etcetera | Obituaries Electronic Telegraph
Saturday 7 September 1996
Issue 472

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Buland al-Haidari

BULAND AL-HAIDARI, who has died in London aged 69, was an Iraqi poet, art critic and journalist; his nostalgic verse about Iraq found a wide audience in the Arab world.

Al-Haidari was one of a handful of Iraqi poets who revolutionised modern Arabic poetry. Inspired by the work of European modernists, such as Pound, Eliot, Yeats and Auden, they broke from the traditional forms of Arabic poetry with its strict rules of rhyme and metre and conventional subject matter, to write a free verse that was lyrical and emotional. His poetry was intimate rather than grandiose in tone, and inclined towards introspection and pessimism. It often returned to what one critic called "the individual's feeling of powerlessness against an enemy springing from the very heart of the nation".

Buland al-Haidari was born on Sept 26 1926, at Arbil, northern Iraq, into a prominent Kurdish family. Under the Hashemite monarchy then in power in Iraq, two seats in the cabinet were reserved for Kurds, and Haidari's uncle served as Minister of Justice until the monarchy was overthrown in 1958. The family moved to Baghdad when Buland was 10. As a young man in Baghdad, al-Haidari chose not to go to university in favour of the life of a café intellectual, studying art and literature and taking part in political activities. He began writing in Kurdish, later turning to Arabic. His first book of poetry, Mud Tremors, was written in 1948 and published in 1951.

The Ba'ath party seized power in Iraq in 1963, and launched a campaign against dissidents, Communists, Kurds, and anyone seen as a potential political opponent. Al-Haidari was imprisoned and sentenced to death, but pardoned five minutes before he was due to be hanged, possibly because of his prominence as a poet. On his release from prison, he went into exile in Lebanon with his wife and son. He spent 14 years in Lebanon, which he came to regard as his second homeland.

Al-Haidari was not naturally political, but circumstances made him so

Until the country was torn apart by civil war, Lebanon was the cultural capital of the Arab world; intellectuals and artists could thrive in a liberal environment, free from the fear and censorship that stifled intellectual life in many Arab countries. Al-Haidari taught Arabic, wrote poetry and worked as a journalist. He returned to Baghdad in 1976, to take a job as editor of an art journal, during a brief period in which the Iraqi government encouraged the return of talented nationals from abroad.

His homecoming was temporary. Political repression in Iraq worsened in the late 1970s, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis being deported, arrested or executed. Saddam Hussein assumed total power in 1979, and commenced war against Iran the following year. Thousands of Iraqis fled into exile, including, in 1980, al-Haidari and his family, who joined the large community of Iraqi exiles in London.

Despairing of events in Iraq, he stopped writing poems for several years, and only resumed later to write more explicitly political poetry, grieving for his native country. He wrote about such episodes as the gas attack on Halabjah and the invasion of Kuwait, lamenting the destruction of Iraq. In London, he was editor-in-chief of the Arabic arts magazine Funun al-Arabiyya, and wrote a weekly column on the arts for the magazine al-Majalla, in which he displayed his wide range of interests, from ancient art to the work of Giacometti and Picasso.

Al-Haidari was not naturally political, but circumstances made him so. He served as vice-president of the Union of Iraqi Democrats, campaigning for a democratic and united Iraq, and was active in promoting a charter for Arab intellectuals, condemning restrictions on artistic freedom and defending human rights. His final collection of poems, Passages to Exile (1996) ends, "O how sweet to be reincarnated as dreams,/ Dreams that help us forget,/ the resentment awaiting between the bow and arrow."

He married, in 1953, Dalal al-Mufti; they had a son.


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