The great Iraqi poet Abdul Wahab al-Bayati describes how he met the great Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, at teacher training college in Baghdad, in this excerpt from his Springs of the Sun: The Poetic Biography:
By Abdul Wahab al-Bayati
Translated by Ghareeb Iskander
As I mentioned previously, the first weeks of [my] studies at the Higher Teachers’ Training College in 1947 in Baghdad saw my face-to-face meeting with [Badr Shakir] al-Sayyab in the college’s gardens, and it was by chance. He greeted me by saying: I heard from some friends that you are a poet and therefore I would like to get to know you. I said: You are welcome.
In those days, al-Sayyab was known in the left-wing student circles in Baghdad, where he was reciting his poems in the students’ parties and festivals. But our friendship was getting stronger, ever since that day when he introduced himself to me. Thus, we met most mornings at the tea shop which occupied a small isolated room. And on many occasions my conversation with him stretched out to swallow up my first lesson. At that time, he was reading his new poems for me with a sense of superiority, because the reading was in one direction, as I felt I was a beginner and had many years ahead of me, that I was awaiting them and they were awaiting me, despite the dozens of poems that adorned the margins of my notebooks. Sometimes we discussed the poems that he published in the Iraqi and Arab newspapers, trying to revive some of them, especially the good ones. And from the first meeting, I felt that a strong romantic tendency occupied his soul, and took him flying in the sky of southern Iraqi nature, restoring youth and passion after the rain washes its old face. His illusions, his distant dreams, and his winged fantasies seemed to flutter quietly with emotion and land on his poems, leaving their enchanting colorful feathers on them.
In our first meetings, he spoke for a long time and told me that he had written a new poem the night before. He read it to me and I liked it, and when I showed my admiration for it, he rejoiced with a great joy, especially when I talked about it in detail. And he realized that I wasn’t flattering him as I was speaking honestly about his poem. From that moment, our friendship strengthened and continued until he graduated before me and worked as a teacher in Ramadi. Ramadi is a city located on the route to Syria and was considered an exile at that time, as the government was sending some exiles to it. Therefore, I saw him rarely, on a few occasions in Baghdad.
But our friendship played a crucial role, because we were criticizing each other’s writings objectively and justly, and we had little disagreement. We also read other poets’ poems which were published in the Iraqi and Arab newspapers and magazine. Dr. Abd al-Wahid Lu’lu’a joined us, because he loved literature and was trying to become a critic in the future, and we benefited from our friendship with him because he was studying English literature and he used sometime to play the role of judge between us, when we disagree about an issue. And when I was absent from the college or I came late sometimes, he became worried and angry, and that way I knew that he had written a new poem that he would like us to read together. And when I started to publish my poems in the Egyptian journals al-Risala and Fusul and the Lebanese journals al-Thaqafa and al-Adib, and other newspapers, his attitude toward me started to change from afar, because I only saw him occasionally.
But the postponed war between us — rather, only from his side — started when my poetry book Abārīq Muhashshama (Shattered Pitchers) was published, as it was considered by readers and critics the true beginning to modern Arabic poetry. This opinion made me feel anxious and unhappy, as hundreds of eyes began to peek at me and my writings.
Al-Sayyab was not the only one who declared war; some poets with less talent and status stood by him, but I did not care about him or them and went on my path “because I did not benefit from caring,” as Al-Mutanabbi says.
There was no coldness between us when we were students at all. However, after graduating, al-Sayyab left the Iraqi Communist Party of which he was a member, and started attacking the many progressive opinions of friends and others who represented these trends. I remember the publication of Shattered Pitchers caused al-Sayyab, at the incitement from some untalented people surrounding him, to attack me, but I did not respond to his attack, and I was content with silence, and it was like how Abu al-Tayyib [al-Mutanabbi] said:
I sleep in peace while my words roam free
while all of creation stays awake, arguing and struggling to understand
I also knew that al-Sayyab was not the one who was attacking me, but there were some mediocre and unsuccessful writers and poets who incited him, and perhaps one of the reasons I did not respond was my love and admiration for him, which has never abated or ceased. Therefore, I spoke about al-Sayyab, if his name was mentioned in any literary forum or meeting, with objectivity and respect, and I smiled whenever one of the informers told me what he was saying about me or about his conspiracies to incite some poets against me, and I used to say to the informant, take it easy, the world is open to all.
I feel sad and sorry now as I remember those lean years in which we fought windmills, which in turn reminds me of the eras of Arab poetry, which witnessed fighting and rattling to seize the impossible rose [of poetry]. If we shake the dust off those years, al-Sayyab was and still a great poet who played a distinguished pioneering role in the movement of Arabic poetry, and he was the bridge connecting romanticism in the 1940s and the renewal movement in the 1950s.
As for what will remain from him, it is a lot, because his poetry spans classicism, romance, and modernity, which constitutes a rich source for beginner poets and readers as they discover the secret of death and the fascination of genius. Whoever does not read this poetry will be as if he did not know the secret of Gilgamesh’s journey, as he searched for the treasures of the depths.
A year before the publication of Shattered Pitchers, that is, in 1953, the Iraqi critic Nihad al-Takarli wrote a lengthy study entitled “Abdul Wahab al-Bayati, the Forerunner of Modern Poetry,” which was published in the Lebanese journal al-Adib. This study generated great interest in Iraqi and Arab poetic circles. And the publication of Shattered Pitchers came later to ignite the biggest fire in the poetry forest, then it was followed by Ihsan Abbas’ book Abdul Wahab al-Bayati and Modern Iraqi Poetry, so the fire became more intense and great poetic strife occurred to clear things up.
And one day — as I was seeking help from the gods of poetry — starting in 1950 and ending in 1955, the gods gave me their “blessings”: I woke up and found my name on every tongue. As for the reaction to those “blessings,” it was the prevention of Shattered Pitchers in its first and second editions, and Ihsan Abbas’s book from entering Iraq. But I withstood the storm, fortified with the sanctity of poetry, and by a faith in life and the human being who is the maker of his destiny and fate.
Despite everything that happened, the slanderers kept chasing me day and night, until I was dismissed from my job, and I said, “Thank God, there is no objection to Your judgment.”
But my insistence on the challenge grew fiercer, as I now have nothing but my poetry. The interest in poetic heresy was directed against me more than it was directed at al-Sayyab, who began to retreat from his attitudes and positions and appeased the blind forces that were chasing intellectuals, as the Inquisition did to their peers in the Middle Ages, accusing them of apostasy, witchcraft and sedition. What protected me from oppression in those years was the rise of the national movement and its confrontation with the forces of darkness and evil. And my approach to it saved me from delusion and enabled me to discover the springs of the sun of Iraq and the greatness of its people, which are hidden in the elegies and jeremiads of Sumer and Babylon, and the library of Ashurbanipal and in the satires of al-Mutanabbi and his Byzantine odes, and the love poems of al-Sharif al-Radi, and in the tragic death of Bashar bin Burd. Weeping over Tammuz and [Imam] Husain remained the obsession of the poor who were trying to dissolve the great prison wall, with their tears, their arms, and their screams.
Poetry also kept its treasures hidden in the earth, pregnant with thunder and lightning, and the poem “Hymn of the Rain” by al-Sayyab was a promise, a harbinger, and one of the signs of the Hour of Resurrection in those years. The Hour of Resurrection happened — later — as al-Sayyab really expected, and instead of going up the mountain of light, death opened his mouth, to let the hands be stained with blood, and a new wall be built, as it was before the fall of Babylon by the hands of the invaders and before Baghdad fell to the Mongols.
In his book Al-Sayyab On the Sixth Anniversary of His Death, which was published by the Ministry of Information in Baghdad in 1971, the Iraqi critic, Mr. Madani Saleh wrote that: “Al-Sayyab and Abdul Wahab al-Bayati are the most sincere poets since Abu Ja‘far al-Mansur built Baghdad.” Al-Sayyab attacked me once at a literary conference organized by the World Freedom Organization, where he gave something like a lecture on Iraqi poetry, in which he tried to accuse most of the Iraqi poets of leftism, and the accusation of leftism was serious at that time.
Some friends, among them I can mention the poet Dr. Abd al-Latif Itimash, told me that al-Sayyab had confessed on his sickbed in the Amiri Hospital in Kuwait that he was wrong in his battles with me and regretted what had happened. The Iraqi poet Kazim Ni‘ma al-Tamimi, who is one of al-Sayyab’s friends, said in his memories of al-Sayyab, in an article entitled: “Deliberately Dying Under the Oriels of al-Jalabi’s Daughter,” published in the Iraqi Journal al-Aqlam, (11-12: 1987):
Al-Sayyab was angry at Abdul Wahab al-Bayati, who became a well-known Arab voice at that time, and later in the world, and the dispute between them was at the most intense.
I was meeting al-Bayati in the Brazilian Café or the Suez Buffet in the mornings, but I did not hear him mentioning al-Sayyab whether in good or bad. And I was meeting al-Sayyab and his poetry at Jisr al-Ahrar’s Café, and I determined, secretly, to reconcile the two poets. However, several evenings I spent with al-Sayyab in my hotel room in al-Wathba Square [in Baghdad], alerted me that the breach was greater than I could handle alone, so I washed my hands of the matter with regret.
The Iraqi poet Radi Mahdi al-Sa‘id, who was one of al-Sayyab’s friends, wrote in his memories “In the Tent of al-Sayyab,” published in the Iraqi journal al-Aqlam (August 1987): “Al-Sayyab believed that al-Bayati is one of the poets that are trying to rob him of his high poetic status.” And in another place of his memories, under the sub-heading, “fearing of being left behind” al-Sa‘id says:
Many of the young poets who felt, first, that al-Sayyab was like a mentor to them, and, secondly, they felt their solid friendship with him and their great love and appreciation for his unique poetics — I am one of them — they felt that the poet Abdul Wahab al-Bayati was able, especially after the publication of his book Breaking Pitchers in 1954, to lay in a permanent way the solid foundation of free verse, with the lively energies that exploded in it and opened wide outlets that accommodate vast and limitless spaces. This feeling appeared in many of their [young poets’] conversations, discussions and dialogues, even in front of al-Sayyab, which led him to feel a certain psychological hostility, sometimes openly and sometimes not, to Al-Bayati, who went on his wide poetic way in an open world, not paying attention to what this one says and that one hides. He did not even respond to al-Sayyab when he made his harsh and intentional remarks in most of its paragraphs, when he was answering the questions of Khudair al-Wali, which he included in his book Opinions on Poetry and Story (1956). Al-Sayyab felt that al-Bayati had begun to surpass him in fame and prestige in the world of poetry, although he had infinite goodness and great humility. However, I do not think that anyone can deny this truth [al-Sayyab’s temper] now. This truth does not affect his creativity which is recognized by everyone, and does not detract him from his high poetic status. But even I, who was almost inseparable from him since 1950 until his last trip to the Amiri Hospital in Kuwait, and who did not abandon him during all those periods when most of the writers were cut off from him due to his outbursts, I did not survive his temper. As his brother Mustafa knows, that was because he thought that I believed in the superiority of al-Bayati over him.
This section was selected from al-Bayati’s book Yanābī‘ al-Shams al-Sīrah al-Shi‘riyyah, (Springs of the Sun: The Poetic Biography), (Damascus: Dār al-Farqad, 1999).
Ghareeb Iskander is a poet, translator and scholar living in London. He taught Arabic at SOAS, University of London where he did his PhD in Middle Eastern Studies. He published serval books including A Chariot of Illusion (Exiled Writers Ink, London 2009); Gilgamesh’s Snake and Other Poems, a bilingual collection, which won Arkansas University’s Arabic Translation Award for 2015 (Syracuse University Press, New York 2016); English Poetry and Modern Arabic Verse: Translation and Modernity (I. B. Tauris, London 2021). Iskander translated Derek Walcott, Ted Hughes and other world modernist poets into Arabic and co-translated Abdul Wahab al-Bayati and Hasab al-Shaikh Ja‘far into English.