Thursday, April 3, 2008

The life of a little-known Syrian poet

I came across the following article in the Yemen Times, detailing the life of Syrian poet Mohammad Ahmed al-Maghout. We are all aware of the famous artists of our region, but the little-known contributors to art very rarely receive the recognition they deserve.

Al-Maghout had a turbulent life, raised in poverty, in and out of jail under an oppressive dictatorship. His life is an extraordinary demonstration that art transcends all obstacles and challenges life throws at us.

Mohammad Ahmed al-Maghout, a Syrian poet with a satiric pen


Issue: (1138), Volume 18 , From 17 March 2008 to 19 March 2008


Prepared by Eyad N. Al-Samman

Syrian poet, playwright, journalist and scenarist Mohammed Ahmed Al-Maghout was born in 1934 in Salamiyah, a town on the Orontes River in western Syria’s Hamah governorate.

Because his father was a farmer, Al-Maghout spent his childhood in miserable and poverty-stricken conditions. After receiving his primary education in Salamiyah, he moved to Damascus at age 14 and enrolled in a boarding school to study agronomy.


Being unable to pursue his studies there, he enrolled in another agricultural school in Al-Ghutah, a suburban area of Damascus. Still unable to continue, he joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, or SSNP, in his early 20s.

Arrested in 1955 during a crackdown by Syrian intelligence on SSNP members, Al-Maghout was imprisoned for nine months in Al-Mazzah Prison in Damascus. While there, he had the opportunity to write poetry for the first time, as well as meet renowned Syrian poet Adonis, who later introduced the novice poet to the public.

Fearing Syrian intelligence during the independent Arab Union Republic, Al-Maghout moved to Beirut in the late 1950s. While in Lebanon, he met poet Saniyah Saleh, who admired his poems, and later married her, continuing to reside in Beirut for a time. He began writing poetry, publishing them in Lebanon’s “Shi’ar” (Poetry) magazine, before returning to Syria and settling in Damascus.

A group of Syrian army officers organized a coup d’├ętat against the Arab Union Republic government in September 1961 and a provisional Syrian national government subsequently was formed. As a SSNP member, Al-Maghout was arrested and again imprisoned for three months during that same year.

Following his release, he concealed himself in small, low-ceilinged rooms for several months in various quarters in Damascus, such as Ayn Al-Karsh and Bab Tuma, before settling down in Damascus for decades of writing and living with his two favorite pleasures – smoking cigarettes and listening to classic Lebanese music.

Al-Maghout’s poems, plays, television and movie scripts criticized corruption in regional governments and their restrictions upon their citizens. Many of his divans and other selected literary works were translated into several other languages. His work combines satire with descriptions of social misery and malaise, illustrating what he viewed as an ethical decline among the region’s rulers.

One of his first poems was “The Bitter Wine,” published in 1952 in Al-Adaab (The Arts) newspaper when he was 18 years old.

Al-Maghout published his first collection of poems in 1959, entitled, “Huzn fi Daw’a Al-Qamar” (Sadness in the Moonlight). His second divan was 1964’s “A Room with Millions of Walls,” followed by the 1970 divan, “The Joy is Not My Profession.”

His final published divan, “The Red Bedouin,” (2006) contained new texts treating numerous national issues.

As a journalist, Al-Maghout helped establish and develop the Syrian government’s Tishreen (October) newspaper, to which he contributed to defining that paper’s policy and nature by writing a daily corner alternately with another writer beginning in 1975. He also penned the column, “Alice in Wonderland,” in the Paris-based weekly Lebanese newspaper, Al-Mustaqbal (The Future).

Al-Maghout began writing one-act plays in 1965, shortly thereafter collaborating with Dureid Lahham, Syria’s most renowned actor, to produce some of the region’s most popular and acclaimed theatrical works.

His 1973 drama, “Tishreen’s Village,” was performed on stage but never published. It was a political comedy treating various issues, such as Syria’s modern history, the inefficiency of Arab leaders, the Palestinian cause and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The 1975 drama, “Expatriation,” dealt with the phenomena of the massive immigration of Arabs to the West in the 1970s.

Al-Maghout’s famed 1987 drama, “K’asak, Ya Watan,” (Cheers, My Homeland) portrayed current Arab perplexing and tragic economic, social and political situations, while his 1989 drama, “The Anemones,” focused on aspects of corruption, dictatorship and poverty in the Arab world.

Among his other dramatic works were “The Clown” (1974), “The Hunched Bird” (1976) and “Outside the Flock” (1999).

Lahham starred in some of Al-Maghout’s most famous screenplays, including the 1984 motion picture, “Al-Hudood,” (The Borders) about a man who loses his passport and becomes trapped between countries in a satire of Arab disunity.

Another screenplay was 1987’s “Al-Taqreer” (The Report), while Al-Maghout’s television scripts included “The Valley of Musk” and “The Night’s Tales.”

In 2001, Al-Maghout collected essays that he had penned and published in Al-Wasat magazine between 1998 and 2001 in the book, “Flowers’ Slayer.” He’s also known for his 1987 book, “I Will Betray My Homeland,” which is a collection of satiric political essays.

He penned only one autobiographical novel, 1974’s “The Swing.”

His divan, “Tall Trees’ Woodcutters,” was selected and published in UNESCO’s “Book in a Newspaper” project and subsequently bestowed Syria’s 2002 Cultural Medal. Al-Maghout also won the United Arab Emirates’ 2005 Al-Awais Cultural Award.

Al-Maghout died on April 3, 2006 at age 72 in Damascus. A true original and a national character, he was a Syrian intellectual who refused all unsatisfactory compromises and an independent voice for liberty and justice in the Arab world. One of his most famous satirical sayings was, “There’s only one perfect crime – to be born an Arab.”

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