- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 4, 2002

LONDON — During the nearly 25 years he has spent in exile, Iraqi poet Saadi Yousef often has written about his beloved Basra and his longing to return to the southern Iraqi city.
Like millions of other Iraqis who fled Saddam Hussein's repression, Mr. Yousef feels deeply torn. His memories remain in his homeland with the family and friends he left behind, but in exile, he continues to create.
"For my existence and my psychological balance, I had to fight nostalgia or homesickness because it was painful and a hindrance to my creative work," he says in an interview at his London home.
Mr. Yousef is considered one of Iraq's leading writers for the power of his poetry as well as his commitment to fighting for the democratization and modernization of his country. He writes in Arabic and has been translated into French, Spanish, Russian, Turkish and other languages. His first collection in English is about to be published.
Before leaving Iraq, Mr. Yousef was imprisoned several times on charges of being a communist. He says he wasn't a party member but admired "communist ideals."
In 1979, shortly before Saddam Hussein openly took power in a country he had ruled behind the scenes for 10 years, Mr. Yousef and thousands of communists and leftists fled as the Iraqi leader started a brutal crackdown on political opponents.
Mr. Yousef was born in 1934 in a village in the Basra area that over the centuries gave Iraq and the Arab world renowned literary figures Basra is the home port of the legendary vagabond sailor Sinbad. Tradition has it that the city was built near the biblical Garden of Eden.
Exile for Mr. Yousef has meant wandering like Sinbad. He has lived in nearly a dozen countries, including Algeria, Cyprus, Jordan, France, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and finally the United Kingdom, his current home.
One of the first poems he wrote about exile described crossing from Libya into Algeria, where he worked as a teacher for years:
"On the sands of North Africa, I carried palm leaves,
"I sailed through ports from the East to exile,
"When the policeman stopped me in Burqa,
"I tore my identification, gave him one half,
"And my beloved the other."
In the interview, Mr. Yousef says his art was fueled by memories of his homeland even though he knows the Iraq of his youth no longer exists.
He describes his sadness at hearing that a mud-brick bridge he used to cross as a child to go to school was destroyed during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war.
In 1989, Mr. Yousef heard from a friend visiting Iraq that his mother had died five years earlier. The Iraqi government had banned his relatives in Iraq from contacting him, so they had been unable to relay the news.
"I was her source of agony, and I wished to be there to apologize to her," he says, recalling that she once traveled for a day through the desert to bring him water while he was in a prison.
When his only son died in a car accident in 1995, he could not send the body for burial in Iraq.
Mr. Yousef gave away most of his possessions before sneaking out of Iraq.
"If there is anything I would love to have, it is my personal library, my records and the paintings I collected but lost," he says.
Mr. Yousef is almost 70, and he keeps a busy schedule. He is finishing the first collection of his poems to be translated into English and travels to recite poetry to Arab and Iraqi communities in Europe.
He devotes much of his time to bringing Iraqi writers, journalists and artists together in what he calls the Iraqi Culture Parliament, a group aimed at promoting dialogue and cooperation among the divided Iraqi exile community.
"Like any artist, my material is the universe, and I have this illusion of possessing the ability to make things better and more beautiful," Mr. Yousef says, settling himself on a sofa and sipping araq, the Iraqi-made date-based alcohol.
Mr. Yousef has broken away from traditional, classical Arabic styles by writing in contemporary Arabic and Iraqi vernacular. He uses ordinary objects and simple language to convey deep meanings and subtle ideas in his poetry.
Ferial Ghazoul, professor of comparative literature at the American University in Cairo, wrote that "through his style and topics, Mr. Yousef tries to fuse the poetic with the political, the universal with the local, the contemporary with the classical."
Mr. Yousef has published 30 volumes of poetry and seven books of prose. He also has translated Western poets, including Walt Whitman, into Arabic.
His publisher, Fakhri Karim, owner of the Syria-based Al-Mada House, says Mr. Yousef is one of the most widely read Arab poets and that his books still sell well across the Arab world. Mr. Yousef's fourth Arabic collection appears this month, boosting his complete published works in Arabic to about 2,000 pages.
"With such a vast production and popularity, every Iraqi should take pride in him," Mr. Karim said in an interview from Damascus.
Mr. Yousef is in exalted company among poets who have collided with the Iraqi regime. Mohammed Mahdi al-Jawahiri, among Iraq's best poets, was stripped of his Iraqi citizenship for attending a poetry festival in Saudi Arabia. Mr. Jawahiri died shortly afterward at age 98 in Syria, where he was buried. Abdel Wahab al-Bayati and Buland al Haydari, who helped introduce free verse to Arab poetry, both died recently in exile.
"The poet lives in the road and dies in the road, and this is the course taken by all poets whom I respect," Mr. Yousef says. "If you want to be an artist, you should live and die free. The poet is synonymous with freedom."


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