The Arabic prose poem owes a lot to Syrian poet al-Maghout

Legendary Syrian poet Muhammad al-Maghout depicts an Arab reality that everyone knows and fears but only alludes to in whispers

The Arabic prose poem owes a lot to Syrian poet al-Maghout

I have three books by or about the late Syrian poet Muhammad al-Maghout. I stumbled upon them when I spent another night in the seemingly endless battle to re-arrange my library.

No one but God knows if this project will ever end, but at least it inspires me to write about the books and the worlds they depict.

The three that caught my eye this time are ‘Muhammad al-Maghout and Heater the Nationalistic Party’, by Jean Daya; ‘Muhammad al-Maghout: Letters of Hunger and Fear’, by his brother Issa; and ‘The Swing’, the only novel written by al-Maghout himself.

The subjects converge, in one way or another, on one topic: the biography of al-Maghout, which the poet did not write, even if he attempted to with ‘The Swing’.

His publisher described the book in 1991 as "the only novel that he wrote, more than two decades ago, but never finished,” adding: “Muhammad al-Maghout exposes the Arab reality that everyone knows and fears but would only allude to it in a whisper or a nod."

Muhammad al-Maghout exposes the Arab reality that everyone knows and fears but would only allude to it in a whisper or a nod.

Al-Maghout's publisher

Later, Jean Daya discovered that al-Maghout wrote another novel, syndicated in Al-Binaa, the newspaper affiliated with the Syrian National Party. It was published under the pseudonym Sumer and never acknowledged by al-Maghout.

But what more do we need to know of his life, after the poet's eloquent and sorrowful works resonated in our hearts, darkened the language and moved our souls with words such as these:

I implore with you, Father,

Stop collecting firewood and information on me

And come collect my debris from the streets

Before the wind blows me away

Or the street sweepers scatter me.

This pen will lead me to my death

It led me to every prison

And trampled me on every sidewalk.

This is al-Maghout's cynical vision of life in the homeland, for Arabs, the world, and the universe.

His pessimism, misery and bitterness multiplied after his wife, the poet Saniya Saleh, passed away.

He bade her farewell crying out:

If it weren't for her...

Were it not for that smile resembling a wound upon a wound,

I would have found no reason to move a finger or open my eyes.

My hands have cracked writing.

All the tables of Damascus and Beirut have been flooded with my tears,

and I am as lonely as a nail.

Therefore, when Jean Daya declares a peaceful war against the poet and his legacy, he uses al-Maghout's own style to expose his contradictions over issues that the poet had overlooked early in his life.

His relationship with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party is among them, and its role as al-Maghout's incubator while he was down and out, looking for refuge, a few companions and a bearable life.

Recovered works

The missing articles and poems in al-Maghout's early career were recovered thanks to Daya, who collected 34 articles and 16 poems, in addition to another unknown novel he published under a pseudonym, Gharaam Sin El Fil, Love in Sin El Fil.

However, the search for the bits and pieces of al-Maghout's life does not end here. The book by his brother, Issam, 'Muhammad Al-Maghout: Letters of Hunger and Fear', exposes hidden areas his life. The author exposed the weakness of his brother's language in the beginning and uncovered al-Maghout's relationship with family, money, and the Party.

It also exposed possible domestic abuse towards his wife, Sania, to the point of causing her to miscarry. This anecdote was broadly detailed by the poet Shawky Bzeih in his recently published book, 'The Marriage of the Creative'.

The mission of undertaking research and documentation is a heavy burden. Anyone who accepts the task must write on any topic with integrity, impartiality, and transparency, especially when they look into the lives of public figures.

Issa's book, however, was not research but rather a narrative of the life of his celebrated brother. Nonetheless, he found nothing to capture in his memory except the bitterness of it.

A legacy unmatched

These two books and al-Maghout's novel, 'The Swing', expose the reality of the man who was so much more than a passer-by in the world of Arab arts in the second half of the 20th century. He is – I daresay – the poet who solidified the prose poem into Arabic literature.

He was of greater significance than so many others. From Tawfiq Sayegh, to Shiir Magazine for poetry, via Adonis's theorising and Lan and the loyal Shiir poets, including Ounsi El-Hajj's thoughtful introduction to his first poetry collection, there is no one like al-Maghout.

His three collections carved the course for the river of words in the cultural landscape — an accomplishment that a whole host of creative artists could not match.

Novelist and journalist Khalil Sweileh conducted an extensive interview with al-Maghout and published a book entitled 'The Rape of Kana wa Akhawatiha' which shed some light on the attributes of the great poet, playwright and satirist.

However, he still deserves more considered attention than memoirs that seek to settle scores.

Al-Maghout once said, "Death is not the greatest loss. The greatest loss is what dies in us while we are alive."

Death is not the greatest loss. The greatest loss is what dies in us while we are alive.

Muhammad al-Maghout, Syrian poet

As our long goodbye to this great voice goes on, let us repeat the cry with which al-Maghout spoke for a culture and a people, summing up decades of general Arab decline:

"One hand does not clap.

To hell.

Haven't you had enough applause yet?"

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