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Obituary: Abdel Wahab al-Bayati

ABDEL WAHAB al-Bayati was one of those Arab poets who tried to create a Renaissance for his people. Inevitably, a mind that sought new frontiers had to be imprisoned; and thus his life was a story of flight and exile, of homecoming and rejection.

That an Iraqi poet of such stature should have been buried in Damascus tells far too much about the Baathist, Saddamite regime which rules the land of Iraq in which al-Bayati was born. That his poetry continues to be printed and bought in Baghdad - albeit in the books of the impoverished middle classes who are selling their heirlooms in order to survive - is a tribute to his role in the history of modern Arabic literature.

His life was a pitiful mirror of modern Arab history. Born near the shrine of the 12th-century Sufi Abdul Qadir al-Jilani just outside Baghdad, al- Bayati graduated from Baghdad University in 1950, became a teacher, lost his job after taking part in a leftist demonstration - Iraq being at that time a friend of the West - and exiled himself in Syria, the Soviet Union and Egypt.

He returned to Iraq in 1958 after the brutal overthrow of the monarchy, then fled again to Cairo in 1964. He returned home in 1968 and worked in the Iraqi ministry of culture. Saddam Hussein made him cultural attache to Madrid - but after Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he resigned in disgust and was stripped of his citizenship in 1995 after visiting Saudi Arabia.

But al-Bayati's literary role was, in a sense, more dangerous than that of a mere dissident. In his poems, he broke away from classical Arabic, traditional rhyme and themes, to create a form of free verse which threatened to turn poetry into political imagination - and condemnation.

In his Cairo exile, he wrote "Lament for the June Sun", which criticised those who had persuaded the Arabs to take part in the 1967 Middle East war. Banned in Egypt (of course), it was published in Beirut (of course) and thus entered the world of Arab literary samizdat. Fans would later show him their own hand-copied versions of his poetry.

His 1954 collection The Broken Jugs formed the basis of Arab poetry's modernist movement, and he railed against those of his colleagues who fawned upon their local dictators rather than remain true to their calling. He thought Arab artists had accepted sheep-like political conformity and physical safety in order to avoid the poet's demand for truth. His work was translated into English in 1991, in Love, Death & Exile, of poems from 1969 to 1989.

He found his exile a "tormenting experience" and spent his last years from 1996 in the beautiful but alien city of Damascus, drinking in its coffee shops and lamenting his home. "I always dream at night that I'm in Iraq," he wrote, "and hear its heart beating and smell its fragrance carried by the wind, especially after midnight when it's quiet."

Al-Bayati died of heart failure after suffering a serious asthma attack. As one of Iraq's greatest poets, he was followed to the Zeinul Abedin cemetery in Damascus by Iraqi dissidents, by Damascus government officials and Arab intellectuals. Ironically, the Arab world's leading classical poet, Mohamed Mahdi al-Jawahri, died in the same Damascus hospital as al-Bayati two years ago after spending most of his 97 years in exile. Like al-Bayati, al-Jawahri was an Iraqi, and another enemy of Saddam Hussein.

Abdul Wahab al-Bayati, poet: born Baghdad 1926; married (two sons, and one daughter deceased); died Damascus 3 August 1999.

Oh slave, how much will you sell your chains for?

Tonight, you know, won't come back.

It's flown away, just like the carpet in One Thousand and

One Nights;

And us with it, embracing the "Tiger" by the fading light of

the stars

And sewing in its path a palm tree . . .

It's better to play the strings of the lute

For the rooster on this night will have given up his soul

Before your glass gives you its first glimmer . . .

From `Hostelry of Fate'