11 -17 February 1999
Issue No. 416
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Book Fair Economy Opinion Culture Features Obituary Travel Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Pack of Cards Pack of Cards Letters
...travelling through fire and testimonies,
In the consummation of the morning's love
Pouncing on my prey: the poem -- the woman...
Prometheus at the SheratonProfile by Youssef Rakha
One of the last remaining pioneers of modern Arabic poetry, Al-Bayyati does not readily oblige. Surrounded by friends and protégés, he flits through the lobby of the Sheraton, dodging journalists. "Is it twelve already?" he says when I finally manage to corner him. "I'll be back in a minute." My three-day quest will not be concluded until he makes another phone call. But the effort pays off. Al-Bayyati's conversation turns out to be like his poetry. In a few words he can conjure up a whole world -- diverse, meaningful, engrossing. "I'm not normally late for appointments but it is very difficult nowadays. Sometimes when I wake up," he confides, "I'm so dizzy I can hardly see." Reluctant to talk about his early life, he decides to have a coffee before we start.
With one poem published in Cairo while he was here for the Book Fair and two new books in the offing, the 73-year-old Iraqi is as energetic as ever. An aging Prometheus, he has managed to protect his liver from Zeus's vulture, and steals the fire anew
"Writing is a difficult art," he says. "It not only requires talent, but also thought and linguistic ability. Without these the human being could never become a writer. At the beginning, in the early stages of youth, the writer -- or the person who wants to become a writer -- must perfect his instruments. Perfecting one's instruments is accomplished through reading the literary heritage and following the school curricula. We sometimes underrate the latter, but they are essential to the initial formative stages. If people possess various feelings and sensations, even commendable ones, but have not mastered the art of writing, they cannot write a text or an article. When one writes one is not fooling around or simply inventing things. Rather one is capturing things. Capturing the atoms that make up the universe. Capturing and crystallising thoughts, moulding them into literary form. Writing is also a mental exercise, which starts with a very simple thing, and gradually, day after day, turns into something complex."
The same could be said of Al-Bayyati's life. He started off as a simple enough schoolteacher, and had his first collection of poems, Mala'ika wa Shayatin (Angels and Devils), published in 1950, the year of his graduation from Dar Al-Mu'allimin (the Teachers' College) in Baghdad. By 1954, though, he was an editor in one of the most widely circulated cultural magazines, Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida (The New Culture) and, due to his involvement in radical communist politics, had aroused enough suspicion to be fired from his job. He set off on a long journey, that took him first to Damascus (where he now resides after four decades of wandering), Beirut, Cairo and many Western capitals. "I've always searched for the sun's springs," he explains in unmistakable Bayyati fashion. "When a human being stays in one place, he's likely to die. People too stagnate like water and air. Therefore the death of nature, of words, of the spirit has prompted me to keep travelling, so as to encounter new suns, new springs, new horizons. A whole new world being born."
Travelling, as such, must have implied much more than political survival. Even when he could return to his country following the Iraqi Revolution and declaration of the Republic in 1958, Al-Bayyati often chose to stay abroad.
He travelled far and wide, and his encounter with Spanish culture, as a cultural attaché in the 1980s, to which he paid tribute in several poems, was a particularly enriching experience "I don't travel for the sake of tourism and entertainment. Nor to settle down. It is rather a cure for the soul, it is the spiritual nourishment that allows me to go on writing in a genuinely creative way. Of course," Al-Bayyati rebounds, "my relations with Iraqi governments were never conciliatory. I belong to the Iraqi people. I cannot separate myself from the people." And it is the Titan's faithfulness to the people, whom he aided against the tyranny of Zeus, that endears Prometheus to Al-Bayyati's heart. Had he adopted a pseudonym from Greek mythology like the Syrian poet Ali Ahmed Said ("Adonis"), Al-Bayyati undoubtedly would have called himself Prometheus: The Fire-Thief came with the seasons/Carrying the will of the ages -- the rivers... "Over the years there were dire disappointments. False dawns. But this is not restricted to the modern age, it has gone on since the days of Sumer and Babylonia. The Iraqi people were subject to attacks both from outside and within. They paid a flagrant price, the price of deceit and betrayal, tyranny and dictatorship. And the tyrants were just as cruel, just as criminal, as the invaders. Even more so. At least the invaders, after they destroy and rob and violate, tend to go away and leave the people alone. But the tyrants stay on."
Unlike most Arab intellectuals of his generation, Al-Bayyati was not born in the countryside, but in the heart of Baghdad in 1926, a fact that may explain the metropolitan sense of history that has characterised his writing. Throughout his life he would continue to live in cities, remaining close to the centre of political upheavals. His rites of passage, however, seem to have been quiet events, giving no indication of his present influence and fame.
"Very early on," he recalls, "circumstances made it possible for me to read classic books, thanks to the library of my grandfather, who was an imam and a religious man. I was tormented by the fact that I couldn't fathom the meaning of some of the texts we read. Once, I remember, he was reading from Al-Futuhat Al-Makkiyya (The Meccan Conquests) by Ibn Arabi, and Ibn Arabi's language at that time was incomprehensible to me. So I resorted to listening to my grandfather's voice [and how its tone changed] while he recited the sentences and phrases, and managed to understand. As the words turned into movements and signals, I continued trying to make out what they meant. And I would ask my grandfather, 'Is this what it means?' He would say, 'How did you know?' And I would tell him, 'From the movement of your lips.' Later, one summer day in the afternoon when I was still a secondary student, I experienced a strange feeling and wrote a poem of 14 lines in the classic style. Three days later, my Arabic teacher borrowed my textbook so he could read to the class, and by coincidence found the poem folded inside it. He came up to me and asked who had written the poem, and when I told him it was I, he said, 'Is that possible? Leave it with me and tomorrow I will give you my opinion.' The next day he had discovered two mistakes, not grammatical, but in the rhyming scheme. Nonetheless he praised the poem a great deal and even asked the class to give me a round of applause, calling me 'The Poet' from then on. I felt very embarrassed and hid my face in the book. The word seemed too great for me at the time. It placed a burden on my shoulder. I began to feel responsible and didn't write anything for a year, during which I read and read."
Al-Bayyati pauses to greet the Palestinian poet Samih Al-Qasim, who takes his seat near by. "I read the turath (the classic literary canon) twice," he continues, "once at the beginning of life, when I rejected much and accepted little, and once in middle age, when I accepted much and rejected little. And when I read it for the third time in the last few years, I discovered new springs of which I had taken no notice. I started hovering around them. As I benefited from the turath and its texts, I discovered a new vision. Some restless characters in our literary history had only been dealt with in a perfunctory way, or were classed as ordinary, when in fact this restlessness of theirs constituted a very special quality of mind. Abu Nuwwas or Abu Tammam, for example. I was always seeking out this restlessness, which was present in their poetry in a very subtle way and to which historians of literature paid no attention. But when it comes to writing, what concerns me first and foremost is life, human experience. This is why I focus on my own experience, benefiting from all that I come across, be they people or countries, books or lives, all of which resemble atoms that combine to form a vision.
As for Marxism," he responds, "I read it as a philosophy, without subscribing to it directly as an ideology or political system, without ever joining a party. Of course, I am a leftist, a rebel since the start of my life. But I've protected the core of my vision. A human vision is not a transient thing, it is not the rise of a political order and the decline of another. And since my rebellion is related to the rebellion of all ages, and to culture as the root and the essence, my poetry was not affected by what was going on around me, despite many a temptation, especially during the rise of the international left when I lived in Moscow." Marxism has certainly not prevented him from investigating the spiritual side of existence, and even affirming Sufi feelings: Who gave you the right to seek out God in the City of Love... "I remained independent. I must admit that in the 1950s and early 1960s, during the rise of the left, my poetry was somewhat affected by politics, but only indirectly. Because I experience life and live among people, and I have to think about whom I address. For example, I do not write for people who pray in a mosque. I write for people who live and die in society, and I have to offer them my vision..."
As for the Book Fair, Al-Bayyati is glad to be there. "It is an Arab gathering whose most important virtue is bringing people together, readers and writers and friends," he says. His latest published poem, Nussous Sharqiya (Oriental Texts), which appeared in Akhbar Al-Adab this week, is an additional source of pride. "It came of itself, this experiment, in which you will find classical poetry, modern poetry and prose side by side. It's all in the same language, as you will notice when you've read it. I mean, one doesn't feel any sense of discontinuity because parts of it are metrical while others are not. I write freely. I do not restrict myself to any one style. For example I have a book which will be published soon in Damascus called Yanabi' Al-Shams (Springs of the Sun), which is in verse. But at the same time there is another one, Tahawulat Aisha (Aisha's Transformations), which is written entirely in prose, but when you read it you feel that it is poetry..."
By now I am much obliged, and Al-Bayyati wants to make yet another phone call. "I can go back to Damascus with a clear conscience," he says, "now that I've given you this interview." One question, however, remains to be answered, and a very important one at that. What do women mean to Al-Bayyati? And why do they have such a strong presence in his poems? "In a recent poem that I dedicated to Hafez Al-Shirazi," he tells me, "which was also published in Akhbar Al-Adab, you'll notice that woman is very predominant, the main theme of the poem, but she is not simply a woman. She is a creature of light, a mythical, realistic, idealistic, materialistic, historical, a-historical creature. Some art critics believe that colour is the most essential aspect of paintings. A painting, they say, is colour. I say that the poem is a woman."
photo: Randa Shaath