Abdul Sattar Jawad Al Mamouri: T.S. Eliot in Baghdad

January 10, 2013

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary on JANUARY 10, 2012: **this piece will be re-run on the site on March 20, 2013 for the 10 year anniversary of the 2003 Iraq war. 

Abdul Sattar Jawad Al Mamouri is a visiting Professor of Comparative Literature and Middle East Studies at Duke University, who first came to Duke through the Scholars at Risk program.

Jawad departed Iraq in 2005 following several attempts on his life. Before he left, he was Chair of English and Dean of the College of Arts at  Mustansiriya University in Baghdad and edited an Arabic daily and Iraq’s only English language paper The Baghdad Mirror, which was firebombed by insurgents.

Well-known for his Arabic translation of T.S. Eliot’s 1922 modernist poem The Waste Land, Jawad recently completed a book that examines the influence of Eliot’s poetry on the 1950s Arab Free Verse Movement that began in Baghdad and spread across the Arab world. The book, when published, will include a supplemental CD containing Eliot’s reading of The Waste Land and Jawad’s Arabic translation.

Here is Jawad, in his own words, describing his book and what inspired him to write it,  followed by an excerpt from Chapter 1:

JAWAD: My aim is to portray Eliot’s reception in Baghdad and his unrivaled influence on the Iraqi School of Free Verse Movement, which laid the foundation for modern Arabic poetry from the 1940s on.  Eliot’s literary influence can best be seen in the avant-garde poetry of Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab (1926-1964) and Nazik Al-Malaika (1923-2007) — who kicked the ball of vers libre in Iraq first, then into Lebanon and the Arab world.

Sayyab majored in English in the College of Teachers in Baghdad where American and British professors were teaching and the Iraqi students delighted in that Anglo-Saxon cultural milieu.

Nazik Al-Malaika majored in Arabic at the same college but she pursued her higher studies at Princeton University where she obtained her MA in 1954.

Sayyab is widely regarded as the leading Arab poet who, under Eliot’s influence and his readings of Anglo- American poetry, successfully gave the avant-garde movement its strong momentum. His use of religious symbols, ancient myths, and new poetic diction and verse forms were influenced by Eliot’s work as well as by Edith Sitwell, Walt Whitman, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. But, it was Eliot who really inspired Sayyab and put him under his spell.

JAWAD: My attraction to the movement goes back to the beginning of the 1960s, when I was a student in the English Department, and an incipient literary journalist with a notable zeal to meet Sayyab and Jabra (another of the avant-garde poets). I listened attentively to their talks and lectures as if they were social prophets.

In 1960 I published an essay: al-Shir al-Hur (free verse) in the literary supplement of a leading Iraqi daily Al-Jumhuriyya, which included many English phrases and terms. It was a naïve tour de force, but was the subject of debate especially when discussions included my translation of Eliot’s The Hollow Men.

I found myself drawn into the cobweb of this rivalry between the pioneers and the traditionalists.  The literary scene in Baghdad was dominated by a generation of 1950s artists and poets who led the process of modernity and change. They inspired the young promising talents to follow their example in the literary and cultural battle against worn out poetic practices.

It happened that there were many British and American professors staffing the English departments of Iraqi universities and I personally found the encouragement I needed to spell out my ideas and do some translations and writings and set my feet cautiously down the literary path of Baghdad. I used to see Sayyab sitting in coffee-houses in Baghdad and meet Jabra in the book market on Fridays and have opportunities to participate in some literary salons.

(Excerpt) Chapter 1: Eliot’s Influence on the Iraqi Free Verse Movement

“It was in the early 1950s that Anglo- Saxon writers began to impinge on Arabic. Foremost among them was T.S. Eliot, whose influence was eruptive and insistent. This influence came at first through his early poetry and was partly possible for the great change that has since overtaken Arabic poetic forms “  — Jabra Ibrahim Jabra

The 2003 Iraq war and its tragic consequences have given Eliot’s “negative way” considerable currency in the Iraqi academy. Today, Eliot’s poetry is likely to be recalled by Iraqi professors and intellectuals for its haunting associations with and allusions to Babylonian myths and legends, and how this relates to the fate of the country.

In the 1940s and after, Iraqi universities were teeming with American and British professors and Eliot’s Waste Land, the poem of the century which no serious reader could ignore, was received with unique enthusiasm and admiration, spurring Iraqi poets and writers to rediscover their ancient myths: Adonis, Ishtar, and other Babylon mythical characters were alluded to in Eliot’s poem. For Iraqi intellectuals, Eliot was a modernist leading an experiment with a new poetic form and style and reviving the use of dramatic verse.

Iraqis were exposed to Eliot’s work more than seventy years ago, so why do Iraqi academics and their students read and re-read The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock with such feverish zeal? Why do they take The Waste Land as theirs?

Baghdad came to ruin following the reckless 2003 invasion — a city which was once Scheherazade’s abode and even the intellectual capital of Judaism in the 1920s. Today it looks like a wasteland; its daily life promising death — spiritual and actual — with it’s cracked earth, hot sun, fear, fire and violence. But yet, there is still a vague promise of deliverance — exactly what Eliot’s poem presents.

In 2006, at the Middle East Studies Association’s annual conference in Boston, an American journalist asked me about life in Baghdad four years of the invasion and my prompt answer came tainted with The Waste Land’s “broken images”:

The sparrows fled,

The doves are dead,

Tigris is no more singing to the star,

It’s sweating oil and tar

Nearly 10 years since the invasion of Iraq, Eliot haunts me today.

Is Eliot’s soul haunting Baghdad? An area of human life where people exist without a guiding faith, where they have turned their backs on spiritual enlightenment, and where death can only be a welcome release for the sufferer.  Has life lost its meaning?

……….

Jawad hopes to return to Iraq one day “when peace prevails and Iraq enjoys a functioning democracy and representative secular government.” He is currently seeking a publisher for his book on T.S. Eliot in Baghdad. 

 

Front page and above photo by Julie Poucher Harbin. In this photo Abdul Sattar Jawad is enjoying an Arabiyat evening of dancing, singing and conversation held at Duke University, which was part of a celebration of the launch of a project for cross-cultural conversation between Duke students and Iraqi refugee families living in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area. 

 

Above video produced by Catherine Angst 

 

Abdul Sattar Jawad Al Mamouri is Professor of Comparative Literature and Middle East Studies at Duke University, and first came to Duke through the Scholars and Risk program. He holds a PhD in English Literature and Journalism from London’s City University. He is well-known for his Arabic translation of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and is an expert on Eliot and Shakespeare.  Since leaving Iraq in 2005 (where he was a scholar and newspaper editor), he has also been a Visiting Professor at Harvard University and a Barksdale Fellow at the University of Mississippi, Honors College. This semester he is teaching a course on the Syrian and Iraqi revolutions, and also a course on mystical literature. 

 

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  1. Khalid Alhitti says:

    I very much enjoyed the magical blend of contemporary Iraqi poetry with that of the legendary T.S. Eliot. Another wonderful piece by a wonderful scholar. Keep up the great work, Dr. Jawad. Happy New Year with my best regards. Khalid Alhitti