In the early morning hours of June 12, the great Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef died at his home in the village of Harefield, outside London:
A central figure in twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century Arabic poetry, Youssef was born a village near Basra in 1934 and graduated from the Teacher’s College in Baghdad.
He started writing poetry at the age of 17 and went on to publish more than 40 collections of poetry, as well as a volume of short stories, two novels, several essays, and several volumes of his collected works. Twice exiled from Iraq — once in the 1950s and again in the 1960s — he went on to live in many countries in the Mashreq, the Maghreb, and Europe, including Algeria, Syria, Lebanon, and France, finally settling in the UK in 1999. He also translated major international poets and writers from English into Arabic, including poetry by Walt Whitman and C P Cavafy, as well as prose by Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wole Soyinka, Kenzaburō Ōe, and George Orwell.
The different places he lived, Youssef said in an interview with Leilah Nadir and James Byrne, left an impression on his writing:
I left Iraq for freedom of the mind and I paid heavily for that. In the long run, that is the way of the artist. With all my moving around, it has been important, I started changing my way of writing. I was in Algeria in 1964, during their newly gained independence. The scene, my contact with people, affected my poetry in a very positive way. French people were very important there, and so when I went to Paris later, I was very involved in the cultural life. At first it was good in France. But then I had to go to the French police about my resident documents and they said that other Iraqis were co-operating with them.
In a short memorial on Facebook, poet-translator Khaled Mattawa wrote:
His work was distinguished by its precise imagery, transparency and restraint, foregoing the high rhetorical and ideologically laden poetry written in Arabic at the time. Youssef’s poetry focused on personal experiences and impressions of daily life, which was in contrast to the intense modernist symbolism and the precepts of committed literature, which were the two dominant poetic movements in the Arab world then. Saadi’s poetry also challenged the strict rules of traditional poetry, preferring the taf’ila (verse libre) the and the nathr prose poem. With this poetic innovations and his deeply imagistic portrayals of life in the Middle East, North Africa, and in exile, Youssef’s poetic style became a major influence in contemporary Arabic poetry, alongside Adonis, Nizar Qabbani and Mahmoud Darwish, his more open approach leading him to be recognized as a poet’s poet among later generations of writers.
In his final poem translated to English, by Kevin Smith, Youssef wrote: “There’s no use. / Saadi Youssef has been writing for thirty years. / Experimenting / and struggling / and despising the rulers. / He says: They kill the new poem . . . / But I ask you: ‘Can you not find a more modern form than the mawwal?’ / There’s no use. / So? / We girdle this country with petrol and dynamite . . . / And?”
Youssef will be laid to rest in the Highgate Cemetery in North London.
Khaled Mattawa, “Skyping with Saadi, Channeling Li Po“
Selections of Youssef’s poetry online:
“Let’s Girdle This Country with Petrol and Dynamite,” trans. Kevin Smith
“Genesis 34,” trans. Antoon
“Solos on the Oud,” trans. Mattawa
“The New Baghdad” trans. Mattawa
“Poetry” trans. Mattawa
“Silence” trans. Mattawa
“Departure ‘82” trans. Mattawa
“The Jazz Corner” trans. Mattawa
“A Shiver” trans. Mattawa
“Koofa” trans. Mattawa
“The Bird’s Last Flight” trans. Mattawa
“Five Crosses” trans. Mattawa