Adnan Al-Sayegh’s Anti-War Poetry: A Cry Against Inhumanity

Hana’ KhaliefGhani, University of Al-Mustansiriya & Sura Hussein Mohammed Ali MA, University of Baghdad


This paper aims at exploring the impact of the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988) in the poetry of Adnan Al-Sayeghwhose participation in this war makes him a firsthand witness to the atrocities of the trenches and fight in the frontlines. This war did not only change Al-Sayegh’s life and worldview for good, it changes the nature of his poetry as well. As a result, war becomes a central issue not only in the poetry Al-Sayegh wrote in the 1980s and 1990s in Iraq, but also in the exile. The study is divided into three sections of various lengths. While section one sheds lights on the most important aspects of Al-Sayegh’s life, the second is a critical analysis of some of his anti-war poems. The conclusion states the main findings of the study.

[Keywords: War, Al-Sayegh, Poetry]

I: “What Remains of my country Iraq”: The homeland as a battlefield:

Adnan Al-Sayegh’s (1955-) was 25 years old when he participated in the Iran Iraq war(1980-1988) and saw his country devastated by the havoc of war. He was 36 when a more destructive war broke out between Iraq and the United States of America and its allies in 1991 followed by 12 years of heavy economic sanctions that affected all aspects of life. Al-Sayegh was 48 when the third war broke out between Iraq and the United States of America. In these three wars, “not a single Iraqi family was left untouched,” as Al-Athari (2008,3). As a poet, Al-Sayegh belonged to what is called “The 1980s War Generation” which included a number of Iraqi poets who, one can safely say, wrote about nothing but war (Jabr, 2011,363). In 1987, poets prepared aspecial issue in Huras al-Watan journal, in the literary sectionof this military magazine, headed and edited by poet Adnanal-Sayigh. Fourteen poets wrote of their personal experiencesand philosophies concerning war. It was in this issue’s introduction, considereda manifesto, that the eighties generation named themselves “theWar Generation,” although knowing that this name would mostlikely anger the authorities.     Like the other Iraqi anti-war poets, Al-Sayegh had to “create tools to survive the various fronts: the war itself, their own stance on the war, and their fear of falling into the war’s propaganda machine” (Ibid,374).

Al-Sayegh’s poetical talent began to manifest itself at an early stage of his life. However, an untimely poem of protest against the managerial officials of the Club of the Institution of Agriculture which was grossly misunderstood as a provocation against the State resulted in Al-Sayegh’s dismissal from the Institution. Besides this, there is another incidents that rubbed salt into Al-Sayegh’s wound. As a result of accusing Al-Sayegh of having some banned books, he was arrested, transported, and then detained in a stable with a number of soldiers for two years. There he lived amidst the animals’ excrement, bombing, scorpions, boxes of ammunitions, and the hallucination of Said Hirz; a soldier who was suffering from schizophrenia(Al-Sayegh, 2008).

These two years Al-Sayegh spent in the stable left an indelible impact in his morale and psyche. As Ismael meaningfully remarks, this stable becomes, metaphorically speaking, “his own country in miniature”. In other words, what Al-Sayegh witnessed in the stable, represented what “THEY wanted to do with the country”(Ismael, 2002). In the stable, Al-Sayegh tried to write poetry, but all his efforts were in vain. In a desperate attempt to overcome his feelings of alienation and frustration, Al-Sayegh launched, as Ali Haider points out, “a poetic counterattack on war itself”. Whether consciously or unconsciously, this poetic act of war resistance made Al-Sayegh a “war poet par excellence”(qtd. in Ibid).

II-Al-Sayegh’s Poetry of Trauma and Resistance:

In critically reading Al-Sayegh’spoetry which he wrote in Iraq, one must take into consideration that he was living in what he called “The Homeland of Wars”. This description is not surprising since, in less than three decades, the Iraqis have been experiencing continuous wars that wreaked havoc in all aspects of life. Like other Iraqis, Al-Sayegh had had a firsthand experience of war atrocities and its tragic consequences. No doubt, these successive wars and their catastrophic occurrences left an indelible mark in the psyche of the Iraqis.However, nowhere this impact is clearer than in the poetry of Al-Sayegh which Al-Shabinder (2004) asserts:

[R]ises the curtain on a more dangerous death than the physical; it is the moral and psychological death with which Al-Sayegh is concerned. This death reigns supreme over all aspects of life. His poetry displays images of physical death, killing boredom, deadly routine. There is no attempt at hiding or beautifying what is already condemned in the war. But there is one subtle aspect which we must look for: the moral [and psychological] death.

During the war, poetry for Al-Sayegh helped to alleviate the feelings of loss and frustration amidst the sounds of shelling and the overwhelming smell of death. Al-Sayegh’s depiction of daily life in the trenches and front lines was realistic to the marrow. The images of the helpless and powerless soldiers who were forced to act deadly parts in the massive drama of war were vivid and quite impressive. His poetry photographically captured the grotesque and gruesome experiences of war. He relied heavily on the direct description, everyday language, and all the figures of speech available to him, to present a war poem as close to reality as possible. This enabled Al-Sayegh, Al-Sagar (1988) remarks, to “meet the war in the middle of the distance between the poem as a literary construction and himself as a poet/soldier. He did this deliberately to make his poems closer to life and ordinary people”.

In his narration of his war experience, the soldier/poet, Al-Sayegh(2004,404) assured his readers that “He had seen trenches, camps, huts, and cannons more than [them] / He had carried dozens of corpses away from the battlefields”. At the age of 26, Al-Sayegh found himself in a situation where “the absurdity of death intermingles with the absurdity of life”.(Ibid, 496)

Al-Sayegh’s poems photographically portrayed the soldiers’ daily life in the trenches and the frontlines ramparts; among the blown bodies of his friends and the smell of death. By making war his central cause and poetic cocern, Al-Sayegh was able to acquire a socio-political vision that made his poetry quite unique. Using poetry to denounce war and to defend his humanness made Al- Sayegh’s war poem “the closest to the spirit of the age and the most honest in translating his life experiences in all their varieties and dimensions”.(Al-Sudani, 2013)

For Al-Sayegh, nothing is more real than the bombs, shells, and swollen corpses of the dead soldiers. Therefore, he admits in his poem ‘Searching for an Address’ that “bombs do not lie/ as do the military communiques and leaders/ Then take all the bombs and describe the war/ Take all the bleedings of war/… And describe the peace in my country”. (370 L19-21)(All subsequent quotations are from Al-Sayegh, 2004, nless otherwise indicated)

Al-Sayegh’s treatment of war acquired new dimension in “Flowers For ..The New Morning”. In this poem, he addressed the war directly. He was hopeful that sooner or later peace would come. He says: “O war / The swollen womb of life/ We planted everything inside you / Our childhood and wishes, our poems, fears, and our anxious lifetimes / So that a dewy morning, You could beget / the future child of peace”.(394-5 L17-22)

Al-Sayegh acknowledged his inability to forget his war experience which accompanied him like his shadow. In the same poem, he wondered: “How many bombs you have to count / To declare the end of war / How many flowers you have to pluck out / To shout ‘O Spring!’ / O My heart! / O the sparrowless city… / How much sorrow you have to endure / To write a poem of happiness” (394 L8-16)…Access Full Text of the Article

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