Obituary: Bulland Al-Haidari

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The Independent Online
When the poet Bulland Al-Haidari died, copies of his latest anthology, The Trails of the Exile, sat unwrapped by the side of his sick-bed; it was published as he was admitted to the Royal Brompton Hospital in West London.

Like many of his fellow Iraqi men and women of letters, Al-Haidari lived the greater slice of his mature years in exile, lamenting the fate of his nation, which was portrayed in a sad, cold picture in the opening verse of his latest collection:

Step by step, We marched together,

My country, the horror of the lean

deserts' night, and I

Toward the exiles.

The tone of sadness, exasperation and a trace of nihilism echoed, as many critics of Arabic letters noted, his earlier verse, reflecting a deep sense of the poet as victim of a cruel and unjust world ruled by dictators and tyrants. These sentiments appeared in more meagre doses even in his first published collection, Whisked Mud, in 1946.

Al-Haidari was recognised as one of three poets who founded modern Arabic poetry, which was arguably invented by the Iraqi poetess Nazik Al-Malaeka in the 1940s when she destroyed the rigid structure of Albeit al-Amoudi that had remained unchanged over 2,000 years. The new freer (or unrestrained) style of structure and form generated an intense debate and changed the yardstick of literary criticism among Arabic literary scholars.

Bulland Al-Haidari was born in 1926 in Baghdad to an aristocratic Kurdish family. His father was an army officer, and the family moved several times between the capital and the Kurdish towns of Arbil and Sulyimania, where young Bulland spent part of his school years. In the early 1940s he was attracted to left-wing political groups in a country which, even under the monarchy - overthrown by the military in 1958 - did not tolerate opposition of any kind, especially from poets and artists. He was himself a talented artist - in water-colour and oil - and wrote two books on art, one on art criticism, Time for Every Time (1981) and the other on contemporary artists (1993).

The publication in 1945 of his verse in the Egyptian literary journal Al-Katib, the highest a writer of Arabic language could aspire to, was his doorway to fame.

His second collection, The Songs of a Dead City (1952) was widely acclaimed in Cairo, where he was welcomed by the then giants of modern Arabic literature like Youssef Idriss, Salah Abd-Elsabour and Naguib Mahfouz. Twenty years later his seventh anthology, A Dialogue across the Three Dimensions, was to establish him at the pinnacle of his craft and, in the view the respected Egyptian critic Ahmad Abbas Saleh, "the instigator of the modern trend of Arabic poetry because his choice of subject in his poems and the treatment of such issues fitted the new freer style."

As a Kurd, Arabic was not Al-Haidari's mother tongue and he wrote in Kurdish in the early years; he also had no higher education, but he excelled in Arabic. As a poet he became a true intellectual in the Sartreian sense of the word. He established a trend in symbolism that has been emulated by many Arab poets to bypass the heavy censorship in that part of the world.

Following wide human rights abuse after the take-over by the murderous Al-Baath party in 1963, Al-Haidari left Iraq to his first exile in Beirut, where he edited the prestigious Lebanese Knowledge Journal and soon became the darling of the city's literary salons. He was awarded the prestigious Lebanese Writers' Union award in 1973. The savage Lebanese civil war forced him to flee Beirut in 1967, however, to a low-key life in Iraq, from where he was forced to leave again in 1980 for London following Saddam Hussein's take-over of the Baath government and the beginning of a new dawn of terror.

Five years later Al-Haidari published his ninth collection, My Greetings to Beirut. For the last ten years he wrote little poetry, but earned his living writing for London-based Saudi publications. He also spent his time reciting his poems or charming visitors to the exhibitions of his wife, Dallal al-Mufti, a distinguished sculptor in her own right. He was active in political events as a founder member and vice-president of the Union of Iraqi Democrats, opposing Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein.

Surprisingly the closing verses of Bulland Al-Haidari's last poem, which anticipated - almost invited - death, ended on a hopeful resonance for a peaceful future.

To the one rotting in jail:

It is time to go,

Time to go and recall

Where he lost his dreams

And his skies,

O' how sweet to be re-incarnated as


Dreams that help us forget,

the resentment awaiting between

the bow and the arrow.

Adel Darwish

Bulland Al-Haidari, poet, artist, critic and political activist; born Baghdad 26 September 1926; married 1953 Dallal al-Mufti (one son); died London 6 August 1996.