By Zeena Faulk
On May 28, I spoke with Dr. Aziz Shaibani, a friend of the poet Muthaffar Al-Nawab (1934-2022) and his physician, to hear more about the poet as a person and a friend.
When did you meet al-Nawab and become friends with him?
Aziz Shaibani: I met al-Nawab in the Sham, Syria in the 1980s after I fled Iraq. We became friends and maintained this friendship after I migrated to the United States. He came to the US in 2007 and stayed with me in Houston for a few months for medical treatment. After his recovery, he returned to Syria to stay at his home in the Sham. Five years ago, Al-Nawab moved to al-Sharjah in UAE, but we kept in touch. For the past five years, he received medical treatment in the University Hospital in al-Sharjah. For the past two to three years, he was a permanent inpatient in that hospital, where he was unconscious most of the time. In fact, he only woke up for 30 to 60 minutes a day. He became disoriented and unable to engage in a meaningful conversation. He also had multiple cardiac arrests last month, and had Covid-19 that led to severe pneumonia. The last months of his life were very rough.
How would you describe al-Nawab on a regular day?
AS: It would not be a compliment to say that he was an angel. He was passionate about reading. I never saw him sitting without a book at all. He would read poetry, philosophy, history, or anything that he could lay his hands on. He was a friendly conversationalist and had a passion for engaging with people. Ah, and he was a visual artist as well.
A visual artist? Did he leave works of art behind in his home in Syria or in your house when he visited?
AS: When The Rail and Hamad came out in 1969, the London-based artist Dia al-Azzawi did the illustrations that appeared on the book cover and in the book as well. In the 1990s, Al-Nawab re-did the illustrations on the front and back covers but kept Azzawi’s original illustrations inside the book.
I found several versions of Al-Nawab’s poems and life story. Was he aware of that multiplicity?
AS: Al-Nawab knew about these multiple versions only after their release. More than twenty collections of his poetry and life story came out throughout the years, but he did not know about them nor did he authorize any of them, except The Rail and Hamad. In fact, there is a 2016 study by Muayad Oda, a master’s student at al-Najah University in Palestine, that addressed the multiple versions of his works. Apart from the fact that he did not authorize them, they contain numerous errors and changes to the original poems he wrote. But he wasn’t mad about that. He just laughed each time a book of his poems came out.
Where did these errors in the several versions of his works come from?
AS: In exile, Al-Nawab was often invited to recite new poems and the earlier poetry he wrote in the Iraqi dialects. The recitals were video recorded, and many of these videos are available on YouTube and other social media platforms. People listened to these recordings and apparently wrote down what they thought he said. Mostly, these transcribers were not Iraqi, which made it difficult to grasp the poems that he composed in the dialects. But some recordings were transcribed by Iraqis. Nonetheless, it seems that they, too, did not get some of the dialects accurately. Some transcriptions of these recordings appeared in book form without al-Nawab’s knowledge or permission.
By the way, about 80% of al-Nawab’s poetry is still unprinted, just handwritten on papers in his home in the Sham. I always told him that it would be best to collect these poems and have them printed, and he agreed that he should. I’m not sure if he chose not to print them or he did not have time to collect them and have them printed. But his home in al-Sham has hundreds of drafts of poems, and not collecting them is a true loss.
Are there recorded interviews between al-Nawab and others that have not been aired to this day?
AS: Yes, as a matter of fact, there is a recorded interview between al-Nawab and Chomsky that I arranged for in 2007. I posted about a minute-long clip of that interview on my Twitter account last month. Also, I have another unpublicized interview with al-Nawab that was professionally recorded during his 2007 visit to the US. In this last interview, he discussed the concept of time for more than one hour.
Al Nawab was in al-Sharjah when he passed. How did you know about his death?
AS: Al-Nawab was unable to communicate over the past two to three years. But I was monitoring his medical condition regularly through calling his lifelong companion and caretaker Mr. Hazim al-Shaikh. It was Hazim who informed me of his death.
Can you describe his life in the Sham?
AS: Al-Nawab’s life in al-Sham was simple and centered around people. First, after one of his Syrian friends migrated to Europe, he left his house in the Sham to Al-Nawab.
AS: Al-Nawab was a frequent visitor at al-Rawdha Café (مقهى الروضة) there. This café has a long history of being a haven for political rebels from all background: Communists, Baathists, Independents, and so on. Rumor had it that even Saddam Hussein used to visit this café when he was a young rebel. In fact, Al-Nawab and Saddam briefly met in the cafe, but, unlike Saddam, Al-Nawab didn’t return to Iraq. He chose to go to Beirut to print his first book of poems The Rail and Hamad. To this day, the café staff would point to the corner in which Saddam used to sit as soon as Iraqi visitors enter. So, many political group members turn to this café once they visit the Sham. Syrian youth would gather around Al-Nawab in the café every time he visited, listening to his poetry and enjoying his conversations.
Why do you think Al-Nawab was so popular with Arab readers?
AS: Al-Nawab’s political stand in his poems is, I believe, the main reason that makes Arab readers enjoy reading him. His political poetry was banned not only in pre-2003 Iraq, but in other Arab countries as well. The reasons for banning him were more like unconvincing excuses, such his use of profane words and contempt for Arab leaders in poetry. By the way, he never used profanity in his social life. I never heard him say a profane word to anyone or about anyone. Also, his references to drinking wine in the poems gave his opponents another pretext to ban his poetry in several parts of the Muslim world. The truth is Al-Nawab was not a heavy drinker and he only drank wine to overcome stage fright before he recited poetry and when he attended a social gathering and did not want to be rude to others by not taking a sip of wine. Otherwise, I never saw him drinking in his private life. He was shy and having a glass of wine helped him open up and recite on the stage.
How about his life in al-Sharjah?
AS: The ruler of the Emirate of Sharjah, Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, granted al-Nawab a residence in al-Sharjah and paid all his medical treatment expenses for years at the University Hospital. Al-Qasimi admired his diatribes that target Arab leaders and respected his boldness. One of Al-Nawab’s early poems openly insulted Arab leaders and specifically cited the rulers in UAE. Nevertheless, Al-Qasimi generously covered all Al-Nawab’s expenses.
What is the legacy of al-Nawab today, in your opinion?
AS: Well, he had made a name for himself as a fearless poet and became the voice of the people in Iraq and an unwavering advocate of the Palestinian cause in the Arab world. He was the one who normalized popular poetry written in the southern and Baghdadi dialects, whether the Iraqi elites approved it or not. His poems brought down the wall of restriction that the Iraqi elites drew between poetry in the standard language and poetry in the dialects. It was readers who enjoyed these poems and found them beautiful. The elites’ argument can last forever, but it’s the people who engaged with his poems that matter in the end. Al-Nawab’s family house is located in Shariaat al-Nawab (شريعة النواب), which is a ridge of the Tigris bank. Shariaat al-Nawab is a popular crossing area for boats that became part of Iraqi folklore. But Al-Nawab didn’t care for his family’s wealth and social status in the society.
What were al-Nawab’s thoughts on the occupation of Iraq and the political chaos afterwards?
AS: This is an important question. A number of people mentioned that Al-Nawab sided with the occupation of Iraq and did not denounce it in his poetry. But in the last twenty years of his life, Al-Nawab was not involved in politics. His poems turned to deep Sufi musings and the quest for knowledge. He continued like that until the last five years of his life when his declining health failed him.
However, I asked him why he did not denounce the occupation of Iraq in his verse. He replied, “I have not seen a ray of light in post-war Iraq that I could grasp, sharpen, and run with to charge people’s imagination and energy.” He also added that he owed it to people to write poetry about them and for them, but his disease put a stop to his political poems.
What motivated him to write poems in the southern dialects?
AS: You know, Al-Nawab’s proficiency in the southern dialects is a mystery to this day. He had a native command over the southern dialects long before he fled to the south as a communist and his work as a teacher in al-Musayyib district in the Middle Euphrates region. Some people suggested that he had friends from the south whom he had visited frequently and thus learned their dialects. I don’t have the answer to that.
Al-Nawab joined the communist faction that Aziz al-Haj led in the south in 1967 and rode on horseback to fight with him. He was working on The Rail and Hamad long before these turbulent years. He began to work on this poem exactly in 1956 and completed it after the 14 July Revolution. The poem, which is like an epic, came out as a book in Beirut in 1969. The fact that he later lived in the marshlands of southern Iraq further inspired him and triggered the fire of revolution inside him. But again, he wrote his best poems in the Iraqi dialects long before he lived in the south.
Why was he called “Abu Adil” (father of Adil) even though he did not marry or have kids?
AS: After Al-Nawab was sacked from his job as a teacher in 1955, he worked menial jobs, just to get by. One of these jobs was a worker for a Dutch company in Baghdad. Soon after he joined the company, he began to demand an increase in worker pay. He called on his co-workers to go on a strike and, before things went out of hand, the company approved the workers’ demands for a higher wage. Since that day, Al-Nawab was known as Abu Adil, or the just man, to honour his fair-minded stand with the workers.
Any last words about Al-Nawab that you would like to share with readers?
AS: I said it before and will repeat it now. Al-Nawab was never cranky in his life as he sounded in his poetry. He was the poet of alienation and revolution. He was the last of the true custodians of Iraqi poetry. His works display all the sorrows of alienation. But he also saw sorrow as the other side of happiness. What people do not know about Al-Nawab is that he was as an intellectual as he was a poet and a political critic. In his thoughts, he tended to be Sufi, and his Sufi leanings become clear in his Watariyat Layliyah (The Tunes of String Instrument at Night). He was a Sufi in his belief that the human being should not be limited to countries or states. To him, the human being must be universal. One time, he told me: “just like how we dial the radio so that it picks signals that translate into, for example, Monte Carlo, the BBC, NPR, etc., the human mind is like a radio receiver that is linked to the entire universe. And sometimes, the brain picks up signals from far and beyond without our control and beyond our wishes.”
Zeena Faulk is an Iraqi-American literary translator and translation studies researcher. She is currently a PhD candidate in Translation Studies at the University of Warwick.
A poem by Muthaffar Al-Nawab, tr. Zeena Faulk