The Dragon

"The Dragon", by the Iraqi poet Abd al-Wahhab Al-Bayyati (1926-1999) was originally published in 1996. The translation appearing on this page is by Farouk Abdel Wahab, Najat Rahman, and Carolina Hotchandani. It is from the volume Iraqi Poetry Today (ISBN 095338246X) (c) 2003, edited by Saadi Simawe.

"The Dragon" is an example of al-Bayyatis's frequent incorporation of mythological figures into his poetry.


Text of the Poem

A dictator, hiding behind a nihilist's mask,
has killed and killed and killed,
pillaged and wasted,
but is afraid, he claims,
to kill a sparrow.
His smiling picture is everywhere:
in the coffeehouse, in the brothel,
in the nightclub, and the marketplace.
Satan used to be an original,
now he is just the dictator's shadow.
The dictator has banned the solar calendar,
abolished Neruda, Marquez, and Amado,
abolished the Constitution;
he's given his name to all the squares, the open spaces,
the rivers,
and all the jails in his blighted homeland.
He's burned the last soothsayer
who failed to kneel before the idol.
He's doled out death as a gift or a pledge.
His watchdogs have corrupted the land,
stolen the people's food,
raped the Muses,
raped the widows of the men who died under torture,
raped the daughters and widows of his soldiers
who lost the war,
from which, like rabbits in clover fields,
they had run away,
leaving behind corpses of workers and peasants,
writers and artists,
twenty-year-old children,
carpenters and ironsmiths,
hungry and burned under the autumn sky,
all forcibly led to slaughter,
killed by invaders, alien and homegrown.
The dictator hides his disgraced face in the mud.
Now he is having a taste of his own medicine,
and the pillars of deception have collapsed,
his picture is now underfoot,
trampled by history's worn shoes.
The deposed dictator is executed in exile,
another monster is crowned in the hapless homeland.
The hourglass restarts,
counting the breaths of the new dictator,
lurking everywhere,
in the coffeehouse, the brothel,
in the nightclub, and the marketplace.


2
From the Caribbean to China's Great Wall,
the dictator-dragon is being cloned.
When will you do it, St George?

Poem with Commentary and Historical Notes

A dictator, hiding behind a nihilist's mask,
has killed and killed and killed,
pillaged and wasted,
but is afraid, he claims,
to kill a sparrow.

The poem refers to “a dictator”, not “the dictator”, giving the reader latitude to consider the poem in the context of any number of specific national histories. But at least one reviewer of the anothology Iraqi Poetry Today, Jeffrey C. Alfier (http://www.raintaxi.com/online/2004spring/iraqi.shtml) has read al-Bayyati’s personal history into these lines, despite the narrator’s apparently universal message. Of course these two approaches are not mutually exclusive — while the poem may have been produced from the experience of Saddam Hussein's rule, and the author's exile from Iraq (many years of al-Bayyati's life were passed abroad, in exile from his home country), the poem may also be an attempt to speak out against tyranny across national.

His smiling picture is everywhere:
in the coffeehouse, in the brothel,
in the nightclub, and the marketplace.

The dictator’s “smiling picture” is everywhere, like posters of Big Brother (1984) in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. While one might expect a dictator’s image to be in a coffeehouse, nightclub, or marketplace, it is startling that his image is in the brothel. This hard-to-swallow assertion may warrant metaphorical rather than literal interpretation. It may be that the dictator’s presence is so insidious and constant that it haunts every facet of life.

Satan used to be an original,
now he is just the dictator's shadow.

If Satan normally sets the standard for evil, then the said dictator’s usurpation of Satan in this role demonstrates evil on an almost unbelievable scale.

The dictator has banned the solar calendar,
abolished Neruda, Marquez, and Amado,

The Islamic calendar differs from the Western culture's Gregorian calendar in that it is based entirely on lunar cycles, not the sun. It is about 11 days shorter than the solar year. In any case, the dictator has banned certain figures and features of western science and culture, including the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Columbian-born Gabriel García Márquez, and Jorge Amado of Brazil. The mention of these poets owes to al-Bayyati’s encounter with Spanish art, literature and life as a cultural attaché in the 1980s.

abolished the Constitution;
he's given his name to all the squares, the open spaces,
the rivers,
and all the jails in his blighted homeland.

Like the narrator’s earlier statement that the dictator’s “smiling picture” is everywhere, the narrator’s assertion that the dictator has “given his name to all the town squares, the open spaces, the rivers,” and etc., is probably hyperbole crafted with the intention of evoking the dictator’s seeming omnipresence. The dictator's unrelenting name-giving creates the feeling that no place can be claimed by people as their own. The dictator has taken possession of the country completely.

He's burned the last soothsayer
who failed to kneel before the idol.
He's doled out death as a gift or a pledge.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary entry for soothsayer (http://www.bartleby.com/61/51/S0565100.html), this is someone who tells the truth, especially in advance of future events. The word is usualy associated with the practice of fortune-telling. The ancestor of the word soothe was s?thian, originally meaning “to confirm to be true,” but eventually evolving to mean “humor by assenting, placate.” In the case of this poem, the soothsayer refuses to assent and placate, and so is destroyed by the dictator.

His watchdogs have corrupted the land,
stolen the people's food,
raped the Muses,
raped the widows of the men who died under torture,
raped the daughters and widows of his soldiers
who lost the war,
from which, like rabbits in clover fields,
they had run away,
leaving behind corpses of workers and peasants,
writers and artists,
twenty-year-old children,
carpenters and ironsmiths,
hungry and burned under the autumn sky,
all forcibly led to slaughter,
killed by invaders, alien and homegrown.

The "watchdogs" seem to rank highest on the pyramid of power, higher than the soldiers; one might assume these are the dictator's henchmen. Here "watchdog" is used somewhat ironically — whereas a watchdog is usually supposed to ensure people's safety, these watchdogs steal and rape. "The war" that the narrator refers to is probably the Iran-Iraq War, also called the First Persian Gulf War, begun when Iraq invaded Iran on September 22, 1980. The narrator is notably unsympathetic towards the soldiers of his homeland. He condemns the soldiers for the loss of the war, depicting them as cowardly rabbits, a characterization that may be based in the defensive posture adopted by the Iraqi army following their surprise offensive. It is interesting to that clover fields connote richness and lushness; could the soldiers have enjoyed too many of luxuries their complicity with the dictatorship offered them — could they have been too soft and well-fed to be effective fighters? The narrator also condemns the soldiers for fighting the war, leaving behind “corpses of workers and peasants.” These corpses, “all forcibly led to slaughter, / killed by invaders, alien and homegrown,” seem to be the Iranian “enemy.” Many of the Iranian forces were indeed conscripted, and used for human wave attacks. There are even reports of children being used for these attacks to “demoralize the cowardly Iraqi soldiers” (see November 4, 2004 column by Robert Cringely (http://www.pbs.org/cringely/pulpit/pulpit20041104.html)).

The dictator hides his disgraced face in the mud.
Now he is having a taste of his own medicine,
and the pillars of deception have collapsed,
his picture is now underfoot,
trampled by history's worn shoes.
The deposed dictator is executed in exile,
another monster is crowned in the hapless homeland.
The hourglass restarts,
counting the breaths of the new dictator,
lurking everywhere,
in the coffeehouse, the brothel,
in the nightclub, and the marketplace.

Saddam Hussein was disgraced by his defeat in the Persian Gulf War of 1990, but he was not yet a “deposed dictator” when “The Dragon” was published in 1996. So the last part of the poem is a hypothetical rather than literal narrative, applying to dictators generally rather than specifically.

2
From the Caribbean to China's Great Wall,
the dictator-dragon is being cloned.
When will you do it, St George?
When will you slay the dragon?

The story of the soldier and martyr Saint George dates back to the 4th century. According to legend, George was ordered by Eastern Roman Emperor Diocletian to take part in the systematic persecution of Christians, but confessed to being a Christian himself. Witnessing his torture and execution convinced Empress Alexandra and an unnamed pagan priest to convert to Christianity; “they also joined George in martyrdom.” This makes Saint George an unlikely character to appear in the work of a poet from the predominately Islamic Middle East. But the jig-saw fits together if we consider another of the Saint George legend which surfaced in the 9th century: George as dragon-slayer. If the legend is interpreted through religious symbols, then the European dragon represents paganism, and George a the bringer of Christianity. But many secular historians believe the legend of Saint George and the dragon dates beack to before Christianity itself.