Youssef Sami al-Youssef


Youssef Sami al-Youssef

يوسف سامي اليوسف
1938, Lubya
2 May 2013, Nahr al-Barid

Youssef al-Youssef was born in 1938 in the village of Lubya, located in the Tiberias subdistrict. He had three brothers (Mohammad, Hassan and Ibrahim) and one sister (Maryam). He had two sons: Walid and Marwan.

Youssef enrolled in the village kuttab (Quran school) in 1944 to begin his primary education. Sheikh Ali, the kuttab instructor, had made an agreement with the British Mandate’s educational officials that students who were promoted to second grade in the kuttab would be transferred to a government school, provided that they were not over eight years of age. Thus, in 1946, Youssef enrolled in the government school, which at the time had a small farm in which students learned hands-on agriculture.

After the Palestinian Nakba, Youssef and his family were forced to leave their home; they went to Lebanon via Syria in October 1948. On December 1, they settled in the Wavel refugee camp in Baalbek, which was originally a military barracks. (In the 1970s it was renamed al-Jalil [Galilee] Camp.) His grandfather was already living there. Youssef lived in this camp for nearly seven years, the most miserable and poverty-stricken years of his life.

In 1949, Youssef joined the school that the International Red Cross had started in the parking lot of the former barracks. The school had five grades, and he was made to repeat the third grade of elementary school, since he had not finished it while still in Palestine. In 1950, UNRWA took over administering the school from the Red Cross. In April of that year, he quarreled with one of his teachers and ran away from school. He took a train to Damascus, where he spent six months, during which he worked as a waiter in a small restaurant, a porter, a newspaper vendor, and a smuggler of goods between Syria and Lebanon.

Youssef returned to Baalbek in October 1950; however, he did not return to school. Instead, he worked as a cowherd in a nearby village called Boudai. He carried with him a pocket English dictionary, from which he memorized hundreds of English words. Then he changed jobs and worked in grain farming in al-Taybe village and then on an onion and potato farm in the town of Zahle. He returned to school in September 1951 and was placed back in third grade so that he could complete it, and then he was promoted to fourth grade in June 1952.

His father, Sami al-Youssef, passed away in June 1954; he was only thirty-four years old. Youssef grieved deeply for his father. At the end of that year, under the influence of his school principal, Nayef Maarouf, Youssef wrote his first poem. He continued composing poetry for nearly twenty years, until around 1974.

In August 1955, Youssef left Baalbek and went to Damascus. He stayed for a while with a relative of his mother’s in the Yarmouk refugee camp while he looked for a room to rent. He also enrolled in the Safad Preparatory School that was affiliated with UNRWA. He started to borrow books from the school’s library and in this way read the works of Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad, Mustafa Sadiq al-Rafiʿi, Tawfiq al-Hakim, Taha Hussein, and Mikhail Nuʿayma. He had begun reading the poetry of al-Mutanabbi in 1952.

In April 1956, Youssef’s mother and his three brothers (his sister Maryam had passed away) moved to Damascus. They were given permanent residency in Syria, as well as a plot of land of 40 square meters in the Yarmouk camp and one hundred Syrian pounds from the General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees (GAPAR). On that land, they built a small house, and he began to work digging wells.

Youssef graduated from preparatory school in June 1957, at the age of nineteen. He was working at a hotel near Marjeh Square and took advantage of his free time to read English novels. In 1957, he enlisted in the fidaʾi [Palestinian commando] battalion, which had been formed in 1954 under the name of the 68th battalion. Its headquarters was located in Harasta, a suburb of Damascus, and in February 1958 he completed a military training course there. In May 1958, he was dispatched to Lebanon, along with other recruits from this battalion, to provide support to the rebels fighting to overthrow President Camille Chamoun. He remained in Beirut until the beginning of September.

In June 1959, Youssef sat for the secondary school graduation exam in the humanities stream as an independent candidate; he passed and was able to enroll in the English Language Department of the Faculty of Letters at Damascus University. He graduated in 1964. That same year, he married a Palestinian girl.

He was informed of his discharge from the 68th Battalion in September 1961, but then, at the beginning of December of that year, he was conscripted for compulsory military service and sent to the Reserve Officers College in Aleppo. (This later became the Artillery School.) But after a short time, he was discharged; the officers leading the coup that ultimately saw the secession of Syria from Egypt believed that the Palestinian youth in the college were loyal to Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and pan-Arab unity.

In late February 1962, Youssef was hired to teach in a UNRWA-run elementary school in the village of al-Muzayrib, west of the city of Daraa on a daily paid contract. In early October 1962, the UNRWA administration gave him a permanent position teaching fourth grade at the school in al-Raml refugee camp, next to the city of Lattakieh . He continued as a teacher in UNRWA schools for the next 30 years; he resigned in June 1992.

In March 1963, after having been recalled for compulsory military service, he paid a fee of 1,000 Syrian pounds in exchange for a permanent exemption from conscription. During the same year, he was transferred to teach in the Tabariyya School in the city of Quneitra, where he taught until September 1965. During this time, he graduated from the Faculty of Letters at Damascus University (in July 1964) and enrolled in the Faculty of Education to pursue a master’s degree. He spent about four years there but was not successful in completing his degree.

In 1965, the UNRWA administration decided to transfer Youssef to Damascus, where he taught English in several of its schools in the Yarmouk camp. In July 1965, he made a visit to the cities of Jerusalem, Nablus, and Ramallah. In late 1967, he signed a contract to teach at a high school in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. However, he was arrested upon his arrival at Riyadh airport on 5 December, even though he had an entry visa from the Saudi consulate in Damascus. After spending several days in jail, he was deported back to Syria.

After being initially drawn to Arabic poetry, especially jahili (pre-Islamic) poetry, Youssef became interested in classical Arabic literature, particularly Sufi thought, beginning in 1968. He read the writings of Ibn Arabi and also came to admire Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani’s Book of Songs (Kitab al-Aghani).

Starting in the summer of 1973, Youssef started to write regularly. In his writing, he expressed a particular admiration for the literary work of Samira Azzam and Ghassan Kanafani and for William Shakespeare and Fyodor Dostoyevsky when it came to world literature. He published the first of his articles in July 1973, in a journal published by the Union of Palestinian Teachers in Damascus. At the end of that year, he wrote articles on jahili poetry that were published in the Syrian journals al-Maʿrifa [Knowledge] and al-Mawqif al-Adabi [Literary Stance]. He expressed the belief that his critical consciousness was shaped under the impact of the Nakba; he believed that a creative person "is greatly influenced by the seminal incidents he goes through in his life, especially by national and social catastrophes that hone his sensibility and supply it with great impetus."

Youssef al-Youssef was known as someone with "a sense of taste that does not tolerate mediocrity." In his writing, he emphasized "the rejection of any one single overarching theory, and instead to ground all creative and critical work in sincerity and plurality [of vision]," believing that "a person’s conscience is the finest quality in him or her,” and that the essence of literature as a human activity is the expression of what he called “the Noble Spirit." He often went back to the concept of ightirab, or alienation, and considered the feeling of alienation to be "one of the richest sources [of inspiration] for great literature." He described the alienated as "lovers of the divine'' in contrast to "the debased,” believing that they have no choice but to "hold in silent contempt this modern civilization" which he called "a charred civilization,” one that had transformed man from a kaʾin bashari, or human being into a kaʾin baqari, or bovine being.

Thanks to the relatively good salary he earned from UNRWA, Youssef was able to visit a number of countries in both Eastern and Western Europe between 1975 and 1979. In the meantime, he had become a member of the Union of Arab Writers in Syria in 1976, and the following year, he traveled as part of the Union’s delegation to Tunisia to participate in an academic conference where he delivered a paper titled "Contemporary Arab Criticism." He also participated in a symposium held in Beirut in September 1981 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Gibran Khalil Gibran, where he delivered a paper on Gibran’s "Christ, Son of Man." In 1987, he traveled to Algeria to attend a conference organized by the Union of Palestinian Writers, and then to Morocco in 1988, with a delegation of the Union of Arab Writers, to attend the Arab Creativity Conference held in Agadir. He also participated in the Jerash Festival in Jordan in late 2001, where he delivered a talk titled "Resistance Poetry," in which he discussed the major names in Palestinian poetry between 1917 and 1948. In late November 2004, he traveled to the United Arab Emirates to participate in a poetry festival, where he was to give a lecture titled "The Intrinsic Nature of Great Poetry", but upon arriving in Sharjah, he learned that the festival had been postponed following the death of Emir Zayed bin Nahyan.

Youssef became diabetic in 1997 and suffered his first heart attack on 9 September 1999. On 6 October 2006, he had a second heart attack, and then another one on 11 January 2007. With the situation in Syria, including inside Yarmouk camp, becoming too volatile for comfort, he was forced to leave for Nahr al-Bared camp in northern Lebanon, where he passed away on 2 May 2013.

Youssef al-Youssef was a Palestinian writer, translator, historian, and literary critic. He wrote hundreds of articles and around thirty books on literary criticism and history. His life was marked by hardship and bitter struggle, but also by fierce self-reliance. Since the mid-1970s, he has occupied a prominent position in the world of Arab literary criticism: the Palestinian writer and intellectual Salma Khadra al-Jayyusi called him "the lord and master of Arab critics [sayyid wa-kabir al-nuqqad al-Arab]."

Selected Writings

​​"مقالات في الشعر الجاهلي". دمشق: وزارة الثقافة، 1975.

[Essays on Pre-Islamic Poetry]

"الصوفية يسار الفكر العربي". مجلة "الآداب"، نيسان 1975.

[Sufism as a Leftist Trend in Arab Thought]

"بحوث في المعلقات". دمشق: وزارة الثقافة، 1978.

[Studies on the Muʿallaqat]

"الغزل العذري". دمشق: اتحاد الكتاب العرب، 1978.

[Chaste love poetry]

"الشعر العربي المعاصر". دمشق: اتحاد الكتاب العرب، 1980.

[Modern Arabic Poetry]

"غسان كنفاني، رعشة المأساة". عمان: دار منارات، 1985.

[Ghassan Kanafani, Tragedy’s Quiver]

"تاريخ فلسطين عبر العصور". دمشق: دار الأهالي، 1989.

[The History of Palestine Through the Ages]

"مقدمة للنفري: دراسة في فكر وتصوف محمد بن عبد الجبار النفري". دمشق: دار الينابع، 1997.

[An introduction to the Sufi thinker Muhammad b. Abdel Jabbar al-Niffari and a study of his mysticism]

"القيمة والمعيار". دمشق: دار كنعان، 2000.

[Value and Standard]

"مقال في الرواية". دمشق: دار كنعان، 2002.

[An essay on the novel]

"تلك الأيام" (أربعة أجزاء). دمشق: دار كنعان، 2005-2008.

[Those Days]



شبانة، عمر. "اليوسف: حياته ونتاجه الثقافي المتعدد"؛ في:

مجموعة مساهمين. "ملف يوسف سامي اليوسف الذي لا يليق به الرثاء النمطي". مجلة "نزوى"، مسقط-عُمان، 1 تموز 2013.ملف-يوسف-سامي-اليوسف-الذي-لا-يليق-به-ال/

مركز الجرمق للدراسات. "ملف خاص بالذكرى السنوية الثامنة لوفاة الكاتب والناقد يوسف سامي اليوسف"، تورنتو-كندا، 2 أيار 2021.ملف مركز الجرمق 2021.pdf

"يوسف سامي اليوسف: كاتب، ناقد أدبي، مؤرخ، مترجم". موقع إلكتروني