatre or cinema to get in touch with an artistic form. Poetry is accessible”. Why does he think poetry is so central to Middle Eastern culture? “The oral tradition is very important. Partly this stems from censorship. With poetry, you can smuggle it across borders. The first thing to be searched for at Arab airports is not drugs or guns, but books! Novels can be censored easily, but poetry stays in the head. People respect poets more than politicians, who are usually corrupt”.
We talk about his life in Iraq. “When I was in secondary school in Basra in the 1940s around a third of the students in my class were Jewish. Later, when Israel was created in 1948, the Israeli’s did a deal with the Iraqi government to transfer the Iraqi Jews to Israel. Half a million were transferred. The Iraqi government got a £5 commission for every ticket they sold to an Iraqi Jew to go to Israel. Today the young generation in Israel aren’t taught about their roots in the Arab world, even though their grandparents may have come from there”.
“I went to study at the University of Baghdad in the mid 1950s. Cultural life in Iraq was rich then. I and many other students were also very active in political life. There were many strikes at that time which we helped to lead. I was a member of the Iraqi Communist Party, as many of the youth were. It was a major political party at that time. Communist party members led all the Trade Unions and peasant organizations. There were a number of famous clerics who were also in the party. In the late 1960s the US assisted the Baathists in destroying the party”.
Where does he see Iraq going under the occupation? “Under the Ottoman empire Iraq was divided into three separate regions. The current talk of sectarian division is to prepare the ground once again for the division of Iraq. In terms of access to oil, a federal structure is easier to manipulate than a central government, but Iraq has no history of sectarian division”.
“In Iraq at the moment there is ‘bullet censorship’. Two women Iraqi writers who I know and respect have recently fled. One is a novelist, the other a journalist. There is a reign of terror going on. The occupation is turning a blind eye to it. As in the old days the fight for political and artistic freedom is the same”.
Alongside military and economic colonization there is cultural colonization. Saadi says, “There was recently a gathering of important Iraqi cultural figures in Jordan who have links to the occupation. There was top security and a very small audience. I think the majority of Iraqi poets are against the occupation but there is no real organization between them. There is a need for a central, organized opposition to the occupation”.
He says of America, “There is much I love about America, like the Jazz culture for example. I have great respect for the American people; I just oppose the American war machine”. This is reflected in his poem ‘America, America’ where he condemns the first Gulf War but also writes about the feelings of a US soldier disillusioned with the fighting.
I finish by asking him about the future of poetry in the Middle East. “There are a lot of younger poets today who send me their work. They are from North Africa as well as the Middle East. For the last twenty years this poetry has had a gloomy atmosphere, expressing feelings of dislocation and frustration. But when politics gets hotter, the poets will come out of their cocoons”.
Thanks to Sabah Jawad and Anne Alexander for their help in arranging the interview.
Further reading: Without an Alphabet, Without a Face: Selected Poems by Saadi Youssef, translated by Khaled Mattawa (Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2002).