Opinion & Features

The Iraqi poet fascinated by Christ

A statue of Badr in Basra

Christians and Muslims have much in common, not only because of their shared humanity, and not only because both Christianity and Islam originated in the Middle East and trace their ancestry back to Abraham, but also because Jesus Christ is a holy figure in Islam.

Christians and Muslims have lived together for centuries in Iraq, mostly in peaceful cooperation, though sometimes in conflict. Since the US-led invasion in 2003, the country’s Christian population has decreased from 1.4 million to 250,000. Towns with large Christian populations have been deserted, and the inhabitants have fled to refugee camps or abroad. Sectarianism has been rife, and many fear that – even if ISIS can be defeated – Iraqi Christians and Muslims may not be able to live together in peace.

It is worth remembering, then, that Iraqi Christians and Muslims belong to the same land and share a history. And sometimes the relationship has been very fruitful.

The Iraqi poet Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab (1926-1964) exemplifies this. Badr was born in Jeykur, a town south of Basra in southern Iraq. He was the eldest child of a date grower and shepherd.

Badr graduated from the higher teacher-training college of Baghdad in 1948. That was a momentous year in Baghdad: in January, huge protests and marches filled the city’s streets in an episode known as Al-Wathbah. Social unrest, and also widespread anger at the Iraqi government’s secret negotiations with Britain, led to confrontations between police and protesters. Badr was a member of the Iraqi Communist party, which had been heavily involved with the protests; in the resulting government crackdown, Badr was dismissed from his teaching post.

That left him free to help initiate a new movement in Arabic poetry. Beginning with imitations and translations of Western models, he was one of several poets to launch “free verse” into the Arabic literary tradition. Dogged by a serious illness which would result in his premature death, Badr nevertheless produced a highly influential series of poems.

Yet political trouble was never far away, and Badr spent long periods abroad, especially in Kuwait. His life was one of exile, imprisonment, marital unhappiness, and ill-health, and of total commitment to the cause of the oppressed. In his poetry one will find the most memorable impact Christ has had on modern Arabic and Islamic literature.

In his poetry, Badr had his own reason to allude to Christ and to praise him fervently. He aimed to give his poetry a universal touch by going beyond his own individual beliefs, to express a doctrine outside the confines of his locale.

In an interview with Arablit.org, Dr Issa Boullata, a Palestinian writer and literary scholar, whose PhD dissertation was turned into a book on al-Sayyab, said: “Al-Syaab’s poems grasped the need of the Arab world for new poetry, and his genius led him to experiment with new rhythms and images, and with new socio-political ideas, to satisfy this need. He also began to use other similar myths and narratives in his poems, including the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.”

Badr’s principal biographer Terry DeYoung says he used “the power of Arabic in its magnificent literary tradition at its most dignified and eloquent levels of expression”.

His powerfully emotional poem “The Messiah after the Crucifixion” is a vision of Christ as lord of nature, the redeemer of the wretched of the earth, and the healer of nature. This is a poem of salvation, both political and theological. A poem that interweaves, in an apocalyptic voice, the Jesus of the Gospels and the triumphant risen Christ. We find Jesus engaged in a monologue after he is brought down from the cross, still alive:

Many are the lives I’ll live. In every soil
I’ll become a future, a seed, a generation of men
A drop of blood, or more, in every man’s heart.

Badr’s work as a journalist and activist frequently led him into trouble. When the Iraqi government eclared a state of emergency in the 50s, Badr had to go into hiding: he fled the country disguised as a Bedouin.

Such experiences left their mark on his poetry. In “Stranger in the Gulf”, Badr speaks of his loneliness in his enforced absence from Iraq, and describes himself as “the Christ / Dragging his cross in exile.” Yet in the same poem he mentions the miracle of the raising of Lazarus. Jesus’s unique character fascinated Badr: Christ’s meekness, sacrifices, loneliness, and betrayal, and the idea of life after death. Moreover, Badr intended to fuse Christian tradition with his own. His followers were sometimes overcome with a kind of rapture.

Badr went to England for the first time in the autumn of 1962, and attended Durham University to study translation studies. A couple of years later, while still only in his thirties, he was struck by a degenerative nervous disorder and died in poverty. It is a strange coincidence that he died on Christmas Eve, 1964.