Bahraini poet Ghazi Al-Haddad died last week:

Ali al-Jamri

Ghazi Al-Haddad (1961-2021), the great Bahraini poet, died on Wednesday 23 June. Like many of Bahrain’s most prolific poets, he was best known for his Hussaini poetry marking the occasions, struggles and martyrdoms that are central to Shi’a Islam, for which he will be best remembered. Yet he also wrote well-known revolutionary poems during Bahrain’s 1990s intifada and poems powerfully asserting the marginalized Bahrani identity.

As I remember Ghazi, I am drawn to one of my favorite lines of his:

ونحنُ فخرُ أوالٍ في حضارتها

ونحنُ أعلى بني عُربانِها نسبا

لنا شمائلُ عبد القيسِ في كرمٍ

ومن ربيعةَ طابت ريحُنا حسيبا

ونحنُ جمرُ الغضا لو جئتَ مسجرة

لا تحسبنهُ مِن تحت الرمادِ خبا

In translation:

We are the pride of Awal in all her history

We are the eldest of all her Arab communities

We bear the noblest qualities of Abdulqays

While from Rabee’a comes our fine pedigree

We are a dimmed coal – but strike the wick

From beneath the ashes, we will burn brightly

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The poem is a powerful assertion of Bahrani identity and history, which is denied and devalued both in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. In the pre-modern era, ‘Bahrain’ referred to the north-eastern coast of the peninsula (roughly from modern Basra to Oman), while the islands now known as Bahrain were then called Awal. Awal and the towns of Qatif and Al-Ahsa (in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province) are considered the “heartlands” of the Baharna, the longest-settled Arab community in the area, who trace their histories and lineages back to the pre-Islamic era to the Arab tribes there, among them Abdulqays and Rabee’a. Nothing demonstrates this community’s marginalization more explicitly than the fact that the vast majority of political prisoners in Bahrain today are Baharna Arabs. Some bad-faith critiques would call this poem an attack on non-Baharna Bahrainis, but not so, it is an assertion of resistant existence in the face of repression.

Another of his most famous poems is “If My Tongue Was Cut” (لو كان لساني مقطوعا), a revolutionary poem from the 90s.

“If My Tongue Was Cut” bears translating; a resistant poem written following the arrest of Sheikh Abdulamir Al-Jamri during the 90’s intifada which called for the reinstatement of Bahrain’s constitution and democratically-elected National Assembly. The government had suspended both in 1975, after the assembly tried to block the passing of an onerous State Security Law that granted the security forces wide-ranging powers of arrest. Sheikh Abdulamir, my grandfather, was one of the main opposition leaders, and was instrumental in bringing together a cross-faith, cross-political coalition calling for the reinstatement of the constitution. First arrested in 1995, he spent the next five years between prison and house arrest.

“If My Tongue Was Cut” speaks to Sheikh Abdulamir’s imprisonment and draws comparisons to Abbas’s struggle for water in the Battle of Karbala. The latter is an almost standard trope of righteous, desperate struggle within Hussaini poetry. But it is also insistent in brotherhood between Sunnis and Shia, in calls for the reinstatement of the constitution:

If my tongue was cut,

let it grow back and call out ‘Jamri’

Abbas, if misrule should spread,

would sooner let his hands be cut

The Companions of Ali have returned

revolutionary by descent and blood,

And who taught the new generation

the constitution is the solution?

(This line sets off a chain of questions on who has made sacrifices for the constitutional cause, the answer to which is the imprisoned leader)

No Sunni, no Shia,

Brothers till Judgement Day

For Hidd and Zallaq

Are like for like Sitra and Bilad

(Hidd and Zallaq are dominantly Sunni towns, while Sitra and Bilad are dominantly Shia towns)

This call for unity is expressed throughout: the poem effortlessly weaves praise for the imprisoned leader with references to Shia histories and calls for a national, unified opposition. While some parts read dated, it is consistently defiant and insistent on the need for a constitutional future. The poem is a time capsule for a very recent period of Bahraini history on which little has been written about, yet which is still relevant to us today.

Ghazi Al-Haddad only published one collection – Diwan Al-Huzn Al-Ma’shuq (The Adoring Sorrow), 2006, which is a collection of primarily religious poetry, and much of his religious poetry, for which he will be best remembered for in Bahrain, is available online. There is a wealth more of his work out there.

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In the last week, there has been an outpouring of grief from the poet community in Bahrain. For me, to translate felt a better way for me to remember. Of them, this poem by Zahraa Al-Motgawi affected me the most — it was how the news broke to me. Goodbye, Ghazi.

I want for a dictionary. Give me clarity

to charge my imagery with deep meaning.

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I want for an alphabet. Between my lips

lays a poem, thick in its weighty metres.

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I want them, so I may conduct rhymes

that draw tears on the day of mourning,

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draw tears for our king of hearts,

to mourn the poet we lost to mortality,

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to mourn Ghazi’s voice, which fell like dew

which we wore on our skin like perfume.

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He listened, loved Al-Hussain, heard the epics

then set alight volcanoes of sorrowful passions.

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We said: Tomorrow he’ll come, spreading

shade, and every ear shall wear his wit.

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But death’s arrow has taken him from us

and left us wandering this labyrinth, deprived.

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On the day of departure, ingenious Ghazi, victor

of our hearts, knight among knights, goodbye.

Ali Al-Jamri is a Bahraini writer and poet, based in the UK. A member of Young Identity and receiving mentorship from Commonword, he is also a New Writing North Arabic Translation mentee, 2021. He is the editor of the Between Two Islands  poetry anthology (2021). Ali is also the guest editor of the forthcoming FOLK issue of ArabLit Quarterly (Winter 2021).

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