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Iraqi poet Adnan Al-Sayegh: “My poetry has always been related to freedom”

June 27, 2016 at 9:00 am

Prominent Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish (L) and Adnan Al-Sayegh

In the early eighties Adnan Al-Sayegh and his friend Ali Al-Ramahi spent much time discussing and writing poetry together. One day one of Ali’s works was published – it was critical of Saddam Hussein and his government and several days later he was killed. “Until now this has been a great influence on me; whenever I write I feel as though I’m writing for him. His soul is always in mine,” says Al-Sayegh. It wasn’t the first friend he had lost in that way, for nobody in those days was allowed to talk about freedom.

Around this time literature, art and the media would all become propaganda for the Iran-Iraq war, an eight-year battle that Al-Sayegh was conscripted into to fight for his land and country. With that, the regime stole not only a means of expression, but left a generation of young Iraqis psychologically damaged by the effects of war. “By writing poetry I tried to compensate and replace what had gone from my life,” says Al-Sayegh.

As the bombs rained down on northern Iraq, Al-Sayegh was caught with contraband books in his possession and was sent to a stable in a deserted village where he was kept for a year and a half. It was in this makeshift prison that Al-Sayegh’s first collection of poetry was published in a book, Wait for me under the Statue of Liberty. The title is a reference to the neo-classic monument located in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, which was built to commemorate the 14 July revolution. From then until today Iraqis have gathered around the monument to ask for freedom.

News from the outside world came to him through a soldier who delivered a copy of The Republic newspaper to the stable. Inside the famous critic Abdul-Jabbar Dawod Al-Basri had reviewed the book. “When I received the news that the book was published and that a very famous critic wrote about it I was very sad and happy at the same time. I was being punished and at the same time people were celebrating the book. Perhaps this paradox occurred to me, between my family and friends celebrating the publishing of my new book and between me being punished here in a stable that smelt rotten and was full of mice, cockroaches and snakes.”

By the light of a lantern Al-Sayegh began work on Uruk’s Anthem, a poem that would – over the next 12 years – become one of the longest poems in Arabic poetry history at over 500 pages. But Uruk’s Anthem would also be the reason Al-Sayegh would eventually have to leave Iraq. In 1989 the Iraqi director Ghanim Hamid prepared a theatrical work based on the poem that was presented in Baghdad Theatre. The production was such a great success that in 1993 they presented the second part in Al-Rasheed Theatre, also in Baghdad.

Not everyone enjoyed the play. It “angered the Iraqi authorities and I realised that my life and my family were in danger. For this reason I took the first opportunity and left home after a few months.” Though his name was not specifically mentioned, the audience knew the play took a critical stance towards Saddam Hussein and his government.

Al-Sayegh’s exile began in Jordan, where he continued to work on Uruk’s Anthem; eventually he moved onto Lebanon where it was finally published. But his exile did not stop the Iraqi regime from adding his name to a list of people they wanted dead and publishing it in two Iraqi newspapers owned by Saddam’s son Uday. At this point the UN intervened and helped Al-Sayegh and his family find shelter in northern Sweden.

Living in exile meant freedom at first, says Al-Sayegh. “When I stepped onto the land of exile, a land of freedom for me, far away from the dictator’s ghost, I felt like a prisoner inhaling the air of freedom for the first time in his life. I danced, sung and wrote.” His feelings would become the main structure of the poem, Passage to Exile:

I will lay myself down on the first pavement I see in Europe
and hike my legs up to passers-by so they
will see the wheals of school beatings & detention camps
which made me come here
What I carry in my pockets is not a passport
but a history of oppression.

But exile became harder over time: “In the days, weeks or years after my arrival to the land of snow – Sweden – and then to the city of fog as described by most of the Arabs – London – the weight of exile became severe and hard on my soul, my psyche and my writings. I felt myself strained by a sweeping nostalgia to the cities of my childhood, the banks of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, the libraries, the coffee shops, and the rest of my friends, family and relatives.”

“Exile has had a great effect on my poetry and stole a lot from my life,” he continues, “but in return it gave me freedom in writing, openness, exploration and communication with the world.” In this sense, living in exile is a paradox – “I feel like my whole life and my poetry is related to a paradox with all the different feelings I have had. Before me, the Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet described living in exile, saying: “They put the poet in Paradise, he cried out: I want a homeland”.

At a poetry reading in Holland an Iraqi refugee approached Al-Sayegh with a page she had taken from one of his books, Mirrors for Her Long Hair. She loved his work so much she had carried it all the way from Iraq.“I was very encouraged to write more about love against war,” says Al-Sayegh, reflecting on the memory. Many of Al-Sayegh’s poems contain references to women as a symbol of love, beauty and peace. “I see in women the beauty of presence, happiness, security, safety and continuity, contrary to what wars create – ruins, wasteland, destruction, ignorance, confiscation and death”.

Al-Sayegh cites many poets as the inspiration for his own work, but says there is a special place in his heart for Mahmoud Darwish, whose poems also cover the topics of homeland, beauty and women. “I met Mahmoud Darwish many times in Baghdad in the eighties, and Amman in the nineties… in 2014 I was invited by the Mahmoud Darwish Museum in Ramallah, among Darwish’s friends, after his death, to read my poems in his museum. He was a great poet and a friend. I have always loved and respected his sincerity, sensitivity and transparency in poetry.”

After living in exile for around 10 years, Al-Sayegh returned to Iraq in 2006 for the Al-Marbed poetry festival. This was three years after the US-led invasion of Iraq – “the assassinations and sectarian battles were in their climax,” recalls Al-Sayegh. “Yes the political authority of the dictator fell and we breathed a sigh of relief. But soon a religious dictator’s authority emerged and spread and we were attacked by dark militias, acting in the name of the Islamic religion, who were associated with its various sects: Sunni and Shia, I do not exclude anyone.”

Despite this, “I wanted to be the poet who would say something and not remain a spectator while his homeland is being burned. I accepted the first official invitation I received to participate in Al-Marbed Poetry Festival, and it is a great festival. I took my soul and poems and headed to the city of Basra in southern Iraq, the place where the festival is held. I read some of the poems against militancy and sectarian fighting in the name of religion.”

The poems were well received by most of the audience aside from one person, who approached Al-Sayegh and told him he would cut out his tongue if he didn’t stop reading his poems. Al-Sayegh’s friends helped him to escape Iraq by crossing the desert highway, across the Kuwaiti border, and on to London. “My fate was to die and live many times,” says Al-Sayegh. His second exile had begun.

On 10 July this year Al-Sayegh will be reciting a selection of his work at Ledbury Poetry Festival, in Arabic, before his friend, the poet Stephen Watts, reads it in English. In total Al-Sayegh has had 11 books published and at the festival a twelfth will be released, his first in English – Biography of an Exile by Arc Publications. One of the poems in the book is called “Iraq“.

Iraq disappears with
every step its exiles take
and contracts whenever
a window’s left half-shut
and trembles wherever
shadows cross its path.
Maybe some gun-muzzle
was eyeing me up an alley.
The Iraq that’s gone: half
its history was kohl & song
its other half evil, wrong.

Iraq was written in the nineties, but all these years later the country continues to disappear. “Saddam’s totalitarian regime was muzzling mouths in the name of patriotism because it believed it was the only guard to the homeland, and it decided to talk instead of you, about you. The current power is muzzling mouths in the name of God or religion because they think they are the deputy or the spokesman of God, and therefore they alone decide and talk instead of you. Whoever, from different sects, is asking me to join them is also a dictator.”

What would it take to stop the destruction of the country? “Freedom and awareness,” replies Al-Sayegh.“As the Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos said, ‘Freedom is first’.”