Artscape - Poet of Baghdad

Q&A: A poet in exile

‘Nabeel stood up for something he believed in – freedom and justice.’

Nabeel Yasin and Georgie Weedon

In 1979, Nabeel Yasin fled his homeland with his wife and his son because he had published poetry that did not conform to the views of Saddam Hussein and his regime. He continued to write and publish poetry from exile in the UK, and his works were smuggled back into Iraq where they became a popular symbol of resistance.

Last year, Al Jazeera’s Donata Hardenberg spoke to filmmaker Georgie Weedon about the making of the film The Poet of Baghdad.

Al Jazeera: How did you meet Nabeel Yasin, the Poet of Baghdad?

Georgie Weedon: I met Nabeel while we were both working on different films for the BBC. He was consulting on a film about Iraq and I had just returned from co-authoring a book about the Middle East. We got talking and became friends.

Why did you decide to make a film about him?

Nabeel is an extremely impressive and inspiring person, and it became apparent very quickly that he had had an extraordinary life.

He is a potent mix of prolific talent as a poet, deep intellect and, as it turned out, strong moral courage. He also has a keen sense of humour which is critical if you are going to enjoy the process of making a film about a potentially very tragic subject.

When the war was declared in Iraq in 2003, Nabeel was able to end his exile and go back for the first time in 28 years. I knew by then that I wanted to make a film about his exile and his return.

I was also keen to make a film about Iraq that would not propagate images of violence and of war.

It felt important to document Nabeel’s story, both in terms of the power of culture in transforming society and also in showing something about Iraq that moves away from the regurgitated news-mediated images of death and destruction.

I would like to be part of a different picture of Iraq and its future.

What fascinates you about Nabeel?

Nabeel stood up for something he believed in – freedom and justice. He put his life on the line, as well as the safety of his family, because he would not be silenced by a tyrannical dictator. I think that is pretty extraordinary.

How did you get him to tell his story?

By the time I suggested that we make a film together about Nabeel’s story of exile and return we had become friends. We trusted and respected each other, which for me is an integral part of the genesis of any film I would want to pursue.

Because we were friends, Nabeel was happy to talk about his story.

In some senses it was important to capture the story of his exile and his dreams of his homeland, before he went back to the reality of Iraq which is so altered compared to his memories.

He was about to embark on a significant journey and was interested in working on recording it with me.

How did Nabeel become the Poet of Baghdad?

Nabeel would give poetry readings when he was at university in Baghdad. His readings started gathering large crowds.

When he read from his poetry collection, The Poet Satirizes the King, he was beaten up and arrested by Saddam’s secret police.

His life became a living hell under the frequent visits from the secret police and he finally decided to leave Iraq with his wife Nada and his young son Yammam. They lived in many countries before settling in Hungary and then the UK.

Nabeel described his homeland as a suitcase during that time.

Back in Iraq, Nabeel’s poetry was banned which made him in some ways the poet of the resistance. His most famous and popular poem during this time was called Brother Yasin.

What is the role of poets in Baghdad?

Poetry is very popular and powerful in Iraq. It is part of Iraq’s extremely rich traditional and cultural heritage.

What are Yasin’s poems about? Why are they so powerful?

For me his poems are about family, love and loss – universal themes. The poems are powerful because they beautifully express a simple truth.

Why did you choose Nabeel for your documentary and not another poet from Baghdad?

I found Nabeel’s story prescient as not only is he a prolific and popular poet, he is also an academic who has spent the past 28 years of his life in exile.

The fact that he was returning to his homeland after so many years also brought a unique perspective.

What was your biggest challenge while making the film?

Teaching Nabeel how to use the camera to film in Iraq!

How would you describe the film?

A love story set within a political climate.

What are the biggest problems facing Iraq today?

Disunity and redundant agendas on all sides.

What do you think should be done in Iraq to stop violence and instability?

Iraq needs a strong and respectable Obama-type leader to bring all its groups together and work for a united future, both internally in Iraq and externally within the International arena. I can recommend someone who is up to the job …


This episode of Artscape can be seen from Friday, July 15, at the following times GMT: Friday: 1930; Saturday: 1430; Sunday: 0430; Monday: 0830.

Click here for more on the series.