Abdul Wahab Bayati, one of the great living Arab poets, is far from his Baghdad home. The distance is not unfamiliar. Bayati has lived in exile, voluntary and otherwise, for much of his life -- in Damascus, in Moscow, in Cairo, in Madrid. But the circumstances have never been so poignant.
Two months ago a Jordanian friend drove across the desert to Baghdad to deliver the saddest news a parent can know: Bayati's older daughter, Nadia, had died. She lived with her husband and three children in California. She had had a heart attack. She was 32 and in excellent health, Bayati says. "She used to call us frequently," but then the telephone lines to Iraq were cut. "She felt her family was threatened," he says with quiet conviction. "This is the reason for her death. Because of her sadness."
Bayati and his wife and younger daughter made their way to Amman, and then to Paris, and then to Los Angeles. Nadia had been dead a month before they could bury her. And then the war began. So long as the war goes on, and Iraq is sealed to the world, Bayati cannot go home.
To death and exile and war must be added a fourth circumstance, the one that brings Bayati to Washington for a few days: a book-length selection of his poems is appearing, for the first time, in an English-language edition. Georgetown University Press has just published "Love, Death and Exile," with translations from the Arabic by a young Georgetown professor, Bassam K. Frangieh. And tonight Bayati will read his poems at Georgetown.
A gentle, slender man of 64, Bayati prefers to speak as a poet, in a universal tongue, on behalf of "love and peace and respect for human dignity and respect for other cultures and other nationalities."
Sitting in Frangieh's Falls Church living room before a pot of strong coffee, dozens of sweet Arabic pastries and a rapidly emptying box of Marlboros, Bayati declares, "As a poet, I don't like to see anybody dying, from the United States or Britain or Iraq or any other country." He says: "We are witnessing the destruction and murder of cities. I can certify that the targets I have seen on CNN are purely civilian targets, the homes of families."
Bayati can speak English without effort or error, but he prefers to answer questions in Arabic. Frangieh, the translator of poems, is pressed into service as the interpreter of answers.
At first, Bayati resists talk of the causes of war. "When we are before a fire, we don't talk about the cause of the fire," he says. "We have to extinguish the fire first." But eventually his sentiments become more explicit.
"It's in the hands of the Americans," he says. "If Mr. Bush said, 'Stop the war,' it would stop. Just as he announced the start of the war, he could announce the end of the war."
Could not that also be said of Saddam Hussein?
"Saddam Hussein did not start the war," Bayati says through his translator. Then the poet leans forward and speaks, softly, in English: "It is true, my friend."
How would he characterize the invasion of Kuwait, then? Does he believe there are any circumstances when invading another country is justified?
A long and animated conversation in Arabic ensues between Frangieh and Bayati. At last, Frangieh says, "He's a poet. He is not in a position to comment on these questions. He feels he will be put on the spot." Bayati's two sons and a large extended family remain in Iraq.
Bayati recalls that in California he saw "Americans crying about the destruction of Iraq." That, he says, is a "humanistic" reaction.
"The American people played a role in stopping the war in Vietnam, and now it is the role of the American people again ... to denounce the use of force. These horrible and ugly means lack even the rules of war that were used in the Middle Ages. Baghdad was attacked by the Mongols. The Mongols committed ugly crimes in Baghdad. What I have seen on TV that America has done to Iraq is worse. War is evil, but it has to have some morality."
For all of this, Bayati is at pains to say he is not a propagandist for any government or society, and never has been. As the new collection suggests, Bayati's more socially minded poems over the years have lamented the decay of modern Arab cities and the corruption of modern Arab rulers.
For "the undisguised subversive tone of his writing," according to Frangieh's introduction to "Love, Death and Exile," Bayati was jailed by the monarchy in Iraq in the early 1950s, and once freed, was "continually hunted, harassed and threatened with reincarceration." A few years later, his "genuinely revolutionary" poems forced him to flee Iraq without his wife and children.
The overthrow of the monarchy in 1958 brought Bayati back to Baghdad and a job in Iraq's ministry of education -- "it was just a means of living," he says -- and then to a diplomatic posting as an Iraqi cultural attache in Moscow. That too would not last long. "I had dreamed of a democratic society in Iraq -- at a minimum," he says. "But a lot of disagreements and clashes within the national government emerged." He left the job but remained in Moscow three more years to teach at a Soviet university.
In 1964, Bayati moved to Cairo for an eight-year period of self-imposed exile from Iraq. It was there that he wrote "Lament for the June Sun," a poem (among those in the new American collection) that obliquely damned the Arab leaders and their propagandists -- "peacocks," in the poem's idiom -- who had let down the Arab people by leading them into the June 1967 war that humiliated them.
"Only the peacocks were defeated," Bayati declares, "not the people."
A few lines from "Lament":
We are the generation of meaningless death
The recipients of alms.
In the coffeehouses of the East we were defeated by
The war of words
The peacocks who strut in the halls where pride is dead, and
The essays of the obedient hacks.
That poem, among many others, could not be published in Egypt, whose government feared its critical message. It was published in Lebanon. "It became a very famous poem after that," says Frangieh. "It spread like a fire -- from hand to hand. He visited Arab countries after regimes had changed and he found a lot of his poems copied by hand, in the possession of many individuals."
Back in Baghdad and serving as an adviser to Iraq's ministry of culture, Bayati continued to write poetry (and drama and criticism) through the 1970s, and then was awarded a ceremonial post in Madrid, again as Iraq's cultural attache.
As a prominent member of the international literary community, Bayati traveled widely and, he says, struck up friendships with such writers as Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and Naghuib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel laureate, "my best friend." Bayati himself, Frangieh puts in, has been nominated for the literature Nobel "more than once."
Bayati went home to Baghdad last year, not long before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Ignoring another question about his feelings toward his leader, Bayati says he is retired. And once again, he is in exile.
Tonight at 6, at Georgetown University's Intercultural Center auditorium, Bayati will read his poems in Arabic; the Rev. John Breslin, director of the university press, will read Frangieh's English translations.