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Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab: A Profile from the Archives

[Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab. Source: Wikimedia Commons] [Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab. Source: Wikimedia Commons]

[”A Profile from the Archives“ is a series published by Jadaliyya in both Arabic and English in cooperation with the Lebanese newspaper, Assafir. These profiles will feature iconic figures who left indelible marks in the politics and culture of the Middle East and North Africa. This profile was originally published in Arabic and was translated by Mazen Hakeem.]

Name: Badr

Last Name: Al-Sayyab

Father’s Name: Shakir

Mother’s Name: Karimah Al-Sayyab

Place of Birth: Jekor

Date of Birth: 1925

Date of Marriage: 1955

Date of Death: 1964

Wife’s Name: Iqbal Taha Abd Al-Jalil

Nationality: Iraqi

Education: Bachelor’s degree from the Higher Institute for Teachers

Category: Author

Profession: Poet 

                       (Photo source: Assafir Newspaper) 

Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab

  • One of the pioneers in rejuvenating contemporary Arabic poetry. He is considered, along with Abd Al-Wahhab Al-Bayyati and Nazek Al-Mali’keh, one of the first to attempt writing in the modern form of Arabic poems or what has come to be known as the trochee poem, qasidet al-taf'ileh.
  • Born in Jaikoor, south of Basra, and was the eldest of his brothers, Abdullah and Mustafa. His father was so happy that he registered Sayyab’s date of birth but then soon after that he forgot it and had no idea when the real birthday was. However, Mahmud Al-Abta, a researcher, found a record which indicated that his date of birth was in 1925 when he was going through the archives of Al-Mahmudiah School, where the poet had studied.
  • His father, Shakir Bin Abd Al-Jabbar Bin Marzook Al-Sayyab, worked at the Commission for Dates.
  • His mother, Karimah, was Shakir’s (the poet’s father) cousin. She was illiterate and died in 1932. The poet’s father got married once again; so, the poet, along with his brothers, lived at his grandmother’s (from his father’s side) house. Her name was Aminah.
  • Married Iqbal Taha Abd Al-Jalil on 19 June 1955. They had three children.
  • Studied at Bab Suleiman School and at Al-Mahmudiah School in Abi Al-Khasib. After that, he went to Basra High School.
  • Finished high school in 1943. Because of the abject poverty that he grew up in, the poet suffered from anemia due to malnutrition. Tuberculosis, which he contracted as a young man, also contributed to his emaciation.
  • In 1943, he joined the Higher Institute for Teachers in Baghdad and obtained his bachelor degree. At the institute, he met Baland Al-Haidari, Suleiman Al-Issa, Ibrahim Al-Samourra’i, and Nazek Al-Mali’keh. During that time, he joined the communist party and was elected president of the student’s union at the institute.
  • Between 1945 and 1955, a group called “A’bqar Brotherhood” was established at the Institute for Teachers. It discussed poetry subjects in absolute freedom and was supported by the institute’s dean, Matta A’qrawi; Sayyab was one of its members.
  • Expelled from the institute on 8 January 1946 due to his political activity in the Iraqi Communist Party.
  • In 1948, he was appointed as an English teacher at Ramadi high school then he was transferred to the Directorate of Imported Money where he worked as a writer.
  • Met Lami’aa Abbas A’mara in 1948 and fell in love with her. However, due to social circumstances this love was not meant to be. In that same year, he graduated from the institute and was appointed as an English teacher at Ramadi high school.
  • Dismissed from his job at the Ministry of Education on 25 January 1949 and was banned from teaching for ten years. He was arrested and imprisoned in the same year.
  • Travelled to Basra where he worked as a “taster” for dates at the Iraqi Dates Company.
  • Worked as a writer at the Basra Petroleum Company.
  • Went back to Baghdad and was unemployed for a period of time until he worked as a sheriff in a depot for one of the road paving companies in Baghdad.
  • After the disruption of the political situation in Baghdad in 1952, he feared that the campaign of arrests would reach him, so, he fled in disguise to Iran and then to Kuwait using a forged Iranian passport with an alias Ali Artink on board of a clipper, which set sail from Abdan in 1953. He described this journey in a poem entitled An Escape, Farar.
  • In Kuwait he had an office job at the Kuwait Electricity Company.
  • In 1954, Al-Adaab (Literature) magazine sponsored him and published some of his poetic work.
  • After a few months, he went back to Baghdad and cut off his political ties with the communist movement. Thus, a ministerial decree was issued appointing him in the General Directorate for Import and Export.
  • In the winter of 1957, he got acquainted with the Lebanese magazine Shi’r (Poetry) and its editor Yusuf Al-Khal. He soon became one of its writers along with Adonis and Onsi Al-Haj. This marked the break with Al-Adaab magazine which had adopted his gift at a prior time.
  • On 7 April 1959, he was dismissed from governmental work for three years according to a ministerial decree.
  • In 1960, he visited Beirut to publish a collection of his poetry. He met Yusuf Al-Khal, Onsi Al-Haj, and Khalil Hawi along with others. His presence there coincided with a contest held by Shi’r magazine for the best poetic collection. He won first prize (one thousand Lebanese pounds at the time) for his collection The Rain Song (Onshudat al-matar), which was published by Shi’r publishing house at a later time.
  • Went back to Baghdad after his dismissal was cancelled and was appointed to work at the Iraqi Ports Authority and then moved to Basra.
  • Arrested on 4 February 1961 and released on 20 February of the same year; he went back to his job at the Ports Authority.
  • In 1961, his financial situation forced him to translate two American books for the Franklin Foundation.
  • That same year, he received an invitation to participate in the Convention for Contemporary Literature, which was held in Rome and under the auspices of the World Organization for Cultural Freedom.
  • In 1961, his health started to deteriorate and was unable to walk.
  • In 1962, he went back to Beirut.
  • On 18 April 1962, he was admitted to the American University Hospital. His friends, including the poet Yusuf Al-Khal, assisted him in paying the hospital fees.
  • He became very ill, so, he went back to Basra in September 1962. The World Organization for Cultural Freedom assumed the expenses for a whole year after it had arranged a scholarship for him.
  • Traveled to London to receive therapy. He tried to enroll as a student at Oxford University to obtain his PhD but was unable to do so. However, Professor Albert Horani managed to find him a position at Durham University, in the north of England.
  • Did not stay for a long time at Durham. From there he travelled to Paris on 15 March 1963.
  • On 23 March 1963, he left Paris in a wheelchair and headed back home.
  • After two weeks of his arrival, he was dismissed from governmental work for three years starting 4 April 1963.
  • Worked as a literary correspondent for Hiwar (Dialogue) magazine in Iraq. He used to send his reports regarding the literary movement in Iraq to Tawfiq Sayegh, magazine editor in Beirut, in exchange for forty dollars per report.
  • Agreed to be treated by a Bedouin from Al-Zobair. The Bedouin cauterized his legs and his back, however, the treatment was not successful.
  • Went back to his governmental job at the Ports Authority on 11 July 1963.
  • On 9 February 1964, his health deteriorated suddenly and he needed to be transferred to the Ports Hospital in Basra after his body temperature reached 104º F (40º C). Examination showed that he had double pneumonia, the beginning of heart failure, severe diarrhea with vomiting, and a clinical ulcer ten inches in size (twenty five centimeters) in diameter, in addition to the spread of stiffness in the spinal cord which caused paralysis in his limbs.
  • On 1 April 1964, the period of time allocated for sick leaves expired. So, the Society of Iraqi Authors and Writers, which he was a member of, used its influence at the Ministry of Health to continue his treatment.
  • The Kuwaiti poet, Ali Al-Sabti, issued a call to the Kuwaiti Health Minister, Abd Al-Latif Muhammad, to treat Sayyab at the expense of the Kuwaiti government. The minister responded to the call and procedures were taken to transfer Sayyab to the Amiri Hospital on 6 July 1964.
  • During his stay in the Amiri Hospital in Kuwait, he published some poems in Al-ra'ed al-'arabi (Arab Pioneer) magazine in exchange for a good amount of money.
  • Died on 24 December at the Amiri Hospital in Kuwait after a long sickness which he tried to treat in Beirut and London.

Selected Publications:

  • Wilted Flowers, Azhar thabila; his first poetry collection which was published in 1947 by Al-Karnak Printing House in Cairo.
  • Legends, Asateer, 1950.
  • Rain Song, Onshoodat al-matar, 1960.
  • The Drowned Temple, Al-ma’bad al-ghariq, 1962.
  • House of Serfs, Manzel al-aqnan, 1963.
  • Oriel of the Jalabi’s Daughter, Shanashil bint al-jalabi, 1964.
  • The Precocious, Al-bawakeer, 1974 after his death.
  • Dawn of Peace, Fajr al-salam, 1950.
  • Harp of the Wind, Qitharet al-reeh, published after his death in 1971.
  • Cyclones, A’asir, published after his death in 1973.
  • Gifts, Al-hadaya, published after his death in 1941; Advent, iqbal, was also issued in 1965.
  • Grave Digger, Haffar al-qoboor, 1950.
  • Weapons and Children, Al-asliha wa al-atfal, 1953.
  • The Blind Prostitute, Al-momis al-a’mia', 1953.

Prose Translation:

  • Three Centuries of Literature, Thalathat quruun min al-adab, group of authors; Maktabit Al-Hayat Publishing House – Beirut; two volumes, the first is without a date, the second was in 1966.
  • The Poet, The Inventor and The Colonel, Al-sha’ir wa al-mokhtari’ wa al-kolonel, a play with one chapter by Peter Ostinov, Al-Usbu’ newspaper, Baghdad, issue number 23, 1955.

Poetic Translation:

  • Ilza’s Eyes or Love and War, ’Oyuun elza aw al-hob wa al-harb.
  • Poems for the Atomic Age, Qasa’id 'an al-’asr al-dthari.
  • Selected Poems from Modern Universal Poetry, Qasa’id mokhtara min al-shi’r al-’alami al-hadeeth.
  • Poems by Nazem Hikmat, Qasa’id min nazem hikmat, Al-Alam Al-Arabi magazine, Baghdad, 1951.

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