Sa’adi Youssef : America, America

Sa’adi Youssef in Paris, circa 2004

To commemorate this miserable 5th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, here is a poem by the great Iraqi poet Sa’adi Youssef, remembering the first Bush-led invasion from his exile in Damascus in 1995 where he took refuge as Saddam Hussein wanted his head. He is now living in exile in London — after years of exile in Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, Alexandria, Algiers, Paris, Berlin — and has been refused visas to return to US-occupied Iraq (no doubt because he was a member of the Iraqi Communist Party). It has been extremely difficult to bring him to the US for readings, though he was in NYC in 2007 for the 2007 Pen World Voices festival,and was interviewed on that occasion by Joy E Stocke — an interview you can read here.

America, America

God save America My home sweet home! lala lala lala lala!

The French general who raised his tricolor
over Nugrat al-Salman where I was a prisoner thirty years ago …
in the middle of that U-turn that split the back of the Iraqi army,
the general who loved St Emilion wines
called Nugrat al-Salman a fort…
Of the surface of the earth, generals know only two dimensions:
Whatever rises is a fort
whatever spreads is a battlefield.
How ignorant the general was!
But the French daily Libération was better versed in topography.
The Iraqi boy who conquered her front page
sat carbonised behind a steering wheel
on the Kuwait-Safwan highway
while television cameras
(the booty of the defeated and their identity)
were safe in the truck like a storefront
on rue de Rivoli.

God save America
My home sweet home!


How long must I walk to Sacramento
How long will I walk to reach my home
How long will I walk to reach my girl
How long must I walk to Sacramento
For two days, no boat has sailed this stream
two days, two days, two days
Honey, how can I ride?
I know this stream
but, 0 but, 0 but, for two days
no boat has sailed this stream

La L La La L La
La L La La L La
A stranger gets scared
Don’t fear dear horse
Don’t fear the wolves of the wild
Don’t fear for the land is my land
La L La La L La
La L La La L La
A stranger gets scared

God save America
My home sweet home!

I too love jeans and jazz and Treasure Island
and John Silver’s parrot and the terraces of New Orleans
I love Mark Twain and the Mississippi steamboats
and Abraham Lincoln’s dogs
I love the fields of wheat and corn and the smell of
Virginia tobacco.
But I am not American. Is that enough for the
Phantom pilot to turn me back to the Stone Age!
I need neither oil, nor America herself, neither the
elephant nor the donkey.
Leave me, pilot, leave my house roofed with palm
fronds and this wooden bridge.
I need neither your Golden Gate nor your
I need my village not New York.
Why did you come to me from your Nevada desert,
soldier armed to the teeth?

Why did you come all the way to distant Basra
where fish used to swim by our doorsteps.
Pigs do not forage here. I only have these water
buffaloes lazily chewing on water lilies.
Leave me alone soldier.
Leave me my floating cane hut and my fishing spear.
Leave me my migrating birds and their green feathers.
Take your roaring iron birds and your Tomahawk missiles.
I am not your foe.
I am the one who wades up to the knees in rice paddies.
Leave me to my curse. I do not need your day of doom.

God save America
My home sweet home!

let us exchange gifts.
Keep your smuggled cigarettes
give us potatoes.
Keep James Bond’s golden pistol
give us Marilyn Monroe’s giggle.
Keep the heroin syringe
give us vaccines.
Keep your blueprints for model penitentiaries
give us village homes.
Keep the books of your missionaries
give us paper for poems to defame you.
Keep what you do not have
give us what we have.
Keep the stripes of your flag
give us the stars.

Keep the Afghani Mujahideen’s beard
give us Walt Whitman’s beard filled with butterflies.
Keep Saddam Hussain
give us Abraham Lincoln
or give us no one.

Now as I look across the balcony
across the summer sky, the summery summer
Damascus spins, dizzied among television aerials
then it sinks, deeply, in the stories of the forts
and towers
and the arabesques of ivory
and sinks, deeply, from cornerstones of faith
then disappears from the balcony.

And now I remember trees:
the date palm of our mosque in Basra, at the end of Basra:
the bird’s beak
a child’s secret
a summer feast.
I remember the date palm.
I touch it. I become it, when it falls black without fronds
when a dam fell cut down by lightning.
And I remember the mighty mulberry
when it rumbled, butchered by an axe …
to fill the stream with leaves
and birds
and angels
and green blood.
I remember when pomegranate blossoms covered
the sidewalks,
the students were leading the workers’ parade …

God save America
My home sweet home!

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
hungry 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

Damascus, 20 August 1995

(translated by Khaled Mattawi)

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