“A poet dies twice: once when he publishes, and once when a statue is erected to him.” So said Iraqi poet Mahmoud al-Braikan, in a speech in memory of the great Badr Shakir al-Sayyab:
Al-Sayyab (1926-1964) — one of Iraq’s most gifted poets — lived and died in poverty. He was imprisoned and scapegoated by various successive regimes, and according to scholar and translator Ibrahim Muhawi, the last three years of his life “were indeed miserable,” as his poverty was compounded “with an incurable, degenerative…disease of his spinal cord…that led gradually to the paralysis of his legs and the deterioration of his nervous system, culminating in his death at the young age of 38.”
Al-Sayyab’s death did shake the world of Arabic literature, Muhawi said. By 1967, a new selection of his poetry appeared with an introduction by the Syrian poet Adonis. But it wasn’t until 1971 that he was claimed by the Iraqi government.
That’s when the Ba’athist regime, under Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, erected a statue to the poet. In 2013, the Iraqi Ministry of Culture did one better, announcing that al-Sayyab’s family home would be turned into a cultural forum “and a tourist museum that documents his poetry works and displays to the public his personal effects, pictures, scripts and audio recordings.”
Perhaps the museum will be beautiful, educational, and a home for poets and poetry. In any case, Al-Braikan, who died in 2002, would surely not approve. But just as surely, Iraqi poet Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri’s (1899-1997) second death, revealed last month and chronicled in Al-Monitor and As-Safir, is a bit unhappier. From Al-Monitor:
Jawahiri’s statue has become a bad joke among intellectuals, the public and the poet’s family. Jawahiri’s granddaughter saw her grandfather’s history collapse in front of her. No one in Baghdad province gave the history of that cultural and poetic figure his due.
The province put up a simple statue that said nothing about Jawahiri. It was a simple statue made of some kind of plastic material in the middle of a pool, whose water was dyed green during the unveiling celebration. But all that ugliness was not enough. They surrounded the statue with a number of coffee pots of different sizes. The statue’s head was crooked, and the coffee pots made the scene look even more ridiculous. Jawahiri’s family rushed to the governor to try to fix the monument, which offended the history of a man buried in the Ghuraba cemetery in the neighborhood of Sayyeda Zeinab, Damascus.
Baghdad assassinated Jawahiri twice, once when it forced him into exile, away from the “Tigris River of goodness,” and another time by making for him a pathetic statue that is unworthy of his history.
The governor promised to fix the statue and to remove the coffee pots and coffee cups from around it so that the poet doesn’t get turned into a coffee seller after his death.
There’s no indication that the leftist poet would’ve been shamed or alarmed by an association with coffee-sellers. However, it’s not quite clear how the above statue won a competition that was apparently, according to the US Department of Defense news website al-Shorfa, worth 5 million dinars.
Although a popular and beloved poet — called by critic Salma Khadra Jayyusi in Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry “undoubtedly the greatest Iraqi poet of his generation” — al-Jawahiri, with his classical style, has generally been ignored by critics and translators.
According to Jayyusi, “Poetry of a unique and uncommitted nature such as that of al-Jawahiri, which does not proclaim a new doctrine of poetry, is immediately marked out as ‘conventional’ and left untreated.”
Another image: of the statue.