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Commentary Abdelaziz al-Maqaleh: The Passing of a Yemeni Cultural Icon

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

In solemn mass gatherings, Yemenis paid their respects to Abdelaziz al-Maqaleh, who passed away on November 28 at 85 years old. Al-Maqaleh, one of the most prominent Yemeni figures of the past century, was a critic, academic, writer, and Yemen’s most beloved modern poet, known for bringing Yemen’s voice to the world and that of the world to Yemen.

For two decades, Al-Maqaleh served as President of Sana’a University and headed the Yemeni Center for Research and Studies for more than 40 years. During his tenure, Sana’a University opened its doors to his friends, among whom were the Arab world’s most prominent intellectuals and literary figures. Thanks to Al-Maqaleh, the very small window Yemen had onto the outside literary world was broadened, making way for ideas and developments that flowed in and out of the country. It was also thanks to him that the finest Arab poets had access to Sana’a salons and streets, taking back with them its distinctive flavor to the rest of the world.

Al-Maqaleh studied in Cairo in the 1970s, earning a Ph.D. from Ain-Shams University. He was later expelled from Egypt following a decision from President Anwar Sadat in response to Al-Maqaleh’s objection to the Camp David Accords. He returned to Sana’a in 1978 and rumor has it he never spent a single night outside the city since, with the exception of a trip to Aden to take part in the declaration of Yemen’s unification in May 1990.

To his beloved Sana’a, he dedicated many of his literary works. Sana’a was a constant renewable symbol in his poetry, as exemplified in his first book of poetry, There Must be Sana’a (1971) and later in his collection of poems A Book of Sana’a (1999). His most famous lyrical poem, sung by Yemen’s composer and singer Ahmad Fathi, called Sana’aniah, is about a girl from Sana’a. In Announcing My Hopelessness (2018), Al-Maqaleh speaks to Sana’a as if bidding it farewell.

Our ancient home
Residing in our hearts
Oh, our wounded history
Inscribed on the windows
and stones
I fear for you from those close to you
And for no reason,
I fear for you from yourself.

For Yemenis, Al-Maqaleh was a fixture throughout the country’s most pivotal historical moments. On September 26, 1962, he read the statement broadcasted on Radio Sana’a, announcing the nascent revolution that overthrew the Imamate. Only 25 years old at the time, and a young revolutionary, he had written a poem that continues to echo among Yemenis today, and that up until a few years ago – when the Houthi authorities banned it from the educational curriculum – was part of Yemeni eighth graders’ curriculum.

Bless the hands of those building a new dawn, lovers of dignity,
Who have given themselves to Allah on this difficult night,
Those who have sacrificed everything and brought down the Imamate.

Still, his legacy and works live on. After news of his death, pictures of Al-Maqaleh flooded social media, along with his most famous quote from a poem written in the 1970’s, Silence is a Shame:

We will continue to tunnel through the wall,
And we will either make it through to the light,
Or die on the wall.

Al-Maqaleh was an icon, and for the best part of half a century he mentored Yemen’s greatest literary talent. Collections of poetry and bodies of work earnt a stamp of approval if they had an introduction written by him. Al-Maqaleh was renowned for his discipline, to which he attributed his success. He had decades-long commitments to several Yemeni and Arab magazines and was known among literary circles to never miss a deadline. For decades, his weekly column in the Al-Thawra newspaper, published every Tuesday, was eagerly awaited by his readers, while his weekly Tuesday Salon was an invaluable opportunity for writers to gather.

Al-Maqaleh maintained good relations across all political spectrums, including with the ruling regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 2001, he was nominated cultural advisor and was known to have played an influential role in the appointment of ministers of education and culture as well as university presidents. A member of the Baath party when he was younger, and a penchant for political realism, meant he often managed to strike a balance in his political relationships, and kept go we od relations, even with members of the opposition.

Among religious extremists, however, he was shunned. To them, Al-Maqaleh symbolized the atheism typically attributed to modern poets. To this day his critics still cite one of his most controversial lines: “Allah has become silent ash, a terror in the hands of executioners, a field that sprouts prayer beads and turbans.” Radical religious leaders waged a broad excommunication campaign against him in the 1980s, disregarding the fact that modern poetry relies on symbolism and that this line, taken from the collection of poems Writing with the Sword of the Revolutionary Ali bin al-Fadhel (1978), was taken out of context. Al-Maqaleh was ultimately a man of faith and one unlikely to denounce God. His faith was evident in earlier poems, such as in A Letter on Allah (1961), and also in later ones, most prominently in Invocations from the Alphabet of the Soul Collection (1998), which was read by all students at Yemeni universities as a part of their mandatory curriculum.

He was bold too when it came to ideas he believed in. He worked hard, for instance, on restoring the legacy of Ali bin al-Fadhel, a leader of the Qarmati movement (a sect of Ismailis) in the Middle Ages, who became a symbol of religious heresy, smeared by many traditionalists in Yemen, and whose perception Al-Maqaleh fought hard to correct.

Revolutionary subjects were more prominent in his earlier work, but over time Al-Maqaleh turned to more mysticism in his poetry, as seen in his collection of poems Writing with the Sword of the Revolutionary Ali bin al-Fadhel, The Alphabet of the Soul (1998), and Near the Gardens of Tagore (2018). But the effects of Yemen’s war eventually found their way into his work. War (2017) provides the reader with a harrowing portrait of famine and the devastating effects of Yemen’s conflict.

Oh, you who are starving,
You will not go hungry,
For those awash in war have called out to it,
And the streets and roads are filled
with shrapnel from their war songs
for you will not be hungry.
Eat the flesh of the cannons,
the fat of the tanks.
Do not fear death,
for death is a sweet song.

Await the blessings of war,
for war is coming.
Its tables are laden,
with things you have never seen,
heard of,
or read about
in any book.

Al-Maqaleh was ultimately a pacifist and condemned the war and violence that characterized his last years in Yemen. In A Lamentation for 2016, he wrote his own obituary, offering a somber depiction of death in the throes of war:

Cover me up
And wrap my coffin tight,
Write above my grave, Here lies one of the victims of wars
That he was disgusted by.
He told the leaders before they started it,
When war enters a village,
It destroys its kind people.

Over the course of his acclaimed career, Al-Maqaleh produced 34 books on literature, literary criticism, history, and poetry, some of which have been translated into other languages. Dozens of books and studies have been written on his work, including master’s and doctoral theses. He received numerous awards, including the Lotus Award, the Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture in collaboration with UNESCO, the Sultan Bin Ali al-Owais Cultural Award, the Shawqi Award, and a Knight Award of the first degree from the French Government. But more importantly, aside from recognition, Al-Maqaleh leaves behind the enduring love of his readers and an eternal legacy as one of the most important pillars of modern poetry in Yemen.

Program/Project: The Yemen Review