[Muzaffar al-Nawwab (b. Baghdad, 1934) is one of Iraq’s most famous and influential poets. He studied literature in Baghdad and worked as a teacher. He joined the Iraqi Communist Party at a very early age and was imprisoned and tortured under the Ba’th. He left Iraq in 1970 and lived in exile until 2011 when he returned to Baghdad for a visit. Al-Nawwab is well known in Iraq and throughout the Arab world, especially among leftists and activist of various generations, for his powerful revolutionary poems and scathing invectives against Arab regimes and dictators. Banned in most Arab countries, his poems circulated widely from the 1970s onward on cassettes. They are widely available nowadays on the Internet. He is also considered one of the most innovative and influential Iraqi poets who composed in the spoken dialect. Although born to an aristocratic family in Baghdad, Al-Nawwab immersed himself in the dialect of southern Iraq in the 1960s and composed some of the most memorable poems in Iraqi collective memory, many of which were put to music and sung by famous contemporary singers. Except for a few editions of his early poems in the Iraqi spoken, Al-Nawwab, who shunned mainstream cultural circles and lived in various exiles for the last four decades, never published, or authorized, a collection of his own works. A critical edition, or any reliable printed diwan (there are many versions and unauthorized collections, in circulation) has yet to appear. “In the Old Tavern” is one of his most famous poems, composed (probably) in late 1970s. Al-Nawwab prefaced one of his famous recitals by saying that the obscenity of the political status quo exceeded the obscenity in his poems. Al-Nawwab’s health has deteriorated in recent years and he has not written any new poems. He lives in Beirut.”]
In the Old Tavern
is not that far
What good is that?
You are like a sponge
Suckling on taverns
But never getting drunk
What is left of this night’s life
In the drunkards’ glasses
Why did they leave them?
Were they lovers?
Were they faggots like those at summit meetings?
Was it a prostitute
With no one in this tattered world?
Had you been here
You would have hidden her desire in your mythical jacket
Whispered warmly in her cold lungs:
Is the cold killing you?
What is killing me more is partly the warmth,
and partly the situation itself!
My lady, we are prostitutes just like you
Misery fornicates with us
False religion, false thought, and false bread and poems
Even the color of blood
is forged and made grey in funerals
And all the people approve
And the ruler is not one-eyed!
My lady, how can one be honorable
When the secret police stick their hands everywhere?
What is yet to come is even worse
We are put in the juice-maker
For oil to come out
Here is to you, to you, my lady!
Nothing of you is polluted except mortal flesh
Whereas some have sold everything
He defends all of the world’s causes
But flees from his own cause
I will piss on him and get drunk
Then piss on him and get drunk
Then you will piss on him
And we will both get drunk!
The tavern is crowded
With a generation you don’t know
A country you don’t know
A language, laughter, and things you don’t know
Except for the wine
After the first drink, it looks after you
It warms your cold legs
You don’t know where you met it long ago
Your head babbles between your hands:
Something painful like the buzzing of silence
Silence itself joins you and babbles along
You stare at all of life’s bottles
They are all empty
The waiter has turned off the lights many times
For you to leave
O how you love wine, Arabic, and the world
To strike a balance between passion and pomegranates
This one drink and I will leave your enchanted tavern
Don’t be mad Sir
The lover is enchanted
Fill it up
Until it overflows and spills onto the brown wood
How would you know
Why this slab is for wine
That one for a coffin
And the other for a billboard?
Fill it up in plain sight Sire
I will not leave your grand tavern before am blind drunk
The tiniest thing in this world intoxicates me
So imagine when it comes to a human
I have accepted all things
And having my heart caged in the Sultan’s palace
I was content that my lot in this world
Be like that of a bird
Even birds have homelands
To return to
But I am still flying
Over this homeland
stretching from sea to sea
Prisons pressed against one another
One jailer huddling another
[Translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon. You can listen to the Arabic original here.]