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'Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati (1926-1999)


Prolific Iraqi poet, one of the most important Arab avant-garde writers from the 1950s with Nazik al-Mala'ika and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. Al-Bayati  celebrated the rise of Arab nationalism and the struggle of workers. More than half his life he lived outside Iraq. His poetry is characterized by its deep historical sense, use of conversational quotations, and his commitment to the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed and poor against evil forces. "I write for people who live and die in society, and I have to offer them my vision..." Between the years 1950 and 1998, al-Bayati published some 35 collections of verse.

The Ship of Fate moved on,
Sinbad of the Wind never came,
How was it you came when our wells
Are poisoned, where can you have come from?
Did we meet before I came to be?

(from 'The Impossible,' in Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi, 1987)

'Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati was born in Baghdad. Near his home was the shrine of the 12th century Sufi Abdel Qadir al-Jilani. From his early youth, Al-Bayati had been involved in radical politics. After graduating from the Iraqi Teachers' Training College in 1950, al-Bayati became a teacher. He taught in public schools and edited one of the most widely circulated cultural magazines, Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida (The New Culture). During the early 1950s, the mission of al-Bayati's poetry was to analyze the many injustices endemic to Iraqi life. A committed member of the Communist Party at the time, al-Bayati was also asked to read his poems at demonstrations. Because of his antigovernment activities, he was dismissed from his work and sentenced to imprisonment and work in a concentration camp. On his release in 1955, he went into exile. Thereafter he lived in exile in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, separated from his family.

Invititated by the Organization of Soviet Writers, al-Bayyati traveled to Moscow, where he became friends with the exiled Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. After the 1958 overthrow of the royal regime, Al-Bayati returned to Baghdad. For a period he held a post in the Ministry of Education, before the republican Iraqi government appointed him cultural attaché at the Iraqi embassy in Moscow. He resigned in 1961 and then taught at the Asian and African Peoples' Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. When he accepted President Gamal Abdel Nasser's invitation to visit Egypt, his Iraqi citicenship was revoked. Without formal nationality, he lived in Cairo for the next four years, and continued traveling widely in the Eastern Europe.

Granted a new pasport, al-Bayati moved back to his home country after the pan-Arab, socialist Ba'th party took the control of the regime. He worked as cultural adviser to the Ministry of Culture and Information, but was forced to flee again to escape the brutal campaign against leftists. "The Arab leaders are the enemies of their peoples," he once said. ('Preface' by Bassam K. Frangieh, in Love, Death, and Exile by Abdul Wahab Al-Bayati, 2004, p. ix) In 1972 he was back in Baghdad and honored by the present government. Eventually he was assigned in 1980 by Saddam Hussein as cultural attaché to Iraq's diplomatic mission in Madrid. Al-Bayati's ambivalent stance toward Hussein led the Iraqi dissisent Kanan Makiya to claim in his book Cruelty and Silence (1992), that Arab intellectuals, including al-Bayati, were too eager to render Saddam an Arab champion against the West while overlooking the dictator's crimes against his own people.

Following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, al-Bayati left in protest his post in Spain, and sought refuge in Jordan. Noteworthy, King Hussein did not join the international coalition against Iraq. While in Amman, al-Bayati's favorite restaurant was Al-Yasmeen; a wide range of intellectuals around the world came to meet him. Saddam Hussein's government stripped him of his citizenship after he visited Saudi Arabia to participate in a cultural festival. In 1966, he moved to Syria, where he at the same time enjoyed the patronage of Hafez al-Assad and made made friends with Assad's political opponents. Al-Bayati spent his last days with fellow Iraqi exiles in the cafes of Damascus, where he had moved from Amman. He died on August 3, 1999, of a heart attack. Major international newspapers reported his death. Despite his anti-government stand, al-Bayati's books were sold in Baghdad book shops.

From nowhere,
With no face, no history, from nowhere,
Beneath the sky, and in the moaning of the wind,
I hear her calling me – "come!
(from 'Traveller Without Baggage,' in An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry, Selected, Edited and Translated into English by Mounah A. Khouri and Hamid Algar, 1974)

His career as a writer Al-Bayati began with a commitment to proletarian struggle, but he also drew on mythological and historical material from the rich literary legacy of the great mystics. His first collection, Mala'ika wa shayatin (1950, Angels and Devils) still followed the Romantic, popular trend. Al-Bayati was among the first Iraqi poets who broke away from classical forms and joined the free verse movement in the 1950s. One of his major early works, Abariq muhashshama (1954, Broken Pitchers), was written mostly in free verse and became known all over the Arab world.  His subsequent collections made him a leading voice of the generation who felt betrayed by their leaders. In the much quoted poem 'Arab refugee' (1961) he wrote: "Naked and stabbed, / the Arab refugee is begging at your doors. / Ants and the birds of wounding years / are eating at his flesh." Shocked by the defeat of the Arab armies in the Six-Day War in 1967, Al-Bayati depicted in The Eyes of the Dead Dogs (1969) Prophet Muhammed as a Christ figure: "O my friend, / They stole happiness from you / They deceived you, / Tortured you, / Crucified you" (from 'Something About Happiness').

A representative of the Socialist Realist school in modern Arabic poetry, Al-Bayati wrote in simple language which came near the common speech.  He also used literary allusions and elements from the traditional poetry and Western modernism, popular proverbs, sayings, and snatches of dialogue. These he weaved into his call of the revolutionary change of the world – revolution is the precondition for an earthly paradise: "Yet in spite of the suffering, I am / On the road to the sun, marching." (from 'Something About Happiness') Although Al-Bayati's verse maintained popularity among opposition supporters, the poet himself enjoyed the patronage of monarchs and dictators of the Middle East. During his poetry reading at the University of Pennsylvania in 1991, Sheik Omar Abdulrahman, the mastermind behind the truck bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, sat in the front row. Some of his poems were addressed to such figures as Mao Zedong, Maxim Gorkii, Vladimir Maiakovskii and Ernest Hemingway.

Echoing the existentialism of Camus and Sartre, al-Bayati once stated, "Whether for the individual or for the society as a whole, the revolt against life is the first step in the revolutionary process." ('Arab Existentialism: An Invisible Chapter in the Intellectual History of Decolonization' by Yoav Di-Capua, American Historical Review, October 2012, p. 1081) Much of al-Bayati's later poetry was influenced by Sufism, although he did not write many Sufi poems. The separation from Iraq, his wife and four children reflected often in the nostalgic tone of his work, where loneliness is his new poetic homeland. He also expressed his doubts and sadness: "From the depths I call out to you, / With my tongue dried up, and / My butterflies scorched over your mouth. / Is this snow from the coldness of your nights?" (from Sifr al-faqr wa al-thawrah, 1965) The figure of A'isha, Omar Khayyam's beloved, appears often. She is for the poet the symbol beauty and love, "A saint fleeing in the middle of the darkness", who gives him hope and a reason to believe in a better life.

For further reading: Arabic Poetry: Trajectories of Modernity and Tradition by Muhsin J. al-Musawi (2006);  'Introduction' by Bassam K. Frangieh, in Love, Death, and Exile by Abdul Wahab Al-Bayati (2004); The Poetics of Anti-colonialism in the Arabic Qaṣīdah by Hussein N. Kadhim (2004); ''Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati' by Ferida Jawad, in Censorship: A World Encyclopedia by Derek Jones (2002); 'al-Bayātī 'Abd al-Wahhāb  (1926- ),' in Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature: Volume 1, A-K, edited by Julie Scott Meisami, Paul Starkey (1998); 'Introduction' by Bassam K. Frangieh, in Love, Death, and Exile (1990); When the Words Burn: An Athology of Modern Arabic Poetry, 1945-1987, edited and translated by John Mikhail Asfour (1988); Palestine and Modern Arab Poetry by Khalid A. Sulaiman (1984); Poetry of Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati: Thematic and Stylistic Study by Khalil Shukrahhah- Rizk (1981); Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry, Vol. 2, by S.K. Jayyusi (1977); Poet of Iraq: Abdul Wahab al-Bayati. An Introductory Essay with Translations by Desmond Stewart (1976); A Critical Introduction to Modern Arabic Poetry by M.M. Badawi (1975) 

Selected works:

  • Al-Thaqafa al-Wataniyya, 1950 (Culture of the Homeland)
  • Mala'ika wa shayatin, 1950 (Angels and Devils)
  • Abariq muhashshama, 1953 (Broken Pitchers)
  • Risala ila Hazim Hikmet wa quas'aid ukhra, 1956 (A Letter of Nazim Hikmet and Other Stories)
  • Al-Majd li al-atfal wa al-zaytun, 1956 (Glory to the Children and Olive Trees)  
  • Ash'ar fi al-manfa, 1957 (Poetry in Exile)
  • Ishrun qasida min Berlin, 1959
  • Kalimat la tamut, 1960
  • Muhakama fi Nisabur, 1963 (play; Trial in Nishapur)
  • Al-Nar wa al-kalimat, 1964
  • Sifr al-faqr wa al-thawra, 1965 (The Book of Poetry and Revolution)
  • Alladhi ya'ti wa laya'ti, 1966
  • Al Mawt fi al Hayat, 1968
  • Tajribati al-shi'riyya, 1968
  • 'Ulyun al-kilab al-mayyita, 1969 (The Eyes of the Dead Dogs)
    - 'The City', 'Lament for the June Sun', 'Something About Happiness', in Love, Death, and Exile (translated by Bassam K. Frangieh, 1990)
  • Buka'iyya ila shams haziran wa al-murtaziqa, 1969
  • Al Kitaba al Teen, 1970 (Writing on Clay)
    - 'The Magus', 'The Nightmare of Night and Day,' 'Elegy to the Unborn City', 'Three Watercolors', in Love, Death, and Exile (translated by Bassam K. Frangieh, 1990)
  • Yawmiyyat siyasi muhtarif, 1970
  • Qasaid hubb 'ala bawwabat al-'alam al-sab, 1971 (Love Poems at the Seven Gates of the World)
    - 'Eye of the Sun', 'About Waddah of Yemen - Love and Death', 'Love Poems at the Seven Gates of the World', in Love, Death, and Exile (translated by Bassam K. Frangieh, 1990)
  • Lilies and Death, 1972 (translated by Mohammed B. Alwan)
  • Kitab al-bahr, 1973 (The Book of the Sea)
    - 'Metamorphoses of Netrocres in the Book of the Dead', 'The Princess and the Gypsy', 'Lady of the Seven Moons', 'The Lover', in Love, Death, and Exile (translated by Bassam K. Frangieh, 1990)
  • Sira dhatiyya li sariq al-nar, 1974 (Autobiography of the Thief of Fire) - 'Labor Pains', 'Poems on Separation and Death', 'The Earthquake', 'The Gypsy Symphony',in Love, Death, and Exile (translated by Bassam K. Frangieh, 1990)
  • Qamar Shiraz, 1976 (Shiraz's Moon)
    - 'For Rafael Alberti', 'Reading From The Book Of Al-Tawasin By Al-Hallaj', 'Deat and the Lamp', 'Portrait of the Lover of the Great Bear', 'I Am Born and Burn in My Love', 'Shiraz's Moon', 'Love Under the Rain', in Love, Death, and Exile (translated by Bassam K. Frangieh, 1990)
  • Poet of Iraq: Abdul Wahab al-Bayati. An introductory essay with translations by Desmond Stewart, 1976
  • The Singer and the Moon, 1976 (translated by Abdullah al-Udhari)
  • Eye of the Sun, 1978
  • Mamlakat al-sunbula, 1979 (The Kingdom of the Grain)
    - 'Light Comes From Granada', 'First Symphony of the Fifth Dimension', 'Variations On The Suffering Of Farid Al-Din Al-Attar', 'I Shall Reveal My Love For You to the Wind and the Trees', in Love, Death, and Exile (translated by Bassam K. Frangieh, 1990)
  • Sawt al-sanawat al-daw'iyya, 1979
  • Abdul Wahab al-Bayati, 1979 (a short introduction and four poems, translated by Desmond Stewart and George Masri)
  • Al-hubb tahta al-matar, 1985 - Love under the Rain (translated by  George Masri, 1979)
  • Bustan 'A'isha, 1989 (Aisha's Orchard)
    - 'Elegy to Khalil Hawi,' From the Papers of Aisha,' 'Another Paper', etc, in Love, Death, and Exile (translated by Bassam K. Frangieh, 1990)
  • Love, Death, and Exile, 1990 (translated by Bassam K. Frangieh)
  • Diwan, 1990 (2 vols.)
  • Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati: sirah dhatiyah: al-qitharah wa-al-dhakirah, 1994
  • Kitab al-Marathi, 1995
  • Tannin, 1997
  • Khamsun qasidat hubb, 1997
  • Al-Bahr Ba'id, Asma'uh Yatanahhud, 1998 (The Sea is Distant, I Hear It Sighing)
  • Mudun wa-rijal wa-matahat, 1999
  • Nusus sharqiyah, 1999
  • Yanabi al-shams: al-sirah al-shi'riyah, 1999    
  • Tahawwuklat 'A'ishah, 1999
  • Taranahha-yi ashiq-i avarah, 2002
  • Love, Death, and Exile: Poems Translated from Arabic, 2004        (translated by Bassam K. Frangieh)

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