Songs to be Spoken: Sa’adi Youssef

Saadi Youssef is one of the most prominent and renowned poets of Iraq. In the early 1950's, when he was still a young man, Saadi Youssef became part of a revolutionary movement in modern Iraqi poetry known as the Jama’at al-Ruwwad, or the Group of Pioneers. Since then Youssef has published over thirty volumes of poetry, two novels, a collection of short stories, and four volumes of collected work.

Though exiled from his home in the southern Basra region after the institution of the Ba’ath party in 1978, Saadi Youssef continued to write about the birds, rivers, trees, and the lives and struggles of the common people of Iraq. In his study “The Poetics of the Political Poem,” Ferial Ghazoul described Youssef’s talent as the “poeticization of the familiar and quotidian.” Youssef’s attention to the pains and passions of the Iraqi folk experience is one of his most acclaimed traits. Many of his subjects are the marginalized and oppressed: laborers, women crushed by both sexism and poverty, the struggling farmer, and children enduring the post-colonial starvation and New Colonial brutality of Iraq. He speaks both to and for these people; by abandoning the formal diction and rigidity of traditional Arabic poetry for the idioms and colloquial voice of his home region of southern Iraq, Saadi Youssef creates verse that is accessible to any person, whether educated by the elite training of academia or educated by the struggles of common life.

In this Youssef is able to make that which is called “common” by that academic elite (and often, therefore, insignificant) uncommonly beautiful and inherently important. This is in itself a radical act: by refocusing the cultural lens on marginalized subjects, not only does he represent the experience of the poorer masses, Youssef challenges the very right of the cultural and artistic dominance of the elite classes.

Youssef writes in the taf’ila mode, an Arabic style of free verse which has come to dominate Iraqi poetry since the metrical revolution of the late 1940's. In his work he employs various forms of repetition, imagery, and rhythms familiar to the traditional folklore and songs of southern Iraq, including the popular poetic form al-abudhiyia, a quatrain in which the last word of the first three lines are perfect rhymes (the same word) with disparate meanings while the fourth line ends in an alternate rhyme which resolves the issues brought up in the first three. He has also integrated into his work traditional forms of epic poetry, nature poetry, and more modern forms of political and erotic writing.

The poetry of Saadi Youssef tells the incredible story of his country, linking the memory of the ancient land of Gilgamesh and Eden to the struggles of the modern epic hero in Iraq, a land beset by the poverty, despotism, and war. In his famous poem “America, America,” Youssef writes:

We are not hostages, America
and your soldiers are not God's soldiers . . .
We are the poor ones, ours is the earth of the drowned gods
the gods of bulls
the gods of fires
the gods of sorrows that intertwine clay and blood in a song . . .
We are the poor, ours is the god of the poor
who emerges out of the farmers' ribs
and bright
and raises heads up high . . .

America, we are the dead
Let your soldiers come
Whoever kills a man, let him resurrect him
We are the drowned ones, dear lady
We are the drowned
Let the water come

– Saadi Youssef, “America, America,” Damascus, August 20, 1995

(For a full text of the poem “America, America” see the section entitled “Works by the Author.”)

It is through this standard of speaking for the voiceless in terms of fire, blood and clay, the words of life and living, that Saadi Youssef has become one of the most widely published, read, and best loved poets of Iraq, and one of the most important voices of popular resistance in a time of intense global change.

Works Cited

Spiral of Iraqi Memory. Ferial J Ghazoul. Al-Ahram Weekly Online : 17 - 23 April 2003 (Issue No. 634) <>

Publish or Perish. Rich Broderick. Reprinted from Ruminator Review. FifthColumnMag. October 9, 2003 <>

The Politics and Poetics of Sa’di Yusuf: the Use of the Vernacular - Modern Iraqi Literature in English Translation. Saadi A. Simawe. Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ). Fall 1997. <>

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