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Stirring words: traditions and subversions in the poetry of Muzaffar al-Nawwab.

The first time I was exposed to the work of Iraqi-born poet Muzaffar al-Nawwab was in Egypt in the early 1980s, at an informal gathering at the home of friends. What was most striking and most piqued my interest in al-Nawwab was seeing the uniquely powerful effect his poetry recitation had on his audience. Much of the evening consisted of watching and listening to a considerable number of recordings of performances of various kinds - a video of the political satirical theater of the Lebanese artist Durayd Lahham, audio cassettes of the Egyptian artist Shaykh Imam singing the poetry of Ahmad Fu'ad Nijm. The listening and watching continued for hours, mixed with food, intermittent conversation, outbursts of laughter. Suddenly, when a new cassette was put on, the atmosphere in the room changed dramatically. The poetry and its haunting recitation seemed to fill the room, leaving no space for any distracting activity. The reciting voice - visceral, musical, sensuous - sobbed and screamed, accused and consoled its listeners, who were riveted, visibly and audibly moved. Although the others present had all seen or heard these recordings before on numerous occasions, the poetry on this particular cassette seemed to have an immediately stultifying effect on small-talk and other trappings of everyday interaction among the listeners, and to stir and agitate at levels not usually accessed in the casual course of the "everyday."

The poet was Muzaffar al-Nawwab, and the poem he recited and performed on this cassette was one of his most famous Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima (The Bridge of Old Delights, [1976-77]), more commonly referred to as the "Tal al-Za'tar" poem, since one of the salient threads running through the poem is the 1976 siege and massacre of Palestinians at the Tal al-Zaatar refugee camp in Lebanon. Although I was to become much more closely acquainted with the work of al-Nawwab in years to come, certain salient features of his poetry were apparent even in that first encounter in Cairo.

First, in spite of the fact that some of his works have been published in limited editions in printed form, the primary means by which al-Nawwab's poetry is disseminated is live recitation or performance, and, more importantly, the samizdat cassette network, or the widespread non-commerical reproduction and dissemination of audio-cassette taped recordings of these live performances. The extent of his poetry's circulation through the fluid mode of the samizdat cassette has been astonishing, effectively countering the fact that al-Nawwab and his works have been banned and censored in much of the Arab World, and enabling them to find their way into homes not only throughout the Middle East, but in Europe and elsewhere.

Second, although Muzaffar al-Nawwab may be considered or referred to as an "Iraqi" poet in some sense (insofar as he is Iraqi-born, and perhaps since some of his poetry focuses on events or experiences set in Iraq, sometimes composed in Iraqi colloquial dialect), much of his work is both implicitly and explicitly aimed at a broader Arab audience, and both he and his poetry are, in turn, "claimed" by a much broader Arab public, in a way that seems to defy easy or unproblematic reference to him as an Iraqi poet (in contrast with the unproblematic identification of Mahmud Darwish, for example, as a Palestinian poet).

A third thread running through virtually all of al-Nawwab's poetry is a largely overt political agenda, populist in nature, uncompromisingly and viciously opposed to morally bankrupt "powers that be," be they in the Middle East or in the West. This aspect of his work, and the particular way it is articulated in his poetry, has certainly contributed in part to its appeal among left-leaning intellectual circles in the Middle East (or in exile from the Middle East), although his audience is by no means limited to this milieu.

Finally, and perhaps most central to al-Nawwab's project as a poet, is the very concerted dedication to the composition, orchestration and performance of poetry that is meant to stir and agitate his audience, to provoke and arouse a wide range of emotions - childlike wonderment, nostalgic longing, sensuous arousal, disgust, rage - all in some way meant to be intimately related back to the fate of the contemporary Arab World as a matter of urgent collective concern. This is achieved in al-Nawwab's work through a variety of means, perhaps most notoriously through his employment of what I refer to as a 'transgressive discourse,' by which I mean one which deliberately pushes against and transgresses or violates certain literary and aestethic norms within the Arabic literary tradition.

In what follows, I will elaborate on each of these features of Muzaffar al-Nawwab's poetry, drawing primarily on two compositions that are his most well-known and widely disseminated - Watariyyat Layliyya (Night Strings, 1970-75) and Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima.


Any student or scholar of contemporary Arabic literature today must in some way contend with the fact of censorship as a salient and active force in the production of that literature. Some of the most vital and influential literature in Arabic today leads its life outside of and is far removed from the sanctioned canons and formal channels of publication and dissemination, in large part due to the extensive censorship throughout much of the Arab World. We most commonly tend to think of the "prohibiting" effect of state-regulated censorship, such as the barring of a written work from publication and circulation. Certain words, phrases or sections may be censored and expunged from a work before publication, or an entire body of work by a given author may be banned. Over a sustained period of time, the regulatory effect of censorship may become so entrenched or internalized, that it gives rise to a form of pre-emptive self-censorship, which prevents certain issues from being written about in certain ways, or from even being conceived of or defined as issues. The effects of censorship, in its prohibiting or preventative mode, on contemporary Arabic literature, are too obvious and far-reaching to require documentation here.(1)

Perhaps less obvious than this aspect of censorship is the sometimes "productive" effect of censorship on the life of a literature. Codes of censorship have at times led authors to create new ways of writing about issues they are supposed to avoid, for example, writing in a manner that is veiled from detection by censoring institutions, but which is "coded" for an intended audience. Censorship can also act as a factor that actively contributes to the production of alternative, counter-hegemonic modes, in which a writer or a poet, for example, does not need to get past a censor, or to have his or her works published or distributed through formally sanctioned channels. In this context, the Arabic literary tradition has the additional resource of a thriving tradition of oral literary expression that can be drawn on in the creation of such alternative modes, one pertinent feature of this tradition being the oral recitation or public declamation of poetry.(2) The utility of this mode, in the context of institutionalized censorship, is its fluidity, which makes it more difficult for works to be monitored and controlled, since such works may be composed, performed (clandestinely if necessary), distributed and consumed by an audience without requiring any kind of official sanction or formal channels of distribution. These enabling features of the mode of oral recitation, when combined together with the eminently accessible technology and "subversive mobility"(3) of the audio-cassette, create a formidable literary and political weapon capable of outmaneuvering some of the most entrenched and extensive forms of state censorship.(4)

Censorship clearly had a "productive" effect on the development of Muzaffar al-Nawwab's poetry and poetic practice. The fact that much of his poetry was banned and censored not only in Iraq but throughout much of the Arab World for decades, together with the resources of the Arabic oral tradition, his own early predilection for dramatic oral performance, and the technical aid of the samizdat cassette, gave rise to a form of poetic practice and dissemination that would not have developed under normal circumstances. To be sure, the sobering fact is that even in such "productive" instances in which poetry successfully evades the instruments of censorship, the less ephemeral body of the flesh-and-blood poet does not necessarily fare as well. Al-Nawwab was repeatedly imprisoned and physically tortured in punishment for poems he wrote, even as his poems continued to circulate. Indeed, in one of the only book-length studies of the work of Muzaffar al-Nawwab,(5) Baqir Yasin calls al-Nawwab "a suicidal guerrilla-fighter in his poetry,"(6) when he describes the fearlessness with which al-Nawwab launches his daring attacks on Arab rulers and governments in his poetry, regardless of the heavy price he has had to pay for doing so. The term "fida'i fi shi'rihi" or "guerrilla poet" is a particularly fitting one for al-Nawwab, since it embodies the notion of self-sacrifice (for al-Nawwab, this has taken not only the form of imprisonment and torture, but also the ongoing state of exile and homelessness, spanning nearly three decades), while simultaneously alluding to the marginalized status and mode of the guerrilla fighter, who stands apart from mainstream instruments of warfare such as state armies, much in the way that a poet such as al-Nawwab stands apart from mainstream channels of literary and political authority.

Yasin has also called al-Nawwab "the poet of the smuggled and outlawed Arabic poem."(7) While some of his poetry has been published, as mentioned above, much of it has not, and both his published and non-published works have circulated primarily as "smuggled" poems on samizdat cassette or print reproduction.(8) Clearly it is problematic to accurately describe the contours of the oeuvre of a "guerrilla poet" such as al-Nawwab. Some of his published poetry is the least known and disseminated of his work, and some of his unpublished poetry is the most known and disseminated via cassette, while still other poems he has composed are neither published nor distributed on cassette, but circulate in the ephemeral mode of public performances. Over time, his audiences have developed the habit of capturing his live performances on audio-cassette, some of which remain in private collections, and some of which get into circulation. In an interesting, if somewhat unusual turn of events, al-Nawwab gave a performance of his poetry in October 1995 in Chicago, his debut in the United States. Brochures advertising the event, attended by over 700 people at a posh downtown Chicago hotel,(9) billed him as a "poet of the people," just before listing the ticket price of $150 per person.(10) Those who assumed they would take the opportunity to record al-Nawwab's performance were surprised to see conspicuous signs at the entrance to the performance hall and in a note on the program strictly forbidding any members of the audience from recording any part of the event on video or audio-cassette. Apparently arrangements had been made for the event to be professionally recorded for commercial distribution. A new, somewhat ironic twist to the phenomenon of the "smuggled poem" ensued, with a large number of people in the audience furtively concealing small tape recorders, and covertly recording the event.(11)

A brief outline of the works of al-Nawwab gives some indication of the uneven mixture of the published and the "smuggled." Although he had been composing and performing predominately Iraqi colloquial poetry in Iraq from the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, it was not until 1969 that a collection of this poetry was published, entitled Li al-rayl wa Hamad.(12) Well before the publication of this collection (which includes a total of twenty poems including the title poem), live performances of this poetry were held, and a cassette recording of al-Nawwab's performance of most of these poems was widely circulated in Iraq, to the extent that "hundreds and thousands" of people in Iraq, both "in the city and in the countryside" were said to have known many of these poems by heart, and in the case of the title poem, Li al-Rayl wa Hamad, they were even said to have made up their own tunes to the poem.(13) Al-Nawwab's next published work is a collection of poems entitled al-Musawara Amam al-Bab al-Thani, containing six poems including the title poem, composed between the years 1970 and 1972, in fusha or literary Arabic. Three editions of this collection were published, the most recent being an Algerian edition in 1983.(14) To my knowledge, there is not a cassette recording of a performance of these poems in wide circulation.

Watariyyat Layliyya was composed over the years 1970 to 1975, and published in Beirut(15) in book form with two accompanying audio cassettes of the poet's recitation of the poem.(16) Since its original publication, at least three other "editions" of this poem have appeared in print, which are apparently photocopies of the original edition, and which contain no information regarding the location or date of publication.(17) The approximately two-hour long recitation of the poem has been widely distributed through non-commercial duplication of the original recording. Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima was composed in 1976-77, and has been disseminated as an approximately 90-minute audio cassette recording.(18) To my knowledge, this work has not appeared in print, neither through "official" publication at a press, nor in samizdat unofficial print reproduction. Al-Nawwab's most recent published work is a short collection of five poems entitled Urs al-Intifada (The Wedding of the Intifada), published in Tunisia in 1988.(19) A commercial recording of Sa'di al-Hadithi singing al-Nawwab's Li al-Rayl wa Hamad on audio-cassette was produced in London in 1995, and in recent years al-Hadithi and al-Nawwab have appeared in live performances together in Berlin, London, Chicago, Boston, and elsewhere. At these performances al-Nawwab has presented a mixture of his older poems as well as newer unpublished compositions.(20)

In mainstream works about modern Arabic literature and poetry, even in surveys of considerable breadth, Muzaffar al-Nawwab and his poetry are mentioned at most only in passing, and more often, they are not mentioned at all. This is the case in spite of the fact that his work has circulated widely throughout the Arab World and among Arab communities outside of the Middle East for decades, with sections of poems he composed nearly twenty years ago still actively circulating on tape and on the lips of young Palestinians in the West Bank, for example, during the intifada in the late 1980s and into the 1990s.(21)


A wide array of variants of the notion of homeland are repeatedly conjured up in the poetry of Muzaffar al-Nawwab, most of them shot through with ardent and passionate longing. The particular ways that "homeland" is evoked serve to construct an imagined collective Arab homeland, one that is inclusive to a broad Arab listenership, through focusing both on very particular memory-sites and points on the map of this collective "Arabdom," as well as on its more general and abstract manifestations which re-articulate a transcendant spirit of the nation. In what follows, I will illustrate how al-Nawwab articulates overlapping and inter-penetrating notions of a longed-for homeland - notions that contribute to his appeal to and consumption by a broader audience than just an Iraqi one, as something more than, or other than, "simply" an Iraqi poet.


One of the homelands constructed in al-Nawwab's poetry, longed-for, recalled from afar, imagined, lamented, is, not surprisingly, the homeland from which the poet has been in exile for nearly thirty years, Iraq. Born to an aristocratic family in Baghdad in 1932,(22) al-Nawwab completed his formal education in Iraq through university, where he apparently had his first associations with the communist movement, with which he remained affiliated for some time. In 1963, he had to flee Iraq after the intensificaiton of the political struggle between the nationalists and the communists, the two main political forces in the country at the time. He fled to Iran, and in trying to cross the border into Russia, he was arrested and subjected to torture at the hands of the SAVAK. He was eventually handed back over to Iraqi authorities, who sentenced him to death. This was converted to a life sentence through some intervention on the part of his family, but then three years were added to the sentence for what was deemed to be a particularly subversive poem he wrote, called "al-Bara'a," (The Disavowal). He served four years of his sentence, then successfully escaped from prison in 1967. He lived in hiding in Baghdad for some time, then in towns in the southern region of Iraq for a year. After 1968 he was granted amnesty and returned to Baghdad.

Shortly after this, however, there was a wave of arrests of communists and others because of political assassinations attributed to them, and al-Nawwab was again arrested. Through some personal intervention, he was allowed to leave Iraq to go to Beirut. From this point on, begins the constant movement and wandering that al-Nawwab seems fated to to this day. He has stayed in some places for several weeks, in others for months or even years, until circumstances would propel him to move on - from Beirut, to Damascus, Cairo, Eritrea, Oman, back to Cairo, Beirut and Damascus, and even secretly back into Iraq. He lived in Greece for a few years starting in 1976, then spent several years in France studying parapsychology. In 1982 he went to Iran, after which he spent time in Bangkok, visited Algeria, settled down in Libya for a period, and travelled to the Sudan. In the 1980s he also travelled to Latin America, spending time in Venezuela, Brazil and Chile. In more recent years, he has moved primarily between Syria and France. Throughout the decades of wandering, he has composed and performed his poetry.

At times, the homeland of Iraq is conjured up in very specific and personalized ways in al-Nawwab's poetry. One of the primary structuring devices in the poem Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima is the narrative voice and point of view of the "mariner of mariners," (bahhar al-bahharin) who navigates a stormy course through the wonders and vicissitudes of recent Arab history, as both witness and participant. Another voice addressing the struggling mariner sympathizes with his fate of being kept in exile from his homeland, which in this instance takes the form of specific memory-sites in Iraq:

They have prevented you from seeing the wooden bridge of Karkh(23) These nine years have made you melt from sadness... You have taken part in a Baghdad childhood, in the festival of Our Lady Nafisa, and the wooden bridge... Who could love an old bridge?(24)

At various points throughout this same poem, we hear the narrator's plaintive voice asking repeatedly, at times almost weeping "Where is Basra?" The passionate, overwhelming desire to return, in the face of the impossibility of doing so, is palpable in these recurring references to Basra. In the following example, we see how al-Nawwab sets up a dialogic relationship between this desire, and the impossibility of its fulfillment:

But my master, where is Basra? What do I care about the sea if it cannot take me to Basra? The sea will not take you to Basra! Yes it will! The sea will not take you to Basra! Yes, the sea will take me to Basra! No, we tell you, the sea will not take you to Basra! Then I'll carry the entire sea and take myself. Or, God willing, Basra will come to me, by the law of passionate desire,(25) and I will reach her.(26)

References to Basra or Kufa, invoking Iraq as a whole, are sprinkled throughout this 90-minute poem, as a place longed for, or as a place ruled by a corrupt regime, which opposes and refuses its most sincere and loving exiles, such as the mariner of mariners. The rigid authority of such a regime, or its "unkind logic," are likened here to the renowned Iraqi schools of grammar, when the mariner of mariners laments: "The Basran grammar opposed me, and so did the Kufic grammar."(27)

In Watariyyat Layliyya as well, we find the narrator imagining the particular "Kufic" home he cannot visit, conjuring up its sights and sounds as he asks for his greetings to be sent to it:

Carry to my country When the people are sleeping My greetings To the Kufic script, concluding the morning prayer With the decorated panels of its mosques To its streets. ...(28)

Although these references appear to be specific to Iraq, and to particular longings from exile for Iraq, some of them suggest a more problematized, elusive notion of homeland. In another one of the sections of Watariyyat in which the mariner of mariners is trying to find his way back to "Basra," he says:

So where is Basra? Indeed, where is Basra? Basra is in the heart. ...(29) Where is Basra? Where is Basra, I miss it so! My compass indicates several Basras.(30) [emphasis added]

Here we see an indication of the fact that even in references to a homeland and an exile that would appear to be country-specific, al-Nawwab connects the intensely particular to a more inclusive construction of exile. By finding "several Basras" on the compass, the mariner's heartfelt crying out for "Basra" is no longer about the exclusive experience of Iraqi exile, but opens up exile and longing to draw in and include those who have been painfully uprooted from the "other Basras" of the Arab World, longing for their lost homelands.


The "other Basras" of the Arab World are not left unnamed in al-Nawwab's poetry. On the contrary, a very conspicuous feature of his poetry is, in fact, the bringing of these places into view, some merely mentioned in passing, others focused on in unsettling, graphic detail. The places are "Basras" in that those who inhabit them, or would claim them as home, have suffered, and often been alienated from them or within them, by any number of means - occupation by foreign forces or by indigenous corrupt rulers, economic dispossession, actual ousting and exile, unjust imprisonment, or outright starvation and murder. The overall effect of naming these places and in some instances telling their stories is to create what is meant to be a shared map of collective Arab consciousness or "Arabdom." As each point is mentioned or brought into focus, it is added to this map, signalling to the intended audience - this is your map, these are the points and places on it which are (or should be) your concern; places within and beyond your own national borders and your particular struggle, reconfigured as a connected collective entity.

Sometimes these particular places, small or obscure villages, well-known cities, regions or countries in the Arab World, are merely named, or mentioned in passing. The narrator of Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima begins to tell of how the mariner of mariners spread the "fever" of his zeal for withstanding and struggling against injustice from place to place, throughout the collective homeland, referred to as "the house of his beloved:"(31)

I know the mariner of mariners.... His eyes shone like embers, from the fever He sent the fever wrapped in leaves of passion to the house of his beloved They say the house of his beloved is in Syria,(32) They say the house of his beloved is in Syria, They say it's near the wooden bridge, and the house of 'Ali Ibn Jahm, They say it's in Ramallah, At Bab al-Khalq, it's been said, And even in Targhuna.(33)

Repeated mention is made of the obscure village of Rakhyut(34) in the same poem, with allusion to the hardships it has suffered, in a way that is meant to bring even remotest Rakhyut into collective Arab consciousness:

This is Rakhyut... Has anyone heard of Rakhyut and Hawfa?(35) They are not celestial bodies in orbit or new discoveries, But they are the Arab nation A kingdom of hunger and infectious disease and vomit And of revolution too.(36)

Other relatively obscure places mentioned in passing in this and other poems by al-Nawwab include Damur,(37) al-Shayyah,(38) the islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunub,(39) Ahwaz,(40) Ahsa',(41) and many others.

Al-Nawwab takes up other more known places in his poetry as well, and in greater detail, as sites of human suffering and struggle to be included on the map of collective Arab consciousness and concern. Tal al-Za'tar, the Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon which experienced a horrifying siege and massacre in 1976, is one such site on the collective Arab "memory-map" taken up by al-Nawwab, and, as mentioned above, it is one of the central threads running through the 90-minute poem, Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima.

Al-Nawwab recounts and recites the horrors of Tal al-Za'tar in graphic detail, from scenes of starving mothers and children, severed and burnt body parts strewn on the ground, to a macabre funeral procession, forcing listeners to revisit these shocking scenes.(42) If the imagined 'Arab collective' is brought together in this poem, on the site and "occasion" of Tal al-Za'tar to bear witness retroactively, it is also gathered together by al-Nawwab to point a viciously accusing finger at the "other" Arab collective portrayed, the offical and corrupt collection of Arab rulers who stood by and allowed Tal al-Za'tar to occur. And while in this and other poems in which he calls for revolt against traditional seats of authority and centers of power, the United States and Israel are clearly implicated, he generally reserves some of his most detailed, vicious, one might even say his most intimate attacks for the Arab heads of state. When the children of Tal al-Za'tar "looked to the Arab nation" for help, the "Arab eunuchs swelled with pride" when their representative, satirically dubbed "Oil Ibn Ka'ba" (Nail ibn al-ka'ba), announces the help on the way from the leaders of the Arab World: a meeting would be called to discuss the matter.(43) The Arab leaders, are referred to in recurrent, resounding condemnation, "accursed Arabs," "betraying Arabs," "Arabs of silence."(44) After a gruesome description of a pregnant woman at Tal al-Za'tar being trampled underfoot by a soldier and having the child torn out of her womb, an accusing finger is again pointed at the inaction of the Arab heads of state: "Silence, silence, silence ... what is this silence called in the Arabic language?"(45) Their collective guilt is an Arab one, and the night of their betrayal of the residents of Tal al-Za'tar is "an Arab" night:

This is an Arab night The massacre killed time before the summit meeting I accuse the leader of Najd and his underling The pimp of Syria and his dodo-bird The judge of Baghdad and his testicle The King of Syphilis Little Hassan the Second The fat and filthy rat in the Sudan The one sitting under the square root sign on the sands of Dubai, wrapped up in his robe And the one in Tunis, all bent and crooked from head to toe. Okay, I'll make an exception for the poor one in Ra's al-Khayma He dreamed his way through the crisis, His lower lip drooping down like a camel's And his nose moving rhythmically like a howdah on a camel's hump.(46)

The leaders of the Arab World, for all intents and purposes mentioned by name, or in ways immediately recognizable to al-Nawwab's audience (King Faisal, Hafiz al-Asad, King Hussein of Jordan, King Hassan of Morocco,(47) Ja'far al-Numayri of Sudan, Bourguiba of Tunisia, etc.) are brought together here, as Arabs, to be publicly shamed and ridiculed by other Arabs in the process of having their consciousness raised.

Another prominent point on the map of Arabdom, recurring in the poetry of Muzaffar al-Nawwab and portrayed as the traumatic site of violation and loss, is Palestine. The act of bringing it into collective Arab consciousness is similarly accompanied by harsh accusations, aimed primarily at Arabs deemed responsible for allowing the catastrophe of Palestine to take place. While the theme of Palestine and the plight of Palestinians is a ubiquitous one in al-Nawwab's poetry, the most famous and frequently cited instance found in the poem Watariyyat Layliyya, where Palestine, referred to as "Jerusalem," is portrayed as a bride that has been raped on her wedding night, and the leaders of the Arab World are blamed for not having protected her from this violation.

Jerusalem is the bride of your Arabness!!(48) So why did you usher all the fornicators of the night into her room, And stand eavesdropping from behind the door to the screams of her torn virginity? You drew your daggers, and swelled with pride And you yelled at her to keep quiet, for honor's sake How honorable of you!! Sons of bitches, can a woman being raped keep quiet? You sons of bitches! I'm not ashamed to tell you what you really are! A pigsty is cleaner than the cleanest of you. Even a tombstone would be moved, But you? Not a single fiber in you flinches!(49)

This excerpt very conspicuously articulates an inter-dependent relationship between the particular or individual points on the map, such as "Jerusalem," and the broader (implied, or desired) Arab collective. Jerusalem is not portrayed as just a part of collective Arabness, but an intimate or defining one, its bride. Thus the "bride" being raped is not just someone else's bride, not "just" the bride of Palestinians and Palestinian-ness, but rather the bride of any listener and (his) Arab-ness.(50) Al-Nawwab then, in much the same manner that he has invited his listeners to participate in collective longing, in this excerpt, invites his listeners to take part in collective indignation, collective lamentation, and even acknowledgment of collective guilt, as Arabs.


Al-Nawwab develops the notion of a collective Arab homeland as a state of mind which his listeners are invited to join, in still more ways than those described in the preceding two sections. In addition to recurrent reference to many specific sites on the collective Arab map, al-Nawwab also offers to his listeners more abstract, transcendant notions of "Arabness," some of which resonate with selectively recuperated parts of an Arab past, some of which condemn, and others which beckon almost seductively to what a future ideal spirit of an Arab nation might be.

The trope of the perpetual journey, continuously wandering and witnessing the wonders and the horrors of the Arab World, is a salient feature in both of the poems examined here. In Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima, the wanderer is the "mariner of mariners" referred to above. In Watariyyat Layliyya, the wanderer appears in a more specifically Arab manifestation, a Bedouin journeying across deserts, first at the beginning of the poem, then repeatedly at various points throughout the poem. This figure resonates and evokes a kind of "bedrock" layer of Arab heritage, a common cultural denominator hearkening back to a shared point of origin. This effect is enhanced and amplified in the taped recording of this poem, with al-Nawwab's voice in the tone of a reverie in his recitation of this segment, and the evocative effect of a lone oud playing in the background:

I was on the she-camel, flooded with the endless stars of the night Taking in the spirit of the desert Oh Bedouin, so experienced at wanderings Before reaching the Rub' al-Khali, Prepare yourself with a drop of water. ...(51)

The spirit of "Arabdom" conjured up at the opening of this poem similarly looks to an imagined Arab past, but re-writes it in a way that makes it suddenly alive, vivid, sensuous, wondrous and seductive:

At that hour of cravings of the night With the golden thorn sparrows Uncovering the glorious ancient Arab kings The bushes exude the warmth of a nubile Bedouin girl The almond-milk overflows And drips from her breasts at night And I am under her breasts, A vessel.(52)

This co-mingling of an imagined "Arabness" or Arab spirit with arousing and appealing scenes seems to suggest that this is what it could be, or this is what the "true" collective Arab spirit is, if "we" could only rid Arabdom of its corruption by the "betraying Arabs." Examples of this abound in the poetry of al-Nawwab, but one more example will suffice for our purposes here. Near the beginning of the poem Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima, in what could be loosely described as an "erotic prelude" or nasib,(53) we come upon the mariner of mariners, describing an intensely sensuous and erotic, but "innocent" night with his beloved. The description is graphic, arousing and seductive, telling of tasting "the tip of the breast" and the heat of arousal from fondling the breasts:

My littlest finger caught fire, Between the rose and the flesh And between the flesh and the rose, The baby finger got scorched It gave off a light, an Arab light.(54) [Emphasis added]

After a revisionist glimpse back to the Arab historical past, in which historical figures such as 'Amr ibn al-'As, Abu Sufyan, the caliph Uthman, and others are condemned for having 'uglified' the face of Arab history, and undermined its noble spirit, al-Nawwab switches back abruptly to enticing and passionate images of 'true' Arabdom in Watariyyat Layliyya. He closes the segment in which he conjures up this imagined vision of collective passion, joy, poignant melancholy and arousal, recited in a haunting voice, to the musical accompaniment of the oud, declaring this to be an "Arab soul" or spirit.

Oh, you who make the days of God shine With the laughter of your eyes Chant the language of the Qur'an For my soul is Arab. ...(55)

This last line echoes its previous mention several pages (minutes on the taped recitation) earlier, in a parallel construction with a different twist. In this instance, the final line itself echoes and reverberates in recitation, with the poet's voice trailing off to an implied oblivion of repetition:

Oh, you who carry the lamp of mysterious unknown In the darkness of your eyes Chant the language of sorrows For my soul is Arab. ...(56)

Al-Nawwab develops this contrast between "false" or corrupt Arab consciousness and its perpetrators, and a transcendant, imagined and idealized Arab spirit throughout his poetry. This is practically explicit in a particular section of Watariyyat Layliyya, in which he has been lambasting both historical and contemporary Arab leaders for their corruption and betrayal of the Arab cause. Interspersed in this section is the question, asked several times, sometimes in an indignant roar "Are you Arabs?!!" This is asked almost rhetorically, as if the poet is actually asking 'how could you be Arabs? are you really Arabs at all?' with the implicitly provided answer that 'you cannot possibly be Arabs, you are too despicable to be Arabs.' "Are you Arabs?" he asks, "I swear, I have doubts about it, from Baghdad to Jidda."(57)

Another aspect of an Arabdom articulated by al-Nawwab that is both abstract and, somewhat ironically, inclusive, is the notion of exile itself, or the collective experience of exile and exclusion, as constituting "the Arab homeland." In the following excerpt from Watariyyat Layliyya, we see how al-Nawwab combines and blends the notions of exile and the Arab homeland, in a representation in which both are genderized as female.(58) A voice calls out to the narrator, the voice of his longed-for homeland, asking "who's there?":

A voice called me, A voice that was still like the tent of an Arab wedding The voice was female And exile, when it embraced me, was female And the resting spot, was female... Who's there?? I answered like an extinguished flame... It's me, me, oh my homeland.(59)

The idea that a homeland can be created, "inhabited" by a collectivity of people bound together by the fact of their homelessness in its various forms, their exile, is a poignant and forceful illustration of homeland, in this case an Arab homeland, being "a state of mind." The reconfiguration of the shared experience of exile as a form of homeland clearly transcends the territory and borders of any individual country or homeland in the Arab World. It also clearly contributes to a discourse of inclusion, an "ingathering of exiles" from any and all parts of the Arab World, and offering them the refuge of a "virtual" home in an imagined and longed-for collective Arabdom. The overlap between homeland and exile in this sense is perhaps nowhere as explicit and complete as in the following excerpt from al-Nawwab's poem Qira'a fi Daftar al-Matar.(60) Articulations of intense longing and nostalgia for the elusive homeland run throughout this poem, and the pain of vivid recollection alternates with the need to forget or repress memory of homeland:

I forgot .... I forgot Then the wind at the window awakened me to my homeland Oh my homeland! It's as if you are exile As if you are searching for a homeland in my heart To take you in and shelter you! Both of us are without a homeland, my homeland?


If there can be said to be such a thing as a "guiding principle" in the poetic practice of Muzaffar al-Nawwab, it could be described as a comprehensive dedication to a "poetics of arousal," to awaken and arouse the senses and a wide range of emotions in his audience. He is certainly not alone among poets, of Arabic or of other languages, in this dedication. But the combination of the wide range of emotions his poetry aims to arouse, and the particular techniques used by al-Nawwab to achieve this aim, set him apart from the majority of other poets, both Arab and non-Arab.

In the preceding section we have seen examples in which the erotic and the sensuous are employed in al-Nawwab's poetry, in seducing or drawing in the reader (and particularly the listener), to a state of arousal. (We will see presently how the listener is subsequently jolted out of this state, with specific literary and aesthetic aims). But his poetry also aims to arouse feelings of disgust, rage, and indignation, to coax out feelings of sadness, loneliness and vulnerability, and to infect his listeners with his expressed passion, ecstasy, and child-like wonderment at the mysteries and marvels of existence. At times he shifts with great alacrity and fluidity from one state of arousal to another; at other times he does so with deliberately shocking or jolting abruptness. With all of this shifting, the consistent principle seems to be to keep "stirring things up," to keep the audience in a heightened state of alertness, arousal and agitation.

Before turning to the other ways al-Nawwab attempts to provoke this heightened state, it is crucial to take into account one particular means used by al-Nawwab to elicit a powerful and visceral response in his audience, one of the most salient aspects of his poetic practice. This is, of course, the rich and complex layer of sound in the live performance of his poetry, comprised of the incredibly varied use of his voice, and in the case of Watariyyat Layliyya, the evocative accompaniment of a solo oud. In live performance, (or taped recordings of live performances) al-Nawwab alternately whispers his words, weeps his laments, cries out and sings his ecstasy, screams his accusations, and barks his mocking satire. As part of al-Nawwab's deliberately confrontational and provocative poetic practice, voice and sound are used to orchestrate a veritable bombardment of the senses.(62)

But al-Nawwab has a large arsenal upon which he draws to reinforce this effect, much of which falls under the rubric of what I call a "transgressive discourse" articulated on numerous levels in his poetry. As mentioned above, by "transgressive discourse" I mean one which deliberately pushes against boundaries, or transgresses and violates certain literary and aesthetic standards or norms within the Arabic literary tradition.

In a section of Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima, we find a description of the daring of the "guerrilla poet," who "sullies sacred sentences with poetry, with words that would embarrass the dictionary!"(63) Indeed, in al-Nawwab's poetry we find a lexicon of words that range from the sexually explicit to the crude and obscene, to a degree that exceeds the bounds of what is generally deemed acceptable or "seemly" in much of both published and publicly declaimed contemporary Arabic poetry. Such words and expressions are interspersed in his poetry; a few illustrations will suffice for our purposes here.

In a crudely mocking reference to Saddam Hussein in Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima, by "hitting below the belt," al-Nawwab succintly portrays him as at once petty, ridiculous, incompetent, and ego-maniacal. While other villains have been "conspiring over the oil of Basra," Basra's ruler has been "pre-occupied with a beauty-mark on his testicles."(64) Although "the ruler of Basra" has been mocked and criticized in other parts of the poem, the transgressive employment of the obscene here lends this mockery a particular rhetorical sting.

Expressions that would "embarrass the dictionary" still more are reserved for those leaders in the Arab World (and implicitly leaders in the U.S. and Israel) who try to encourage the "die-hards" to accept some kind of peaceful resolution to the struggle with Israel. These leaders urge: "Accept our deal before you miss your chance. Take part in the 'peaceful solution' a little bit." The narrator retorts: "You sons of bitches, how 'a little bit?' You mean to get just half-sodomized, or what?"(65) [awlad al-qahba, kayfa qalil(an), ya'ni nisf liwat(in)] - a retort which is met with enthusiastic applause from the audience.(66) It is the combination of the strong political stance articulated in instances such as these, along with a transgressive mode of expression which at least in part accounts for al-Nawwab's "status" as persona non grata, and "poet non grata" throughout much of the Arab World, and which account for the appeal of the "risque" or the "forbidden" to his audience.

Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima closes with another deliberately shocking articulation of the obscene, here too calling explicit and unsettling attention to an "unmentionable," or an anatomical part traditionally off-limits within the aesthetic domain of Arabic poetry. Here we return to the caricature of Oil ibn Ka'ba who, as we saw above, in the face of Tal al-Za'tar, proudly announced that the response of the leaders of Arab World would be to call a meeting, implicitly and indirectly in collusion with enemies of the victims of Tal al-Za'tar. Israel is implicated implicitly, but the pointed object of the invective are the Arab World's leaders. The "Star of David" is mobilized here essentially as an invective weapon against Oil Ibn Ka'ba and his cohorts, who are likened to what is taken for granted as being the worst insult imaginable, the very embodiment of despicableness and evil.

Oil Ibn Ka'ba declared that a meeting would be held By chance, purely a coincidence, the number that convened was six Oh, Star of David, rejoice! ... and Kissinger's finger too! For the royal asshole is six-pointed.(67)

The shock value and "thrill" at this expression of the forbidden in the context of poetry is audible in the almost fierce applause in the audience. It is important to mention that the effect of such deliberately unaesthetic "naughty" expressions is all the more potent, because of their being interspersed with sharply contrasting poetic constructions of sublime beauty and passion, for example, which are formulated in subtle and conspicuously lofty modes.

The transgressive discourse of Muzaffar al-Nawwab's poetry goes further than the employment of "naughtily" obscene expressions. His poetry also seeks to arouse disgust and horror in his listeners, using an "in-your-face" approach to make his audience aware of the horrors that the "compatriots" of their imagined homeland have suffered. Into the ostensibly safe aesthetic realm of poetry, he smuggles images of the ugly, the revolting, the anti-aesthetic: the black vomit of a starving woman, pestilence and disease, graphic reference to body parts violently severed in a massacre. As if the shock value of this alone were not enough, al-Nawwab further amplifies the effect by juxtaposing these images to highly conventionalized "pretty" or dignified modes of expression.

The lengthy opening of Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima resonates the tradition of the nasib or romantic prelude of traditional classical Arabic poetry. In this particular segment, we find the perpetual mariner, bahhar al-bahharin, at the end of the night of innocent love and passion mentioned above. The morning star comes to greet the lovers, bearing fruit for them to eat after a presumed night of passion. But, he tells the morning star, he's done nothing more than fondle her breasts through the night. The description, along with its passionate and rhythmic recitation, seem aimed at getting the listener caught up in, even aroused by, the graphic scene - the mariner's baby finger toying with the pink nipple of his beloved's breast - only to then jolt the listener out of this erotic scene by the sudden shift to the middle finger, and the crude image of rotating the corrupt Arab leaders' posteriors on that middle finger.

The star came bearing fruit The mariner said: I have only tasted the tip of the breast I abstained from all the other delights, and slowly sipped the amber from the breast of passion And I held her rosy nipple during the night, scolding it. My palms were filled with the nectar of pistachio And my littlest finger caught fire, between the rose and the flesh and between the flesh and the rose The baby finger got scorched It gave off a light, an Arab light. My middle finger cannot be trusted at night - On this finger I spin all of the betraying rulers.(68)

The abrupt jolt from aroused passion to disgusting revulsion as it occurs here is shocking. But the fact that it comes in the "disguised" form of a nasib, constitutes not only a violation of the senses, but a violation of the conventions and aesthetic expectations of what is fitting material for a romantic prelude.

A similar strategy is used at a later point in the same poem, in which a move is made from what appears to be the familiar territory of the traditional atlal of classical Arabic poetry, refunctioned to shock us with the horrors of Tal al-Za'tar. In the atlal, or "traces," of traditional Arabic poetry, of course, the narrator with companions come upon the site of the abandoned encampment of a lover who has since left. He calls upon his companions to mourn with him at the sight of the traces or remnants (bits of tent, rope, patterns of contours in the sand) that bring back the memory of his beloved. In al-Nawwab's poem, we come upon the mariner approaching Lebanon, specifically Tal al-Za'tar. He calls it a land forgotten by Arab nomads, left behind as they moved on. By the time they realized they had forgotten it, it was occupied, and they recited an elegy over it. But then we are jolted by the atlal or remnants we are made to behold, remnants not of a romantic encounter, but of a siege and a massacre:

This land is called "daughter of the morning" The wandering Arab nomads forgot it at the Mediterranean It gathers the pomegranate blossoms They made their way across two deserts, And when they realized they had forgotten it And found all the ranks of the world in it They recited an elegy. Does the lion care if the pot (he'll be cooked in) is decorated? Does the ewe care what shape the knife is? This song is complete.... A breast on the ground, next to two small hands.... A child grows up among the burnt bodies Oh betraying Arabs, recite an elegy!(69)

The horror continues, in disturbing and disgusting detail. The narrator brings into view still more scenes from Tal al-Za'tar that many a listener would probably rather not be shown: a child trying to cover the exposed thighs of the corpse of his grandmother,(70) a soldier taking a bloodied pacifier out of the mouth of a corpse of a child "decorating himself with it as a medal,"(71) a woman reduced to eating vomit:

I saw it with my own eyes A pregnant woman eating what a feverish infant vomits And feeding the other child with the same black vomit. What wonders Arab oil has wrought!(72)

This is not poetry complacently consumed or easily digested; the images repeatedly, and deliberately, exceed the boundaries of "good taste," as part of al-Nawwab's orchestrated campaign to awaken and alert the hearts and minds of his compatriots, by all means available, by all means necessary.

The marthiya, or elegy, another elevated Arabic literary genre, is invoked in Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima, only to have its conventions violated or transgressed, in al-Nawwab's ongoing attempt to jolt complacent consciousness, in this case to arouse a sense of indignation and outrage. In the main, the Arabic elegaic tradition, like other elegaic traditions, is a highly conventionalized genre. Death is lamented, the dead are mourned and remembered in a selective manner, one which generally elevates and ennobles them, and in which admirable traits and heroic deeds are foregrounded. If the circumstances of death are mentioned at all, for example, one who meets his death in battle, then it is valorized traits that are highlighted - bravery, self-sacrifice, steadfastness, and the like.

In the second half of Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima, al-Nawwab depicts an imaginary funeral procession, not for the dead, but of the dead of Tal al-Za'tar, a macabre and grotesque "march of the living dead." This is a harshly satirical attempt to expose and condemn the indifference within and beyond the Arab World to the horrifying fate of the people of Tal al-Za'tar. It is this indifference that is implicitly held responsible for denying these murdered innocents any shreds of dignity even in death. Al-Nawwab strips away any of the romanticizing or aestheticizing tendancies of a genre such as the marthiya. The dignity and sanctity of the bodies of the dead are violated - through the graphic description of their variably maimed states, which further affirm the utter ignobility of their deaths. The denigration of the dead goes even one step further, when the description of the "marching corpses" is used to create a dark satire, in which the degree of mutilation or suffering in death is the basis for "ranking" to determine their order of appearance in the funeral procession.

Without any oriental shrieking to spoil this massacre March in silence.... Whoever was mutilated Or died a slow death Will march at the front of the funeral procession The gouged-out eye and the severed hand The amputated thigh, the burned corpses Will be carried out in the open.(73)

The dead join in their self-denigration, referring to themselves repeatedly as "garbage, Oriental filth," "the most worthless kind of dust," and in addressing the "honorable members of the West," they cynically extend their thanks, grateful that their corpses are being used "as a down-payment for your friendship."(74)

This grotesque, inverted version of a funeral march leads into still further defilement of the dead, with the depiction of their body-parts being hawked by vendors as souvenirs outside the Vatican in Rome. This satirical image has the function of agitating and provoking a sense of outrage at the world's indifference to this chapter of human suffering, and it is difficult to imagine anything further from the traditionally elevating discourse of the elegaic tradition in its treatment of the dead.

We'll recite the skin of children... We'll display all of our goods... Oh tourists of the world... Here is Tal al-Za'tar Here is the clear collar-bone of Fatima the daughter of so-and-so And so-and-so, some anonymous filth, died on the bridge of the Return Here are some excellent skulls, you can make lanterns for Christmas out of them And the most beautiful icons ever known These charred vertebrae belong to two orphaned infants from the village of Mislakh The two of them burned joined to each other Whoever wants to may touch them to examine their quality Go ahead, touch them, touch them, don't be afraid This Oriental filth is cheap.(75)

The grotesque has been described as characterized by "the co-presence of the laughable and something which is incompatible with the laughable," which is marked by a "tension between mirth and horror" and the ambivalence of its being "both comic and monstrous."(76) Because of the sudden impact or shock value of the grotesque, it is often used "as an aggressive weapon."

The shock-effect of the grotesque may also be used to bewilder and disorient, to bring the reader up short, jolt him out of accustomed ways of perceiving the world and confront him with a radically different, disturbing perspective.... Something which is familiar and trusted is suddenly made strange and disturbing.(77)

Al-Nawwab's "in-your-face" presentation of so many unseemly unmentionables, his disruption and jolting of our expectations of lofty literary genres, and his frequent juxtaposition of the horrifying with the sublime in satirical modes embody these features and functions of the grotesque.

In some instances, al-Nawwab attempts to steer his audience to still another state of transgressive arousal, when the uproariously comic is highlighted within his shock-producing juxtapositions. In these examples, the audience is roused to partake in boisterous satirical lambasting, in a raucous orgy of imagined revenge and settling of the unjust scores history has wrought.

In Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima, after a section in which a punishment is being imagined for the poet who has "committed blasphemy" and "desecrated... idols," the "active ministers" cry out "Oh! ... he steps on the tail of the Minister of Petrol." From here a satirical caricature of the Arab leaders of the oil-rich Gulf States ensues, in which they are portrayed as despicable rats, exposing their tails as they bow down to corrupt powers, but therein also exposing their rear-sides to the vicious punishment deemed appropriate for betraying their brethren.

They say the Minister of Petrol has a tail that he hides In an American pocket With which he casts his vote against terrorism. Master, it is claimed that the shaykhs of Abu Dabi And Bahrayn and Ra's al-Khayma are concealing tails thinner than the tail of a mouse And when they bow down to the shah Their tails stick out a bit from beneath their robes... Announcing the happy news of the impaling stick! I will shove it up your asses! You worms, I will shove it up your asses! Do you hear, ruler of Basra, impaling, right up your ass! The starving, the hungry cried out of hunger: 'The triumphant impaling stick has arisen. Impale! Impale!'(78)

The way this segment is recited seems to aim at inviting the audience to join in this obscenely boisterous revenge-taking. Indeed, the audience explodes in laughter and boisterous applause (on the taped recording) at numerous points throughout this segment: at the first mention of the tail, at its being hidden in an American pocket, its sticking out from beneath the robes, and at several mentions of the impaling stick. Al-Nawwab skillfully presents unfolding segments piece by piece with repetition of smaller sections of the citation above, carefully orchestrated for heightened effect. But just as the audience seems to have gotten quite caught up in this boisterous scene, they are abruptly brought up short and reminded of sobering and shocking images, of that which is "incompatible with the laughable" - starving people crying out of hunger.

At a considerably later segment of the poem, we find another variation of this type of caricature of the oil-rich Arab leaders as despicable and cowardly, combined with a boisterous orgy of revenge against them. In this "desecration of idols," the Arab leaders are brought one by one to be tossed into the fire(79) and burned alive, as punishment for their betrayal of the people of Tal al-Za'tar and other crimes:

Throw the first of the idols of betrayal into the fire Bring the other one, too Who are you? I, he cries, you son of a ... Throw him in too! Bring on the pot-bellied one! Have the masses of Bahrayn bring him here I swear to God, I am shaykh so-and-so the son of shaykh so-and-so, grandson of the shaykh ... Enough of these filthy creatures!(80)

This is repeated in segments several times, to the enthusiastic laughter and applause of the audience. Again we find al-Nawwab having drawn the audience in to take enjoyment and to participate enthusiastically in this public enactment of taking revenge, only to then jolt them back to the somber reminder of the macabre funeral procession, returning again suddenly to the grotesque defilement of the body parts of the victims of Tal al-Za'tar.

The final example I will provide here of the grotesque juxtaposition, with a shocking and jolting effect, of the raucously comic and the deadly serious, comes near the end of Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima. Again the object of his crude satire are the oil-rich Arab leaders. After describing the "Oil King" as fearing only for his oil, and the west willing to gather all Arabs together to slaughter them over oil, the poem switches to a raucous and rousing chorus, which the audience (on the taped recording) very quickly joins in with rhythmic clapping:

Long live oil! Long live gas! Long live the King of Farts!(81) Long live oil! Long live gas! Long live the King of Farts! Long live Ra's al-Khayma! Long live the beard of Qabus ibn Sa'id Long live, long live, long live oil(82) Long live, long live, long live gas Long live the King of Farts! ... (repeated in segments)(83)

Suddenly al-Nawwab pauses, and in a solemn, subdued tone, with the audience still clapping on, continues: "Does anyone know the taste of salty vomit?" referring back to the earlier segment in which the woman eats the vomit of her child.

The shocking and jolting effect of such juxtapositions is extreme, and certainly succeeds at "disorienting" the audience, and at confronting it with "a radically different, disturbing perspective." Combined with the techniques described throughout this section, al-Nawwab crafts his transgressive discourse aimed at provoking an incredibly wide array of states of agitation and arousal.

As is evident from all of the preceding discussion, there is a great deal going on in the margins of Arabic literature - subversive and transgressive compositions, with astonishingly wide circulation, and an active following, and all of this has gone on largely undetected or summarily dismissed by practitioners of formal, more conventional Arabic literary culture. For a more comprehensive conception and understanding of contemporary Arabic literary expression, it is of critical importance to pay attention to the "stirring words" of poets such as Muzaffar al-Nawwab, and to take them seriously.


1. A documented account of state-regulated censorship would certainly be of interest, but such an account falls outside of the scope of this article.

2. The tradition of oral recitation cuts across customary delineations of various domains of poetry, including poetry that is also disseminated in written form, some of which has a revered canonical status and is composed in fusha or "literary" Arabic, some of which is composed in non-canonical colloquial Arabic; as well as poetry that circulates almost exclusively in an oral medium, not a written one, and is generally composed in a colloquial variety of Arabic.

3. This is the term used by Haydar and Beard in "Excerpts from Mozaffar Al-Nawwab's 'Night-Strings'," The Minnesota Review, Vol. 26, (Spring, 1986), p.44. (The excerpts presented are, in fact, from the poem Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima).

4. The samizdat cassette network has flourished in the Middle East, not only for the dissemination of subversive or politically oppositional poetry such as al-Nawwab's, or that of Ahmad Fu'ad Nijm at certain periods, but also for the dissemination of an array of outlawed ideologies, e.g., of Khomeini, Shaykh Kishk, more recently of Hamas ideologues, etc.

5. Baqir Yasin, Muzaffar al-Nawwab:Hayutuhu wa shi'ruhu (Muzaffar al-Nawwab: His Life and Poetry), Damascus: Matba'at Dar al-Hayat, 1988.

6. Yasin, p. 81 (fida'i intihari fi shi'rihi).

7. Yasin, p. 9.

8. The present section focuses on the 'mode' (of production and circulation) of al-Nawwab's poetry. The 'substance' of his poetry that has driven it underground will be discussed in sections that follow.

9. This gala evening featured Nizar Qabbani, Wadi' al-Sail, as well as Muzaffar al-Nawwab and Sa'di al-Hadithi.

10. A Chicago-based organization was responsible for organizing the event. The performers had no part in arranging the particular logistics.

11. I attended this event, and was among those making a covert recording of al-Nawwab's performance.

12. Interestingly enough, virtually all of the Iraqi colloquial poetry composed by al-Nawwab was not in his own native Baghdadi regional dialect, but rather in a more marginal southern Iraqi dialect that he grew particularly fond of after spending time in the region in 1955-56. Yasin writes that al-Nawwab developed a passionate connection to this dialect, and found it a more appropriate language or medium for his poetry than other Iraqi dialects, including his own. Yasin adds political and personal factors in his interpretation of al-Nawwab's use of this dialect. See Yasin, pp.45-50.

13. Yasin, p.39.

14. Al-Nawwab, Muzaffar, al-Musawara Amam al-Bab al-Thani, (Algiers: al-Sharika al-wataniyya li al-nashr wa-al-tawzi'), 1983.

15. Matba'at al-Diyar, n.d. Also included in this publication is a relatively short poem entitled Qira'a fi Daftar al-Matar, (composed in 1969, 13 pages), which appears after the much longer Watariyyat, (65 pages).

16. This was a recitation recorded specifically for the purpose of distribution with the book, and was not a recording of a live performance.

17. One of these has surfaced and circulated in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and appears to have been reproduced locally (in paperback). Another has circulated in London and Paris (hardcover), but where it was produced remains unclear. All of these subsequent editions contain both the poem Watariyyat Layliyya and Qira'a fi Daftar al-Matar.

18. At the beginning of this recording, which is from a live performance, the poet indicates that what we will hear is in fact an abridged version of a longer poem. Although I am in the process of trying to obtain the longer or full version of this poem from the poet, for the purposes of analysis here, the version examined is most pertinent, since it is the version that has been widely disseminated.

19. Urs al-Intifada: Yawmiyyat, (Safaqis: Samid li al-nashr wa altawzi') 1988. The last page of this book lists works published by the author, and in addition to the three mentioned above (Watariyyat, al-Musawara, li al-Rayl wa-Hamad), a fourth work entitled Hajjam al-Baris is listed. I have not yet been able to obtain this work, nor to find further information about it.

20. This information is based on my having attended the performance in Chicago referred to above, and on information from al-Nawwab about other recent performances from my interviews with him in October 1995.

21. In a paper delivered at the Middle East Studies Association annual meeting in 1990, anthropologist Kristen Brown presented preliminary results of her field work in the West Bank on literature and poetry of the intifada. Her results showed that approximately one-tenth of the people she interviewed in the late 1980's, when asked what their favorite poem was, responded by reciting an excerpt from Muzaffar al-Nawwab's Watariyyat Layliyya, the famous segment portraying Palestine as a bride raped on her wedding night. This segment is discussed below, and I have analyzed it elsewhere - see my "Raped Brides and Steadfast Mothers: Appropriations of Palestinian Motherhood," in Radical Motherhood: Mothers, Politics and Social Change in the Twentieth Century, New England University Press, 1997.

22. The following biographical information on al-Nawwab is based primarily on Baqir Yasin's book, and on interviews I conducted with the poet in 1995.

23. A village in Iraq.

24. From Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima, near end of Side One of audio-cassette (p. 24 of my Arabic transcript of the tape). I have transcribed this tape. In citations from this poem, I will cite the side of the cassette tape on which the excerpt appears, as well as the page number of my Arabic transcript, to give somewhat more precise indication of its location on the tape.

25. The Arabic here is bi hukm al-'ishq, i.e., by virtue of the fact of my passionate love for Basra; I will reach it through the sheer power of my love for it, and my intense desire to reach it. (The English translation above is intended to include these shades of meaning).

26. Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima, Side One, audio-cassette (p. 15 of Arabic transcript).

27. Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima, (JM) Side One, audio-cassette (p. 9 of Arabic transcript).

28. Watariyyat Layliyya, (WL) Tape One, Side One (audio-cassette); p. 15 of West Bank edition.

29. Literally "Basra is (that which is) in the intentions," (Basra bilniyyat).

30. JM, Side One, audio-cassette (p. 9 of Arabic transcript).

31. JM, Side One, audio-cassette (p. 6 of Arabic transcript).

32. Al-sham.

33. JM, Side One, audio-cassette (p. 6 of Arabic transcript).

34. Located at the remote borderland area between Oman and Yemen

35. An obscure village in the same vicinity as Rakhyut.

36. JM, Side Two, near end of audio-cassette (p. 47 of Arabic transcript).

37. Lebanese coastal village, where massacre of Christians took place in 1975.

38. Popular section of Beirut.

39. Islands in the Persian Gulf, occupied when the Shah ruled Iran.

40. Also a town occupied by the regime of the Shah of Iran.

41. A small town in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia.

42. I will elaborate on the shock effect of these segments of al-Nawwab's poems in sections below.

43. JM, Side Two, audio-cassette (p. 30 of Arabic transcript).

44. Arab al-la'na, 'arab al-ridda, 'arab al-samt, JM, various parts of entire poem.

45. JM, Side Two, audio-cassette (pp. 31-32 of Arabic transcript).

46. JM, Side Two, audio-cassette (p. 36 of Arabic transcript).

47. Referred to in the Arabic original as 'Hassun al-thani.

48. The word used here is 'uruba, ('urubatikum).

49 WL, Tape Two, Side One, audio-cassette (p. 51, West Bank edition).

50. Clearly this excerpt also raises problematic issues of genderized representation, re-inscribing traditional configurations of power drawn along gender lines in a classic "rescue narrative" in which men - Arab men, Arab rulers - as history's "real" subjects and actors, are called upon to rescue the helpless woman, and are rebuked and made to feel guilty for not having done so. I have treated this issue elsewhere (see Bardenstein, "Raped Brides and Steadfast Mothers," in Footnote 21 above), and will not elaborate on it here, since it is not the focus of this article.

51. WL, Tape One, Side One, audio-cassette (p. 12, West Bank edition).

52. WL, Tape One, Side One, audio-cassette (p. 12, West Bank edition).

53. This prelude, and its subversion by al-Nawwab, will be discussed in the following section.

54. JM, Side One, audio-cassette (p. 4, Arabic transcript).

55. WL, Tape One, Side One, audio-cassette (p. 17, West Bank edition); in the Arabic this line is "fa-ruhi 'arabiyya."

56. WL, Tape One, Side One, audio-cassette (p. 13, West Bank edition).

57. WL, Tape One, Side One, audio-cassette (pp. 21-22, West Bank edition).

58. Genderization of homeland as female or feminine is widespread in the Arabic as in other literary traditions.

59. WL, Tape One, Side Two, audio-cassette (p. 39, West Bank edition).

60. (Reading the Rain Notebook); as mentioned above, this poem is published in all existing editions of Watariyyat Layliyya, and is included in the recorded recitation of the latter on audio-cassette as well.

61. Qira'a fi Daftar al-Matar, Tape Two, Side Two, audio-cassette (of WL), (p. 89, West Bank edition). The last line in Arabic is "nahnu ithnn(i) bila watan(in) ya watani."

62. A detailed account of the layer of sound in his poetry and performance would certainly be of interest, but it is beyond the scope of this article.

63. JM, Side One, audio-cassette (p. 14, Arabic transcript).

64. JM, Side One, audio-cassette (p. 10, Arabic transcript).

65. JM, Side One, audio-cassette (p. 22, Arabic transcript).

66. On the taped recording of this particular performance of the poem.

67. JM, Side Two, audio-cassette (p. 50, Arabic transcript).

68. JM, Side One, audio-cassette (p. 1, Arabic transcript).

69. JM, Side Two, audio-cassette (pp. 27-28, Arabic transcript).

70. JM, Side Two, audio-cassette (p. 30, Arabic transcript).

71. JM, Side Two, audio-cassette (p. 29, Arabic transcript).

72. JM, Side Two, audio-cassette (p. 47, Arabic transcript).

73. JM, Side Two, audio-cassette (pp. 13-14, Arabic transcript).

74. JM, Side Two, audio-cassette (pp. 38-39, Arabic transcript).

75. JM, Side Two, audio-cassette (pp. 43-44, Arabic transcript).

76. Phillip Thomson, The Grotesque, London: Methuen & Co, 1972, pp. 3-5.

77. Ibid, p. 58.

78. JM, Side One, audio-cassette (p. 13, Arabic transcript).

79. The implication is that this is hell-fire, and the punishment is an enactment of divine retribution.

80. JM, Side Two, audio-cassette (pp. 41-42, Arabic transcript).

81. In Arabic this is a play on words: yahya al-naft, yahya al-ghaz, yahya malik al-ghazat.

82. This is recited in a rhythmic chant, accompanied by boisterous applause.

83. JM, Side Two, audio-cassette (pp. 47-48, Arabic transcript).


Beard, Michael and Adnan Haydar. "Excerpts from Mozaffar Al-Nawwab's 'Night-Strings,'" The Minnesota Review, Vol. 26 (Spring 1986), p. 44.

Nawwab, Muzaffar al-. Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima. Non-commercial audio cassette recording of an undated performance/recitation of this poem, more commonoly refferred to as Tal al-Za 'tar.

-----. Al-Musawara Amam al-Bab al-Thani. Algiers: Al-Sharika al-Wataniya li al-Nashr wa al-Tawzi), 1983.

-----. Urs al-Intifada: Yawmiyat. Safaqis: Samid li al-Nashr wa al-Tawzi, 1988.

-----. Watariyat Layliya. Beirut: Matba'at al-Diyar, n.d. [Published in book form with two cassette tapes of al-Nawwab's recitation of the poems in this volume, both Watariyat Layliya and Qira'a fi Dafiar al-Matar.

Yasin, Baqir. Muzaffar al-Nawwab: Hayatuhu wa Shi'ruhu (Muzaffar al-Nawwab: His Life and Poetry). Damascus: Matba'at Dar al-Hayat, 1988

Carol Bardenstein is an assistant professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College. She is currently completing a book tentatively titled, "Cultivating Attachments: Discourses of Rootedness in Palestine/Israel."
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Title Annotation:Modern Iraqi Literature in English Translation
Author:Bardenstein, Carol
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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