Obituary for Sargon Boulus

A Torchbearer of Generation Coincidence

On 22 October the Iraqi author and translator Sargon Boulus died in Berlin. He was one of the most important contemporary Arab poets. An obituary by Mona Naggar

photo: Samuel Shimon
Sargon Boulus, 1944–2007

​​Sargon Boulus was a leading light in modernising Arabic poetry, following in the footsteps of his compatriots Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab and Nazik Al-Malaika who set the new tone after World War II.

Influenced by American and English poetry, Boulus developed his own inimitable style, which has inspired many of the younger Arabic poets. His poems are narrative portraits of moods and atmosphere, full of details and kept in simple language.

Boulus also made a name for himself as a writer and first-class translator of English poetry into Arabic, translating Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Seamus Heaney, Ezra Pound, Robert Duncan and many other poets including Rilke, Neruda, even William Shakespeare and Ho Chi Min.

Boulus was born near Lake Habbaniya in 1944, and came from a modest Assyrian background. The family moved to the northern Iraqi town of Kirkuk in the late 1950s, which was where he started writing. His next stop was Baghdad in the mid-1960s, when the city was going through fundamental political and social changes.

The "generation of coincidence"

There was plenty going on in Iraqi literature as well at the time, and Boulus met a number of like-minded writers who he called the "generation of coincidence"; young ambitious authors, many of whom came from villages, as he did, or from the south of the country, and were driven by their passion for literature.

However, even Baghdad soon became too small for him. He stopped off in Beirut, where he worked on the avant-garde literary magazine Shir in the late 1960s, before finally emigrating to San Francisco.

Asked in an interview what makes a young man turn his back on his country and the entire Arab world, Sargon Boulus replied: "I think it is imagination. Whenever I read something, I imagine it. My reading filled me with dreams. I travelled in pursuit of my imagination."

No interest in the cultural industry or fame

Although Boulus never spent a long period of time in Iraq after leaving the country as a young man, he always emphasised the sources of his childhood and the initial surroundings that laid the foundations for his literary work. But he found distance equally essential, as it "forces the poet to sit a permanent inner exam."

Boulus' life story is a prime example of the fate of Iraqi poets of his generation: driven out of the country by political and social constraints, chasing dreams in the certain knowledge that they will always remain an illusion. He didn't care about the Arabic cultural industry or fame. It was not Boulus but his friends and admirers who made sure his work was published.

In recent years, Sargon Boulus divided his time between the States and various European cities. The last stop on his journey was Berlin, where he died at the age of 63 on 22 October.

Mona Naggar

© 2007

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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