|Badr Shakir al-Sayyab|
“Badr is known as one of the greatest poets in Arabic literature, whose experiments helped to change the course of modern literature.” (epic-usa)
Badr Shakir al-Sayyab was the son of a date farmer. He was born in 1926 in Jaykour, Iraq. When he was 6 his mother, Karima, died during the birth of what would have been her fourth child. Some cite this event as a major influence on his heartfelt and nostalgic poetry later in his life. “Often homeland and mother are evoked in unison, or as two aspects of the same -- irrevocable -- sense of security.” (Rakha).
After his mother’s death Al-Sayyab went to live with his grandparents. It was at this time that he began school in the neighboring villages close to Jaykour. In his early years he was exposed to the realities of class differences. This period of his life can be seen as a source of inspiration for a lot of his early “Marxist” poetry. In 1938 Al-Sayyab began secondary school. He wrote most of his early poetry in traditional Arabic verse, but it was not released to the Arab public until after his death.
It was in the early to mid 1940’s that Al-Sayyab became increasingly politically minded and aligned himself with the Communist party. In 1946 at age 20, along with the help of his contemporary Nazik al-Mala’Ika, Al-Sayyab launched the Arab Free Verse Movement. Prior to this movement Arab verse was written in primarily one form, the traditional. Pioneering the Free Verse Movement was remarkable in that it gave Arabic verse a new outlet of expression. The poems that he produced during this time reflected his concern for his nation’s evolution into modernity.
In 1948 Al-Sayyab graduated college and published his first book of poems titled Withered Flowers. He was briefly employed as a secondary-school English teacher. In 1949 he was imprisoned, because of his communist alignment, when a new government took control. Afterwards, he was banned from teaching for the next ten years. During this period he took many odd jobs including free-lance journalist, employee at the Ministry of Imports, and date taste tester. Meanwhile, he remained very politically involved and produced a good amount of poetry in his early to mid-twenties.
Due to political changes in Baghdad, he moved to Kuwait in the early 1950’s. Within six months he returned to Baghdad also due to political circumstances. His poetry lost much of its political bent during this period, “his lyricism emerging as a powerful force in its own right, unencumbered by a specific political agenda” (Rakha). In 1955, he married and had a daughter, Ghaidaa, the next year.
In 1958 he was titled “Prophet of the 14 July 1958 Revolution” for the impact that his poetry was having on his people. It was during this time that he wrote his most popular and widely translated poem Rainsong or Song of the Rain. After the revolution he resumed teaching English but again lost his position due to his political convictions. “He was to lose his job in the communist-nationalist rift, however, in which he sided with the latter faction; so disillusioned had he become with Iraqi communism. Al-Sayyab was reduced to working as a poorly paid translator for the Pakistani Embassy, and he was persecuted and humiliated by his former comrades.” (Rakha). He began working as a translator for very little money. In 1960 he published his third book of poetry, which included Rainsong. Due to illness he moved to Basra in hope of living out the rest of his life quietly.
His health declined steadily and he was forced to move back to Kuwait. There he experienced paralysis and depression from the onset of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Badr Shakir al-Sayyab was the poet of the people; he died in Kuwait at the age of 38. “His friend Ali Al-Sabti conveyed his body back to Basra, where he found Al-Sayyab's family homeless (the Port Administration had managed to evict them from the house, which was given to Al-Sayyab as one of the job perks, after the poet used up all his holidays). His funeral was a low-key event, and he went almost unnoticed.” (Rakha). In 1971 a statue of the poet was installed in one of Basra's main squares.
There are seven collections of the poet’s work. The Arab author Hassan Nadim has written a book that studies the poet’s work; unfortunately it has yet to be translated in English. Terri DeYoung has recently written a book on the life of the poet which is widely available.
Shafik Megalli, Tr. Arab Poetry of Resistance: An Anthology. Cairo:
Al-Ahram Press, 1970.