Muzaffar Al-Nawwab: In the Old Tavern

Translation by Sinan Antoon in Jadaliyyah:

MuzaffarMuzaffar al-Nawwab (b. Baghdad, 1934) is one of Iraq’s most famous and influential poets. He studied literature in Baghdad and worked as a teacher. He joined the Iraqi Communist Party at a very early age and was imprisoned and tortured under the Ba’th. He left Iraq in 1970 and lived in exile until 2011 when he returned to Baghdad for a visit. Al-Nawwab is well known in Iraq and throughout the Arab world, especially among leftists and activist of various generations, for his powerful revolutionary poems and scathing invectives against Arab regimes and dictators. Banned in most Arab countries, his poems circulated widely from the 1970s onward on cassettes. They are widely available nowadays on the Internet. He is also considered one of the most innovative and influential Iraqi poets who composed in the spoken dialect. Although born to an aristocratic family in Baghdad, Al-Nawwab immersed himself in the dialect of southern Iraq in the 1960s and composed some of the most memorable poems in Iraqi collective memory, many of which were put to music and sung by famous contemporary singers. Except for a few editions of his early poems in the Iraqi spoken, Al-Nawwab, who shunned mainstream cultural circles and lived in various exiles for the last four decades, never published, or authorized, a collection of his own works. A critical edition, or any reliable printed diwan (there are many versions and unauthorized collections, in circulation) has yet to appear. “In the Old Tavern” is one of his most famous poems, composed (probably) in late 1970s. Al-Nawwab prefaced one of his famous recitals by saying that the obscenity of the political status quo exceeded the obscenity in his poems. Al-Nawwab’s health has deteriorated in recent years and he has not written any new poems. He lives in Beirut.

In the Old Tavern

The tavern
is not that far
What good is that?
You are like a sponge
Suckling on taverns
But never getting drunk

What is left of this night’s life
In the drunkards’ glasses
Saddens you
Why did they leave them?
Were they lovers?
Were they faggots like those at summit meetings?
Was it a prostitute
With no one in this tattered world?
Had you been here
You would have hidden her desire in your mythical jacket
Whispered warmly in her cold lungs:
Is the cold killing you?
What is killing me more is partly the warmth,
and partly the situation itself!
My lady, we are prostitutes just like you
Misery fornicates with us
False religion, false thought, and false bread and poems
Even the color of blood
is forged and made grey in funerals
And all the people approve
And the ruler is not one-eyed!
My lady, how can one be honorable
When the secret police stick their hands everywhere?
What is yet to come is even worse
We are put in the juice-maker
For oil to come out

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