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Life Sketch of Abdel Wahab al-Bayati

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Abdel Wahab al-Bayati

Abdel Wahab al-Bayati

Early Life: Disdain of Dictators

Born in Bagdad on December 19, 1926, Iraqi poet Abdel Wahab al-Bayati grew up near the shrine of the 12th century Sufi Abdel Qadir al-Jilani. In 1950, after he graduated from Baghdad University, he taught in the public schools while he also served as editor of the most widely read magazine of culture, The New Culture Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida.

Al-Bayati disdained the politics of tyranny from an early age, and after he began speaking out again the government, he lost his teaching position and went into exile in Lebanon in 1954. He also journeyed to Syria and Egypt, before returning home to Iraq in 1958. With the overthrow of the royalist regime, a republican government was established, and al-Bayati was appoint to a position in the education ministry.

Al-Bayati had traveled widely and spent time in the former Soviet Union. Although at that time, he had come to consider himself a communist, one of his most noted poems, "The Dragon," describes communist dictators such as 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.

In 1995, Saddam Hussein had deprived the poet of his Iraqi citizenship after the poet had participated in a cultural festival in Saudi Arabia. Al-Bayati then relocated as a refugee to Syria in 1996. While in Syria, he became friends with Bashar al-Assad’s opponents. He believed and often stated, "The Arab leaders are the enemies of their peoples."

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 its opponents. In 1980, he returned and Saddam Hussein sent the poet to Madrid as a diplomat.

Of his time in exile, al-Bayati has remarked that it was a "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."

According to Yale University professor of Arabic language and literature, Bassam K. Frangieh,

Al-Bayati led Arabic poetry beyond the constraints of classical Arabic poetical forms, transcending the traditional rhyme schemes and conventional metric patterns that had prevailed for more than 15 centuries.

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Al-Bayati has been considered "an Arabian Walt Whitman with a seditious streak." His criticism of the Iraqi monarchy resulted in his imprisonment.

Exiles in Cafés

According to family members, al-Bayati spent his last few years in Syrian cafes with fellow Iraqi exiles like himself, reminiscing about Iraq 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.

Despite the poet’s life-long anti-government stance, hisbooks 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 work to become skillful. He advised young writers 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 he shapes them into forms that result in literature.

Al-Bayati also claimed that writing is a mental exercise that often begins 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.

About his writing, the poet has explained: "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."

After suffering a heart attack, al-Bayati died in Syria on August 3, 1999.

Sample Poem: "Elegy to the Unborn City"

The following poem offers an example of the style and subject matter this Iraqi poet engaged:

Elegy to the Unborn City: A Vision of Baghdad

Buzzing with people and flies,
I was born in it, and
On its walls I learned exile and wandering,
Love and death and the isolation of poverty
In its underworld and at its gates.
In it my father taught me to navigate and to read:
The rivers, the fires, the clouds, and the mirage
He taught me to know sadness, rebellion, and perseverance
To sail, and to circle the houses of the saints of god,
Searching for the light and the warmth of a future spring
Which still lives at the bottom of the earth
And in the sea shells,
Awaiting the prophecy of a fortune teller.
In it he taught me to wait for the night and the day
And to search for a hidden, enchanted city.

This poignant piece results from a deep affection for an unfortunate city which has remained historically a place of much conflict. The poet’s love for his birth place nevertheless demonstrates his ability to see past the devastation and ugliness as he searches for the inherent beauty in the "hidden, enchanted city."

Sources

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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