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.

Poetic Form and Subtextual Connection

For my critical theory class, we read Dunya Mikhail‘s THE WAR WORKS HARD, a collection of poems by the Iraqi poet. Specifically in this post, I talk about the poems “The Cup,” “The Theory of Absence” and “Transformations of the Child and the Moon.”

I think what she’s doing here with form is the most intriguing thing for me. It’s like the saying that goes “There are rules but the best writers always break them.” She’s certainly gained notoriety doing something people like here.

I would say Mikhail’s war poetry is certainly concerning the homefront and that she denies the need for a specific form and abandons the ‘rules’ (if there are any) for form. As the introduction of my book notes, she weaves together the poetic and the folkloric as a means of metaphorical discernment or understanding for what she’s been there.

In “The Cup,” we don’t quite at first get that the speaker is using a ouija board, but once we understand, the speaker begins to trust us with the rules that she sets up. For example, at the beginning of the poem, she says “the cup moved to the right for YES” we know from previous lines that all caps is the dialogue from the spirit itself. We’re also told there that the cup moves to the right. Later in the poem, when the spirit answers yes, the poem will just say “she cup moved to the right” or left for YES and NO. The reader intuits the rules naturally because they’re set up at the beginning of the poem. This is a perfect example of how she’s using form here to create a new place — a place where ouija boards actually work, which isn’t necessarily altogether unfamiliar given that we know what a ouija board is even though it is never called that in the poem. Nonetheless, it is the subliminal communication between reader and speaker in the poem that creates an underlying connection there through observation and then intuition in “The Cup.”

In “The Theory of Absence,” the speaker is using a predetermined setup of proofs in math or logic to prove the absence of a beloved. There’s a hypothesis, a desired result, and a proof to get from the hypothesis to the result. There are, of course, huge logical leaps and this is no logically sound equation, but the conceit works. And it’s poetic. There’s something very visceral in poetry about using something familiar–like a ouija board or a proof– and then modifying it just slightly so that it becomes useful for the poet to do what s/he wants. It doesn’t particularly bother me that we have different rules for ouija boards or proofs in these poems — I actually enjoy discovering the rules each time and I think that’s what she does best in these form choices, she’s subtly subverting our expectation and it feels like creation or connection — like an inside joke we have with the poet and even in third-person, there’s something that can do which vastly diminishes the distance between speaker and reader.

Finally, just one last poem, I think she does a marvelous job too in “Transformations of the Child and the Moon” of using the device of an image and having these small stanzas about the frozen frame to still express an action. These are images, they are frozen, and yet the verbs she uses (though past tense and therefore fixed in a timely preterit past) are action verbs — “the child went to the river” and “the child sank” all in the same poem as if there was a passage of time within the image itself, even given the image’s fixedness. Like this tiny little frozen image was more than that — a human is more than a frozen frame.

Post-9/11 American Terror: An Assault on Subjective Phenomena

For one of my critical theory classes, we read Art Spiegelman’s In The Shadow of No Towers. The references to (Melani) McAlister are from “A Cultural History of the War without End,” published in The Journal for American History in Sept. 2002 and the references to (Ernest) Renan are to his “What is a nation?” lecture, delivered 11 March 1882, translated by Martin Thom. This blogpost is one submitted to our class forum on Tuesday, Feb. 9 2015 for class credit.

In his opening two pages about the process of getting these images to paper and print, Spiegelman talks about how 9/11 becomes a disaster that marks a collision for him of world history and personal history (Spiegelman 1-A). The unfolding of his next eight pages is his experience, as a liberal GenX American Jew witnessing–experiencing, forever–that disaster, noting, “Disaster is my muse!” (Spiegelman 1-B).

It makes me think about my own life, my own collision, as a millennial, of world history and personal history.

The September 11th attack was not a quote-unquote ‘defining’ moment for me because it happened so early in my childhood. I was in first grade when 9/11 happened. All of my views about the event, about the terror, about the survivors and the loss (the #NeverForget coinage) have been disassociated from their original phenomena and from their original phenomenees, the feelers of those phenomena, in much the same way McAlister talks about the folkloric JFK-assassination-isms that this event creates, containing its own new oral histories (McAlister 439).

This Spiegelman piece, though, put in place a more subjective, a more real, experience for me of 9/11 in ways other things have not and, really, could not, by refusing (or at least grappling with the trouble of) any sort of consolidation of national identity caused by terror, which McAlister quotes Benedict Anderson as saying will happen like amnesia (McAlister 440).

For one, I feel betrayed — by my history teachers, by growing up in what Spiegelman might call “The United Red Zone of America” (Spiegelman 7), by my parents (GenXers themselves who never told me about this deafening, perception-shattering event in any more than a 150-character spoken tweet or blurb about the evils of the world and the trust we must have in “leadership”).

I was robbed, and maybe this is my own fault for remaining so ignorant all these years, of knowing about all of the controversy surrounding this war when what was told to me was that it was a no-brainer, retaliation and justice served in honor of the validated “he did it first”-ers, itself a sort of American identity.

In “Weapons of Mass Displacement” on #9, Spiegelman notes, “Remember how we demolished Iraq instead of Al-Quaeda.” Given that knowledge and the notion of a collision of personal and world history, this piece seems to be, at least in part, in conversation too with the Renan “What is a nation?” piece and his thesis that a nation is a union based on forgetfulness and even of historical error (Renan 11).

And I feel robbed again, not knowing any of this we-attacked-the-wrong-people story until extremely recently (as in winter break of this year). I almost feel like a despicable millennial — my generation, we value/prefer/require fuller, more complex narratives. Because we are more secular, we prefer truth and inclusion to any mythologies of uneven or negotiated history, which even Spiegelman seems to have contradicted when he says “disaster was my muse!” (1-B).

However, what I notice as much in that phrase as ‘disaster’ and ‘muse’ is the word ‘my,’ a reclaiming of his subjective phenomena from the hands of name-makers, those political poets that confirm a “culture is a crucial site for the negotiation of political and moral values for an often uneven and contested public understanding of history” (McAlister 441).

And as Spiegelman notes, 9/11 had become just that — a public understanding. He says, “My subconscious is drowning in newspaper headlines” and “The killer apes learned nothing from the twin towers of Auschwitz and Hiroshima” (Spiegelman #8).

I think that’s what’s so beautiful and real about this piece. Our narrator, whether this is memoiric for Spiegelman or not, is shedding light on a truer (or at least longer-running) terror that is inflicted on subjective phenomena in times of crisis.