[Statue of Badr Shakir al-Sayyab in Basra, Iraq.]

[Note: This is the third in a series of translations of selected letters of the noted Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. Click here for #1 and click here for #2.]

Letter #3 (5/7/1947)

My Dear Brother, Saleh, (Jawad al-Tu’mah)

As I write to you, I am suffering from the most difficult and severe physical condition, but I feel that loneliness weighs more heavily on me than illness itself. I have waited a very long time for the arrival of a letter from you. You said that you would begin writing… but I forgive you because I can surmise why you have forgotten or have become oblivious to the fact that there is a lonely person out there whose sorrows would be alleviated by your letter. It is spring, and not only flowers blossom in spring, but hearts and souls as well. Perhaps the decadent spring has stretched its tender fingers to your heart, tickling it and awakening it to love or perhaps the approach of final examinations has distracted you from everything except studying and being diligent.

As for me, I don’t feel the presence of spring – “It is really “spring”… but only for those who deserve it.” I am not worthy of spring. Yes, the countryside is covered in vestments of silk, as they say, and it is also true that the orchards and the forests of palm trees are adorned with yellow and blue flowers, and the pomegranate trees are in full bloom. – In spite of all this, I am still in mournful winter which I envision in my imagination: the rain is pouring down, and drops of rain are falling on the window pane and flowing slowly and sadly.

After all, why do I burden you and burden myself with this tormenting image? You remember, no doubt, that I asked you to inform Miss Lami’a (the poetess, Lami’a ‘Abbas ‘Amara ) to return to me a book that she has borrowed, the poetry collection of the British poet, Robert Brook. I don’t know whether you have told her and she neglected to send it or if you yourself have forgotten this matter. I implore you both to send me this book for I have a burning desire these days to read it.

I don’t know whether or not the new poetry collection of Miss Nazik al-Malai’ka, “Splinters and Ashes,” appeared in the market yet. What has happened recently in the world of poetry and literature during this period of time? By the way, what about “Asateer”? When will “His Highness” (‘Ali) al-Khaqani publish it? I hope you will – later of course- retrieve the collection from him and send it to me by certified mail for I see him as a procrastinator.

More than a week has passed since I wrote the first lines of this letter, and now I resume writing after a period of persistent illness and false recovery. I am suffering from a relapse now. All the physicians’ efforts have been in vain, and I have lost the little money that I had as I wait for what hope tomorrow will bring, yet the disease gets stronger and more violent. But I am assured of one thing: that I will not die in the near future because there is comfort in death and I am destined not to enjoy comfort for I have yet to endure many tribulations.

Perhaps you will understand my feelings and emotions during this period by the poems that I am fond of. I read them repeatedly until I have almost memorized them – memorization is hateful to me because it strips the splendor out of the poem – I like a poem by the British poet, John Mansfield, entitled “To C.L.M,” which was addressed to his deceased mother. I hereby translate the first paragraph for you, and then I will summarize the rest of the content:

“In the dark womb where I existed for the first time, my mother’s life made me human. Her beauty nourished my barren soil and watered it during the long nine months of pregnancy: I was unable to see or breathe or move without killing something in her.”

The poet then realizes that his mother- while in her deep and dark grave- is unable to behold this life that she has given. Is there a path toward goodness rather than toward evil and annihilation? While searching and inquiring, she is unable to knock at the muddy gates for she realizes that her memory has already been buried in the minds of her people, and even if it were possible that the grave opens its gates, she would not have recognized her youngster. He has grown up and become an adult. They might even meet in the street, and she might pass him and continue walking as she would a stranger – (unless a spiritual face) makes her aware of the gratitude imprinted in her son for her generous deed.” He then asks himself: How did he repay his debt to this woman, and what did he do to reward this beloved, deceased woman? Men still trample the rights of women under their feet, and some of them still pretend and brag about their heroic deeds in front of women, while others almost drown the universe in their lust? What did he do to reward this great woman? “Oh, grave- may you remain locked lest I feel my shame!!”

(Please give) my regards to everyone. Respond if time allows. Otherwise, postpone answering this letter until after the examinations, and take care of yourself.

Your faithful brother,

[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. 101) Translated from the original Arabic and with an introduction by George Nicolas El-Hage, Ph.D., Columbia University.]