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Arts, Literature

Zahawi, Nazik, free verse poetry, Bayati, neoclassical style

Modern Iraq is an important cultural powerhouse of the Arab world. Iraqi poets have been in the forefront of contemporary Arabic culture. In the 1920s and 1930s Ma‘ruf al-Rusafi, Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi, and Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri became prominent among the poets of the Arab world. All three wrote in the neoclassical style, with beautiful rhymes and strict rules of meter and verse. Rusafi wrote poems about the suffering of the Iraqi people and their struggle toward independence. Jawahiri drew close to the Communist Party in the 1940s and expressed strong anticolonialist sentiment in his poetry. The early 1950s saw an explosion of poetic and other literary creativity in Iraq. Most prominent among the new generation of Iraqi poets, who engaged in blank or free verse poetry as opposed to the neoclassical style, were Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati. Both dedicated much of their poetry to Iraq, its society, and its politics, and both engaged in symbolic-mystical writing, borrowing mythological themes from their country’s ancient pre-Islamic history. A prominent female poet of the same generation is Nazik al-Mala’ika.

The quality of Iraqi poetry seems to have deteriorated since the 1970s, when government control of culture became near absolute. Poets who chose to remain in Iraq were forced to write verses in praise of Iraqi dictator Hussein. However, many Iraqi poets also compose poetry in colloquial Arabic that many people enjoy. Their poetry is easily understood, even by people who cannot read, as it is only recited, never written. It fills radio and television broadcasts and has enthusiastic listeners.

The most famous novelist in Iraq during the first half of the 20th century was Dhu al-Nun Ayyub, whose stories evolved mostly around social issues. Today there are a few young novelists who live and write in Baghdad, but they can only hint at their true feelings and thoughts. Iraq has produced a number of good playwrights, such as Khalid al-Shawaf, who wrote in the 1940s and 1950s, and ‘Adil Kazim, who wrote in the 1960s and 1970s. From the late 1930s to the late 1960s most of Iraq’s greatest writers were inclined toward the political left, some of them close to the Communist Party.

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