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'The Blind River': self and anxiety in Aziz al-Samawi's poetry.


A well-known and respected poet among the Iraqis, and particularly familiar to those who are, like him, exiled, Aziz al-Samawi is best known for his use of the vernacular and his images of southern Iraq. Those familiar with his work will know the vibrant images between which he flits in his poetry, and will have grown accustomed to the symbols that he uses repeatedly. Al-Samawi himself likens his poetry to fruit growing on trees: he calls it "cluster poetry" ('unqudiyya, literally, a bunch or cluster of grapes and the like).

It is unfortunate that the work of poets such as Aziz al-Samawi are not readily accessible to the English reader. In general, with the exception of a few well-known works such as A Thousand and One Nights or Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, the wealth of Arabic literature remains relatively unexplored by readers of English, other than those who have a special interest in the Middle East. In recent years, however, there has been an upsurge in works being translated into English, and so Arabic literature is now more generally accessible to the English reader. Nevertheless, for those without access to untranslated texts and to the Arabic media, it remains hard to gain a good idea of very contemporary literature, and, in particular, of contemporary Arabic poetry, which is so often made known through the medium of public poetry readings - a genre much less popular in the West.

Returning to our subject, however, it seems that little has been written about Aziz al-Samawi in terms of critique, although interviews with him may be found in various Arabic journals and Arab community newspapers (see bibliography), not just those published in the Middle East itself, but also as far afield as England (e.g., al-Hayat), Australia (e.g., al-Tilighraf) and North Africa (e.g., the French-language paper "Horizons"). Nevertheless, literary criticism of Arabic literature in the English-speaking world seems to have concentrated on the poets who are best known amongst Arabs themselves, and on those writing in classical, or standard, Arabic, leaving unexplored a great wealth of those who are only slightly less well known, and those who use as their medium what are usually considered to be colloquial forms of Arabic.

Al-Samawi has behind him a long literary tradition, upon which he has drawn to develop his own literary ideas and his own style of writing. His genre, however, is the poet in exile, and this is what gives his poetry its impetus and poignancy. It can be seen, therefore, that in preparing a critique of his work, the two areas which necessitate particular attention are style and themes.

Born in the town of Samawa(2) in southern Iraq in 1941, Aziz al-Samawi moved with his family to Diwaniyya(3) when he was a child. A civil engineer, he has a B.A. degree in Arabic language (for which he studied at night, while working as an engineer), graduating from Mustansariyya University's Faculty of Literature in 1975. Outside the sphere of his university degree, he has been studying the Arabic language and literature for many years, gaining a very good knowledge of the Classical language, to which he occasionally resorts in his poetry, although he writes mostly in the Iraqi dialect. He worked as an engineer in Iraq until his departure for Algeria in 1978, where he worked as a teacher of Arabic and as a journalist. Since then he has moved to England, where he has been living in London since 1990. Al-Samawi was imprisoned on several occasions during the 1960s in various prisons in Iraq. Although not a political activist himself, he was "close to Marxism" and many of his colleagues and friends were members of the Iraqi Communist Party, which led to the authorities labelling him as a communist and to his consequent imprisonment.(4)

Aziz al-Samawi shared his first published collection of poetry, Stepping on Water,(5) with his two close friends, the fellow poets Tariq Yasin and Ali Shaybani. His first own collection, Songs of the Dervish,(6) was published in 1973, and his second, The Color of Snow and Roses at Night,(7) was published in 1980. Finally, we have the collection on which we concentrate here, The Blind River (which is an ironic reference to the poet himself), as this is what places him firmly within the genre of the poet in exile.

The poet's literary influences are international and have made him a product of his time. He has a great knowledge of classical Arabic literature and has also studied the works of poets such as the pioneers of the free verse movement, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Nazik al-Mala'ika, the poet Salah Shahin, and other Iraqi poets like Abdul Wahhab al-Bayati, Sa'adi Yusuf and Buland al-Haydari.(8) A huge influence on him has been the Social Realism Movement, pioneered by Chekhov and other writers of that era, and subsequently taken up in the Arab World initially by Neguib Mahfouz. Edwar al-Kharrat concludes that "most of the works written in the [Social Realism] vein leaned heavily on the vernacular, which was taken as a sacrosanct hallmark of the working people,"(9) an important point when looking at al-Samawi's use of language. In translation, he has read Marx, Freud, Sartre and T. S. Eliot, who have all left him with developing ideas and caused deep reflection. Another influence on him has been his interest in fine art, as symbolized by his close relationship with the Iraqi painter Faisal al-Laibi. He cites art as having inspired him considerably because art and poetry work closely together, both being concerned with images, colors and contrasts.(10)

One of the most immediate features of al-Samawi's writing is his use of the vernacular. As a writer with a considerable knowledge of the classical language, he does not use colloquial Arabic in his poetry out of necessity. Rather, he chooses to use the language of the people because of the way he feels and the emotions which he expresses in his poems, and also although not the reason for writing, to show an affinity with people. Although not politically active, and although he chooses not to label himself as a communist, al-Samawi is certainly within the boundaries of Marxist-socialist tradition. This is evidenced by his use of the language of the people and his desire not to preserve poetry as an elitist pastime, but rather to promote it as a way of uniting a people and expressing a common heritage. The spoken language is a way of asserting identity, as one's dialect is a very personal part of one's make-up, and therefore in using the dialect of his people, al-Samawi is reasserting his own identity as well as conjuring up particularly evocative images of his background and his region, southern Iraq, bringing an aptness to his poetry by making his choice of language fit his material. This is not, however, to say that his use of the vernacular brings to his poetry an every-day simplicity. Although his language is in general that of the person in the street, his ideas are not immediately obvious and his poetry requires considerable reflection.

Heritage plays an important role in al-Samawi's writing, and the influence of folk traditions, in particular Iraqi traditions, is to be seen frequently. When he was a boy growing up in the town of Diwaniyya, he would go to the Ashurah assemblies commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husayn.(11) He cites this as having had a great effect on him, as well as the experience of the folk songs to which he loved to listen, and his abiding memory of waking up late one night on the roof of the house to the chants of the dervishes who were singing and dancing in the street below. This stimulated his interest in Sufism, which again is in evidence in his poetry. He was also infatuated with a type of poetry called al-Darmi, which is often known as ghazel al-banat,(12) of which he himself has written about two thousand lines.

Al-Samawi began by writing traditional romantic poetry, but after his imprisonment his poetry became deeper and more intense as he became more educated and more profoundly affected by the prison environment. He studied Muzaffer al-Nawwab(13) very carefully, discovered the rhetorical value of al-Nawwab's poetry, and came to the conclusion that the old style of poetry would clash with the modern trend. Hence, his own style developed to become particular to his political and intellectual environment as well as to his heritage.


The collection The Blind River contains nine poems, all of which typify, in one way or another, the characteristics of al-Samawi's poetry. The title of each poem has a special significance, and even the title of the collection is an irony which sums up the poet. The river is one of the symbols used frequently in his poetry: he has a great fascination with, as well as a great sadness for, water.(14) The river is used as a symbol of life in general, although this takes on different aspects: the river has a particularly evocative image in Iraq, when taken to identify with the Euphrates and the Tigris. Here it is a symbol of fertility, of the giving of life. A river may seem to have a life of its own, a strength which may overcome the forces around it, or the will of humans, therefore giving it a quality of danger, a quality of independent existence. Therefore, the river may also be at one and the same time a symbol of living and a symbol for the taking of life. A1-Samawi uses it as a symbol with all these connotations, but often the river is a living being, i.e., himself. Hence, the title of the collection is an immediate introduction to al-Samawi: the blind river. During the 1980s his eyesight deteriorated greatly due to his diabetes, to the point where he was almost blind, and had to dictate his poetry to his wife. As something which so obviously affected his life, it can be seen to have had an influence on his writing.

The nine poems of the collection are:

"Iraqi Worries" "The Wind Song" "Desert Thirst" "Neighing of the Fingers" "Basra" "Suns in the Night of the Massacre" "The Mountain of Dreams" "River of Love" "The Rose of Fire"

For the purpose of this essay, I shall concentrate on three of these poems, namely "Desert Thirst," "Neighing of the Fingers," and "Suns in the Night of the Massacre," as typifying the writing of Aziz al-Samawi, representing his style and common themes, and characterizing him as a poet in exile.


Aziz al-Samawi uses many different images in his poetry, and each poem contains several themes, in an epic format, often with a main idea or story as a background to the poem. "Desert Thirst," for example, was written in 1988 during the period when al-Samawi's eyesight failed. He would write on a blackboard and his wife would then transfer it onto paper. We see, therefore, many references to blindness in this poem, such as:

The bleeding of my eyes takes me ... Which way is Iraq? (line 44)

Gather me, a bleeding that can't see Cure me - moonlight of the homeland - Eyes are passionate for sight Take me, a blue river that overflows with joy and can see. (lines 82-85)

Your songs, the bleeding of eyes which bring two suns to every morning Show me, which way is Iraq ... ? (lines 125-126)

The poem is written for a woman, but the voice switches between the poet and the woman, although it is not always very obvious who is talking, and it is not a dialogue as such, but more a continuation of thought which switches between the two. Here, the poet is quite descriptive of himself:

The dervish of the songs has no joy in his sad height (line 38)

Aziz resists estrangement and returns from joy grieving greatly Like startled horses which roam and don't know where to go (lines 42-43)

The skirt's roses rejoice at the coming of guests (line 117)

It is apparent that, through the period when he was ill, his yearning for the homeland became acute. The last line of this poem, the essence of the poem which he wants to be remembered, is:

Show me, which way is Iraq ... ? (line 126)

But here, as is reflected all through the poem, not only does the poet make clear a longing for his homeland, he brings a feeling that he has somehow lost the homeland: He no longer knows how to find it. This is the tragedy of the poem and the feeling which recurs throughout it. The poet conveys the image of himself as someone in exile and ill, but lost. What is also apparent is that this, in many ways, is a love poem. We have a dialogue between the two lost lovers with the one almost lamenting the other:

Your fingers are long nights Your fingers light up before touching, A memory and embers of a remembrance (lines 25-26)

The embers turn green when you come The moon enlarges when you come Oh, the color of the cold in your beautiful hands Her sorrow increases as her happiness increases (lines 52-55)

All my life stretches as a river ... it floods and loses the banks I'm dying of thirst for when you come ... and don't come I spend the chill of the morning in your hands ... you dream: In the dusky day a sun takes my fingers as emigres (lines 62-66)

The yearning for the homeland has here become intertwined with the yearning for the lover whom he is addressing, so much so that the poet appears at times to be addressing the homeland as a lover, personifying it.

In contrast with "Desert Thirst," the fourth poem in the collection, "Neighing of the Fingers," differs in its main theme. At first glance, however, "Neighing of the Fingers" appears similar in the poet's use of language, in that his symbolism is familiar, and also in style, in that it is again written in epic format, with the same apparent lack of structure. The feelings interwoven into the poem are also similar, but it is the underlying motivation which differs. We see here the poet's interest in his heritage: the influence of folklore and mysticism. The poem was motivated by the story of Sa'ad al-Warraq, which took place around 909 A.D. Sa'ad al-Warraq was the Muslim owner of a book shop in Kufa who had a young Christian boy working for him. The boy has been working for him for about fourteen years when Sa'ad suddenly "sees" him for the first time, in a mystic light, feeling a new deep and inspired spiritual love for him. Shortly after this, the boy's family moves to Basra and places their son in a monastery about eighty kilometers outside Basra. The boy is allowed out once a week, so once a week Sa'ad walks eighty kilometers to the monastery to see him. The people of Basra have seen the sorry state of Sa'ad and there is a lot of talk of his imminent death. One very cold winter's day, Sa'ad arrives at the monastery in the early hours of the morning, falls down in front of the monastery door and dies there. The snow covers his body, making a grave, and when the boys come to school in the morning they see the snowy tomb, dig away the snow, and discover Sa'ad's body. The poem opens with the feeling of fear and moves into roaming and travelling:

My fear is a filly ... That sets me alight In your hands ... as a neighing The stature roams, moon-like, songs and night The woe from travelling, oh my soul, all the woe (lines 1-5)

Every step is exile and slaughter The night takes all my madness My secrets roam ... They take me And again they roam (lines 7-11)

Again, we see here the image of a lost soul: an exile, an estranged lover. The poet equates his feelings for the homeland with those of a man yearning for his lover, or even for the essence of love. Throughout the poem we find scattered references to the story of Sa'ad al-Warraq, although there are many digressions. For example, the reference to the people of Basra begging Sa'ad not to see the boy, who is the cause of his distress:

My fear is that all the people implore me for you (line 108)

and the poet's dwelling on the image of Sa'ad alone in the snow and the freezing night:

Basra prays for the departer on a dark street as a martyr The snow is sad for the dazed man who stands alone (lines 127-128)

All the cold can't extinguish my heart - if it wanted to walk - it knows what it wants Cold didn't gather my soul No ... and neither ... Did the grave of snow extinguish the vein (lines 146-149)

The penultimate line leaves us with the picture of the boy standing over the body of Sa'ad:

Never in my life did I see a murderer praying over the murdered (line 165)

The poem, although having as a background the story of Sa'ad al-Warraq, has different threads running through it. We find images of the homeland, hints of mysticism, and a parallel in certain sections between the story of Sa'ad and the contemporary situation in Iraq. Looking again at the end of the poem:

Never in my life did I see a murderer praying over the murdered My fear is the rose of impossibility ... ! (lines 165-166)

We could wonder here at the harshness of the words "murderer" (qatil) and "murdered" (qateel). Could an innocent boy be personally responsible for the death of a man who chooses to walk eighty miles through the snow, and therefore a murderer? Certainly a different light is cast here on the story of Sa'ad al-Warraq, but this hints more at the poet's political views, and his sadness at the recent history of Iraq, particularly within the context of his own exile. These lines could be taken as an elegy to all the martyrs of the current regime and all the victims of war and massacre. This is borne out by the previous nine lines:

The woe, all the woe: If the wolf of betrayal stopped on the road as a flag and a guide If the furthest dream passed by on one leg, limping And if this homeland ... upon whose voice a neighing stumbled And the woe, all the woe ... Lights up my hands in the darkness ... And they scream ... The woe The woe, all the woe.... (lines 156-164)

The wolf of betrayal who stops on the road as a flag and a guide is the one who duped the people into believing that he could lead them, that he could be Iraq's emblem. Yet even the most distant dreams could not be complete: they are disabled (one-legged and limping, like victims of war and torture).

Again, in this poem the feeling of yearning is overwhelming: in whatever direction the poet turns there is yearning. And indeed, this yearning is an important feature, because it pervades every facet of the poet's thoughts. The yearning of Sa'ad for the boy could be the yearning of exiles for their homeland, the yearning for absent lovers, the yearning for inner peace; the story therefore is taken to be the backbone which holds the poem together, and the spark which lights the poet's imagination and thought, but as an analogy for other themes which the poet introduces.

Written in May 1991, "Suns in the Night of the Massacre," as is clear from the title and the date, was written as a form of praise to the martyrs of the 1991 uprising in the south of Iraq, after the Second Gulf War. This is the first spontaneous, or reactionary, poem to be written by Aziz al-Samawi. The vein running through this poem is what is considered the most tragic and momentous event of the uprising when several hundred young men were captured by the security forces, tied up and thrown into the Tigris, where they drowned. The poem contains many very vibrant images and intense pictures, and the voice switches between the poet, a rebel, and his mother:

Death is in your eyes but you haven't made a will (line 96)

is a line directed to one of the rebels;

Your hands are nights and embers (line 104)

is a line directed to the rebel's mother. Throughout the poem the river and death are intertwined, thereby exemplifying the paradox of the river being also a taker of life, not just a giver of life, not just a symbol of life itself, which is how the poet often uses it, as we have seen previously:

Sad, the river receives corpses by night Sad and the two shores are afraid, darkness and woe (lines 93-94)

Men are veiled by starvation The fear collapses, is destroyed Blood moves A revolution lights death's darkness Moon-like ... On a dark day You're sad but your rivers dawn joyful (lines 36-42)

Although the river here is represented as the taker of life, it is not portrayed as a ruthless killer; rather, the river is the spirit of Iraq, sad and frightened, yet having been joyful as the revolution began. Lines 36-42 describe how the beginning of the revolution brought hope after the futile killing and suffering of the war, how the uprising brought light after darkness, how the people were so desperate that they were no longer fearful. In lines 93-94 we see how this hope again became fear, sadness, and woe; how the light became darkness, the dawn became night.

We find the poem to be saturated with vibrant images: images of southern Iraq in particular:

I wanted you as the Basra of al-Sayyab.... Explain to me. I want to understand (line 33)

Here we find a tribute to Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, the Iraqi poet considered to be one of the pioneers of free verse, who was born in Jaikur, a village on the outskirts of Basra. This is not, however, merely a tribute, it is evocative of the literary tradition of Iraq, in the first instance, and also of the political tradition of Southern Iraq: Al-Sayyab was well-known for his early adherence to communism, the reason for his being forced to give up his teaching post by the government of that time. We are reminded here of how history has been repeated, although the situation is somewhat different as the 14 July 1958 revolution, which ended monarchist rule, brought unprecedented hope to the Iraqi people, whereas the 1991 uprising was a lightning flash of last resort which failed, reminding the people that even monarchist rule had not brought suffering, deprivation, fear, and misery on the scale of the 1980s and 1990s.

We see slightly further on an image which is especially graphic as it is personalized:

I remember when he used to come veiled, crossing the reeds and the marshes by night A neighing and a moonlight in your eyes ... which would straighten my broken spirit Between the faleh(15) and the faleh ... a martyr ... hanged and slaughtered (lines 56-60)

There are also many references to myrtle floating on the water, conjuring up pictures of shrouds covered by wreaths:

The Upper Euphrates rose carrying the worries of the people Covered the corpses with tears . . amongst roses and myrtle Smokes tobacco until morning ... the sun an ember in the cup

(lines 90-92)

You stayed alone all your life, sad on the snow Oh, the bewilderment of the people Oh, the bier of the martyr and the smell of the myrtle Oh river of grief - not luck - for the people Upon the two shores I sent you candles in the hands of orphans I sent you this myrtle that was washed in my mother's tears (lines 125-131)

We see how al-Samawi laments the grieving river, while at the same time lamenting the homeland, the suffering children of the homeland, the mothers bewailing their lost sons, even the flowers which grow in soil made fertile by the river:

Oh river, your water is sad Oh river, those roses are afraid and sad Oh river, the homeland became a wretched child's tear Oh river, my mother's grey hair is a wind and gleams in the night of grief ... to where ... ? (lines 132-135)

The final line of the poem is the most poignant and the most memorable, the poet's signature:

Aaah ... Corpses choke in you and you are choked by corpses (lines 143-144)

This poem was written in sections, therefore having a sense of some structure, although the sections are not demarcated, and apparent only through the development of the poem. We have in the first section a feeling of weariness and darkness, which in the second section develops into anticipation. Here a sense of optimism is palpable. The third section describes the beginning of the uprising and moves on to the sadness and desperate anger at its ruthless suppression. Finally, we have the grief and hopelessness of those left after the war and the uprising, their bewilderment and lamentation. The poem builds from a quiet weariness and sense of loss into a crescendo, ending with the poet's addressing the river, the symbol of life which has become a symbol for the spirit of Iraq, to which his final pitiful comment, almost contemptuous from grief's devastation, is:

Aaah... Corpses choke in you and you are choked by corpses"


We have seen how al-Samawi uses many different images in his poetry, and how his poems contain several different themes, his digression and fragmentation allowing him to wander freely in his imagination before retracing his steps and continuing his main idea. Rather than developing his original idea or line of thought into another theme in a structured fashion, the poet prefers to be free of rigidity and lets his main theme or story run through the poem like a tree trunk with different branches emanating from it. His poems are fairly long, taking on an epic format, but rarely with any logical structure. We find, therefore, dream-like sequences, hidden amongst which are the particularly sharp or provocative lines which make his poetry memorable. Rather than reading a verse with one theme, which the reader or listener may then remember only vaguely as it caused reflection on one idea only, the poems of al-Samawi cause the reader to think deeply and to speculate on several different things in the same reading.

His poems are sometimes an elegy, maybe to his homeland, maybe to a martyr, maybe to the river, or maybe to a friend. Particularly in evidence in The Blind River is his patriotism, with the influence of his exile seen in his usage of estrangement, alienation, nights of departure, emigrants, and so forth, and a good example is where he mentions the homeland over and over again, but often in quite different contexts and with very different implications. In "Suns in the Night of the Massacre," he says in the very first line:

There's no homeland in my home (line 1)

This brings a different feeling than the sense in which he often uses homeland. Toward the end of the poem we have:

I wanted you, a friend and a homeland in the soul (line 106)

showing how he develops the idea of homeland to be not just the land where one feels at home, but also a place in the soul, or amongst one's family. His thoughts can be seen, therefore, to take different (albeit often unclear) paths, which he then flashes into his poems, at times with vivid clarity, at times with an alluring vagueness and obscurity.

He makes great use of this indirectness, not handing his ideas to the reader on a plate, but painting his pictures in a somewhat complicated manner, employing much impressionism with sudden vivid flashes. His poetry is so saturated with images and symbols that it seems to be almost a series of riddles. He emphasizes very strongly images and pictures, like a linguistic painter. His use of contrast illustrates this, in the way in which he juxtaposes dark and light, water and fire, cold and warmth, soft and hard, joy and grief; not just in such simple forms, but sometimes in an almost absurd manner. In "Neighing of the Fingers," for instance, we find:

Darkness, and your shirt is a morning (line 6)

opposing the two images of night and day, dark and light, yet taking on such a familiar, seemingly unpoetic image as a shirt and weaving it in to bring to it a poetic image. The element of surprise is a constant awareness, and nothing is what it seems: Lines may have other lines written underneath. That is, the meaning which is initially perceived must not be forgotten about as one continues to the next line, because meanings may be enlightened, or may change, as one moves on. Al-Samawi does not allow the reader to become complacent or rigid in thought.

Heritage plays an important role in his poetry. Like Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, he employs both Iraqi and Islamic heritage to serve his poetry, and we see Imam Husayn, Abbas,(16) and Sa'ad al-Warraq, for example, but whereas Husayn and Abbas are mentioned in certain lines (for instance Abbas in connection with prayers and pledges), the story of Sa'ad al-Warraq suggests the overriding theme for the whole of "Neighing of the Fingers," and yet the story is not directly referred to. Al-Samawi is very keen to include in his poetry philosophical, mystical and ideological touches, which come either in the form of a revelation or in colloquy between the two apparent characters which his poems often seem to be centered around. It actually seems to be more of a thought form or telepathy than a physical dialogue or exchange, and it is unfortunate that the English does not effectively show this since there is no gender differentiation for the second person. The Arabic is not always obvious, but it can be seen that the line of thought has switched to a different person when the gender of the person being addressed (mukhatab) changes, as well as in the way the line of thought changes. It is also not always obvious who the other person is, but on occasion it seems to be a lover (or the ideal of a lover rather than a specific person), or mother, and at other times a close friend. Often, he uses as mukhatab the river. However, these mukhatabs often emerge as an embodiment of thought, perhaps a representative of a type of person, and often, whom he actually addresses is "the other" in a mystic sense.

Attempting to include much more in his poetry in preference to limiting himself to one theme or ideology, we could contrast al-Samawi with Muzaffer al-Nawwab, who saturates his poetry with politics. Al-Samawi saturates his writing with patriotism and love, which could be seen often as a veil for a deeper meaning, and his political thought is often inferred from his themes of exile, homeland and death, and glimpsed in his sadness. There are occasional lines which could be taken as having political relevance by analogy, such as in "Neighing of the Fingers":

If the wolf of betrayal stopped on the road as a flag and a guide (line 157)


Never in my life did I see a murderer praying over the murdered (line 165)

Al-Samawi sees poetry as a reflection of life about which one should express oneself. He writes in epic form because he inclines, in general, toward linguistic abundance which is saturated with feeling, color and intensity, provided that this range is not a field for the exhibition of dry and dark linguistic muscles,(17) by which he means the usage of jargon with no color or feeling. It is with this inclination that he makes great use of symbolism and simple language, but with hidden meanings and meanings which may be hard to disentangle.

His language contains elements of surprise, although it is largely familiar and even repetitive to a certain extent. On first reading, much of a verse may seem a little monotonous as the same symbols and language are employed again and again, but with further reading and reflection, and considered in context, it becomes clear how he is turning this repetitiveness to his advantage, and employing his symbols to represent different thoughts. These words which are very dear to al-Samawi, we find scattered throughout the text, but the change of context and varied form of expression make it apparent on reflective reading that he is preventing repetitiveness of the essence of the poem.

It is clear from his language that he is educated, not merely using the vernacular out of necessity. On occasions, he resorts to the classical language, such as his usage of the word jid for neck, instead of the more usual raghba, and qateel for murdered, instead of maktul, although this is usually for reasons of rhythm or rhyme. Looking again at the penultimate line of "Neighing of the Fingers," we see that the Arabic runs:

Ma shifit kull al-'umr qateel issalli 'ala al-qatil (Never in my life did I see a murderer praying over the murdered)

to rhyme with the last line:

Khawfi ward al-mustahil (My fear is the rose of impossibility)

His most well-used symbols appear again and again, but not without reason. He often uses "river," which is partly for his fascination with water, and partly because the river can be seen as a symbol for a particular ideology, or as life itself. He therefore uses it often with the implication of a person, but with the deeper meaning of the life within that person, which stretches like a river. Again, the immediate example of this is the title of the collection, The Blind River. Another fascination he seems to have is for hands, although in particular for the fingers (asabi') and palm (cheff). He uses palms and fingers all the way through his poems, and sometimes they may appear as a symbol of welcoming, sometimes a symbol of submission, sometimes a symbol of love between lovers, and sometimes simply as something with which he is infatuated. He refers often to stature (tul) - usually when describing a person, and then meaning the whole of that person, but also implying height. He compares in "Desert Thirst" human height with the length of the river:

I dream of your length as a river (line 27)

As he is tall himself, al-Samawi often uses stature when referring to himself. There are many words which are repeated, although not just symbolic nouns but verbs, as well. For example, he often uses burning and lighting (wajj, sha'al), although this comes as no surprise since he brings into his poems fire and flames, and since he loves to color his poetry and create warmth and coldness. Another of his favorite images is that of horses. He refers to khayl, horses in general, but we often find him referring to muhr, foal, and muhre, filly, which seem to be symbols for night, that is, darkness, or morning, that is, renewed light.

His interest in mystical poetry can be seen in the words and ideas he uses which are distinctly Sufi. In "Desert Thirst" he says:

Teach me to walk on water Teach me to dance in fire (lines 29-30)

which is imploring the female mukhataba to show him a miracle, and to teach him to perform miracles. The idea of dancing in fire, in particular, is a reference to Sufi mystics and to the gatherings where dancing takes place and during which they attempt to prove miracles. He refers to the cup, which in English we may be more used to having heard as a goblet in traditional Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman poetry:

Don't you know that time ... Increases estrangement And fills the cup of love with earth ("Neighing of the Fingers" lines 68-70)

The strange expressions which occasionally border on the absurd can also be seen not just in the light of the poet's creating contrasts, but also in a mystic sense. There is a line, for instance, toward the end of "Desert Thirst":

I fly without wings, both wings (line 114)

which could be seen either as sightly absurd, or as a symbol of miracles and therefore another allusion to his interest in mysticism.

Throughout the poems are references to al-Samawi himself, such as in "Desert Thirst":

All my life stretches as a river ... it floods and loses the banks (line 62)

Gather me, a bleeding that can't see (line 82)

Take me, a blue river that overflows with joy and can see (line 85)

The hair is startled in the wind (line 90)

He draws a picture of himself throughout the poems, so that one is aware of his being tall, having "startled" hair, having problems with his eyesight, and so on. He has an excellent descriptive ability and manages to create very vivid pictures, which seem to have been painted into the mind, which, as was mentioned earlier, is his intention.


As the subtitle of this collection, Shi'r Sha'bi 'Iraqi (Iraqi Folk Poetry), suggests, Aziz al-Samawi is concerned in particular with folk traditions and the culture and civilization of his people. We have seen how he is, in a sense, concerned with politics, although he asserts no particular political adherence, in that he denounces the sufferings of his people in the face of the Saddam Hussein regime. Having also been compelled to leave the country, unable to return, his exile is not self-imposed but political. We deduce therefore, evidenced by his poetry, that al-Samawi is a politically-influenced writer, not a political one, since he does not advocate any political ideology and he does not write poetry for the sake of politics. His poems are often motivated indirectly by the political situation, for example his exile, and those appearing not to be linked (such as "Neighing of the Fingers" and the story of Sa'ad al-Warraq), on closer inspection are almost certainly parables, containing many lines which are analogous with the political situation of the 1990s.

Being concerned with folk tradition and his own people means that it would be difficult for al-Samawi to avoid any political implications, if indeed he had desired to, since history is part of his arena, and modern history involves politics. However, his mode of expression is through different channels and he has more than one aim. Al-Samawi is actually a great explorer, and he loves to experiment. This is evidenced by his treatment of folk traditions which he presents in the form of free verse, and uses as symbols, hints, and analogies. He prefers traditions in a nontraditional form, that is, he advocates the reexploration and reinterpretation of traditions, while being careful not to digress from one's own culture and civilization. In a way, al-Samawi is concerned with the issue of identity and progression: How far is it possible to develop and progress without losing one's sense of identity? His poems are redolent with a sense of culture, history, and traditions; yet rather than being entrenched in this, al-Samawi knows how to use it, even play with it, in order to bring out maximum feeling and illustrate, or develop, a theme or idea.

Al-Samawi is not a poet whom the reader can just pick up and put down at random. He is also not a poet to be easily understood by readers of a different background than his own, quite apart from a linguistic barrier, since his own background as well as the traditions of his culture need explanation. Furthermore, considerable reflection on meaning is needed, too, since he is concerned also with many ideas, such as mysticism, which he presents in an abstract way. It would be easy to be discouraged from reading his poetry by his use of epic form and repetition, and therefore dismiss it, yet these are literary devices which he deliberately uses. Although his repetition of language, symbolism, and style, along with his epic format, may cause his poems to look similar at first reading, if the reader considers the poem in context and looks at the motivation or story behind it, it is to be seen that each poem does actually have an individual character and flavor.

We also see that because of al-Samawi's considerable usage of history and traditions, as well as abstract ideas, and his use of free-form style, his poetry has a timeless quality. He is not a poet relevant only to his own time, or a poet who will in time sound dated or quaintly old-fashioned, but a poet who should last both within the genre of the poet in exile and individually as a chronicler of Iraqi culture and traditions, an explorer and a progressive thinker who is very sensitive in his use of his language.


1. This paper is based on the introduction to a dissertation entitled "Aziz al-Samwi: The Blind River" (University of Manchester, 1996), for which I interviewed Aziz al-Samawi and translated the nine poems in his latest collection The Blind River (Al-Nahr al-A 'maa. London: Dar al-Hikma, 1995).

2. Al-Samawa was one of the towns besieged by rebels during the 1920 Iraqi revolt, thereby gaining a name for insurgence (Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. VII, P. 1041).

3. Diwaniyya, to which al-Samawi refers often in his poems, is the southern town famous for its colloquial poets and folk-singers. Situated midway between Hilla and Samawa, it was the scene of rebellion against not just the Iraqi government (in the 1930's), but previously the British and Ottoman occupations. Poetry and folk-songs were often used to incite the people to insubordination.

4. Personal interview with Aziz al-Samawi, London, 9 March 1996: interview with Aziz al-Samawi (by Abdullah Sikhi) published in Al-Mawqif al'Arabi, issue 46, 17 August 1981, Beirut.

5. Khatawat 'ala al-Ma'. Baghdad, 1970.

6. Aghani al-Derwish. Baghdad, 1973.

7. Lawn al-Thelj wa al-Ward bi all-Layl. Beirut, 1980.

8. For a good introduction to the poets mentioned here, see The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature. Ed. M. M. Badawi, 1993.

9. Edwar al-Kharrat. "The Mashriq." Modern Literature in the Near and Middle East. Ed. Robin Ostle. London: Routledge, 1991.

10. Rasul Isma'il. Interview in Al-Wahda, 10 November 1988, issue 385, Algeria.

11. Imam Husayn ibn Ali bin Abi Talib: martyred in the Kerbala Massacre of 680 A.D. and exalted by the Shiites, he was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

12. Literally, "the girls' gazel," as it is always recited by women. A gazel is an elegy of love, occasionally erotic, recited by men, which has a very long tradition throughout the Middle East.

13. Muzaffar al-Nawwab (b. 1934): prominent Iraqi poet, well-known for the introduction of a new style to colloquial Iraqi poetry. See Carol Bardenstein's article devoted to him in this issue, p. 37.

14. One of the reasons for this is the death as a child of his sister, who drowned in the river. Aziz himself also had to be rescued from the river on more than one occasion.

15. Faleh is a large five or six pronged fork or spear used to catch fish in the marsh areas.

16. Abbas was the half-brother of Imam Husayn b. All b. Abi Talib (see note 11). He was killed in the Kerbala uprising of October 680, and is revered by the Shi'ites, particularly as the masses believe that he has the power to grant their wishes and they therefore offer him pledges. They believe him to have the ability to inflict sever punishment upon wrongdoers and those who infringe upon others' rights. See the Encylopedia of Islam, pp. 607-615.

17. Rasul, Isma'il. Al-Wahda, p. 36, 10 November 1988, issue 385, Algeria.


Badawi, M. M., ed. The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Bosworth, C. E., et al., eds. The Encyclopaedia of Islam. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1991.

Al-Hilli, Khalid. Al-Tilighraf. 21 August 1996, Australia.

Nasir, Awwad. Al-Mutamar. 4 February 1994, issue 39.

Natur, Abdul-Qadir. Al-Hadif. 23 September 1986, issue 833, Beirut.

Ostle, Robin, ed. Modern Literature in the Near and Middle East. London: Routledge, 1991.

Rabay'i, Sherif al-. Al-Hayat. 27 November 1995, issue 11967, London.

Rasul, Ismail. Al-Wahda. November 1988, issue 385, Algeria.

Sikhi, Abdullah. Al-Mawqif al-'Arabi. 17 August 1981, issue 46, Beirut.

Sahrawi, Zouleikha. Horizons. 19 October 1987, issue 639, Algeria.

Al-Samawi, Aziz. Al-Nahr al-A 'maa. London: Dar al-Hikma, 1995.

-----. Lawn al-Thelj wa al-Ward bi al-Layl. Beirut, 1980.

-----. Aghani al-Darwish. Baghdad, 1973.

-----, et al. Khatawat 'ala al-Ma'. Baghdad, 1970.

Woodhead, D.R. & Beene, Wayne. A Dictionary of Iraqi Arabic. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1967.

Alex Bellem earned her degree in Arabic and Turkish literature from the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, Manchester University, U.K.
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Title Annotation:Modern Iraqi Literature in English Translation
Author:Bellem, Alex
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Date:Sep 22, 1997
Previous Article:False heroes: a study of Abd al-Rahman Majid al-Rubay'i's novel 'Al-Washm' (The Tattoo).
Next Article:Iraq's modern Arabic literature in English translation: a preliminary bibliography.

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