Mohammed Jafaar, Baghdad Things, Oil on Canvas, 2006

[Note: This is the fifth in a series of translations of selected letters of the noted Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. For more information on the poet, click here.]

Letter #5 (6//19/1947)


My Kind and Respected Brother, Dr. Suheil Idris,

My sincere best wishes and scented greetings to you.

Your kind letter has overwhelmed me with joy. I am very appreciative of your good opinion of me, and I hope to remain worthy.

In your letter, you inquire as to what our brother, Kathem (Jawad), and I meant when we said in our commentary on your splendid novella, “A letter to My Mother,” that it appeared at the most opportune time. Explaining this could be very lengthy, but trust me that we intended to speak to you about this even if you had not asked. This is a topic that concerns every man of letters and every man who is faithful to his people and nation and who is concerned with their future and the future of Arabic literature.

There are a group of authors and readers in Iraq who insinuate that even though al-Adaab concerns itself with Existential literature, it does not devote any attention to the concern that occupies the minds of the Arab people most, namely, the attempts aimed at tying literature to military alliances and a call for peace. We used to defend al-Adaab by arguing that the popular literature, which it publishes, glorifies the struggle of the Arab people for dignity, freedom and independence and contributes effectively to the cause of peace. For those nations that are afflicted with colonialism, the practical aspect of the cause of peace is exactly its struggle for independence and freedom.

We believe in absolute progressive economic, political and cultural values and believe that the Arab people will never be free unless they rely on such values. We also believe that there is no hope for the Arab people in attaining freedom, save in the shadow of peace, because war, if ignited, will no doubt end with the victory of one of two camps. We want the Arab people to be victorious and to liberate themselves by the forearms of their sons because the sovereignty of world peace requires that the movements of liberation remain continuous until they achieve ultimate victory.

Nevertheless, there are those few of narrow minds who only believe in “clichés” and “banners,” and woe to him, he who deviates from the literal meaning of these clichés and banners. Some people have taken advantage of these banners and of the ignorance and illiteracy that plagues our people. They have exploited the people for their own personal gain and for literary fame at the expense of other writers who do not submit to this “thermometer!” Likewise, these “antics” have also been applied to some writers in Lebanon. You were among them, and it was also applied to us, here in Baghdad, in a provocative and shameless manner. The truth is that we are now fighting an intellectual battle for the sake of defending honorable values. The last scene of the battle is a “petition,” whose history we will now share with you:

Some of the defenders of these banners have suggested that Iraqi writers should support the national front that was recently formed here. This is considered to be, in fact, a glorious deed rather than an obligation for every writer. Some of these writers have authored the text of the petition and included an endorsement of the entire program of the national front except for two paragraphs which the author intentionally ignored: the Palestinian Problem and the problem of the Arab Maghrib. We have refused to sign unless these two critical issues are included in the text of the petition and their importance is emphasized. They, in turn, rejected our proposal and started to calumniate!! They even, – what a mockery- decided to “adopt a firm position that will determine our fate!!”

Based on this, you can understand why the publishing of a story in al-Adaab that condemns war and depicts its horrors, actually the ugliest of its horrors, and is written by the editor-in-chief himself, succeeds in casting a stone in the mouths of these barking dogs. In the meantime, the readers also realize that Suheil Idris is not an “agent for those who call for war,” and that we were right all along in defending him and in cooperating with him.

We are determined to fight this battle until the end for it is not a temporary political battle. It is rather a battle in the defense of vital national and literary values. We are battling new McCarthyism that is striving to be reborn here after it died in the country of its origin. The question is: Do we concern ourselves with (Technique) and neglect man? Or is it that man, who is the end goal of every struggle, is more worthy of concern? Once again, the question is: Should literature be international before being national, or should it begin with “the affairs” of its country and nation and then cross from there to include the vast humanity? Thirdly, the question is: Couldn’t literature be “realistic” without totally neglecting form? Isn’t Realism in literature both form and content together just like it is impossible to separate the living body from the life that is “in it?”

We are sure that truth is on our side and that unlike our enemies, we are seeking the correct progressive values, and, therefore, we must not despair. The literary and political situation in Iraq totally differs from other parts of the Arab homeland. Politics and literature here are closely intermingled in a way that makes it impossible to differentiate between them. We will struggle to preserve our values. The early signs of our success, while seemingly insignificant so far, have started to loom. I will send you shortly a poem and a copy of “Arms and the Children,” which is a long poem of mine that we will finish printing soon.

Take care of yourself.

Sincerely yours,

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