LONDON””On my way to a café to meet renowned Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef, I feel like I am preparing to meet the recent history of the Middle East. Youssef has lived in so many different countries that he calls himself a “resident of the world” rather than an exile, even though he has left Iraq twice, and has lived a “life of forced departures” in Algeria, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Cyprus, Jordan, Yugoslavia, France, and now England.
Born in Basra in 1934, he has watched Iraq lurch from crisis to tragedy to catastrophe. Despite this, he has written poetry daily and has published 32 books of poems as well as memoir, criticism, and prose fiction. He is also an important translator into Arabic of Walt Whitman, George Orwell, and David Malouf, among others. His first major collection in English, Without an Alphabet, Without a Face (Graywolf Press), appeared in 2002. It is organized into geographic and chronological order, so that as you read his exquisite poems you have a sense of a life of continual motion.
Youssef wears a black cap and black leather jacket, and his high cheekbones and hoary hair emphasize his air of dignity. He left Iraq for good in 1979, the year Saddam Hussein took power, and so I ask him how he felt when Iraq was invaded in March 2003. “I happened to be in Amsterdam that day,” His voice is low, but his speech is precise. “I was half-paralyzed for hours. I couldn't move, make my legs move””it was a true shock. 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.”
He doesn't plan to return to Iraq. “I will never go back,” he says. “I was invited to go with a Syrian 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.” He explains that in Iraqi culture, there is a long tradition of the poet as a symbol. For example, the Iraqi poet Marouf Al-Rasafi, who died in 1945, was a national hero because he was publicly against the British and the monarchy. Youssef says he is an unbeliever, not religious, and when I ask him where he draws his principles from, he doesn't hesitate: “Karl Marx.”
He didn't have direct contact with his extended family in Basra until the invasion, but now he at least receives news and photographs. “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 honey, the second like torture, and the third will take you to the cemetery.'?” He explains that when he first returned to Iraq in 1959, it was sweet. The 1958 revolution had made everyone optimistic, and he had a good job. In 1972, he went back and the first year was very good, but slowly things started changing until it became like torture, until he left again after intense pressure to join the Ba'ath party.
“Now it will certainly put me in the grave if I go back.”
Saadi Youssef appears at the Vancouver International Writers Festival next Saturday (October 21) at 2 p.m. and at 8 p.m. at Performance Works.