Blogs > Cliopatria > The Fascinating Saga of Dhannun Ayyub, an Early Literary Figure in Iraq

Jun 28, 2004 4:47 am

The Fascinating Saga of Dhannun Ayyub, an Early Literary Figure in Iraq

There have been some spectacular memoirs written in Iraq over the last forty years, but none perhaps as frank and as vivid as Dhannun Ayyub’s. Ayyub was a young man from Mosul who left for Baghdad in the late 1920’s to enter the Teacher Training College, and to join the ranks of a steadily growing cadre of teachers sent to educate young boys and girls in high schools across the country. Ayyub thought of himself as a freethinker, and a practicing libertine. He spent a good part of his youth living in common-law marriage with his uncle’s wife; and his later marriages were so unconventional that they shocked even his family and closest friends. An avowed believer in avant-garde literature, especially Russian and French authors, he translated many books into Arabic and joined a neophyte literary movement in the 1930’s that sought to overturn established canons of literary and cultural taste.

But it was only with his contribution to Al-Majalla, a periodical that saw itself as storming the reactionary ramparts of early Iraqi biography, literary criticism, politics and poetry, that Ayyub finally achieved fame as the iconoclast that he’d always wanted to be. However, as always in Iraqi society, literary currents could not exist outside of politics. According to Ayyub, al-Majalla initiated a lively debate between the many political factions in Iraq; between Communists, moderate Arab Nationalists, extreme Arab Nationalists and Iraqi firsters. Throughout the six years of its existence, which spanned the Second World War and its aftermath, Ayyub tried to keep the literary journal on an even keel, as well as to publish innovative material at the same time. Eventually, however, the cost of putting out the journal took its toll and it folded, but not before Ayyub had brought in a new editor, Fahd, who became the most famous Communist leader in Iraq, later on executed by the Iraqi government of the day.

It is those forgotten stories that makes Ayyub’s autobiography such riveting reading. For instance, he recounts the story of one member of the Iraqi Communist party that had actually joined the Socialist side in the Spanish Civil War of 1936 (I really had no idea that Spain was a cause to live and die for among the Iraqi intelligentsia of that period); he makes a case for pre-revolutionary Russian Romantic literature as being one of the essential stepping stones to Marxism in Iraq, and he narrates the fascinating story of how he was sent on a mission by the Communists to have lunch with the British Intelligence officer responsible for the country’s early democratization experiment. Besides his flirtation with Communist doctrine (which Ayyub explains beautifully), there is much to recommend Ayyub’s life story. Even though the first volume begins slowly, the rest of the books detail a most extraordinary time, and an even more extraordinary man, and should be essential reading for all those who are interested in the social, literary and political history of Iraq from 1920 to 1958.

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Martin K Mueller - 5/22/2007

I doubt that anyones going to read this ... but does anyone know where / if i can get hold of a copy ot al-athar al-kamla li-dhi n-nun ayyub?

الاثار الكاملة لذي النون ايوب

possibly in a online store or does anyone know the phonenumber of a good bookshop in the middle east? or does anyone feel like selling his book to me?

Hala Fattah - 6/29/2004

Dear Daniel,
Great expose, had no idea of the vast differences between the Romantics. Ayyub also valorized Dosteovsky whom I think is a worthwhile social commentator, and Tolstoy does have all those serfs!
Ayyub was a provacateur in his literary output; he liked to shock people and he derived particular pleasure from skewering people in print. But I think he was genuine in his love of Romantic literature. Here was this young man of small-town provincial background (even though Mosul was a large Iraqi city, his family was not cosmopolitan) who gets introduced to the power of the masses through French and Russian literature. Do you doubt that he was ever the same again?

Hala Fattah - 6/29/2004

Dear Oscar,
Yes, this is really the emotion that comes across in Ayyub's book. Its true he was quite cold in his assessment of people, and even more callous in his own self-assessment, but there is indeed an overpowering emotion, in his fourth volume, at least, of something radically new happening to him, his colleagues, indeed, his entire generation as a result of the new literature of ideas that was spreading west to Iraq. Communism didn't do that for him, because it was more of a subversive activity that he enjoyed just because of his own conspiratorial personality, but Romantic literature inspired him.

Daniel B. Larison - 6/28/2004

Thanks, Hala. The collection of writers that he listed by name surprised me a bit. I suppose Chekhov and Gorky (especially Gorky) make sense as a kind of social reformer or socialist literature, and I can see how Dead Souls could be read as social protest, but Gogol strikes me as the least likely of almost all Russian writers to serve as an inspiration for revolutionary politics. His intense and possibly even fanatical personal religiosity, though it does not exactly come through in his writings, lends all of his writings a very serious, non-political concern for moral problems that would seem to me to be difficult to mesh with a revolutionary attitude.

Onegin doesn't believe in serfdom, which I suppose qualifies as Pushkin's liberal voice emerging in the poem, but Pushkin also wrote The Captain's Daughter, which valorises the suppression of the Pugachev revolt (it would hardly have done his career any good to portray it otherwise), even though this revolt was usually interpreted by Marxists as a kind of inchoate social revolution. On the same topic, Lermontov (also considered a Romantic by some) wrote a much more radical work called Vadim about a peasant who joins in the revolt. It surprises me a little that Ayyub was not especially aware of such a story, given his ideas and his interests, but Vadim is a relatively rare story that is difficult to find.

Actually, I am generally surprised that literary histories of Russia also include Pushkin as a Romantic, because I don't see that in most of his stories, except perhaps Pushkin's glorification of the roaming bandit in Dubrovsky (his equivalent of Die Raeuber?). Sorry to clutter your Iraq board with so much chatter about Russian literature, but the connection between the two really fascinates me.


P.S. The summer's going very well. I hope all is well with you.

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/28/2004

While "romantic" does not make much sense from the standpoint of literary classification, it makes perfect sense as a comment on how it seems that he and his friends read them: As calls to honesty, to intensity, to creating a new intellignetsia, and to seeing the world with new eyes.

Hala Fattah - 6/28/2004

Hi Daniel,
I fact checked Ayyub's fourth volume and he calls them "al-rumantiqiyun" (the Romantics). In another section, he identifies them by name : Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov, Tolstoy and Gorky. I guess what happened was that those writers paved the way or, as we say in Arabic, created a climate for the seeds of Communist thought in Iraq. Certainly Fahd, the most celebrated Communist leader in Iraq in the thirties, was not an intellectual in the cafe-salon mode; Ayyub claims he was barely literate, as a result of which his exposition of Communist doctrine was laughable. I imagine that there were very few Communist theoriticians in Iraq in that period, and not too many people that had studied Marx and Lenin thoroughly, so that Russian Romantic thought was possibly the next best literature for aspiring Socialists/Communists. I hope I'm not overstating the case; possibly there were a lot of informed ideologues who had read some of Marx and some of Lenin, but I think it was only much later on, in the sixties, that the principles of Communist doctrine became more widely known.
I hope you're having a great summer,

Daniel B. Larison - 6/28/2004

Dear Hala,
Ayyub's interest in Russian Romantic literature surprised me a bit (perhaps because I don't usually associate Romanticism with literary types who dabble with communism). Perhaps I am thinking of a different sort of writers. Who were the Romantics he found so compelling? I am mostly familiar with early and mid-nineteenth century writers (both fiction and philosophy) in that tradition (namely Odoevsky, Khomyakov and Kireevsky), and my impression was that they were either so bizarre (Odoevsky) or politically conservative as to be of little use to someone as unconventional as this Ayyub seemed to have been. I assume the literature he was referring to came from later in the century, or in the early twentieth? I'd be interested to hear more about his literary interests, if you have any more information.

All the best,

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