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Muzaffar Al Nuwab, Iraq’s Runaway Train

Muzaffar Al Nuwab’s legacy and pain lives on among Iraqis and Syrians

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Muzaffar Al Nuwab, Iraq’s Runaway Train
Mourners carry the coffin of Muzaffar Al Nuwab on May 21, 2022 / Qassem al-Kaabi / AFP via Getty Images

On a late-night train between Baghdad and Iraq’s south, poet Muzaffar Al Nuwab listened to a beautiful woman in her mid-40s reminiscing about a lost love from decades before. As the train neared her home village, her sorrow grew more visible. The chance encounter on the train sometime in the 1960s inspired one of the most popular poems and songs in Iraq’s modern history: “The Rail” (it has the same title in Arabic: “Al Rayl”). Folklore singer Yas Khudur, known for his urban vocals, sang the words of “Al-Rayl,” which reflected a woman’s perspective:

We passed your home, oh Hamad

While on the night train

We heard coffee grinds

We smelled the cardamom

O, Train

Don’t make sounds of heartbreak and pain

Don’t make a sound of passion and fondness

I yearn for Hamad,

and I do not yearn to be for anyone else

Both poem and song captivated audiences in Iraq, the Gulf states and Syria — the same three geographical entities that chronicled the life, times and death of one of Iraq’s most celebrated poets.

Muzaffar Al Nuwab died on May 20 at the age of 88 in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.

He had a way with words in formal Arabic and colloquial Iraqi that was relatable and expressive. In one poem, he asks an absent lover to “come to me in my dreams; I would consider it a visit.” There were, however, other forms of heartbreak he wrote about extensively. The heartbreaks shared by his generation in the Middle East: disappointment in the ruling class, riveting criticisms of authoritarianism and sorrow over Palestine. These heartbreaks established the various stations of Al Nuwab’s life.

Muzaffar Al Nuwab was born in Baghdad in 1934 to a wealthy upper-class family with Hashemite roots — descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. From an early age teachers saw his talents in arranging words and expressions and encouraged him to write on the schools’ open walls: a chalkboard for students to pin their artwork.

He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Baghdad and was appointed as a teacher soon after. By the age of 22, despite his privileged background, Al Nuwab was ideologically left-leaning, which soon led to his expulsion from his job, the first of many turbulent encounters with authority. Al Nuwab was reassigned to his post following the end of Iraq’s monarchy in 1958 but soon clashed with Arab nationalists after the 1963 revolution that placed Baathists in power.

He attempted to flee to the Soviet Union through Iran but was captured by Iranian intelligence and returned to Baghdad. He was sentenced to death for one of his fiery poems against authoritarianism but later received a reduced prison sentence. Al Nuwab managed to escape prison and became a fugitive in southern Iraq, where he supported himself by working for a Dutch company in Basra.

In 1969, the government, now completely under Baathist control, issued a pardon for political prisoners and fugitives. Al Nuwab emerged from hiding and was re-employed again as a teacher. Following the defeat of Arab countries by Israel in 1967, he penned his most famous political poem. In the poem, he describes Arab leaders as “sons of whores.” The poem and its use of profanity gained Al Nuwab a cult following among disappointed youth in the region, particularly Iraq and Syria. He fled Iraq again soon after, making Syria his second home. Although also Baathist, the regime in Damascus was more tolerable to Al Nuwab, though that didn’t stop his criticism. He continued scorning Arab leaders in poems, including Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad, who miraculously overlooked it.

In 2003, Al Nuwab supported the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. Although he was an anti-imperialist leftist, he accepted that an occupying American force was the means to remove a dictator. He did not necessarily endorse the occupation. In fact, in the years that followed, Al Nuwab’s poems about Iraq grew more painful, reflecting a deeper sorrow: disillusionment and complete desperation. Al Nuwab no longer believed that he would see his homeland prosper in his lifetime. He visited Iraq again, but by then he was too frail and too sick to live in Baghdad.

He settled in the United Arab Emirates, an ironic destination: He wrote some of his harshest poems against the monarchs and sheikhdoms yet found a home during his hospice years in one of them until his death earlier this month. He had been in and out of prison and on the run throughout his youth. He illustrated his agony through his words from the diaspora for decades while becoming one of the most admired figures in the art of spoken, written and sung words for generations of Iraqis. He was simply exhausted.

Muzaffar Al Nuwab was taken to his last destination, back home to Baghdad, for his final rest. His funeral procession was akin to a majestic homecoming ceremony, where his life was celebrated by legions of admirers despite their never having met their idol during their lifetime. Many politicians attended the funeral, including the infamous former Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki. In true Al Nuwab fashion, Al Maliki was ejected from the procession by young Iraqis, his name cursed and his presence unwelcome. If anything could patch Muzaffar Al Nuwab’s broken heart, it would be knowing that his legacy, passion and pain carry on, and were on full display as he was laid to rest.

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