Muzaffar al Nawab, poet of revolutions and sorrow

Iraq bade farewell on May 20 2022 to one of its foremost poets, Muzaffar Abdul Majeed Al-Nawab. He passed away in the UAE, where he’d lived in exile, after a long illness at the age of 88. His body was brought back to Iraq, where it was  met by the prime minister and other prominent officials, and was buried in the holy Shiite city of Najaf.

He was known in the Arab world as the “revolutionary poet” in recognition of a lifetime of publically opposing and criticizing corrupt Arab regimes, and for which, he spent many, many years in jail or in exile.

He was following a long tradition of writers and intellectuals who have ‘suffered’ for their art. Nearly 175 years ago English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his Defence of Poetry: “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In the years since, many poets have taken that role to heart, right up to the present day.

They’ve been rebel-rousers and protesters, revolutionaries and yes, sometimes, lawmakers. Some, like Czech author Václav Havel have become presidents. Poets like Nawab have commented on the events of the day, giving voice to oppressed and downtrodden, condemned tyrants, immortalized rebels, and campaigned for social change. Most chant from the sidelines and the bleachers. Others place themselves in harms way. Many end up in dungeons and torture chambers, and some have perished for their art and articulation. So it was with Spanish poet Garcia Lorca, murdered in 1936 by Generalissimo Franco’s Nationalist soldiery at the beginning of the savage Spanish Civil War. So it was with Chilean folk singer and songwriter Victor Lara, slain in a soccer stadium in September 1973 by Augusto Pinochet’s thugs.

The silencing of singers and poets on account of their words and their voices diminishes our lives and indeed, it diminishes the world in which we live, and in its hatred and nihilism, strikes at the heart of the values we hold most dear. But history has shown that the death of the singer does not kill the song. The dictator perishes but the poet remains.

What is Freedom? – ye can tell
That which slavery is, too well –
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.
Shelley The Masque of Anarchy, published posthumously in 1832

Revolution Road

Let the word makers and the revolution singers awake!
Egyptian poet Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati

Al-Nawab was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1934,  into an aristocratic Shi’ite family of Indian origin that appreciated art, poetry and music, and from an early age, he displayed a talent for poetry . Completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Baghdad he became a teacher, but was expelled for political reasons in 1955 and remained unemployed for three years.

He joined the Iraqi Communist Party while still at college, and was detained and tortured by the Hashemite regime that ruled Iraq at that time. After the Iraqi revolution in 1958 which overthrew the monarchy, he was appointed an inspector at the Ministry of Education. In 1963 he was forced to leave Iraq to neighbouring Iran, after the intensification of competition between the nationalists and the communists who were prosecuted and put under strict observation by the republican regime. He was arrested and tortured by Savak, the Iranian secret police, before being forcibly repatriated to the Iraqi government. An Iraqi court handed down a death sentence against him for one of his poems, but this was later commuted to life imprisonment. He escaped from prison by digging a tunnel and fled to the marshlands, where he joined a communist faction that sought to overthrow the government.

Known for his powerful revolutionary poems and scathing invective against Arab dictators, the first complete Arabic language edition of his works was published in London in 1996 by “Dar Qanbar” He lived in exile in many countries, including Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Eritrea, where he stayed with the Eritrean rebels, before returning to Iraq in 2011. Before he returned to Iraq, he had been essentially stateless, being able to travel only on Libyan travel documents.

Nawab’s popular and eloquent poetry earned him a prominent position at the forefront of modern Arabic literature. He was known as the “revolutionary poet” for decrying corrupt regimes across the Arab world. His poems were filled with revolutionary fervor, social anger, satire, and rebellion against injustice and corruption by Arab dictators. Syrian writer Aws Daoud Yaqoub described Nawab in a book dedicated to his poetry as the poet of “revolutions and sorrow.”

Nawab was also known as a poet of pop culture as his poems spoke to the Iraqis of all age groups, useing simplified folk language in a frank and sharp way. He sometimes resorted to attacks and obscene words to deliver a specific message. In 2018, he was nominated by the Iraqi Writers Union for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Many of his poems, composed in the spoken dialect,  were sung by some of the most renowned Iraqi singers, such as Yas Khoder. These include the poems called “Oh, Basil [Ya Rihan], “Al-Rayl and Hamad,” and The Night of Violet.”

Some Arab intellectuals considered him a great poet with sincere revolutionary principles who railed  against  oppressive regimes, injustice and corruption, using piercing words to expose the defects and deficiencies of the state, society, and poetry and to strip the emperor naked. He called for an end to the traditional practice in Arabic poetry of setting up poets and singers to perform songs of praise to the regime, sultan, or king.

He took extreme hostile positions against the West, Israel and the allies of the United States, such as the Gulf states. In one of his most renowned poems, he described the commanders of these countries as “the pigs of this Gulf” in the poem of this title. He described Arab meetings to solve the Arab issues, especially Palestine, as “lesbian meetings” in the sense that they produce nothing, and mocked the Arab rulers, saying “a pig’s pen is cleaner than the cleanest of you.”

And yet, many criticized him for his selective attitudes towards the tyrannical regimes in the region, and for behaviour that appeared to contradict to his declared principles. For example, the UAE has normalized ties with Israel, which contradicted Nawab’s opposition to both the rulers of the Gulf states and to Israel. His attitude attracted harsh criticism from critics on social media, who lamented the special treatment he received before his death in Gulf state that he had often condemned. Dhafer Al-Ajmi, Executive Director of the Gulf Monitoring Group, tweeted that Nawab was mostly known for decrying Gulf leaders using vulgar language to describe them. “Despite that, he died in a Gulf hospital, where he received treatment at the order of a Gulf Sheikh.” Saudi journalist Ali Al-Quhais noted that Nawab died in the Gulf states after he offended them and their rules, and even insulted Mecca. “The Gulf countries held poetry evenings for him and opened their hospitals to him,” Quhais said, criticizing Nawab for keeping mute when his own country [Iraq] was occupied

Other critics have  described him as sectarian and partisan, since he often attacked Arab rulers, the West and Israel, whilst praising Ayatollah Khomeini and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and failed to take any position on the occupation of Iraq, which brought the Shiites to power in that country after American invasion and the fall of Saddamn Hussein.. His poetry also included strong words against sacred Sunni figures such as Abu Sufyan and Amro bin Al-Aas, who are among the Ansar or Companions of the Prophet – and who are are frowned upon by Shiites because of their attitude towards Imam Ali.

.Others, howver, believe Nawab’s positions were not sectarian at all, but rather, expressed his revolutionary left-wing stance against reactionary principles, colonialism and injustice – he referred to himself in his poetry as an Qarmatian, in reference to a social movement which led a revolution against the Abbasid Caliphate between the years 899 -107, and which included non-Arab nationalities, including black-skinned people.

By describing himself thus, he sought to allude to his Indian origins, family having migrated to Iraq during 19th century. This would explains the diverse cultural aspect of his poems, and why he addressed issues like Iraq’s oppressed Iraqi cultural minorities and their long history of persecution under the dominion of the Arab majority.

Iraq was once distinguished by its ethnic, religious and cultural diversity, as it was home to large communities of diverse origins. Today, these communities are on the brink of disappearance, as they were forced to flee the political, security and societal pressures in the absence of the authority of law and the state.

From an obituary published by e-zine al Monitor on 27th May 2022.

For more on Arab poets, in In That Howling Infinite, see: Ghayath al Madhoun – the agony of an exiled poet, and O Beirut – songs for a wounded city (Syrian poet Nizār Tawfīq Qabbānī and  Lebanon’s national cultural icon, Fairuz).

Poetry Defeats Authority: Muzaffar al-Nawab 

An Iraqi man feeds seagulls

An Iraqi man feeds seagulls on a bridge across the Tigris River in central Baghdad,
December 11, 2020. Ahmad al Rubaye AFP

There are still poets that dare to tell this world about the wrong things that occur. They do that as if they were “Romeo” in Shakespeare’s play “Romeo & Juliet”. However, Arab repression forces them to “praise” rulers, politicians and security apparatus instead of writing for “Juliet”. While doing that, they use a totally very different language to deal with that circle. They curse when hit by batons and spit when tortured. They “pee on this apparatus” when their humanity is killed! The Iraqi poet Muzaffar al-Nawab (1934) managed to develop a unique style to deal with such a thing. He used a language that no other poet can create unless he/she was exiled from an Arab capital or subjugated to physical and psychological torture. Poets even have to face firmly “the beast” in Tehran to develop such a language. There, dozens of flagellants will be waiting to beat the poet with a whip and large boots.

Al-Nawab wrote in one of his poems about that experiment:

“ike two dull houses of ants
Are the eyes of the flagellants’ chief
His nose’s hair was growing like those of a pig
Mucus words were in his mouth
He was dripping them in my ears
He asked me: Who are you?
I was embarrassed to tell him:
I resisted colonization, so my homeland displaced me.
My eyes fainted from torture.

Although his family was an aristocratic one, al-Nawab became a member of the Iraqi Communist Party. After the coup of 1963, he became a fugitive. He fled to Iran and hid in Tehran. He was arrested there and held in prison for 5 months without knowing what was happening in his country. Then, he was sent back from Tehran to Basra in Iraq  and afterwards to Baghdad.

His journey of rejection started there. Later rejection turned into a language that Al-Nawab mastered. He produced his first poem of rejection “Acquittal”. This poem became for him the start of being abused and tortured continuously. It was like a monster that kept chasing him.

At that moment, al-Nawab defeated authority for the first time. He uttered his first “no” in public. This refusal costed him 20 years of prison. Writing the aforementioned poem meant also putting him into jail for extra three years. Thus, his journey of rejection started with a “no” and a poem.

The trail was absurd. Al-Nawab stood and they asked him to insult the communist party to claim his acquittal. It wasn’t an easy choice as the poet’s answer would have affected another 120 prisoners by doing what he was asked to do. They said to him: Curse the party. But he said: No. They asked him to curse all parties. He said: No. And he wrote his “Acquittal” poem in a folk Iraqi poetry. While imitating the language of a mother, he wrote the following:

Time crashes your bones for betrayal.
You compromise your wound for meanness
And you have to hide it.
O son, let the wound be cleaned.
Let it bleed.
My son, don’t conceal our honor.
O son, acquittal remains rotten forever.
You know my son with every acquittal,
We rebury each martyr of our people.

Al-Nawab wasn’t using rejection in his poetry alone, but also in each situation of his life. “Semi actions” used to annoy him a lot. In Al Hillah prison, the poet helped in 1965 Hamed Maksood, who was sentenced to death, to escape. Like a painter, he made Hamed back then look like an eighty years old man. He stamped Hamed’s hands with the prison’s stamp to look like a visitor. He also transformed his pillow into a sick sleeping man and the police got deceived by this ruse. After that, Al-Nawab himself escaped from the prison at the beginning of 1967. He got used to escaping with the same way. Meanwhile, his poems were reaching readers and this casted him with homage. He got used to escaping which comes before confrontation and even when he got arrested in Iran, he tried to escape. His second attempt to escape from Al Hillah prison succeeded by digging a tunnel in the prison that 40 prisoners, including Al-Nawab, escaped from. He, then, disappeared in Baghdad before authorities issued an amnesty order for political opponents.

This was his second victory over the authority in poetry and life. These victories were accompanied usually with him being tortured and exiled. He was arrested in 1968 and he met the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. May be the authority was trying to buy his silence or to direct his speech, but he said about both options: “Why does suppression enter the heart and censorship controls my silence, papers, steps and my mazes? Don’t I have the right to be silent, to speak, to walk outside the official path or to cry? Don’t I have the right to publish and distribute fire for free?”

In an unknown building, Saddam Hussein met him and asked him: “Don’t you trust the central government?” Al-Nawab replied: “I don’t trust you; you can send me back to jail.”

These constant escapes from one place to another have violated Al-Nawab’s humanity. In return, he created linguistic violations by attacking ministers, parliament’s meetings, police, informants and Arab league’s summits. He asks in his poem “The old pub”:

“How can man maintain his dignity while security apparatus hands reach everywhere?”

Al-Nawab was cursing on behalf of a whole nation. He represented hundreds of thousands of the poor who couldn’t curse the ones who deserved being cursed. Through this, he was freeing the anger of a whole nation, speaking to it in a way that he learned by blood. He cursed, with generosity, those who deserved that; those who tortured him, occupied his land, sold him and killed his joy. His curses became inclusive. He utters them from his throat that contains the throats of the silenced nation in an era that he called the urine era as he says:

I pee on the governing police.
It is the era of urine.
I pee on the tables, the parliaments and ministers with no shame
As they fought us with no shame.
The authorities of apes,
The parties of apes,
The apparatus of apes,
No!
The apes’ shit is better than you.

Using these linguistic violations in poetry was a response to abusing and suppressing thousands of people. But one person dared to use it and utter words before batons and torture chairs. That one was Muzaffar al-Nawab.

The poet, whose joy was killed in all Arab capitals, acknowledges the outright defeat and declares that in his poem “Summits”:

Now, I confess before the desert
That I’m filthy like your defeat.
O defeated rulers, defeated parties
Oh loser rulers
O defeated public
How rude we are!
And we deny it, how rude we are!

After the curse that he wrote in the poem: “Son of bitches, I exclude none of you”, he was shot but he survived. He says about this sentence: “They now got used to it” and he laughs.

In the home of foreignness and the collective feeling of alienation, Al-Nawab asks:

Oh, my homeland;
Are you the land of enemies?
O my homeland that is displayed as a morning star in the market

Speaking to God, he says:

Glory to you, I have accepted all things except humiliation.
I was satisfied that my share of life to be like that of a bird.
But glory to you, even birds have homes that they come back to.
And I’m still flying.
This homeland that extends from the sea to the sea
Is like adjacent prisons.
They are like a jailer who arrests another jailer.

Al-Nawab asks after all for forgiveness but tries to maintain his rejection:

Forgive my sadness, wine, outrage and harsh words.
Some of you will say that they were saucy.
Ok!
Show me then a situation that is more insolent
than the one we are now living in!

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