Iraqi Poet Abdel Wahab al-Bayati

Updated on October 6, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Abdel Wahab al-Bayati

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Introduction

Born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1926, Iraqi poet Abdel Wahab al-Bayati died in Syria August 3, 1999. He had traveled widely and spent time in the former Soviet Union. He considered himself a communist, but one of his most noted poems, "The Dragon," describes communist dictators like Stalin, Mao, and Castro in terms that are anything but flattering, for example:

A dictator, hiding behind a nihilist's mask,
has killed and killed and killed,
pillaged and wasted,
but is afraid, he claims,
to kill a sparrow.

Al-Bayati had lived in Damascus since 1996. In 1995, Saddam Hussein had deprived the poet of his Iraqi citizenship after the poet had participated in a cultural festival in Saudi Arabia.

Pioneer of Modern Arabic Poetry

The head of the Syrian Arab Writers Federation, Ali Oqala Orsan, described al-Bayati as "a pioneer of Arab modern poetry." Orsan told the Associated Press, "His body has gone but his soul will remain among us and his innovation will continue to shine in our lives." Al- Bayati was one of the first Arab poets to use free verse.

In 1950, his first collection of poems titled Angels and Devils was published in Beirut. Soon thereafter, his Broken Jugs was credited with beginning the Arabic modernist movement. The poet taught school for four years and then lost his job because of his political leanings.

In 1954, he relocated to Syria, then moved to the Soviet Union, and then to Egypt. After returning briefly to Iraq in 1958 after a coup against the monarchy, his disagreements with the government soon had him fleeing his native country again.

Once again, he returned to Iraq in 1968 but fled again when the regime turned deadly for leftists. In 1980, he returned and Saddam Hussein sent the poet to Madrid as a diplomat.

Of his experiences in exile, al-Bayati has remarked that they were "tormenting experience" and that "I always dream at night that I am in Iraq and hear its heart beating and smell its fragrance carried by the wind, especially after midnight when it's quiet."

Exiles in Cafes

According to family members, al-Bayati spent his last few years in Syrian cafes with fellow Iraqi exiles like himself, reminiscing about Iraqi in peaceful days when poets and artists were making literary history.

Although al-Bayati's poetry focused much on politics, his later poetry was influenced by Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Although he bristled at the tight government control of artists, he did not complain about government control of the media.

His books are sold in many Baghdad bookshops. About writing, the poet has explained, "Writing is a difficult art. It not only requires talent, but also thought and linguistic ability. Without these the human being could never become a writer."

Advice to Young Writers

Al-Bayati asserted that in the beginning of a young writer's career, he must learn to become skillful. He advised young writer to read and acquire their "literary heritage." Writers must follow the instruction offered by their predecessors.

He insisted that mere feeling would not help writers write worthwhile articles or any readable text. He asserted the writing was an act of "capturing the atoms of the . . . universe." The writer must capture and concentrate the thoughts that he acquires as the shapes them into form that results in literature.

Al-Bayati also claimed that writing was a mental exercise that often begin with something rather simple but little by little transforms into something very complex in nature. He insisted that writers must become aware of thoughts and language and building blocks of consciousness.

In a fascinating interview with al-Bayati, the poet claimed: "I write for people who live and die in society, and I have to offer them my vision." And thus he concluded, "This is why I focus on my own experience, benefiting from all that I come across, be they people or countries, books or lives, all of which resemble atoms that combine to form a vision."

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    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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