I Lived a Magical Feast
By Fadhil Al-Azzawi
BANIPAL (London) No 23, Summer 2005
I was only eight years old when my father took me with him to an Assyrian teacher who lived in al¬-Qoria neighborhood in Kirkuk and gave private English lessons. My father told me that "Gabriel" (that was his name) would teach me English, so I spent the whole summer school hol-iday, not playing with my mates in our al-Musal1ah neighborhood, but learn¬ing English.
On the way to Gabriel's house, going on foot as usual there were no buses in the city in the late 1940s my father said to me in a serious tone of voice: "Look, son, if you learn Eng¬lish wel1, you can get any job you like, you can be not only a "First Class" worker in the IPC (Iraq Petroleum Company), but even a government official in a high position. Do you know why these goddamn "Ingleez" (the Arabic word for the Englishmen) always assist a man like Nuri al-Sa'id and al1ow him to govern Iraq with an iron fist? You don't know, so I'l1 tel1 you. Because he speaks English like one of them."
However, my reason for learning English was thoroughly different from my father's. In our neighborhood there was a child, two or three years older than me, called Abbas. He used to mimic very accurately the hushed and clipped tones of the American film heroes, without know¬ing even a single word of English, but people thought he must be a genius to speak such good English. I wanted to be better than him by learning to speak real English.
I do not think that I have learned too much from Gabriel. But I became, at least, the only one in my class who knew how to pronounce the English letters and to utter some sentences such as "That is a book" "What is your name?", "Thank you". Later, in the fifth class, when we actual1y began learning English, I thought I could master the English language, at a stroke. To do that, I planned to learn the whole vocabulary of my English-Arabic Pocket Dictionary by heart. In two or three weeks I succeeded in reaching the letter F, but after that I decided to stop this Sisyphus-like effort: stray, falsely pronounced and random words only augmented the size of my fantasy. My memory was already crowded and fil1ed with sym¬bols and sounds, but I was stil1 far from being able to digest them. "There should be an another way to learn the language," I said to myself. I looked around but found no one to help me or to tel1 me how to do it.
I looked at how I had learned mod¬ern standard Arabic and decided to start learning English by reading books. I had learnt Arabic as a lan¬guage of literature, not only in school but by reading the texts and poems of the classical Arab writers and poets. The first book that I had read and learned most of by heart was the Qur'an. At that time, parents used to send their children to the mul1ah in the mosque to teach them some vers¬es of the holy book before sending them to school. But it was not the mul1ah's job to teach the children the Arabic alphabet. That is why children learned these verses merely as sounds by repeating them over and over, without considering the relation between the written letters and the spoken words. I discovered the secret, but decided to keep it to myself.
At eight years old I began reading books and found in them all I needed for my childhood: pleasure, joy and magic, but they also revealed the wonders of the world in which I found myself. My first book was the [Book of a Thousand and One Njghts], in its popular four volumes (Boulag edi¬tion). I read it so many times, and each time I found more pleasure in its tales and stories. I was taken, not only by its magical world, but also by the eroiticism of its language. In school during the day, I pretended to be an angel. The teachers taught us all the traditional "authentic values and morals" and it was impossible to talk, for instance, about sex or use vulgar words and expressions. But at night, Sheherazade transformed me into a devil. She opened up for me all the closed doors and led me into the real daily lives of people, talking to me about their dreams and fantasies. She allowed me to accompany the Caliphs, disguised under cover of night and wandering aimlessly around the streets of Baghdad before entering a suspect house, where they would find themselves in a trap of three women, without men. Each had her own story and all they wanted was to drink and dance and make love; it was a free party. The only condition was that the guests should not ask about anything they saw. That question alone would mean death. But the Caliph's curiosity was greater than his fear of being beheaded: he asked and I, the young reader, put my hand on my heart and waited for what was to come. In fact, Sheherazade was my first teacher, she taught me not only how to write, but also how to live. To be yourself you have to challenge all the demons and evil spirits of the world and you will defeat them. Throw your net into the sea to harvest your luck! What dazzled and tempted Sindbad each time into sailing his ship to dis¬tant and unknown islands and foreign countries was not the glamour of gold and jewels, of which he had plenty, but the call of adventure, where the journey alone counted. M y whole childhood seems now to me to be something like a magical feast. My father was an excellent sto¬ryteller. In the cold winter nights we, the children, used to gather around him near the fire and he told us one story after another, tales of knights fighting monsters, about the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid and his clowns, about the vagabonds and the thieves in the deserts, and about his own Grandfather Handhal, who was a ban¬dit and had once been wounded on his left hand in a fight with a caravan of Afghan merchants between Bagh¬dad and Khanaqeen. To save his life, his hand was amputated. That is why the people called him "HandhaI, the amputee.
There were a lot of other old Ara¬bic books that fascinated me, some of them were tales about Arabic pre-¬Islamic knights and their heroic deeds like al-Miqdad, al-Mayyasa (a woman), Antara bin Shaddad, al¬Khansa (a woman poet) and al-Zier bin Salem, but others were religious stories. In the Book of the Night of Prophet Mohammad's Ascension to the Seven Heaves" we see the Archangel Gabriel accompany the prophet Mohammad to the Temple Rock in Jerusalem, where he will guide him from one heaven to another on their way to God.
In the heavens Mohammad meets the old prophets and talks to them. The angels come out to welcome him. After seeing all these wonders he arrives at God's throne and speaks to Him. Then he returns to Mecca that same night and the next day begins talking about his vision and his mirac¬ulous meeting with God, but the unbelievers laugh at him and ask him to describe Jerusalem and its gates to see whether he is lying or telling the truth. Mohammad finds himself in a very difficult situation, since he had passed through Jerusalem at night and had not seen anything in the darkness. Here Gabriel hurries to help him. He carries the whole city of Jerusalem upon his shoulders and p]aces it before Mohammad, who begins describing every road and every gate. What a fantastic scene!
At primary school I learned by heart countless classical poems by most of the well-known poets, from Imru'il-Qais of the pre-Islamic era to Ahmed Shawqi, al-Zahawi, al-¬Risafi and al- Jawahiri in modern times. I read many ancient books of Arabic literature and others on reli¬gion, history and philosophy. Also, at that time, in our school library I found a book that became a milestone in building my understanding of the world and forming my consciousness and awareness. It was The History of Civilization by Will Durant with its twen¬ty-four volumes in Arabic (if I am not mistaken). This book opened my child's eyes on a panorama of cease¬less human struggle from the origins of the world in which I now found myself. It enabled me to see the huge efforts made by all generations and nations to make the life on our planet possible and more humane.
In the city library I found a book which became my Gospel until today: The Odyssey by Homer (in its Arabic translation). In this epic I experi-enced with Odysseus all the dangers of the world, I loved with him, I fought with him and, with him, heard the sirens on the rock singing their enchanting songs, calling him to leave everything behind and join them. But Odysseus, a model for all men, sur¬vives the temptation and reaches Itha¬ca in the end, where Penelope, his faith¬ful wife, has waited so long for his return. Sheherazade and Homer gave me my everlasting love for the sea. Under their influence I wrote many poems about the sea, even before see¬ing a single ocean in my life.. At that time I also read Shakespeare's plays translated into Arabic. Then some time later I acquired the complete works of Shakespeare in English and tried to read Hamlet with the assis-tance of the Arabic' translation.
Once, the IPC organized a compe¬tition among the pupils of Kirkuk. They invited all the schools of the city to visit the oil fields and company's offices and asked the pupils to write about their impressions. I won the first prize, but I had to share it with another boy, Mowaffaq, the governor's son. Mr Tissoe, the general director of the company who wel-comed us and gave each of us an envelope ( containing 10 dinars) , wanted to be fair and biased at the same time - typical of British policy in Iraq.
In Kirkuk in the 1950s there was an American Cultural Center with a very big library full of modern Eng¬lish books. The first time I went to the library they refused to register my name or provide me with a mem¬bership card which would allow me to borrow books. I needed to be twelve or thirteen years old. I went to see them a year later and chal¬lenged them: "you can test me and see if I know English or not." That opened up a new cultural door for me. I began reading Erskine Cald¬well, William Saroyan, John Stein¬beck, Robert Frost, and William Faulkner . . . ctc. I was fifteen years old when I made the acquaintance of a priest who had already published some of his poems in Arabic magazines and, after reading some of my mine, want¬ed to see me. I visited him at his church and we talked about poetry and modernity. Later, after many meetings and discussions with me and my friends in "The Kirkuk Literary Group" a circle of young writers and poets who played a leading role in the renewal of Iraqi and Arabic literature in the 1960s, he abandoned his classical style of writing poetry and fell in love with surrealism, find¬ing his God in automatic writing and later confessing that we had com¬pletely changed his life.
I remember that he gave me a copy of the Bible at our first meeting. I was fascinated by its Arabic language (the Bible was translated into Arabic in the second half of the 19th century by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq), which was not only different in its style, but also full of poetry. It became one of my favorite books. The most wonderful part of it is, of course, the Song of Songs: the best love poem ever writ¬ten. From the very beginning I used the biblical symbols and figures in my poems. The New Testament was no less interesting for me. The idea of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his resurrection after death became a symbol of resistance against all the forms of political and social oppres¬sion and repression: they can kill you, but each time you will rise from the dead.
I was still very young when my mother asked me: "Is it true, my son, that you arc writing poetry and want to be a poet?" Some of the boys in our neighbor¬hood had told her about it. I replied: "Yes, what is wrong in being a poet?" "The shame of it! We want you to be a respectable man, not a beggar and conjurer. You know the only busi¬ness of the Arab poets now is writing poems in praise of the rulers and chieftains for a handful of dinars. How could we face people if we had such a son?" What my mother said was not far wrong. The poet's main business even in al-jahiliya, the pre-Islamic era, was to defend his tribe through his poetry and to praise his sheikhs. Most poems of the great Arab poet Al--Mutanabbi (915-965) are poems in praise of the emirs and sultans. Also in our time, Al- Jawahiri (1900-1998), the last great classical poet, and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926-1964), the pioneer of modern Arab poetry, wrote poems in praise of kings and generals. In Saddam's time, thousands of poems were written praising the "indispensable and ordained leader, Saddam Hussein". Arab poets came from far and wide, from everywhere, carrying their long poems in their pockets and our man in Baghdad paid generously.
There were also poor wandering Bedouin poets who used to visit our neighborhood in Kirkuk and play on their rebecks, and sing poems in praise of the masters of the houses, having learnt their names from the children. I guessed what my mother was thinking. I told her: "Look, Mum, nowadays the poet is no longer a beg¬gar. I will finish school and go to uni-versity, and work like all respectable people. I know an English poet, called Eliot, who became the director of a bank in London."
"Well, it is all right then to carry on with your poetry writing if you are going to be the director of a bank," said my mother earnestly.
At that time (the second half of the 1950s) Kirkuk was a city that differed from other Iraqi cities in many respects. For centuries, many nation¬alities lived together in Kirkuk in peace. Every one in the city spoke at least three or even four languages (Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, Assyrian). Thousands of people were working for the IPC and had contact with the British engineers and specialists there. There were many public libraries and bookshops for Arabic, English and Turkish books and maga¬zines. Most of the books published in Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo and Damascus were available. There was also a local press: the weekly Afaaq newspaper, in Arabic and Turkish, and the monthly al-Shafaq magazine in Arabic and Kur¬dish. I published some of my poems and articles in both of them. But the most important step for me was having some of my poems published in the leading literary magazines in Baghdad and Beirut, like al-Funun, al¬-Adib, al-Majalla and Shi'r.
Between 1955 and 1959, and before beginning my studies at Bagh¬dad University, I read many works by American and English writers and poets: Hemingway's Men Without Women, The Old Man and the Sea, Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, Steinbeck's The Pearl, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, poems by Ezra Pound, Erskine Caldwell's God's Little Acre, Tobacco Road and a collec¬tion of short stories, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man and Major Barbara, Colin Wilson's The Outsider and Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. I read T. S. Eliot's poems many times and tried to study line by line his way of developing his poems: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", "The Hollow Men", " Ash Wednesday", "Journey of the Magi" and "The Waste Land". I also read Stephen Spender, Edith Sitwell, Lorca, Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, Orhan Wali, Tagore, Saint-¬John Perse, Aragon, Breton, Eluard, Brecht, Mayakovsky, Pushkin, and Goethe and many more.
The most important discovery of those years was for me classical Russ¬ian literature: Chekhov, Gogol, Gorky, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Al¬-Yaqadha publishing house in Damas¬cus had translated their works into Arabic. I do not think there is a writer who has understood the com¬plicated nature of the human being as profoundly as Dostoevsky: that of being an angel and devil at the same time. In his novel Crime and Punish¬ment Dostoevsky wrote on one of the most difficult questions to touch the hearts and minds of the 20th century. Like Raskolnikov, who gave himself the right to kill the greedy useless widow, Stalin and Hitler believed in killing millions of innocent people in the name of certain abstract dogmas and utopias. They refused to rely on the canons of yesterday and wanted to exist outside of history: the path to the new world was stained with blood. Dostoevsky lent a new dimen¬sion to Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of God, in relation to the moral principle "If God has died, then everything is permitted". And after Dostoevsky the question became: How can we believe at all in anything if there is nothing to believe in? Or maybe: From where should we derive our optimism for the future? I also read most of Gorky's short stories. And because it was not easy to get a copy of Mother in Arabic ( cen¬sorship laws banned the novel, considering it to be communist propa¬ganda), I unearthed one in Turkish (translated in 1900 in Istanbul); it was the first book I read in the Turkish language. I liked Gorky's characters, but I did not like his style of realism. In fact, although Marxism took hold of me as a philosophy, with its dialec¬tical approach to the world and to his¬tory, I never believed in what they called Social Realism, considering it part of the primitive Stalinist political propaganda. I even found Jean-Paul Sartres thesis about Engagement meaningless and suspicious. Every writer necessarily reflects, in one way or another, his attitudes towards the major questions of his time. Howev¬er, we cannot ask or oblige him to "engage" with a certain question if he does not sincerely believe in it. In any case, neither Hafiz nor Dante consid¬ered themselves to be "engaged" when they wrote their works. They simply wrote according to the flare of their lives. When I left Kirkuk in the age of 18 to study English literature at Baghdad University, I collected all my poems and threw them into the fire, (a fren-zied act that I later deeply regretted), and said to myself: "Go, Fadhil, go! Kirkuk was no more than a station on the road to finding yourself. Go now and discover the whole world!"