Obituary: Mohammed Al-Jawahri

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The Iraqi poet Mohammed Al-Jawahri was regarded by many Arab literary critics and historians as the last of the classic Arab poets. He was among the small handful of larger-than-life figures who have kept classical Arabic - the language of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, and no longer used in everyday language - alive in poetry.

His poetry travelled beyond the borders of Iraq and was recited and studied in academic centres all the way from North Africa to the Gulf. Seven volumes of his works were published in Middle Eastern capitals, including Baghdad, between 1973 and 1980 alone.

His verse was constructed in classic stereometric fashion, remaining faithful in style to the structure of the poetry of Shuar'a al-Jaheliyah, the ancient poets of South Arabia who predated the prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam. Like that of his ancestors, Al-Jawahri's poetry served as a reference point for historians of the region, being far more comprehensive than the chronicles of the official history recorders.

His own life seemed to mirror the modern history of Iraq, which since its creation in 1922 has five times plunged into a fresh cycle of destruction, violence and war whenever it was about to complete a chapter of success. The timing and place of Al-Jawahri's death confirmed this impression. He died the day after his 98th birthday, in exile in Damascus. The Baath regime of Saddam Hussein had stripped him of his Iraqi nationality in 1995, and he had sought refuge with Saddam's arch-enemy, the Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad.

He was often criticised for his glorification of violence, as in the poem he published after his brother's violent death during the political upheaval of 1948, but this was simply another reflection of the brutality of life in Iraq, for he had witnessed a chain of violent political events.

He was born in the holy Shia city of Al-Najaf in southern Iraq in 1899, to a respected Shia clergy family. The name Al-Jawahri ("the jewellery- smith") was thought to have been given to his great grandfather by the Shia Fuqaha'a (the learned clergy), who were impressed by the 18th-century scholar's literature textbook Jawaher-alklam ("The Jewels of Words").

His father, Mahdi Ibn Al Hussein, who recited poetry to friends but never published it, wanted Mohammed to become a respected clergyman like himself. But the young poet, aware of his talent, steered himself away from theology and excelled in balagha - the art of rhetoric composition - philology and logic. His first anthology, a collection of poems published in local journals, appeared in 1921, the second in 1923. A year later his first respected study, Halabat el-Adab ("The Arts Arena"), came out, and in 1928, having lived in Baghdad for a year, he published Biyan Ahssour Walatifa - "Between Consciousness and Solicitude".

Enchanted by Al-Jawahri's poetry after an encounter in one of the salons that flourished in Baghdad under the monarchy, the Minister of Education introduced him to the court of King Faisal. Iraq's first monarch, Faisal had in 1916 helped to create the legend of Lawrence of Arabia by appointing the British military intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence to lead his Arabian desert warriors in a guerrilla war against the Turks that ended with the capture of Damascus and changed the course of the First World War. When the French dethroned Faisal in Damascus, the British created Iraq for him.

Touched by the young poet's eloquent words and romantic lyrics, King Faisal, a cultured and articulate man himself, in late 1927 appointed Al-Jawahri as the court's official poet. The irony was double-edged: Faisal was following the centuries-old traditions of Arab kings, whose court poet sing their praise and satirise their enemies; while Al-Jawahri - who once wrote "I shall remain tall while tyrants' lives are short" - fell into a 2,000-year-old trap for poets, having their talent enslaved to a tyrant or an ideological movement. It was later to become a source of inspiration and trouble as he rose and fell, went into exile and returned with the change of regimes.

His love affair with the court eventually cooled off, and in 1933 Al- Jawahri lost his schoolteaching job following a clash with top civil servants at the ministry who accused him of giving too much praise to Shia Iran in his verse.

Two years later his best-known anthology, Dywan Al-Jawahri, was published in Baghdad. He gained respect as a poet and journalist, mainly on the arts pages of newspapers and journals and as a columnist who was critical of the monarchy and the British presence in Iraq. He founded his own daily paper, Arrai al-A'am ("Public Opinion").

He was close to and supported the Iraqi Communists - the largest populist party in Iraq until the second Baathist takeover in 1968 - and in 1948 he published the Arabic language's most famous pro- Communist poem, "The Red Army".

In the next few years, his fame travelled beyond Iraq's borders, when he left Baghdad for Cairo in 1952 after clashes with the government. In 1956 he moved to Syria where he briefly edited the Syrian journal Al- Jundi - "The Warrior".

He had been elected several times to the Iraqi parliament in the 1940s - which ended with the slaughter of the royal family in 1958 in the bloody coup led by General Abdel Kareem Qasim, supported by the Communists and by Al-Jawahri, who returned to Iraq to become the chairman of the writers' union.

Following the internal power struggle between the Communists and the Nationalists - backed by the Egyptian pan-Arabist leader Colonel Nasser - Al-Jawahri went into exile in Prague in 1961. He only returned with the 1968 Baath-led coup, but the Baath-Communist alliance was short-lived, and Al-Jawahri went into a third exile in Syria.

Contrary to the belief in some Arab literary circles, he was not a democrat. He supported successive military coups starting with 1941 Rashid Ali, that was ended by the swift British march on Baghdad, and most of the coups that followed.

His ambition was to complete a 10-volume epic study of Arab poets, Al- Jamharah ("The Crowd"), but the death of his wife in 1992 and his son earlier this year, combined with poor health and damage to his eyes, and constantly moving from one country to another, prevented him from finishing more than three of the volumes.

He had returned to Iraq briefly in 1978 and left a year later after Saddam Hussein consolidated his grip on power in an internal Stalinist-style bloody purge. He moved between several Middle Eastern and European capitals. Ironically he finally settled in Syria where he was given special treatment by the Syrian president Hafez Alassad, a dictator whose brutality against his own people is second only to that of Saddam Hussein.

Mohammed Mahdi Ibn Al- Hussein Ibn Ali Ibn Sahib Al-Jawahri, poet, writer, and Arabic scholar: born Al-Najaf, Iraq 26 July 1899; married (three sons, three daughters, and one son deceased); died Damascus 27 July 1997.