Suffering and Techniques of Poetic Resistance: Mohammed Mahdi al-Jawahiri's "In Jail" and W. H. Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts"
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Suffering and Techniques of Poetic Resistance
Mohammed Mahdi al-Jawahiri's "In Jail" and W. H. Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts"

Many critics and writers agree that the modern political, social, and cultural history of Iraq cannot be studied without referring to Mohammed Mahdi al-Jawahiri, Shaʿir al-ʿArab al-Akbar (the great poet of Arabs), a poet whose career offers insight into the major events of the twentieth century in Iraq. Al-Jawahiri (Najaf, 1899–Damascus, 1997) belongs to a family of renowned religious scholars. His father insisted on teaching him to become a Shiite clergyman. His childhood was a difficult one: while his friends were playing outdoors he was obliged to study classical literature, Shiite doctrine, and classical Arabic language. This exceptional education made him worthy of becoming a scholar at the age of ten, but when his father died shortly after, he found his chance to become what he desired: a poet.

Al-Jawahiri is regarded as the last of fohūl ul-shiʿr (the masters of traditional Arabic poetry). This title has been attached to him mainly because he was the last neoclassical poet living in the modern age of Arabic poetry. It is significant to mention in this respect that al-Jawahiri was nominated more than once for the Nobel Prize for peace, not for literature, for dedicating most of his poetry to defending rights, supporting peace, and opposing tyranny and oppression.

Al-Jawahiri wrote the poem "Fī al-Sijn" in 1937, while in jail. The study of this poem on the one hand is inspired by the necessity to provide an [End Page 95] analysis of prison writing as a genre that is central to the idea of the poetry of human rights. Prison is one of the pillars of suffering in the Arab world, especially the suffering of the individual. On the other hand, the poem stands as an example of individual suffering, the circumstances that pave the way for its happening, and the kind of outcomes that individual suffering and social apathy could bring forth. The metrical construction of this poem is al-kāmil al-tām (the perfect), which consists of eight syllables in each half line (iambic tetrameter). This verse form is usually very strict, but al-Jawahiri in this poem meant to break the rhythm of the lines, although he did not move from al-kāmil al-tām into another metrical verse form. This metrical construction provides a more flexible space for the employment of sounds and makes the poem suitable for tarnīm (chanting). The choice of this meter is perfect for reflecting the unchanging atmosphere of prison, whose monotony is often broken by the clinking of chains or the sounds of pain made by prisoners. The slight change in the rhythm also provides an irregular but familiar tone, such as:

1. [Mādhā turī] [du min al-zamānī] / [wa min al-raghā]['ibi wa al-amānī]

[mustafʿilun] [mutafāʿilātun] / [mutafāʿilun] [mutafāʿilātun]1

(What further desires and wishes / Do you seek from life)

2. [Awa kullamā] [shārafta min] / [āmālika al]-[ghurri al-hisānī]

[mutafāʿilun] [mustafʿilun] / [mustafʿilun] [mustafʿilātun]

(Haven't you been offered / To see your dreams come true)

("Fī al-Sijn," 1,2)

The change, as we notice from these two lines, can hardly be recognized, but by toning them one becomes better able to notice it and like it as well, because it breaks the rigidity of al-kāmil al-tām metrical form. Choosing to tone a sad poem might reflect how al-Jawahiri felt in prison and how this "toning" can offer to help him in this difficult situation.

As a public poet whose country was controlled by colonization and its government too vulnerable to suppress corruption, Al-Jawahiri believed that legal action in this polluted environment would not lead to political, social, and economic reform. He expressed in a short poem he titled "Al-Adl" [End Page 96] (Justice, 1937) how big the gap was between law and justice:

Laʿamruk inn al-ʿAdl lafzun adā'uh...