Prolific Iraqi poet, one of the most important Arab avant-garde writers from the 1950s with Nazik al-Mala'ika and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. Al-Bayyati lived outside Iraq for more than half his life. His poetry is characterized by its deep historical sense, use of conversational quotations, and his commitment to the revolutionary struggle of the workers and poor against evil forces. "I write for people who live and die in society, and I have to offer them my vision..." Between the years 1950 and 1998, al-Bayyati published some 35 collections of verse.
"The Ship of Fate moved on,
Sinbad of the Wind never came,
How was it you came when our wells
Are poisoned, where can you have come from?
Did we meet before I came to be?"
(from 'The Impossible')
'Abdal-Wahhab al-Bayyati was born in Baghdad. Near his home was the shrine of the 12th century Sufi Abdel Qadir al-Jilani. After graduating from Baghdad University in 1950, al-Bayyati became a teacher. He taught in public schools and edited one of the most widely circulated cultural magazines, Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida (The New Culture). From his early youth, Al-Bayyati had been involved in radical communist politics, and he was soon dismissed for his antigovernment activities. He left Iraq in 1954, and lived in exile in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. Al-Bayyati returned to Iraq after the 1958 overthrow of the royal regime. The republican Iraqi government appointed him to a post in the Ministry of Education.
In 1959, al-Bayyati went to Moscow as cultural attaché at the Iraqi embassy but resigned in 1961. He taught at the Asian and African Peoples' Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and travelled widely in the Eastern Europe. He returned to his home country again after the 1968 coup when the pan-Arab, socialist Ba'th party took the control of the regime. Al-Bayyati fled again a few years later to escape the brutal campaign against leftists. In 1972 he was back in Baghdad and honored by the present government. He was eventually assigned in 1980 by Saddam Hussein as cultural attaché to Iraq's diplomatic mission in Madrid. Following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, al-Bayyati left his post in Spain. He sought refuge in Jordan and moved in 1996 to Syria. In 1995, Saddam Hussein's government stripped him of his citizenship after he visited Saudi Arabia to participate in a cultural festival. Al-Bayyati spent his last days with fellow Iraqi exiles in Damascus cafes. He died on August 3, 1999, of a heart attack. Despite his anti-government stand, al-Bayyati's books were sold in Baghdad book shops.
"What did I ever come by
While you returned only
As virgin field a hearth
That dies again in the cold
A door not holding
Against the wind
Again you were
A worn book read by lovers
A book sold by the scribes
A tattered bone
A hope envenomed
When Aisha had returned"
(from 'Elegy for Aisha')
Al-Bayyati began his career as a writer with a commitment to proletarian struggle, but also drew on mythological and historical material from the rich literary legacy of the great mystics. His first collection, Mala'ika wa shayatin (1950) still followed the Romantic, popular trend. Al-Bayyati was among the first Iraqi poets who broke away from classical forms and joined the free verse movement in the 1950s. In 1954 appeared one of his major works, Abariq muhashshama (broken pitchers). It was written mostly in free verse and became known all over the Arab world. His subsequent collections made him the leading representative of the Socialist Realist school in modern Arabic poetry. Al-Bayyati wrote simple language which came near the common speech. He also used literary allusions and elements from the traditional poetry, popular proverbs, sayings, and snatches of dialogue. These he weaved into his call of the revolutionary change of the world. He celebrated the rise of Arab nationalism and the struggle of workers. Some of his poems were addressed to such figures as Mao Zedong, Maxim Gorkii, Vladimir Maiakovskii and Ernest Hemingway.
Most of Al-Bayyati's later poetry was influenced by Sufism. The separation from Iraq, his wife and four children reflected often in the nostalgic tone of his work. He also expressed his doubts and sadness: "From the depths I call out to you, / With my tongue dried up, and / My butterflies scorched over your mouth. / Is this snow from the coldness of your nights?" (from Sifr al-faqr wa al-thawrah, 1965) The figure of A'isha, Omar Khayyam's beloved, appears often. She is for the poet the symbol beauty and love, "A saint fleeing in the middle of the darkness", who gives him hope and a reason to believe in a better life.
Mala'ika wa shayatin, 1950
Abariq muhashshama, 1954
Risala ila Hazim Hikmet wa quas'aid ukhra, 1956
Al-Majd li al-atfal wa al-zaytun, 1956
Ash'ar fi al-manfa, 1957
Ishrun qasida min Berlin, 1959
Kalimat la tamut, 1960
Muhakama fi Nisabur, 1963
Al-Nar wa al-kalimat, 1964
Sifr al-faqr wa al-thawra, 1965
Alladhi ya'ti wa laya'ti, 1966
Al Mawt fi al Hayat, 1968
Tajribati al-shi'riyya, 1968
'Ulyun al-kilab al-mayyita, 1969
Buka'iyya ila shams haziran wa al-murtaziqa, 1969
Al Kitaba al Teen, 1970
Yawmiyyat siyasi muhtarif, 1970
Qasaid hubb 'ala bawwabat al-'alam al-sab, 1971
Lilies and Death, 1972 (trans. Mohammed B. Alwan)
Sira dhatiyya li sariq al-nar, 1974
Kitab al-bahr, 1974
Qamar Shiraz, 1976
Poet of Iraq: Abdul Wahab al-Bayati. An introductory essay with translations by Desmond Stewart, 1976
The Singer and the Moon, 1976 (trans. Abdullah al-Udhari)
Eye of the Sun, 1978
Mamlakat al-sunbula, 1979
Sawt al-sanawat al-daw'iyya, 1979
Abdul Wahab al-Bayati, 1979 (a short introduction and four poems, trans. Desmond Stewart and George Masri)
Al-hubb tahta al-matar, 1985 - Love under the Rain (transl. Desmond Stewart and George Masri)
Bustan 'A'isha, 1989
Love, Death, and Exile, 1990 (trans. Bassam K. Frangieh)
Al-Bahr Ba'id, Asma'uh Yatanahhud (The Sea is Distant, I Hear It Sighing), 1998