Adnan al-Sayegh’s poetry of freedom
Looking over the Thames as we sit in the Royal Festival Hall, Iraqi poet Adnan al-Sayegh says he believes that all people around the world love freedom and hate dictatorship. Interview by Corinna Lotz
Hearing Adnan al-Sayegh reciting in Arabic, the mere rhythms and sounds send a shiver down the spine. Thanks to translations by Stephen Watts and Marga Burgui-Artajo, English readers have been granted a tantalising glimpse into the work of this politically-outspoken lyricist.
Over the past years al-Sayegh has performed to audiences around the Arab world, Latin America, Sweden, The Netherlands and at London’s National Portrait Gallery. He took part in A World to Win’s “Walls Came Tumbling Down” symposium in front of the Guernica tapestry at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 2009, and our event about people’s assemblies at Passing Clouds recently.
He believes that a poem he wrote in Yemen while on the run from Saddam Hussein’s secret police foreshadowed the Arab awakening to come:
I am the guitar, but who will play me?
I am the tears, who will mourn me?
I am the words, who will echo me?
I am the revolution, who will ignite me?*
“When you read history, which I have done many times, about Franco, Hitler, the holocaust and at events in Europe and the Arab countries, it is clear that people are happy when dictators fall. Because of that, I believed it would happen some day – people would take to the streets.”
His lyrics build on ancient Arabic and world poetry to give us haunting songs of war, persecution and exile:
On Malmö bridge
I saw the Euphrates stretching out its hands
To carry me
Where to? I said
And my dream couldn’t end
Until I saw the Umayyad army
Besieging me from every direction.
A voracious reader since his youth, he is a near contemporary of Arab poets, such as the late lamented Mahmoud Darwish, Hasab al-Shaykh Ja’far and Adonis. But al-Sayegh is equally inspired by ancient and modern Greek culture, Turkish poets such as Nasin Hikmet, and northern Europeans - Hölderlin, Rimbaud, T.S. Eliot and Eluard.
His world is our own world, grasped in stark moments of horror combined with a craving for freedom and fulfilment. The earthy, tormented lines have a metaphysical component, in the awareness of death, decay and loss coupled with the acuteness of sensuous pleasure – “this mouth must devour something”.
He has introduced new words from the street into classical Arabic and broken up lines, often to the shock of formalists. He dismembers language and re-configures it, forging brilliant images such as the “clothesline of war” and “the pavement of my poems”.
He rages against the heavens:
if You couldn’t fill this starving stomach
where worms squirm and belch
why did you create me with these wolfing molars
And if You didn’t flesh my bed with a twig-tender body
then why did You give me such burning arms
Fearing for his life, after The Man Who Stayed Awake In His Delirium, part of his epic poem Uruk’s Athem*, was performed in the Al Rasheed theatre in Baghdad, al-Sayegh led a rootless existence in the capitals of Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Sudan and his own Iraq, persecuted not only by the Saddam regime but also by religious fanatics:
I will pack my suitcases
And my tears
And my poems
And leave this country for good
Even if I have to crawl on my teeth
Don’t shed tears after me or ululate
I want to leave without
Looking from ship decks or train windows
At your waving handkerchiefs
I will breathe tunnel air
A broken man before shop mirrors
Send postcards that reach no-one
Let us carry our tombs & our children
Our moanings & our dreams & then leave
Before they get stolen
& resold in our homeland – as fields of billboards
Or in the places of exile – as homeland by instalment.
“While I lived in Sweden,” al-Sayegh recollects, “journalists asked me what I felt about the fall of Saddam – I said: ‘Look, the trees are dancing, the buildings are dancing, the sky has changed colour! We can be happy, because people love freedom’. Iannis Ritsos, the Greek poet who spent years in prison, said ‘freedom is first, is first’, and I agree. The Gods give us some years to live, to dance, to love.... to enjoy life. Why should we spend this time fighting? Why? In 13 years of war in Iraq I lost so many, many friends.
“I fear that terrorists and militias could take power, such as those who gained in strength after the Saddam dictatorship fell. I predicted in my poems that after the fall of dictatorships there would be terrorist attacks by militias and this is what happened. But I look to the future, convinced that that the sun must shine and that the nights will end.”
One of his latest books, published in Beirut 2011, includes poems written during the war between Iraq and Iran. He is still agonises about the futility of that conflict.
“I hated war. Young Iraqis were forced to fight with Iran, then with Kuwait, then with America - 13 years of war. I weep thinking of how many young friends died in that war. Why? Why? They were such kind people. But if they refused to to join up, the government would kill them. When I look at their photographs, I cry.
“My country is beautiful, rich, with wonderful ancient cultures – Akkad, Babylonian, Sumerian, Assyrian and beautiful rivers - the Tigris and Euphrates - and we then had a dictatorship which cast everything aside. As a child, I dreamt about the beauty of my country and began to write poetry as a ten-year-old and have continued to do so all my life – it is my heart, my soul. Poetry was my friend after I lost my father and my friends. Then the dictatorship came and so many bad things occurred. I loved peace but there was only the sound of guns. The government did not give the people freedom and it fought the Kurds in Northern Iraq.
“During the war against Iran I published six books. When I was in the military, the authorities forbade us from reading books. ‘You are supposed to fight, not read’, they said and so I was sent to prison simply for reading.
“We were incarcerated in a stable in north Iraq in a small town called Shiekhwasal, in Sulaymaniyah. I spent two years there. Bombs were raining down, but we had no chance of escaping. A manuscript I had submitted years before was published in Baghdad in 1984. People were amazed and the book was being celebrated even while I was in prison!
“I wrote line after line after line by candlelight even though I was weeping. But I kept on and I hid the manuscripts. Two years later, and after my release from prison, when the war with Iran was over, I escaped first to Damascus, and from there to Beirut. Then I completed my long poem Uruk’s Anthem, which was published in Beirut in 1996. I wrote it at a time I believed I would die. I was on the verge of being arrested and killed.
“I feel poetry saved my life several times. I was invited to speak at a big festival in Basra in 2006 after the fall of Saddam. As I was reciting a militiaman leapt up to the podium and threatened to cut out my tongue. Members of the audience protected me and whisked me off to safety in Kuwait.”
Al-Sayegh believes that poets have an important role in the Arab awakening and political change as a whole. "People have always loved poetry. In ancient times, poets were like travelling journalists and recited and people loved it. Things have changed, but when people listen to poetry it can make them feel and propel them into taking action and understand they can change their own lives.
“Here, as the Occupations at St Paul’s Cathedral and elsewhere reveal, people are concerned about the economic issues, but in my country, there is no problem with money. It is a rich country. The most important thing is freedom. The issues of wealth and poverty are in the background but the most important thing is simply to be alive, to go out, breathe the air and see the earth, to shout and move. Before now, we were too terrified even to talk at home in case a child picked up something and repeated it and it came to the attention of the police. It is not as bad now, but you still can’t speak about religion or government.
“Poetry can give you the strength to live and a base to think and to dream. How do words give people power? Art and poetry have a positive strength to do many beautiful things. I believe in a shining future and that in my country people want to have a better life. Everything is changing. Through the Internet, the world is open, everything is more transparent and it’s time for political and social change.”
14 December 2011