‘The Poet of Life Which was Merciless to Him’: Jabra Ibrahim Jabra on Badr Shakir al-Sayyab

By Jabra Ibrahim Jabra

Translated by Ghareeb Iskander 

 It is very painful that the poet, whose main theme was the renewal of life, found himself for three long years contemplating the face of death when it was hovering over his head. Badr Shakir al-Sayyab mourned himself in poem after poem, with a fierce awareness of the abundance of life. Despite suffering unbearably from illness, it was as if Badr would push out this vicious intruder for a moment or two every day to regain the taste of the things he loved: he would speak in his poetry about winds, rain, seas, shells, streets, and the window of a lost beloved. Then the intruder would overcome him, and he could not escape from the images of death, and existence became desolate, and the house empty, of Abu Ghaylan. 

 al-Sayyab’s portrait by the Iraqi artist Kareem Sadoon.

“Undoubtedly, there is an improvement in my health, but it is not a steady one,” he wrote to me a year ago[1963], saying in one of his many letters: “You see me in good shape for a few days…Then I relapse. As for my legs, they were almost recovered. Only my back is still unwell…”. Then he says: “I do not stop writing poetry. It is the only consolation that remains for me… The problem is a problem of experiences. Where do new experiences come from while I live on the margins of life?” But Badr, with his sensitivity to every experience, made the experience of death itself a source for his uninterrupted poems. With hope, the hope that was inspiring him—and me sometimes—that he would undoubtedly get well. He says, “Listen to this vow: If my health improves and I come to Baghdad (from Basra), we will have a great poetic drunkenness…”. I also exchanged this vow with him. But the disease was stronger than both vows, and Badr did not come to Baghdad.

Our last meeting was in Baghdad in late 1962, before traveling to England for studies and treatment. I had tried, with some friends, to get him into the University of Oxford, as it was hoped that he would devote himself to literary studies, and most importantly, as he told me, that he would devote himself to writing his memoirs. However, his illness delayed him from traveling on time to study at the University of Oxford, and then he was accepted into the University of Durham, in the north of England. So, he came to Baghdad—from Basra, where he was working as a staff of the Port Authority—and I was terrified when I went to his hotel and saw him leaning on a stick, only walking with dragging feet. 

Nevertheless, while he was in my house, and that day was bright and beautiful, al-Sayyab was fun and talkative as usual, and after lunch we drove in my car in al-Mansour. A dark thought occurred to me while I was driving in the new roads in al-Mansour: I felt as if he was saying goodbye to everything: to dust, sky, and stone. He didn’t want to end our trip. We were, as always, talking about poetry, poets, the poet’s problems, life, the future, and about discontent with politics. Badr suffered extremely from politics, from the left and from the right. He had left the Communists since 1955, after he discovered their position on the issue of Palestine, and realized that he was too big to be used for a policy that was being imposed on him. This led to his persecution after the 1958 revolution, and so he was threatened with the loss of his livelihood, as he was dismissed from his job and prevented from working in any other job. He was arrested more than once for telling some of his “colleagues” that he had written a poem that they said was intended to praise Gamal Abdel Nasser. The year 1959 was ominous for him. He used to come to our house (in al-A‘zamiyya at that time) on foot, and on the road somebody swore at him and forced him to carry a picture of Abd al-Karim Qasim on a ribbon on the collar of his coat! But his obstinacy did not soften, and he did not deviate from the line he had drawn for himself.

He participated in the press campaign carried out by al-Hurriyya newspaper after the massacres of Mosul and Kirkuk. But although declaring his hostility to the Communists, he was also determined not to associate with any organized political group. He repeated at that time: “I am not committed. I am committed only to my personal sense of justice and humanity. My poetry will only be inspired by my personal belief.” However, this position of his later led some of those he considered to be his friends to attack him, especially after the publication of his collection Hymn of the Rain in 1960. He was then returned to the job in the Port Authority in Basra, but the disease took its toll on him. My friend Dr. Ali Kamal treated him and took great care of him. But his disease was incurable—it eased for a while, then it returned. When we went to the Contemporary Arabic Literature Conference in Rome in the fall of 1961, Badr was finding it difficult to walk. In 1962, the disease made him rest for days, so he wanted treatment in Beirut and then in Europe, despite his financial difficulties. His urgent desire for treatment abroad caused him to have many conflicts that affected his relationship with some of his companions and friends, and sometimes made him say one thing and write another. Sometimes in his conversations with me, he spoke nonsense when his memory was disturbed. In his poems, however, he did not deviate from the plan he set for himself, and the purity of his mind never betrayed him until the end.

That beautiful bright day was the last day of Badr in Baghdad, which he loved as no one loved his city. The Iraqiness of Badr may only be understood by Iraqis: wherever he went and wherever he exiled himself, Baghdad was on his mind. The symbols of barrenness and fertility, the symbols of Babylon on the one hand, and the symbols of his beloved village, Jaikur, on the other, always represent his love for his country and his people. His political activity and the way he left it afterwards are nothing but an expression of that love for his country and its people. He went to Europe and his treatment did not succeed. After months, he returned to Basra heartbroken, and the disease threw him into bed. After that, I received many letters from him and many poems, until he was taken to a hospital in Kuwait. And when his news was cut off from me— after I tried to find a publisher for his latest book, The Chalabi Daughter’s Lattice Balcony, and I asked the Iraqi painter Kazim Haidar to design a cover for the book. In Kuwait, he made truce with death in his poems, which are among the most beautiful poems written about the philosophical surrender of man. What can we say, while we are in the midst of the grief of losing someone who was considered the greatest contemporary Arab poet? But for me, Badr was more than a great poet; he was a close friend, and I always looked forward to our meetings, which were never without loud recitations of his latest poems. Our discussion of renewal in poetry was fervent and powerful. He did not hesitate to cross out ten verses together from a poem if I was not satisfied with them. But this subject will be discussed later. As for today, we ask for condolences, so that we may find some of it in Badr’s poems. But it is an incomplete consolation, because the deceased is this big-hearted man, whose fate only gave him thirty-eight years. May God have mercy on him and water his grave with rain, which he loved and sang.

Years have passed since al-Sayyab passed away on a day that was as if the poet had deliberately chosen it for his death: the eve of the birth of Christ. Death and birth was one of his essential concepts, and the poet Christ/Tammuz was another concept which is central in his vision. In thoughts such as these, there are mysterious forces that move the will in ways that are not realized by the conscious mind, or we do not realize it at all. So, perhaps it was not just a coincidence that the poet struggled all his days to reach a day that symbolized a birth that leads to death, which is the door to a new birth. Years have passed since this death; they are years of birth. Today, Badr is alive, as he wished for himself to be always with life. Rather, by his death, he achieved a spacious, abundant life that spreads like winds and rain to give people everywhere on earth other lives. 

Paradoxically, between the death of Badr and the death of the poet T.S. Eliot were only a few days apart. But how big was the difference between Badr, who had thirty-eight years, while Eliot had exactly twice that: seventy-six. What would our poet have achieved for contemporary literature had he lived as long as the other poet? Badr did not have the opportunity to settle down for a long period of time, during which he could contemplate deliberately in that space of the human experience, the experience of Elliot walking from the cactus desert to the rose garden. Rather, Badr did not have even an opportunity like Shakespeare (who did not live more than 52 years) to cross the dark peaks of tragedy toward the smiling and reassuring vision of life. Perhaps that was the nature of things for Badr, and with regard to the historical circumstances he went through, or how they went through him. Their thorns and pricks pierced every word his hand wrote. However, the great irony is that Badr’s poems, after the pricking of the skewers and thickening of the spears, are optimistic about the fate of man, which we may not see even in Shakespeare or Eliot. In what Badr left behind, when we look at it as a connected and integrated poetry from the beginning to the end, we find he has transcended the plight of man in the direction of the splendor of existence, and the splendor of man. His life was a tragic drama that he re-enacted in his poetry. Like every great drama, his poetry is a drama that purifies the soul in the end, and brings it back harder, softer, and more tender. And this, in my opinion, is the miracle of the young Badr, as it may not have been the miracle of his contemporary, the old Eliot. And this is the difference between the effect of the two on those who succeeded them, and find that it was inevitable not to take from them.

There is another aspect of al-Sayyab’s personality that, as far as I know, no one has touched upon until today, because it is not easily seen in his poetry. That’s the humor and the jokes. This poet, whose visions were like fire burning his body, leaving him only thin bones with which he can resist the hardships of life. This poet, whose poems were replete with images of thunder, lightning, earthquakes, and graves, was also a poet of amazing tenderness that manifested itself in his constant soliloquy with rain, palm trees, the moon, and rivers. In fact, I only remember him laughing jokingly in his relations with people. In the darkest days, I saw him teasing and joking. A little wine would intoxicate him and let his tongue tell stories from his life or the lives of others, always mixing it with a joke and always evoking an innocent laughter that didn’t know malice. He talked about the days he spent in detention in this or that prison, and he only spoke about them to highlight their paradoxes that healed his wounds, even if temporarily. Therefore, Badr’s company was a lighthearted company, after which one would return home full of poetry and high spirits. At home, he was joking with everyone, and my two children, for example, enjoyed Badr’s visits, perhaps because of his childishness, which put him in harmony with children he could easily laugh with. And if he ridiculed others—who had shown him something much darker than ridicule—there was no meanness or bitterness in his ridicule. His sarcasm was mostly focused on the ignorance of others, until he almost gave up laughing.

In his inner self, Badr was a strong man, carrying within him the experience of many pains. Yet he also carried within him a source of joy that was constantly pouring out on everyone around him. There was a final irony that Badr did not know about, which would have made him laugh if he had known about it before his death. At the end of 1961, the disease was intensifying, until he began to think that he must have a long treatment in London. Since he was awarded a student fellowship, he thought to enroll as a student at an English university to study for a doctorate, and seek treatment for his illness at the same time. It was then that I and my friend, the Arab thinker Albert Hourani, a professor at Oxford, sought to get him accepted in Oxford as quickly as possible, and the emphasis was on speed. Mr. Hourani expressed his enthusiasm for the idea and tried to find a place for him in the university. His acceptance, however, would not have happened at once—and those who have tried to find a place at Oxford know the long period that sometimes elapses between submitting the application and the final offer. Since there was no time to wait, and Badr’s illness was in a state of rapid escalation that affected his walk, Mr. Hourani was able to find him a place at the University of Durham, one of the universities in the north of England, known for its oriental studies. In the early autumn of 1962, Badr traveled to England for the first time, and his illness had nearly disabled him. He went to the city of Durham, deeply concerned and worried about his health.

Durham is a small mountainous city, its fame built on the presence of one of the best British universities. However, despite its natural beauty and the beauty of its colleges, some of which are architectural masterpieces, it is a city shrouded in fog most of the year, and due to its proximity to the surrounding coal mines from all sides, the fog gets darker during autumn and winter to the point of bleakness. It was in just such a gloomy darkness when Badr came to it, bearing the burden of his affliction. It seems that he stayed there for a few days, during which he had days of disappointment and bitterness. Every day he wrote a poem; he could not see anybody and no one saw him. Then he took the train back to a hospital in London, where he wrote a lot of poetry, reflecting the gloominess that he felt in that small city, in which he did not see any of the beauty he had expected. 

At the end of 1968, while I was on a tour between some English universities lecturing on contemporary Arabic literature, I went to Durham for the first time and gave a lecture to a university audience, and the engagement was warm and kind. I talked about Badr and mentioned how he became involved as a student in Durham, if only for a few days, and I expected that there would be at least one of the professors who knew about this. The great surprise was: Al-Sayyab is a student in Durham! Nobody knew it. No one had heard of it, not even from those concerned with contemporary studies. What a surprise! God pity you, Badr! The university did not even know you had come. You would have undoubtedly laughed . . . but now they know, and they are proud that you spent some days there.

*

A prominent intellectual in Arab modernism, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra was a prolific artist, writer and cultural critic of Palestinian origin but who spent many of his active years in Iraq. Several of Jabra’s novels are available in English, either written originally in the language or translated; the most recent is Cry in a Long Night, translated by Will Tamplin.

Ghareeb Iskander is a poet, translator and scholar living in London. He taught Arabic at SOAS, University of London where he received his PhD in Near & Middle Eastern studies with an emphasis on literary translation. He published several 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). He was longlisted for the 2021 John Dryden Translation Competition. Iskander translated Derek Walcott, Ted Hughes. and other world modernist poets into Arabic and co-translated Abdul Wahab al-Bayati, Hasab al-Shaikh Ja‘far and other Arab modernist poets into English. 

Also read:

Adonis: ‘When al-Sayyab Visited Beirut in 1957’

Al-Bayati: ‘When I Met al-Sayyab in 1947’

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