Iraqi poet al-Sayyab: A rich legacy plagued by adversity

What remains of the legacy of the great Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab? Ali Mahmoud Khodir revisits the eventful life of the late poet as told by his son

Iraqi poet al-Sayyab: A rich legacy plagued by adversity

Basra: When I came across a photograph of the late Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s passport on a Facebook group for antique collectors, I was in disbelief. I thought this was for sure another photoshop or AI trick.

The post showcased multiple images of the passport from various angles, as well as a stack of personal letters exchanged within the poet’s family and an old piece of paper containing what the seller claimed to be an unpublished poem by al-Sayyab.

Yet any reader familiar with the poet’s work would immediately realise that the claim was false, as the discrepancy between it and al-Sayyab’s poetry, style, and handwriting was too stark to go unnoticed.

I got in touch with the seller and group admin and became certain that this was, indeed, the poet’s original travel document. The last-ever passport carried by one of Iraq’s poetry giants, who died before it even expired on 18 July 1965, was going on Facebook for $6,000.

How did the seller get a hold of al-Sayyab’s passport? Where did his family’s personal letters come from — those pages whose writers mistook for a safe space to discuss personal matters, unaware that one day a stranger would publicly sell their private exchanges online?

Following this incident, I began to wonder: what happened to the legacy of the ‘Rain Song’ (Unshudat al-Matar) poet? What remains of his book collection and valuable possessions in a country ravaged by wars, misery, and wave after wave of internal displacement?

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Portraits of Iraqi poets Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab during the eighth edition of an annual book festival in the capital Baghdad's Abu Nawas street.

The seller did not disclose the source of his merchandise, so I turned to Badr’s son, Ghailan al-Sayyab, in search of answers.

Little did I know that my inquiry would reopen old wounds for a man who witnessed the destructin of his father’s legacy along with his most treasured possessions amidst a plethora of political and social events that shook the country in the past 50 years.

“His possessions have certainly been stolen,” Ghailan said with a sigh.

When asked about al-Sayyab’s belongings, library, and archive, he explained: “My father’s job required us to relocate often, so we moved around frequently, first in Baghdad and later in Basra.”

“I recall moving into at least three homes during the short period my father was still alive in Al Najibiya, Khamsin Hosh, and Al Maqal. Our last home was on Ajnadayn street, facing the entrance to Al Maqal port, near the Port Directorate.

This frequent moving of houses no doubt posed serious risk on the possessions al-Sayyab used throughout his life, which was fraught with instability.”

Moreover, al-Sayyab’s deteriorating health and the impact of his illness on his family impeded their ability to safeguard the belongings of a man fighting for his life.

Al-Sayyab's deteriorating health and the impact of his illness on his family impeded their ability to safeguard the belongings of a man fighting for his life.

"My father's final months were marked by a challenging illness that confined him to the hospital. After he ran out of annual and sick leaves, the Ports Authority decided to terminate his employment, forcing our family's eviction from a house owned by the authority."

"We were evicted on the same day as our father's passing and funeral. We had just unloaded our belongings from the moving truck at our uncle Fouad Abdul Jaleel's house in Al-Asma'i."

The family resided there for almost four years before moving to the Al Muallimeen neighbourhood in Al-Zubai District.

Up until then, they continued to make use of the furniture that was used by al-Sayyab himself, including a study that contained a wealth of archives, poetry books, and letters from his early years until his final days, just before the Iran-Iraq conflict erupted and changed everything.

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Name of Basra in Arabic and English is displayed before a sculpture of Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926-1964) along the waterfront in Iraq's southern city of Basra on December 29, 2022.

As this new era ushered in a grinding war between Iraq and Iran spanning from 1980 to 1988, it brought about daily artillery attacks on Basra — even reaching its civilian neighbourhoods and threatening the lives of its people.

Displacement became an unavoidable reality, as families were forced to flee to safer, more remote areas, away from the battle zones. As military operations expanded, Basra became a battlefield, forcing the family to flee to Mosul in the north of Iraq, and to entrust their residence to a guard to protect it from theft.

This is when the unexpected happened.

The trusted guard stole many items from the house, including al-Sayyab's book collection, with all its rare resources, English materials, and important books and magazines. He even took toys that al-Sayyab had bought his children during his many trips to Beirut, Rome, and London as he sought medical treatment abroad.

A trusted guard stole many items from the house, including al-Sayyab's book collection. He also took toys that al-Sayyab had bought his children during his many trips abroad.

During the war, al-Sayyab's house and library was looted and most of his valuable and sentimental items vanished.

In a city where many victims were mourned on the daily, it seemed that trying to preserve furniture and personal belongings in the midst of a devastating war that spared no home or life, was more of a dream or a "luxury."

In 1980, Ghailan left the country to pursue his studies abroad. Throughout those difficult years, the family remained composed and maintained a positive attitude toward those who requested resources from al-Sayyab's collection.

These resources included papers, photographs, files, or letters that authors, journalists, and scholars requested either for a critical study of al-Sayyab as they claimed, or for radio or television shows.

"Regrettably, certain individuals were not fit to be entrusted with valuable possessions that did not belong to them, and upon acquiring them, they treated them as their own."

"When I went back to Basra, I noticed many letters from my father's friends missing from his collection, along with press clippings he had kept from articles published about him when he was still alive," Ghailan explained.

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A picture shows the tomb of Iraq poet Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab, on May 2, 2022. 

Unpublished poems and drafts

Despite moving abroad for work, Ghailan sought during his numerous visits to his homeland to collect, preserve, and archive the papers and documents he had left behind before his final departure to Kuwait.

Despite the loss of a significant portion of newspapers and magazines that featured al-Sayyab's work, his son was able to preserve a collection of handwritten poem drafts by the great poet, along with certificates, interviews, and notes from different stages of his career.

These drafts were incredibly helpful as I began to gather al-Sayyab's full collection, which was published in 2020. They provided me with a valuable chance to correct and review numerous errors that had marred previous editions of al-Sayyab's poetry.

I was pleasantly surprised to uncover eight new poems that had not been included in Diwan Badr Shakir al-Sayyab: The Complete Poetical Works, published by Dar Al-Awda, which Ghailan and I discovered among the late poet's papers.

Ghailan had a collection of rare documents, including al-Sayyab's identification papers, which revealed that he was actually born in 1927 instead of the previously believed 1926.

Ghailan also kept official letters of his father's dismissal, more than once, from government positions, for political reasons, as well as his correspondence with a university in London for the purpose of completing his higher studies, which never came to fruition unfortunately.

He also held on to rare letters that unravelled important pieces of his father's professional and personal life, which now make up a significant and scarce part of the poet's personal effects and legacy.

He also held on to rare letters that unravelled important pieces of his father's professional and personal life, which now make up a significant and scarce part of the poet's personal effects and legacy.

The poet's son is burdened by the weight of a rare collection, which represents the only remaining traces of his father's immortal influence.

This prompted him to declare in an interview that he is considering donating it to the Library of Congress to preserve and make it accessible to future generations and Arab literature enthusiasts around the world.

This statement was met with unjustified criticism from advocates of "national heritage" who believe that al-Sayyab's belongings should be displayed in Iraq only.

However, a valid question remains unanswered: Will these few remaining pieces of heritage be safe from war, theft, fire, or local or tribal conflicts that have plagued Iraq's unstable environment for so long?

Safekeeping al-Sayyab's belongings

"Some of my father's belongings remained entrusted to extended family members for better safekeeping. For example, his passport, special letters, and other documents were kept by my uncle, Abdul Rahman Abdul Jaleel."

"After he passed away and his wife fell ill, their house was vandalised and robbed, resulting in the identification papers and important documents falling into the hands of traders and speculators who claimed to be selling rare collectibles without any verification or ethics," Ghailan said, stressing that the family itself "never sold our father's belongings."

It appears that al-Sayyab has a longstanding history of having their belongings stolen. The first reported incident involved the Iraqi Ministry of Information, which commissioned a special committee to collect and authenticate poems that had not yet been included in any poetry collections during his lifetime.

The committee obtained a collection of original manuscripts from the poet's family, which were used in the publication of the diwans, Wind Guitar (1971) and Hurricanes (1972).

However, the manuscripts were never returned to their rightful owners, as reported by Zaki Al Jaber in one of his articles. Additionally, original manuscripts of al-Sayyab's diwans were kept by publishers and publishing houses that had published his works both in Iraq and abroad.

Some of the heirs of al-Sayyab's friends also keep, to this day, letters, documents, and original poems that al-Sayyab wrote to their parents without disclosing them to the public or, at least, exhibiting them at the museum established by the local government for the poet at his grandfather's house in the town of Baki', south of Basra, where he spent the first years of his life.

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