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'Abd al-Wahhab Al-Bayyati (1926-1999; also: Abdul Wahab Al-Bayati)


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  celebrated the rise of Arab nationalism and the struggle of workers. More than half his life he lived outside Iraq. His poetry is characterized by its deep historical sense, use of conversational quotations, and his commitment to the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed 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. "The Arab leaders are the enemies of their peoples," he said. 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, where he at the same time enjoyed the patronage of Hafez al-Assad and made made friends with Assad's political opponents. 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 the cafes of Damascus, where he had moved from Amman. 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
Oh Phoenix
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, Angels and Devils) 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. One of his major early works, Abariq muhashshama (1954, Broken Pitchers), 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, which attracted sometimes members of opposing political groups. During his poetry reading at the University of Pennsylvania in 1991, Sheik Omar Abdulrahman,  the mastermind behind the bombing of the World Trade Center, sat in the front row. 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, where loneliness is his new poetic homeland. 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.

For further reading: Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Contemporary World Writers, ed. by Tracy Chevalier (1993); 'Introduction' by Bassam K. Frangieh, in Love, Death, and Exile (1990); Poetry of Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati: Thematic and stylistic study by Khalil Shukrahhah- Rizk (1981); Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry, Vol. 2, by S.K. Jayyusi (1977); Poet of Iraq: Abdul Wahab al-Bayati. An introductory essay with translations by Desmond Stewart (1976); A Critical Introduction to Modern Arabic Poetry by M.M. Badawi (1975) 

Selected works:

  • Mala'ika wa shayatin, 1950 (Angels and Devils)
  • 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 (play; Trial in Nishapur)
  • 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 (The Eyes of the Dead Dogs)
  • Buka'iyya ila shams haziran wa al-murtaziqa, 1969
  • Al Kitaba al Teen, 1970 (Writing on clay)
  • Yawmiyyat siyasi muhtarif, 1970
  • Qasaid hubb 'ala bawwabat al-'alam al-sab, 1971 (Love Poems at the Seven Gates of the World)
  • Lilies and Death, 1972 (translated by Mohammed B. Alwan)
  • Sira dhatiyya li sariq al-nar, 1974 (Autobiography of the Thief of Fire)
  • Kitab al-bahr, 1974 (The Book of the Sea)  
  • Qamar Shiraz, 1976 (The Moon of Shiraz)
  • Poet of Iraq: Abdul Wahab al-Bayati. An introductory essay with translations by Desmond Stewart, 1976
  • The Singer and the Moon, 1976 (translated by Abdullah al-Udhari)
  • Eye of the Sun, 1978
  • Mamlakat al-sunbula, 1979 (The Kingdom of the Grain)
  • Sawt al-sanawat al-daw'iyya, 1979
  • Abdul Wahab al-Bayati, 1979 (a short introduction and four poems, translated by Desmond Stewart and George Masri)
  • Al-hubb tahta al-matar, 1985 - Love under the Rain (translated by  George Masri, 1979)
  • Bustan 'A'isha, 1989 (Aisha's Orchard)
  • Love, Death, and Exile, 1990 (translated by Bassam K. Frangieh)
  • Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati: sirah dhatiyah: al-qitharah wa-al-dhakirah, 1994
  • Kitab al-Marathi, 1995
  • Tannin, 1997
  • Khamsun qasidat hubb, 1997
  • Al-Bahr Ba'id, Asma'uh Yatanahhud, 1998 (The Sea is Distant, I Hear It Sighing)
  • Mudun wa-rijal wa-matahat, 1999
  • Nusus sharqiyah, 1999
  • Yanabi al-shams: al-sirah al-shi'riyah, 1999
  • Tahawwuklat 'A'ishah, 1999
  • Taranahha-yi ashiq-i avarah, 2002

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