Iraqi poet Youssef al-Sayigh is one of the many poets who lived and died as a stranger, regardless of his important contributions, which were mostly neglected until after his death in Damascus on December 12, 2005. Al-Sayigh led a life riddled with contradiction, abandoned by his peers, friends, and his government, effectively forced out of the public cultural scene. A poet, novelist, playwright, essayist and painter, he lived a life filled with political and personal tragedy. He was a contemporary of Saadi Yusuf, Abdul Razzaq Abdul Wahed, Musa al-Naqdi and others. This generation followed Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Nazik al-Malaika and Abdul-Wahhab al-Bayati, the founders of the free verse movement of modern Iraqi poetry. Although al-Sayigh’s biography was published post-humously in Egypt in 2005 by his friend Atheer Muhammad Shehab through Dar al Shorouk, much of the poet’s impact during his life was neglected by Iraqi cultural associations because of his affiliation with the Baath party.
Born in Mosulin 1933, Youssef al-Sayigh was an active member of the Iraqi Communist Party and a political activist from the 1950s to 1970s. His association with the party landed in him prison on several occasions. When the Baathists overthrew Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim in the 1963 coup, al-Sayigh was among several communists arrested and imprisoned at the Naqrat al-Salman prison. They later released him in 1968.
A few years later, al-Sayigh suffered from the tragic death of his wife Julie in a car accident in Turkey on March 14, 1976. In eulogizing her, he wrote a collection of 25 poems entitled “The Lady of the Four Apples,” referring to the four apples she had purchased just before the accident. In the words of Rassem al-Madhun in the Beirut-based Al Mustaqbal newspaper, al-Sayigh was “one of the most prominent Iraqi poets who wrote poetry reflecting on individual sadness and contemplating the idea of human alienation in all of its dimensions.” The poem “Ambiguous Romance” is the only eulogy in the collection that also referenced the Communist Party. He wrote, “Allow me to engrave over the wall of my cell two letters, one for ‘love’ and one for the ‘Party.’” Mohammed Ali Shamseddine of Al Hayat suggested that the mastery al-Sayigh showed in these poems cannot be found in his “inferior” political poems of the Baathist era.
His works encompassed poetry, novels, and plays. Al-Sayigh published a few collections of poetry, including “Poems Unfit for Publication” (1957) and the autobiographical “Confessions of Malik bin al-Rayib, Vol. I and II” (1972), his most famous poems in the Arab world. Malik bin al-Rayib was a seventh century Arab poet whose life al-Sayigh felt deeply connected to. Al-Sayigh also published several novels. His novel “The Game” (1972) was named the best Iraqi novel. “The Distance” (1974) discussed the torture of political prisoners, and “Crypt No. 2” (Asurdab No. 2, 1997) chronicled the suffering of militants under the dictatorship. Al-Sayigh’s plays included “The Door” (1986), “The Return” (1987), and “Desdemonda” (1989).
Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship forced al-Sayigh to make a decision that would alter the course of his life: to choose between the Iraqi Communist Party and exile, or the Baathist regime and remaining in Iraq. By 1978, he severed ties with the communist party and began working in official institutions, becoming the director-general of the Cinema and Theater Department. He also wrote for the London-based newspaper Azzaman in the column, “In a Loud Voice.” It was during this time that he began writing poems praising Saddam Hussein.
Throwing in his political lot with the Baathists, who he thought would forever dominate Iraq, al-Sayigh “felt secure in his ability to stand strong on his own, only to be blown away by the tempestuous winds (of change),” in the words of Majid al-Samarai in Al Hayat newspaper. But even the regime betrayed him, preventing him from publishing his works as the government doubted his true level of support. Al-Madhun recalled asking al-Sayigh in 1997 why he did not reprint “The Lady of Four Apples,” to which the poet replied, “Do you think these bastards think I am with them?”
Former friends and colleagues alike labeled al-Sayigh a traitor. His former comrades in the communist party set out to tarnish his career, hurling political accusations that hurt him deeply, according to Fadil Thamer, the secretary general of the Union of Iraqi Intellectuals and Authors. Al-Sayigh also received the ire of other poets like Saadi Youssef, who suggested he was an unqualified poet. Youssef said, “Al-Sayigh wrote his poem late, about 40, and before that he had no history of even attempting poetry...who is he, he lacks credentials,” as cited by Hussein Sarmak Hassan in Al Naked al-Iraqi.
Some supporters and former non-Baathist colleagues defended al-Sayigh. According to Shamseddine, although al-Sayigh joined the Baathist party, it was “only in practice, not in belief.” Many who knew him said he never became anti-communist like other former communist intellectuals after leaving the movement, pointing out an “internalized contradiction.” Abdallah al-Sayigh of the Arab Writers Union doubted whether Sayigh was ever truly a Baathist, but rather a victim of dictatorship: “I say this for I knew how Youssef wasted his youth in prisons for an Iraq in which there would be no place for executioners. Whoever said Youssef al-Sayigh was a communist was correct, and whoever said he was an Iraqi patriot was also correct. But whoever said Youssef al-Sayigh had become Baathist was mistaken.”
Others stressed the need to understand his actions within the context of life under dictatorship. In the words of al-Madhun, “We cannot reduce the story of dictatorship to only political and ideological explanations because it is a story of all of Iraq during Saddam’s reign...al-Sayigh and his poetry became victims.” Saddam Hussein’s influence within Iraq’s creative sectors meant those who were not vocal about supporting the Baathist regime would be targeted. Basam al-Nabris, a journalist from Elaph.com, wrote, “The tyrant Saddam would leave no one alone, except if that intellectual praised and glorified him. Were the intellectual to be ambivalent, or keep his distance, his fate would be at risk.”
Al-Sayigh was not a prolific poet. Rather, in much of his later writings, he refrained from publishing and instead entrusted the work into the hands of others after his death. He gave three manuscripts to his friend Atheer Muhammad Shehab in 2002: an untitled novel, an untitled collection of poetry, and the third part of “The Last Confession,” the only document clearly titled, according to Hamza Alawyiwi in Houn al-Oubnan. The novel repeats the major themes consistent in al-Sayigh’s works: victimhood, betrayal, confession, and to some extent, the problem of a Christian who becomes a Muslim in order to marry the one he loves. Al-Sayigh also penned memoirs (over a thousand pages long) that he left with his fourth wife Sabah al-Khafaji, as well as a collection of short stories and thousands of outline manuscripts relating to topics that preoccupied Iraqis. He is buried in the Cemetery of Strangers in Damascus, where fellow Iraqi poets Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, Abdul-Wahhab al-Bayati, and Mustafa Jamal Al-Din also rest.
Elie Chalala contributed the Arabic translations for this essay.
Elie Chalala contributed the Arabic translations for this essay.
Al Jadid previously published a feature essay on Youssef al-Sayigh. To read Elie Chalala’s “Youssef al-Sayigh: Poet of Sorrows, Master of Contradictions” (Al Jadid, Vol. 11, No.53, Fall 2005), click on the link below:
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