When exile is the price of poetry

Iraqi poet, Adnan al-Sayegh (born in 1955) has paid a heavy price for his poetry which denounces the devastation of wars and the horrors of dictatorship, writes Colette Sheridan

 

He lives in London where he has been in exile since 2004. He was previously in exile in Jordan and the Lebanon.

After being sentenced to death in Iraq in 1996 because of the publication of Uruk’s Anthem, one of the longest poems in the history of Arabic poetry, he took refuge in Sweden. The poem, over 500 pages, expresses the terrible despair emanating from the Iraqi experience.

Adnan, who will be reading from his work at Ó Bheal’s Winter Warmer Weekend in Cork, takes solace from his belief that the pen is mightier than the sword. “The pen is a great engine for life, revolutions and developments.”

Seamus Heaney’s poem, ‘Digging’, is another touchstone for Adnan. “By pen, by poem, the writer is capable of doing a lot, able to change the world.”

Adnan, who was born in the city of Kufa in Iraq, wrote his first poem when he was a boy of ten, “passionate about writing words in my notebook and craving books and magazines. From time to time, I wrote down some of my thoughts.”

His debut poem dealt with his father who was sick in bed. When Adnan’s mother found the hidden poem, she began to cry.

“Her tears on my paper touched my heart. Those tears were the first and most valuable poetic testimony in the world.”

The search for Utopia was the spur that initially prompted Adnan to write. He describes his work as being about “freedom, beauty, love, thoughts and peace as they have supreme value and a reason for our existence on this planet.”

He adds that women feature strongly in his poems. “Women are the source of existence, the song of life and of the soul. They are inspiration. Life does not make sense without them.”

Asked what it is like to live in exile, Adnan says: “The poet in exile has nothing but his papers and songs and will leave nothing after his departure apart from them.”

He says he has become used to having a glass half-full rather than glass half-empty attitude to his situation. “I try to develop my poetic experience by opening up the world’s most recent poetic experiences. I have great relationships with poets here in Britain and earlier, in Sweden, and around the world. They give me plenty and feed my soul.”

Adnan says that he feels in constant danger.” He distances himself from any religious background and despite the threat he lives under, he says living without allegiances to religious and political structures makes him free.

“I am a completely free man, not associated with a party, religion or nationality. I believe that man is the centre of the universe and has the highest valued in existence. Therefore, he is greater than geographical or sectarian divisions. He is a creative soul that should never be constrained in any way. The traditions from which I came are very different and ambiguous.”

Are wars inevitable? “When people learn and grow, they will not think of fighting, but of dialogue, peace and fruitful co-operation to build a better life. Wars are the language of primitive people who are unable to interact with or assimilate their thoughts. Therefore, knowledge is a safety valve for humanity.”

Adnan al-Sayegh will be a guest poet at the Winter Warmer Weekend, organised by Ó Bheal, at the Village Hall, Patrick’s Quay, Cork, Nov 24-25


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