Let Me Tell You What I Saw

Publication Date: 
Monday, October 26, 2020
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“One of the most important Iraqi poets alive today.” – Dr. Abbas Khadim

“Epic in scope, lyrical and deeply moving, this is a fascinating and powerful work, and a welcome addition to the canon of translated poetry.” – Poetry Book Society

Let Me Tell You What I Saw is the first ever publication as a dual-language (English/Arabic) text of substantial extracts from Adnan Al-Sayegh’s ground-breaking epic poem, Uruk’s Anthem, one of the longest poems ever written in Arabic literature, which gives voice to the profound despair of the Iraqi experience. This superb translation brings the eloquent original Arabic epic to a new readership.

Uruk’s Anthem has been described as beautiful, powerful and courageous and at the same time apocalyptic and terrifying in its unwavering scrutiny of, and opposition to, oppression and dictatorship wherever it occurs in the world. Fusing ancient Arabic and Sumerian poetic traditions with many innovative and experimental features of both Arabic and Western literature, Uruk’s Anthem might best be described as a modernist dream poem that frequently strays into nightmare; yet it is also imbued with a unique blend of history, mythology, tenderness, lyricism, humour and surrealism.

It took twelve years to write (1984-1996). During eight years of that time Adnan was forced to fight in the Iran-Iraq War. Many of his friends were killed and he spent eighteen months in an army detention centre, a disused stable and dynamite store, dangerously close to the border with Iran.

Parts of Uruk’s Anthem were adapted for the stage and performed in 1989 at the Academy of Fine Arts and in 1993 at the Rasheed Theatre in Baghdad where the play received wide acclaim but angered the government. Adnan fled the country with his family and sought asylum first in Amman, then Beirut and then Sweden, where extracts of Uruk’s Anthem, together with the poems of Adnan’s friend, the Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer, formed a play which was performed in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2014 as well as in Egypt 2007 and 2008. It was also performed in Morocco 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2014.

A smaller selection of extracts from Uruk’s Anthem (translated by Jenny Lewis and Ruba Abughaida) was published in English for the first time in Singing for Inanna (Mulfran Press, 2014) a first step towards Let Me Tell You What I Saw. This important, more comprehensive translation includes notes to the text and an introduction by Jenny Lewis, and translation notes by Jenny and by Ruba Abughaida.


“To see such a significant selection from this major work of world literature in this thrilling translation gives me great pleasure. This fine poet of terror and tenderness has found the translators he deserves.” – Leona Medlin

“The clarity and integrity of Adnan Al-Sayegh’s poems (in translation), combine unforgettably with the music of his native voice. Now his world-class poetry is at last reaching a wider audience in the English-speaking world. That Jenny Lewis’s own work is integral to that process is testimony to a rich and rewarding collaboration.”  – Lucy Hamilton

“It’s Iraq’s collective catastrophe poem. It’s a choir poem, a linguistic flux, a continuous surging of language between words and images...that flows out with the force of a thousand horsepower!” – Sherko Bekas (1940–2013) Kurdish poet and freedom fighter

“An epic phantasmagoria, Uruk’s Anthem is, nevertheless, often terrifyingly real, with the speaker both a witness to shattering events and also an active participant in trying to make sense of a world in chaos where the poem is the only place where the exile can be at home. At the heart of the book are ordinary people who love, lust, laugh and despair, but are in the grip of vast political, historical, and cosmic forces. Yet despite it all, Al-Sayegh’s monumental work refuses to submit, holding fervently to a belief in the power of poetry to reckon and redeem.” – Niall Munro, Director, Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre

"In Jenny Lewis' compelling rendering of related extracts from Adnam Al-Sayegh's Uruk's Anthem readers are taken on a journey, often harrowing to the emotions yet uplifting to spirit and imagination, from the uncertainties of our war-polluted present back through centuries of painful flux to Uruk (a city still extent), so central to the Epic of Gilgamesh - a work which more and more I believe essential to our understanding of our complex heritage. Jenny Lewis speaks in her Introduction of 'our' David Jones, and very fittingly - since the Iraqi poem, like In Parenthesis, conveys the agonies, the bewilderments of the poet's and his fellows' grim personal experiences (in the Iraq-Iran War) alongside recognition of the fuller richer truths of their whole human selves, capable of enjoying the challenges of sensuality, the beauty and terror of Nature and of the long, ultimately ineradicable past. A formidable achievement." – Paul Binding


Review from Publishers Weekly

Friday, October 15, 2021

Iraqi poet Al-Sayegh is expertly contextualized and introduced to English-speaking audiences by Lewis in this first dual-language volume. 'Uruk’s Anthem,' excerpted here, has the scope of an epic, exploring themes of violence, political unrest, and apocalypse with a momentum and music that is entirely Al-Sayegh’s own. Lewis aptly states the work “might best be described as a modernist dream-poem that frequently strays into nightmare, yet is also imbued with a unique blend of history, mythology, tenderness, lyricism, humor and surrealism.” Between vivid and brutal war scenes (Al-Sayegh was forced to fight for eight years in the Iran-Iraq war) blossom moments of tender lyricism: “I crawl between the graves and our mines.... my clothes wet with clouds/ and my heart a haven for finches.” Throughout, political unrest is rendered urgent and visceral: “scatter the earth as an epitaph/ between the grave of the Minister/ and the masses.... I see the girls/ go down to the spring/ to gather stars’ eggs.... My heart searches between drawers and airports/ for her hair.” Readers new to the poet will find the momentum and energy of Al-Sayegh’s writing vital and unforgettable. 

Review by Ruth Valentine, London Grip

Monday, December 28, 2020

Let Me Tell You What I Saw is a bilingual selection from Adnan al-Sayegh’s 550-page poem Uruk’s Anthem, written over twelve years, between 1984 and 1996. During those years the poet was variously conscripted into the Iraqi army for the devastating Iran-Iraq war, imprisoned in a military detention centre, and living in exile, first in Sweden and now in London. The range of those personal experiences would be enough to fill more than one collection of poems, but this is a more ambitious project:

I saw the blood of slaves
        on a Sumerian stone altar
                  the flies of ages buzzing around it
I saw time fall from the high-rises.
I saw Khayyam
        in Shiraz's bar
sipping cups of existence... 

We are in ancient Uruk, the Sumerian city on the Euphrates; but equally in any modern city, and in medieval Persia with another poet, Omar Khayyam. This is an epic, but not in any narrative or chronological sense. The structure is subtle, moving from visions of historic and modern events, through exile, to an impassioned questioning of the country’s destiny. It is an intuitive account of the poet’s existence in the context of history: the history of his country of origin, of world culture, of its own moment. The narrator tells us ‘I saw’, ‘I heard’, ‘I dreamed,’ and these act as repeated jump-cuts between one era and another, one place and another, between cultures. We meet Tiresias, Lorca, Hikmet; we visit, in passing, Karbala and Sarajevo; we face the interrogator across a table.

In an afterword, we are told that Jenny Lewis worked with both Al-Sayegh and the Palestinian-Lebanese poet Ruba Abughaida, to create a musicality equivalent to the original. Line-lengths vary, at times terse, at times into prose-poem. Layout on the page creates pauses, silences, delayed shocks:

I shouted sadly: O my country
so the walls of the cell shook: Oh!!
And the guards shared the scraps of letters
and hidden tobacco in the blanket of
                       one of the prisoners
                               before she was executed.

It’s the detail that assures us that this is more than a rhetorical device: the tobacco hidden in the blanket, the callous greed of the guards.

One repeated motif is the General, the autocratic ruler of any era.

What have you done to us, O General who is passionate about mazes?
What did you do to this country?
        It can find no trees to lean on, other than your sword,
               and nothing to water it
                             your piss

The narrator is never simply a victim, whatever pains he undergoes. He and his compatriots, perhaps all of us, are made complicit. Here he conjures a sniper, and his own reciprocal gun:

        ...each is carrying the death of the other in his palms... do you hear me you doltish sniper:
        each carries between his gripping fingers and the gun trigger, a widow and an orphan.

Life, nevertheless, is more than war and oppression; it is also what can be salvaged from war and oppression. There is love and desire; there is the fact of writing:

It's for me to turn the millstone of words
to grind my soul for a girl drinking coffee in the morning,
to see other than the blue of this sky, a sky for your shining eyes
      behind the iron of prisons and melancholy songs

This is a book to dwell on, to deepen one’s understanding reading by reading. The introduction, by Jenny Lewis, and the copious footnotes, help the non-Iraqi reader to gather knowledge of the poem’s context and the poet’s wide-ranging cultural references, absorb them and return to the text itself. I don’t know Arabic and can’t judge the translation in terms of accuracy or faithfulness of tone; but my concentration was very rarely broken by an awkward phrasing. The imagery, the sensory detail, will in any case speak beyond the limits of translation: the war ‘smokes you like a cigarette;’ ‘we carry our mats like a country/and fold them quickly/whenever the security forces raid us.’

Hearing Adnan Al-Sayegh read his work in its original language is a pleasure to be sought out, whether or not you know Arabic. In the absence of live readings, his own website is a starting-point:   Meanwhile, this monumental work of collaborative translation is an exciting, disturbing, enlightening introduction.

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