Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 April 2003
Issue No. 634
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Spiral of Iraqi memory

Without an Alphabet, Without a Face: Selected Poems, Saadi Youssef, translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa, Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2002. pp190

Ferial J Ghazoul For a poetic chronicle of modern Iraqi life, one could not find better than the works of renowned Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef. Not only does he capture the tragedies within tragedies in the unfolding of contemporary Iraqi history, but also the hope against hope in Iraqi experience. Born in 1934 near Basra, and reared in rural Abul-Khasib by his grandfather, he continues to retain a fascination with the rustic nature of southern Iraq -- its palm trees and sunsets, its marshes and migratory birds. His poetry, written regularly since his teenage years, is a record of a collective experience, albeit one expressed in highly personal lyrics. Educated in Basra and Baghdad, and a long-time resident of several Arab and European capitals, the voracious reader Saadi Youssef has assimilated world literature as well as lived the struggles and plights of cities like Aden and Beirut. He has translated major Western poets -- Walt Whitman, Constantine Cavafy, Yannis Ritsos, Giuseppe Ungaretti, and Frederico Garcia Lorca -- and several African novelists. He is thoroughly acquainted with the great historians, Thucydides and Ibn Khaldun, as well as radical thinkers from Marx to Angela Davies. His encyclopaedic knowledge does not appear on the surface of his poetry, but functions as a solid foundation for his deceptively simple lyrics.

Though Saadi Youssef has been translated into English before and published in anthologies, journals, and literary supplements, Without an Alphabet, Without a Face, is the first book- length collection of his poetry. The translator, Khaled Mattawa, has selected poems from the various collections of Saadi Youssef and arranged them in chronological order, covering more than four decades, from 1955 to 1997. As an experimental poet, Saadi Youssef covers several themes and partakes in varied styles: shorter imagist poems and longer epic poems, political poems and nature poems. Regretfully, the translator did not include samples of Saadi Youssef's erotic poetry, published in a collection illustrated by an Iraqi artist Jabr 'Alwan, entitled, Erotica. Not only is this collection significant because it shows another aspect of Saadi's poetry and poetics, but it also contains powerful and universally accessible poems.

The Libyan translator, Khaled Mattawa, is himself an Anglophone poet who has authored a fascinating collection, Ismailia Eclipse. He has also translated other Iraqi poetry, including Hatif Janabi's Questions and Their Retinue and Fadhil Al-Azzawi's In Every Well a Joseph Is Weeping. Khaled Mattawa was educated in Libya, Egypt, and the United States. He teaches creative writing in the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin. This collection is published in the prestigious Lannan Translation Series by an independent, non-profit, publisher. The translator's 14-page introduction is a brilliant critical essay that introduces the poet and his poetics while avoiding the pitfalls of academic jargon. The notes at the end of the book are short and to the point; they help explain the allusions in the poems as well as the places and proper names, thus contextualising the poems. Poetic traces of past moments reel and converge to sketch the quest of an Iraqi poet for that elusive dream of happiness for his people and freedom for his homeland.

The most successful poems in the collection are the shorter ones. The longer ones use a variety of strategies to extend the lyric outpouring: narrative strategy or cyclical structure. Saadi Youssef's poetry is written in the taf'ila mode, akin to vers libre, which has dominated new poetry since the metrical revolution that was initiated in Iraq in the late 1940s. What constitutes the distinctive feature of Saadi's poetics is his avoidance of rhetorical flares and ornate diction, so typical of Arabic poetry. His poetics is based on figures of thought rather than figures of speech, on surprising while understating, rather than moving his readers by resorting to hyperbole. His voice is fresh and strives after the right word and the precise image. His thorough grounding in classical poetry allows him to be in touch with the works of the past while able to branch out into new venues. In an interview with critic Majid Al-Samirra'i, the poet expressed his attitude towards innovation and tradition: "I consider the poetic tradition to be a root that should not be cut. The Arabic word is not abstract, though it has a potential for abstraction. I use traditional artistic values in a new way, a way that is related to this age. Formal opposition, which is revealed in antithesis (tibaq), may be developed into dialectical opposition, just as comparison by simile may be transformed into expression by images." Saadi's attitude to tradition is critical but not hostile; his poetics is that of transformation, not rupture.

Many of his poems are autobiographical fragments presented in lyrical flashes. Having been detained, he presents the experience of captivity in his short poem "In Their Hands"(1956):

And when you're thrown from your room
startled, and your rib bruised
blue like the dead
on a black night
murdered,
think of Basra,
think of what we love
and what we sing of from the heart:
sun, bread, and love.
Think with Basra.

This short poem condenses the political philosophy of the poet, which can be paraphrased as when you are repressed (thrown and roughly handled) think of the noble cause (Basra). The poet's city is a synecdoche for the homeland, and the homeland is associated with "sun, bread, and love". The diction is made up of everyday vocabulary and familiar words (rib, blue, night, sing, etc.). The poetic effect comes from the syntactical play in the poem: the move from "think of Basra" to "think with Basra." Basra changes from being an object to becoming a subject, and thus it is implicitly personified. By resorting to the concrete, the poet points to the abstract. Another short poem that represents the poet's social philosophy, is condensed in "Attention" (1993), where he distinguishes between two types of people -- those to recall and those to dismiss from memory. The perfect balance between the first stanza and the second, between the statement and the imagery, captures the symbolic economy in Saadi's poetics:

Those who come by me passing,
I will remember them,
and those who come heavy and overbearing,
I will forget.
This is why
when air gushes between mountains
we describe the wind
and forget the rocks.

The subtle music and internal rhythms of Saadi's poetry are delicately rendered by the translator as in the finale of a poem entitled "Spanish Plaza" (1965):

Secret I entrusted to the wharves,
my hat flew with the wind
and on the water
a flower whirled.

Saadi's poetry avoids declamation and resounding statements. It is as if the poet is engaged in an intimate conversation and we -- as readers -- overhear him. Even his political poems have a subdued tone. They do not lend themselves to recital on a platform, nor can his verse be borrowed for a slogan. In a sequence of poems written in besieged Beirut in 1982, Saadi describes life at the edge in haiku-like minimalism. In "A Raid", the most dramatic of sounds -- an explosion -- is described in a gentle manner, as if whispering:

The room shivers
from distant explosions.
The curtains shiver.
Then the heart shivers.
Why are you in the midst of this shivering?

This sequence of miniature poems constitutes the diaries of the poet in West Beirut when he was living under the bombardment of Israeli war planes, with water and electricity cut off by the invading army. The telegraphic style seems appropriate for this precarious existence. The short, abrupt sentences and the rationed diction reproduce aesthetically the ascetic conditions of life in a war zone. The repetition of "shiver" in the poem recreates the convulsive motion of shuddering.

Many of the poems of Saadi are shots of a scene or even shots of a detail in a scene. Such scenes, which Saadi encapsulates in his poems, are perfectly ordinary, if not down right familiar and mundane. The poet makes us see beauty in small things and sense the poetry of everyday scenes. The poetic is not sought in the distant and elevated, in the transcendent or fantastic, but in the here and now. Thus Saadi teaches us his aesthetic philosophy: beauty is lying there in front of us in the street, in the market place, in our sitting rooms and bedrooms. All we have to do is see it.

The Iraqi critic, Tarrad Al-Kubaisy, has called Saadi: "He who saw" -- a locution often reserved for Gilgamesh, the hero of the ancient Mesopotamian epic. Seeing is then not simply observing but also penetrating what is beneath the surface. Saadi is the lucid one who sees the inner core of things and who makes his readers see the invisible beneath -- not beyond -- the visible. He makes us see the harmony, the beauty, and the poetry of the quotidian, of the passing moment. His aim is not to immortalise but to retrieve and preserve. In this sense he is, like Cavafy, fully aware of the passage of time and the urgency to record special moments. Because Saadi has been a wandering poet, a modern-day troubadour constantly on the move, his fugitive existence makes him more prepared to snatch the moment from our disjointed times. The tavern, the bar, the café, and the hotel recur as settings in his poems. They point to transitory existence, a life on the go, in which companionship is based on free spirit and individual choice rather than on settled and conventional considerations. "The Chalets Bar" (1984) is a poem that points to the thriving fellowship of people from different races and nationalities, drinking together in a Yemeni bar. Memory also plays an important role in Saadi's poetry. Having been imprisoned, he recalls in his cell what he could not see and partake in. Living away from his homeland, he remembers the sites of his country. As he grows older, reminiscences of childhood unfold in his poetry, as in this extract:

And now
I remember trees:
the date palm of our mosque in Basra, at the end of Basra
a bird's beak,
a child's secret,
a summer feast.

I remember the date palm.
I touch it. I become it, when it falls black
without fronds,
when a dam fell, hewn by lightning.

And I remember the mighty mulberry
when it rumbled, butchered with an axe.

In his poem "A Woman" (1984), the title suggests a woman, but she turns out to be the woman. It is one of several poems by Saadi where the closure explains the rest of the text and pushes the reader to read the poem retrospectively:

How will I drag my feet to her now?
Where will I see her?
And on which street of what city
should I ask about her?
And if I find her house
(let's suppose I do)
will I ring the bell?
How should I answer back?
And how will I stare at her face
as I touch the light wine seeping
between her fingers?
How should I say hello
and how will I take the pain
of all these years?

Once
twenty years ago
in an air-conditioned train
I kissed her
all night long.

Having lived in more than dozen cities in the Arab world and Europe without settling anywhere permanently, Saadi exemplifies the exilic condition. This dispersion, translated poetically into fragmentation, leaves for the poet the task of reconstructing the self, of making the shards into a whole. Poetry becomes the medium by which a face is given to this defaced existence. In his poem entitled "Poetry" (1985), Saadi refers to the task of the poet by referring to himself through the persona of L'Akhdar, a poetic double who figures in more than one poem:

Who broke these mirrors
and tossed them
shard
by shard
among the branches?

And now
shall we ask L'Akhdar to come and see?
Colours are all muddled up
and the image is entangled
with the thing
and the eyes burn.

L'Akhdar must gather these mirrors
on his palm
and match the pieces together
anyway he likes
and preserve
the memory of the branch.

In the longer poems, such as "The Trees of Ithaca" (1989), Saadi narrates the exodus of the Palestinians from Beirut. The classical journey of Odysseus, and its re-interpretation by the poet Cavafy, is a subtext in this poem. One displacement recalls another and is linked to it, "We turn in the earth the way a shepherd wraps his cloak around him." In another long poem, written in 1995 and addressing the US which led the war against Iraq in 1991, entitled "America, America", Saadi uses different voices in his polyphonic poem. The words of an Iraqi poetic persona is juxtaposed to the song by an American soldier, probably an African-American as his lyric is entitled "Blues". The soldier longs to go back to his home town, Sacramento, and suggests his unhappiness with the war and his anxiety as a stranger in a country that is not his.

The Iraqi voice wonders whether it is his identity that has made him a target: "But I am not American./ Is that enough for the Phantom pilot to turn me back to the Stone Age?" The poem sarcastically uses the refrain, "God save America,/My home, sweet home!" In a passage that is relevant today when the Americans have once again waged a war against Iraq, using the most lethal weapons and ravaging the country and its people, the poet addresses the invader:

Leave me, pilot, leave my house roofed with palm fronds and this wooden bridge.

I need neither your Golden Gate nor your skyscrapers.

I need the village, not New York.

Why did you come to me from your Nevada desert, soldier armed to the teeth?

Why did you come all the way to distant Basra, where fish used to swim at our doorsteps?

Pigs do not forage here.

I only have these water buffaloes lazily chewing on water lilies.

Leave me alone, soldier.

Leave my floating cane hut and my fishing spear.

Leave me my migrating birds and the green plumes.

Take your roaring iron birds and your Tomahawk missiles. I am not your foe.

I am the one who wades up to the knees in rice paddies.

Leave me to my curse.

I do not need your day of doom.

The title of this rich collection, Without an Alphabet, Without a Face, is taken from a verse line in a poem entitled "The Ends of the African North" (1971). It focuses on the image of a child weeping, the violation of innocence that has become a recurring motif in the age of global imperialism:

In the neighbourhoods of Tunis and their winter cafés
at the gates of Africa's spread thighs
I saw a girl weep
without an alphabet, without a face.
Snow was falling and a girl wept under it.

The richness and accessibility, as well as the breadth and depth, of this collection turn this book into a work for all seasons and for all readers.

Rreviewed by Ferial J Ghazoul


Solos on the oud

By Saadi Youssef

Saadi Youssef A clock rang for the tenth time,
it rang 10 o'clock,
it rang 10.
Across from the church tower
a star flickered and disappeared
and a nightingale vanished in the pines
fading into a green mirage of night.
Come to my house, girl.
My house is my shrine.
My house is a shrine.
The church shut its doors
and the candles were put out
and the kerchiefs were stained with wine.
On the park path
the water was silent, and the dry leaves
and the deep shadows.
On the park path
the sparrows didn't sing
and in the garden
the whispering brook didn't sing.
God of drowned alphabets,
where, where is the shiver of drowsy shadows?
Her hand is in mine
and in my chest a garden.
Land where I no longer live,
distant land
where the sky weeps,
where the women weep,
where people only read the newspaper.
Country where I no longer live,
lonely country,
sand, date palms, and brook.
O wound and spike of wheat!
O anguish of long nights!
Country where I no longer live,
my outcast country,
from you I only gained a traveller's sails,
a banner ripped by daggers
and fugitive stars.

Algiers, 16/8/1965

Translated by Khaled Mattawa

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