The Prince of Dust: Saadi Youssef and Modern Poetics in The Occupied Arab World

This is a blogpost written for my class “Literature of the Middle East and North Africa” taught by Dr. Angela Naimou in Fall 2016. Our assignment every week is to write 500 words on our reading assignment. This week we were instructed to pick one or two lines from one of Saadi Youssef’s poetry (trans. by Khaled Mattawa), which we read alongside Mattawa’s introduction to his volume of translated Youssef poetry Without an Alphabet, Without a Face


I do not want your hand. Do not toss me your rope made of tatters.

— “Reception,” Saadi Youssef (trans. Khaled Mattawa)


I. Punctuation

The punctuation is simple, predictable. Just two periods annotating the end of each statement. The first sentence seems more open than the second, not only because the first is declarative while the second is imperative but also because quite literally the first sentence requires open-mouth to form the vowel for “I do not…” while the second sentence begins with a consonant — which are verbally more assertive. Thus, we go from the open (perhaps more amiable) “I do not want your hand” to the critical, more essential “Do not toss me your rope made of tatters.” However, while the second sentence may seem to be more explosive, it is still punctuated by a period. So while it may begin with a slightly more explosive sound with the consonant and its feeling as an imperative may begin as a louder tone, the sentence as a whole feels more instructive with a subdued, offended anger rather than a fed-up revolutionary or war-like anger.

This reminds me of Mattawa’s introduction of the material when he talks about Youssef’s preference of the whisper over a declamation, “as it captures both the intimacy and the urgency of an utterance.” I think that seems to be what we see here in this quotation from “Reception.” This is not a shout. It begins with the intimacy of both image (a hand) and sound (open vowel sound of “I” and first-person) and then arrives at the more-urgent “Do not” with the consonant and (in the second sentence more abruptly) with the imperative.


II. POV and rhetorical position & function

The first sentence is in first-person POV and the second sentence has an implied second-person POV. Together, these two also create a close intimacy – that of the (implied) “you” and the “I.” While this may seem like a short and simple explanation without excitement, in the context of the poem itself, which is a meditation on all of life, this is extremely intimate.

The speaker is juxtaposing several images (in a single line even) that may line-by-line not hold much correlation but that wholly become an essence or microcosm of a greater identity. By this, I mean while one or two lines may not give us any sort of lead about what a poem quote-unquote “is about,” reading several lines and indeed the entire poem gathers into this wider essence that itself is a microcosm of some memory, location, event, and/or people.

The poem features these intimate moments in different POVs – some are in third-person, some in first-person. The only imperative sentence in the entire poem is in my quotation: “Do not toss me your rope made of tatters.” Plus, it is one of only two sentences in the whole poem in second-person. What does this do for the poem? Well, it means our most intimate moment is an imperative, a command. The other second-person sentence is “They are chanting for you, girl of the harbor tavern.” Because the “you” is named in the appositive at the end of the sentence, the sentence does not have as close intimacy as second-person normally has. Thus, again, the most intimate moment in the entire poem (between “you” and “I”) is these two sentences, the first a repudiation of help and the second a command.


III. [I don’t know what to title this section…Conclusion, maybe?]

I’ve already reached my word-count talking about the functions of the specific mechanics of these two lines in the poem so I won’t spend much more time here, but I haven’t even talked about why I chose these two lines. What interests me most about this material specifically is what Mattawa calls Youssef’s “greatest contribution to contemporary Arabic poetry [: …] to preserve the dignity of personal experience, despite and within a context of difficult socio-political realities in his native Iraq and in the Arab world at large.” My quotation shows and intimate moment that does emanate personal dignity: I will not take your help; I did not ask for it; Do not pretend to care for me by giving me your second-rate “help.”

If indeed “the creation of personal freedom was the third frontier for Arab poetry” after (1) wrestling stagnant traditions and (2) wrestling the forces of colonialism, then that freedom also includes the freedom to say no. I think what we’ll encounter (especially once we get to the Lila Abu-Lughod piece) is that no genuine intimacy is ever established between the West and its colonial subjects in the Middle East, no intimacy that would allow for the freedom to say “No, we don’t want your help;” because while we become a part of our own self-rendered colonial narrative of granting Freedom, we do not seem to wonder (1) why we have the right to ‘grant’ it at all and (2) whether those to whom we grant it actually asked for it.