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In memoriam: Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri (1900?-1997).

Muhammad al-Jawahiri's poetry is highly charged with emotion and the explosive nature of his violent and often original imagery has an almost physical impact on his reader, with the result that the poet's anger at social injustice, political corruption and the degradation of man becomes infectious and reaches a degree of intensity that is at times truly terrifying.

M.M. Badawi

He [al-Jawahiri] played an important role through his poetry in the political scene of his time, inciting public emotions against political decadence and compromise, and subsequently suffering oppression and exile.... His best poetry, much along classical lines, has an ardent tone, vivid imagery, a grand rhythmic sway, intensity, and compression.

Salma Khadra Jayyusi

The poetry of Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri has penetrated the Arab soul, in Iraq, gradually and with ease for more than forty years of Iraq's modern history. It has become a part of the emotional, intellectual, and political experience of the entire nation no matter how much individuals differ in their attitudes toward the poet himself.... He is more like the voice of the nation's conscience.

Jabra Ibrahim Jabra

With Al-Jawahiri's passing on 26 July 1997 in Damascus, the Arab World lost a great poet who was noted for his resolute revolutionary spirit and his relentless commitment to the national aspirations of his people in Iraq as well as to other Arab causes. Perhaps no other modern Arab poet has captured in his poetry the tribulations of the entire Arab World in this century as faithfully and vividly as al-Jawahiri. His voluminous poetry alone reads as a monumental register of crucial events, social upheavals, wars of independence, and revolutions which both Iraq and other Arab countries have experienced since the 1920s. Apart from countless poems he dedicated to major events of the century, al-Jawahiri was known for addressing his social and political themes in many of his elegies, panegyric or commemorative poems which revolve around national figures, heroes, major writers and poets of different periods. What is remarkable or unique about al-Jawahiri is the fact that he has steadfastly preserved, revived and enriched the classical poetic form and demonstrated at the same time its great appeal and its relevance to the modern age. His poetry, deeply rooted in the classical tradition, brings to memory the finest features, allusions, imageries and voices which span more than fourteen centuries of Arabic language and poetry. The fact that he has adhered to the classical form in spite of all the modernist trends which have radically transformed Arabic poetry represents in itself a great literary achievement unsurpassed in the history of modern Arabic poetry. It is no wonder that he was held in high esteem as both "sha'ir al-Arab al-akbar" (the Arabs' greatest poet) and "sha'ir al-Arabiyyah" (the poet of the Arabic language), and was, to use M.M. Badawi's words, "fully accepted by the neoclassicists as one of them while even extreme modernists claim him as their mentor."

In persisting, until the time of his death, in the course he chose for himself, al-Jawahiri was subjected most of his life to different measures of persecution. True, many, regrettably countless, Arab poets and writers have suffered, and are still suffering, from one form of oppression or another in pursuit of their ideals. However, al-Jawahiri's share of ordeals since 1927 (dismissal, imprisonment, deprivation, and many years of exile) has few parallels. His life was, as he suggested in his own words, an endless series of adversities. To quote him, "As soon as you rid yourself of an adversity/from its ruins erupt new adversities." Even when he had interludes of peace with the authorities, he was unable to maintain them for long because of his inherently uncompromising temperament.

Al-Jawahiri was born in Najaf at the turn of the Twentieth Century to a family of poets and traditional learning. His father, his two brothers, and other members of his extended family were poets. Following the footsteps of other classical poets, al-Jawahiri began at his early age to pursue a traditional course of studies: Arabic, religion, jurisprudence and Arabo-Islamic history. He was particularly drawn to classical Arabic poetry which became the focus of his interests. According to his biographers, he thoroughly immersed himself in the study of major classical Arab poets and memorized a great deal of their works. Among the poets he admired were al-Buhturi (d. 897) who became his most favored companion, and al-Mutanabbi (d. 965) whom he respected for his strong personality and his sense of pride, and with him he has been often compared. Furthermore, al-Jawahiri was also attracted to the works of leading modern neoclassicists such as Shawqi (d. 1932), Hafiz Ibrahim (d. 1932), Badawi alJabal (d. 1981) and al-Rusafi (d. 1945). His first volume of verse, published in 1922, represents an effort on his part to imitate or follow some of their works. By so doing, he, in a sense, enhanced his highly classical education. Two other significant factors which had a profound impact on his education and political orientation should be recalled: the literary circles for which Najaf, his native city, was known at the time, and the fact that Najaf served during the 1920s as a center of Iraq's national struggle against British colonial policy.

Al-Jawahiri's emergence as a promising poet was soon noted, not only in Najaf where he participated in literary forums, but also nationally as his poems began to appear in Baghdad's journals and newspapers as well as in Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian publications. By 1927, when he left for Baghdad to begin a long and eventful career, he already had his first volume of verse published in 1922 and had in the press a second more original volume which appeared in 1928. The latter was favorably received by some of the leading critics and poets including Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi (d. 1936) and 'Ali al-Sharqi (d. 1964) who prophetically referred in 1927 to what has become a hallmark of al-Jawahari's poetry: "a sacred trinity," as al-Sharqi called it then, comprising "homeland," "liberty," and "beauty."

From 1927 until his death in 1997, al-Jawahiri's professional career was marked by restlessness, nonconformity or discontent, defiance, and his unwavering commitment to his ideals. In 1927 he began his career as a teacher in Baghdad but was soon dismissed during the same year because of a poem which his superior found to be objectionable. He was later appointed to other positions including a short term at King Faysal's royal court, a position he held until 1930 when he resigned to begin a new phase of his turbulent career as a journalist. It is noteworthy that al-Jawahiri's uncompromising views were reflected in other poems which he continued to publish while still serving as a government employee. The fact that as a teacher, he was constantly forced to move from one school to another in different cities (Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Hilla and Nasiriyya), and within a brief period, clearly indicates a pattern of discontent and defiance that characterized his career.

Next to his role as the major political poet of the century, al-Jawahiri will be remembered for his equally uncompromising writings as a journalist. For about thirty years, between 1930 and 1961, he issued or edited twelve newspapers beginning with al-Furat (The Euphrates), 1930, and concluding with al-Ra'y al-'Amm (Public Opinion), 1961. However, most of the newspapers he edited were suspended or short-lived because of his outspoken critical commentaries, his tenacity in defending freedom of expression and his fearless articulation of nonconformist views.

Al-Jawahiri served in other capacities including his short term as a member of the Iraqi parliament, 1947-48, a position he resigned along with other opposition members in protest against the infamous Portsmouth (Iraqi-British) treaty of 1947.

Al-Jawahiri was a prolific poet who published his works in different forms, publications or editions. The numerous editions or versions of his diwans which were issued between the 1920s and 1990s in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Prague do not include all of his poetry. The best, but still incomplete, edition of his diwans was published in five volumes under the title Diwan al-Jawahiri (Baghdad, 1973-75) covering in chronological order fifty years of his poems (1921-1969). It is regrettable that only a very few poems or excerpts of his works have been translated into English. This is due in large measure to the fact that his poetry draws, as indicated earlier, on a rich legacy of rhetorical usages, allusions, and other devices which are not easily translatable. The fact that his poetry is highly political and that he was openly critical of the West has undoubtedly contributed to his marginal place in, or even total absence from, Western works on modern Arabic literature.

Salih J. Altoma Indiana University


Badawi, M. M. A Critical Introduction to Modern Arabic Poetry. London: Cambridge University Press, 1975. pp.63-67.

Jayyusi, Salma Khadra. Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987. pp.79-81.

Jubran, Sulaiman. "The Old and the New: al-Jawahiri's Poetic Imagery." Asian and African Studies. 26 (1992) pp. 249-62.

Also see Altoma's bibliography in this issue for more information on al-Jawahiri's poetry in English translation.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Arab poet
Author:Altoma, Salih J.
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Obituary
Date:Sep 22, 1997
Previous Article:In memoriam: Arfan al-Hani (1945-1997).
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