Poetry please: the son of beloved Iraqi poet Badr Shakir Al Sayab remembers his father during a visit to Abu Dhabi

The life of the great Iraqi poet was cut tragically short by illness – but his modernist verse is more relevant than ever, says his son Ghailan during a visit to the capital.
Ghailan Al Sayab with his father Badr Shakir Al Sayab in Lebanon. Courtesy Ghailan Al Sayab
Ghailan Al Sayab with his father Badr Shakir Al Sayab in Lebanon. Courtesy Ghailan Al Sayab

In his short life, Badr Shakir Al Sayab revitalised Arabic poetry before suffering a painful death in exile and poverty. Influenced by modern English and European poetry, the Iraqi poet challenged classical poetry in style and content and spearheaded the free verse movement of Arabic poetry of the 1950s.

To mark the 50th anniversary of his death, the Permanent Bureau of the Unions of Arab writers declared 2014 the year of Al Sayab. His son Ghailan travelled to Abu Dhabi this weekend to read an unpublished poem and share his memories of his father at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF).

The wider world associates his father’s verses with feelings of isolation, sensuality and death. This work includes Arms and Children (1954), The Blind Prostitute (1954) and The Grave Digger (1952) in which a man unknowingly buries the prostitute he plans to visit later that night. His most celebrated poem, Hymn to Rain, describes Sayab’s heartache for his Iraqi homeland while watching the rain in Kuwait.

In contrast, Ghailan, who was only 6 years old when his father died in 1964, remembers him as a man with a perpetual smile and the inventor of fanciful bedtime stories.

“He created wonderful worlds for us, just from his imagination,” Ghailan says. “He makes us live in a fantasy. We have relatives that we’d known as ordinary people and he makes legends of them and puts them in stories and lets us enjoy that. People who were ­heroes in these stories passed away but when I remember them, I still smile.”

Al Sayab died at 37 of a degenerative nervous disorder. Most of his son’s memories are from the period of his father’s illness. “I ­remember saying plenty of farewells at airports and around the steps of the house and I also remember the presence that he brings with him when he comes back,” Ghailan says. “He was only ever smiling and that takes a lot, for anyone.”

Al Sayyad, a member of the Iraqi communist party who later changed his politics, was subject to censorship, critique and exile for his words. “My father was recognised as a remarkable poet but was not given his real value, especially in Iraq, and politics played a big role in it.

“He was the kind of person who thought that a literary person and an educated person and a poet had a duty to get involved in the politics of his country and his nation and to point his finger and to be on the side of the poor and the struggling sectors of society. Governments were not, still are not, accepting of people who are not acceptable of their line.”

The day his coffin was brought from Kuwait to Iraq, his family were evicted from his government house. It was Ghailan’s mother who raised him and his two sisters. “She’s not strong, she’s very emotional,” he says. “She’s very, very emotional but she’s patient and I think she went through a lot without complaining to anybody.

“I do not remember any dispute or argument between my father and her, even though in one of my father’s poems he was very angry at her. But he recognised later that this was a spur of anger. His last poem was about her, the last line was talking about her. He was telling her that time has folded away the carpet of their wedding.”

Al Sayab’s poetry and public image reflected his personality and beliefs, Ghailan says, and the private figure versus the public man formed the basis of his talk in celebration of his father at ADIBF ­yesterday.

Ghailan has never sought to formally publish his own work but shares his free-verse poetry on Twitter. “When I discovered Twitter, I found a bit more freedom to express myself [in a] literary [form],” he says. A civil engineer, he moved from Iraq to the US in 1980 and now works in Saudi ­Arabia. “Of course [on] the artistic level, there is no comparison. Who­ever says: ‘You write like your father’, I laugh because to me my father is unmatched.”

His father’s current recognition comes from regional developments outside Iraq , he says. “Other Arab countries have improved and what counts is the recognition of the people. The love that the people have for him has increased and this is real joy, this is real joy.

“I don’t think [much] has changed in Iraq,” Ghailan says. “If you read a lot of his political poems you feel that he’s talking about today, especially when it comes to Iraq, the political life in Iraq and the struggle that people have gone through and that the whole country is going through.

“It was as if he was writing about the future when he was writing about the present. You read them as though they were written today.”

Anna Zacharias is a features writer at The National.

• The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair runs until Monday and features writers, poets, illustrators, academics and publishers from all over the world. To find out more about its cultural programme, visit www.adbookfair.com


Published: May 1, 2014 04:00 AM


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