Iraqi Poets in Western Exile

Selected poems with an overview

By: Dr. Salih J. Altoma

Much has been written about the tragic consequences of the 1991 Gulf War, the sanctions imposed on Iraq, and the country's repressive political system, but scant attention has been paid to the predicament of countless Iraqi poets who have been forced to live in exile in different parts of the world. This is in spite of the fact that these poets, who represent diverse ideological orientations, have much to offer in terms of their views about Iraq's tribulations in recent years.

It is difficult to provide a reliable figure regarding Iraqi poets living in exile. According to a report issued by the Associated Press, "An old saying has it that Arab poetry was born in Iraq. Now, with hundreds of Iraqi writers and other intellectuals in exile, it appears to have all but died out there" (1997).While the report unduly overstates the demise of poetry within Iraq, it does serve to underline two significant facts: first, the leading and pioneering role that Iraqi poets have historically exercised, whether in modern times or earlier periods; second, the unprecedented number of poets who have left Iraq during the last two or three decades. This is by no means the first time in Iraq's modern history that Iraqi poets have sought exile because of political considerations. Regrettably, the repressive state controls under different regimes have always forced Iraqi dissidents, poets, writers, artists, and other professionals to seek refuge in other countries. What is perhaps unique about the current wave of Iraqi exiles, however, is the fact that, in numerical terms, they surpass earlier waves by far in terms of their global dispersion.

Many Iraqi poets have sought sanctuary within their own cultural milieus in other Arab countries. Others, perhaps more numerous, have found refuge in the West: in Europe, Australia, the United States, and elsewhere. Needless to say, those who have ended up in the West suffer the most in coping with their new life in exile. For apart from the obviously difficult condition of being uprooted or banished from their familiar world, these poets find themselves deprived of the most essential needs that sustain their survival as poets: the national source of their inspiration, the daily interaction with the sounds and rhythms of their native language, and the largely receptive audience they have left behind. This is in addition to their disappointment in realizing that poetry in their host countries does not matter as much as it does in their native culture.

To appreciate more fully the predicament of Iraqi poets in Western exile, consider the strong bond between the poet and his audience that has been solidly maintained in Arabic poetry for the past fourteen centuries. There are only a few accounts by Americans who earnestly seek to understand or show an appreciation of this poet-audience bond within the Arab context. One of the most perceptive comments I
have seen thus far is that of Herbert Mason, a noted American scholar, Arabist, poet, and translator. Writing in 1988 about his impressions of the annual Mirbad Poetry Festival held in Baghdad (November 1987), Mason states the following:

The Arab poets are people of theatre in a tradition that was until recent times without actors or playwrights. The poets stand alone on stage with only the wellsprings of their own souls of memory, imagination, and skill to draw on, and the audience's hunger and applause to prompt them. They live and die on the big stage by what they can raise up in their people's hearts beyond their personal [point of view].

Professor Mason's impressions include the obvious distinction he makes between Western and Arab attitudes toward the role of poetry. He points out that "the European or American poet who is conditioned to regard poetry as academic or confessional, private and non-commercial, and virtually unperformable and audience-free, could analyze the Festival as ‘traditional,' for personal refuge."

Like earlier generations of Arab writers-in both North and South America in particular-exiled Iraqi poets have faced the onerous task of re-creating or inventing a semblance of their lost world. They continue to write in their native language while trying to communicate, at the same time, in the languages of their host countries. To mitigate in part the hardships of their isolation and their sense of alienation, they have established, in cooperation with other writers, a number of literary circles or clubs, journals, and small presses, which serve to sustain their creative efforts. By initiating such publications and the other measures cited above, Iraqi poets in exile demonstrate their relative success in re-creating or restoring at least some of the basic conditions of their familiar, but lost, world.

Two additional factors appear to have contributed toward the success of Iraqi poets in this regard. First, they have means of electronic communication, which enables them to reach their readers wherever they are or to retrieve pertinent material without the fear of censorship. Second, their exile in the West provides them with the opportunity to address, more openly and freely, a wide range of themes, including their opposition to the Iraqi regime and to Saddam Hussein in particular.

For the purpose of illustrating such themes, I have chosen six poems by Iraqi exiles currently living in Australia, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Aside from their literary merits, the selected poems provide an overview of the intensity with which Iraqi poets address their concerns, their feelings, and their thoughts as they strive to pursue their life and role as exiles in the West. The twin themes of lamenting the physical separation from the homeland and the illusion of being haunted by it is noted in a number of poems. This is particularly true in the case of the two selections by al-Samawi and al-Sayigh, who emigrated recently to Australia and Sweden, respectively. Both bemoan in a highly agonized tone their separation from the homeland, conjuring up elusive dreams about their return. Both offer a brief narrative of their memories and of their country's troubled time under an oppressive regime. Whether the exiled Iraqis recall their happy memories or lament Iraq's present calamitous conditions, they seem to be resigned to the fact that they have no other option: they are powerless in the face of a homeland that relentlessly pursues them or inhabits their minds and hearts.

As noted in the texts below, exiled poets draw extensively on relevant symbols and allusions, which span Iraq's long history (Assyrian/Babylonian/Sumerian/Arab-Islamic) and its landscape. What is more noteworthy or striking is the mournful, angry, and highly sentimental tone that permeates many of the exilic poems. At times, these poets seem to be overtaken by a sense of resignation that their homeland will not survive as they knew it: it is, in a sense, like a lost paradise. This gloomy vision is aptly conveyed by Sa`di Yusuf's poem, "A Vision." With such an intense tone, these poets, and many other Iraqi writers in exile, seek to express not only their personal anguish and sense of loss but also, and perhaps more importantly, the ordeals, the humiliations, and the inhumane treatment to which Iraq and their fellow citizens have been subjected in recent decades. The most recent war against Iraq has generated a highly negative reaction among Iraqi and other Arab poets. What has been published thus far reveals a radicalized, angry tone that is critical not only of the war and the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq, but also of both Saddam Hussein's oppressive regime and other Arab governments or institutions. As Jasper Mortimer of the Associated Press noted in his report of May 19, 2003, the war is seen by Arab poets, artists, and writers as "the biggest shock to their world since Israel defeated three Arab armies in 1967." While it is too early to assess in definite terms the future orientation of Iraqi poetry in general, there is ample evidence, borne by a deeply rooted poetic tradition, that suggests it will be largely preoccupied with themes of national liberation and resistance to foreign-imposed solutions. Iraqi poets in exile in particular have expressed their misgivings about terminating their exile to return to a homeland under occupation. They seem to be torn between conflicting feelings of relief and disbelief for obvious reasons: Iraq is at last free from Saddam Hussein's rule, but it has fallen victim to what they regard as a new form of colonial oppression. Al-Juburi, for example, in a poem entitled "Baghdad," declares: "Your people have showered you / with a barbaric love / and exchanged the tyrant's departure for your death." In his poem "A Personal Song," Yusuf projects a gloomy picture of Iraq's future (perhaps as a sequel to his poem "A Vision" included in this essay): "Restaurants and hotels will be our roadmaps / and our home in the paradise of shelter: McDonald's / KFC / Holiday Inn / And we will be drowned / Like your name, oh Iraq/ ‘Iraq, Iraq, nothing but Iraq.'"

Adnan Al-Sayegh


On Malmö's bridge
I saw the Euphrates
extending its hands
and leading me-
Where to? I said.
The dream was hardly over
when I saw the Umayyad soldiers
besieging me from every direction.
Farewell to a window
in the land of ruins
Farewell to a palm tree, bombed, stripped of its greenness
Farewell to my mother's clay oven
Farewell to our jaded history piled up on racks
Farewell to a bitter homeland that we leave behind
but where to?
bitterness of exile?
Nothing is left of the palm trees that shaded me
except pale images
empty benches
and trunks of gallows
that demand our heads
And the Euphrates, which baptized me with its pains,
still meanders, coursing with the sorrows of listless
Oh Ulysses
if only you had not arrived
if only the road to Malmö were longer
Oh stranger
who has not seen
a moment of joy?
How does every exile turn into a prison without walls?



Adnan Al-Sayegh (also spelled al-Sa'igh) was born in Kufa, Iraq, in 1955. He has published more than ten collections, including his most recent work, Ta'abbata Manfa (2001). The title (literally "Carrying Exile under His Arm"), which may be translated as "Bearing Exile," refers to a pre-Islamic renegade poet widely known by his nickname, "Ta'abbata Sharran" (He put a mischief under his armpit). Sayigh's reference in this poem to "the Umayyad soldiers" serves as a double allusion associating the martyrdom of Husayn in Karbala (AD 680) at the hands of the Umayyad soldiers with the Iraqi regime's persecution or martyrdom of Shiite dissidents.


Published in: World Literature Today, Vol. 77, No. 3 (2003) USA

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