Remembering Muthaffar Al-Nawab: Poet, Nomad, and Warrior for Justice Who Fought from the Trenches of Poetry
By Zeena Faulk
The legendary poet Muthaffar al-Nawab (1934-2022) passed away on May 20 after a long battle with illness. In Iraq, the reaction was mournfully comical: a presidential aircraft sent to retrieve a body, a parade of sign-carrying youth mourning the eighty-eight-year-old, a former Prime Minister fleeing an angry, shoe-throwing mob, and a current Prime Minister kicked out of a funeral procession. Such contradictory signs of pent-up energy and enthusiasm were decades in the making. The mourners paid homage to the survival of a two-times-exiled, sentenced-to-death crafter of words whose poems became rallying cries for their expressions of dreams deferred.
Al-Nawab’s legacy spans generations of poems that were immediately relevant to political events, at times even seeming to dictate the rhetorical elements of events, but also ageless in their beauty. This body of work included mighty political poems, hewed in a very portable standard Arabic that crossed national lines. They jut out from pages like bookmarks in a long book of twentieth-century Middle Eastern history and seem almost collage-like in their ability to connect past struggles with present traumas. And then there are his love poems in the Iraqi southern dialects that no doubt spurred and motivated many generations of lovers. Equally passionate, but less romantic, are the numerous invectives that dug their teeth deep into the psychic underbellies and fragile egos of corrupt Arab leaders.
In short, al-Nawab’s corpus is the stuff of rebellion, but also the stuff that engenders deadly repressive responses. It was the fervor, depth, and audaciousness in Al-Nawab’s poetry that distinguished him and earned him notable nicknames, such as “revolutionary poet,” “stateless poet,” and “people’s poet” as he wandered the world among the exiled. But this fervor, depth, and audacity also made exile the only possibility for such a voice, as he became a particularly odd type of globetrotter, one who remained for half a century merely one step ahead of his pursuers. Al-Nawab’s history is one of one exile heaped upon another, from which another exile always emerged.
Al-Nawab joined the Iraqi Communist Party as a student at the University of Baghdad in the early 1950s. Upon graduation, he worked as a schoolteacher, but was terminated abruptly in 1955 for his political associations. For years, he worked menial jobs, leading to a financial struggle for his family.
During the 1963 conflict between Nationalists and Communists in Iraq, Al-Nawab escaped to al-Basra, on his way to Iran, with the ultimate destination being the Soviet Union. His capture by the Iranian secret police, the SAVAK, cut short those plans. After a brief stint in the torture chamber, the poet was handed over to the Iraqi government, which sentenced him to death later that year, not only because he was a high-ranking communist, but also because of a poem that criticized the Iraqi regime at the time. He was kept in the infamous Nugrat al-Salman, a desert prison known as “Salman’s hole.” After transfer to another prison in Hila, he dug his way to freedom with other prisoners. Now a communist poet on the lam, he went, so to speak, off the grid, but oddly directly under the noses of the authorities in Baghdad. It wasn’t long, however, before he turned up in the southern Iraqi marshlands with the local communist party.
In these marshes, Al-Nawab communed with sympathetic peasants and fishermen who had suffered under the regime. A little over eight months later, the government offered dissidents a blanket pardon. He returned to his teaching job in Baghdad, but was arrested again for unknown reasons. Upon his release, he travelled to Beirut, and then, in turn, to Syria, Eritrea, Libya, and Europe. After several years in Libya, he received a Libyan passport, which became his primary travel document. Although he settled down in the Sham region of Syria, in recent years he became a resident of Sharjah, where he died last month.
During his retreat in south Iraq, al-Nawab, by his own accounts, became fascinated by the poetic potential of the southern dialects. However, he was writing poetry in the southern dialects many years before that. To this day, it is intriguing how Al-Nawab mastered the southern dialects. Some think that he had friends in the south who he visited often.
The poems that he wrote in this southern dialect were revolutionary. The unique flavor of these pieces made them popular with Iraqi readers. The popularity of these poems can be measured by their adoption by famous Iraqi singers and composers, such as Yas Khidr and Talib al-Qaraghuli. Indeed, Al-Nawab became a master of lyric narratives composed in Iraqi dialects, the southern and Baghdadi dialects. The most important of these poems is The Rail and Hamad, (للريل وحمد) written after a personal encounter with a woman on a train to al-Basra. Noticing that she could not sleep during that long train journey, he began a conversation. She told him how she had fallen in love with her cousin Hamad when they were both young in a village on the outskirts of Baghdad called Um Shamat. As soon as her love for him became known, the chance that they could marry vanished because, according to tribal conventions, her avowal of love broke tribal conventions and brought her family shame. The young woman thus fled to Baghdad where she lived the remainder of her life. The train then slowed without coming to a complete stop as it went through Um Shamat, which ignited the woman’s memories and passion for Hamad. The Rail and Hamad is sometimes called the Iraqi Iliad.
Riding the night train that passed you by, oh, Hamad,
I heard the thuds of coffee milling
and sniffed the sweet-smelling cardamom.
Shriek, oh night train, as fervently on the rails
as a lover’s ardent, long wails.
Your love cautiously settled in my heart,
like a sandgrouse warily landing beneath the crops.
“Oh, for the turquoise-jeweled ring,
and for that nose ring!”
Oh train, go slowly, I beg,
when you chug through Um Shamat.
Don’t go swiftly as if in abandonment,
for his love hasn’t died in my heart.
Al-Nawab shared the woman’s story in a 2016 interview, speaking about how it inspired him to write the poem. Composing popular poems in the Iraqi southern dialects to address social issues and conventions was ground-breaking. Writing for people in their own spoken language made him “the peoples’ poet.”
The poems that Al-Nawab wrote in standard Arabic addressed critical concerns, both collective and individual, Iraqi and Arab. Formal Arabic is often reserved for issues that all Arabs faced—with Palestine at the top of the list, followed closely by identities based on faith, political dictatorships and lack of civil liberties, and Sufi aspirations for divine knowledge. These political poems were extremely insulting to Arab leaders, and thus made powerful enemies for Al-Nawab. His famed poem, “Jerusalem is the Bride of your Arabism” (القدس عروس عروبتكم) was passionately received in the Arab world among readers who felt strongly about the Palestinian cause and found in it a voice for their concerns. The poem depicts Palestine as a bride who is repeatedly raped by rogues with the full knowledge and consent of Arab leaders. The most insulting part of the poem, which addresses those leaders, has become an adage that Al-Nawab enthusiasts, especially in Iraq, recite in a myriad of situations to this day. The lines go:
You sons of whores!
I shy not from exposing who you really are,
for a pigsty is cleaner than the purest among you.
But it was not only the politicized messages in his standard-language poetry that aroused readers; the use of dialects in popular poetry angered the Iraqi elitists. The reaction of Iraqi elites came in sharp contrast to the positive reaction of average people. Thus, Al-Nawab’s poetry in the standard language was banned in Iraq for political reasons, and his poetry in the Iraqi dialects was frowned upon for reasons of social class. Even today, the number of academic studies of Al-Nawab’s poetry in Iraq pales in comparison to his popularity outside the academy. One possible reason for such modest acceptance of his popular and standard-language poetry is the combination of his political statements against Arab leaders and his communist background. On numerous occasions, the Baath regime massacred communists, whom they considered their enemies. In fact, al-Nawab’s poetry was banned in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After 2003, facing health problems, al-Nawab was no longer as active politically, and he focused more on writing non-political poetry.
Some might throw in as an argument Al-Nawab’s use of profanity in his poetry written in the standard language as an excuse to undermine his talent and influence. By this argument, his poetry is said to be inappropriate for a formal educational setting. Furthermore, his reference to drinking wine is found as an unnecessary vice rather than a virtuous slap in the face of authority. Both of these arguments are questionable particularly if we consider how the officially sanctioned Nazar Qabani used profanity in his verse, as well as the references to wine drinking in the writings of Abu Nuwas.
Dominant themes in Al-Nawab’s poetry are alienation, nostalgia for Iraq, and the search for a dignified life for all people. He experienced alienation in living a nomadic life of exile. In a semi-soliloquy to God, he lamented:
Oh, how glorious are You!
I’m content with all, except the degradation
and the depositing of my heart in a cage inside the Sultan’s house
Happy I am that my share in life is as small as a bird’s,
But even birds, oh Glorious, have gotten homelands.
His nostalgia for Iraq is a recurring theme that goes hand-in-hand with alienation. This shouldn’t be surprising. But for al-Nawab, it was given a martial bent and a fight that had many possible locations. He wrote:
By your name I swear, oh Iraq,
that I will continue to fight anywhere a warrior may set feet,
else I die as a lonely warrior.
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
On June 12: