Farewell Mohammad al-Maghout (1934-2006)

With the death in Damascus of on 3 April Syria has lost one of its literary heavyweights, a great poet and playwright. Considered a great poet and playwright, Al-Maghout died in Damascus at the age of 73 on April 3, 2006, after suffering from a prolonged period of illness and lengthy spells of depression.

Sadly I never had the opportunity to meet A l-Maghout. In 2002 I requested an interview, but it was at the height of one of the periodic bouts of depression from which the writer suffered. We did, however, have a long conversation over the telephone. “My son,” he said, “I do not want to be interviewed. I have seen so many wars, much destruction, corruption and hatred. I am fed up with everything around me. Please leave me alone. I don’t want to be interviewed.”

The only quotable phrase I got from the late poet was: “I do not regret a single thing in my life! I do not regret a single thing I have ever written.” I spoke to him several times after the telephone conversation and though he was warm and welcoming, he was resolute in refusing an interview. He once said he disliked interviews because the questions and answers reminded him of “interrogation by the intelligence services, and perhaps of school,” both of which he loathed.

I respected his position but wrote about him anyway in Steel & Silk: Men and Women Who Shaped Syria 1900-2000. He had, after all, been instrumental in shaping literary life in Syria for half a century. In his own words, Al-Maghout was a man “who never got carried away.”

“I was,” he once said, “never optimistic about anything in the Arab world, nor was I ever pessimistic, knowing exactly what to expect from the Arabs!”

Al-Maghout spoke of Syrians at a grassroots level. He spoke of the poorSyrian who works day and night to buy bread for his children. He spoke about the Syrian oppressed by the security services and disgusted by the corruption of officials. He spoke about the Syrian carried away by dreams of Arab nationalism and the unification of the Arab World, only to have his dream shattered over and over again.

Al-Maghout also wrote of two kinds of Syrians. One was optimistic, believing in his future and the future of his country although he had every reason in the world to be pessimistic. The other had abandoned all promise of life, dragging his days behind him with no discernible aim. In his final days Al-Maghout resembled the latter. He rarely ventured outside his home, seldom met anybody and became, in his own words, addicted to smoking and drinking — two things he had enjoyed since a young man. He once said in an interview: “I don’t like to leave my home because everything I see outside my house is ugly.”

He continued to write, though less prolifically than before. His most recent collection of poems, Al-Badawi al-Ahmar (The Red Bedouin), appeared earlier this year.

Al-Maghout was born in the town of Salamiyya in 1934, close to Hama, the city on the Orontes River in western Syria. His father was a farmer and Al-Maghout experienced great poverty as a child and young adult. He came to Damascus to study agriculture but dropped out before completing his studies, beginning his writing career in 1950 on the periodical Al-Shurta (The Police). He joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and was arrested during the crackdown on the SSNP in 1955. Al-Maghout later said that he was never ideologically committed to the party and had joined “because there were only two parties in Salamiyya. One was the SSNP and the other was the Baath. Since I was very poor I joined the SSNP which was closer to our home and had a heater while the Baath Party office was far away and cold.”

He admitted that he never read the ideology of the SSNP, though he admired its founder Antoune Saadah, and was greatly disturbed when Saadah was executed by the Lebanese authorities in 1949.
Al-Maghout first began to write poetry during the nine months of 1955 that he spent in jail, producing one of his most celebrated poems Al-Qatl (Murder). He was tortured and confessed to having cried often and screamed from pain. He never recovered from his arrest. In an interview just weeks before his death he told the London based Al-Hayat newspaper that “something inside of me was broken that hasn’t been repaired until this day.” He added that it was in prison that he learned the meaning of fear.
In 1959 Al-Maghout published his first collection of poems, Huzn Fi Daw’ al-Qamar (Sorrow in Moonlight). He worked with the literary magazine Shi’r in Beirut, alongside Syria‘s other towering poet, Adonis. Other works by Al-Maghout include Ghurfa bi Malayin al-Judran (A Room with Millions of Walls), published in 1961, and Al-Farah Laysa Mihnati (Happiness is not my Profession), which appeared in 1970. Al-Maghout wrote about the injustice of life, the daily needs of the poor and the ever-present threat of Israel. He wrote with a socialist vision, criticised capitalism and landowners, and advocated the rights of peasants, workers and the rural masses. In 1965 he began writing short, one-act plays, claiming that fear, hunger and Israel lay behind all Arab suffering.
In 1973 he wrote a play on the October War that was performed by Dureid Lahham and Nihad Quali, two Syrian comedians who were beginning to shine as masters of political satire. Dai’at Tishrin (October Village) was performed on stage but never published. It was so successful that in 1975 Al-Maghout worked with Lahham and Quali on another show, Ghorba (Emigration), which dealt with the phenomenon of mass Arab emigration to the West in the 1970s and which is now considered a classic of modern Arab theater.

Ghorba was followed by Kasak Ya Watan (Cheers to the Homeland) in 1978, the protagonist of which, an average Arab citizen proud of his heritage, through poverty, persecution and defeat is forced into despair and sells his children to earn a few extra pennies. According to Al-Maghout and Lahham, the play addresses the gap separating Arab populations from their rulers. The protagonist is arrested by the intelligence services, persecuted by government official and witnesses the death of his daughter due to medical negligence. He is so utterly defeated that he starts to drink heavily in order to forget that he is an Arab. The show ends with Al-Maghout’s character making a wistful toast to the homeland following a long conversation with his martyred father, an unforgettable ending that was met by a standing ovation at every performance.

In 1989 Lahham and Al-Maghout staged their last collaboration, Shaqa’ik al-Nou’man (Poppies), a sequel to Dai’at Tishrin. Shaqa’ik al-Nou’man focuses on an Arab released from an Israeli prison after 20 years in captivity who is shocked to discover how much the Arab world has changed. He is repelled by the corruption, the dictatorships and the poverty that surrounds him and decides to emigrate. Eventually he discovers that he cannot: Arabs, Al-Maghout often claimed, are like anemones. Once uprooted they die.

Al-Maghout continued to write political works, the most famous, perhaps, being Sa Akhoun Watani (I Will Betray my Homeland), a collection of essays published in 1987. He also wrote the script for Lahham’s two classic films Al-Hudud (The Border) and Al-Taqrir (The Report), which starred the Syrian-Egyptian actress Raghda. In 2005 he awarded the Syrian Order of Merit (Excellence Class).

Ahram Weekly, 6 April 2006