Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 March 2004
Issue No. 682
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab

Youssef Rakha outlines the life course of a modern legend


-Azhar Dhabila
(Withered Flowers, 1947)
-Asatir (Myths, 1950)
-Unshoudat Al-Matar (Rainsong, 1960)
-ï Manzil Al-Aqnan
(House of Slaves, 1963)
-Shanashil Ibnat Al-Chalabi (Al-Chalabi's Daughter's
Shanashil, 1964)
-Qitharat Al-Rih
(Wind Zither, 1971)
-A'asir (Storms, 1972)
-Diwan, two volumes
(Beirut 1971-4)

Two images permeate the poetry of Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab (1926-1964): the child of six, in the rural environs of Jaykour, a small village near Basra in southern Iraq, calling desperately for his mother who, unbeknown to him, has died; and the grown man, ailing in exile by the shore of the Arabian Gulf, pining nostalgically for his homeland, which seems much further away to him than it really is. Both correspond to real-life experiences of the poet's. The eldest child of a date grower and shepherd, Shakir Abdul-Jabbar Al-Sayyab, Badr lost his mother, Shakir's cousin Karima, in 1932; she died prematurely while giving birth to her fourth child, a girl who did not survive. And it was during his miserable confinement to hospital in Kuwait and elsewhere that the poet's verses took on the trademark, impassioned -- some say excessive -- nostalgic tone. Often homeland and mother are evoked in unison, or as two aspects of the same -- irrevocable -- sense of security. In a belated elegy for Al-Sayyab, Syrian poet Mohamed Al-Maghout referred ironically to this dual obsession of the poet's in the context of reflecting on Arab cultural and political demise -- wrapping the traffic light in a headscarf and calling it "Mother", building the model of a country out of empty matchboxes and rubbish to call it "Homeland".

Al-Maghout's poem is not the only tribute to Al-Sayyab in modern literature. Universally recognised as one of the pioneers of the free poetry movement, Al-Sayyab is also widely credited with being among the most traditional of free poets, displaying a profound command of the metrical rules governing Arabic verse and an easy familiarity with even the most difficult idiosyncrasies of the classical tongue. For a long time he thought of poetry as an aspect of the struggle for national liberation, and whatever innovations were to be introduced should never be allowed to impinge on the essence of the endeavour -- the search for a liberated identity governed by equality and justice. The influence of European literature on Al-Sayyab thus remained superficial. His true sources remain the folk songs and fairy tales his later poems increasingly evoked, accompanied by the cadences of the vernacular he grew up speaking and the insurgent energy of national struggle. His virtues go beyond technical facility, however, for the energy and the emotional charge of his poems often transcend their nominal subjects, and his imagery -- at times almost Imagist in precision and intensity -- ranks among the most powerful in the poetry of any language. Perhaps the tragedy with which his life was beset reflected a genius too pure for the political turmoils in which he was to find himself entangled -- a genius not for petty intrigues and power struggles but for grand and transcendent themes.

Soon after Karima's death, Shakir found another wife and moved out -- to the distress of his father. The poet subsequently lived at his grandparents' -- his paternal grandmother, whose affection is said to have replaced his mother's, figures as the source of imaginative, sometimes frightening fairy tales about epic heros and djinn. Following the first few years of school in the neighbouring village of Bab Soliman, Al-Sayyab was forced to go further, attending the Mahmoudia School in Abul-Khasib, a small town that also figures in many of his poems: it was from a classroom window that he first spied the beautiful, unattainable daughter of Al-Chalabi, a prosperous landowner, beyond the opposite house's shanashil (a kind of latticework window comparable to a mashrabiya ) -- to which the title poem of his last diwan, Shanashil Ibnat Al-Chalabi, refers. This was probably also his earliest encounter with class differences; no sooner had it occurred, at any rate, than Al-Sayyab's poetic facility began to flower -- first in the vernacular, then in standard Arabic. Before settling with his maternal grandparents in Basra to attend secondary school -- this difficult move took place in 1938 -- Al-Sayyab presided over a literary magazine produced and distributed by his schoolmates. It was named, not surprisingly, after the palm-studded village he was never to forget, and to which he returned periodically throughout the duration of his secondary education. Jaykour was not only his birthplace, but the home of his first love, Wafiqa, one of his many cousins.

In 1941, having paradoxically opted for the science rather than arts pre-university course despite standing out in Arabic language and literature, Al-Sayyab began writing poetry regularly. (Much of this early work, written in the traditional meters of the canonical aroud, was collected and published posthumously). Interaction with fellow students with literary inclinations, notably Khaled Al-Shawwaf, was to contribute to his artistic growth. Al-Sayyab's insurgent political awareness flowered in the same year, following the execution by the British of the leaders of the anti-colonial Rashid Ali Al-Kilani Movement of April-May. At this point it is worth recalling the nationalist atmosphere in which Al-Sayyab grew up: his uncle Abdel-Qader, the poet's closest relation and fellow communist activist, had been a member of the underground Al-Hizb Al- Ladini (the Non-Religious Party), and on the walls of his grandparents' house Abdul-Jabbar hung pictures of Saad Zaghlul, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and other leaders of the liberation struggle. At the same time as Al-Sayyab reacted emotionally to the executions, writing poetry in response, his grandfather was in financial straits, having fallen prey to the usury and exploitation Abdel-Qader denigrated in the newspapers; this gave him an added, personal incentive. In his last year of secondary school, Al-Sayyab's lyricism began to mature into the expression of an individual response to the world -- the emotional and political dimensions of existence. The long-postponed move to Baghdad was preceded by the second major grief in his life: his beloved grandmother's death.

For the provincial innocent, Baghdad was a world apart, and one for which the young poet had fearfully yearned for a long time before arriving there as an Arabic student at Dar Al- Mu'allimin in 1943; he selected the faculty in question because it provided education free of charge. Literary and political life submerged the emergent talent: after Najui Al-Ubaidi published one of his poems in the newspaper he edited, Al- Ittihad, his poetry spread in literary circles, and before too long he was well-known. Transferring from the Arabic to the English department of Dar Al-Mu'allimin, he made the acquaintance of Nazik Al-Mala'ika, the first Arab poet to free verse from the formulaic rules of aroud, employing the individual taf'ila as the basis for metric composition. By 1946, when this meeting occurred, he was a member of the communist party; his first experience of detention occurred in that year. Despite being a reticent participant in the Allied-Nazi debate then surging through the intellectual life of the capital, he engaged fully with ongoing political turmoils until his graduation in 1948, when his first collection of taf'ila poems, Azhar Dhabila (Withered Flowers), appeared. He was appointed as a secondary-school English teacher, and it was then that he began to feel the brunt of urban isolation -- living in a hotel, with few connections (he was one of three communists resident in Baghdad at the time), and leading a frustrated love life, finding solace in his periodic stays in Jaykour -- a habit he had not given up since his days as an adolescent in Basra.

Jaykour becomes, for Al-Sayyab, a kind of objective correlative not only for innocence and the first flutters of consciousness but for identity. He returns to it or to the surrounding area constantly in his poems, releasing memories, a sense of history and an infinite string of references with which to comment on subsequent, unrelated stories, anecdotes and events -- even the Greek myths from which he sometimes drew inspiration, and which, through the imagery he employed, he transported into the settings of his childhood. The political involvements that were to have a terminally abrasive effect on his body and mind remained, at heart, visions of utopia rooted in the atmosphere of Jaykour, especially of a time prior to his mother's premature death. He may have displayed obstinacy and even, occasionally, aggressiveness, but his motivation was largely that of the bereft child dreaming of security -- financial, political and family security. Likewise Al- Sayyab's love life was doomed from the start: he returned to Jaykour one day to find Wafiqa married. Subsequent relations with liberated women remained superficial, and Al-Moumis Al-Amya a (The Blind Prostitute), one of his four long poems, bears testimony to the painful revulsion his observation of urban prostitutes induced in him. It was in the late 1940s that such a tragic sense of self was beginning to register, along with a commitment to engaged literature -- a subject that was to preoccupy him till the end of his life. Already it was too late to conceive of life along any other lines.

Another change of government, in 1949, saw Al-Sayyab imprisoned again; the Nouri Al-Said regime specifically targeted communists. Al-Sayyab was banned from teaching for the next decade. Among the jobs he undertook in Basra following a quiet few months in Jaykour were date taster and oil company employee. In 1950, the year his second collection, Asatir (Myths), appeared, he moved back to Baghdad, working as a free-lance journalist until he found a job as an employee of the Ministry of Imports. He continued to engage with literary and political life nonetheless, and the many interesting developments surrounding him -- persistent calls for the nationalisation of Iraqi oil, Al-Said's resignation and, following a poem in which Al-Sayyab predicted the event with uncanny precision, the wide-ranging Baghdad protests of 1952 -- went on stimulating his writing, albeit in progressively less direct ways. When the army came to power and a new series of political arrests began, Al-Sayyab had the foresight to flee to Iran and onto Kuwait, where homesickness caught up with him, producing, among other poems, Gharibun ala Al-Khalij (Stranger to the Gulf), the poem to which Al-Maghout was to make his ironic references. Al-Sayyab thus arrived in Kuwait in 1953, only to return to Baghdad six months later in the wake of King Faisal's reinstitution. This time, evidently intent on settling down once and for all, he rented a house and invited one of his aunts to live with him. In 1955 he married the sister of his uncle Abdel-Qader's wife, a young woman from Abul- Khasib, who bore him a little girl, Ghaidaa, the next year.

With his activism waning -- disagreements with the party through the 1950s, the time when he wrote his four long poems, had led to Al-Sayyab absolving himself of political responsibility -- his poetry acquired a contemplative tone, his lyricism emerging as a powerful force in its own right, unencumbered by a specific political agenda. Yet he remained sufficiently engaged to be imprisoned for a week following the publication of several of his poetic translations in 1955. He was one of three Iraqi participants at the Conference of Arab Writers held in Damascus in September 1956. He soon became the prophet of the 14 July 1958 Revolution, displaying remarkable prescience -- it was in this period that he wrote his best-known poem, Unshoudat Al-Matar (Rainsong) -- and following the Revolution resigned from the Ministry of Imports to work as an English teacher once again, this time in the Ministry of Education. He was to lose his job in the communist-nationalist rift, however, in which he sided with the latter faction; so disillusioned had he become with Iraqi communism. Al-Sayyab was reduced to working as a poorly paid translator for the Pakistani Embassy, and he was persecuted and humiliated by his former comrades.

Following attempts to appease Abdul-Karim Qasem, the leader who abolished the monarchy only to pit contending political factions against each other, he retrieved his job in 1960, the year his third collection of poems, named after Unshoudat Al-Matar, appeared. His physical as well as psychological health failing him, Al-Sayyab eventually gave up what little comfort he had attained -- evidently at the expense of his peace of mind -- and relocated to Basra in search of a quiet life, where, despite another, by now completely ludicrous arrest, he obtained a position in the Iraqi Port Administration almost immediately.

His health went from bad to worse, and following a brief visit to Jaykour Al-Sayyab's poetry centred increasingly on the theme of death, with the djinn girls of his childhood reappearing before him in frightening form. He attended another literary conference in Rome, and spent some time in Beirut arranging the publication of his work and making the acquaintance of Arab poets he had not met. His magazine allegiances had shifted from Al-Aadab to Shi'r, and now, following a brief stint with Hiwar, he went back to Al-Aadab. Al-Sayyab's illness eventually took him back to Kuwait, where for six months he suffered from paralysis and intense depression. His friend Ali Al-Sabti conveyed his body back to Basra, where he found Al-Sayyab's family homeless (the Port Administration had managed to evict them from the house, which was given to Al-Sayyab as one of the job perks, after the poet used up all his holidays). His funeral was a low-key event, and he went almost unnoticed. By 1971, however, a statue of the poet was installed in one of Basra's main squares.

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