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By Salih J. Altoma


The Montréal Review, February 2012


Issa Hassan Al-Yasiri. The Herb: Selected Poems. Abdul Wahid Mohammed, tr. Baghdad: Mamoon House, 2011. 208 pages. ID [Iraqi Dinar] 3000.




The Water Lilies

(from The Herb, pp.33-35)


The flower has its own sadness

The bird has its own favorite songs

While I have the remnants of the village's dream

When the braizer was blowing out

Or the wind was calling on the village


He said to me .

Keeping an eye on the jammed street

Wearing his bitter countenance

-Painful are the seasons of migration

I wept

He handed me some wine


Since we have parted

We still dream of the happy island

Our dreams still keep traveling towards a village hidden

Under the shadows of palm trees

And towards remote banks


Under the bar's ceiling

I drink the toast to the absentees and the deserted seats

I drink the toast to a distant woman

O! Water lilies, dreaming of accompanying the current

We remain bound up to the bank long life


A rare, if not unique, pastoral voice in contemporary Iraqi Arabic poetry, Aisa Alyasiri (residing currently in Canada) was born in 1942 in a village near the city of Amarah in southern Iraq. He worked in his early years as a shepherd and farmer before he completed his education and began his career as a teacher in Iraqi public schools (1963-1985). He held other government jobs in Baghdad including his tenure with state-sponsored publications as a literary/cultural editor. During the years of the embargo against Iraq, Yasiri, like many of his compatriots, was forced to seek other supplementary jobs to support his family. He chose to work for about six years (1992-1998) as a private scribe selling stamps and writing petitions on behalf of other citizens in need. By opting for such a lowly and emotionally painful work, Yasiri was driven by his decision not to be associated in any way with the former regime or the Baathists ruling Iraq at the time. Yasiri was finally compelled, like hundreds of Iraqi writers, to seek exile in 1998 first in Jordan and later in Canada, where he has been living since 2001.

Yasiri has published thus far seven poetry collections: Passage to the Cities of Joy (1973),  Chapters from the Journey of the Southern Bird (1976), Southern Sky (1979), The Woman Is My Kingdom (1982), The Winter of Pastures (1992), The Silence of the Huts (1996) and I Call You from Afar (2008). His other writings include a novel and numerous literary essays which he continues to publish in Arabic journals.

In spite of Yasiri's fairly extensive poetic output, only a few of his poems have been translated into English, two of which were translated by the Australian poet, Anne Fairbairn and published in Australia more than twenty years ago (Fairbairn 1989,1991). Fairbairn was the first to introduce Yasiri to a Western audience as a farmer-poet by translating at least two poems that are notable for their nature-related symbols and imageries, as reflected in the following excerpts:

Tonight. we light a lamp...we come to you/One by one, circling your pillow ...watching/Flocks of ducks flying over your closed eye /On their quick flight into exile/.We gather around you/ More rivers than one still trace a way/Between these lips, so speak to us/ Who told you the country moon would die/Who told you seas abuse seagulls/That the shore doesn't embrace each breaking wave/Nor give shells to children?

A more recent translation by this reviewer was published in Malpais Review (Autumn 2011) under the title "On the Banks of Your Rivers I Weep." The poem, written originally in Montreal, is marked by a powerful nostalgic tone revealing Yasiri's anguished memories of his hometown Amarah in southern Iraq and the tribulations it had endured:

As I stand on the top of mount Montreal/From behind the curtain of the dark blue Atlantic/I see you are contented with a cane to relieve your sorrow/And a windowless hut/There were buds about to bloom/Spikes raising their eyelids to the rain/A covey of birds disturbing the silence of the field/And a child playing with pigtails of a sleeping girl/And there was a shade of a smile/But heartless men ruined them all.

As noted earlier, and as the titles of his collections suggest, Yasiri stands out, at least within the Iraqi context, for his pastoral themes rather than the prevailing socio-political orientation which characterizes contemporary Iraqi poetry. This focus on the political is particularly evident or most pronounced in Iraqi literature during Iraq's recent decades (since the 1960s) of turmoil, wars, and political tyranny.

Yasiri's extensive use of pastoral features, imagery and topics can be attributed largely to his rustic experience and background, but it was reinforced primarily by his revulsion against what he regarded as a corrupt and oppressive political system dominating his country. That is why he sought to distance himself from dealing directly with social and political themes as The Her, the anthology under review, amply indicates.

The Herb was edited and translated by Abdul Wahid Mohammed, Professor Emeritus of English, at the University of Baghdad. It consists of 32 poems chosen from various periods (1972-1994) with a view to representing Yasiri's "poetic world" to use the translator's words. According to the poet himself, the selection was largely made by Anne Fairbairn, the Australian poet, in the late 1980s as part of her efforts to introduce Arabic poetry to Australian readers (See Feathers and the Horizon, 1989). Most of the poems carry titles that are indicative of the poet's lyrical and pastoral bent: The Water Lilies, When the Sea Loves, Southern the Wind Was, The Herb, Scheherayar [sic] the Peasant, Dances Alone, The Fields of Winter Days, Birds Travel Far Away, etc. The anthology includes numerous verses which illustrate Yasiri's love for nature and his yearning for idyllic settings in Iraq's countryside.

* Across the heart's wilderness/I glimpse flocks of birds going to and fro/Thirsty Sparrows/leafless trees/Steppes on which no herds of dreams graze / Are the kingdoms I now mount their throne/

* I see blue-roofed cities/and myself as a field/Engendering evergreen trees/and birds without feathers of migration/

* Since we have parted/ We still dream of the happy island/ Our dreams still keep traveling towards a village hidden/under the shadows of palm trees/ and towards remote banks/.

* The heart's yearnings southwards pass/All rivers southwards run/The herds of tired stars southwards come down/In search of a palm tree's trunk/Fresh ripe dates. and rains/

Professor Mohammed's translations in this anthology are literal and generally are accurate with the exception of minor instances. He should be commended for presenting for the first time a larger corpus of Yasiri's poetry in a bilingual format. Such a format is especially useful for students learning Arabic or interested in translating Arabic literary text. The anthology concludes with brief biographical notes about both the poet and the translator. It is relevant to add that Professor Mohammed has served for many years as a professor of English at the University of Baghdad, and taught, among other subjects, translation theory and criticism. He is credited with the translation of more than twenty literary works from and into Arabic as stated in his biographical note.


(*) The standard transliteration of poet's name is Isa Hasan al-Yasiri, but he has chosen a lightly different version : Aisa al-Yasiri.

Works Cited

Yasiri, Isa al-. "Tonight We Wake You With Roses." Trans. Anne Fairbairn. Feathers and the Horizon: A Selection of Modern Poetry from across the Arab World. Trans. Anne Fairbairn and Ghazi al-Gosaibi. Canberra, Australia: Leros Press, 1989.208.

---. "Empty Chairs." Trans. Anne Fairbairn. Voices: The Quarterly Journal of the National Library of Australia 3.2 (1993):24

---."On the Banks of Your Rivers I Weep." Trans. Salih J. Altoma. Malpais Review 2.2 (Autumn 2011):56-57.


Salih J. Altoma is Professor Emeritus of Arabic and Comparative Literature and has been affiliated with Indiana University since 1964. He has served as Director of Middle Eastern Studies (1986-91) and Chair of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department (1985-91). His publications include several books, numerous articles in Arabic and English and numerous English translations of Arabic poems. He recently published Modern Arabic Literature in Translation: A Companion (London: Saqi, 2005) and Iraq's Modern Arabic Literature: A Guide to English Translations since 1950 (Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2010).


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