Badr Shakir al-Sayyab

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Template:Infobox artist Badr Shakir al Sayyab (Template:Lang-ar) (December 24, 1926 in Jaykur, near Basra – December 24, 1964 in Kuwait)[1] was a leading Iraqi poet, well known throughout the Arab world and one of the most influential Arab poets of all time. His works have been translated in more than 10 languages including English, Persian, Somali and Urdu.

Early life and career[edit]

He was born in Jaykur, a town south of Basra, the eldest child of a date grower and shepherd.[2] He graduated from the Higher Teacher Training College of Baghdad in 1948[3] but was later dismissed from his teaching post for being a member of the Iraqi Communist Party.[4]

Banned from teaching because of his political views, he next found employment as a taster, working for the Iraqi Date Company in Basra. He soon returned to a Baghdad however, where he worked as a security guard for a road paving company. He was actively involved in the 1952 Iraqi Intifada, in which he joined his fellow workers in sacking the offices of the US Information Service, climbed up an electricity pole and declaimed a revolutionary poem he had composed the previous night.[5] The government instituted a campaign of repression against Communist sympathisers in the wake of the uprising, and Sayyab feared that he would be arrested. He decided to flee the country, obtained a false Iranian passport under the assumed name of Ali Artink, and escaped over the border to Iran. From Abadan he then sailed to Kuwait in 1953. This journey was the subject of his poem 'An Escape' (Farar).[6]

He worked for a while at the Kuwait Electricity Company, but in 1954 he returned to Iraq and severed all his links with the Communist Party. He was therefore allowed to work in the Iraqi public service again, and given a job in the General Directorate for Import and Export. However after the 14 July Revolution he wrote poetry critical of the new head of state Abd al-Karim Qasim, and was therefore dismissed from his post once again in April 1959.[7] Following the Kirkuk Massacre he became outspokenly anti-Communist and published a series of essays called ‘Kuntu shiyū‘iyyan’ (‘I was a Communist').[8]

In 1957 the Syrian poet Adunis and the Lebanese poet Yusuf al-Khal began publishing a new magazine, Majallat Shi'r ('Poetry Magazine') in Beirut. Sayyab began writing for it and this brought him into contact with other writers in their circle, including Ounsi el-Hajj, and Khalil Hawi.[9] In 1960 Sayyab visited Beirut to publish a collection of his poetry, and won first prize (1000 Lebanese pounds) in a competition run by Majallat Shi'r for his collection Onshudat al-Matar (The Rain Song) which was later to become among his most widely acclaimed works.[10]

Illness and death[edit]

Returning to Iraq, Sayyab was given a job at the Iraqi Ports Authority and moved to Basra. However he was arrested again on 4 February 1961 and held until 20 February. By this time his political stance and rising literary fame had brought him to the attention of the Congress for Cultural Freedom which invited him to attend a conference entitled 'The Arab Writer and the Modern World’ in Rome.[8] However in the same year, his health began to deteriorate. In April 1962 he was admitted to the American University Hospital in Beirut, and his literary friends, including Yusuf Al-Khal, paid his fees. On his return to Basra in September 1962 the Congress for Cultural Freedom provided ongoing financial assistance to him and arranged for him to go to London to seek medical advice.[10]

At the end of 1962, Sayyab travelled to the UK. Professor Albert Hourani had managed to grant him a fellowship at Durham University and he also thought about registering as a student at Oxford University to undertake a PhD, but was not able to do so. Admitted to St Mary's Hospital, London his illness was finally diagnosed as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis[11] From London he went to Paris for a week in March 1963, where his diagnosis was confirmed.[10][12]

In February 1964 his already poor health took a sudden turn for the worse, and he was taken into the Basra Port Hospital with double pneumonia, heart problems and an ulcer. As his treatment continued beyond what he could afford, the Society of Iraqi Authors and Writers, of which he was a member, secured the agreement of the Ministry of Health to continue caring for him. Eventually the Kuwaiti poet Ali Al-Sabti persuaded the Kuwaiti government to take over his treatment, and he was moved to the Amiri Hospital in Kuwait on 6 July 1964. While being treated there, he published a number of poems in the magazine Al-Ra'ed al-'Arabi ('The Arab Pioneer'). He died in the hospital on 24 December 1964.[10]


Statue of Badr Shakir al-Sayyab in Basra

Badr Shakir al-Sayyab's experiments helped to change the course of modern Arabic poetry. He produced seven collections of poetry and several translations, which include the poetry of Louis Aragon, Nazim Hikmet, and Edith Sitwell, who, with T. S. Eliot, had a profound influence on him.[4] At the end of the 1940s he launched the free verse movement in Arabic poetry, with Nazik al-Mala'ika, Abd al-Wahhab Al-Bayati and Shathel Taqa, giving it credibility with the many fine poems he published in the fifties.[13][14] The publication of his third volume, Rain Song, in 1960 was one of the most significant events in contemporary Arabic poetry, instrumental in drawing attention to the use of myth in poetry. He revolutionized every element of the poem and wrote on highly involved political and social topics, as well as many personal themes. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was greatly impressed and influenced by the poetry of Badr Shakir al-Sayyab.[15]

In the realm of literary controversy, Sayyab stated that Nazik al-Malaikah's claim to have discovered free verse herself was false, and drew attention to the earlier work of Ali Ahmad Bakathir (1910–69) who had developed the two-hemistich format in the mid 1930s. It was Bakathir in fact who had written fractured (caesura) poetry for the first time in Arabic poetry. Bakathir (1910–69), in the second edition of his book "Akhnatun wa Nefertiti", acknowledged the recognition Sayyab had brought him.[16]

In 2014, some of Sayyab's works were banned from the Riyadh International Book Fair by the Saudi authorities.[17]


  • Christ After Crucifixion (المسيح بعد الصلب)[18]
  • Wilting Flowers (أزهار ذابلة, 1947)
  • Hurricanes (أعاصير, 1948)
  • Flowers and myths (أزهار وأساطير, 1950)
  • Dawn of Peace (فجر السلام, 1951)
  • The Grave Digger (Long Poem) (حفار القبور, 1952)
  • The Blind Prostitute (المومس العمياء, 1954)
  • Weapons and Children (الأسلحة والأطفال, 1955)
  • Rain Song (انشودة المطر, 1960)
  • The Drowned Temple (1962, المعبد الغريق)
  • Alaguenan? Home (1963)
  • The Balcony of the Nobleman's Daughter (1964, شناشيل ابنة الجلبي)

See also[edit]



Suggested reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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  1. accessed 6/5/2017
  2. Humboldt Template:Webarchive Biography
  3. Encyclopaedia of Arabic Literature: K-Z By Julie Scott Meisami, Paul Starkey Contributor Julie Scott Meisami, Paul Starkey Published by Taylor & Francis, 1998 Template:ISBN p 696
  4. 4.0 4.1 Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry By Robert Atwan, George Dardess, Peggy Rosenthal Published by Oxford University Press US, 1997 Template:ISBN p 177
  5. P.254 accessed 7/5/2017
  6. accessed 7/5/2017
  7. Edmund A. Ghareeb, Beth Dougherty, Historical Dictionary of Iraq The Scarecrow Press Inc. 2004 p.212
  8. 8.0 8.1 accessed 8/5/2017
  9. Terri DeYoung, Placing the Poet: Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Postcolonial Iraq, SUNY Press, 1998 p.255
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 accessed 8/5/2017
  11. Terri DeYoung, Placing the Poet: Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Postcolonial Iraq, SUNY Press, 1998 p.286
  12. accessed 8/5/2017
  13. Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and the Free Verse Movement, by Issa J. Boullata 1970 Cambridge University Press.
  14. Modern Arabic Literature By Paul Starkey Published by Edinburgh University Press, 2006 Template:ISBN p 80
  15. Guardian 11 August 2008 Mahmoud Darwish by Peter Clark
  16. Qisar M.M. Badawai modern Arabic Literature Cambridge University Press 2006 p.155
  17. Template:Cite web