Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Sassoon Somekh, romantic poet of Baghdad

In this Haaretz piece, Baghdad-born Sasson Somekh, today one of Israel's leading professors of Arabic literature, has trouble recognising the fiery, romantic poet he was in his youth (with thanks:Lily).

Some time back in 1949, in my native city of Baghdad, I started writing poems in Arabic. A few of them were published in the literary supplements of Baghdadi newspapers. The times were out of joint. The war was raging in the land of Israel and the atmosphere in the streets of Baghdad was bitter.

And it was no simple matter for a Jewish boy of 16, the owner of a decidedly Jewish name, a student at a Jewish high school, to publish poems under his real name, no matter how naive and sentimental the poems. Therefore, in most cases I would sign with a pseudonym. One of these names was Qabes ("Spark"), which because of a chance typographical error became Qaes, the name of an early Arab poet who went insane out of his great love for Leila.

Some of my friends, my age or older, warned me not to continue publishing in those days, the days of a storm of nationalism wherever you went. However, an inner urge that is hard to explain impelled me to continue.

(...)In March of 1951 my turn came around to board the plane that would take me to Israel, after having, along with most of the members of the communities in Iraq, relinquished my Iraqi citizenship. Before the fateful flight, I collected all the newspapers in which I had published my writings (poems, reviews and translations of English poetry and prose). I cut out all my pieces (there weren't any photocopiers then, or at any rate they weren't accessible) and placed them in a large envelope.

I put the envelope together with a wide variety of personal possessions my family sent to Israel via Persia. However, the man who took it upon himself to carry out the transfer, that is to say - the smuggling - was apparently too well educated for the purpose. When he opened our suitcase and found my envelope, he thought, I assume, that for our own good it would be better to get rid of it lest the suitcase were apprehended and the printed material caused complications. And thus all the fruit of my literary youth were lost forever.

When the suitcase arrived in Israel a few weeks later, I discovered to my astonishment that all of the "intellectual property" had vanished into thin air. I did remember by heart a few lines of some of my poems, but because of the magnitude of my astonishment I forgot to write them down ...

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