Many of the earliest poems known, from the ancient world, deplore the pain of exile. Whether it is the highly stylized verse of the Arab world, or the oral recitation of Western Saharan, exiles and refugees from all parts of the world have shared their experiences of grief, loss and homesickness through poetry.
With so many remarkable poets to choose from, I’ve decided to present a mixture of poets from different countries and with dramatically different styles.
was born in Iraq in 1955. In 1993, his uncompromising criticism of oppression and injustice led to his exile in Jordan and Lebanon. After being sentenced to death in Iraq in 1996, because of the publication of Uruk’s Anthem – a long poem in which he gives voice to the profound despair of the Iraqi experience – he took refuge in Sweden. Since 2004 he has been living in exile in London.
From Uruk’s Anthem (translated by Ruba Abughaida)
Why did you leave your country?
The dates were yours – the wine
and the Babylonian heaven?
It wasn’t that I was ungrateful, oh you that lay blame while lounging in cafés in exile –
but embers burn
only those who touch them.
I shall accept whatever God chooses for me in exile
I cross the streets, empty inside,
I bite on life with the teeth of my being
and rise up proud
with my anthem
I scratch the sky to make it rain on me.
Wherever songs flourish will be my home.
If I exchange one land for another
how shall I sleep
when this pillow is not your arms
is originally from Nineveh in northern Iraq, an ancient center of culture but since 2003 scene of bloody fighting. Manal’s work as an outspoken poet and journalist put her life in danger, so she left to seek refuge with her two young children in Norway.
from Iraqi Poems
Like Jean Dark
I’m going to practice black magic
and lead my Country’s revolution
never shall I let fire eat me up
for the fire
It’s my own silence.
was born in 1969 and grew up in Omdurman Khartoum. In July 2012 during the uprising against the dictatorship of Omar Al-Bashir, Saddiq only escaped imprisonment because he was in the UK when a series of mass arrests took place. His poetry reflects the cultural and linguistics diversity of Sudan.
The body of a bird in your mouth
Raw light spills from your eyes,
You must breach the horizon, once,
in order to wake up.
You must open window after window.
You must support the walls.
I let alphabets cling to me
as I climb the thread of language
between myself and the world.
I muster crowds in my mouth:
suspended between language and the world,
between the world and the alphabets.
I let my head
listen to the myth,
to all sides praising each other.
And I shout at the winds from the top of a mountain.
Why does my tongue tell me to climb this far?
What is the distance between my voice and my longing?
What is there?
A body transcending my body.
A body exiled by desire.
A body sheltered by the wind.
Translated by Sarah Maguire and Atef Alshaer
was raised in Germany, where she was born to Afghan refugees. Her debut book, which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, is Hard Damage (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).
Reading Rilke at Lake Mendota, Wisconsin
I have relinquished my shame
now that I have mastered what wasn’t lent
to my name: three languages, one of them
dead. It is hard to misbelove
all that isn’t as absurd as my forked
childhood—first of the menses, padar’s
stethoscope, to have hours upon hours
to marvel at words like driftwood, trope,
misbelove. To miss my life in Kabul is to tongue
pears laced with needles. I had no life
in Kabul. How then can I trust my mind’s long corridor,
its longing for before? I have a faint depression
polluting my heart, sings the lake. That there is music
in everything if you tune in to it
devastates me. Even trauma sounds like Traum,
the German word for dream. Even in the dirty
atrium, Lou was waiting, tenderly, for Rilke—René,
he signed his letters, the apostrophe arced with love. Oh—
in love, I was always and providential, but what
I want is not of love. Its meatless mojo and limen
bore me. I do not want to open, neither for food
nor men. For loneliness, I keep a stone
to kiss. At night the entirety of me arches
not toward the black square
of absence, but toward you.
was born in Benghazi, Libya but emigrated to the United States in 1979. Mattawa’s poetry reveals an author comfortably located in two worlds; influenced by both The Prophet Muhammad and the poetry of Walt Whitman.
IN THE GLORIOUS YEMEN RESTAURANT
Ya lail, Ya lail, Ya lail…
The waiter hands Anwar a basket
filled with lost charms–prayer beads,
photographs, false jewels. He searches
and I’m caught between laughing and weeping
because tonight I sipped sweet mint tea,
ate with my hands and licked my fingers
to satisfy a memory, to water its roots
with frankenscence and cloves.
Ya lail, Ya lail… I am here, I am there,
I am lost between Carroll Street and Smith.
I slip to full moon summers,
stars dancing to the pilgrims’ return.
I slip to dreams that happened in dreams.
Ya lail, which means O night!, is a common refrain in Arabic music.
…was born in Djakarta, Indonesia in 1957 to a powerful Chinese family. Due to anti-Chinese sentiment, the Lee family fled through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, arriving in the United States in 1964. Lee’s poetry shows classical Chinese influences and powerful lyricism.
I Ask My Mother to Sing
She begins, and my grandmother joins her.
Mother and daughter sing like young girls.
If my father were alive, he would play
his accordion and sway like a boat.
I’ve never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace,
nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch
the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers
running away in the grass.
But I love to hear it sung;
how the waterlilies fill with rain until
they overturn, spilling water into water,
then rock back, and fill with more.
Both women have begun to cry.
But neither stops her song.
is an accomplished poet and writer, aa descendant of Armenian genocide survivors, writes about the loss of Armenian language and identity. In this poem she regrets ignoring her grandmother’s pleas to speak Armenian.
… My grandmother sang songs to me
in Turkish, a language she never could forgive.
From generation to generation, fearing
the loss of language and identity
do we know who we are? What have I
to pass on more than tragedy, possibly
Victimhood is not a self. Of more than
Suffering was this language made
Lesley Williams is a 25+ year librarian and a reviewer for Booklist magazine where she specializes in African American, Muslim, and LGBTQ authored literature. As a public librarian she created public programs emphasizing the literature of colonized peoples, leading year long discussion programs on Latin American history, Muslim cultures, and the plays of August Wilson. She currently tutors English reading and writing to first generation students at City Colleges of Chicago.