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I was born in 1934 in Abu al-Khasib, a town south of Basra city, and there I went to primary school. Later I had to go every day to Basra to secondary school because there wasn’t one locally. By 1950 I had finished school and at that time was already writing poems. In 1952 I published my first booklet of poems – that was when I was at university.
After graduation in 1954, I went back to Abu al-Khasib and worked as a teacher at the newly opened secondary school. I stayed there only for three years because in 1957 I went on an adventurous voyage to the Soviet Union to attend a youth festival. It was against every rule in Iraq, because it was forbidden to go to the Soviet Union. We had to travel clandestinely via Syria. We took a ship to Odessa and then travelled by train to Moscow.
Arriving back in Syria, we learnt that our names were known to the Iraqi authorities. We sent two or three people to see what would happen with the Iraqi border officials. Well, they were arrested. After denying that they had been in Moscow, they were surprised to be shown photographs of themselves there. After that I was obliged to stay in Syria for a while until I moved to Kuwait, where I took up work as a teacher in an intermediate school.
After 1958 I went back to Iraq, which was then a republic and so began a new stage in my life. It was a time of real turmoil and upheaval in the daily lives of people. All the upsurge in political life, parties, newspapers . . . The first writers’ union was established at that time – in 1959. I was on its administrative committee. I was meeting up with poets and journalists and intellectuals before that, but being in the writers’ union put me in very close contact with our great poet Mohammed Mahdi al-Jawahiri1 who was the first president of the Writers’ Union. He was a fine man and I used to visit him at home. Whenever there was a meeting of our committee we had to go to his place and bring him by taxi to the union building. We always respected Jawahiri and helped him in everything for his job as president. He became a close friend of General Kassim, the prime minister at that time. I think they met up by accident in London and that was the beginning of a long friendship.
In 1959 I published my first acclaimed book of poetry, 51 Poems. It was well received as a new voice in modern Iraqi poetry. Jawahiri used to say: “I am not with the new ‘free’ poetry, and I respect two only, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Saadi Youssef.” He kept telling me that I was very close to al-Sayyab because he was from the same area, Abu al-Khasib.
My relationship with al-Sayyab was in fact twofold – personal and professional. We are from neighbouring villages on the bank of the Shatt al-Arab: The Sayyabs’ village is “Jaykour”, which Badr immortalized in his poetry, and ours is Bouqaya’. The two villages flow one into the other. In Jaykour, I saw Badr for the first time. I hadn’t even started writing poetry and he was too famous for me to approach. My grandfather’s house was not far from Jaykour. I used to go there when al-Sayyab was becoming famous and reading his poetry at demonstrations, in 1948 and 1949, in Basra and in Abu al-Khasib. There was a popular movement against a proposed treaty with Britain that came at that time, the same time as the outcry over Palestine, the persecution of the Iraqi Communist Party and the hanging of its leaders. Turbulent years . . .
But I also saw Badr from a distance later in Baghdad. Sat close to his table at a bar, perhaps, and might have sat with him once. My point is that I was inhibited even though Bader was an approachable person; a natural who warmed up for people and relationships. I grew closer to him with time and started showing him my latest writings. So, my real contact with him came very late, and from 1960 until just before his death we kept in touch. I used to meet him and read my new poems and ask what he thought of them, how he felt about them. Talking to him and listening to his comments was useful. In his last days he was in Al-Ma’qal hospital in Basra and I used to visit him daily, when he was suffering from what we call now Lou Gerick’s disease. I last visited him in 1964 just before he died in a hospital in Kuwait, and that was the year I first left Iraq for Algiers. I consider Badr my teacher and I still learn from him.
I had got to know the Ba’athist prisons, Nugrat Salman near Samawa on the Saudi-Iraqi border and Baqouba prison. They moved me from one to the other. Once I was held incommunicado for about a month. When I got out I had no alternative but to leave the country. The day I was released was actually one day before the first fall of the Ba’athists, when General Abdulrahman Arif came to power. Had I been in one more day, I could have stayed there for another 10 years or so. I had paid a bribe and had a passport, so that’s how I got out of prison. I made my way to Beirut, and later to Algeria where I stayed until late 1971.
I returned to Iraq in 1972 and worked for a time in the Ministry of Culture, but in 1978 I had to leave again – this time for the last time. They wanted me to join the Ba’ath Party. I refused, politely.
They used to send Ba’athist poets to me to ask me to join and they would report back that I was refusing to do so. Eventually the Ba’ath Party leader responsible started coming to ask me himself as a party member. Two weeks after he had been visiting me daily, he told me: “I can’t ask you any more as now the security services will take over the job. In a week’s time they will get in touch with you. And you know that the security services will not deal with you in my gentle way.”
I tried to contact Ba’athist poets and friends and ask for help, but no one would lift the phone to speak with me. Then I paid a visit to Abdulrahman Munif, who was then living in Iraq and had good standing with the upper echelons of the Ba’athists. He told me: “Come back after a week and I will tell you what to.” He contacted Michel Aflaq2 (who was nominally head of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party then) about my case. Aflaq told him: “My advice to Saadi Youssef is to pack his bag and leave the country – I can’t do anything for him.” At that time there was a kind of union between Iraq and Syria and it was easy to go to Syria. So I took the opportunity and left. First I went to Syria, then to Lebanon, and again to Algeria, travelling by sea to Alexandria, and then by buses and trains to Algeria, crossing Egypt, Libya, Tunisia.
My two sisters are still in Iraq with their families. My older brother died some years ago. My first contact with my sisters has been after the fall of Saddam Hussein. It was always too dangerous for me to be in touch with them through those years.
All my books were banned in Iraq, except for the short time that I was working in the Ministry of Culture. I would publish outside Iraq, and then many would be photocopied and smuggled in. And that happened from the mid-1960s until today. But I don’t think of the censor at all when I write. I have trained myself, hard, to be free. It is difficult when you live in an area of censorship of expression to free your mind, to keep the normal processes of thinking going on. It is very difficult. But how else can you defy self-censorship, which is what generally happens? And so I have remained outspoken about everything. And I make a point of not writing for any newspaper that wants to pay me, because newspapers pay poets and writers only to stay silent.
There is a poem of mine, “Enemies”, that I wrote in 1977, which was published in Baghdad in Aafaq Arabiyah magazine, whose editor was Shafiq al-Kamali – we were in college together. Later he became a minister and was poisoned by Saddam Hussein: he was arrested one day with his son, and thought the guard was quite friendly giving him nice tea to drink, but that tea was laced with thalium, Saddam Hussein’s favourite poison. When Shafiq was eventually released he was a broken man, he had a long, grey beard, and he couldn’t talk. He died like a dog – he who had written the first Iraqi Ba’ath national anthem.
Well, that poem, “Enemies”, had of course double meanings. One day, a top Ba’ath Party official asked me if I was attacking them in the poem when I spoke of the wild boar. It was a kind of adventure for me to publish that long poem as in it I was referring to the killing of the General Secretary of the Communist party by the Ba’athists.
It was a very hopeful time when I was in Algeria in 1964, just two years after Independence. I felt like I was taking part in rebuilding Algeria as an independent country. The Algerians, then, wanted to regain their identity and there was a campaign of Arabisation – and a huge educational system and budget. They wanted all pupils to be bilingual. From the beginning, the strategy of having bilingual students was very smart. At that time, volunteers from all over the world were flooding into Algeria to teach. Schools opened up everywhere – both primary and secondary. French youth could substitute teaching in Algeria for their military service. I met many young people from the UK there, volunteers teaching English after they’d finished at university. I met a guy from Derbyshire, a wonderful young man. His father was a high-ranking military officer so he’d had a good education, but he was so shy he blushed red all over his face. He was teaching English in the same school as I was teaching Arabic language and literature, in the west of Algeria, near Oran.
As in the late 1970s when intellectuals left Iraq in droves, so it was in the early 1960s, and at that time they flocked to Algeria – doctors, engineers, professors, artists, teachers.
I stayed in Algeria for seven years. I was in Algiers, and then got a job in a lycée in a village near Oran. I did not publish anything in Algeria, but outside in other countries, in Beirut.
L’Akhdar Ben Youssef is my mask. Ben Youssef is my double and L’Akhdar is a very popular Algerian name, so with this name I am putting myself into the place, making some roots – not as a spectator or visitor but as a real person. And then I write from an ordinary and real angle as well as from the vantage point of an artist. In fact, he stayed with me until the late 1980s. And perhaps there will be a renaissance.
The years in Algeria were very important for me as they helped keep a distance between me and what was going on in Iraq. I could look from afar, and in a more balanced way. I could take an individual approach to what was happening, rather than getting drawn into something where I would have been too close.
At that time I was influenced greatly by French poetry. I had learnt French at university for four years so was fairly proficient, and used to read contemporary poets in the original. I learnt so much from them, from poets such as Louis Aragon, Jacques Prevert, Paul Valéry, and René Char (his earlier works). And of course, Robert Desnos was very important for me because of his surrealist touch. What I noticed about French contemporary poets was that every one was a school in himself, he had his own kind of life. It was great, very exhilarating to follow through the works of these poets – all so independent. It was that independence of mind that helped me keep more free, to go my own way – and to change my way when I wanted to. Reading these poets I felt that I wasn’t bound by anything, by any tradition.
I visited Alexandria a number of times. Whenever I went there, I’d go to Alexandria, and search for what remained of Cavafy, the old Greek taverns, and the Cecil Hotel in the Greek quarter of Lawrence Durrell. I read Cavafy’s works in English, there were two editions, one with an introduction by W H Auden [The Complete Poems of Cavafy, Hogarth Press, 1961], and the other introduced by Rex Warner [The Poems of C. P. Cavafy, Hogarth Press, 1951]. In fact, I read these in Baghdad in the early 1970s. I started to translate Cavafy into Arabic, and when the poems were published I was astonished that the young Arab poets received them with such enthusiasm – they welcomed him as one of themselves. Cavafy and Yannos Ritsos influenced a whole generation of poets, not only in Iraq but all over the Arab world.
Their kind of poetry – lean and bare poetry, with no add-ons, no frills or ornament, no imported values to spoil their sense of psychological wholes, entities. The way I see it, is that then you can trust the text. I learnt a lot from both Ritsos and Cavafy, but more from Cavafy than from Ritsos.Cavafy was working within the great heritage of poetry – and he was freer. But I can’t compare these two. Ritsos has his limits – and not on account of political reasons. I adore Ritsos, how he tamed political subject matter and created a great work of art, but, I feel that Cavafy gives a freer interpretation of the human being, the individual interpreted from history, from Greek history. He has the advantage point of human life, how to struggle free from human bondage and at the same time still be bound. Looking at the form of Cavafy’s work, I learnt how to write from his form, from his sentences. Sometime I imitate Cavafy, out of love for his work; and I need, always, more training. He is such a good master.He writes of one thing and talks about another. If you look at the poem here, “The Roman Colony”, I am actually talking about Iraq now. Cavafy was talking about contemporary life through talking about history.
This is what I mean when I say that the reader needs to trust the text of a poet. When you put the text into a certain age, into history, which the reader is acquainted with or knows has happened for real, he or she will be more receptive to the text, will be more inclined to “be with the text” although the poet is in truth talking about modern experiences and upheavals.
The other important point about Cavafy as a poet is that he does not have an ego. He is the absent poet, that is, an objective poet. The reader will read his work with conviction because Cavafy is against any kind of sentimentality. The reader may be agitated, but Cavafy no, he remains “cold-blooded”, the “absent poet”. And that is what allows the reader to be agitated and excited.
I think of myself as a poet who is a resident of the world. I don’t feel exiled. Being outside my country has become my ordinary life. I am used to it. I feel at home wherever I am. And I need to feel at home otherwise I cannot write poetry. I have to establish real contact with the country I am in, with the people and with the environment. I have to grasp daily life in its details and minutiae. That is how I write poetry. The details and minutiae are my raw material. I am not conditioning myself to do that; it is a direct, honest contact with people, culture, with nature. It’s a kind of open receptivity to the world, the universe.
I worked hard against feelings of nostalgia. I trained myself to oppose nostalgia, because nostalgia hinders artistic work. Nostalgia keeps you in a way unbalanced; and the artist must to be well-balanced in order to control his material, to be able to work on it.
However, concerning recollections and perceptions of childhood, nostalgia is essential, necessary and indispensable. I keep my memories like a treasure. I can draw on them any time I want. They are there. Childhood is the ultimate innocence.
From the mid-1950s, when I started seriously writing poetry, when I took poetry seriously, I looked back at the map of Arab poetry from its very beginnings. I wanted to have a place on this vast map and I felt the need for something different from what was there. What was absent from Arab poetry in general was daily life. Ordinary individual life was not there – and so I worked on that. At the same time I was reading more and more poetry from other nations and cultures, and so I was learning more and more how to use the material of ordinary, individual life, how to look at the details of daily life and what to depict. It is a very intricate process. I mean, you have to pick and select. Not every detail is suitable to be worked on. There is interaction between details that you must be very careful with, because in the poem you are creating quite new relations for those details. You have to symbolise, you have to build in the concrete, which is a very, very difficult step, in order in the end to be abstract. I always use the following example: if you have an ashtray, a piece of paper and a cigarette on the table and you light the cigarette, but instead of putting it in the ashtray you put it on the paper, everything changes, the balance changes, and a new thing results.
My real creative life has been outside Iraq, rather than inside. I think I benefited from life outside. I have been in touch with many peoples, different cultures and so I became over the years more informed about different countries. I have good contacts and relations with poets, painters and actors, here and there. Living in France, for example, was a wonderful experience for me.
Now living here on the outskirts of London, I write daily, at least most days, and I don’t keep my poems unpublished. I publish them directly, in Arab newspapers such as As-Safir in Beirut and Al-Quds al-Arabi in London, and on three websites – kikah.com, Iraqgate, and another. With my computer and email everything is very easy; I can be quite free, reading, writing, sending my articles and my poems which are then published immediately – and everyone has access to them.
I am a very independent person and artist. I am very much involved in digging in my river, opening it up, exploring it and when the river changes direction, it winds in a kind of zigzag but keeps flowing. And at the same time, many friends tell me that my influence goes deeper than a school or followers. Just yesterday I read an article which said that I have changed the relation of the poet to life. It said: “He taught us how to know our life. He doesn’t care about what is going on in the skies, he is always preoccupied with the real.” And I do think that that is my great influence.
Of course, I have worked on this matter for half a century, on the relation of Arabic poetry to real life. After the time of pre-Islamic poetry (which the Arabs call Jahiliyah3 ), Arabic poetry became alienated from life, always with allegories and metaphors but nothing of real life. There were 12 to 14 centuries of artificial poetry, with just some glimpses of life here and there, but really very rare. Getting Arabic poetry back to real life is something very important.
In this artificial poetry there was no subject matter. Even love is artificial. No individual reveals himself. There may be a spirit of community, yes, but in classical Arabic poetry there are no simple human relations. Pre-Islamic poetry, on the other hand, was so different. There was always life, nature, women. You can see animals, stones, sand – everything is real. Lightning, thunder, stars, birds, and so on. That is all in pre-Islamic poetry.
Looking specifically at Iraq: at the end of World War Two, people were full of aspirations and full of hopes; there was an urge for emancipation and change. The modern movement of Iraqi poetry was born in this environment. The potency and strength of modern Iraqi poetry is therefore utterly authentic and deep-rooted – culturally, politically and artistically.
If you take, for example, Nazik al-Malaika and al-Sayyab, they were well educated in English and this was the source of deep influence for them. There was that influence of the outside. Both had, of course, a thorough grounding in classical Arabic poetry. They were never disconnected from their heritage, while the influence on them of Western life, literature and culture was entirely positive. In the influence of art and culture, there is no question that everyone learns from the other. As for myself, I try to translate as much as I can for young Arab poets today because it is so important for the young creators to see the poetry of the world, the works of poets such as Cavafy, Ritsos and Walt Whitman.
I follow the writings of young Arab poets and I have good contacts with them. They do not consider me aloof from their interests. In fact, they always follow what I am writing. They want to know. From time to time I change my way of writing and they want to know about that development. When I meet young poets we always have very useful and interesting conversations about poetry, politics etc, etc. Sometimes they are very surprised that I can drink more than they can. “You are not getting drunk?” they ask me. “No, not at all,” I reply.
I use basic language – my way of writing is concrete, and so my text will not lose too much of its original value when translated. I am modernising the Arabic language by leaving out what is not essential – leaving out the rhetoric, what some call “the added value”, or if I do use classical words or phrases I find a special way to use them. For example, take the word “god”. I will write about “a clay god”, which takes “god” out of its normal context and makes it more human.
I like Giuseppe Ungaretti, the Italian poet. I enjoy reading him. I think it is very useful for young Arab poets to know him, and so I can help them by translating this work. Everything I translate I do without any personal contact with the authors. Some people build their work by contacting the authors, but that is not my way. The authors know through the publisher that I am doing it. One of the authors I have translated is David Malouf. One day he and I met when I was living in Jordan and he was in Amman at the invitation of the Australian Embassy, but we parted company with him still not knowing exactly why I translated him, or even who I was. When he later went to Damascus he found out who I was, and contacted me, giving me the right to translate any of his works. First, I translated An Imaginary Life and then A Child’s Play, a fine short novel.
But I don’t consider myself a translator. I’m certainly not a professional who translates for a publisher. I only started to translate because I liked and learned from texts in other languages. I wanted to share that pleasure and benefit with others. This is true of both poetry and fiction.
My really favourite is Cavafy, and then Lorca. But I am also interested in Auden and in Yeats, Homer, and there’s Derek Walcott, I love him.
My favourite poet changes. Sometimes it was Nazim Hikmet, another time it was Lorca, then Ritsos, or Cavafy. And Walt Whitman, he also has that abundance of life. He presents a continent that opens up to me. And then again, I am influenced greatly by the Blues, both the words and the music, by the rhythms of the Blues, the repetitions. I am influenced by this in my writing until now. I always feel I am under the impact of music, particularly in my most sophisticated and long poems. First, I plan a poem and then I go to a particular symphony and see how it is composed. I take advantage of its elements, so to speak, just as I use the elements of the Blues. Working on the sonority of poetry and music is not an easy job at all. But music is central to my work. I have music playing all the time; I keep it playing so as to hold it there in the air, so that the air is full of its vibrations.
I can say only a little about Iraqi poetry today. It is an understatement that it has been a very difficult year for Iraqi poets. Many are not writing anything at all. I respect that. I understand that Some are writing things which are mystical and surreal – not really focused in reality. Just to get away from what is going on. Many poets are stunned and cannot write. People want me to write, and I have written – but articles, not many poems.
You see, in Iraq there is a tradition that is still upheld – and that is that it is always the poet who speaks out. In the First World War it was Habbubi [Mohammed Sai’d al-Habbubi – d.1916] then Rusafi [Maruf al-Rusafi 1875-1945], and later al-Jawahiri. I am part of that tradition. Habbubi fought against the British in Basra. He wrote about wine, and women, and died at the battle of Shuayba. He was a religious leader, not a combatant.
Now, Iraqis expect me to speak. People keep sending me emails. But, in fact, over the last weeks I have stopped writing articles and am returning to my poetry. And people want to read my poems: they are not separate from what is going on in Iraq now, but they are not politically activated. My poems are artistically activated, that is, I write from an artistic standpoint. Other people can write about the details of the war. My essential responsibility is writing poetry.
I read novels and stories more than poetry. I am fascinated by novels. The story in general has helped me to coin my poems. From the early days I think I really learned to write poetry after reading American short stories. They helped me in the 1950s. I read them in English, of course. Hemingway, William Saroyan, Mark Twain – they had a great impact on me. Story-writing is a great art. I remember in particular Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” and “Pomegranate”, I learned how to be honest towards daily life, how I could stand against exaggeration, how my language could be more democratic, I mean, more the language of every-day usage. It is pure classical Arabic, but is also the language used daily. Certain words crop up now and again from the old pre-Islamic poetry, and I keep them in because I can’t help it; there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s my heritage.
I have written only one novel, Muthalath Adda’ra [The Circle’s Triangle], and it partially proves the common belief that all first novels are autobiographical. It treats actual events in a near documentary fashion. In writing it, I utilized my knowledge of the craft of fiction. I followed a specific plan based on units of five pages each, each unit having a designated purpose. I also ignored the notion of the narrator, and used multiple narrative voices and angles and continuous interplay of times. It was difficult to write, but it didn’t take long – just three months, because I knew what to write about and I had a clear plan. Will I write another novel? I don’t know. It’s possible. But if I want to do so I have to put my nerves in the refrigerator.
I don’t like to compare contemporary Arab poetry with world poetry because we will be the losers, even if we compare our poetry of a particular nation, such as Greece. What I’m saying is that no national poetry should be seen in comparison with that of other nations. Poetry as an art should be seen in relation to its indigenous traditions, taking into consideration its native growth across generations and schools and artistic elements in its movement and formation. In the Arab world, we’re still at an elementary stage in reading our own traditions. We have to know what we have before we can make comparisons.
Since I settled here in the UK in 1999 I have such peace of mind, and the quiet that I needed. For the first time, I feel no worries, there’s no hint of censorship anywhere. And I have been very busy with various projects, and travelling to festivals all over the world. This year already I have been reading at Palermo, Italy, and in Caracas, Venezuela, which was a tremendous experience.
See also pages 46 and 155 of this issue
1 Mohammed Mahdi al-Jawahiri (1899-1997) was a passionate well-loved poet, born in Najaf, Iraq. He wrote all his poetry in classical Arabic metre but his themes were wide-ranging, reflecting Iraqi’s turbulent history, and included love, politics, nature and social events. He lived in exile most of his life. In the new Iraq, he has been immediately honoured with the inauguration in July 2003 of the first annual Al-Jawahiri festival, the erection in Baghdad of two statues and a street named after him.
2 Michel Aflaq (1910-1989) was the founder in 1946 of Ba’athism as a political ideology and in 1947 helped establish the Ba’ath Party of Syria. Surprisingly, his ideology championed freedom of speech and other human rights, and he fell foul of the Syrian Party. He fled the country, eventually going to Iraq where he became head of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party. He is buried in Baghdad.
3 Jahiliyah refers to the period before the life of the Prophet Mohammed and Islam and is literally translated as a period of ignorance.