Badr Shakir al-Sayyab

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Badr Shakir al-SayyabI roamed the hills
on the grey horse of a dream
fled the outstretched vistas,
fled the marketplace teeming with vendors,
fled the weary morning,
the barking night, the quiet passers-by,
the gloomy light,
fled the wine-drenched landlord,
fled the shame decked in flowers
and death in its leisurely stroll
along the river's drowsy currents.
If only its waters would wake up,
if only the Virgin would come to drink,
if only the blood-drenched setting sun
would immerse herself within these banks,
or else just rise.
And if only the branches of night
would burst into leaf,
if the brothel would close its door to its customers.


Under the sun of the green east -
on the grey horse of a dream,
through Jaykur's bounteous summer
I rushed along distant roads,
between flowers, dew and water,
searching the horizon for a star,
a birthplace of the soul beneath the skies
for a spring to slake the flames of thirst,
searching for the exhausted traveller.


Jaykur, Jaykur - where is the bread?
Where is the water?
Has night taken over? Are the guards asleep?
Travellers, sleepless with thirst and hunger -
the wind moans on,
fills the horizon with its echoes.
A desert, vast, nowhere a road to be found.
Night's skies are blind.
Jaykur, stretch the door open for us to enter
or entertain us with the luminous dance of stars.


Who will hear my poems
when death's silence dwells inside my home,
when night settles in my fire?
Who will lift the burden of my cross
in this long night of dread?
Who would cry out, who would answer to the hungry,
care for the destitute?
Who would lower Jesus from His cross,
who would drive the vultures from His wounds,
remove the lid of darkness from His dawn?
Who would replace His thorns with a crown of laurels?
Jaykur, if you would only hear -
if you would only just be there -
if you would only give birth to a soul,
even an aborted, stunted soul,
as travellers could behold a star
to illuminate the night.
For those without a path


Death struggle
no death.
no sound.
no birth.
In Baghdad who crucified the poet?
Who auctions off his poems?
Who invests in his eyes?
Who garlands him with thorns?
Jaykur, Jaykur, the threads of light
have tethered the swing of dawn.
Let the birds,
let the ants feast
on my wound.


This is my cave of Hira.
The spider has worked its web
all the way to its mouth,
leading the people to me.
I die.
While light, enmeshed in its own jungle,
sows the dinars of avaricious Time
from a balcony in the thick of palm branches.
Jaykur, Jaykur - water and vinegar
flow from my heart,
from my festering wound,
from deep inside,
oh my people, oh my people -
Jaykur, Jaykur, are you listening?
Let your doors fling open to the conquerors.
This very evening
round up your children
playing in the village square.
Here is the harvest of the years.
Water is wine.
The jars are full of nourishment.
This is the green season of sickness.


Jaykur, your past has come back.
This is the crowing of the roosters.
The film of sleeplessness has dissolved.
I have come back from my great night journey:
the sun
mother of green wheat stalks.
Behind the buildings
is a loaf of bread
still forgotten on the sidewalk,
but dearer than jewels.
And love:
"Do you hear this thunderous applause?
And what of it?
Abd al-Latif knows that we . . .
What are you so apprehensive about?"
And my soul was abducted
and the train screamed.
Tears ebbed in my eyes,
a cloud holding me up.
The train began to move.
O sun of my days,
is there a return?

Jaykur, sleep in the darkness of my years.

Translated by Adnan Haydar and Michael Beard from
the author's collection Unshudat al-Matar (1960)

Reprinted courtesy Banipal Magazine from Banipal No 9, Summer 1999.

Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab:
One heritage for humankind

Fadhil Sultani

December 24th marks the anniversary of Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab's tragic death at the age of 38. Yet his poetic influence has become more powerful than that of our contemporaries. What is the secret behind that? Nobody knows precisely the secret of great poetry, but it is possible to discover certain aspects, at least in the case of Al-Sayyab.
The emergence of great writers, I believe, accompanies a great historical and social turning point, either in a particular society or in human history as a whole. Such a turning point took place in the Arab world after the Second World War and the disaster of Palestine. Al-Sayyab was one of those talented creative beings who have an instinctive ability to read the 'hidden rhythm' of their ages and to turn that rhythm into words.
Before Al-Sayyab, Arabic poetry failed to meet the new challenges raised by the new post-war era. The great traditional poets - Ma'aroof al-Rusafi and Mohammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri in Iraq, Ahmad Shawki and Hafiz Ibrahim in Egypt, Badawi al-Jabal and Omar Abu Richah in Syria - continued to write in old forms while trying to express new contents.
That created a dangerous dualism in Arabic poetry, and raised, for the first time, the question of how a poet could express, in a new form, new content. For more than a thousand years Arabs had known only one form, the traditional. Here lies the importance of Al-Sayyab, who dared at that early time to write in a completely new way. A real revolution took place in Arabic poetry.
It is true that some poets were writing free verse before al-Sayyab or at the same time, for instance, Nazik al-Mala'ika in her poem 'Cholera', but these attempts were artistically very poor and fell far short of the achievement of al-Sayyab, which can be summarised in three points. Firstly, al-Sayyab created a real revolution not only in form but in the content of the poem itself. He was the first poet to revive the mythology of ancient Iraq, together with other mythologies, in particular Greek. And his message is clear: there is only one heritage for humankind. This contribution was developed later by other Arab poets, notably Adonis.
Secondly, al-Sayyab succeeded in reconciling the subject and object to the extent that they become one (his personal tragedy, the tragedy of Iraq, the fall of Babylon, the Greek tragedies, Eliot and 'The Waste Land', etc.).
Thirdly, he succeeded in expressing - as all great poets do - complex contemporary issues in very simple language, in "thoughtful images", using a term from Hegel, as you will have seen yourself in the translated poems above.

Reprinted courtesy Banipal magazine from Banipal No 9, Summer 1999.
Portrait Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926-1964) by Iraqi Painter Faisal Laibi Sahi

Badr Shakir al-Sayyab


Translated by: Lena jayyusi and Christopher Middleton

Your eyes are two palm tree forests in early light,
Or two balconies from which the moonlight recedes
When they smile, your eyes, the vines put forth their leaves,
And lights dance . . . like moons in a river
Rippled by the blade of an oar at break of day;
As if stars were throbbing in the depths of them . . .

And they drown in a mist of sorrow translucent
Like the sea stroked by the hand of nightfall;

The warmth of winter is in it, the shudder of autumn,
And death and birth, darkness and light;
A sobbing flares up to tremble in my soul
And a savage elation embracing the sky,
Frenzy of a child frightened by the moon.

It is as if archways of mist drank the clouds
And drop by drop dissolved in the rain . . .
As if children snickered in the vineyard bowers,

The song of the rain
Rippled the silence of birds in the trees . . .
Drop, drop, the rain

Dropthe rain

Evening yawned, from low clouds

Heavy tears are streaming still.
It is as if a child before sleep were rambling on
About his mother (a year ago he went to wake her, did not find her,
Then was told, for he kept on asking,
"After tomorrow, she'll come back again . . .
That she must come back again,

Yet his playmates whisper that she is there
In the hillside, sleeping her death for ever,
Eating the earth around her, drinking the rain;
As if a forlorn fisherman gathering nets
Cursed the waters and fate
And scattered a song at moonset,
Drip, drop, the rain
Drip, drop, the rain
Do you know what sorrow the rain can inspire?

Do you know how gutters weep when it pours down?

Do you know how lost a solitary person feels in the rain?
Endless, like spilt blood, like hungry people, like love,
Like children, like the dead, endless the rain.
Your two eyes take me wandering with the rain,
Lightning's from across the Gulf sweep the shores of Iraq
With stars and shells,
As if a dawn were about to break from them, But night pulls over them a coverlet of blood. I cry out to the Gulf: "O Gulf,
Giver of pearls, shells and death!"
And the echo replies,
As if lamenting:
"O Gulf,
Giver of shells and death .

I can almost hear Iraq husbanding the thunder,
Storing lightning in the mountains and plains,
So that if the seal were broken by men
The winds would leave in the valley not a trace of Thamud.
I can almost hear the palmtrees drinking the rain,
Hear the villages moaning and emigrants
With oar and sail fighting the Gulf
Winds of storm and thunder, singing
"Rain . . . rain . . .

Drip, drop, the rain . . .
And there is hunger in Iraq,

The harvest time scatters the grain in-it,

That crows and locusts may gobble their fill,
Granaries and stones grind on and on,

Mills turn in the fields, with them men turning . . .
Drip, drop, the rain . . .

When came the night for leaving, how many tears we shed,

We made the rain a pretext, not wishing to be blamed
Drip, drop, the rain

Drip, drop, the rain

Since we had been children, the sky

Would be clouded in wintertime,

And down would pour the rain,
And every year when earth turned green the hunger struck us.
Not a year has passed without hunger in Iraq.
Rain . . .
Drip, drop, the rain . . .
Drip, drop . . .
In every drop of rain
A red or yellow color buds from the seeds of flowers.
Every tear wept by the hungry and naked people
And every spilt drop of slaves' blood
Is a smile aimed at a new dawn,
A nipple turning rosy in an infant's lips
In the young world of tomorrow, bringer of life.

Drop..... the rain . . .In the rain.
Iraq will blossom one day '

I cry out to the Gulf: "O Gulf,
Giver of pearls, shells and death!"

The echo replies
As if lamenting:
'O Gulf,
Giver of shells and death."
And across the sands from among its lavish gifts
The Gulf scatters fuming froth and shells
And the skeletons of miserable drowned emigrants

Who drank death forever
From the depths of the Gulf, from the ground of its silence,
And in Iraq a thousand serpents drink the nectar
From a flower the Euphrates has nourished with dew.

I hear the echo
Ringing in the Gulf:
"Rain . . .
Drip, drop, the rain . . .
Drip, drop."

In every drop of rain
A red or yellow color buds from the seeds of flowers.
Every tear wept by the hungry and naked people
And every spilt drop of slaves' blood
Is a smile aimed at a new dawn,
A nipple turning rosy in an infant's lips
In the young world of tomorrow, bringer of life.

And still the rain pours down.




Bells of a tower lost in the sea bed
dusk in the trees, water in the jars
spilling rain bells
crystals melting with a sigh
`Buwayb ah Buwayb,"
and a longing in my blood darkens
for you Buwayb

river of mine, forlorn as the rain.
I want to run in the dark
gripping my fists tight
carrying the longing of a whole year
in each finger, like someone bringing you
gifts of wheat and flowers.
I want to peer across the crests of the hills,
catch sight of the moon
as it wades between your banks, planting shadows filling baskets
with water and fish and flowers.
I want to plunge into you, following the moon,
hear the pebbles hiss in your depths,
sibilance of a thousand birds in the trees.
Are you a river or a forest of tears?
And the insomniac fish, will they sleep at dawn?
And these stars, will they stop and wait
feeding thousands of needles with silk?
And you Buwayb .
I want to drown in you, gathering shells,
building a house with them, where the overflow
from stars and moon
soaks into the green of trees and water,
and with your ebb in the early morning go to the sea. For death is a strange world fascinating to children, and its door was in you, mysterious, Buwayb . Buwayb ah Buwayb.
twenty years have passed each one a lifetime.
And this day when the dark closes in,
when I lie still and do not sleep,
and listen with my conscience keen-a great tree reaching toward first light, sensitive
its branches, birds, and fruit-
I feel like rain the blood, the tears shed
Shed by the sad world;
my death bells ring and shake my veins,
and in my blood a longing darkens
for a bullet whose deadly ice
might plow through my soul in its depths, hell
setting the bones ablaze.
I want to run out and link hands with others in the struggle,
clench my fists and strike Fate in the face.
I want to drown in my deepest blood
that I may share with the human race its burden
and carry it onward, giving birth to life
My death
shall be a victory.

Translated by
and Christopher Middleton
Lena Jayyusi
(Modern Arabic Poetry- An Anthology-edited
by SalmaKhadra Jayyusi

Badr Shakir al-Sayyab
Iraqi poet. (1926-1964) One of the greatest poets in Arabic literature, whose experiments helped to change the course of modern Arabic poetry. At the end of the forties he launched, with Nazlk al-Mala'ika, the free verse movement and gave it credibility with the many fine poems he published in the fifties. These included the famous "Rain Song," which was instrumental in drawing attention to the use of myth in poetry. He revolutionized all the elements of the poem and wrote highly involved political and social poetry, along with many personal poems. The publication of his third volume, Song of Rain, in ig6o was one of the most significant events in contemporary Arabic poetry. He started his career as a Marxist, but reverted to mainstream nationalism without ever becoming fanatical. While still in his thirties, he was struck by a degenerative nervous disorder and died in poverty. He produced seven collections of poetry and several translations, which include the poetry of Aragon, Nazim Hikmat, and Edith Sitwell, who, with T. S. Eliot, had a profound influence on him.

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