The Iraqi Poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab

Introduction to the Translation of the “Letters of Badr Shakir al-Sayyab”

By George Nicolas El-Hage, Ph.D.

Throughout the better part of his brief life (1926-1964) Badr Shakir al-Sayyab was haunted with the idea of death, the afterlife, mortality and immortality. At the end of his earthly journey, Badr made peace with himself, and thereby reconciled the two seemingly contradictory aspects of “Life” and “Death.” He conquered death by humanizing it, mastering his fear of it, and by surrendering to his fate as the ultimate rest for an ailing and constantly deteriorating body. Although never an existentialist, Sayyab, at one point, entertained the idea of embracing “Existentialism,” surmising that it might have the philosophical answer to his existential problem: how far and how high will he be able to carry the rock of Sisyphus? How long will his battle with destiny last and who will prevail? Sayyab was immensely in love with life, yet his poetry and personal letters ironically convey a different message and are colored with the dark clouds of dejection, frustration, loneliness, exile and poverty.

Sayyab played a prominent role in shaping the course of modern Arabic poetry and literature. The tragic journey of this poetic genius was marked with constant tragedies that punctuated his life with one disaster after another: the death of his grandmother, the tragic loss of his loving mother whose passing left a permanent scar on his soul, the stormy relationship with his father and insensitive stepmother, his intense political struggle against the Iraqi regime, persecution and repeated imprisonment and exile, job uncertainty and insecurity, extreme poverty, unhappy marriage and the burden of family obligations, and ultimately his ailing health and deteriorating physical condition that left him paralyzed from the waist down. All these catastrophic events that inflicted his frail body with severe and constant pain were unable to break his spirit, restrain his will or dampen his inspiration. He continued to write magnificent poetry that portrayed both his physical and psychological suffering. Even when he was on his death bed oscillating between moments of unconsciousness, hallucinations and lapses of memory, his imagination remained ablaze and alert, and his inspiration alive and focused. In the last few years before his tragic death, Sayyab renounced his political activities and turned from “committed” poetry to “personal” poetry that became more permeated with self eulogy and focused on his heroic struggle with destiny and man’s place in the universe.

These selected letters in English translation shed new light on the catastrophic life of this tragic hero and highlight important aspects of his otherwise, private moments and inner thoughts that he shared with a few elite friends that he had in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and England such as Adunis, Khalil Hawi, Youssef al-Khal, Suhail Idris, Albert Adeeb, and Ali al-Sabti. This is the story of Badr Shakir al-Sayyab in his own words without embellishment.

In translating these letters, I tried to be as faithful as possible to the original Arabic text and to the meaning that I believe the poet intended. These letters are organized in chronological order and provide us with a clear image of the development and maturity of Badr both as a human being and a poet. I sincerely hope that the translation of these selected letters into English will present new material useful for Sayyab’s students and scholars.

Letter # 1
Abu al-Khaseeb: 8–7–1943

My Brother, Poet Khalid al-Shawwaaf…

Herein is a greeting gentler than the summer nights on “the Ra’i Mountain” in the countryside and a longing by the imprisoned bird for the blue mountain which it glances at through its cage.

The cessation of correspondence between us during this long and boring period is extremely painful to me.

I wrote you a letter a long time ago, but no news came back from you. Perhaps the “Postal Administration” has done it again and severed the cord of correspondence between us as it did last summer. At any rate, may God forgive us both for falling prey to the habit of responding only to the letters that we have each received.

I write these pages to you from a grassy meadow in the countryside where I sit in the shadow of a towering palm tree with the breeze blowing through the gigantic trees in front of me as they turn their faces away from the setting sun. On both my right and left sides are two “love scenes”. On the right, not too far from me, stands a huge tree that shelters two lovers on a rainy winter day… You are the poet and your imagination enables you to picture the situation. On my left, what should I say? A gazing female sheep, but who is the shepherdess? You know her. It is “she,” yes, “she” who concealed herself behind the palm trunks away from the gazes of her lover whom she deserted.

Wretched is love… Your compassion sustains me, and your friendship fulfills me. By God, you are the dearest to me, second only to my father and to my mother, both of whom are embodied in the person of my father. Yes, this is the truth. I say it without flattery and without desiring from you the same love or even half of it. Yes, I have known my friend, Assama’il, before I knew you, but he ranks below you. Do I really care too much for the harm that befalls me since you are my brother whom I hope to meet soon? I have passed (the final exams), and I hope that you have done so, too. I will come to Baghdad where I will meet you, and we will live together and wander around and recite poetry, and…and… Oh, God, when will my hand knock at the door of that house “number 1/14” and ask for Khalid and behold him..?

When will that day arrive, the day I peruse the faces of the people at the train station and see that brilliant countenance … the countenance of my brother, the poet, “Khalid?” When..? When..?

Let us move forward after all these preludes to talk about poetry, and if time allows, we can also talk about “love.”

I admire your beautiful poem, “In My Bed,” but I admire you even more. I love this piece very much, and I always recite it especially while in bed. You have comforted my wounds by saying:

“Be content today with what…”
“That of which you complain will become
“Memories that provoke (flood) tears.”

Who among those when afflicted with calamity does not hear someone comforting him, saying: “This, too, shall pass?” However, your line seems as if it does not relate to this saying at all. The sublimity of the line elevates it higher than the popular proverb. This sublimity which is derived from the memories which “provoke (flood) —-tears”…. I congratulate you, my brother, for this poem which refutes the premise of the novices of literature, those who call themselves “Innovators.” You have proven to them that the unified rhyme and the “firmly established” meters, as they call it, is capable of following the movement of innovation.

Innovation is what our great writers like al-Zayyat, al-Rafi’i, and others say, not that which the authors, who use multiple rhyme and meters in one poem, claim. Those authors choose “short and daring”meters such as Mustaf”ilun – Fa’lu.” Certainly, innovation, as our great writers say, is: novelty in the topic, unity in the subject matter, outburst of imagination towards the ideas that the topic of the poem evokes, and the memories and goals that pertain to it. (This is in addition to flawlessness in pronunciation and style…) All this is present in your poem… [Poem omitted]

Time is of the essence, but with you, time is of no consequence…May God help me. My father journeyed to al-Kut, and he entrusted me with the affairs of the house. During the day, I cross the long road to the marketplace, and I return at noon exhausted. I lie down to make up for the time I stay awake at night for fear of thieves (laugh at me), and I do not feel rested until close to sunset. When my father returns, I will write you a long letter with many poems.

Hurry with a response for I am eager to hear about your news…. your health, your success, how you spend your days, and what you have composed.

Take care of yourself for me.

Your sincere brother,
Badr Shakir al-Sayyaab

[From the book, al-Sayyab’s Letters, by Majid al-Samurra’i, (Beirut: Al-Mu’assasa al-‘Arabiya li-al-dirasat wa-al-Nashr, Second Edition, 1994, p. 62) Translated from the original Arabic and with an introduction by George Nicolas El-Hage, Ph.D., Columbia University.]