A poetic biography of Nabeel Yassin s life in Baathist Baghdad
The wounds we make with words are greater than those made with swords. These are a mother’s prophetic words of warning to her son, an aspiring poet and activist.
Nabeel’s Song by Jo Tatchell is the biography of Nabeel Yassin the celebrated Iraqi poet whose writing challenged the controlling and brutal tactics of the Baathist regime while warming the hearts of ordinary citizens.
Tatchell’s book is particularly engaging because of its topical nature. Born into a middle-class academic and politically active family, Yassin was witness to the bloody revolution of 1958 which gave rise to the Baathists and ultimately Saddam Hussein. Tatchell recounts his childhood during the turbulent and political upheaval of the time. She is also particularly adept in depicting Iraqi social and religious norms and customs from pilgrimages and festivals to weddings and funerals. The book is titled The Story of the Poet of Baghdad, it is the story of a young man’s struggle to propagate his belief in “free speech and artistic creativity. At the same time it is a depiction of Iraq’s recent history from the perspective of a citizen who was able to create a voice through the medium of poetry.
In these uncertain times, the poet’s aim is to reach people with truth. Where once he had been frustrated that his words were overlooked, now people want to hear what he thinks.
Until his escape to the West in 1979, Nabeel’s life was about day to day survival and thwarting the secret police or ‘mukhabarat’. He continued to write his poetry while his family were blacklisted and under constant surveillance.
It was a world of furtive clandestine movement, constant shortages, threats, torture, imprisonment and very often sudden disappearance. Even friends and distant relatives were subject to harassment by the authorities. Recognizing that his notoriety is putting his entire family at risk he takes the difficult step of trying to flee the country with his wife and son in spite of his mother’s devastation. The latter part of the book deals with his life in Europe, his struggle to earn a living and his attempts to keep some form of contact with his mother and siblings back home. He eventually settles in London where he is able to resume his writing. His poetry is occasionally smuggled back to his homeland which has been severely ravaged by years of sanctions and the war with Iran.
The pattern of violence and bloodshed that has beleaguered Iraq’s history contrasts sharply with the serenity and melancholy of Nabeel Yassin’s poetry. Tatchell’s chronicle cannot capture the richness and texture of his work but it is an informative thought provoking book. It is impossible not to be touched by her delineation of Iraq and the tragedy of its people who have unwittingly replaced dictatorship and oppression with lawlessness and chaos. Before leaving Iraq Yassin wrote: This country has been conquered a thousand times, and its people with it .But through all this political exchange it has remained at the heart of culture, of learning, of great philosophy and thought. And so it must be today. No matter who occupies the seat of power, nor what minor philosophies they peddle, there is a greater human desire to explore the truth,
Nabeel s Song: A Family Story of Survival in Iraq By Jo TatchellSCEPTRE Books, 2006
Available at the Diwan bookshop in Zamalek