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I. Ambiguïtés et paradoxes de l’héritage monarchique

Al-Jawâhîrî: between patronage and revolution

Al-Jawâhîrî, entre mécénat et révolution
Sami Zubaida
p. 81-98


La vie du poète Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawâhîrî coïncide avec l’histoire du xxe siècle et reflète les évènements fondateurs de la société et de l’État irakiens modernes, particulièrement dans la première moitié du siècle. Il fut partie prenante de la classe politique naissante associée à l’État et de la sphère publique dominée par cet État. Il fut un acteur éminent dans le champ de la littérature et du journalisme, il participa activement aux débats et aux intrigues qui ont caractérisé la vie du pays. Certains épisodes de sa vie illustrent l’imaginaire du nouvel Irak autant que ses tendances centrifuges et communautaires. Ils illustrent aussi les tournants de la vie publique et de la littérature, de la protection des puissants et des riches à un souci vers le “public”. Un public dont la conception fut marquée par les mouvements politiques en ascension, particulièrement les communistes et la gauche, auxquels Jawâhirî était très attachés.

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1Iraq formally became a nation-state under British Mandate in 1921. It was created by Britain under its protection and considerable influence, with a King imported from Hijâz. Faysal was put on the throne of Iraq after having been displaced as king of Syria by the French. He installed a “state class” drawn in part from his entourage in Damascus (mostly Syrians or Iraqis with Ottoman civil or military affiliations, Batatu’s “Sherifian officers”), and in part from Iraqi notable families. The years that followed saw the formation of an Iraqi national culture, an “imagined community”. The core of this community was an elite formed around state institutions, the new political field of parties and parliament, and above all around the emergent press and literary field. The members of this elite formed networks and factions, but these were often fluid and opportunistic. Politicians, officers, journalists and literati (these last two not distinct categories) congregated socially and professionally in particular cafés, salons and diwans (in the homes of notables).

2Newspapers were a crucial element of the incipient imagined community : they were the medium through which the community imagined itself. Benedict Anderson has assigned great importance to “print capitalism” in the formation of national political modernity (Anderson, 1991). Only here, the press did not always operate according to a capitalist logic : papers depended to a large extent on connections to government factions and parties for revenue and protection, as we shall see. Nevertheless, they were the media which carried the news, the polemics and the poetry through which the elite constructed conceptions and cognitions of the nation.

3This is not to deny the well known divisions of Iraqi society on religious, ethnic and tribal lines. It is just that these divisions were reconfigured into the new political and cultural field. Religious and tribal sectarianism were denounced by the new national and progressive ideologies as reactionary evils, obstacles to unity and progress. At the same time, they represented powerful forces within these new fields. These formations and divisions mutated under the new political and cultural conditions.

4This paper will explore aspects of these emergent cultural and political fields through the career of the poet Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawâhirî. The narratives are drawn primarily from his memoirs, Dhikrayâtî, which deal primarily with the formative period of modern Iraq under the Monarchy (till 1958), with a brief extension into the military regimes that followed.

5Muhammad Mahdî al-Jawâhirî was born in Najaf in 1903, and died in 1997. His life and work have followed the twentieth century, and the history of modern Iraq. His career of poetry, journalism and politics have marked, and been marked by the ebbs and tides of that history. He has been the poet of the “national movement”, al-haraka al-wataniyya, the general term which the communists and the democratic left had chosen to describe themselves. The great events of the century have been celebrated and (more frequently) mourned in his verses. Yawm al-shahîd (the day of the martyr) and akhî Ja‘far, (my brother Ja‘far), both written (and read out in public) of the events of 1948 known as al-wathba (“the leap”), in which the seething discontent of the masses crystallised around the opposition to the Portsmouth Treaty, a military pact extending British tutelage, and exploded in violent demonstrations brutally suppressed with police fire. Among those killed was the poet’s younger brother Ja‘far. Many Iraqis of that generation have memorised some of those lines. Many will not dispute his claim in the famous line:

Ana al-‘Irâqu, lisânî qalbuhu, wa-damî furâtuhu, wa-kiyânî minhu ashtâru

I am Iraq, my tongue is her heart, my blood her Euphrates, my being from her branches formed (Dîwân al-Jawâhirî, 1982)

  • 1 These aspects of Jawâhirî’s personality and career are elaborated in Salîm Tâha al-Tikrîtî, 1989. T (...)

6The paradox for students of his work and career is that this revolutionary, perpetually angry poet, has from time to time enjoyed, sometimes sought, the patronage of kings, presidents and even “feudal” shaykhs. These episodes, however, always ended with angry outbursts against these patrons which reversed any advantage he may have acquired. Then he would atone (in the eyes of his revolutionary friends) with renewed and even fiercer attacks on the authorities, the rulers, the rich, the imperialists and so on1.

7This vacillation is partly explicable in terms of his personality and his circumstances. He always complained of poverty, he was forever borrowing money, pleading for grants to help his newspaper and so on. Any windfall that came his way seemed to disappear fast. This would partly explain his resort to patronage but not his angry rejection of it. Another, more important, factor is that he belonged to that initial founding political class and remained loosely within its networks. These included princes and prominent politicians. In the 1940s and the 1950s, as we shall see, Jawâhirî was firmly affiliated with a crystallised political left which was distinct from and antagonistic to the founding political class. However, his network affiliations did not cease, and that was behind many of the paradoxes and contradictions we shall note.

8In terms of his poetry, Jawâhirî remained faithful to the classical forms and meters. He did not show any temptation to experiment with the modern forms favoured by his later contemporaries. In this respect he remained in the company of Shawqî and Hâfiz (prominent Egyptians of the early 20th century), of al-Risâfî and al-Zahâwî (prominent Iraqi poets of a slightly earlier generation), although he outlived them all by more than half a century. This literary style also raises questions, which I shall address briefly below.

9I should like to examine here some aspects of Jawâhirî’s career and work in terms of the social and institutional locations he occupied in Iraqi society, and the shifts in these positions with the developments and transformations of the country.

10On the one side, we have the mutating forms of traditional structures and institutions, with their concomitant attitudes, on the other, emergent aspects of political and cultural modernity. Some of the more paradoxical aspects of Jawâhirî’s career, conduct and poetry may be illuminated when we look at the contradictory forces and demands generated by these situations.

11Jawâhirî was born in Najaf, into a family of ulamâ notables. His particular branch was not rich. But his uncle was sufficiently influential in that milieu to be sought out for consultation and advice by King Faysal I and, Jawâhirî claims, offered a ministerial position which he rejected. The young Jawâhirî received the traditional Najafi education in fiqh and literature. At an early stage he rejected the prospect of a religious career, but realised his flair for literature, and started writing verse, which was admired, encouraged, and soon published in the incipient national press (Dhikrayâtî I, 29-102; al-Alawi, 1986: 15-24). Although he was later to criticise religious men and institutions, he remained firmly based within his Najafi lineage. His Shi‘i identity, his family status, above all, his Najafi patrons and protectors, including his influential uncle, all these were to remain important determinants of his life and career, especially in the early stages. The Sunni/ Shi‘i sectarian divide in Iraqi life and politics was part of this influence.

  • 2 The persecution of Shi‘is on the pretext of their Iranian affiliation continued under the Ba‘th reg (...)

12This factor is well illustrated in the famous episode of his clash with Sâti‘ al-Husrî in 1927. Al-Husrî (1880-1968) was an Ottoman official of Syrian origin who participated in the political and cultural currents of Ottoman life in the earlier years of the twentieth century as an Ottoman nationalist, but turned to Arab nationalism after World War I, and the formation of the Arab kingdom in Syria under Faysal (Cleveland, 1971). He became one of the foremost theorists and advocates of pan-Arab nationalism. Al-Husrî followed Faysal to Iraq and was appointed Director of Education. As part of Faysal’s attempt at sectarian balance, the Minister of Education was a Shi‘i from Najaf, but with no special competence or distinction in his field. The upper echelons of the Ministry were occupied by al-Husrî’s men, all Sunnis, many like him with an Ottoman background. Jawâhirî, according to his memoirs, was invited (through Najafi connections, and in view of his great literary promise) to take up a post as a teacher at a secondary school. By the time he got to Baghdad, the post had been scaled down to a primary school on the grounds that he did not possess the requisite school diplomas (Dhikrayâtî I, 141-144). Further his nationality status was questioned by the ministry: only those inhabitants of Iraq who had previously been Ottoman subjects had automatic entitlement to the new Iraqi nationality. Of course, the great majority of the population had no papers or documents of any kind which might prove their nationality. Some of the Shi‘is of the south, including the people of Najaf and Karbala’, had, under Ottoman rule, claimed Iranian affiliation in order to avoid military conscription and excessive taxation. According to Jawâhirî, his family, like most, had not claimed such affiliation, but had no papers to prove Ottoman nationality (a claim contradicted by al-Husrî, below). This opened the way for government functionaries to allege Iranian taba‘iyya (affiliation) against individuals from these regions when it suited them, often for sectarian reasons.2 In Jawâhirî’s account, this was the case in the directorate of education under al-Husrî and his clique when it came to his appointment. He was required to complete a form which asked nationality, religion, sect (Sunni or Shi‘i) and his school certificate (shahâda madrasiyya). Jawâhirî relates that he was outraged by these questions and answered them satirically: for nationality, he wrote Hindi, Indian, religion: Muslim, Sunni and Shi‘i: Yes, Muslim. Shahâda, certificate, also means affirmation of the unity of God, so he wrote: lâ ilâha illa allâh (Dhikrayâtî, I: 142). In the end, Jawâhirî was prevailed upon by the Minister to accept the primary school post, with the promise that it was only temporary. He started work at the school, but after a month was summoned to the office of the Director of Education (al-Husrî). There, he faced an accusatory committee headed by al-Husrî with his clique of (Sunni) officials. The charge: while on holiday in Iran he had written and published a poem, which, they alleged, praised that country and compared Iraq unfavourably with it. Jawâhirî protested (quite correctly if the now published poem is the same) that he was doing nothing of the sort, but expressing his longing for Iraq and his intimates there, despite the beauty of the Iranian mountains. Al-Husrî issued an order firing Jawâhirî from his post. The Shi‘i minister was outraged and considered the step a slight to his authority, so he cancelled the order and reinstated Jawâhirî. Al-Husrî responded by refusing to attend to his duties and staying at home in protest at the Minister’s interference. This matter became a crisis and a scandal, with newspapers and commentators taking sides and telling tales. In the end, the Minister asked Jawâhirî to resign his post, with the promise of something better to come. Jawâhirî complied, only to be faced by an order sacking him and recording that he had been fired and discounting his voluntary resignation (Dhikrayâtî I: 145-162).

13Jawâhirî reflected in his memoirs on the affront on the part of Sâti‘ al-Husrî, a Turk, for whom Arabic was a third language, and which he spoke with a heavy accent and needed an interpreter, to challenge the Arab identity and Iraqi credentials of a descendant of one of the illustrious Arab families of Najaf, from along line of literary and religious scholars, and he himself, at so young an age, was already a brilliant poet and a master of the language. Alluding to al-Husrî’s theories of Arab nationalism, inspired by German romantic notions of volk and language, Jawâhirî asked how his own Arab identity could be questioned. All nationalities and identities are honourable, so why was al-Husrî so concerned to assert his Arabism when he was a Turk, and why did he want to question the national credentials of others? It was of course the sectarianism that continued to be a feature of Iraqi politics (Dhikrayâtî I: 153-172). Pan-Arab nationalists, who were mostly Sunni Arabs, considered Shi‘is and Kurds a hindrance to the Arab identity of Iraq and their own aspiration to Arab unity.

14In his own memoirs al-Husrî tells a different story. He related that he first interviewed Jawâhirî in Najaf, at the request of the minister who proposed his appointment (Al-Husrî : 588-602). He (al-Husrî) had already been told that Jawâhirî was Iranian, and the latter confirmed it at the interview. Al-Husrî told him that they could not appoint an Iranian and Jawâhirî would have to acquire Iraqi nationality, at which the latter expressed hesitation and asked whether the salary was sufficient to compensate for the loss of Iranian nationality! In the end the minister procured Iraqi nationality for Jawâhirî and he was appointed. Al-Husrî then relates the episode of the poem on Iran which seemed to confirm to him and his associates Jawâhirî’s Iranian allegiance and his contempt for Iraq (which is at variance with all of Jawâhirî’s writing and sentiment), and the correspondence with the minister on the termination of Jawâhirî’s appointment. Whatever the facts of the case, the episode illustrates the strong sectarian sentiments which animated Iraqi politics from that early point. Al-Husrî and his associates, advocates of pan-Arab nationalism and unity, were paranoiac about the Shi‘is of Iraq, and despite the distinction he draws between Iraqi and Iranian “Ja‘faris”, it is clear that they are all suspect of Shu‘ûbiya, a term derived from the early Islamic history of Persian denigration of Arabs in the Abbasid court.

The Poet at Court

15Sectarian belonging was to determine the next episode in the life of our poet: his elevation to diwân al-tashrifat (office of protocol) at the Royal Court, as a protégé and confidant of Faysal I.

16The now (1927) unemployed and penniless Jawâhirî in Baghdad wrote to his uncle in Najaf complaining of his hardships. The latter directed him to call upon Sayyid Muhammad al-Sadr, then the leading Shi‘i notable in Baghdad (later to become a compromise Prime Minister for a short period in 1948). To Jawâhirî’s surprise and satisfaction, al-Sadr not only welcomed him to his majlis, but proposed that he should accompany him on a visit to the King the following day. Faysal clearly took to the young man, and appointed him to the Court Diwan, in company with sons of some of the most illustrious families.

17Faysal was clearly concerned to build bridges to the Shi‘i elite, since their senior ‘ulamâ always showed reserve towards him. What better than to pick a young man from a notable Najafi family, cultivate and train him for high office? He did not bargain for the kind of young man Jawâhirî turned out to be.

18Jawâhirî remained at court for three years, and it seems that Faysal showed him great kindness and favour. He got to know all the leading personalities who were to feature prominently in Iraqi politics and society in the first half of the century. He became part of the new national state and cultural elite mentioned above. He could subsequently call on one or other of them in his dark hours. His duties were nominal and light. He had plenty of time to concern himself actively in the emerging literary and newspaper scene of modern Iraq (Dhikrayâtî I: 179-244).

19At this stage, there seemed to be great vitality in the field of newspapers and periodicals, with debates and polemics about current events, the shape and objectives of the modern state, religion and modernity, education, women and other social questions. The contenders were often partisans of particular politicians, parties or social constituencies. Some of the ideas and polemics were expressed in verse, and Jawâhirî was clearly a talented and popular practitioner of the art. He was making a strong impression, and newspapers were willing to give his poems prominence on their front pages. He was also an active participant in cafés and literary circles, and a regular at some of the night spots, where, to judge by his memoirs and poems, he was fond of drink and the female entertainers. What was emerging in Iraq at the time was a public sphere, and a public opinion, with the press as its principal medium, but fed by the overlapping political and literary networks. Jawâhirî was a principal actor on that stage. Were these activities consistent with his exalted position at Court?

20The question was raised particularly acutely with respect to certain of his published poems containing lines which attacked aspects of religion and tradition. The most important was his al-Raj‘iyyûn (the reactionaries) against the opponents of a planned school for girls in his native Najaf in 1929. His attack on the hypocrisy and venality of some of the ‘ulamâ of his own milieu was quite harsh and direct. It included a line ……

wa-minhum lusûsun, wa-minhum lutâtun, wa-minhum zunâtu

and in their ranks there are thieves, and pederasts and fornicators (Dhikrayâtî I: 212).

21This caused outrage, not only in Najaf, but in all the Shi‘i centres, including Baghdad. Telegrams of protest and denunciations of the poet rained upon the newspaper that published the offending verse, as well as those directed to the King as the patron of the poet. Jawâhirî reflects: “I had denounced and ridiculed the whole of the old society” (Dhikrayâtî I, 212). This episode caused great embarrassment to Faysal, who was overwhelmed by vociferous complaints for sheltering such a person. Paradoxically, it was the very constituency which the King tried to cultivate through Jawâhirî which was the most offended by his undiplomatic outbursts.

22Jawâhirî eventually resigned from the Court. According to his memoirs the King was reluctant to accept his resignation. He recalls their parting with regret, but at the time his ambition was in journalism. He aspired to range freely in the cut and thrust of politics and literature and act as a full participant in the incipient public life of Iraq. He was encouraged in this ambition by Nûrî al-Sa‘îd, the foremost politician under the monarchy (until 1958), who sought him as a protégé and ally.

Jawâhirî in the political field

23The fact of the matter is that Jawâhirî saw himself increasingly as a spokesman for the nation, for the common people, the poor, and the oppressed. He was acquiring what his later Marxist associates called a “class position” (mawqif tabaqî). He was also acquiring a high opinion of himself, encouraged by the admiration and praise of the literary and political milieus, and the high position he occupied at Court. He liked to compare himself to the great figures of classical Arabic verse, notably to the Abbasid poet al-Mutanabbî (915-965). He too held his own worth and his art in high esteem, above the petty vanities and powers of this world; he too turned against and denounced his erstwhile patrons and benefactors. But unlike al-Mutanabbî, Jawâhirî opened his eyes in the modern age, with its particular kind of public space and media, and with the new ideological entities of “the nation” and, “the people”. There was now an alternative to patronage, what Benedict Anderson called “print capitalism”, which was where Jawâhirî went after leaving his royal patron, into journalism, with own newspaper Al-Furât (The Euphrates), to be later followed by al-Ra’y al-‘Amm (public opinion), which he published, on and off, until 1960. He was to discover, however, that in Iraq (and in the region a whole), as we have seen, “print capitalism” does not work without patronage.

24Al-Furât (the Euphrates) was started with funds and assistance from Nûrî al-Sa‘îd. Nûrî was busy recruiting promising men under his patronage, and he considered Jawâhirî as such (Dhikrayâtî I: 245-252). He was vying with his then rival Yasîn al-Hâshimi for Jawâhirî’s allegiance. Nûrî (then Prime Minister) issued directives to provincial administrations to subscribe to al-Furât, and Jawâhirî was overwhelmed with subscriptions, but only twenty issues were to appear. The paper became a forum for political polemics with the participation of ministers and parliamentarians. It was also attacked by Jawâhirî’s enemies, notably those in the Ministry of Education (members of al-Husrî’s clique). He replied in kind, with thinly veiled insults against particular persons. The affair ended up in court and the paper was shut down. This setback dovetailed into other troubles that Jawâhirî was getting into though his tendency to act on impulse, offend erstwhile friends and suffer the consequences (Dhikrayâtî I: 259-263).

25In his book of recollections of Jawâhirî (which generally cast him in a poor light) Salîm Tâha al-Tikrîti related that Nûrî al-Sa‘îd gave Jawâhirî four hundred rupees as subsidy to start al-Furât. Jawâhirî, according to this tale, immediately used the money to purchase many cases of a then popular Dutch beer, which he proceeded to drink with his associates. He subsequently got into severe debts with the printers and workers on the paper. Tikrîti considered this episode as typical of Jawâhirî’s unsteady conduct and his constant quest for funding, which always vanished, leaving him poor again (Tikrîtî: 18-19).

26Jawâhirî resigned from the court in 1930, and parted from the King (who had offered him a place on a study mission to Paris on a full salary, which he turned down) on amicable terms. The King and his entourage sponsored and aided his paper, and he continued to receive a monthly salary from the Court, but this was not to last. Jawâhirî’s indiscretions made it easy for his enemies to intrigue against him, and a poem apparently written in praise of the King contained lines which could be interpreted as veiled criticism. This was pointed out to Faysal, who, one assumes, was already counting the cost of his patronage. Shortly after, Jawâhirî also managed to antagonise Nûrî. Hence he lost the patronage of Nûrî and the King, lost his newspaper, and remained for a while unemployed and poor. He was rescued by the very Ministry of Education which had harboured his worst enemies, but now (1932) under Ja‘far al-Askari as Minister and Fâil al-Jamâli and ‘Abd al-Karîm al-‘Azri as his high ranking officials. They took him and gave him a job as a teacher at a primary school. It was then that he committed the greatest offence against Faysal in the Ibn Saûd episode.

27On the occasion of a visit of Faysal Ibn Saûd (son of the then King ‘Abd al-‘Azîz of Saudi Arabia) to Baghdad, Jawâhirî, who had no special connection or love for his dynasty, wrote a poem of praise and welcome, which he sent to Ibn Saûd (the father) with the request that it be published on the front page of Umm al-Qura, the official Saudi paper. It contained lines which praised the fortune of the Hijaz under his rule, and bemoaned the fate of “Najd’s neighbour” (that is, Iraq) under his rivals (that is, the Hashimites, and King Faysal in particular). His punishment for this was a transfer from the secondary school in Basra where he was teaching (having been transferred from Baghdad at his request) to one in Hilla, near his native Najaf, which did not trouble him greatly. On Faysal’s death in 1933, Jawâhirî declined an invitation to write a eulogy. In his memoirs, Jawâhirî expressed great regret for the break with Faysal and his subsequent open hostility. He clearly had great regard for the man, no doubt enhanced by what befell Iraq under subsequent rulers (Dhikrayâtî I: 273-287).

28During the 1930s, Jawâhirî continued with a mixture of teaching posts and journalism. He decided he did not want to be a teacher or a functionary, but to devote himself to poetry, journalism and politics. These were bloody years in Iraqi history, with Bakr Sidqi’s coup d’état in 1936. Jawâhirî supported the coup at first and issued a newspaper called al-Inqilâb (the coup) only to turn violently against it after a month. There was then the chaotic and brief rule of the young and foolish King Ghâzi, with his pro-Nazi adventurism, culminating (after Ghâzi’s death in suspicious circumstances in 1939) in Rashîd ‘Ali al-Gailani’s pro-Nazi coup in 1941. In all this turmoil the rival factions mobilised the southern tribes against one another, and there was much bloodshed. Commenting on this in his memoirs, Jawâhirî declared:

I was not created to be a teacher or functionary at any level. No, I have to carry those cares (of the dignity and the fate of masses) whether I like it or not. I entered politics (if that is the correct word) from the gate of participation with the people. Had I been created from another conception of politics I would have been a brick in the edifice of the rulers. Dhikrayâtî I : 309)

29The fact of the matter is that while Jawâhirî was certainly not a brick in their edifice, he knew them well. He was part of the founding elite of Iraqi politics and culture which also included the rulers; he moved in their circles and frequented their gatherings. His literary standing and sharp pen attracted both hostility and admiration. People wanted him on their side but could not count on his loyalty or reliability. Nevertheless, he always had influential friends and patrons.

  • 3 Ghâzî was succeeded on the throne by his infant son Faysal II, with his maternal uncle ‘Abd al-Ilâh (...)

30Jawâhirî’s great ambition was to enter parliament, where he would have a platform from which to speak for the people. To enter parliament in Iraq you needed a government patron, who would assure you nomination and election. In return you would have to give allegiance and loyalty, and no one could count on Jawâhirî in this respect. Just before the Bakr Sidqi coup of 1936, Yasîn al-Hâshimî reluctantly promised to help with the nomination for Karbala’, but he could not deliver, because influential enemies of the poet conspired to prevent it (Dhikrayâtî I : 316-322). He had even more powerful assistance for his parliamentary ambitions in the early 1940s, from the Regent (virtually the king) ‘Abd al-Ilâh (Dhikrayâtî I: 448-456).3 The Regent, who had great contempt for many of the politicians, was amused by Jawâhirî’s contemptuous satires. While these satires (especially the poem tartara, ridiculing the antics and pretensions of Sâlih Jâbir, a rising Shi‘i politician) got him into trouble, the Regent came to the rescue. And it was ‘Abd al-Ilâh who encouraged his parliamentary ambitions, and even paid the deposit for his candidature (again for Karbala). Intrigues at lower levels made it impossible for him to continue, and he withdrew. Eventually, he entered parliament in 1947, and even before he was confirmed he voted against the government (under his despised opponent Sâlih Jâbir) in a vote of confidence. This was a short lived parliament, overtaken by the violent events and upheavals of the wathba, “the leap” or uprising of that year. After that, ‘Abd al-Ilâh invited him to stand again for election after these events, but he declined, saying that he wanted to be elected by the people, not appointed. He regretted that decision subsequently.

31We see how these networks of politicians, royalty, journalists and literati worked with an inextricable mixture of intimacy, antagonism, factionalism and sometimes violence. Another illustration shows Jawâhirî as a political prisoner under the Sidqi government. In detention, police officers known for their savagery treat him with kid gloves, showering him with coffee and cigarettes. When he was eventually sentenced to two months in prison (for contempt of court - he insulted the judge that freed him!), his friends conspired to have him transferred to a hospital for the whole period on the pretext that he needed dental treatment (Dhikrayâtî I: 331-339). His subsequent spell in detention in 1952 was in the company of many leading political personalities, who were all handled very gently. Jawâhirî recalls with disgust the great banquets that his rich friends devoured in detention from the carloads of food brought to them by their families and servants, while the ordinary detainees among the “progressive youth” suffered the more ordinary privations of jail in a separate part of the same building.

32The atmosphere of the period is illustrated by the amusing episode of the soirée held in Qasr al-Rihâb, the Regent’s palace, on the occasion of the visit of Umm Kalthûm, the legendary Egyptian singer, in 1946. Jawâhirî wanted to avoid company, preferring to sit on his own enjoying a quarter of Iraqi arak, which would enhance his enjoyment of the performance. The problem was how to get this arak on such an exalted and formal occasion, and how to enjoy it undisturbed. His plan was first threatened by a religious man, an ‘âlim, of his acquaintance who sought him out. He managed to get away from him politely and found the waiter Hanna, whom he knew from his court days. Hanna gave him his own (Hanna’s) quarter-bottle (rub‘iyya) wrapped in a cloth, and he sat by himself getting slowly inebriated. He was noticed by ‘Abd al-Ilâh and Nûrî, who were sitting nearby and were amused by his evident inebriation, and who gestured to him to join them.The two of them and a group of young officers asked whether he had no verses for the occasion. He pleaded that he could not rival the great singer and returned to his drink (Dhikrayâtî I: 441-445).

33Here was Jawâhirî, the champion of the people against the rulers, the scourge of the upper classes and their imperialist masters, but also the intimate and protégé of the two pillars of the pro-British establishment, Nûrî al-Sa‘îd and ‘Abd al-Ilâh. In his memoirs, Jawâhirî expresses his respect for these two because they were men of integrity and honour. Unlike Sâlih Jâbir and others of his ilk, they were not opportunists and hirelings of imperialism, but statesmen who supported Britain and the West out of political conviction, or at least this is what he says in his memoirs written in the 1980s. We may imagine that his appreciation of this period and its rulers is coloured by the horrors that came after them.

Jawâhirî and the Left

34Politically, the Second World War and Britain’s alliance with the Soviet Union opened up the political field to heightened activity in which the left, and especially the Communist Party, were prominent. Although he never belonged to a party, Jawâhirî’s sympathies and affiliations were clearly with the left, and he shared a degree of partisanship for the Soviet Union. He related with pride the episode when someone brought Fahd, the legendary Secretary of the CP (later hanged by Nûrî in 1949), to see him. He asked whether Jawâhirî would consider an article he wrote for publication in Al-Ra’y al-‘Amm. Jawâhirî handed it to the printer straight away without reading it. It was a piece of economic analysis which, he reports, caused quite a stir. Jawâhirî’s political advocacy was to reach its height in the episodes of the wathba in 1947 and the intifâ∂a of 1952. This was also to change his relationship with the ruling elite.

35The wathba was the reaction to the proposed Portsmouth Treaty, a military pact which was to prolong the Anglo-Iraqi treaty for 25 years. This was opposed by all, nationalists and leftists. Demonstrations against it were fired on by the police and many fell, including Jawâhirî’s young brother Ja‘far. The continuing ferocity of the rejection movement in the streets and by so many influential sectors of Iraqi society, led to the cancellation of the treaty by the Palace, and the fall of the government responsible for it and its premier, Sâlih Jâbir, Jawâhirî’s old antagonist.

36The paradoxes continued. Ja‘far’s funeral procession from Baghdad to Najaf, which turned into a political demonstration in every town it passed, included a personal representative of the Regent, Tahsîn Qadrî, Chief of Protocol.

37At the end of the mourning rituals, Jawâhirî mounted the roof of the Haydarkhana Mosque in Baghdad, and through the loudspeakers recited the poem he composed for the occasion, Akhî Ja‘far. This was unexpected and unannounced, but by the time he reached the fourth line, a great crowd began to gather in Rashid Street below. I shall come back to this phenomenon, the poetry of public spaces, which has since become extinct in the region except under license from the ruler.

38Another paradoxical episode took place in 1948. Jawâhirî was invited to attend the International Congress of Intellectuals in Warsaw, presumably as a sympathiser with the Communists if not a fellow-traveller. This was the beginning of the Cold War, and Iraq was firmly in the Western camp. There is also an air of fear and caution in the aftermath of the wathba. He needed a travel permit, so he called on the Baghdad Chief of Police, who said that it was not in his power to grant the permit and referred him to the Minister of the Interior, who granted his request. He had no money for his fare, so he borrowed a hundred dinars from the Prime Minister, Muzahim al-Pachachi, an old friend from the court days. He realised at the last moment that he needed a French visa for a stop in Paris. It was late in the evening and the embassy was closed, so he resorted to Tashîn Qadrî at the Court (Dhikrayâti : 33-47) took him to a grumpy ambassador to be given the visa. On the plane to Cairo and then to Paris he met the same Prime Minister and his entourage, as well as Nûrî al-Sa‘îd, who was by then antagonistic to him for the part that he had played in the wathba, and who made a tasteless jest in that regard.

39Nûrî was shortly to come back as Prime Minster to institute martial law and a period of intensified repression from which Jawâhirî was also to suffer. It was the final reversal of the popular gains of the wathba. It was during this period, in 1949, that four leaders of the communist party, including Fahd, were hanged in public squares in Baghdad. Jawâhirî wrote some of the most important of his political poetry during these years, the late forties and early fifties. Poems like al-Jiyâ‘ (The hungry), Atbiq Dujâ (Fall, darkness) and Muthqalûn bi-l-hadîd (Weighted with iron, about the political prisoners, read out at the Lawyers Congress in 1951). In 1949 he was invited to celebrate some honours bestowed by one of Britain’s medical colleges on Hâshim al-Wutri, Dean of the Medical School and an old friend. He used the occasion to denounce the increasing despotism and repression of the rulers, many of whom were present, to the embarrassment of all. Those “progressive youth” present did not dare to applaud or demand the repetition of lines, which is the usual response, they merely moved their chairs noisily in mute appreciation (Dhikrayâtî II: 57-78). He was to suffer for that in detention, investigation, closing down his paper, and poverty. Even under these conditions, Jawâhirî received occasional gifts of money, from, among other, the “feudalist” Shaykh Balasim al-Yâsîn, a tribal landowner from the south.

40In all these episodes, Jawâhirî was becoming increasingly identified with the “national movement”, that is the left, especially the CP. He became active, for instance, in the fellow-travelling movement “Partisans of Peace”. These factors should have established a distance between him and his associates in the Court and the ruling circles. However, he was to return to the patronage game in an episode which he later considered the most shameful of his life: his panegyric to the young Faysal II on the occasion of his coronation in 1954. Jawâhirî records that he even volunteered to do this with enthusiasm at first, only realising the enormity of his gesture when it came to the night itself. He does not explain why he did it. He had clearly been in a mind set of his association with the Court, his affection for Faysal I, his affinity with ‘Abd al-Ilâh. Only later did it hit him that the scene had been radically transformed, the new had become irreparably split, rulers from ruled, and that he had taken his position within this split and was expected to stick to it, at least in public. He suffered from denunciations, satires and charges of betrayal from many of those he considered friends and affiliates. Very soon after that episode he wrote a poem of regret (kufaratun wa-nadam). The Regent, however, felt indebted to him for this gesture, even though he renounced it subsequently (Dhikrayâtî II: 121-132; al-Tikriti: 113-120). He instructed all the ministers to give him what he wanted and to facilitate his affairs. When Al-Ra’y al-‘Amm was closed down by Nûrî’s government in 1954, along with other opposition papers, ministers acting on the Regent’s direction offered Jawâhirî a piece of farming land not too far from Baghdad, as an alternative way of making a living. He accepted and started farming with hired labour. This lasted for two years at first. He was not too good a farmer or a financial manager, and debts accumulated. In 1956 he left the farm and went to live in Syria for a year, virtually a guest of the Syrian government, which later got him into trouble in Iraq. He went back to his farm for a short while, received more government grants and loans, and eventually gave up, overtaken by the tumultuous events of the 1958 revolution. This coup d’état overturned the monarchy with a bloody massacre of the royal family. It thus did away with the old ruling classes who had been Jawâhirî’s patrons. But Jawâhirî was soon to find new patrons in the revolutionary regime which promoted (initially) many of his associates on the left.

Jawâhirî after the Monarchy

41Under Qâsim, Jawâhirî enjoyed a period of considerable power and influence. Qâsim sought him out and showered him with favours. He became naqîb (doyen) of the Journalist’s Associations, as well as President of the Union of Iraqi Writers. He travelled widely in the socialist countries on official missions, and seemed to have particularly good relations with them. Jawâhirî claimed that the Soviet ambassador used him as the messenger to warn Qâsim of the assassination plot against him by ‘Abd al-Salâm ‘Arif’s men in 1958. It was to be the East German First Secretary who was to warn Jawâhirî in 1961 of an assassination plan against him, and to invite him to visit Berlin to evade it. For, sure enough, Jawâhirî did fall out with Qâsim, in refusing to follow his twists and turns and balancing acts. He did leave Iraq into exile not in Berlin but Prague, where he stayed with his family until 1968 (Dhikrayâtî II, 201-284).

42The leaders of the Ba‘thist coup of 1968 invited Jawâhirî to return. They were suffering from a deficit of legitimacy and tried hard to appropriate the symbols of the national movement, and a prominent one of those was Jawâhirî. He did go back to great celebrations of welcome. He was friendly with Sâlih Mahdi Ammash, one of the main leaders of the Ba‘thist regime, himself a poet, and they exchanged verses. He stayed in Iraq, on and off, until 1980. The nearest he came to showing support or approval for President al-Bakr and Saddam was during the period of the National Front with the Communists in the 1970s (Dhikrayâtî II: 315-325). Soon afterwards he left and divided his exile between Prague and Damascus. His favourite activity in Prague was drinking beer in the Slavinsky Dom Café, in company with various Iraqi exiles.

43In an interview with the London Arabic newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsa in November 1991, Jawâhirî looked back on the various periods of his life. Like many political Iraqis he was nostalgic for the days of ancien régime, which he recalled as days of freedom! Indeed, compared to what came after it, there was, most of the time, considerable freedom.

A note on the poetry of public spaces

44A connection may be made (and has been suggested by Jabrâ Ibrahîm Jabrâ) (Jabrâ, 1969) between Jawâhirî’s chosen poetic forms, the classical meters, and the contexts of the communication of his poetry. We have seen how many of his famous poems were first communicated by public recitation to large enthusiastic crowds. There would be loud demands to repeat a particular line, and again, and so on, and many listeners would memorise the verses on the spot. Since then, such avenues of direct communication have been largely closed. Technically, the electronic media, television, transistors and cassettes have become dominant in the field. Politically, totalitarian regimes have established firm and often repressive control over communications. In Ba‘thist Iraq such spontaneous public communication would have been unthinkable, but even in more liberal Egypt, anything involving public political communications is watched and controlled. Is Jawâhirî’s classical form then a function of the poetry of public spaces? And has the age of television and political totalitarianism made these forms less attractive and favoured modernistic experimentation?


  • 4 “Al-Mutanabbî” in Encyclopedia of Islam, Volume 3, Leiden 1936, 781-4.

45The career of Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawâhirî and his personality span tradition and modernity in literary production, between the patronage of the rulers and the notables and the orientation to a national “public”. In this tension the model of al-Mutanabbî was appropriate. Al-Mutanabbî had a high opinion of himself: as his kunya, epithet, al-Mutanabbî, indicates he aspired to prophethood in his youth, preaching to desert Bedouins and, by some accounts leading a revolt in Syria4. He grew up in Kûfa, in a Shi‘i milieu, and was influenced by the Qarmatians (a militant Isma‘ili sect). A poet at that time could only make a living from patronage, and his biography shows him travelling from one Middle Eastern court to another, seeking and obtaining patronage in each. Yet, he fell out with most of his patrons, perhaps because he thought himself to be too exalted to engage in flattery and sycophancy to inferiors. His most celebrated satire was against his erstwhile patron Kâfûr al-Ikhshîdî, ruler of Egypt, originally an Ethiopian slave. Al-Mutanabbî was not satisfied with his status as a courtier and a panegyrist, and aspired to power in his own right. He turned on Kâfûr when the latter reneged on his promise to give him the governorship of Tyre. His death, reportedly, was due to a quixotic act of bravado. In 965 al-Mutanabbî was attacked by Bedouin robbers in the Syrian desert, and was about to flee, when his servant taunted him with his famous lines: “I am known to night and horses and the desert, to sword and lance, to parchment and pen”. He turned and fought and was killed (Irwin, 2000: 221-2).

46Jawâhirî, too, lived mostly by patronage, but was always resentful of his patrons, and affected by the intrigues of courtiers, politicians and rivals. He, too, aspired to power and public position in his own right, and was foiled and disappointed at every attempt. He, too, engaged in quixotic gestures, antagonizing his patrons by gratuitous offence. The crucial difference, however, was that of the incipient modernity into which Jawâhirî was thrust. Jawâhirî’s milieu and that of his patrons was one of the emerging state-class, and of a public sphere and a political field. However much he antagonized his patrons and fought his contemporaries he remained part of that state-class, and oscillated between its magnates and “the public”. Unlike al-Mutanabbî, Jawâhirî’s public was not confined to the courts and a literary elite, but “the nation”, al-sha‘b, to whom he addressed many of his verses

Nâmî jiyâ‘ al-sha‘b, nâmi; ßarasatki ’âlihatu al-a‘âmi,

o hungry of the nation, sleep ; may the gods of food watch over you.

47And the sha‘b responded with adulation. No Bedouin or Qarmati messianism for Jawâhirî, but the politics of the “class struggle” and of world revolution. The political power of position which Jawâhirî failed to obtain, he made up for as the revered poet of “the masses”, and of public spaces. The two worlds of patronage and of the politics of the left strangely came together in the tumultuous cortège of his brother Ja‘far’s funeral, the occasion of one of his most memorable poems, akhî Ja‘far, but with the participation of Tahsîn Qadrî, the Chief of Protocol at the Royal Court.

48After Jawâhirî’s break with Qâsim he returned to patronage, but of a very different kind, that of political parties and states. He moved between Czechoslovakia and Syria, with a short stay in Ba‘thist Iraq in its early years. But his form of patronage no longer involved the personal and ambivalent relationships and networks of the Iraqi political and literary classes.

49That paradoxical world of the first half of the twentieth century in Iraq has passed, giving way to an absolute tyranny which surpassed those of its predecessors and neighbours, and which has colonized public spheres and political fields. The traces of that world, exemplified in Jawâhirî’s life, may yet inspire a more hopeful future of public participation and citizenship.

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Alawî (al-) Hasan, 1986, Al-Jawâhirî, Diwân al-‘aÒr, Damascus : Wizârat al-Thaqâfa.

Anderson Benedict, 1991, Imagined Communities, London : Verso.

Cleveland William L., 1971, The Making of an Arab Nationalist : Ottomanism and Arabism in the Life and Thought of Sâti’ Al-Husrî, New Jersey : Princeton University Press.

Batatu Hanna, 1978, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq : a study of Iraq's Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba'thists, and Free Officers, New Jersey : Princeton University Press.

Husrî (Al-) Sâti‘, Mudhakkirâtî fi-l-‘Iraq 1921-41 (My Memoirs of Iraq 1921-41)

Irwin Robert (ed.), 2000, Night and Horses and the Desert The Overlook Press, New York.

Jabrâ Jabrâ Ibrahîm, 1969, “Al-Shâ‘ir wa-l-Hâkim wal-Madaniyya” (The poet, the ruler and civilization), in Hâdi al-‘Alawî (ed.), Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawâhirî : Diraâat Naqdiya, Baghdad.

Jawâhirî (al-) Muhammad Mahdi, 1991, Dhikrayâtî, Damascus : Dar al-Rafidain, Volume 1, 1988 ; Volume 2.

Jawâhirî (al-) Muhammad Mahdi, 1982, Diwân al-Jawâhirî, Beirut : Dâr al-‘Awda, (4 vol. ).

Kutschera Chris (ed.), 2005, Le livre noir de Saddam Hussein, Paris, Oh Edition.

Sha‘ban ‘Abd al-Husayn, 2002, Man huwa al-‘irâqi ? Ishkâliyat al-jinsiya wal-lâ-jinsiya fi al-qânûnayn al-irâqi wa-l-duwali (Who is an Iraqi : the problematic of nationality and non-nationality in Iraqi and international laws), London.

Rahe Jens-Uwe, 2005, “La déportation des chiites en Iran”, in Chris Kutschera (ed.), Le livre noir de Saddam Hussein, Paris, Oh Edition : 255-268.

Tikrîti (al-) Salîm Tâha, 1989, Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawâhirî, London : Riad El-Rayyes.

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1 These aspects of Jawâhirî’s personality and career are elaborated in Salîm Tâha al-Tikrîtî, 1989. These are recollections from Jawâhirî’s life and career from a journalist who had many close associations with the poet. These tales present the poet in a not altogether friendly light, highlighting his foibles and political oscillations.

2 The persecution of Shi‘is on the pretext of their Iranian affiliation continued under the Ba‘th regime until its demise in 2003, with waves of expulsion and expropriation of Shi‘i families, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. On these quirks of Iraqi nationality law and practice, see Sha‘bân, 2002, and Rahe, 2005.

3 Ghâzî was succeeded on the throne by his infant son Faysal II, with his maternal uncle ‘Abd al-Ilâh as Regent. ‘Abd al-Ilâh was the uncrowned king and, with Nûrî al-Sa’îd, the most powerful man in the Monarchical regime.

4 “Al-Mutanabbî” in Encyclopedia of Islam, Volume 3, Leiden 1936, 781-4.

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Sami Zubaida, « Al-Jawâhîrî: between patronage and revolution », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 117-118 | juillet 2007, mis en ligne le 27 juillet 2007, consulté le 22 mars 2017. URL :

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Sami Zubaida

Emeritus Professor of Politics and Sociology, Birkbeck College, University of London.

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