The Writer and the Taboo: with Saadi Youssef

saadi yousef laghoo the writer and the tabooMeeting with a poet of Saadi Youssef’s caliber is not an easy task, let alone asking him about the controversial and the taboo in his own writing. I met Saadi Youssef a couple of times and we chatted about many topics, ranging from politics in the Middle East to climate change. What intrigued me the most during our discussions is the breadth of his experience with politics, geopolitics, and the human condition. As a writer who was born in 1934, he has encountered so many historical and literary phases,  met with so many literary figures who have changed the face of the literary world. Saadi himself is a global citizen having lived in Algeria, Lebanon, France, Greece, Cyprus, and England (he currently resides in London).


Saadi Youssef or Abu Haydar, as his close friends call him, is one of the leading contemporary poets of the Arab world. He has written more than thirty volumes of poetry and seven books of prose. He has translated numerous works of many prominent writers into Arabic, most notably Garcia Lorca, Yiannis Ritsos, Walt Whitman and Constantine Cavafy. His poetry has been translated into several languages. Without an Alphabet, Without a Face (Graywolf Press, 2002) was translated by the Libyan/American poet Khaled Mattawa and won the 2003 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. His most recent translated work, Nostalgia, My Enemy is a collection of recent poems translated by Sinan Antoon and Peter Money (Graywolf Press, 2012). In those poems, Saadi Youssef addresses his complicated relationship with Iraq, exile, and nostalgia.


Peace be upon Iraq’s hills, its two rivers, the bank, and the bend.
Did I know that my face would be wandering these roads after you?
I left shut doors and a house inhabited by wind,
your green waters were not my basin,
you left me in the desert fort.
What would I expect of you at night
when you let me down in the morning?
You took to the trenches and said: war is more beautiful,
you shall never see my feet again.

During one of our encounters, and when asked by a University of Toronto professor if somebody has been compiling an archive of his work to serve as a reference library about his life and work, Saadi replied with a simple No. He continued that he didn’t see it of much importance, to our surprise.

With the same easy-going manner and with short and sharp answers, Saadi Youssef responded to Laghoo’s questions about his writings; and how they relate to taboos and taboo-breaking themes in Arabic literature.

The following are the questions and answers:

– Do you think writing about taboos is a necessary thing?
Art knows no taboos.
– Is there a specific controversial subject you prefer to write about?
I think that poetry has to deal with the controversial.
– In your opinion, is there a controversial subject one should not or must not express or write about?
No !
– Do you think about the reader or the audience when you are writing?
I think about the reader.
– Do you support censorship on art and writing?
I refuse any kind of censorship.
– How do you balance the real and the metaphorical in your writing, and do you feel that sometimes you betray your idea because of the indirect writing?
Poetry as Art is indirect.

– Have you been subject to criticism or terrorism because you tackled controversial topics in your works?
Once when I sided with the resistance against the invader.
– Can the controversial and the sacred possibly coexist in the Arab world?
No !

Interviewed by:
Ashraf Zaghal