A celebrated communist and former opposition icon to Saddam Hussein, Muzaffar al-Nawab spent most of his life in exile, returning to his native Iraq after his demise for a state funeral, commissioned and attended by Prime Minister Mustapha al-Kadhimi. Draped with the Iraqi Flag, al-Nawab’s coffin was raised shoulder-high by the Iraqi Guard of Honor, before being laid to rest next to the grave of his mother in the holy city of Najaf, as per the wishes expressed in his last will. Mourners at his funeral continued his dissent, as anti-government protestors pelted Kadhimi’s motorcade with stones, shouting: “Muzaffar is for the people not for the thieves.”
From One Prison to Another
Born into a Shiite family of Indian origins in 1934, Nawab grew up under the Iraqi monarchy, which ruled from 1921 until it was toppled by a bloody military coup on July 14, 1958. Speaking to to me from al-Rawda Café facing Syria’s Parliament in 2003, Nawab recalled how as a teenager, he had never been too fond of the young king, Faisal IIor his British-backed Prime Minister Nuri Pasha al-Said, criticizing both for being pro-West, at a time when he was personally flirting with communist ideas while studying at Baghdad University. Nawab first got a job as a schoolteacher but was expelled in 1955 for membership in the Iraqi Communist Party. He was subsequently arrested, interrogated, then released and spent the next three years jobless and penniless, until the Iraqi Revolution restored him to his earlier job and made him inspector at the Ministry of Education. It was something of a reward for being an anti-monarchist, the last such recognition he would ever get from any Iraqi government until his state funeral in mid-May.
Nawab grew up under the Iraqi monarchy.
The reward, however, was too good to last very long. In February 1963, Iraq’s strongman Abdul Karim Qassem was overthrown and executed. Those who had supported his regime or worked with it were collectively round up and either arrested or shot. Nawab fled to neighboring Iran, from where he was planning to flee to the Soviet Union. At the time, Iran was ruled by a pro-Western monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose hated security service, SAVAK, was constantly on the lookout for “dissidents,” a broad term that applied to republicans, communists, and Islamists. Nawab was jailed at one of SAVAK’s notorious prisons, led at the time by prominent Iranian general named Nematollah Nassiri. The Iranian officer had him tortured and subsequently sent back to Iraq, where he was jailed with no trial, and sentenced to death for membership in the Communist Party. Unsurprisingly, Nawab praised the overthrow of the Shah’s regime in 1979, and the summary execution of his torturer, Nassiri. He said to me: “All of Nassiri’s informers and spies, and all of his executioners, failed to save him from a single bullet that took his life.”
Back in Iraq, Nawab’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was incarcerated first at a desert jail near the border with Saudi Arabia, and then south of Baghdad. During this period, he wrote one of his most famous works “Bara’a” (Innocence), a two-part poem about his mother’s visits to jail. With other communist inmates, Nawab managed to dig a tunnel to freedom—which took months—and disappeared into the Iraqi desert. He spent the next four years hiding with farmers in the Iraqi south, until a 1969 amnesty allowed him to return to Baghdad. By that time, the Baath Party had taken control of Iraq through Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, who permitted Nawab to return to his previous job as a schoolteacher.
Life in Exile
It was during this period that Nawab published his first collection of poetry, which also became his last. He had written prolifically since the 1950s, his political poems penned in classical Arabic, and romantic ones often in local Iraqi dialect.
Yet, he paid little attention to assembling or preserving his poems, allowing others to re-produce them freely, with no copyright claims. All the collections of his poetry that have been published were un-authorized by him.
Nawab began to defy Iraq’s strongman Saddam Hussein.
Ever a critic, however, Nawab began to defy Iraq’s strongman Saddam Hussein, who served as vice-president under Bakr between 1968-1979. When his poetry became too critical for Saddam’s taste, a warrant was issued for his arrest, so he fled to France, Greece, and Lebanon, traveling on a Libyan passport and remaining in Beirut until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1976. He then moved to Syria, where he was given asylum by then-President Hafez al-Assad, who was hosting a number of senior Iraqi opposition figures to Saddam, whether politicians or poets like Nawab and his colleague, Mohammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, who came to Syria in 1980. Nawab was treated as a guest of honor in Damascus, then governed by a rival branch of the Baath Party, where he set up base at an apartment in a middle-class neighborhood called al-Mazra’aa. For the next thirty-five years, he would lecture and write from Damascus, becoming an iconic culture figure in Syria, especially among Iraqi refugees who displaced to the country after the 2003 US invasion of Baghdad. In the summer of 1981, while visiting Greece, he survived an assassination attempt by Iraqi intelligence, carried out in the aftermath of an Israeli strike on Iraq’s unfinished nuclear reactor, near Baghdad.
When the Syrian war started in 2011, Nawab was invited to return to his native Iraq. Although spending a lifetime criticizing US hegemony in the Arab World, he nevertheless welcomed the 2003 toppling of Saddam, which put him on good terms with the country’s new leadership. Many like Jalal Talbani and Nouri al-Malki, were lifelong friends in Damascus. One had become president and the other president of Iraq. 2011 marked Nawab’s first visit to Baghdad since the 1960s, but it was brief, as he preferred to stay in Syria, a country that had become his second home. As violence engulfed Damascus in 2012-2015, Nawab moved to the UAE for treatment for Parkinson’s disease. He died at one of the hospitals in Sharjah this month, at the age of 88.
“Sons of Whores”
A complete collection of his works was published in London in 1996 and it included a classic poem in which he described Arab leaders as “Sons of Whores.” In it, he laments the 1967 occupation of Jerusalem by the Israeli Army—a city that remained eternally close to Nawab’s heart—saying: “Jerusalem was the bride of your Arabism, so why did you allow all night adulterers into her room? Sons of Whores, can a raped woman remain silent?” He then added: “Sons of Whores, I am not sure when I tell you the truth. A pig’s shed is cleaner than the purest of you. I admit that I am vulgar and sad, just like your defeat.” Popular lore says that he once delivered the poem in front of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who gave him a standing ovation—considering himself the vanguard of Jerusalem. Nawab reportedly interrupted him saying: “Sons of Whores, I don’t exclude anyone of you.”
“Jerusalem was the bride of your Arabism, so why did you allow all night adulterers into her room?”
“Muzaffar al-Nawab was not a traditional poet like others of his generation, born from defeat of the Arab-Israeli War of 1967,” said Nourallah Qaddura, a Dubai-based Syrian ophthalmologist and poet. “His poetry was different from the stern poems of his times, freely using exaggerated swear words and obscenities, which although popular in the Arab Street, deprived his works of artistic content.” Qaddura added: “No doubt, Muzaffar al-Nawab is a controversial poet who deserves to be studied, analyzed, and critiqued. Despite all the controversy that surrounded him, he remains an iconic figure, perhaps, the last of the titans.”