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'We live with death': Iraqi poets on loss, grief and hope

Iraqi poets Omar al-Jaffal and Adnan al-Sayegh remind us that Iraq is a country with a rich history of poetry
Adnan al-Sayegh has lived in exile since his work fell foul with Saddam Hussein's government in the 1980s. He now lives in London (Photo courtesy of Adnan al-Sayegh)

Omar al-Jaffal is an Iraqi poet and journalist who lives in Baghdad. His home country has long been at the centre of headlines since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and later the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) and its self-proclaimed caliphate in 2014. 

In the last decade, news of bombings and explosions ripping through various locations and killing many civilians in Iraq has become familiar to readers around the world.

Much of the country’s rich history - which has in part been destroyed in the aftermath of the US-led invasion and the onslaught of IS militants - has been pushed aside in the minds of many. 

“Iraq seems to be one long action film set at a fast pace, without an end, and this attracts the attention of the media a lot,” Jaffal told Middle East Eye.

The security situation in Iraq affected the country’s writers and artists, according to Jaffal.

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“The daily diary of Baghdad is truly terrifying and there is little beauty and affection,” he said.

Omar al-Jaffal (Photo courtesy of Omar al-Jaffal)

Despite this backdrop of daily violence, the situation for writers and artists is not just black and white, it is a battle between newfound freedoms in the post-2003 era and new constraints.

Jaffal, whose poetry collection in 2009 won a prize by a Damascus-based publishing house, often refers to the negative impact the political situation and the security crisis - including various armed factions - has on the life of poets and artists.

Many of these factions are involved in the fight against IS. According to Jaffal, one of the most exhausting things has been the violence that prevents artists from establishing a routine and has often forced him and other artists to suspend their projects for months.

On a personal level, he has a routine “of loss and grief,” but no routine of writing.

'We live with death, it turns into a part of our daily lives'

The Iraqi poet, who often covers the political situation in his country as a journalist, said that the struggle within society and attempts to change the current reality were taking place “at the heart of literature,” with writers directing young people to reject the authorities’ censorship.

Amidst all the violence, this was a cause for optimism regarding the transformative power of literature and culture, said Jaffal.

My Soul

One of the most significant violent events that shaped Iraq’s recent history was IS militants taking control of Mosul, which al-Jaffal reflected upon in 2014 in the following poem translated from Arabic to English, entitled My Soul.

My soul is a desert and my days are sands

And those thirsty Bedouins are my dreams

Last night

I rinsed my mind with geniality

And dyed my heart with departure

I left my fingers and took my bag

Translated by Eman Morsi

For Jaffal, these lines captured “the alienation and estrangement I felt… amidst the intensification of sectarian identities”.

On 17 October, Iraqi forces - backed by the US - launched an offensive to retrieve the city of Mosul from IS militants.  

Exile and the homeland

With its turbulent history, Iraq over recent decades has produced a steady stream of refugees. The war with IS has forced around 3.4 million people to leave their homes across Iraq, according to the UN. 

To find out how an exiled artist feels about his home country, MEE talked to acclaimed Iraqi poet Adnan al-Sayegh.  

Sayegh, an award-winning writer that now resides in London, was born in al-Kufa, south of Baghdad, in 1955. He said that his family home was very close to the banks of the Euphrates, the ancient river flowing through eastern Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

His work, seen as a threat by Saddam Hussein's government, landed him a death sentence in absentia in 1996. He began living in exile in 1993 in Jordan, then headed to Lebanon, Sweden and finally the UK.  

Adnan Al-Sayegh (Photo courtesy of Adnan Al-Sayegh)

 Despite these long years away from home, it was clear from early on that Sayegh, who has published numerous collections of poems, does not feel detached from Iraq; quite the opposite.

“Iraq is the homeland of both my soul and poems,” he said.

Talking about his experience in exile, he described it as having had a “severe” effect, which “stole a lot from my life,” but also offered him new freedom. 

“It is true that I have lived in exile about a quarter of a century, but I am still attached to Iraq," he said. “I still yearn for each spot there: my old home library, the days of my childhood, my friends, the river, palm trees, streets and cafes.”

Having been imprisoned for over a year in the 1980s and later sentenced to death under Saddam Hussein, Sayegh expressed his opinion on freedom of expression in Iraq in the post-2003 era in one of his poems, translated from Arabic to English, called Forming. 



The dictator’s statue

From the city square

But it has been full of their statues

(Translated by Jawad Wadi)

Sayegh said that those who never lived in his home country could find it difficult to understand the current state of Iraq.

“Yes, dictatorship is deposed to some extent, and the citizen and/or poet has got his freedom of expression without being confronted with state control and its weapons,” he said.

He explained, however, that other restrictions, mainly religious and social limitations, have grown over the last 13 years.

“Today we have multiple smaller dictators and sergeants controlling us and our lives in the streets and at home," he said.

Jaffal, speaking from Baghdad, agreed, saying that while democracy was introduced after the 2003 invasion, the current phase also had taboos, particularly relating to religion and sex.

On his part, Sayegh personally experienced the new realities of Iraq when he was invited to a reading at the al-Marbed poetry festival 10 years ago. Reflecting on what happened, he said:

“I was very welcome and read my poems freely, but after I came down from the stage, I got attacked by a man from the religious militias, threatening to cut off my tongue because I - as he said - talked about God in a way that didn’t please him, and he is the agent of God."

Realising how dangerous the situation was back then - sectarian violence peaked in Iraq in 2006-7 - his poet friends helped him flee across the border to Kuwait and eventually back to his exile in London.

One of Sayegh’s most famous works is Uruk’s Anthem, one of the longest poems in Arab history at over 500 pages. He said this poem was the reason behind the death penalty he received in absentia in 1996. Sayegh began writing it in Iraq and continued while he was in exile.

We would have gone on building these lands

As God wanted in his Babylonian dream 

Water and prayers rippling over the steps of its hanging gardens

But they destroyed us

Built a prison from our dried blood

And called it a homeland

Then said: be grateful for your country

Translation by Jenny Lewis and Ruba Abughaida

Hope for the future

Both poets often refer to their country’s long history of poetry, which harks back to the epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian poem telling the story of the king of Uruk.

Sayegh at one point cites the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who he met many times in Baghdad and Amman in the 1980s and 90s.

“Be an Iraqi to become a poet, my friend,” he recalled Darwish telling him.

Many critics noted that mainstream media coverage often paints a different image of Middle Eastern countries and their inhabitants as violent, with topics like IS and al-Qaeda and their global impact overshadowing depictions of what life is actually like in the diverse societies of Iraq, Yemen, Syria and beyond.

Looking ahead Jaffal said it would be a “long way to get rid of all this devastation and the culture which the ruling parties are trying to impose”. But he was also hopeful, saying that despite his pessimism about the political situation, he found Iraqi art to be developing in a “stunning way”.

“I don’t think Iraq will give up, under any condition, to produce skillful writing in poetry or novels or articles," he said.

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