Book Reviews

By: Mahmoud El-Wardani

Unshudat Al-Matar (Rainsong),
Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab,
Cairo: General Organisation for Cultural Palaces
(Writing Horizons Series), 2000. pp291

Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab, The phenomenally popular Iraqi poet Badr Shaker Al- Sayyab is one of the earliest voices of contemporary (taf'ila) Arabic poetry, and one that remained remarkably grounded in the metric traditions of old. His is a powerful and enduring voice. A passionate lyricist, he sang the subdued glories of his birthplace, Jaykour, writing of love, loss and homesickness and often touching on the social and political issues that occupied other facets of his life. Al- Sayyab died at the age of 38, leaving behind not only one of the modern age's most acclaimed diwan but a legacy of personal sensitivity and collective struggle. With an illuminating, partially biographical introduction by critic Nabil Yassine, this representative selection, issued in an affordable popular edition, includes some of Al-Sayyab's best known works, from the omnipresent title poem to such poems as Ila Jamila Bouhraid (To [the Algerian martyr] Jamila Bouhraid), as well as such longer, less superficially polished poems as Al-Moumis Al- Amyaa (The Blind Prostitute).

Al-Aamal Al-Nathriya Al-Kamila
(Complete Prose Works),
Nazik Al-Mala'ika,
Cairo: Supreme Council for Culture,
2002. pp510

Nazik Al-Mala'ika The contributions of Iraqi poet Nazik Al-Mala'ika were not confined to pioneering taf'ila poetry in the late 1940s alone, for she also prophesied the emergence of the prose poem in Arabic and participated in its study and development. A commendable step on the part of the Supreme Council for Culture, Al-Mala'ika's prose has now been made available in its entirety in two volumes. The first includes Qadaya Al-Shi'r Al-Mu'asir (Issues of Contemporary Poetry, 1962) and Sykolojia Al-Shi'r (The Psychology of Poetry, 1979), while the second includes Al-Sawma'a wal-Shurfa Al- Hamraa (The Hideaway and the Red Balcony, 1965), Al-Tajazu'iya fil- Mujtama' Al-Arabi (Disintegration in Arab Society, 1974) and Al-Shams Allati wara' Al-Qimma (The Sun behind the Summit), a collection of short stories written through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Al-Aamal Al-Shi'riya Al-Kamila
(Complete Poetry), Nazik Al-Mala'ika,
Cairo: Supreme Council for Culture,
2002. pp542

Nazik Al-Mala'ikaIt is to the credit of the Supreme Council for Culture that it has republished the work of Iraq's leading woman poet, one of the earliest writers to undertake writing in taf'ila (free verse) and an abiding force in Arab literary life. The destruction of traditional poetic forms in favour of the free verse of taf'ila was not merely an innovation in the sounds of poetry, but it also marked a transformation in poetry's spirit and intellectual import. Epoch-making collections by Al-Mala'ika, such as Qararat Al-Mawja (The Depth of the Wave, 1957), Shajarat Al-Qamar (Moon Tree, 1978), Lil-Sala wal- Thawra (For Prayer and Revolution, 1978) and Yughayir Alwanahu Al-Bahr (The Sea Changes Colour, 1976), are all included in the present volume, as are eight other poems published separately at different points in the poet's long and illustrious career.

Qamar Shiraz (The Moon of Shiraz),
Abdel-Wahab Al- Bayati, Baghdad: Information Ministry
(Modern Arab Diwan Series),
1975. pp153

Abdel-Wahab Al- BayatiQamar Shiraz was the late Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayati's 25th book of poetry. One of the greatest voices of contemporary Arabic poetry, Al-Bayati started writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the poems included in this collection, written when Al-Bayati was living in Baghdad some 25 years ago, are inspired by Arab nationalism and treat, directly or indirectly, Arab dreams of national liberation and social transformation. Al-Bayati's own stays in Iraq, however, were short-lived, and both before and after the publication of this book he lived in Egypt, Syria, Europe and the former Soviet Union before settling finally in Amman, Jordan.

An Al-Akhdar Ibn Youssef wa Mashaghiluhu
(Al-Akhdar Ibn Youssef and his Concerns),
Saadi Youssef, Baghdad: Information Ministry
(Modern Arab Diwan Series), 1972. pp118

(Al-Akhdar Ibn YoussefThese poems by Saadi Youssef, one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary Arabic poetry, were written during the early 1970s in a number of Arab capitals including Baghdad, Algiers and Damascus. Now based in London, Youssef published 10 collections of poetry while living earlier in Baghdad, Amman, Beirut and Cairo. A perpetual wanderer, he participated in the Palestinian revolution while it was based in Beirut, joining the ranks of the Lebanese resistance during the Civil War. Drawing on imaginary and historical Arab characters, Youssef has developed a poetic form of his own, progressing from taf'ila to prose poetry and incorporating aspects of narrative and drama rarely encountered in the predominantly lyrical traditions of contemporary Arabic poetry.

Watan li-Tuyour Al-Maa,
Ali Jaafar Al-Allaq, Baghdad: Information Ministry
(Modern Arab Diwan Series), 1975. pp189

Ali Jaafar Al-Allaq Ali Jaafar Al-Allaq belongs to the second generation of the pioneers of modern Arab poetry, his work arriving in the wake of that of Nazik Al-Mala'ika, Abdel-Wahab Al- Bayati and Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab. His poetry bears witness to the transformation of a collective, nationally oriented voice to one expressing individual existence and personal concerns. This particular collection is a benchmark in the history of modern Iraqi poetry, including poems written in the tradition of Al-Allaq's direct predecessors, as well as more experimental, individualist poems and poems that combine features from both schools.

Haffat Al-Amal (Edges of Hope),
Salah Al-Nasrawi,
Cairo: Merit for Publication and Information,
2003. pp175

Salah Al-Nasrawi Set firmly in the contemporary world, this first novel of Nasrawi, a senior Associated Press journalist, takes place against the backdrop of the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s, the author's principal concern seeming to be to expose the corruption and tyranny of the Saddam regime, a process that assumes many forms including personal memoirs and contemplative writing.

Haffat Al-Qiyama (The Edge of Judgment Day),
Zuheir Al- Jazairi,
Damascus: Al-Mada Publishing Company, 1998. pp303

Zuheir Al- JazairiWritten in London in the period 1991 to 1997, this is the latest novel by the well-known Iraqi novelist Zuheir Al- Jazairi. A perpetual wanderer and Jean Genet's companion during the latter's stay with Palestinian fidaiyeen in Jordan, Al-Jazairi is a vital man of letters whose somewhat Kafkaesque vision finds expression in a range of literary registers. Populated by tormented souls whose actions emanate as much from the oppressing circumstances of their lives as from free will, Haffat Al-Qiyama is a tour-de-force of human alienation. "Tiny demons the size of flies, made out of red-hot debris, circle him and bump into his pillow..." the author writes at the end of the novel. "Doors that open and close, letting nobody in or out. Then a black cloak descends on him, blocking out the last light."

I'tirafat Tajir Al-Luhoum (Confessions of the Market Butcher),
Hussein Al-Mawazni,
Germany: Jamal Publications, 1997. pp187

Hussein Al-MawazniBorn in Iraq in 1954, the author of this novel left for Lebanon in 1978, finally to settle in Germany in 1980. Prior to the present volume's appearance, he produced one collection of short stories and several translations from German literature. Described as "a delightful novel" by its publisher, the book is both economical and inventive, dealing, in unexpected and often entertaining ways, with the predicament of contemporary Arabs. A modern novel in the most impressive sense, it does away with clichés and predetermined notions of writing, achieving a precision of vision and technique rarely encountered in contemporary novels in Arabic.

Riyah Sharqiya (Eastern Winds),
Mahdi Eissa Saqr, Cairo: Dar Eshtar
(Culture Against the Siege Series), 1998. pp497

Mahdi Eissa SaqrThe author of this novel belongs to an older generation of writers, his first collection of short stories having appeared in 1954, with his last novel, Ashwaq Ta'ir Al- Lail (Longings of the Night Bird) being published in 1995. "In my novel," the author states, "a young man attempts to write a novel. One of the characters has asked him, 'Please tell me why do you write?' And he comments, 'I was taken aback, for I had never asked myself that question, but at that moment I remembered something of my childhood. I told him that when we were children we used to compete amongst ourselves as to who could emit the loudest screams, and I used to tear my vocal chords trying to win. It was a horrible game, for the noise we made in the alleyways on summer afternoons terrified our elders and deprived them of their siestas.' He gazed at me, confused, and asked, 'But what does this have to do with writing?' 'The relation, brother,' I replied, 'is that I can no longer scream in the alleyways at my age. So I write."

Dhakirat Al-Ahwar (Memory of the Marshland People),
Wared Badr Al-Salem et al,
Cairo: Dar Eshtar, 2001. pp150

Wared Badr Al-Salem et al This collection of Iraqi short stories contains 12 texts by Wared Badr Al-Salem, Mohamed Saadoun Al-Sibahi, Fahd Al-Aasadi, Abdel-Sattar Ibrahim and Abdella Abdel-Razeq. Published at the height of the sanctions against Iraq, and as part of efforts to combat the resulting cultural depression -- prior to the sanctions Iraq was arguably the largest and most important book market in the Arab world -- the book brings together the work of established authors and younger writers, demonstrating the range and power of literary writing in Iraq. Its overriding theme, giving it added value as a social-historical document, is its authors' experience of war and political turmoil.

Arba' Masrahiyat Iraqiya (Four Iraqi Plays),
Qasem Mohamed et al, Cairo: Dar Eshtar
(Culture Against the Siege Series), 1999. pp248

Written by three Iraqi writers, Qasem Mohamed, Abdel-Khaleq Al-Rukabi and Awatef Na'im, the four short plays included in this book, explicitly intended to challenge and oppose the sanctions on Iraq, follow a logic of the absurd and the surreal to provide the reader with a moving picture of contemporary Arab life. "Despite the siege," the publisher writes, "Iraqi writing has not stopped surprising us with new ideas, presented as complex meditations that combine gravity with sarcasm, realism with fantasy and tradition with modernity. In these plays you find fathers being sold at auctions, an intelligent official looking for a vagabond to play chess with, and Sheherazade advocating the cause of her husband before a present-day court. You can even find an old woman handing herself over to a clown..."

Akhbar Al-Nahawiyeen Al-Basriyeen (Chronicles of Basra Grammarians),
Abu-Said Al-Hassan Ibn Abdalla Al- Sirafi,
Cairo: Library of Religious Culture, 1999. pp92

Abu-Said Al-Hassan Ibn Abdalla Al- SirafiThe grammar school of Basra in Iraq played an indispensable role at the height of Basra's glory in the fourth century of the Hijra. This book, which compiles contributions by 10 of Basra's most famous grammarians, was canonised as an essential source to which subsequent grammarians invariably referred. Born in Iran, the author travelled from one Arab urban centre to another, settling in Basra and composing a number of important books on grammar, language and poetry.

Al-Ishraqi wal-Ardi (Al-Ishraqi and the Mundane), Rafi' Yehya, Beirut: Dar Al-Kunouz, 1999. pp109

This book is a comprehensive study of Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayati's poem Soura lil-Suhrawardi fi Shababih (A Portrait of Al-Suhrawardi in his Youth), itself inspired by the biography of the great Sufi Shehabeddin Al- Suhrawardi, who lived from 549 to 587 of the Hijra and acquired the name of Al-Ishraqi or Sheikh Al- Ishraq. Due to his progressive ideas, Al-Suhrawardi was arrested during the period of Saladin, dying in prison at the age of 38. The present book deals with the biographies of Al-Suhrawardi and of Al-Bayati, examining the notion of "historical masks" in contemporary Arabic poetry, as well as the inner and more explicit music of the poem's composition, its Sufi undertones, and the grounds for considering it an example of modern Arabic poetry at its best.

Nash'at Hurouf Al-Ma'ani (The Genesis of the Meaning of Letters), Hadi Atia Matar, Baghdad: Department of Cultural Affairs and Publication, 1985. pp163

The history and structure of the Arabic alphabet has concerned many scholars of language and literature, due to the exceptional role that the alphabet plays in the language, influencing not only syntax and style but also meaning. Scholars have devoted great effort to studying the origins of the Arabic alphabet, as well as the earliest meanings of the letters and the ways in which they came to form words, developing various approaches to these topics. The author of this book earned a PhD in Arabic at Ain Shams University in Cairo, and, a formidable student of Arabic letters, in this book he deals with the link between the sounds and shapes of the letters, their origin and development, and the principal syntactical schools that have discussed them. A special historical section is devoted to differences between the Basra and Koufa philological schools.

Al-Ahram Weekly