The Dangers of Poetry
Culture, Politics, and Revolution in Iraq
Kevin M. Jones




Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri was thinking about the dangers of poetry when he went searching for a new suit on July 4, 1949. More than a decade earlier, he had boasted that his poems reflected “the spirit of the rebel poet against many of the customs of the society that surrounds him, who despairs of reforming them through patch and repair and instead calls for them to be created anew.”1 The fifty-year-old poet now explained to the tailor that he intended to put this “spirit of the rebel poet” into action that evening with a scathing poem of dissent. He had been invited to recite a panegyric for Hashim al-Witri, the dean of the College of Medicine in Baghdad, at a ceremony honoring Witri’s acceptance of an honorary doctorate from the King’s College School of Medicine in London. Jawahiri knew that most of the political and social elites of Baghdad would be there, and he wanted to look like he belonged among them. When the suit was ready, Jawahiri paid his bill and went home to bid farewell to his wife and children. He choked back tears as he handed his wife an envelope containing his life savings, a sum large enough to sustain the family for several years. He glanced with contempt at the ticket, gilded in gold as though it was a metaphor for state corruption, and left for the ceremony, wondering when he might see his family again.2

Jawahiri had good reason to fear arrest: he had already served one stint in prison for his dissident poems and avoided a second only through the intervention of the politician Sayyid Muhammad al-Sadr. He became one of the most daring voices of political dissent during the Wathba demonstrations of January 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Iraqis marched in the streets of Baghdad to protest the Portsmouth Treaty, widely seen as affirming British power and influence in the country and perpetuating the long-standing constraints on Iraqi independence. In the postcolonial era, Jawahiri’s own brother was killed in the massacre on al-Maʾmun Bridge, inspiring the most memorable poetry performance in modern Iraqi history at the memorial ceremony, when Jawahiri climbed a ladder held upright by throngs of supporters in the middle of Rashid Street, held up a megaphone, and began to recite his emotional elegy, “My Brother Jaʿfar.”3 He had cited his own lingering grief over his brother’s death when he declined the invitation to recite a poem for Hashim al-Witri several months earlier. The climate of repression only worsened as the government took advantage of the crisis in Palestine to manipulate new elections and arrest political dissidents. Jawahiri recalled how “terror reigned in the skies over the entire country and especially Baghdad, pervading streets, cafes, and even houses and whispered words” after the execution of communist leaders in February 1949.4 He now intended to resist this culture of fear by showing up unannounced at the ceremony and reciting poetry that might once again inspire revolutionary action.

While guests chatted idly with one another, Jawahiri surreptitiously made his way to the platform, grabbed the microphone, and began reciting. He addressed his public absence over the preceding months in verses that inspired anxiety among politicians and anticipation among students: “I was informed that you have been inquiring / asking about my presence here and there / Wondering how such a dazzling star could / stay away from gilded gatherings of notables / But realization has come and overwhelmed you / like morning removes the dusk from your eyes / For I only ceased my sermons when I could not find / one who deserved to hear the echo of my complaint.” Jawahiri denounced both the “rotten Thamesians” who dominated the state and their local collaborators “[who] liberally bestow our wealth on white men / while we brown men remain confined to the stables.” In the most memorable line of the poem, he invoked classical fakhr (self-glorification) to articulate his revolutionary political message:

They boast that a towering tyrannical wave
has blocked the path to every outlet and escape
But they lie, for my verses fill the mouth of time
endlessly traversing from the east to the west
Tearing them from their youth and dropping them
to their fate, destroying their grand palace of lies
For I am their death, bringing their houses upon them,
inciting even doormen and babies to curse their name!5

When he finished reciting the poem, Jawahiri flamboyantly tore his notes into shreds and walked away as they fluttered to the ground behind him.

Jawahiri returned home after this spectacular act of public dissidence, stunned that police had not impeded his exit, and waited to be arrested. Three days later, police arrived and demanded to see the text of the poem, but Jawahiri mischievously told them he had destroyed his only copy and could not recall the verses. Reluctant to pursue a legal case against the poet without evidence, the police grudgingly left. Unfortunately for Jawahiri, the Lebanese journalists Karim and Husayn Muruwwa had gathered the shredded notes and published the reconstructed poem in a Lebanese newspaper, and Jawahiri was arrested and imprisoned for one month.6 His public stature saved him from the torture and mistreatment meted out to fellow communist poets like Muhammad Salih Bahr al-ʿUlum in the aftermath of the Wathba. Jawahiri recalled the embarrassed guards apologizing for having to confine him, allowing him to choose his own cell, and asking him to recite some of his most popular poems.7

Jawahiri’s willingness to suffer for the sake of poetry was characteristic of his enduring belief that “while [others] were poets of words, he was the poet of action.”8 He was convinced that the poet’s platform should be a stage of revolutionary struggle and embraced the “poetry of public spaces,” where new ideas about modernity, nationalism, and socialism were articulated and contested.9 This vision was shared by poets like Bahr al-ʿUlum, who articulated his own faith in rebel poetry in his defiant prison declaration: “I was a revolution from the moment of my birth / my revolution is the fire that burn the cities of tyrants!”10 For more than three decades, Jawahiri and Bahr al-ʿUlum led the struggle for national liberation in Iraq and defined the vision of anticolonial modernity that animated revolutionary politics in the country. From the platforms of public spaces and the shoulders of cheering crowds, they forged a new cultural politics of dissent that challenged the postcolonial state’s claim to political hegemony.

This book narrates the history of rebel poetry in Iraq in the early twentieth century, but it does not confine poetry to the rarified landscape of intellectual and literary history. It emphasizes instead the social relevance of rebel poetry by showing how poetry was composed, recited, disseminated, criticized, and punished. The book engages a number of historical questions and concerns that have engaged cultural historians of Iraq and the Middle East in recent decades: How did Arabs reconcile tradition and modernity, and how did colonialism transform popular conceptions of modernity? How did states mobilize artists and intellectuals, and what forms of dissent were used to contest hegemonic narratives of state power and legitimacy? How did the cultural politics of anticolonialism facilitate new radical alliances and the rise of national front politics that linked communists, socialists, and bourgeois nationalists in the struggle against colonialism and imperialism, and why did these solidarities later collapse?11 This book answers these questions by documenting the role of poets as national spokesmen in the long struggle for national liberation and locating their ideas and actions in the global currents of anticolonial modernity.

The Cultural Politics of Anticolonialism

Rebel poetry was both the dominant cultural discourse and dangerous social practice of the long anticolonial struggle in Iraq. This pervasive struggle was defined less by resistance to colonial armies than by sustained opposition to political, social, and cultural structures of domination attributed to colonialism. The struggle against colonialism was not limited to the relatively brief period of colonial occupation but was instead shaped by the global currents that addressed anticolonial politics in the twentieth century. Even before the first British troops descended on Iraq in 1914, local poets struggled to reconcile their desires for cultural preservation and social regeneration in the language of anticolonial modernity. The anti-Western and pan-Islamic spirit that swept across Ottoman and Asian politics around the turn of the century shaped their response to imperial, intellectual, and cultural encroachments and allowed them to define modernity on their own terms.12 While poets contested prevailing conceptions of modernity in more combative ways during the British occupation, they refused to accept that formal political independence marked the end of the anticolonial struggle. For poets and their publics, the “pastness of colonialism” remained a critical site of cultural contestation as long as the old structures of colonial power ensured the domination of particular individuals and communities over others.13 Collective memories of anticolonial “futures past” shaped their rejection of the new order and desire to return to the receding horizon of national liberation.14

Poets occupied a liminal position between scholars, public intellectuals, and political activists in the cultural landscape of modern Iraq. Eric Davis and Orit Bashkin have noted the important public role of poets in their studies of cultural and ideology in modern Iraq, and Maha Nassar makes similar observations about the Palestinian citizens of Israel.15 These histories show how poets could serve simultaneously as “traditional intellectuals” and “organic intellectuals,” in Gramscian typology, representing and interacting with political elites while voicing the interests and concerns of popular classes.16 In the view of many cultural and intellectual historians, the emergence of the modern Iraqi intelligentsia represented the eclipse of the religious scholars (ʿulama) as representatives of the people in the age of secular nationalism.17 Poetry, however, remained a passion of both the traditional ʿulama and secular intellectuals, and modern poets were capable of linking the concerns of both classes in both substance and style, performing the role of “organic intellectuals” in didactic appeals to the masses and reproving lectures to political elites. As Yasmeen Hanoosh has argued, however, the constant tension and oscillation between hegemonic and counterhegemonic ideologies fueled an all-encompassing “rhetoric of contempt” that pit “state literature” against “street literature” in the contentious arena of Iraqi cultural politics.18

The intellectual genealogy of anticolonialism in Iraq begins in the late Ottoman period, in the first decade of the twentieth century, when the constitutional revolution fueled new engagement with Western ideas. The relaxation of press censorship drew a new generation of poets toward the modernist vision of cultural regeneration promoted in the seminal Egyptian and Syrian periodicals of the Arab Nahda (al-nahda al-ʿarabiyya), the intellectual, literary, and cultural renaissance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They yearned to participate in these intellectual debates and experience these modernist landscapes, but their cosmopolitan desires were tempered by pride in their own cultural heritage and desire to preserve local and national traditions. New links between the poetry scenes of Najaf and Baghdad and new engagements between Iraqi poets and their Egyptian counterparts helped to construct a nascent national consciousness that eclipsed traditional religious and sectarian identities.19 Neoclassical poetry enabled the reconciliation of these ambivalent impulses by allowing modern ideas to be articulated in classical style. The neoclassical concern for cultural authenticity made poets particularly cognizant of the political utility of anticolonialism, and their participation in the Ottoman jihad of World War I and the urban protests and tribal uprisings of 1920 became a symbol of nationalist legitimacy. New fault lines opened in the political debates on reform during the British Mandate, blurring the boundaries between political patronage and colonial collaboration and secularism and Westernization. The isolation of state poets stood in stark contrast to the popular resonance of nationalist poets, who proudly declared their resistance to colonialism as evidence of their cultural authenticity.

The cultural politics of anticolonialism were transformed by the formal transition from colonial rule to national independence. Poets celebrated the end of colonialism at independence banquets across the country, but their optimism for the future soon gave way to disillusionment. Britain carefully negotiated the transition to independence to protect imperial privileges, transferring power to an incumbent political class committed to protecting the Anglo-Iraqi alliance and preserving their own power and wealth.20 For the next two and half decades, Iraqi politics was characterized by musical chairs political gamesmanship, as power rotated between the “old gang” of pro-British politicians.21 Independence complicated popular understandings of colonial structures of power, revealing the manifold ways in which the political and social elite of the postcolonial state were invested in upholding unpopular regional alliances and exploitative class privileges. Anticolonial discourse became less superficial and provincial and more radical and global as vertical allegiances of national belonging were fused with new horizontal solidarities of class.22

Poets made critical contributions to the evolving politics of anticolonialism as both nationalist scribes and revolutionary activists. Early forms of resistance to British rule have often been attributed to tribal, sectarian, and provincial motives, evidence that Iraq possessed neither the requisite national unity nor the modern mentality necessary to sustain a viable national liberation struggle.23 The popular poetry of these early struggles, however, shows the importance of the universal ideals of anticolonial modernity.24 In the postcolonial period, poets became leading proponents of a succession of radical causes that gave a distinctly socialist character to the anticolonial struggle.25 Leftist poets enthusiastically backed Bakr Sidqi’s military coup d’état of October 1936 because they believed it would displace the old colonial elite and introduce radical social reforms. Five years later, nationalist poets supported the Rashid ʿAli movement because they saw authoritarian military rule as the only way to mobilize Arab resistance to colonial rule across the Middle East.26 The failure of the two military coups chastened the poets who supported them and helped facilitate the reconciliation of leftists and nationalists in the new cultural politics of the anticolonial national front. These poets played key roles in promoting new visions of popular democracy and social justice in the radical political struggles of the late 1940s and 1950s, lending their verses, voices, and bodies to the popular demonstrations that constructed new horizons of anticolonial modernity.27

The social visions and cultural agendas articulated in protests were critical to the construction of postcolonial nationalism in Iraq. Sami Zubaida, Eric Davis, Peter Wien, Orit Bashkin, and other scholars have documented the contentious political struggle between proponents of competing conceptions of national community in Iraq, the ethnic nationalism (qawmiyya) of the pan-Arabists and the territorial nationalism (wataniyya) of the Iraqists.28 As “organic intellectuals” of the anticolonial struggle, poets articulated and defended these divergent nationalist visions, and their poems became markers of political legitimacy and cultural authenticity.29 Beyond the narrow framework of ideological debates, however, the question of national borders was less relevant than the cultural politics of class and gender to the poetry wars of the anticolonial struggle. The struggle between watani and qawmi nationalists for cultural hegemony made poetry the popular register of anticolonial nationalism, transforming abstract intellectual debates about the nation into bitter conflicts over social interests and cultural values.30

The resonance of poetry in the cultural politics of anticolonialism was unique in time and space, a product of the singular historical moment of the poetry of public spaces. The importance of poetry to the anticolonial struggle was shaped in part by language and the failures of colonial surveillance. Anticolonial poems regularly appeared on the front pages of newspapers and became the main appeal for many readers, who amplified the circulation of poems by reading them aloud in public cafés.31 Gertrude Bell was the most proficient British Arabist in Iraq, but she confessed that she could not understand Arabic poetry, and the press summaries that she wrote for the colonial state reflected her superficial comprehension of anticolonial poems.32 The colonial tendency to underestimate the dangers of poetry was not shared by the postcolonial state, but poets adapted their subversive intentions to new political contexts. Censorship and repression only encouraged rebel poets to transform their recitations of dissident poems into provocative acts of public protest.33 The cadence and rhyme of neoclassical poetry carried mnemonic benefits that facilitated oral transmission, and the indelible links between poems and events enabled them to transcend the literary and intellectual restrictions of written texts. These singular dimensions of the poetry tradition in modern Iraq allowed poets to performatively enact their own visions of history and politics in a manner that blurred the boundaries between conventional categories of political activists and public intellectuals.


1. Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, Diwan al-Jawahiri, vol. 1 (Najaf: Matbaʿat al-Ghari, 1935), 3.

2. Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, Dhikrayati, vol. 2 (Damascus: Dar al-Rafidayn, 1991), 57–66.

3. Jawahiri, Dhikrayati, 2:22–27.

4. Jawahiri, Dhikrayati, 2:58–59, and Johan Franzén, Red Star over Iraq: Iraqi Communism before Saddam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 55–56.

5. Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, Diwan al-Jawahiri, vol. 3 (Beirut: Bisan, 2000), 247–252.

6. Muhsin al-Musawi, “Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri (1901–1997),” in Essays in Arabic Literary Biography, vol. 3, ed. Roger Allen (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010), 172, and Rula Jurdi Abisaab and Malik Abisaab, The Shiʿites of Lebanon: Modernism, Communism, and Hizbullah’s Islamists (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014), 70–73.

7. Jawahiri, Dhikrayati, 2:60–66.

8. Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, “al-Shaʿir wa al-Hakim wa al-Madina,” in Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri: Dirasat Naqdiyya, ed. Hadi al-ʿAlawi (Baghdad: Matbaʿat al-Nuʿman, 1969), 45–46.

9. Sami Zubaida, “Al-Jawahiri: Between Patronage and Revolution,” Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée 117–118 (2007), 81–97.

10. Muhammad Salih Bahr al-ʿUlum, Diwan Bahr al-ʿUlum, vol. 1 (Baghdad: Matbaʿat Dar al-Tadamun, 1968), 109.

11. On national front politics in Iraq and the Arab world, see Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of Its Communists, Ba ʿthists, and Free Officers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 574–596, and Franzén, Red Star over Iraq, 42–48.

12. Cemil Aydin, The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia: Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), and Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).

13. Ann McClintock, “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term ‘Post-Colonialism,’Social Text 31/32 (1992), 84–98.

14. Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004); David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); and Gary Wilder, Freedom Time: Negritude: Decolonization, and the Future of the World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).

15. Eric Davis, Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Orit Bashkin, The Other Iraq: Pluralism and Culture in Hashemite Iraq (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009); and Maha Nassar, Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017).

16. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 3–24.

17. Hala Fattah, The Politics of Regional Trade in Iraq, Arabia, and the Gulf, 1745–1900 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), 13–62, and Hilla Peled-Shapira, The Prose Works of Ghaʾib Tu ʾma Farman: The City and the Beast (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018), 6–8.

18. Yasmeen Hanoosh, “Contempt: State Literati vs. Street Literati in Modern Iraq,” Journal of Arabic Literature 43:2/3 (2012), 372–408.

19. Yitzhak Nakash, The Shiʿis of Iraq (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), and Meir Litvak, Shiʿi Scholars of Nineteenth-Century Iraq: The ʿUlamaʾ of Najaf and Karbalaʾ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

20. Elie Kedourie, “Reflexions sur l’histoire du Royaume d’Irak (1921–1958),” Orient 11:3 (1959), 55–79; Matthew Elliot, “Independent Iraq”: The Monarchy and British Influence, 1941–58 (London: Tauris, 1996); Samira Haj, The Making of Iraq, 1900–1963: Capital, Power, and Ideology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997); Toby Dodge, Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); Peter Sluglett, Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country, 1914–1932 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); and Susan Pedersen, “Getting Out of Iraq—in 1932: The League of Nations and the Road to Normative Statehood,” American Historical Review 115:4 (2010), 975–1000.

21. Batatu, The Old Social Classes, 180–184.

22. Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 24–25; Hamid Dabashi, Islamic Liberation Theology: Resisting the Empire (London: Routledge, 2008), 157–159; and Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh, Insurgent, Poet, Mystic, Sectarian: The Four Masks of Eastern Postmodernism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015), 39–43.

23. Amal Vinogradov, “The 1920 Revolt in Iraq Reconsidered: The Role of Tribes in National Politics,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 3:2 (1972), 123–139; Pierre-Jean Luizard, La formation de l’Irak contemporain: Le rôle politique des ulémas chiites à la fin de la domination ottomane et au moment de la creation de l’État irakien (Paris: CRNIS Editions, 1991); and Nakash, The Shiʿis of Iraq, 49–72.

24. Ibrahim al-Waʾili, Thawrat al-ʿIshrin fi al-Shiʿr al-ʿIraqi (Baghdad: Matbaʿat al-Iman, 1968); ʿAbd al-Husayn Mubarak; Thawrat Alf wa Tisaʿ Mi ʾa wa ʿIsrhin fi al-Shiʿr al-ʿIraqi (Baghdad: Dar al-Basri, 1970); and Abbas Kadhim, Reclaiming Iraq: The 1920 Revolution and the Founding of the Modern State (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012).

25. Yusuf ʿIzz al-Din, al-Shiʿr al-ʿIraqi al-Hadith wa Athar al-Tiyarat al-Siyasiyya wa al-Ijtimaʿiyya fihi (Cairo: al-Dar al-Qawmiyya lil-Tabaʿa wa al-Nashr, 1965), and Yusuf ʿIzz al-Din, al-Ishtirakiyya wa al-Qawmiyya wa Atharuhuma fi al-Adab al-Hadith (Cairo: Jamiʿat al-Duwal al-ʿArabiyya, 1968).

26. Reeva S. Simon, Iraq between the Two World Wars: The Creation and Implementation of a Nationalist Ideology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), and Peter Wien, Iraqi Arab Nationalism: Authoritarian, Totalitarian, and Pro-Fascist Inclinations, 1932–1941 (London: Routledge, 2006).

27. Bashkin, The Other Iraq, 87–121.

28. Sami Zubaida, “The Fragments Imagine the Nation: The Case of Iraq,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 34:2 (2002), 205–215; Davis, Memories of State; Wien, Iraqi Arab Nationalism; Bashkin, The Other Iraq; and Orit Bashkin, “Hybrid Nationalisms: Watani and Qawmi Visions in Iraq under ʿAbd al-Karim Qasim, 1958–61,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 43:2 (2011), 293–312.

29. Raʾuf al-Waʿiz, al-Ittijahat al-Wataniyya fi al-Shiʿr al-ʿIraqi al-Hadith, 1914–1941 (Baghdad: Wizarat al-Iʿlam al-Jumhuriyya al-ʿIraqiyya, 1974), and Majid Ahmad al-Samarraʾi, al-Tayyar al-Qawmi fi al-Shiʿr al-ʿIraqi al-Hadith mundhu al-Harb al-ʿAlamiyya al-Thaniyya 1931 hatta Naksat Haziran 1967 (Baghdad: al-Jumhuriyya al-ʿIraqiyya, 1981).

30. Abdul-Salaam Yousif, “The Struggle for Cultural Hegemony in Iraq,” in The Iraqi Revolution of 1958: The Old Social Classes Revisited, ed. Robert A. Fernea and William Roger Louis (London: I. B. Tauris, 1991, 173–196.

31. Ami Ayalon, The Arabic Print Revolution: Cultural Production and Mass Readership (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 177–193.

32. Gertrude Bell to Dame Florence Bell and Sir Hugh Bell, June 5, 1921, Gertrude Bell Archive,

33. al-Musawi, “Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri (1901–1907),” 166–175.