Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati 

Translated by Salih J. Altoma


The Sea Is Far-off: I Hear Its Sigh 

The sea is far-off, but I hear it sighing 
I see ships and seagulls carried far away by the waves 
sailors and drunkards trapped in Aphrodite’s charm 
losing their sanity in darkness 
and I, between al-Ma`arri and al-Du`ali, *
search for a manuscript 
not knowing its author 
or who let it vanish: Sayf al-Dawlah 
or Kafur? * 
in an age when no soul cares for anyone 
or dares to rebel

(*) al-Du`ali (d.689) one of the early Arab grammarians, al-Ma`arri (d. 1057/58) the great medieval Arab poet with whom al-Bayati identifies himself, Say al-Dawlah (d. 967) who personifies the Arab chivalrous ideal and Kafur (d.968) of Fgypt.


The Nightmare

A ghost chases in darkness the author of  “the little man” *
sniffing old books on the shelves of bookstores 
here and there in Baghdad’s streets 
but returns in defeat to the coffeehouse 
not finding those he chased yesterday 
for they fled to exile like flocks of birds 
no more prey to hunt 
graveyards and prisons are overcrowded with the rest 
this is the carnival of death at its apex 
Ishtar has become a blind wolf 
feared by all 
and has incarnated the city’s soul 
after she was taken captive by the invaders 
and under their embargo 
a tattered old woman 
weeps in secret 
and sleeps hungry to dream: 
overtaken by nightmare 
she cries out: 
nothing but winds that trifle with garbage 
or the footsteps of a ghost chasing in darkness 
the author of  “the little man.”

(*) The title of a short story by one of the most talented Iraqi writers, Abd al-Malik Nuri who died recently as another victim of the current conditions in Iraq.



Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati (1926-1999), one of the Arab world’s leading poets, received his B.A. in Arabic (1950) from the Higher Teachers Training College in Baghdad. Best known for his revolutionary, mystical-oriented and exilic poems, al- Bayati lived most of his life outside Iraq as an exile or as a cultural attaché and published more than twenty volumes of poems and several other works. His poetry has been translated into numerous Western and Asian languages.

Salih J. Altoma (translator) – Professor Emeritus of Arabic and Comparative Literatue, has been affiliated with Indiana University since 1964. He has served as director of Middle Eastern Studies (1986-1991) and chair of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures department (1985-1991). Altoma published a number of works in both Arabic and English on modern Arabic literature, and Arabic-American/Westem literary relations and edited recently the 2000 volume of The Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, volume 48(2000) which was dedicated to Arabic-Western Literary Relations.