Int. J. Middle East Stud.

45 (2013), 313–329
Haytham Bahoora
During a revolutionary period of cultural production and anticolonial political commitment in
1950s Baghdad, the modernist poet Husayn Mardan was put on trial for his “obscene” collection
entitled Qasaid Ariya (Naked Poems). Heavily influenced by Baudelaire, Mardan’s poetics
provide a revolutionary paradigm focused on the gratification of the corporeal. This paper con-
siders how Mardan’s poetry, largely marginalized from the canonized modernist Arabic poetic
tradition, registers resistance to an increasingly rationalized and bureaucratic social order through
a transgressive poetics that displace the political onto the body. Lampooning social uprightness
and middle-class sterility, Mardan’s poems encourage sexual licentiousness, embrace the space of
the brothel, and celebrate filth and germs. Through a consideration of Mardan’s appropriation of
Baudelaire, this essay theorizes the translation and transformation of Baudelaire’s paradigmatic
literary representations of modernity into the context of a modernizing Baghdad and therefore
historicizes the appearance of modernist aesthetics in a non-European space.
On 26 June 1950, the trial of the Iraqi poet Husayn Mardan (1927–72) convened in
Baghdad after the 1949 publication of his “obscene” collection (d¯ıw¯ an) Qasaid Ariya
(Naked Poems). Attending the trial were a large number of Iraqi poets and a committee
of culture (lajna adabiyya) that would assist the court in determining the aesthetic value
of Mardan’s work. According to court proceedings, Mardan, charged with insulting
public decency, responded to questions asked of him by the judge calmly and directly.
The function of the poet, he argued, was “to be honest in his expression of his innermost
feelings,” and to “expose the naked truth to the people.”
Mardan’s defense attorney,
Safa al-Urfali, defended his client by appealing both to the necessity and universality of
artistic freedom and to the dispassionate and objective spirit of scientific inquiry, which
demands the revelation of objective truth regardless of the unpleasant or offensive reality
it may reveal in the course of its findings.
Al-Urfali’s defense of Mardan began with a reference to the 1857 trial of Gustave
Flaubert on similar charges of “outrage to public and religious morality and to good
HaythamBahoora is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations, University
of Colorado, Boulder, Colo.; e-mail:
© Cambridge University Press 2013 0020-7438/13 $15.00
314 Haytham Bahoora
morals” for his novel Madame Bovary.
There were artists, argued al-Urfali, who spread
virtue by illuminating it in their aesthetic production, and there were others who spread
virtue through exposing depravity.
Flaubert had been acquitted because the judge
presiding over his trial recognized the aesthetic strategy of illuminating vice in order
to prevent it. Similar art, including the poetry of Mardan, which functioned to reveal
or expose the social world (al-adab al-maksh¯ uf), was to be found in the homes of
Iraq’s wealthy and in the books taught in Iraq’s public schools and universities. Such
art was also available for purchase in markets throughout the nation, and included
representations of the naked body as a transhistorical and transgeographic phenomenon.
Is it possible, al-Urfali asked, that all expressions of nudity in art, which span cultures
and geography, are contrary to decency (mukh¯ alifat li-l-¯ ad¯ ab)?
Expanding his legal argument beyond an advocacy of freedom of expression in litera-
ture and the arts, al-Urfali argued that the transgressive elements of Mardan’s poetry were
equivalent to the pursuit of knowledge associated with scientific research, in particular
psychology (ilm al-nafs). Like “exploratory” (i.e., indecent) art, al-Urfali continued,
the science of psychology, in its pursuit of knowledge of the self, had produced studies
on psychological illness and the relationship of the self to moral and spiritual health,
in particular through studies on sexual deviance (al-shudh¯ udh al-jins¯ı) that had as their
purpose the discovery of knowledge and the appropriate use of that knowledge in the
promotion of virtue in society. Were these scientific studies of sexual deviance, sold in
bookstores and taught in universities in Iraq and throughout the world, al-Urfali asked,
also opposed to ¯ ad¯ ab and in violation of the same law against indecency that Mardan
was charged with violating? Al-Urfali concluded that the publication of Mardan’s d¯ıw¯ an
was no different from the hypothetical publication of a scientific text about sexual
deviance; the intent of the scientific publication is not to incite or provoke the crimes
of sexual deviance, but to further the cause of science for the sake of knowledge and
to correct such undesirable behavior. Similarly, al-Urfali argued, the aim of Mardan’s
poetry was to contribute to Arabic literature and to serve society by directing it away from
At one point in his argument, al-Urfali briefly recalled the classical Arabic poetic
tradition and its treatment of the obscene. Obscene poetry, he argued, was produced
during the flowering of Islamic civilization and was embraced in the courts of the
caliphs, who not only developed a taste for the lascivious but also praised and rewarded
the poets who created it. Curiously, al-Urfali did not linger on the classical tradition
and its cultivation of obscene poetry, nor did he cite any classical poets, such as Abu
Nuwas, whose obscene poetry is associated with the city of Baghdad at the height of
its glory. Indeed, al-Urfali would not have had to look hard to find the “indecent” in
the Arabic literary tradition, particularly in the historical legacy of cultural production
of medieval Baghdad. The genre of muj ¯ un (licentiousness, libertinage, bawdiness) was
both a genre of classical prose and poetry and a mode of behavior referring to the casting
off of societal restraints and shameless indulgence in prohibited pleasures, in particular
the consumption of wine and sexual profligacy.
This omission is both strategic and
revealing: Al-Urfali’s defense of Mardan began with a reference to Flaubert, and his
legal strategy was to parallel the social function of the poet to that of a scientist, arguing
that both produced research and knowledge that would aid in the social uplift and moral
health of the nation.
Baudelaire in Baghdad 315
The logic of al-Urfali’s claim that Mardan engaged in representing vice in order to
spread virtue is transparently cynical, but was an effective way to win the dismissal
of the case against his client.
Both al-Urfali’s symbolic reference to Flaubert and his
casting of Mardan’s poetry as scientific discovery to be used in the service of the
moral advancement of the nation are signs of the historical moment in which the trial
took place. In other words, that the defense of Mardan rested on references to a seminal
literary figure associated with the materialization of European modernity and a scientific
rationale as the basis to argue for freedom of expression in the arts was a reflection of
the material, political, and cultural forces shaping national formation in the historic
moment of development and modern state building in Iraq. For Iraq and much of the
Arab world, cultural production was not only inflected by the material transformations
of the state-led modernization project but also intervened in these transformations by
shaping national culture and popular responses to the state.
The years of British Mandate rule in Iraq (1920–32) and of indirect British rule
mediated by the nominally independent Hashimite monarchy (1932–58) witnessed pro-
found social upheaval: the increasing rationalization and bureaucratization of the state,
the emergence of powerful secular political movements in opposition to the colonial
regime, the appearance of a small but growing bourgeois middle class and its expanding
role in defining the political and cultural values of the nation, the mass migration of
southern peasants (in Iraq, often pejoratively termed shar¯ agwa) from the countryside to
the cities, and, significantly, a temporally condensed state-led modernization program
which aimed to transform Iraq from a largely peasant, agrarian society to a mod-
ern, technologically advanced state. The story of increasing state power and political
centralization in Iraq was almost entirely enabled by its transformation into a petro-
state. Travelers to Baghdad from the 1930s onward, and particularly in the 1950s,
observed a city undergoing dramatic physical change. In a 1932 visit, the Lebanese
mahjar writer Amin al-Rihani heralded the beginning of a new age for Iraq, what he
called the “age of oil” (zaman al-naft
), marked by the embrace of technology. “In
the future,” he wrote, “oil will become the great chemical soul of Baghdad.”
the next few decades, the concerted modernization projects of the British-backed Iraqi
monarchy, planned and implemented by the Iraq Development Board and publicly
celebrated in staged events such as the annual “Development Week,” fundamentally
reshaped the urban fabric of Iraqi cities.
These transformations were documented ap-
provingly in the Iraqi and Western press and in travel narratives by Western visitors to
The political climate in the period of Mardan’s arrest was marked by increasing
government censorship and persecution of intellectual figures who were at the forefront
of articulating a new cultural consciousness for the nation and political opposition to
the monarchy. Ottoman laws regulating the press were readopted in 1921 under British
rule and remained practically unchanged until 1931, when only minimal revisions were
made. These laws “gave power to the state to interfere in the public sphere. Such laws
were imposed throughout the history of Hashimite Iraq when publications appeared
too critical or ran out of favor with the government.”
Publishers were required to
obtain government approval prior to the production of periodicals and it was illegal
for publications to “breach public morality or decency.” Finally, the British often at-
tempted to directly control and manipulate the press, while simultaneously producing
316 Haytham Bahoora
their own publications aimed at swaying public opinion against Arab nationalism and
As local opposition to British and monarchical rule increased, so too did government
censorship practices, whose purpose, according to King Faysal I, was “to put a limit
to the press’s unreasonable critique of government activities.”
In 1938, the Iraqi gov-
ernment passed a new press law stating that any individual who “expressed approval
or disseminates by any means of publication . . . any of the doctrines of communism,
anarchy, or the like” would face punishment of up to seven years in prison.
By the late
1940s and into the 1950s, government harassment and persecution of communist and
nationalist intellectuals and activists was routine and reflected the growing power and
centralization of the state. The execution in 1949 of Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) leader
Yusif Salman Yusif (nom de guerre Fahd) and several of his comrades, by hanging in
a public square in Baghdad, was the most notorious example of the mass government
crackdown on anticolonial communist activism, which reached its apex after the 1948
rebellion (al-Wathba, or “great leap”), when hundreds of communists, including the
party’s leadership, were arrested. The same year, the poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab was
seized in his home village of Jaykur in southern Iraq and taken to a detention center
in Baghdad, where he remained from January until April, when he was released with
other prisoners suspected of ties to the ICP.
During the 1952 Intifada, hundreds of
activists were imprisoned, including the poets Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, Muham-
mad Salih Bahr al-Ulum, and Abd Allah Goran.
At a time when the Iraqi state
was at the height of its political repression of activists and intellectuals, the arrest of
Mardan for violating “public decency” must be understood in the context of the state’s
exercise of power against any articulation of dissent. As is often the case, charges
of “breaching public morality and decency” are rarely simply about upholding a cer-
tain vision of public morality but are intertwined with a ruling authority’s claims to
My interest in the state’s persecution of Mardan has to do with the public courtroom
spectacle it repeatedly created around what has come to be called his “Baudelarian”
poetry, and the ways that this spectacle has been effectively written out of cultural
and literary histories of this period in Iraq and of Arabic poetry more generally. Literary
histories of the modernist poetic movements of Baghdad that coincide with Mardan’s trial
rarely mention the significance of his poetry or the state’s efforts to silence him.
vague and perfunctory references to Mardan as a “vagabond poet” and a rebellious
bohemian in the tradition of Baudelaire (1821–67) cast his poetry as external to the
politically engaged verse employed by other more celebrated, and canonized, modernist
poets, in particular Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Nazik al-Malaika, Abd al-Wahhab al-
Bayyati, and Buland al-Haydari.
The process and politics of canonization operate in
a historically contingent manner, formed through a variety of factors that deem certain
works emblematic of the cultural, political, and aesthetic trends of a particular historical
moment. Since placing aesthetic value on a work is a largely subjective process, that
a poet like Mardan, deemed a threat to public order by the state, has been largely
excluded from the Arabic canon poses questions about both canon formation in the
Arabic tradition and the cultural politics of his historical moment.
The marginalization of Mardan is, I argue, in large measure a consequence of
the subject matter of his poetry: libidinal desires, the pleasures of the body and the
Baudelaire in Baghdad 317
flesh, chaotic and inconsequential rebellion in the space of the brothel, an extreme
antiromanticism which celebrates nihilistic and hedonistic pleasure, self-indulgence,
anarchism, and a rejection of religious orthodoxy. In the moment of anticolonial revolu-
tion that demanded political engagement with an increasingly oppressive state apparatus
and a politically committed aesthetics, Mardan’s bohemianismis treated as a provocative
though ultimately frivolous and out-of-place libertinism, and as fashionable evidence of
the manifestation of a variant of Baudelarian rebellion and depravity in an unexpected
and ultimately inhospitable third world space. Mardan’s production of an alternative
revolutionary paradigm, one focused on the gratification of the self and the body, was
and remains unintelligible in any attempt to map his relevance to the period. The symbolic
incongruity of the self-styled Baudelarian hedonist, an allegory of bourgeois modernity,
in an uneven colonial space struggling to evince the modern is thus rationalized as
aberrant and, more damning, mimetic; the now mechanical association of Mardan with
Baudelaire posits Mardan’s work as a kind of derivative and unthinking mimicry or a
cursory production of pastiche.
How do we understand the local impulses that produced Mardan and fashioned his
identity as a political subject in a revolutionary, anticolonial moment, and in particular in
the urban spaces of a modernizing Baghdad? How was the singularity of Mardan’s work
in the radical, colonial unevenness of Baghdad an enactment of that unevenness? Is it
possible to associate Mardan’s poetic interiority with the external political mechanisms
shaping modern Baghdad: the increasingly repressive bureaucratic state, the regulation
and management of public life, the material transformation of its spaces, and the oppres-
sive nature of social institutions (family, religion, the law, sexual morality)? Situating
Mardan’s transgressive and rebellious poetry and its themes within these social forma-
tions centers the concept of space as a social fact that is always political and strategic.
Reading the aesthetic production of Mardan through its spatial mappings and absences
introduces a necessary element in the reading of the poetics of this period, one Mardan’s
contemporaries, including al-Sayyab, were attuned to: namely, the mediation between
the discursive and the material, the political and the self.
It is precisely external disciplinary forces that are displaced onto Mardan’s corporeal
poetics, a poetics that articulate a crisis of consciousness induced by a lack of faith
in progress, development, and the utopian. Mardan’s poetry is marked by absence—in
particular, the emphatic absence and rejection of any utopian and romantic associations,
such as the rural imaginary present in the poetry of al-Sayyab, the promise of social
justice associated with the revolutionary politics of the city, and the sentimentality of
romantic love which modernist Arab poets were rebelling against. It is characterized
instead by a resigned nihilism and skepticism toward any kind of program of political
justice. This is not to suggest that Mardan was never directly political; as a communist
and journalist, his essays included a wide range of political and cultural topics, from
commentaries on aesthetics to the Algerian anticolonial movement to Iraq’s own lib-
eration struggle. But his poems rarely include overt references to political events and
movements. Rather, they express a fundamental unease and pessimism with the material
and social conditions inaugurated by the modern. That Mardan expresses such pessimism
in the moment of high modernism, when the promise of development, modernization,
and secular nationalism was embedded in both the political and aesthetic realms, is not
due to the author’s lack of political commitment. Rather, in his poetry, the political is
318 Haytham Bahoora
displaced onto the body and is expressed through the phenomenological, that is, through
structures of consciousness encountering modern forms of discipline established by
the state and its nascent middle-class subjects. The relevance of Mardan’s poetics to
a period of unprecedented aesthetic innovation and political commitment (iltiz¯ am) is
in how it helps us to map the emergence of new social spaces and alternate routes to
understanding the encounter and assimilation of a changing material reality. Mardan’s
rebellious poetics and his unease with the disciplinary order being fashioned in his time
foreshadow the coming expansive machinery of the authoritarian state in Iraq—first in
the form of the colonial government and its increasingly centralized apparatus of power
and then in the brutal nationalist dictatorships that followed, dictatorships whose control
over the Iraqi population infiltrated the public and private realms by policing political
thought, spatial movement, and interpersonal relationships.
Born the son of a police officer in the rural town of Hindiyya, Mardan migrated to
Baghdad at the age of twenty in 1947 and immediately began frequenting the al-Zahawi
caf´ e on al-Rashid Street, where he immersed himself in the city’s aesthetic and political
debates with other prominent poets, including Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. Sharing with al-
Sayyab the experience of migration from the provincial, rural town to the urban center,
Mardan’s poetry departs radically from al-Sayyab’s idyllic portraits of his home village
Jaykur, north of Basra, that serves in his poetry as emblematic of a lost pastoral ideal.
The absence of the rural space in Mardan’s poetics is not accidental; it is a repudiation
of the romantic sentimentality associated with the rural imaginary created by other Iraqi
writers in this period, in both prose narratives and poetry.
Mardan’s d¯ıw¯ an Qasaid Ariya begins with the following dedication:
Lam uh
ib shay ¯ an mithalm¯ a ah
ibabtu nafs¯ı.
Fa il ¯ a al-m¯ arid al-jabb¯ ar al-multaf bi-thiy¯ ab al-d
ab¯ ab.
Il ¯ a al-sh¯ air al-th¯ air wa-l-mufakkir al-h
Il ¯ a . . . H
usayn Mard¯ an
Arfau h¯ adhihi al-s
arakh¯ at allat¯ı inbaathat
Min ur¯ uqihi f¯ı lahz
¯ at al-h¯ aila
Min h
ay¯ atihi al-rah¯ıba.
I did not love anything as I loved myself.
To the great rebel clothed in fog.
To the revolutionary poet and free thinker.
To . . . Husayn Mardan
I lift these screams that originated
From his roots in ghastly moments
From his dreadful life.
The collection’s dedication to the self exhibits characteristic features of the poems
contained within. As a manifesto, it announces a retreat inward to the private self and
it declares that the poetic realm is an interiorized space, where the exchange between
first and third person is a personal communication contained within the recesses of the
Baudelaire in Baghdad 319
author’s mind. The external world, including the reader, is intentionally excluded, a
bystander to the dialogue the author conducts with himself. The sinister terminology—
al-m¯ arid, a malevolent rebel, insurgent and demonic, is clothed not in material garments,
but in the natural, dissipating fog. The themes of roots, origins, and the oppressive past
appear repeatedly in the collection—frightful and suffocating, to be ridiculed as a source
of horror and stifling oppression and to be replaced by an embrace of the carnal pleasures
of the moment.
The poem “Milad Shaytan” (A Devil’s Birthday) recapitulates many of these ideas
and serves as emblematic of the themes of the rest of the collection. It begins with the
following sentence: Al-h
urriyya: kalima aj¯ıba la yafham man¯ ah¯ a ghayr al-h
ayaw¯ an
(Freedom: A wondrous word whose meaning only an animal understands). Mardan’s
association of freedom not with the successful terminal stages of revolutionary political
praxis but with baser instincts, unattainable in any permanent way and fundamentally
opposed to the standardizations of time and space of the modern world, is a radical
rejection of the teleology of the utopian. What defines this rejection is his portrayal
of all spaces in the modern world as metaphorical prisons, articulated in his poetry by
locating liberation in fleeting, impermanent pleasures associated with the body, and most
explicitly by locating it spatially in the transgressive and marginal space of the brothel,
a space exterior to moral and social regulation. The poem begins with the following
Y¯ a yawma mawlid¯ı al-mash ¯ um m¯ a fatiat
Dhikr¯ ak tuzij ahl al-ard
y¯ an¯ an
Fa hal ataytu il ¯ a al-duny¯ a li-aml ¯ ah¯ a
Khiziyy¯ an wa- ¯ ar¯ an wa-ah
z¯ an¯ an wa-kufr¯ an¯ an?
Oh accursed day of my birth that never ceased
On occasion, invoking your memory disturbs the living
Did I come to the world to fill it
With disgrace and shame, grief and blasphemy?
Sharibtu alfa h
ay¯ atin f¯ı ghad
¯ aratih¯ a
Fam¯ a irtawaytu wa-lan yanhadda jabb¯ ar
Kainann¯ı jadhwa h
amr¯ a min saqr
La tut
fa al-n¯ ar f¯ı am¯ aqih¯ a al-n¯ ar
I drank a thousand opulent lives
And I was not quenched nor was my greatness raised
As if I was a red ember from hell
Whose fiery depths could not be extinguished
Raqastu fawqa yad al-ahw¯ ali mubtasim¯ an
Ishr¯ın ¯ aman fa lam atab wa-lam anim
Wa-ishtu f¯ı atamat al-m¯ akh¯ ur munt
¯ an
Fawqa al-luh
¯ um fa lam ashba wa-lam aqum
I danced above the hand of horrors smiling
Twenty years and I did not tire or sleep
320 Haytham Bahoora
I lived discarded in the gloom of the brothel
Above the flesh and I was not satiated nor did I rise
The first stanza establishes once again, as in the dedication, the speaker’s interior
dialogue, alternating between first and third person and blurring the distinction between
him and the malevolent presence of the devil. Unlike the dominant poetic movement of
the period, the recourse to the other-worldly or the spiritual in Mardan’s poetry is not
to the myths and legends of the Mesopotamian past, as with the Tammuzi modernists,
but entirely to the demonic presence of the Satanic, which accompanies his exploits
in brothels and guides his rebellion against the stifling monotony of social convention.
Mardan’s mobilizations of the Satanic were consciously blasphemous; the spiritual thrust
in his poetry, though, is intended to be religious only insofar as it rejects and mocks
conventional deployments of religious discourse in public life.
The invocation of the
demonic and Satanic is a literary motif, a deployment of the metaphysical meant to
contest the privileged status of religion while disrupting the mundane, material basis
of everyday life from beyond it. Mardan’s pervasive deployments of the demonic both
echo and depart from Baudelaire, and any comparative assessment of their similarities
must account for the radically different sociopolitical and temporal realities of the local
spaces in which they wrote. Nevertheless, understanding the demonic in Baudelaire is
essential to reading its appropriation and rearticulation in Mardan’s poetics.
In an essay on the role of the figure of Satan in the poetry of Baudelaire, Jonathan
Culler argues that this aspect of his work is largely excluded from the various critical
accounts that make his poetics synonymous with the disparate conditions associated
with the emergence of bourgeois modernity. Culler writes:
There is a great difference of opinion about what it is that makes Baudelaire modern and worthy
of special attention. Is it, as Albert Thibaudet and Walter Benjamin argue, that he was the first true
poet of the city, the first to take the alienated experience of life in the modern city as the norm? Or
is it, as Leo Bersani claims, that Baudelaire discovered and displayed the mobility of fantasy and
of the desiring imagination? Or is it, as Paul de Man maintains, that Baudelaire invents modern
self-consciousness about poetry itself, producing poems that allegorically expose the operations
of the lyric?
Culler observes that what these various articulations of Baudelaire’s unique position
as the “poet of modernity” have in common is their exclusion of the aspect of his poetry
that invokes demons and the devil.
That critics of such different orientations should agree in shunting aside the Satanic Baudelaire
suggests that there is something worth investigating here, something disquieting and embarrassing,
which may not in fact be merely trivial—which may complicate the story of modernity that has
come to depend on Baudelaire as its originator. Perhaps the Satanic Baudelaire would tell us things
about modernity we don’t want to know.
Culler suggests that in order to make Baudelaire modern, critics have excised, marginal-
ized, or dismissed the metaphysical articulations of the demonic in his poetry, but that one
way of making this aspect of Baudelaire modern is to read the devil as “a personification
of aspects of the Unconscious or Id, or forces that make us do what our conscious selves
might reject.”
Another approach is to attempt to understand Baudelaire’s own words
on the matter—“it is more difficult for people of this century to believe in the devil than
Baudelaire in Baghdad 321
to love him. Everyone feels him and no one believes in him”—as an expression of one
aspect of the modern condition: the dominance of material life over the metaphysical.
The devil then comes to represent the forces that accompany and guide human behavior
and mark the return of what the material has repressed.
Matei Calinescu offers a different reading of Baudelaire’s relationship with the meta-
physical, one that sees Baudelaire’s engagement with the spiritual as entwined inex-
tricably with his experience of modernity. He writes, “Modernity, from this point of
view, appears as a spiritual adventure; the poet sets out to explore the forbidden realm
of evil, whose most recent flowers, dangerously beautiful, he is supposed to discover
and pluck.”
In other words, the task of the Baudelarian poet is “to reveal the poetry
hidden behind the most horrifying contrasts of social modernity.”
These contrasts
require the poet to “penetrate beyond the banality of observable appearances into a
world of ‘correspondences’ where ephemerality and eternity are one. Since Baudelaire,
the aesthetics of modernity has been consistently an aesthetics of imagination, opposed
to any kind of realism.”
While Calinescu’s argument that the aesthetics of modernity
is opposed to “any kind of realism” mistakenly excises the relationship realism has
with the modern, particularly in non-European literary traditions, we can take from
his observations that an essential way of representing urban modernity is through the
fantastic as haunting the otherwise sterile and monotonous existence of the modern
subject. One way we can understand the modernist aesthetic recourse to myths, legends,
and hauntings, deployed by Mardan through his use of the Satanic and by other Arab
modernist poets through their use of Tammuz, the ancient Babylonian god of fertility, is
precisely as an intervention into a world that, as Badr Shakir al-Sayyab stated,
has no poetry about it. The dominant values are non-poetic, the final word is for matter, not for the
spirit . . . So what is the poet to do? He has returned to myths, to legends, which still retain their
warmth because they are not part of this world; he has returned to them to use them as symbols
and to build from them a world with which to defy the logic of gold and steel.
Mardan’s deployments of the demonic share with Baudelaire a fundamental sense of
the ephemeral and the metaphysical, linked to a tenuous existence at the margins of the
city. But the presence of Satan is more frequent and imposing in the work of Mardan than
Baudelaire, framing his encounters with women and guiding his explorations of bodily
pleasure. In the first two stanzas of “Milad Shaytan,” a distinction is made between the
speaker of the poem and ahl al-ard
, the rest of humanity on Earth, whose monotonous,
undifferentiated lives are occasionally agitated by the haunting of the devil, whose
presence is eternal. Despite “drinking a thousand lives,” the devil’s thirst is unquenched
and his presence is perpetually on the margins, feeding off vice. This does not however
extinguish his desire for more, a hunger that lurks at the margins of the material world,
unseen yet guiding and infiltrating the actions of the masses of people.
The third stanza indicates a period of twenty years living discarded, atop the flesh
of prostitutes in the gloom of a brothel. In Mardan’s poetry, the frequent references
to brothels function as a mobilization of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque. Unlike other
contemporary deployments of the figure of the prostitute in Iraqi literature that functioned
in a more transparently political way, Mardan’s allegorical use of the prostitute closely
parallels her function in the poetry of Baudelaire.
But unlike Mardan, Baudelaire’s
historical moment was of the emergence of the bourgeoisie as the class that shapes
322 Haytham Bahoora
dominant political and cultural values, values that were predicated on the rejection of
the carnivalesque in daily life and its increasing marginalization and repression—to
be manifested in literature through acts Bakhtin associates with “the grotesque body”
and the subversion, and inversion, of social hierarchies.
Bakhtin’s theorization of the
carnivalesque has been argued to be essential to the production of modernist literature
in the Western canon. As M. Keith Booker has written, a “pervasive carnivalization” has
been central to modernist texts such as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s
The function of the carnivalesque in modern literary production is varied, but
the haunting of literary modernity by the carnivalesque is a symptom of its rejection in
the repressed values of the bourgeois subject. Desire for the carnivalesque was embodied
in the figure of the prostitute, whose body became the site of “codification, surveillance,
regulation, and control.”
For Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire’s prostitute is the allegory
of modernity, a “saleswoman and wares in one.”
She serves not simply as the subject
of Baudelaire’s poetic expression, but as a model for his own behavior. The modern
prostitute’s identity is linked to the space of the city and the urban landscape, her flesh
commodified en masse, reified and mediated increasingly, like all relations in the modern
period, by the laws of capital. Simultaneously, her body acts “as a hieroglyph providing
a trace to the sublime body, promising a connection to the sacred, which can, however,
be maintained only for a fleeting moment.”
Mardan’s deployments of the carnivalesque—through portraits of the brothel and the
demonic—function in ways stylistically and thematically similar to Baudelaire and can
be read as a kindred poetic haunting motivated by analogous sociohistorical conditions:
the increasingly state-dominated public sphere, the ossified social and moral codes
that policed individual behavior, and the alienation associated with the impersonal
urban, material world. Yet there remains a dissonance between the spatial and temporal
positioning of the poetics of Mardan and those of Baudelaire, and this dissonance
requires us to historicize Mardan as a product of the local conditions that produced his
poetics and, significantly, elicited a vociferous reaction from the state. If Baudelaire’s
poetics are today associated with the historical emergence of the bourgeoisie as the
dominant social, political, and economic class in Europe, and the attending reification of
material relations, how do we account for the poetics of Mardan in the colonial context
of Baghdad, where the development of the bourgeoisie was incommensurable with that
of Europe? Standard historiographies of the origins and development of the nascent
Arab bourgeoisie overwhelmingly characterize it as an immature and underdeveloped
class unable to meet its historical obligations to develop national industry, modernize
agriculture, and effectively oppose European colonial interests.
Among Arab intellectuals, the small but increasingly influential bourgeoisie was
often labeled a “comprador” class and was condemned as a “handmaiden of dependent
development, which is to say no development at all.”
This recalls Frantz Fanon’s
famous characterization of the national bourgeoisie of the postcolonial world:
The national bourgeoisie in the underdeveloped countries is not geared to production, invention,
creation, or work . . . its vocation is not to transform the nation but prosaically serve as a conveyor
belt for capitalism, forced to camouflage itself behind the mask of neocolonialism . . . it mimics
the Western bourgeoisie in its negative and decadent aspects without having accomplished the
initial phases of exploration and invention that are the assets of this Western bourgeoisie.
Baudelaire in Baghdad 323
Such characterizations of the emergent native bourgeoisie are useful insofar as they
point to the integration of the colonial economies into a relationship of domination and
exploitation with metropolitan economies. But they do little to account for the extent that
the emergent local bourgeoisie impacted the local cultural and political spheres in ways
disproportionate to its actual size. Recent scholarship has sought to delineate in greater
detail the varied expressions and complexity of middle class modernity in the Arab world.
In Being Modern in the Middle East, Keith Watenpaugh offers a conceptualization of
the nascent Arab middle classes as “more than a neutral economic category,” one that
. . . constitutes an intellectual, social, and cultural construct linked to a set of historical and
material circumstances; class is more than just one’s relationship to the means of production or
the accumulation of wealth . . . it is not simply a byproduct of industrialization (though this is
an important factor), but should be understood in the context of new kinds of communicative
technology, transportation, and urban forms, as well as high capitalism; and while classes emerge,
they are also made and remade.
Locating the emergence of a bourgeois middle class as a transnational phenomenon that
must be historicized spatially and temporally in each particular context, Watenpaugh’s
focus on the eastern Mediterranean, and Aleppo specifically, has important implications
for similar processes in other parts of the Middle East.
By understanding the expression of modernity in the Middle East as correlated not
simply with a particular set of economic conditions but also with the expression of
particular political ideals and cultural production, we can begin to conceptualize “being
modern” as a condition that was not exclusive to the middle class, but became part of
a lived reality that found its expression in practices of everyday life and in cultural and
literary texts like that of Mardan and similar writers. Apprehending the Baudelarian in
a colonial space such as Baghdad requires us to understand its thematics as a rejection
of bourgeois values while recognizing that those values were not necessarily tied to
the political and economic hegemony of a dominant bourgeois class. In a modernizing,
uneven Baghdad, the libertinism of the transgressive Baudelarian poet functions just as
powerfully as a critique of the feudal landed order and its links to the dominant colonial
power and to conservative religious and social institutions as it does against the small
but burgeoning Iraqi middle class that sought to assert its own claims to the nation.
The poetics of Mardan can thus be read as an exterior intervention into the values of
both the historically dominant elites and the emergent, diverse middle class. His work is
directed toward educated, literate readers, inviting theminto his poetics only to condemn
them. This is accomplished in Qasaid Ariya in strident fashion immediately following
the self-dedication of the text. In a message to his readers, Mardan positions himself in
opposition to the reader:
To the Reader
I laugh hysterically each time I imagine your dear face as it transforms into a large question
I laugh hysterically each time I picture you as the anger takes hold of you. I hurled my book in
fury and disgust, and on your quivering lips I hurled a thousand and one curses.
Trust that you are not superior to me despite my filthiness. I live nakedly while you live hidden
behind a thousand masks. My sincere advice to you is to avoid reading this collection if you fear
your reality and the sight of the animal lurking in your depths.
324 Haytham Bahoora
Mardan’s contempt for the reader’s social uprightness is also a condemnation of the
reader’s pretense to enlightenment and of the fabricated layers of propriety that police
middle-class behavior.
His rejection of the false purity of the reader, as opposed to his
own filthiness, is an assertion of the fundamental alienation guiding modern life, one that
requires the modern subject to hide “behind a thousand masks.” If Mardan’s language
here emphasizes the hygienic (his own filthiness versus the reader’s sterility), it is also an
emphatic rejection of romantic associations and nostalgic appropriations of the past. His
hurling of “a thousand and one curses” is a reference to A Thousand and One Nights, the
literary masterpiece of medieval Arabic literature synonymous with the city of Baghdad,
which has guided nostalgic portrayals of the city’s lost glory. Such a rejection of all traces
of the romantic distinguishes Mardan from poets like Ilyas Abu Shabaka, whose work
influenced Mardan but nevertheless retained romantic elements. Finally, references to
the reader’s alienation from his essential, animalistic nature is repeated throughout the
collection, suggesting that becoming modern entails a fundamental alienation from the
basic desires of the self.
The final stanzas of the poem “Milad Shaytan” capture the metaphysical haunting of
the material world with references to the natural, bestial origins of man, origins that can
never be fully repressed:
Wa-jiitn¯ı al-yawm tabgh¯ın al-hawwa qubal ¯ an
¯ a tand
l ¯ am wa-l-amal
Hayh¯ at lam tatruk al-ladhdh¯ at f¯ı shafat¯ı
Y¯ a munyat al-nafs ghayr al-qayh
You came to me today wanting kisses of love
White and overflowing with dreams and hope
But oh! Your kisses did not leave any pleasure on my lips
Oh my desire only pus and boredom
Ada¯ı al-t
ahr al-duny¯ a bi-ajmaih¯ a
f ¯ u wa-taght
us f¯ı mustanqa natin
An¯ a wa-ukht¯ı wa-umm¯ı wa-l-wara wa-ab¯ı
Tasr¯ı bi-as
l ¯ abn¯ a al-arj ¯ as min zaman
Shall I call on the world’s purity
To float and plunge in a putrid swamp
Me and my sister and my mother and mankind and my father
Filth has been flowing in our bodies for ages
Wulidtu f¯ı layla ran¯ a b¯ arakah¯ a
Rab al-jah
¯ım fa lam yalam bih¯ a Allah
Fa jitu f¯ı s
¯ urat al-shayt
¯ an fa artaadat
Ala shif ¯ a adh¯ ara al-h
ub ¯ aw¯ a
I was born on a frivolous night blessed by
The lord of Hell and unknown to God
I came in the shape of Satan and I shuddered
On the lips of virgins of love seeking refuge
Baudelaire in Baghdad 325
Qad kuntu azum ann¯ı mithilkum bashar
Law lam yakun jaddukum fi al-as
l h
ayw¯ an¯ an
Majm¯ ua min jar¯ ath¯ım mushawwaha
Tadibbu f¯ı janab¯ at al-ard
alw¯ an¯ an
I used to pretend that I was human like you
If your ancestor were not originally an animal
Hordes of deformed germs
Crawling on the sides of earth
Lan yakhda al-n¯ ur mithl¯ı f¯ı wuj ¯ uhukum
Fa kullu qalb bihi li-l-rajis shayt
¯ an
ukum bad
¯ an fa dawatukum
Li-l-salim wa-l-h
ub tad
l¯ıl wa-buht ¯ an
Your innocent faces will not deceive me
For every heart has a filthy devil in it
You devour each other so your call
To peace and love is deception and lies
The first stanza begins with romantic associations—the purity of dreams and hopes,
white and overflowing, that leave delight on the lips. Immediately, this vision is mocked
as the poem’s speaker abruptly shifts both language and tone, introducing bodily fluids
(pus) and the image of defiled purity plunging into a putrid swamp. Flowing through
the veins of his nuclear family (and mankind) is this false purity, handed down over the
ages, a fiction maintained as truth. The speaker of the poem, blessed by Satan, portrays
himself as an outcast, spreading vice to “virgins seeking refuge.” In the next stanza, the
speaker shifts his discourse directly to the reader, interpellating him/her, as in his earlier
message to the reader, into his existence by asserting that the reader’s false reality was
once his own. Unlike the reader, who continues to live behind a fac¸ade, the speaker of
the poemno longer pretends to be human and suggests to the reader that his/her ancestor,
too, is made of filthy germs from deep within the Earth. Finally, the poem concludes
ominously, observing that attempts to repress natural urges, the obscene, the repugnant,
will fail, and the final two lines create an image of incestuous intermingling, resulting
in the irreconcilable cohabitation of peace and love with deception and lies.
Such thematic concerns hover over the rest of Mardan’s collections. In the poem
“Jarathim” (Germs), Mardan links piety with hypocrisy, lambasting the pious: “You
and all of humanity without exception / are germs living on pustules.”
In his poem,
“Li-l-Tin” (To Mud), Mardan’s focus is on the erotic. The poembegins with the following
sentence: Lan uh
ib illa al-mar ¯ a alat¯ı tah
taqir jam¯ı al-raj ¯ al wa-tasjud qudd¯ am¯ı ¯ an¯ a
d¯ı (I will only love a woman who despises all men and kneels at my feet alone).
The poem narrates a sexual encounter with an “impure” woman, likely a prostitute,
and the momentary pleasure associated with fulfilling ephemeral and fleeting desires.
“Love is nothing but desire,” declares the speaker of the poem, “so don’t take away/Oh
great whore your defiled mouth from mine.”
As the poem progresses, the speaker
praises the impurity of his object of desire, telling her to “abandon discussions of virtue
to the masses/who do not understand the unknown mysteries in life.” He urges his
326 Haytham Bahoora
object of desire: “So be promiscuous oh daughter of Adam all of us/In our origins
belong to defiled mud/Disgrace yourself and give to all those infatuated/What they
desire of your burning body.”
The encouragement to promiscuity is clearly a rebellion
against discourses of virtue, honor, and purity ascribed onto the female body. But in
what sense is this rebellious profligacy liberating if it serves masculine pleasure? For
Mardan’s gendered poetics, the use of women’s bodies to articulate a broader social
critique ultimately inaugurates a sexual discourse predicated on the exploitation of the
female body. But Mardan’s sexual discourse was different from the prose narratives and
poetry of his contemporaries, such as Fuad al-Takarli, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, and Jabra
Ibrahim Jabra. Mardan’s embrace of mud, dirt, and germs (jar¯ ath¯ım) is a rejection of the
discourse of ordered hygiene and social uplift present in works like al-Sayyab’s poem
“al-Mumis al-Amya” (The Blind Prostitute) and Jabra’s novel Hunters in a Narrow
Street, set in 1950s Baghdad. While Jabra’s fiction celebrated the transgressive elements
that disrupted the sterile, disciplinary order transforming Baghdad, it did so from the
vantage point of bourgeois revulsion, his characters refusing to partake in the pleasures
Mardan’s poetics embraces. In contrast to a writer like Jabra, who is perhaps the first
Arab novelist to chronicle the perspectives and values of the Arab bourgeoisie, Mardan
chooses to embrace the threat of filth and germs associated with transgressive sexual
behavior rather than to order it or observe it from afar. If the ethos of the modern is
to marginalize the filthy and unsightly, Mardan’s discourse of embracing filth acts as a
countercultural version of modernity, located specifically in the urban space rather than
the rural, often conceived by modernists as the ideal pastoral space.
In Mardan’s work, there is no attempt at social uplift, no direct political agenda of
liberating women’s bodies from traditional social arrangements or of linking women’s
freedom to overthrowing the colonial state, ubiquitous themes in the artistic output of
what was a revolutionary period of aesthetic and cultural production in Baghdad. Instead,
his emphasis on pleasure and the embrace of the transgressive—spaces, gestures, acts,
bodies, dirt—articulates a different kind of politics, one that displaces the political onto
the body and rejects programs of discipline on acts of pleasure. To view Mardan’s
poetics as divested of political content, as rebellious and nihilistic poetry without the
commitment to anticolonialism prevalent in the period, is to misapprehend his place
and his import. Beyond his neglected contributions to the evolution of modernist Arabic
poetry, Mardan’s poetry occupies a space on the margins of the cultural politics of 1950s
Baghdad. In assessing how to understand and interpret a poet like Mardan, whose use
of Baudelaire guides his own poetic expression and who has been regarded largely as
an anomalous curiosity, simply reproducing the Baudelarian in another time and space,
I suggest that we must locate him firmly within the local social and political context
of his historical moment. What this means is that the “presence” of Baudelaire in the
work of a poet like Mardan—and this has ramifications for any discussion of literary
borrowing and the migration of cultural forms—is not the appropriation or reproduction
of a static set of ideas; rather, as Kristin Ross writes in her important study of the French
poet Rimbaud, it is about “the embracing of a situation, a posture in the world . . .
the invention or dream of new social relations. What is transmitted is not a solitary,
reified literary monument but rather the often prescient strategies that constructed and
mobilized it.”
These strategies are rooted not simply in the discursive migration of
the text from one tradition to another but in the material circumstances of a capitalist
Baudelaire in Baghdad 327
modernity. The process is one of “historical relays” whereby Baudelaire’s thematic
usefulness in Mardan’s particular space and time is to lend itself to be transformed and
displaced, yet simultaneously inhabit a common experience encountering the modern.
Author’s note: Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Berlin-based research program Europe
in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe and at the University of Colorado’s Center for Asian Studies;
I am grateful for comments and suggestions offered by those in attendance. I give special thanks to Sinan
Antoon for his vital encouragement and critical comments on an earlier version of this paper. I also thank
Kristin Ross, Hala Halim, Deepti Misri, Janice Ho, Najeeb Jan, and four anonymous IJMES reviewers for
their helpful critiques and suggestions.
Husayn Mardan, Qasaid Ariya (Beirut: Dar al-Jadid, 2007), 9, originally published in 1949. I will be
citing from the Dar al-Jadid edition, which includes court proceedings and arguments made on Mardan’s
behalf by his defense attorney Safa al-Urfali, originally published in the newspaper al-Alam al-Arabi. All
translations are mine.
Dominick LaCapra, “Memory, Law, and Literature: The Cases of Flaubert and Baudelaire,” in History,
Memory and the Law, ed. Austin Sarat and Thomas Kearn (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press,
1999), 95. Mardan consciously mobilized the thematics of Baudelaire’s poetry in his work, though al-Urfali’s
reference to Flaubert in Mardan’s trial highlights the similarities Mardan’s poetic sensibility has with Flaubert’s
novelistic sensibility. Both Mardan and Flaubert were critics of a modern, bourgeois disciplinary order and
the sanitized culture it produced, and both were tried for alleged affronts to public decency.
Mardan, Qasaid Ariya, 10.
Ibid., 14.
Primarily a product of the early Abbasid period (early 9th century), the muj ¯ un genre revels in the
lighthearted use of explicit sexual language and erotic tales that flout religious and social conventions. Muj ¯ un
poets such as Husayn ibn al-Dahhak and, most famously, Abu Nuwas were encouraged and their works
celebrated at the courts of Abbasid caliphs. As interiorized and often dark, antiromantic poetry, Mardan’s
licentiousness was a departure, both in form and content, from the lightheartedness of the classical tradition.
After this case was dismissed, Mardan published his second collection of poems al-Lahn al-Aswad (A
Black Melody) and was once again brought to trial on charges of violating public decency. This case was
dismissed as well. During the next few years, Mardan published several more collections of poetry, notably,
in 1951, Suwar Muriba (Horrifying Pictures), a collection that depicted hashish dens and the daily lives of
drug addicts. In 1952, he published the short story collection Azizati Fulana (My Dear So and So) and was
arrested once again.
Amin al-Rihani, Qalb al-Iraq: Siyaha wa-Siyasa wa-Adab wa-Tarikh (Beirut: Dar al-Rihani, 1957), 93.
Groundbreaking ceremonies for dams, bridges, roads, public buildings, and middle-class neighborhoods
were attended by King Faysal II, members of the Board, and “distinguished guests from Iraq and other
Arab states.” 250,000 spectators attended the opening of the Queen Aliya Bridge in Baghdad in 1956.
Staged unveiling ceremonies to highlight development achievements for public consumption were a regular
occurrence. “Development Week in Iraq,” Iraqi Bulletin 1, no. 2 (May 1957): 7. Published by the Iraqi
Information Bureau, The Royal Embassy of Iraq, 21, Queens Gate, London, S.W. 7.
For example, Mora Dickson, the cofounder of the British international development organization Volun-
tary Services Overseas, traveled to Iraq in the late 1950s and described her encounter with the city of Baghdad:
“First impressions were not of ancientness or easternness but, on the contrary, of brand new, immaculately
dressed modernity. The young men who walked the streets in great numbers wore double-breasted suits,
spotless white shirts, pale-coloured ties and gleaming shoes. The boulevards which radiated out from the city
centre were lined by angular modern houses and intersected by roundabouts ablaze with flowers; water tanks
and oil refineries shared the skyline with minarets and dome; the headquarters of the Rafidain Bank was
a triumph of mid-century architecture, a gleaming white, many-storied block culminating in a roof garden
with striped sunblinds and cunningly wrought trellises; of the cars parked beneath it the majority were high-
powered, brightly coloured American. Everywhere new buildings were going up, new bridges being flung
across the Tigris; whole streets were pulled down in clouds of dust while one looked on, and plans prepared
328 Haytham Bahoora
for better, finer, newer quarters. Baghdad was alive, changing, on the move.” Mora Dickson, Baghdad and
Beyond (London: Dennis Dobson, 1961), 11.
Orit Bashkin, The Other Iraq: Pluralism and Culture in Hashemite Iraq (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford
University Press, 2009), 37.
Ibid., 38.
Ibid., 53.
“Law Supplement to Baghdad Press Law,” 14 October 1938, FO 371/23847, cited in Bashkin, The Other
Iraq, 53.
The government crackdown on communists included a campaign of systematic arrests targeting anyone
with ties to the party. This was the second time al-Sayyab had been imprisoned, the first for a short period in
1946. For a detailed history of the Iraqi monarchy’s crackdown against leftist opposition, see Tareq Y. Ismael,
The Rise and Fall of the Communist Party of Iraq (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 39–41.
Bashkin, The Other Iraq, 109.
There have been occasional, infrequent references to Mardan’s work in literary histories of Iraqi poetry.
The most substantial occurs in Jalal al-Khayyat’s al-Shiir al-Iraqi al-Hadith: Marhala wa-Tatawwar, in
which one chapter is devoted to Mardan’s poetics and his trial. More often, Mardan is referenced obliquely,
often in negative terms. For example, the Iraqi critic and poet Yaseen Taha Hafiz, in his book Modern Iraqi
Poetry, writes of Mardan, “Husayn Mardan was brought to court for his Black Tune, and for his Naked Poems
before that. That Iraqi was an imitator of Baudelaire: corpulent, drunk, always speaking of sex in a far-reaching
voice, perched on a wooden tea-house bench in the afternoons, and surrounded by the chosen few round the
drinking table at night.” Yaseen Taha Hafiz, Modern Iraqi Poetry (Baghdad: Dar al Mamun, 1989), 16.
The reference to Mardan as a “vagabond poet” occurs in Muhsin al-Musawi’s expansive study of 20th-
century Iraqi intellectual and artistic culture and is one of two references to Mardan in the book. The other
contrasts Mardan with the Iraqi short story writer Dhu al-Nun Ayyub. Al-Musawi writes, “Although seemingly
concerned with exposure rather than an ideological stand, Mardan was reckless in disparaging social and moral
constraints . . . In Mardan’s poetry, there is rebellion, but in Ayyub’s narratives there is commitment.” Muhsin
al-Musawi, Reading Iraq: Culture and Power in Conflict (New York and London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 110, 139.
Since the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, there has been renewed interest in Iraq’s pre-Bathist
cultural history, focused in large part on the culture and politics of Hashimite Iraq, in particular the 1940s
and 1950s. This historical period is today pointed to nostalgically as a golden age of cultural renaissance and
political pluralism, in part as a reaction against the sectarianism that currently plagues Iraq.
To be sure, representations of the countryside were not uniform. In contrast to the idyllic representations
of the village found in the poetry of al-Sayyab, Iraqi writers often used conditions in the countryside to
advocate for social and political reform, linking the exploitation of peasants, especially peasant women, in
Iraq to a feudal system exacerbated and perpetuated by colonial rule. See, for example, Fuad al-Takarli’s
collection of short stories al-Wajh al-Akhar (Baghdad: Manshurat al-Thaqafa al-Jadida, 1960).
Mardan, Qasaid Ariya, 17.
Ibid., 45–46.
It is plausible that Mardan, through his deployment of the Satanic, is not only engaging Baudelaire’s
deployment of the Satanic but also parodying poets of the classical Arabic tradition who penned poems in
which the speaker is in dialogue with the devil (ibl¯ıs). Poets such as Abu Nuwas and al-Farazdaq often
attributed their own transgressions to Satan leading them astray. In one poem, Abu Nuwas alludes to the
Quranic exchange between God and Iblis in Surat al-Hijr “in which the fallen angel asks for respite until
Judgment day to lead man astray: ‘I shall deck all fair to them in the Earth, and I shall pervert them all
together.’” Phillip F. Kennedy, Abu Nuwas: A Genius of Poetry (Oxford: Oneworld, 2005), 46–47. Mardan’s
use of the demonic, however, has a distinctly modern sensibility, characterized by the conflicts associated with
a liberal self unfolding within the material and cultural spaces of the modern.
Jonathan Culler, “Baudelaire’s Satanic Verses,” Diacritics 28, no. 3 (1998): 86.
Ibid., 87.
Ibid., 98.
Charles Baudelaire, Oeuvres completes, ed. Charles Pichois, 2 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), 182–83,
quoted in Culler, “Baudelaire’s Satanic Verses,” 89.
Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism
(Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1987), 54.
Baudelaire in Baghdad 329
Ibid., 54–55.
Shiir, Beirut, no. 3 (Summer 1957): 112. Cited in Issa J. Boullata, “The Poetic Technique of Badr Shakir
Al-Sayyab (1926–1964),” Journal of Arabic Literature 2 (1971): 111.
See, for example, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s poem “al-Mumis al-Amya” (The Blind Prostitute), which
links the violation of the prostitute’s body with the colonial violation of the nation’s sovereignty, or Fuad
al-Takarli’s short story “al-Uyun al-Khudr” (Green Eyes), where the physical and emotional abuse suffered
by the story’s main character, Salima, attributed to the conservative social values in the countryside, leads her
to prostitution.
For a full treatment of Bakhtin’s concept of the grotesque body, see Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His
World (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1984), 303–436.
M. Keith Booker, Joyce, Bakhtin and the Literary Tradition: Toward a Comparative Cultural Poetics
(Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1995).
Shannon Bell, Reading, Writing, and Rewriting the Prostitute Body (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana Univer-
sity Press, 1994), 43.
Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writing (New York: Schocken
Books, 1986), 157.
Bell, Reading, Writing, and Rewriting the Prostitute Body, 44.
“Indictments of the first Arab bourgeoisie for having failed adequately to industrialize their respective
countries take two forms. The first is that their accomplishments in this sector prior to seizures of power by
the military were limited, and that subsequently, despite efforts by nationalist regimes to enlist their support
in industrialization efforts, they remained recalcitrant, exporting their capital and frequently themselves. A
second line of attack on the capitalist-led industrialization of this era is to claim that whatever success was
achieved was due to special conditions, e.g., tax exemptions, protectionism, high prices, accumulation of capital
surpluses during World War II.” Robert Springborg, “The Arab Bourgeoisie: A Revisionist Interpretation,”
Arab Studies Quarterly 15 (1993): 13–39.
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 98,
Keith David Watenpaugh, Being Modern in the Middle East: Revolution, Nationalism, Colonialism, and
the Arab Middle Class (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006), 17, 19.
Watenpaugh writes, “To claim modernity, they incorporated into their daily lives and politics a collection
of manners, mores, and tastes, and a corpus of ideas about the individual, gender, rationality, and authority
actively derived from what they believed to be the cultural, social, and ideological praxis of the contemporary
metropolitan Western middle classes . . . Moreover, excluded by customary practices and political theory
from structures of power, this class contested its exclusion and asserted its right to equality, citizenship, and
political participation in the idiom of modernity. By being modern, its members declared their intention to
take a preeminent role in the production of knowledge and culture, not just for themselves, but for society at
large. The dedication to these ideas, praxis, and politics marks that middle class as both a distinct component
and an unprecedented innovation in the social and cultural history of the Middle East, as well as a vital subject
in the question of modernity in the non-West.” Ibid., 8.
Mardan, Qasaid Ariya, 19–20.
Mardan’s message to his reader is clearly modeled after Baudelaire’s own invitation to his readers in The
Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du mal). Baudelaire’s message “Au Lecteur” (To the Reader) begins: “Ignorance,
error, cupidity, and sin / Possess our souls and exercise our flesh / Habitually we cultivate remorse / As beggars
entertain and nurce their lice,” and ends “I mean Ennui! Who in his hookah-dreams / Produces hangmen
and real tears together / How well you know this fastidious monster, reader, / Hypocrite reader, you—my
double, my brother!” With references to Satan (“Who but the Devil pulls our waking strings!”), Baudelaire’s
interpellation of his reader provided the basis for Mardan’s own lampooning of his reader. Charles Baudelaire,
The Flowers of Evil, trans. Jackson Mathews (New York: New Directions, 1989), 1–2.
Mardan, Qasaid Ariya, 46–47.
Ibid., 123.
Ibid., 43.
Ibid., 44.
Kristin Ross, The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune (New York: Verso,
2008), 152.