Saadi Youssef has been for decades just not just one of the most important Iraqi poets but also one of the most important poets writing in Arabia. His 2002 collection "Without an alphabet, Without a Face," translated from Arabic into English by Khaled Mattawa, is an moving, heart rendering book.
Youssef was born near Basra, Iraq, in 1934. His life has been one of forced expulsions and exiles. When young he became sympathetic to socialism, and after an unauthorized trip to a Moscow youth conference in 1957, he was forced to leave Iraq for Kuwait. After the 1958 Iraq revolution, he returned to him homeland, but was jailed and then left for Algeria.
He turned to Iraq again, but with Saddam Hussein's coming to power in 1979, he left the country. In 1982 he was living in Beirut writing for Palestinian publications when the Israels bombarded Beirut so he left with the Palestinian fighters. In mid-1980s he was living in socialist South Yemen, working in publishing, when the civil war started. After his home was bombed he was forced to leave. In France after 1991 he helped organize an Iraqi expatriates club in Paris, but after the French police asked him to be an informant, he left. Youssef is similar to left poets such as Neruda who was forced to flee Chile and Nazim Hikmet, Turkey's great poet who spent time in jail and years in exile.
Youssef is an 3rd generation modernist in Arabic poetry. He's influenced by poet Al-Sayyab's modernist poetics mixing love lyrics with political discourse in the same poem. Both Al-Sayyib and Youssef are also committed to free verse and experimentation. His translator Mattawa has said that Arab critics "have noted that Youssef prefers whispering to declaiming." The first poem in Youssef's collection "Night in Hamdan" describes a poor provincial village the poet lives in with "tuberculosis and date palms" but the poet whispers to his beloved, "you, in whose eyes I behold spring/ how can a friend forget you?"
His poem "In Those Days" describes his Iraqi imprisonment dwith the guards' beatings and the judge's derision but the poet never loses hope: "When we were thrown in the imprisonment that has yet to end, I vowed: 'This heart's yearning will not end.'" Nothing--not decades of exiles of expulsions--has ever diminished his hope. Youssef is a great poet of hope. The poems from his "Beirut" book are amazing accounts of living under Israeli bombardment. In the poem "A Raid" from "Daily Chores" the poet describes
The room shivers
from distant explosions
The curtains shiver.
Then the heart shivers.
Why are you in the midst of all this shivering?
Even under bombardment, he still attends to his heart; the poet is not declaiming but is listening to his heart's shiverying.
Youssef, who translated Walt Whitman into Arabic, is most famous for his poem "America America" written after Gulf War I but seems to be written for Gulf War II. In this poem the poet quotes blues and loves jazz, Mark Twain, Mississippi steamboats, and American fields of wheat and proposes exchanges between himself and America:
Take James Bond's golden pistol
and give us Marilyn Monroe's giggle
Take the Afghani mujahadeen beard
and give us Walt Whitman's beard filled with butterflies.
Take Saddam Hussein
and give us Abraham Lincoln
or give us no one.
The poet wants these peaceful exchanges, not war, not soldiers. The tragedy is we didn't send to Iraq Whitman and Marilyn Monroe's giggle and Lincoln but instead we sent to Iraq bombers, tanks and 100,000 soldiers.