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In my homeland
fear gathers me up & pulls me apart :
a man who writes
and another who watches over me –
from behind closed curtains

Baghdad  10th January 1987

Martyrs of the Uprising

Those who
were heaped in piles
before the tanks of the Guard,
those who so often dreamed of land
and then flew off with white wings
those whose tombstones fertilised
cactiof oblivion
those whose stories were eroded
piece by piece …
In the city’s tumult
see how they look, their astonished
eyes, & our ability to forget them
so absolutely

Baghdad 1992

A Hole

A passing shot
glanced his sleep –
and the blood of
defeated dreams
gushed viscous
onto his pillow.

Baghdad  1st January 1993


He came back
from the dusts of war
with a wounded heart, his
arms full with drums & gold
dreaming of Clytemnestra’s
honeyed lips that at that very
moment Aegisthus was melting
with his own, as every night.
And as he opened the door
he sensed on her lips’ grease
the thousands of corpses he’d
abandoned under the open sky
& recalled how he’d forgotten
to leave his own body there.

 Baghdad 14th January 1993

Adnan Al-Sayegh was born in al-Kufa,Iraq in 1955. In the 1980’s he was conscripted in the Iran-Iraq war and in 1993 his uncompromising criticism of oppression and injustice led to exile in Jordan and the Lebanon.
He has been described as  “one of the most original voices of the generation of Iraqi poets that came to maturity in the 1980’s, his poetry, sharp & crafted with elegance, carries an intense passion for freedom, love and beauty. His words denounce the devastation of wars and the horrors of dictatorship, but also act on quieter and more personal levels.”
In 1996 he published ‘Uruk’s Anthem’ – a book-length poem, one of the longest in Arabic literature – in which he richly articulates deep despair at the Iraqi experience. On its publication he was sentenced to death in Iraq and took refuge in Sweden. Since 2004 has been living in exile in London.
Adnan Al-Sayegh has received several international awards, including the Hellman-Hammet International Poetry Award(New York 1996), the Rotterdam International Poetry Award(1997) and the Swedish Writers Association Award (2005). His poetry has been translated into many languages and he is frequently invited to take part in poetry festivals around the world.   S.H.






You only, Mahmoud, know what really happened,
Your eyes alone recall with precision their eyes in the darkness,
Only your ears preserve the voices of your killers

O dissecting tables,  O laboratories
This crime cannot possibly remain concealed for ever
Show us their features printed on the eyes of Mahmoud
The last thing a man sees remains in the retina
Such a crime cannot be obliterated so easily.

If it is thus, then every science is rendered impotent
Uncover from the hammer and anvil bones what the assassins said to him
What answer Mahmoud gave to the knives

The dialogue between a killer steeled to his task
And the victim at the point of extermination
Is the most painful in the history of speech

O Guardian Angels who are on the shoulders of every human being
Doubtless you know the facts in every detail
From the knock on the outer door to the last withdrawal of breath
But you are bound by duty to silence and absence
It is your duty to obey but your obedience is utterly blind

You cannot be called to the witness stand
Even if the Earth were to be turned upside down

But tell me, Guardian Angels, did you ever lose your balance
When the blows rained down without a break one after the other?
Did you stay there on his shoulders until he gasped his life away?

Note:  This poem was read out at the Poetry Cafe, Covent Garden, on Wednesday 7th September (see Events and Meetings) to conclude the evening devoted to the memory of the two great modern Iraqi poets, al-Sayyab and al-Braikan.  Though this poem can stand alone, it is taken from a longer Arabic poem by Salah Niazi not yet translated in entirety.
It may also be worth mentioning that there are indeed bones within the ear which resemble a ‘hammer and anvil’ (l. 10), also that, in the Islamic tradition, the two Guardian Angels (l. 15) actually stand on the shoulders, they do not just hover in the air as depicted in Victorian prints.   S.H.