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Translator's Notes: Occupation 1943

by Khaled Mattawa


The date of this poem’s composition will no doubt help us contextualize it. Just as Bush Jr’s speechwriters were about to include the misinformation about Saddam Hussein’s purchase of uranium from Niger in the 2003 State of the Union address, Saadi Youssef sat down in his tiny apartment on the outer outskirts of London to write this poem.

“Occupation, 1943” is from Al-Khatwa Al-Khamisa (The Fifth Step), Saadi’s latest collection published by Dar al-Madaa of Damascus. The fifth step suggests not Saadi’s latest relocation, for he has moved around the world a great deal, but the fifth stage of his writing career. Now in his seventies, he’s lived in London since 1998, when he gained political asylum there. I have not asked Saadi about the title of the book, not because he does not provide answers, but because he allows his questioners to believe whatever conjectures led them to ask their questions in the first place. Hence, the fifth step suggests a major phase in his life, characterized by stability, solitude, and a recurring sense of exhilaration caused by observations of nature that have opened him up, allowing him to find love again, and to remember precisely and comprehensively.

Yet the candor in Saadi’s poems does not necessarily add up to autobiography. The dates and locations set at the bottom of his poems, and the poems themselves, are the only parts of himself that he is willing to give.

The images of “Occupation, 1943” resemble those in a longer poem titled “Enemies” written in 1977 that chronicles a childhood during an unnamed political crisis. In the poem before us, the news of a planned war on his country and the poet’s intense recollection intersect and give us a moment in the past that speaks the poet’s, and our, present situation. The circularity of the forces of power and history can corner us into moments of regression as we face an old helplessness. Before the poet looms the long tunnel of a dark future which so terribly resembles the past, and through which he and we seem fated to pass. The return to the past has the comfortable aspect of an innocence retrieved, but with it comes a terrible vision, for which our only defense is a defense of our innocence.

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2006

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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