by Joy E. Stocke
Why did you come to me from your Nevada desert, soldier armed to
Why did you come all this way to distant Basra, where fish used to
swim by our doorsteps?
— Saadi Youssef, “America, America”
Without An Alphabet, Without a Face
The room in which I sit with one of the world’s great poets, Saadi Youssef, seems far removed from the sound of traffic on New York’s Lexington Avenue. With its thick plaster walls, old-fashioned furniture, high ceilings, and a loft holding a cast iron daybed, this room could be in Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, Alexandria, Algiers, Paris, London, or any of the places Youssef has lived since he left his native Iraq in 1978.
Considered by many to be the greatest living Arabic poet, Youssef speaks quietly and deliberately, as if each word holds the weight of his lifetime. Around his neck, hangs a gold pendant: a map of Iraq.
“I was in Stockholm, Sweden,” he says, touching the contours of the pendant. A man called out to me, and said, ‘Are you Saadi Youssef?’
“He asked me to have coffee with him and took me to his jewelry shop. Here, I thought, an Iraqi in Sweden with a jewelry shop? But, yes, it was true, and for that time we became brothers. He saw that I was wearing this empty gold chain, and so he went to his jewelry case and found this pendant.”
‘I will give you this,’ the jeweler said.
Youssef was born in the village of Abulkhasib, southeast of Basra in southern Iraq, and near the Iranian border; a fertile region famous for its dates and canals where fisherman have sailed their boats for thousands of years. The region is also famous for something else: oil.
In an essay Youssef shared at PEN American Center’s 2007 World Voices Festival, he says:
“The horror of exile is in the uprooting of the individual from this point of intersection and transplanting him in another spot, which is not a point of intersection, where neither heaven is the primordial one nor the ancestors are ancestors; where there are no homes, no memories and no childhood playgrounds.
What remains therefore?”
In the hushed quiet of a room that could be anywhere, Youssef talked about what remains.
WRR: Tell us about your childhood.
I was born in a village where families were small landowners. We grew dates, grapes, wheat, and other things. I had my primary school there, and for secondary school, we took the bus to Basra, at least an hour each way. Already in the early years, we studied Arabic literature, something very formal, very beautiful.
I have memories of my childhood, a childhood I treasure because I consider childhood to be the most important seed for the artist. When he or she has nothing else, an artist can always draw on these memories.
WRR: What seed comes to mind now?
Well, I see rivers, frogs. I remember fishing in the early hours of the day. And we would go to collect the dates or the grapes, crossing the great river in a canoe. Things like that.
WRR: Were you raised as a Muslim?
Me? No. Although my mother prayed regularly, my brother, my sister and I did not. I never learned to pray in the formal way.
WRR: When did you know that you would be a poet?
When I was very young. It happened just like that. Suddenly, I started learning the metric system in Arabic poetry, which is difficult. If you don’t learn it early, you will lose the opportunity to command the poetry meters in Arabic.
WRR: Can you talk about the Arabic language?
First of all, I can’t write poetry in any other language. Impossible. I have to write in Arabic because each language has its own history and Arabic is my history. I consider Arabic to be the most beautiful language.
Well it is a very free language. I mean you can create new words in Arabic. So, you can say that it is an open language, a language that a poet can always renew. If you know Arabic well with a classical formation, in a way you will be more free because you will see more things. You can work within the language to create a new word and it will be understood. It will not be considered strange.
For example, when you hear the church bell toll, or ring. In Arabic, if you take the past tense for the sound of a bell ringing — the bell rang — I can extend the sense of time that it takes for a bell to ring. Instead of saying rang, I can use the language to create a new word that shows the extended way a bell rings, how the sound moves through the air. I create a new word because I need to do so, and a reader of Arabic will understand. In fact a reader of Arabic will expect it.
WRR: When you talk about Arabic meter and rhyme, it sounds like the language can be quite plastic. How hard would it be for an English-speaker to learn Arabic?
It’s possible to learn Arabic. There are only 28 characters. Believe me, it doesn’t have as many characters as Chinese. (Laughs.)
WRR: What was the first language you learned after Arabic?
Well, English in primary school. In university I started learning French, and then I lived in Algeria for more than seven years where I used French daily. Then I went to France. I was in Paris for three years so my French became more polished.
WRR: When you write your poems in Arabic, do you translate them into English?
Some of them. But others, for example, my collection of poems Without an Alphabet, Without A Face (Graywolf Press), I corresponded with the translator, Khaled Mattawa. We kept corresponding and I would ask him about this thing or that thing. It is very difficult to capture the music of Arabic poetry, but Mattawa knows both languages very well.
Still, it is very difficult to get English exactly close to Arabic because the system is so different. The music of the poem sounds different so really, you try to have two poems with the same tone and feeling.
WRR: You write about your country as if you’ve never left it.
You know, I started that trail of exile and return in 1957, when I visited Moscow. I was interested in the leftist point of view as many young idealists were back then. I came back to Iraq when it became a republic in 1959. Then there was the Ba’athist coup d’etat in 1963 and I was imprisoned for about one and one half years. I left in 1964 and lived in Algeria where I worked to help Algeria reach independence from France. In 1972, when the regime changed in Iraq, I was invited to return and I worked in the Ministry of Culture. In 1978, when Saddam took control I had to quit the country. It was impossible to keep independent because they wanted me to join the Ba’ath party. So, it is impossible for me to separate myself from Iraq.
WRR: Where did you go?
The first time I went to Syria, and then to Lebanon. Then Cyprus.
WRR: I’m imagining that you thought you’d return.
In 1982, I knew it was for good. You know, in Iraq there is a proverb about women: The first woman is honey, the second is sugar, but the third will dig your grave. (Shrugs and laughs.)
WRR: Let’s talk about that a little bit about women. The tradition in Arabic poetry — Sufi poetry, Persian poetry — features women’s bodies, often in disguise.
The pre-Islamic poetry is what I call the most important period of Arabic poetry because the pre-Islamic poetry dealt with nature and with human beings and was closely related to the real in life and in nature.
Then from the 5th until 20th century, really in a way with Islam, the poet was subjected to a kind of censorship. Well, the poet had to defend the values of the new religion so he could not talk about women, wine, tribal conflicts. Things like that. So everything was in a way falsified until we reach the 20th century.
After World War Two, there was a revolution in Arabic poetry. We began using more free form. Free verse that referred directly to life and everything without the need to use the veil of religion.
WRR: Since World War Two, the Middle East has been an epicenter of people’s agendas. What do you think the West has brought to the region?
Well, you know, after World War Two, there was a surge of expectation to change the world, to make the world a better place. There was a real hope for liberation. Western ideas influenced all the Arabic countries in general. But it started in Iraq. A flowering.
That moment of liberation is subsiding in the Near East. Something changed into a kind of society that seeks a separate protection. I don’t know exactly what influenced the people in the region to be more and more convinced that values and religion were threatened.
But, this has affected badly the freedom of expression in poetry, art, and theater. I have a friend who is an editor of a literary review in Egypt. That review was stopped because the workers in the print shop refused to print a certain article. They thought it didn’t match the values taught in the Koran.
One month ago, again the workers stopped the new issue of that review because there was a poem in it that they thought went against Islamic issues. So it has gotten more dangerous.
WRR: What were your thoughts when you first heard that America was going to invade Iraq?
Well, after the invasion, my first reaction was a kind of waiting for things to get better. At first, I thought America had a responsibility to uphold the values of democracy as it was written in the U. S. Constitution.
Then, gradually, I got frustrated more and more. Now, it is common knowledge that the invasion was a failure and has caused more separation among the Iraqi people. No one has exact numbers, but at least 700,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. And then there are about 100,000 prisoners.
We are the new refugees. There are millions of displaced people. It is a human catastrophe.
WRR: What do you see as the future?
I think it will take one or two decades, but I believe that the Iraqi people will eventually sort it out. The Iraqi people really want to have a democratic society, but that didn’t happen this time.
So, I ask myself, “'How come a great secular democracy like the United States can invade a country and allow religious parties to have seats in Parliament?” I mean you have a Shi’a party, a Sunni party. That is the great paradox.
WRR: In an essay that appears on the PEN American Center’s website: you wrote: “The horror of exile is in the uprooting of the individual from this point of intersection and transplanting him in another spot, which is not a point of intersection, where neither heaven is the primordial one nor the ancestors are ancestors; where there are no homes, no memories and no childhood playgrounds. What remains therefore?”
And so I ask: What does remain?
Well for me, I have two options. One is to extend new roots and to be more attached to the real life of this place or another place — Nature, Culture, Human Beings — so and so. Another option is to live as an exile.
But, I always strive to choose the first option: to get involved to extend my roots to know my new place. That has saved me, really, and respecting people and culture has helped me to be balanced mentally. Yes, that’s important. If you are not well balanced mentally, you can’t control your work. You can’t control your material to work on it and with it, and to create art. That is it.
WRR: You’ve also said, “I have a cat that has begun lately to tell me the story of my life.” What do you mean by that?
Ah yes, a cat. (Laughs.) Yes. You know the cat, but also the pads of the cat, how tender and sensitive they are. It is an approach to life and in art also. To softly tread on the earth. That is also art. The artist has to have that sensitive orientation like the pads of a cat, to take life in tenderly with sensitivity…
Well, you are in danger from the claws. (Laughs.)
WRR: You touched on it before, but how do you approach the writing process? You talk about the Arabic language — its openness to invention and surprise.
You have to work so that your poems seem connected with that surprise. I mean the poem didn’t begin as a surprise. The poem takes a long time to be fermented in the mind. But it begins also with a real contact to the senses. I depend on that direct contact: to hear, to feel, to touch.
After that, there is a long process of interpretation, a linking sense of contact with what is essential and substantial in the human question or condition. The great questions in life take time to answer. And then, suddenly you feel that you have to write this poem about that glimpse.
WRR: You have had a lot of disruption in your life. Have there been times when you took a step back from writing?
I am always writing in my mind, so when I write a poem, I write in a very easy way. I don’t start writing a new poem until it is ripe in my mind. And that process can take sometimes a month. I don’t write many copies. What I write, I keep. It is complete. And sometimes I publish the same day. I don’t want to change anything.
WRR: How do you define great poetry?
Sometimes I take a book of poetry. I want to read it. I read three or four verses. I decide whether to throw the book away or keep on reading. It is what I call a complex of values. Esthetic values that gives a person the right to say what’s good and what’s not good. It’s very complex. It comes with understanding the language. What I mean by language is this: Is it a real poetic language? Does it speak to the human condition?
In poems, trust what in English is called the “concrete” word. And from there, I
Wait for the poem to unfold .