Saturday, September 12, 2009

Saadi Yousef's "The Tormented of Heaven"/An Iraqi Response to Abu Ghraib

Saadi Yousef
Sa ‘di Yusuf, (known in American poetry journals as Saadi Youssef) [b. 1934 Basrah, Iraq], is one of the most prolific and greatest contemporary Arab poets. He has published more than forty works of poetry and prose, including translations of selected poems by Walt Whitman. As a committed secular and revolutionary poet Yusuf is widely known for his uncompromising opposition to Saddam Husayn’s regime. Currently living in London, Yusuf has lived most of his life in exile in Arab and European countries. A collection of his poetry, translated by Khaled Mattawa, was recently published in the United States under the title Without an Alphabet, Without a Face (Graywolf, 2002). These poems have been translated from the Arabic into English and used with the poet’s permission.

"The Tormented of Heaven" by Saadi Youssef
(Translated from the Arabic by Salih J. Altoma)

We are on our way to Allah
for shrouds we have only our blood;
for camphor, the eyeteeth of wolfish dogs. (*)

The closed cell suddenly swung open
to let in a female soldier
our swollen eyes failed to clearly identify her
perhaps she was from an ambiguous world
she said nothing
she was dragging my brother’s bleeding body, like a worn-out mat.

we will walk toward Allah
with putrid feet
with lacerated limbs

Are the Americans Christians?
in our cell we have nothing for anointing the prostrate corpse
in our cell there is nothing but our blood clotting in our blood
and the odor coming from the continent of slaughterhouses
the Angels will not enter here. The air is stirring
it’s the wings of hell’s bats
The air is still.

O Lord , we waited for you
our cells were open yesterday
we were lying motionless on its floor
and you, O Lord, did not come.

But we are on our way to you
we’ll find the road to you even if you forsake us
we are your dead sons
we have trumpeted our Day of Resurrection
Tell your Prophets to open for us the doors:
the doors of cells and paradise
Tell them we are coming
we washed ourselves with dry sand (**)
the Angels know us all … one by one...

(*) Islamic method of bathing a dead body includes washing the body with a mixture of water and camphor.

(**) The poet uses here a Quranic verse which deals with ablution rituals before prayer. It recommends washing with dry sand or clean earth when water is not accessible.” And [if] ye find no water, then take for yourselves clean sand or earth, And rub therewith Your faces and hands.” The Quran IV: 43.

Salih J. Altoma is professor emeritus of Arabic and Comparative Literature at Indiana University.


Anonymous said...

A new book in English on Youssef's poetry:

Lyle Daggett said...

A couple of years ago I wrote a review of Without an Alphabet, Without a Face in my blog, here.

One of the commenters to my blogpost gave a weblink to a piece of literary criticism about Saadi Youssef's work; it's the same weblink given by the previous commenter to your blogpost here.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks for your link, Lyle, and for your good review of Mattawa's translation!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Phil for reprinting Yousef's poem. I should add that it was written (May 10, 2004)soon after Abu Ghraib's episode. The translation itself appeared on the poet's website and was published in Across Borders,Lebanon,NH 2005and other journals.