“When the Iraqi poet Buland Haidari was buried in London in the summer of 1996, the men and women of Arabic letters who bade him farewell could not miss the poignancy of his fate. Haidari, born in Baghdad in 1926, had been twice exiled: he had fled the autocracy of Iraq to Beirut, and he had fled the anarchy of Beirut and its drawn-out troubles to London. By the time of his death a whole world of political journalism, of Arabic letters, had put down roots in exile. A political inheritance had slipped through the fingers of the generations of Arabs formed on the ideals of secular enlightenment and modernity. The Iraqi poet who had taken to the road and was buried in the ghurba (the lands of strangers) was part of a great unsettling of things, a deep Arab malady. Arabs of Haidari’s bent had lost their bearings and their cultural home.”
Thus wrote Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami in the prologue to his 1998 classic “The Dream Palace of the Arabs”
Once upon a time when I was young, before Islam was reduced to warlike, uncivilized violence and portrayed as an angry, intolerant faith, before great cities of the Arab world were left in ruins, there were Arab men of letters; an entire generation of them. Secular men; democratic men; men who yearned and worked for modernity.
These Arab writers, poets, teachers and philosophers dreamed of a unified Arab nation, united by a common language, culture, history and religion, democratic and secular. Gone sectarian and religious violence, there would be room for all born into the language and culture whether Sunni or Shia, Maronite or Druze – an enlightened Arab state stretching from the Atlantic in the West to Iraq in the East.
Haidari was one of them. Born into a well to do Iraqi family in Baghdad, he yearned to see the power of the old order, the monarchy, the landed gentry, the influence of Britain in Iraqi politics swept away.
“When the old order in his country was overthrown, on a mid-summer day in 1958, amid a frenzy of murderous violence, and the young King Faisal II of Iraq and his family were cut down by a military coup, Buland Haidari and his peers were seized with the delusion that a new world was in the offing. It seemed like the coming of a generation’s dreams.”
It didn’t take long for the new order of ideologues and officers to drown in its own blood. On the other side of the exaltation and the new politics, these younger Arabs who had welcomed a new dawn were overwhelmed by a terrible politics of betrayal and blood-letting. In no time, Buland Haidari was imprisoned, as his country succumbed to a new season of cruelty.
Haidari then sought a reprieve from the whirlwind of Iraq’s politics in Beirut. In that city, he joined other Arab castaways who had played and lost at the game of politics. “He partook of the ideas of Arab nationalism of his time. “When he spoke of an “Arab nation,” this man meant it; when he called for an “Arab renaissance” in culture and letters, he gave voice to the expectation, current in the 1950s and 1960s, that Arabs would dig out of poverty, backwardness, and dependency. A new life required a new literature, a new style of expression, and Haidari was devoted to that Arab literary effort. If anything, his Kurdish background made him more eager to proclaim an Arab sense of belonging. Not for this man, at that time, were the politics of ethnicity. The Arab cultural container was wide and big enough, it was thought, to take in all religious sects and all minorities. It was Arabic poetry that this man wrote. and it was an Arab dawn that he awaited.”
And came Gamal Abdul Nasser – the Egyptian leader and the Suez War. “It was a time of innocence. Around the corner, it was believed, lay a great Arab project, and this leader from Egypt would bring it about.”
It was the height of delirious Arab nationalism as Arabs everywhere celebrated the raising of the Egyptian flag over the canal.
Beirut was the Arab center of modernity and enlightenment. Beirut was the “Paris of the East” – the culture needed was there: the politics of nationalism, the call of Arab modernity, the American pop culture that was flooding the world in the 1950s. But it was an illusion. The modernity of Beirut was taken for granted; the high heels, un-veiled women, the Western (French and American) schools.
I know. I was there in 1965. I walked it’s cosmopolitan streets, drank in it’s bars, stayed in The Phoenicia. I could have lived there. But it was indeed an illusion.
“When the ground began to burn in Beirut and the dream of an “Arab awakening” came face to face with the facts of religious and communal hatred, Haidari joined those who fled that city to Paris, London, and North America, to any place that would have them. He paid Beirut a tribute of farewell, an adopted son’s sorrow, dedicating a poetic collection to it: “To those in whom Beirut remained, although they left, and to those whom Beirut deserted, although they stayed.”
Saddam gassed Kurdish men, women and children. Citizens of Iraq. The poets and modernists wept. They knew the dream was coming apart.
They too felt dispossessed by the State of Israel; the Israel which had not yet occupied the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan and Jerusalem. But many believed in peace; peace in order to gain time for the great Arab project of building a secular, enlightened nation.
The 1967 war would end their dreams. And now the younger generation ignored them, turning instead to a rejection of secularism and enlightenment.
“By the mid-1980s, the men and women of Haidari’s generation no longer recognized themselves in the young men and women of the Arab world. In the simplified interpretation we have of that civilization, the young had taken to theocratic politics; they had broken with the secular politics of their elders. They had done that, but there was more at stake in that great cultural and political drama. Home and memory, the ways of an inheritance, the confidence in unexamined political and social truths, had been lost. Consider this simple passage written in the mid-1980s by a man of the Arab elite, of Buland Haidari’s time and certainties. Palestinian-Jordanian diplomat and author Hazem Nusseibah was speaking of the Arab nationalists of his time: “They believed in the blending of what was best in the newly discovered Arab heritage and in contemporary Western civilization and culture, and they foresaw no serious problem which might impair the process of amalgamation.”
No Arab in the 1990s could speak in such terms. All over the Arab homeland men and women of letters were murdered. The knife and the violence spared no one, not even a figure as old and celebrated as the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfuz, who was attacked by young fanatics in Cairo in 1994. Haidari wrote in despair that there was little that thinkers and writers could do amid this “ocean of terror.” To survive, they had to hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil.
Yesterday the greatest qawwali singer of his generation, Amjad Sabri, , (the devotional music that is wildly popular across the Indian subcontinent and well beyond), was gunned down in Karachi, Pakistan. The man who spent his life singing the praises of the prophet Muhammad, continuing a centuries-long tradition of musical veneration, was accused of blaspheming the prophet by the Taliban, and he was executed for it.
He was Sufi. He was singing. People danced when he sang.
When the dream dies, the music dies with it.
And here am I,
By the side of the stove,
that a woman might dream of me,
That I might bury in her breast
A secret she would not mock;
Dreaming that in my fading years
I might spring forth as light,
And she would say:
This light is mine;
Let no woman draw near it.
By the side of the stove,
And here Am I,
Spinning my dreams and fearing them,
Afraid her eyes would mock
My bald, idiotic head,
My greying, aged soul,
Afraid her feet would kick
And here, by the side of the stove,
I would be lightly mocked by a woman.
Without love, or dreams, or a woman,
And tomorrow I shall die of the cold within,
Here, by the side of the stove.