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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Muzaffar Al-Nawab: Poetry as a Revolutionary Weapon

Muzaffar Al-Nawab
Mourners carry the coffin of renowned Iraqi poet Muzaffar al-Nawab during his funeral procession near the Imam Ali shrine, in Iraq’s central holy city of Najaf, on May 21, 2022. Qassem al-KAABI / AFP

Dana Hourany

Muzaffar Al Nawab, renowned Iraqi poet, died on May 20 in an Emirati hospital aged 88, leaving behind a legacy of revolutionary poetry. Al Nawab was a fervent supporter of the communist cause and a harsh critic of Arab dictatorships and leaders.

As a consequence of his political involvement, he faced time behind bars, death sentences, and exile. Al Nawab’s commitment to his revolutionary principles was undeterred, and he continued to be the voice of the Iraqi people, even from afar.

Troublesome beginning

 Al Nawab was born in Baghdad in 1934. His family was of aristocratic Indian descent, forced into exile in Iraq by the British. While studying literature to become a teacher, he became a member of the Iraqi Communist Party and partook in the 1958 revolution. The latter led to his imprisonment and torture by the oppressive Hashemite regime. However, when the revolution succeeded to overturn the Iraqi monarchy, Al Nawab was awarded a governmental position in the Ministry of Education.

This quickly changed when a coup occurred in 1963 that established an authoritarian nationalist government that fired Al Nawab and persecuted communists. For this reason, Al Nawab was forced to flee Iraq to Iran, where he was arrested by the Savak police and handed back to the  Iraqi authorities.

Al Nawab was handed a death sentence that was eventually reduced to life imprisonment as he was consistently penning poems critical of the Iraqi government. However, by digging a tunnel with his other inmates, Al Nawab managed to escape and lived in hiding for a while.

The poet moved to the southern village of Ahwar, where he became fond of the southern dialect and its heavy accent that employs a distinct resonance. He was credited with popularizing vernacular Iraqi Arabic to a larger audience because of his southern inspiration, which can clearly be recognized in his poetry today.

After a general amnesty, the poet was allowed to reappear in the public eye. However, this was short-lived, as he was forced to flee Iraq once more in the 1960s as a consequence of a government crackdown on dissent. He spent the following years residing in multiple Arab countries, where literary experts and journalists say his condemnation of oppressive regimes remained prominent.

Fighting all Arab regimes

According to history professor and Iraqi writer Mishtak Idan Al Hulfi, Al Nawab first moved to Beirut in the 1960s, before settling in Damascus, Syria, in the 1970s -1980s. In these two cities, Al Nawab was offered a temporary safe haven; Beirut gave him the space for creative freedom, while Damascus embraced anti-establishment Iraqis and allowed them to congregate and debate freely, Al Hulfi told Fanack.

“Although the rulers of Iraq at the time – the Ba’ath party of Saddam Hussein – attempted to mend relationships with the poet, he, himself did not approve,” Al Hulfi said. “He preferred to leave Iraq to be free and expressive, instead of lingering, silent, and defeated.”

This decision, however, made a lasting impression on the poet, who insisted on staying near to his homeland by relocating to Syria.

Al Nawab’s caustic tongue and abrasive vocabulary shaped several poems condemning authoritarian Arab regimes during his observations of the Arab world throughout the 1980s and 1990s, according to Al Hulfi. Authorities dreaded the poet because of his capacity to mobilize people against their regimes.

“They knew he could enrage the public and start riots just by saying the right words. He spoke the language of the working poor, which is why the Iraqi government, in particular, did not want him around,” Al Hulfi said.

During his forced exile between Europe and the Arab world, Al Nawab also wrote on current events of the time such as the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) and Israel’s war on Palestine.

Inherited sadness

According to Palestinian journalist Abdel Rahman Jassem, the poet was part of a broader group of authors at the time, including Ghassan Kanfani, Nizar Qabbani, and Mahmoud Darwish, who were passionate about the Palestinian struggle and the Nakba.

“All these writers regarded Palestine as a compass,” Jassem stated. “The cause is about oppression, grief, and the sense of ongoing loss.”

Jassem met Al Nawab some 15 years ago in a one-and-a-half-hour encounter during which he realized the poet was tormented and dissatisfied.

“This is the thing about Iraqi art, it always leans towards sadness and Al Nawab was exemplary in his personality and poetry,” he said.

According to Al Hulfi, Iraqi melancholy is carried from the Sumerians. He claims that the country of Sumer, now known as southern Iraq, was home to a plethora of sad tales, beginning with the legend of Tammuz, the fertility god who was sentenced to death for failing to mourn appropriately for the loss of his goddess lover. Later on, his legacy was honored through lyrical laments and ceremonial acts.

The Islamic account of the battle of Karbala, in which the fourth caliph was defeated and murdered by the Umayyad caliph Yazi I, heightened the sense melancholy in contemporary Iraq.

One voice for all Iraqis

 According to Al Hulfi, Iraqis see Al Nawab as one of their primary means of expression and opposition to the regime. Al Nawab was a representation of common difficulties, representing a genuine reality away from Elitist pretentiousness by employing layman’s language and occasionally obscene terms.

For this reason, on May 21, at the poet’s funeral,  a group of mourners began chanting slogans of contempt at the Iraqi Prime Minister Moustafa al-Kadhimi despite the fact that it was al-Kadhimi who directed that Al Nawab’s body be sent back to Iraq by presidential jet so that the poet might be buried in his country. Nevertheless, al-Kadhimi was forced to leave the funeral.

“Al Nawab belongs to the people, not to the thieves,” the mourners chanted.

Al Nawab died yearning for change, not only in his own nation but throughout the Arab world. He remained unmarried and childless throughout this life – a sacrifice Al Nawab made, to remain consistent in his fight against tyranny and oppression, according to Al Hulfi.

As for the future of Al Nawab’s legacy in Iraq, Al Hulfi says he is reassured that the younger generation will carry the poet’s fight for freedom, change, and a better Iraq.

“The Iraqi youth do not follow the Iraqi regime blindly. I trust they will preserve Al Nawab’s legacy correctly and will continue to fight for all our freedoms,” he said.

Al Hulfi believes that the poet’s long-standing image in the Iraqis’ mind is one of “a child in front of his people and a whole revolution in front of the system.”