Iraqi author and poet Ali Jaafar Al Allaq on the 'beauty and torment' of writing

His memoir, Ila Ayn Ayyathouha Al Kaseedah, won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for literature

Ali Jaafar Al Allaq, the Iraqi poet, critic and university professor, won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair. Pawan Singh / The National
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Ali Jaafar Al Allaq prefers to walk his own path.

Amid the flashing cameras and packed sessions that come with winning the literature category of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, the Iraqi poet and academic prefers to steal a few moments quietly wandering the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

Exploring the halls of the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, he often seeks out the latest poetry collections from the Arab world.

Al Allaq is at home strolling through these works, because he is familiar with some of the struggles faced by his literary peers.

"The reality of writing is that it is a torment, but it is one marked with beauty," he tells The National.

"It also teaches you humility, resilience and determination, because writing is not a profession where you practise and retire after reaching a certain age.”

This is a central message of his latest book Ila Ayn Ayyathouha Al Kaseedah (Whereto, O Poem?) which won the award and the Dh1 million ($272,294) cash prize.

Released last year, it is as an expansive work, to be read as an autobiography of one of the region’s most respected cultural figures and a treatise on the craft and graft of writing.

Al Allaq recollects his personal and professional journey, from being born and raised in a small and impoverished village in Iraq before academia took him to Baghdad, then England, Yemen and finally the UAE, where he taught Arabic literature and poetry in universities.

During those periods, Al Allaq’s pen rarely rested while he published more than 20 poetry collections and 11 books on literary criticism.

The decision to turn inwards with Ila Ayn Ayyathouha Al Kaseedah, he says, is not in response to the more than a dozen academic theses written about his work.

Instead, Al Allaq feels he reached a certain age – he turns 75 in August – to yield enough insights worth recording.

"As I got older I felt a call to give my testimony of how I lived my life," he says.

"This appeal was certainly not as loud or as powerful when I was young, because my life lacked sufficient depth and literary achievement.

“But over the years this call became louder and sharper because I spent over 60 years writing and lived a fragmented life that took me from Iraq to the UAE.

“This is not to mention some of the turmoil facing the region during that time.”

The characteristics of a poet

Al Allaq describes his book as trying to tie some of the disparate strands together with an examination of his life, through the eyes of “the narrator and poet”.

It opens with childhood recollections of growing up in a village near the city of Kut, south-east of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

Writing about his childhood all these years later, Al Allaq realised the lulling power of nostalgia.

"It was a simple village life and it did not meet the most basic of human needs," he says. "But in the eyes of a child it was a little part of paradise because of an active imagination."

Further inspiration arrived when Al Allaq arrived in England in the early 1980s, where he obtained his doctorate in criticism and modern literature from the University of Exeter.

During his time spent in the rolling countryside of Devon, Al Allaq recalled reading the works of previous esteemed Arab graduates such as Saudi literary scholar and 2022 Sheikh Zayed Book Award winner Abdullah Al Ghatham, as well as the late Iraqi-Palestinian writer and artist Jabra Ibrahim Jabra.

It was the latter Al Allaq gravitated to, with his descriptions of the Iraqi character.

"It can be said that Iraqi history is unique and goes far back as ancient times with its own share of tragedy," he says.

"This is why Jabra Ibrahim Jabra describes the Iraqi character as full of anxiety. Its concern is unrelenting when it comes to what tomorrow will bring and this is why it wants to change things in any way they can.

“The poet is similar in that they are always looking for utopia without ever finding it.

“The poet knows they are searching for the impossible.

“Sometimes that is a good thing, as it’s the flame that keeps them moving.”

In Al Allaq’s case, it was the flames of conflict that got him on the road.

At the beginning of the Gulf War, he moved from Iraq to Yemen in 1991 where he taught at Sanaa University before beginning an 18-year tenure at the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain from 1997.

The future of the Iraqi cultural scene

Settled with his family in Al Ain, Al Allaq says he visits Iraq for occasional personal or work engagements.

Despite the limited nature of these trips, he is heartened by the rejuvenation of Iraq’s cultural sector.

"I do feel optimistic that although Iraq is making slow progress, there is a lot of movement on the cultural front," he says.

"There are festivals, conferences, exhibitions and book fairs.

“And these are all done by hard-working cultural organisations who did not exist 10 years ago.”

While Al Allaq outlined his life’s work in Ila Ayn Ayyathouha Al Kaseedah, he says the creative embers continue to burn.

“I will never stop writing,” he says. “It is a passion and a flame that doesn't rely on chance or have any moderation."

Updated: May 26, 2023, 6:42 PM