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Bayati, Abd al-Wahhab al- (1926–1999) - PERSONAL HISTORY, INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS, BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS, PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:, CONTEMPORARIES

poetry arabic iraq iraqi

Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati (Abdul Wahab; also known as Abu Ali) was one of the most important Arabic poets of the twentieth century. Bayati was a pioneer, breaking with traditional forms and classical Arabic and opening up new avenues for the development of poetry in Arabic. He and his fellow Iraqi poets Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926–1964), NAZIK AL-MALA’IKA (1923–), and Buland al-Haydari (1926–1996), are considered the founders of modern Arabic poetry.

PERSONAL HISTORY

Bayati was born in 1926 in Baghdad and grew up in a traditional environment in the suburb of Bab al-Shaykh, where the shrine of the twelfth-century Sufi mystic Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani is situated. He studied Arabic language and literature and graduated from Dar al-Mu’allimin al-‘Aliya (Higher Teachers’ Institute) in 1950. In the same year, he began teaching in public secondary schools. At the same time, he took part in editing the most popular Iraqi cultural magazine, Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida (The new culture), a publication representing a leftist social and political position. Bayati had been involved in the Iraqi Communist Party since his early years, and in 1954 was dismissed from his teaching position for his political activities. He left Iraq for the first time in 1954 for four years of wandering in Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, where he worked for a while as an editor at the newspaper Al-Jumhuriyya in 1956.

He returned to Iraq when the monarchy was toppled by a military coup under the command of General Abd al-Karim Qasim in 1958. The new republic gave him a post in the Ministry of Education and, shortly thereafter, in 1959, he was sent to Moscow as a cultural attaché. He stayed in this post until 1961, when he resigned to teach for a few months at the Asian and African Peoples’ Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He then began wandering again in various Eastern European countries.

He returned to Iraq for the second time after the 1968 coup, when the Ba’th Party seized power. The Ba’th government launched a massive campaign against all Iraqi parties, particularly those of liberal or leftist character, mainly the Iraqi Communist Party. Bayati had to escape again in order to avoid the brutality of the new regime. But he returned to Iraq in 1972. In 1980 the regime felt it necessary to make a gesture to him: SADDAM HUSSEIN himself assigned him as cultural attaché at the Iraqi embassy in Madrid. He stayed at that post until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990. He then sought refuge in Jordan, and moved to Syria in 1996. Although his views suggest an opposition to all governments, he was able to avoid provoking them. This might explain why he was never condemned by the Iraqi government and his books were not censored inside Iraq. Bayati died on 3 August 1999 in Damascus. At his own request he was buried near the shrine of the Sufi saint Ibn ’Arabi, in the Cemetery of Strangers in that city, his first and last place of exile.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

Bayati’s poetry can be divided into three periods. His early poems were apparently influenced by both English and Arabic romanticism. His poems of this type appear in the collection Mala’ika wa Shayatin (Angels and devils, 1950). Although he was late to join the free verse movement, his collection Abariq Muhashshama (Smashed pitchers, 1954), was a revolutionary book within that movement, earning him the prominent place in Arabic poetry that he occcupied for the rest of his life.

As a leftist, Bayati threw himself into the revolutionary struggle of the period. As a poet involved in popular radical politics, he started, in the early 1950s, writing poems with communist ideas and slogans, welding poetry and ideology and gaining significant fame throughout the Arab world. His poetic reputation rose hand in hand with his political involvement.

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati (Abdul Wahab; also known as Abu Ali)

Birth: 1926, Baghdad, Iraq

Death: 1999, Damascus, Syria

Family: Wife, Hind; two daughters, Asma’ and Nadiya (died 1990); two sons, Ali and Saad

Nationality: Iraqi

Education: B.A., Arabic language and literature, Higher Teachers’ Institute, Baghdad, 1950

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1950–1954: High school teacher in Ramadi, Iraq; editor of journal Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida (The new culture)
  • 1954: Fired from teaching post over political activities; leaves Iraq
  • 1958: Returns to Iraq after overthrow of monarchy; receives post in Ministry of Education
  • 1959–1961: Cultural attaché, Iraqi embassy, Moscow
  • 1968: Returns to Iraq; leaves Iraq to escape political repression
  • 1972: Returns to Iraq
  • 1980–1990: Cultural attaché, Iraqi embassy, Madrid
  • 1999: Dies in Damascus, 3 August

Bayati was a prolific poet and his subsequent collections, such as Risala ila Nazim Hikmat wa qasa’id ukhra (1956; Letter to Nazim Hikmat and other poems), Al-Majd li’l-atfal wa’l-zaytun (1956), Ash’ar fi al-manfa (1957), Ishrun qasida min Berlin (1959), Kalimat la tamut (1960), Muhakama fi Nisabur (1963), Al-Nar wa’l-kalimat (1964), and Sifr al-faqr wa’l-thawra (1965), implied that he deeply enjoyed a power and self-confidence derived from, and enjoyed displaying his genius in public. The Egyptian Nobel Prize-winner NAGUIB MAHFOUZ once gave Bayati a copy of his novel al-Shahhadh (The mendicant) with the inscription “To Bayati who is fascinated by his genius.” Bayati said in his autobiography Yanabi’ al-Shams (Springs of the sun, 1999) that “Mahfouz was really truthful in his note.”

For bringing decisive new developments to Arabic poetry, Bayati was called “Prometheus” (after the mythological Greek fire-thief who paid profoundly for trying to possess knowledge and deliver it to humans). Likewise, Bayati described his attempts to disclose knowledge as a responsibility toward the poor and the oppressed. He conceived the struggle against tyranny and dictatorship as a poetic function. He later tried to explain that struggle as a tendency peculiar to the conditions of the 1950s and 1960s, and distanced somewhat from his past on behalf of his later vision. “I remained independent,” he stated. “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.” (Rakha, 1999).

Like his contemporaries, Bayati was profoundly influenced by Western poetry. The critic Ehsan Abbas made a connection between Bayati’s poetics and English-language modernists, especially Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Both of them depended on everyday language, creating new poetic rhythms and an emphasis on poetic images. In Moscow from 1959 to 1964, he was occupied with poems and theories of French surrealism, and the work of such poets as André Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, and the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. In the 1960s Bayati also became interested in poetic masks. “I found these masks in history, symbol and myth,” he wrote in Tajribati al-shi’riyya (1968; My poetic experience). “It was so difficult to choose some of the historical and mythological personalities, cities, rivers and traditional books to express through a mask the social and universal ordeal. And it was not by accident that I chose that, it was a result of a bleary and long journey.” Some of these masks: the Sumerian Dilmun Myth, Babylonian Tammuz, Arcadia, Egyptian Osiris, Greek Orpheus, Ishtar, Ophelia, Diana, Khuzama, A’isha, Waddah of Yemen, Al-Ma’arri, Al-Mutanabbi, Gilgamesh, Ashur, Albert Camus, al-Hallaj, Abu Firas, García Lorca, Nazim Hikmat. Like Prometheus, Bayati wanted to shed light on dark life.

Bayati’s late poems were influenced by Sufi figures and historical personalities in general. He often mixed these figures and personalities with nostalgia and high poetic language. These poems reflected the influence on him of Sufism. This period in his poetry began when Bayati left Moscow for Cairo in 1964. In Cairo he turned to Sufi figures such as Ibn ‘Arabi, Ibn al-Fariz, al-Hallaj, al-Sahrawardi, Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, and Ibn Shibil. Ultimately, he combined these influences to create his new poetics. Sifr al-faqr wa’l-thawra (1965; The book of poverty and revolution) was his first collection of this period; Qamar Shiraz (1976; Shiraz’s moon) was its masterpiece.

Although he returned several times to Iraq and stayed there briefly, Bayati spent more than half of his life away from his homeland. Portrayed as an expatriate, he was actually self-exiled. He described this condition as a “tormenting experience”; it left a great impact on his poetry and writing in general.

Buzzing with people and flies,

     I was born in it, and
     On its walls I learned exile and wandering

That was what Bayati declared in “Elegy to the Unborn City.” “Since I was a child (my early years),” he later said in Yanabi’ al-Shams , “I have started thinking of the secrets of death, exile and silence. Dreaming about traveling to other cities and remote countries, I’ve resorted to my books meditating the birds and clouds wrapping the sky in winter’s days.”


CONTEMPORARIES


Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926–1964) is the pioneer of modern Arabic poetry whose poems had established the solid basis of the free verse movement since the late 1940s. Bayati found him the bitterest rival over the exploration of new poetic ways. Born in Abu al-Khasib, a small village near Basra (Iraq), al-Sayyab played a key role in opening up wide vistas for Arabic poetry to enter the age of modernity. He died young after a long battle with a chronic disease, but he left more than ten collections of poems that established him as a founder of modern Arabic poetry. Badr Shakir al-Sayyab revolutionized the static structure of Arabic poetry since pre-Islamic age. Hence he was not only a modernizer of Arabic poetry, but also of the Arabic culture in general. His world of poetry, his talent along with his extraordinary suffering from poverty and numerous diseases set him up as a most popular figure in the twentieth-century Arab world.


Among his famous poetic collections: Azhar Dhabila (Wizened flowers, 1947), Haffar al-Qubur (The grave digger, 1952), al-Mumis al-‘amiya’ (The blind prostitute, 1954), al-Asliha wa’ll-Atfal (Weapons and children, 1954), Azhar wa Asatir (Flowers and myths), Inshudat al-Matar (Rain song, 1960), Manzil al-Aqnan (Slave house, 1963) and A’asir (Hurricanes, 1972).


Bayati was a traveler who never stayed any place for a long time. It is difficult to separate his exile from his traveling since he imagined and philosophized them together. “I do not travel for the sake of tourism and entertainment,” he said, “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” (Rakha, 1999).


AWAITING THE PROPHECY OF A FORTUNE-TELLER


ELEGY TO THE UNBORN CITY
Buzzing with people and flies,
I was born in it, and
On its walls I learned exile and the wandering.
Love and death and the isolation of poverty
In its underworld and at its gates.
In it my father who taught me to navigate and to read:
The rivers, the fires, the clouds, and the mirage
He taught me to know sadness, rebellion, and perseverance
To sail, and to orbit the houses of the saints of God,
Searching for the light and the warmth of a future spring
Which still lives at the bottom of the earth
And in the sea shells,
Awaiting the prophecy of a fortune-teller.
In it he taught me to wait for the night and the day
And to search for a hidden, enchanted city
On the map of the world
Similar to my city
In the color of its eyes and in its sad laugh,
But not wearing
The tatters of the wandering clown,
Nor does its summer buzz with people and flies.
                   (TRANSLATED BY BASSAM K. FRANGIEH) A SIGH IN BAGHDAD
I am looking for a cloud
A green cloud that wipes my depression
Transports me
To my homeland’s wilds
To lilies fields
Grants me
A butterfly, a star
A water drop drenches my thirst and a word
That the Tigris waters were muddy
And it flowed
To flood dams and villages
So, who is that?
Whose water bathes me?
Bury me under a palm tree’s shadows
Chant me in a verse line after a thousand years
That my homeland is distant
And these dusky nights disunite us
Ink and papers as well
And the wall of longings …
                       (TRANSLATED BY HASSAN NADHEM) SECRET OF FIRE
On the last day
I kissed her hands,
Her eyes / her lips.
I said to her: you are now
Ripe like an apple
Half of you: a woman
The other half: impossible to describe.
The words
Escaped me
And I escaped them
Both of us collapsed.
Now I pray
For the childhood of this light face
And for this ripe, burning body
I bring my face closer
To this gushing spring,
Thirsty.
On the last day, I said to her:
You are the fire of the forests
The water of the river
The secret of the fire
Half of you cannot be described
The other half: a priestess in the temple of Ishtar.
                    (TRANSLATED BY BASSAM K. FRANGIEH)

THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE


Bayati’s poetry has been studied by many critics and specialists in Arabic poetry around the world and has been the subject of many academic theses and dissertations. His work as a diplomat, in addition to his travels and residence in many countries, afforded him the opportunity to acquaint himself with many groups and individuals. His poetry has been translated into many languages. In his native country, Iraq, and the Arab world his name has always been associated with innovation and the modernization of Arabic poetry.


LEGACY


Bayati will be remembered first and foremost as a pioneer in the free verse movement. Over the course of his life, he published some twenty collections of poetry as well as a three-act play. He translated poems by Eluard and Aragon, published studies about them and others as well as a memoir titled Tajribati al-shi’riyya (1968; My poetic experience). Bayati moved between his homeland and the rest of the world, and gave his exile political and philosophical dimensions. In his poetry, he employed elements of history, legend, and ritual, dialogues, and a multitude of voices; he also drew on material from the rich literary legacy of the great Sufi mystics. His work is characterized by its deep historical sense, the use of conversation, and his commitment to the revolutionary struggle of the workers and the poor.

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