Youssef al-Sayigh: Poet of Sorrows, Master of Contradictions

By Elie Chalala

Many readers had to wait until the recent death of Iraqi poet Youssef al-Sayigh to learn the details of his problematic life.  Major events often thrust sad and hidden details into the open, and al-Sayigh’s death in Damascus on December 12, 2005, was a key event indeed.

Al-Sayigh was a famous Iraqi poet, novelist, playwright, essayist and painter. Two tragedies, one political and one personal, influenced his prominent literary career.

Born in Mosul, Iraq, in 1930 (although some sources cite 1933 as his birth date), al-Sayigh was an early political activist. He joined the Iraqi Communist Party during the late 1950s and remained an active member until the early 1970s. For his work with the Communists, he went to prison several times.

When the communists were crushed in Sudan in the early 1970s, al-Sayigh wrote the poem “A Eulogy of Mahjub” (referring to Abd al-Khaliq Mahjub, Secretary General of the Sudanese Communist Party and his comrades) and read it aloud in one of the largest halls in the School of Engineering in Baghdad University. His audience at the time of this reading would be comparable to that of other famous poets like Mahmoud Darwish and Muzafar al-Nawab, who were Palestinian and Iraqi respectively.

A staunch member of the Iraqi Communist Party – by some accounts the most communist of all the intellectuals in Iraq – al-Sayigh was soon faced with a decision that led to what some have deemed a “political tragedy.” He had to choose between exile with all its difficulties, and Iraq, the land he knew and loved, with all the cruelties of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. Those who knew al-Sayigh say that he had no choice but to join and support the Baathist regime because he did not want to share the fate of thousands of other Iraqi intellectuals forced into exile. According to Rassim al-Madhun in the Beirut-based Al Mustaqbal newspaper, al-Sayigh paid a heavy price for staying in Iraq. Describing the cost of his decision, al-Madhun writes that the choice forced him into another predicament: losing himself.

The Political Tragedy

 

While the political tragedy al-Sayigh faced is not clear-cut, it led to complex layers of pain for himself and those close to or formerly close to the poet. The tragedy, in a sense, was – due to the divisive political climate of the time – that this very talented poet split into two. “Al-Sayigh was twice subjected to back-stabbing: first at the hands of the dictatorial regime; and second at the hands of his comrades through ideological criticisms, which were neither forgiving nor understanding of al-Sayigh’s human predicament,” writes al-Madhun. These criticisms continued for two decades, cutting like a knife in their betrayal of al-Sayigh, a situation that caused one person to make a bitter joke: “We need to get rid of the regime of Saddam, not that of Youssef.”

Iraqi intellectuals differed among themselves in the wake of al-Sayigh’s death. Some of the attacks on his character included elements of his personal life, as well as his political life, diminishing his importance as a literary figure and his status as an intellectual in the process.

Fadil Thamer, the Secretary General of the Union of Iraqi Intellectuals and Authors, identified three broad categories of actors in this debate in the Iraqi newspaper, Al Sabah, as cited in Salam Aboud’s article in the Lebanese An Nahar Literary Supplement. Thamer identifies his colleagues’ views on al-Sayigh as Baathists, former comrades, or neutrals or “silent.” The first were those who wanted to accommodate the Baathist period, eager to use al-Sayigh’s Baathist poems and political conversion to legitimize the Hussein regime. The second were those angry about the regime and deeply resentful of those who supported it. In the case of al-Sayigh’s former comrades in the Communist Party, they viewed him as a traitor and, as such, set out to besmirch his career and works. These political accusations from his former friends, colleagues and comrades hurt al-Sayigh deeply. The third category consisted of those who declined to join either camp, thus earning the label of “silent.”

Salam Abboud attributes this eulogistic controversy to the dominance of the “political” in Iraqi cultural life, a mindset that leads critics to employ political criteria while evaluating artistic and cultural figures as well as gauging achievement. Even within this culture that encourages the political domination of Iraqi intellectual life, al-Sayigh has some allies who judged him on the merit of his accomplishments and were understandable of his political predicament.

Numerous supporters and former colleagues (non-Baathist) of al-Sayigh have recently come to his defense, insisting on the primacy of his original and, arguably more authentic, political affiliation. In an effort to contextualize al-Sayigh’s actions, Rassem al-Madhun argues that the story of dictatorship cannot be reduced to exclusively political and ideological explanations because it is a story of all of Iraq during Saddam’s reign. It is a story in which al-Sayigh and his poetry became victims. Al-Madhun recalls, “I asked him in 1997, ‘Why don’t you reprint your book “The Lady of Four Apples?’ And he answered, ‘Do you think these bastards think I am with them?’” meaning that because he did not fully embrace the Baathist regime, the government would refuse to print his book.

After severing ties with the Iraqi Communist Party and, for whatever motivations, aligning himself with the Baath Party after his release from prison, al-Sayigh became a director of the Cinema and Theater Department in Iraq. This alliance with the Baath Party led al-Sayigh to write a poem titled “Failed Love Letter,” a self-critique revealing his own disappointment with his earlier political affiliation with the Communist Party; the poem was in line with Baathist ideology. According to press reports, al-Sayigh was even courageous enough to defend this poem after the fall of Saddam Hussein. As illustrated later, this attitude is consistent with al-Sayigh’s profound ideological stubbornness.

Journalist Basam al-Nabris describes the condition of Iraqi intellectuals under the regime in the influential electronic newspaper Elaph.com, attempting to make sense of al-Sayigh’s positions: “The tyrant Saddam would not leave anyone alone, except if that intellectual praised and glorified him. Were the intellectual to be ambivalent, or keep his distance, his fate would be known.”

Abdallah al-Sayigh (no known relation) is also of the view that Youssef al-Sayigh was a victim of the dictatorship in Iraq; however, he disputes the idea that al-Sayigh had ever truly become a Baathist. On the Arab Writers Union website, Abdallah al-Sayigh openly accuses Saddam of “having stolen the tree of Iraqi creativity and perhaps even the Arab tree of creativity, which included great poets like Youssef al-Sayigh and Abd al-Razzaq al-Wahed.” Abdallah al-Sayigh continues that he is “most bitter about Youssef because he is the only one counted on the list as pro-Saddam.” Finally he adds: “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.”

Al-Sayigh’s life was filled with contradictions. He was born Christian, said to have been converted to Islam, and yet al-Sayigh seems to have embraced or internalized this contradiction rather than clearly discarding one faith for the other. Basam al-Nabris also notes in Elaph.com, “Although he converted to Islam, I still look at him as a secular intellectual.”

Al-Sayigh’s friends, like Abdallah al-Sayigh, al-Madhun, and many others detect another internalized contradiction, or schism within the poet himself. They note that while al-Sayigh did leave the communist movement, he never became an anti-communist or a communist-basher like some other former communist intellectuals. According to some sources, al-Sayigh never truly renounced his membership nor his sympathy toward the communist movement.

Mohammed Ali Shamseddine agrees. In a recent article in Al Hayat, he writes that al-Sayigh did join the Iraqi Baath Party, but only in practice, not in belief. Shamseddine writes that al-Sayigh benefited from the party and thus praised Saddam with poems, the most famous of which is called “The Master,” widely held as the worst of his political poems. “He (al-Sayigh) defended his position until death,” writes Shamseddine. “I cannot help but ask myself, how is it possible for a poet of Youssef al-Sayigh’s genius and incredible poetic talent to become so blinded? How could it have come to pass that he became two and not one?”

Shamseddine acknowledges the existence of many poets, both in the world at large and in the Arab world, who are “strangely biased in favor of tyranny and dictatorship.” Those poets, in Shamseddine’s view, “have stifled their poetry and oppressed themselves through their behavior.” But, he admits, “As for us, we have to pay more attention to these poets’ creativity after their deaths, and as for their shameful political conduct, this should be left for history which will neither forgive nor forget.”

Shamseddine, a fan of al-Sayigh’s poetry, also knew the late poet personally. In 1974, the two met for the first time at Al Mirbed Festival in Basra. A young man at the time, Shamseddine recalls recognizing al-Sayigh from afar and being slightly intimidated by the man. The young poet listened intently to al-Sayigh and took the seasoned poet’s words to heart; Shamseddine loved al-Sayigh’s personality and admired his poetry. Shamseddine met al-Sayigh annually at Al Mirbed Festival until Saddam Hussein came to power and destroyed not only the country, but also its poets.

A sad and perhaps painful encounter between Shamseddine and al-Sayigh came after Saddam’s rise to power, because of al-Sayigh’s new allegiance to the Iraqi dictator. Shamseddine recalls running into al-Sayigh at a public meeting and shunning his former mentor: “I neither waved nor said hello. Nor did I speak with him. He came toward me and said, ‘Don’t you know me?’ and I said to him, ‘I used to know you, but now I have forgotten you.’” In spite of this cold exchange of words and his disappointment in al-Sayigh’s political actions, Shamseddine remains an admirer of al-Sayigh’s earlier works.

The Personal Tragedy

 

Certainly, al-Sayigh’s life was overshadowed by his contradictory political affiliations, particularly his supposed alliance with the regime of Saddam Hussein. However, al-Sayigh also experienced a painful personal tragedy.

While al-Sayigh’s personal tragedy is easier to describe, it is no less painful than his political one. On March 14, 1976, al-Sayigh lost his wife Julie in a car accident in Turkey. Al-Sayigh was with his wife when the accident occurred. Her death inspired al-Sayigh to write one of his most prized collections of poems: “The Lady of the Four Apples,” thus titled because just before her death, Julie had stopped and bought four apples. This tribute to his late wife, consisting of 25 short poems, is considered one of the best collections of eulogies  according to Farouk Youssef, an Iraqi poet and critic who lives in Sweden. “Ambiguous Romance” and its reference to the Communist Party appears in this collection. “Allow me to engrave over the wall of my cell two letters, one for ‘love’ and one for the ‘Party,’” a reference to the Iraqi Communist Party. It is the only eulogy dealing with politics in the collection.

According to Shamseddine, the mastery al-Sayigh demonstrates in his eulogy poems cannot be found in his inferior political poems of the Baathist era. Al-Sayigh’s political poems are clearly lacking in quality, Shamseddine argues, but his personal poems poignantly evoke emotions. Shamseddine describes al-Sayigh’s “The Lady of the Four Apples”: “the frightening and subdued eulogies, which are marked by the intensity of their sensitivity, vision, glimmer, depth and sorrow makes you part of a mythical world of death in love and love in death, where life encircles death through contemporary rhetorical creativity rarely paralleled in our modern poetry.”

Legacy of Creativity

 

Before his wife’s death, al-Sayigh had already written several books of poetry, including “Poems Unfit for Publication” (1957), co-authored with the late poet Shazel Taqa, and his autobiographical “Confessions of Malik bin al-Rayib, Vol. I and II” (1972).

Al-Sayigh’s poetry was modern and stressed the relationship between poetry and the self. Al-Madhun comments that it would be no exaggeration to claim that 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.”

Al-Sayigh also experimented with the novel, publishing “The Game” in 1972 and “The Distance” in 1974, and, much later, “The Crypt No. 2” (1997) popularly known as “Asurdab No. 2.” The first two novels created an uproar unmatched by any other novels’ publication in Iraq. Though controversial, “The Game” was named the best Iraqi novel in 1970.

Also in the 70s, al-Sayigh returned to the university to work toward a masters degree. His thesis focused on new poetic experiments, which led him to publish the book “Free Poetry in Iraq.”

In the 1980s, al-Sayigh continued to publish frequently. Some of his most notable and fiery publications from this decade include the following plays: “The Door” (1986); “The Return” (1987); and “Desdemonda” (1989). These three works successfully publicized the first Gulf War; they were presented in Baghdad and around the world while the war was being fought. Despite its controversial message and timing, “The Door” received the prestigious award for best play at the Carthage Days of Theatre, held in Tunisia in 1987.

Youssef al-Sayigh, the Person

 

Al-Sayigh underwent a short period of silence toward the end of his life. After three years of quiet, however, he began writing a column titled “In a Loud Voice” in the London-based newspaper Azzaman. Observers can glean some semblance of the totality of his personal and political philosophy by reviewing this period. In Al Hayat newspaper, Majid al-Samarai points out, that al-Sayigh had a strong will, but felt a great sadness for what had happened with his life. He regretted all the unnecessary risks he had taken. “How sad was he over days gone by! He had bet on the strength of his (Baathist) past, but had felt it to be less supportive than a weak tree limb that breaks even before the sight of a tempest,” Al-Samarai wrote. Al-Sayigh had thrown in his political lot with the Baathists, whom he felt would forever dominate Iraq. In this assessment, “he felt secure in his ability to stand strong on his own, only to be blown away by the tempestuous winds (of change).”

All indications suggest that his last years were anything but happy. Al-Sayigh’s health problems started after the war and his departure for Damascus and only mounted as time wore on.

Those who knew him speak of another dichotomy, the compassionate versus the combative personalities. There are accounts by individuals like Mohammad Saeed al-Sakkar which point to an al-Sayigh that is hardly pleasant. Published in the Lebanese daily As Safir, a short but highly relevant part of al-Sakkar’s autobiography covers his relationship with al-Sayigh. Al-Sakkar describes his early and close friendship with al-Sayigh when the former was an editor in Itihad Al Shaab (the Iraqi Communist Party newspaper). Al-Sayigh, as a partisan, used to dispatch reports from Al Mosul in 1959.

Soon al-Sakkar’s tone becomes bitter as he recalls his relationship with al-Sayigh. They argued more and more over petty personal differences, and eventually al-Sakkar’s own beliefs and opinions became subsumed under pressures from his friend, al-Sayigh, who is portrayed as almost dictatorial in his views. Al-Sakkar backs up this impression with an account of a personal/professional conflict some time later in their relationship. Despite their friendship, al-Sayigh had become an editor as well and unilaterally rejected an interpretation of an old poem by al-Sakkar. The poem was subsequently denied publication in Itihad al-Shaab.

There are, however, recounts of a different al-Sayigh, one marked by compassion. Some remember that his warmth was preserved even in prison. While incarcerated, according to one report, al-Sayigh rallied those around him and lifted their spirits. One poet remembers how al-Sayigh would come up with different games for the political prisoners to play; he notes how saddened everyone became when al-Sayigh was transferred to a different prison.

 

The Prevalence of the Political

 

Undoubtedly, political considerations govern the evaluation of Iraqi literary figures and their works. Thanks to decades of dictatorship as well as decades of political opposition to Saddam’s tyranny, politics dominate most areas of Iraqi life, particularly the cultural. With politics strongly in place, everything else –  every cultural product – was subject to its rationale. Nothing about an author was important or unimportant beyond that he was politically correct, and al-Sayigh’s cultural and literary career has been judged by this criteria.

The dominance of the “political” at the expense of the cultural reveals that Iraqi cultural life is in crisis, implies Salam Abboud in An Nahar Literary Supplement. The bitter disagreement among Iraqi intellectuals over al-Sayigh’s legacy paints a lamentable state of Iraqi letters – not because al-Sayigh is so very important, but because the course of his artistic career and political life embodied the contradictions that plague Iraqi intellectuals and Iraqi cultural life, as Abboud suggests. The American invasion of Iraq and the continuing resistance to occupation offer little hope that the cultural will establish its presence as a force autonomous from the political at any time soon.

The prevalence of the political in Iraq reduces the whole intellectual life of Youssef al-Sayigh to his relationships with both the communists and the Baathists, regardless of his contributions to the literature of “eulogies” or to modern Arab poetry. In the end, Iraqi and Arab cultural life have lost out, for the richness of any culture lies in its diversity; the politically motivated exclusions of literary figures and products tend to offer, not only an incomplete picture of culture, but in many cases an impoverished one.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no.53, (Fall 2005)

Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid


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