Baghdad will honor Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, one of the finest Arab poets of the 20th century, by turning his house, a building in southwestern Baghdad that dates from the 1970s, into a museum and cultural center carrying his name.
The municipality’s decision, announced May 20, is in homage to the poet who fled Iraq under Saddam Hussein in 1980, settled in Syria and died there in 1997. The museum is likely to be opened next year, which marks the 120th anniversary of Jawahiri’s birth. It also would be the first museum dedicated to a poet in Iraq.
The move comes after various literary and cultural groups, such as the Union of Iraqi Writers, which Jawahiri presided over in the 1970s, lobbied for a museum and center that would contain his archives and memorabilia. Some Iraqi poets and writers also made a request in 2012 to the president to transfer the poet’s remains, buried in a cemetery in Damascus, to his family’s cemetery in the Iraqi city of Najaf.
Jawahiri was born in Najaf on July 26, 1899, into a family that included many religious scholars dating to the 11th century. Jawahiri’s father wanted his son to follow in these footsteps, so at an early age, young Jawahiri learned and memorized the Quran and took lessons in reading, writing, grammar, jurisprudence, rhetoric and eloquence. He was, however, more interested in poetry and politics than religious studies. In 1928, he published his first collection of poetry, “Between Feelings and Emotions.”
After World War II, Jawahiri became a voice for the revolution and Arab nationalism. His line “Do you not know that the victims’ wounds are but a mouth,” written after his brother Jafar was killed in an uprising in 1948, became iconic of Iraqi poetry. So did his satirical disdain of indifference:
Sleep, and enjoy the best of health
What a fine thing is sleep for the wretched!
Riad al-Ghareeb, a member of the executive office of Iraq’s Union of Writers, told Al-Monitor that the union had tirelessly pushed the idea of a museum through relevant committees and pressure on the municipality. “There is a member from the executive office of the union sitting on the committee to establish the museum now,” he said.
Ghareeb described the conversion of the poet’s house into a museum as “a great tribute to Jawahiri’s creativity and achievements.”
“It is also a genuine recognition by the state of the importance of literature, after so many of the homes of important artists and writers from Iraq’s cultural movement fell apart due to neglect,” he said.
“The house will also be turned into a cultural center that hosts literary events, seminars, research and education on poetry,” he said. “The union seeks to ensure that the museum is a cultural asset, not simply a display of the poet’s archive.”
The Iraqi Cultural Forum also lauded the initiative. “The transformation of Jawahiri’s house to a cultural center would not have happened without the lobbying from various cultural groups, as well as writers and poets,” said Najat Abdullah, the forum’s media director and also a poet and writer.
Ban al-Jawahiri, the granddaughter of the poet, said that the family long wanted to create a cultural center and museum in Qadisiyah, a district in southwest Baghdad favored by the literati. The poet lived there throughout the 1970s.;
She said the project moved to the practical phase after a May 10 meeting between family members and the Baghdad municipality.
She describes the house as a building from 1971 with an area of 550 square meters (almost 6,000 square feet) where he lived during his time as president of the Union of Iraqi Writers before he left Iraq.
“The house witnessed many artistic and political dialogues and disputes among the elites of Iraqi politics and literature. It also contains many of Jawahiri’s personal possessions, including the poet’s famous headdress [the “arqajin”], watches, photographs, personal letters and drafts, as well as awards and gifts from presidents, kings and various prominent figures,” she said.
She also said that the transfer of the house’s ownership from the family to the Baghdad municipality has been completed and construction plans are being drawn. “There is a need for a comprehensive restoration and renovation of the house so that it can become a museum,” she added.
The poet’s granddaughter said negotiations on Jawahiri’s possessions are continuing. “It is difficult to donate and house them in a museum unless there is a strong guarantee that they are secure and will not be damaged or stolen. In a country where the National Museum of Antiquities has been exposed to theft and vandalism, it would be difficult to donate my grandfather’s assets, even if I were paid millions of dollars,” she said.
Arif al-Saadi, a poet and member of the executive board of the Union of Iraqi Writers, said the establishment of the museum would mark an important cornerstone in recognizing literary heritage. “The project to transform the poet’s house into a museum is a historic and pivotal moment. Baghdad has seen thousands of creative poets, calligraphers, mystics and intellectuals pass through the city, but nothing remains of them except for the yellowed pages of books.”
He also said, “The purchase of the house by the municipality and its transformation into a museum is a significant moment that will encourage cultural tourism and may help turn the place into a center for study and research.”
Ministry of Culture spokesman Amran Obeidi told Al-Monitor that Jawahiri was “a national symbol and international treasure.” Obeidi said he expected the museum to become a destination for visitors from inside and outside Iraq. He also called on “those who have possessions and gifts obtained from the late poet to deliver them to the museum for preservation and commemoration of the owner.”