Obituary: Mustafa Jamaluddin

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The Independent Online
Mustafa Jamaluddin was an eminent Iraqi poet and scholar, his career all the more unusual in that he was born and brought up in a small village in the depths of the Iraqi marshes. His life encapsulates the tragedy of modern Iraq's history, and its lost potential.

He was born in 1927 near Suk esh Shuyuk, "between the town and the Hor" (Lake Hammar), in the little village of Muminoon. "All the houses were reed huts," he recalled later, "except for one or two of mud, roofed with palm fronds. Not one was brick!" Life there was the traditional one of fishing and raising water buffalo which Wilfrid Thesiger witnessed in the Fifties. Jamaluddin's family had some status in the village; his father was prayer leader and owned a large mudhif, a guest hut; his grandfather had opened a small religious school in the village to teach boys grammar and logic, and other basics of the Shia curriculum.

When he was 10 years old, Jamaluddin followed the path of bright boys in the south and went to the city of Najaf, then the centre of Shia scholarship, and also of a strong poetic tradition. He found it a stifling atmosphere: "There were no theatres, clubs or cinemas," he wrote later. "The only social life outside the schools was in the tea and coffee houses from which we religious students were banned." Even radios were frowned on, but in the Forties he and his fellow students were able to follow the events of the Second World War on a radio given to one of their number by King Ghazi. It was in these years that poetry became Jamaluddin's vocation. "Our only breathing space was in the groups which met to read poetry, religious and non- religious (I wrote love poems too). No wonder the town had so many poets: it was the only thing for young people to do."

Though a sternly conservative place, Najaf was also an international centre, home to students from all over the Muslim world. Through them Jamaluddin was able to get books and papers from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt; it was through Indian students there that he encountered Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence, which deeply impressed him. "Our society was closed but our thinking was open," he said of that time.

This background in Najaf shaped Jamaluddin's intellectual life. Iraqi Shiism, Arab and Iraqi nationalism, democracy, and a deep love of the Arabic language and its literature, these were the causes he espoused in his political life and poetry. He saw no conflict between Islam and democracy - indeed from the late Fifties onward his poems often contained a plea for modernisation: "I'm sorry if my poems sound harsh. But you are living in a period in which you must wake up, and open your eyes. Otherwise ignorance will imprison you."

After higher degrees and a doctorate in Arabic literature at Baghdad in 1979, he taught in Najaf for a while (in the college of jurisprudence, which has since been closed down by Saddam Hussein). By then the Shia hierarchy had become subject to overt persecution by Saddam: this included the murder of many clerics from Najaf. Any attempt to appease or persuade Saddam was clearly doomed, and in the early Eighties Jamaluddin went into exile in Syria after refusing to become a mouthpiece for Saddam's regime. After the 1991 uprising he became a public spokesperson against Saddam, lobbying for the Marsh Arabs, the Shia holy sites, and the numerous disappeared, including over 100 clerics who were arrested then and have not been seen since.

Jamaluddin never lost the demeanour of a Marsh Arab sheikh; austere and dignified. He loved the old Arab values, the code of honour, generosity and friendship. He will be remembered chiefly for his five books of poetry, including Aynak Walahn Kadeen ("Your Eyes and the Old Tune", 1972) and al-Qiyas (also 1972), and a great deal of unpublished work, which are esteemed by Iraqis and a still wider audience of readers in Arabic. His roots were always in the Marshes, to which he fervently hoped that one day he would return. In the dedication to his last volume, published in Beirut in 1995, al-Diwan ("Collected Poems"), Jamaluddin spoke of the tragic fate of his homeland, which had been drained by Saddam to pave the way for exploitation by European oil companies, once Saddam was rehabilitated by the international community:

Soil of the South, it was your fertility which made us grow. We were seeds nourished by the Tigris, we were young shoots nursed by the Euphrates. We put down roots and breathed the air along with the date forests. But our scent was our feelings, our fruits were our poems, and our intoxicating wine was our ideas.

But Iraq fell cheaply to a butcher. His one skill the big knife. He was angry to see the two rivers giving life to people who despised him, so he poured their water away into the desert, to leave the farms thirsty, and the soil, trees and birds all dying.

So: to every tree which did not bow the head to him, and was burnt up by his fire; to every plant and every living thing which he killed with thirst, I dedicate this book. Your lovely fragrance the tyrants have mixed with the smell of blood.

Mustafa Jamaluddin, poet and scholar: born Muminoon, Iraq 5 November 1927; twice married (eight sons, four daughters); died Damascus 24 October 1996.