Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

Voices from the Wreckage

A timely new anthology of modern Iraqi poetry

Over twenty years ago I had the chance to hear the great Iraqi poet ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayyati read in Arabic at a gathering of prominent Near Eastern authors. Looming over the proceedings was the bearish and boisterous Yasar Kamal—a Turkish novelist who had once, it was said, rented an apartment across from the Swedish Academy in a campaign to win the Nobel Prize. The Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua, a look of permanent brooding grief stamped upon his craggy features, sat listening with his head cradled in his hands. Present also were the exquisitely elfin Syrian poet called Adonis, whose recitations and good looks made audiences swoon with their seductive eloquence, and the dashing Nizar Qabbani, the most famous love poet in the Arab world.

In that glittering hall of literati, the small, frail, rumpled al-Bayyati looked a bit like a taxi driver who had wandered in by mistake. But when he rose to his feet, adjusted his well-creased jacket with its shiny elbows and began to recite his verse in a soft voice, his sad features were slowly transformed. He seemed to grow in stature. Out of that diminutive frame a larger, more commanding presence emerged until obstreperous Kamal, who understood not a word, subsided; even Yehoshua began to raise his world-weary head from his hands; Adonis and Qabbani and scores of other poets stood in silence and respect.

Al-Bayyati, though he was a Marxist and something of a rebel, wrote in strict measures, using the simplest language and lightly chiming rhymes:

To the chariots of exile in Ashur,
To the king of the world, to the                           
    sun, to the rich green fields,
To the sacred bird imprisoned
In the nether world under the                              
    bewitched mountain,
To fire and rituals,
To the body of the earth, annually 
    resurrected by summer’s kisses,
To the Euphrates,
I came, bearing the lash marks of 
    captivity

Amid the rubble of Baghdad, where once the Abbasid caliphs held sway for half a millennium, if anything enduring yet remains, it will be that voice: soft but insistent, fragile but inextinguishable.

An old Arabic adage has it that “poetry is the register of the Arabs.” The Arabic word for register is diwan (whence the French word douane), which denotes not only a ledger for accounts or a collection of poems but a form of remembrance. It is the archive of articulated memory, cast into the shape of words that last, and serves homely as well as noble purposes: genealogy, tribal history, battle records, exploits of heroes. The voice of a poet is almost always a collective voice, the accent of a tribe or clan. In ancient times, poetry was said to be the record of the birth of a noble horse as well as of the birth of a poet (the latter was a thoroughbred of language, a rarity to be prized). What structures the early wandering Bedouin erected were edifices of syllables, word-tents in which the immemorial life of a people sheltered, which could always be re-entered in times of trouble or grief.

The lines I quoted earlier are from an important, and timely, new anthology entitled Iraqi Poetry Today, a special issue of the journal Modern Poetry in Translation, edited by Saadi A. Simawe. The book contains scores of new translations by dozens of Arab and Kurdish poets from modern-day Iraq. The indisputably great, such as al-Bayyati, are well represented in these pages in versions by many different hands; even better, there are numerous poets writing in Arabic or Kurdish who are almost completely unknown, even to specialists. One of the most moving poems is by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, arguably the greatest modern poet in the Arabic language, who died in 1964. Here he writes of the poet: “Yesterday, when he used to sing / Night had to restrain its drunken stars from falling. // And today, a thousand lines from him / Cannot stir a palm leaf’s attention.” Al-Sayyab was deeply influenced by modernism and by T. S. Eliot in particular, an influence he strove to fuse with the most ancient Mesopotamian myths, but his anguish and disillusion break through and give a bitter twist to even his most rhapsodic stanzas. This is, not surprisingly, a dominant note in contemporary Iraqi verse. Here, for example, is a poem by Fadhil al-Azzawi, originally from Kirkuk but for years an exile in Germany and one of the most original poets of his generation:

Crossing the Valley

This desolate valley is crowded with         
    thieves
But I’m crossing it alone.
I’m afraid of no one,
For I have neither gold nor silver 
    in my saddle.

This desolate valley stretches
    before me
Dotted with stones that shimmer 
    like mirrors in the sun.
I drag my mules behind me and                     
    sing happily to myself.

Often rain pours down in this
    valley.
But there is no cave to shelter me
And I don’t have a tent.
If the flood comes and water is                               
    everywhere
Who will save me in an ark?
Yet, I go on without a miracle,
Sheltering in my hand my heart’s                    
    ember,
Hoping to set fire to the world’s                                 
    dead wood
And to feed the ghosts that
    regularly dine at my table.

Alone I cross this valley
And the wind diligently follows me.

It is impossible to read such a lyric without being reminded of earlier classical poets from the same region, and al-Azzawi no doubt intends this. When the tenth-century poet al-Mutanabbi declares, “I have met the vast wastelands and the pinnacles before them, crossing through heat which made even the water thirst,” he is ringing a trope that reverberates through Arabic poetry from its earliest beginnings, and al-Azzawi spins it echoing through his own lines as well.

Not all the poetry in this interesting anthology is of this sort. In the twentieth century, Arab writers discovered free verse as well as the long, loping, dithyrambic stanzas of Walt Whitman and his successors. As a result, what remains of the classical tradition resides more in images and allusions than in structures or forms. In a typical traditional ode, the poet would invariably use a single rhyme extending over one hundred or more verses; moreover, there were strict and often inflexible rules governing such matters as enjambment and assonance. The quantitative nature of the Arabic language, in this much like ancient Greek, found full play in the alternation of long and short syllables for maximum sonority. Most of this is gone, though there are still stubborn bards writing on falconry, say, or the desert landscape. More commonly a modern Arabic poet will draw on all the resources of his or her native tongue to elongate or curtail the vowels of his line, but the shape of the resulting poem will tend to resemble a lyric by W. C. Williams rather than one by al-Mutanabbi. Here, for example, is “Supper” by Yousif al-Sa’igh:

Every evening when I come home
My sadness comes out of his room
Wearing his winter overcoat
And walks behind me.
I walk, he walks with me,
I sit, he sits next to me,
I cry, he cries for my cry,
Until midnight
When we get tired.
At that point
I see my sadness go into the kitchen,
Open the refrigerator,
Take a black piece of meat
And prepare my supper.

One of the best aspects of this rich book is its ample inclusion of women poets. Except for a few lucky princesses in Muslim Spain, most women poets were slave girls and singers; almost all have been made as anonymous by time and forgetfulness as those dunes across which the old wandering bards used to sound their laments. Nowadays that has changed and we find not only women poets but great ones, such as the celebrated Nazik al-Mala’ika, born and raised in Baghdad but long exiled in Egypt. When the Tigris flooded disastrously in 1954 and immersed Baghdad, al-Mala’ika wrote a love poem to the river which ends:

He is a god today.
Has not our city washed its feet in 
    his waters?
He rises and pours treasures into 
    her hands.
He bestows upon us the mud
And death that eludes our eyes.
Have we anyone but this lover god?

Other women poets are represented to fine effect, such as Dunya Mikhail, Lamiah Abbas Imara and the mysterious Sajidah al-Musawi. (The biographical note for al-Musawi tells us only that “she is an Iraqi woman poet who writes in Arabic. No further information about her is available.”)

An unusual feature of this anthology is the appearance of poets writing in Kurdish, a language belonging to the broad Persian linguistic group (and so unrelated to Arabic). In general, the translations from the Kurdish do not read as well as those from the Arabic; too often the translators resort to clumsy rhyming stanzas, such as the following by the poet Bekes:

You bright star of the space
About you I am in a mess
I watch you but cannot guess
Who’s set you in that place?

Just as bad, when the translations do not sink into such doggerel, they reveal a verse larded with slogans and outdated formulae, as in this by Jigerkhwen:

I am the voice of the mountainside
I am the hammer in the labourer’s                 
    hand
I am the sickle in the peasant’s hand
I am the enemy of reactionaries
I am the vanguard of progressives…

Perhaps in the original Kurdish this is rousing stuff, but I doubt it.

The anthology offers other surprises, such as a poem translated from the Hebrew by the Iraqi-born Jewish poet Ronny Someck or a long poem by the poet Muzaffar al-Nawwab, rendered from an oral performance, with “applause” noted at especially impassioned moments (his verse is available only on cassettes, and not in published form). There are brief introductions to both Arabic and Turkish poetry, as well as biographies of the poets and translators.

The translations, as might be expected given the many collaborators, are quite uneven; but most, as my excerpts will attest, are at least clear and serviceable. (As for the Kurdish, it is clear even to a non-speaker of Kurdish like myself that the failure lies as much with the originals as with the translations; these are by and large not good poems.) Even so, nothing could be timelier than the appearance of this volume. Baghdad lies in rubble, its library and museum destroyed, its very past at risk. The city has been devastated before: in 1258 the Mongol conqueror Hulagu razed the round city founded five hundred years before, seized the last Abbasid caliph, rolled him in a carpet and had him trampled to death by his horses. Men, women and children were put to the sword and pyramids of human skulls were erected to mark the destruction of the light of the world. If Baghdad never completely recovered—its extensive irrigation canals even now bear the marks of the Mongol onslaught—its lustre remained and was sung, over centuries, up to the present day. When I see the television images of men and women wandering the streets of the old caliphal capital, I am reminded of ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayyati, their poet. Humble in appearance, distinctively unimpressive, when he raised his voice and began to recite, that voice was not merely strong and resonant but carried, in its tones, all the timbres of an indestructible antiquity.