A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
This year marks 50 years since the ِِArab Hadhrami Yemeni author Ali Ahmad Bakathir passed away. In these past five decades, several scholars and writers have dedicated a significant effort to study his poetry, novels, plays and ideas. He has been celebrated in Egypt, Yemen and Emirates among others in conferences that were named after him. In this article, I trace his life at home and in diaspora with a focus on his role in social reform.
Our author Ali Ahmad Bakathir was born to Hadhrami parents on 15 zil Hijja 1328 AH/ 21 December 1910 AD in the Southeast Asian diaspora. He was precisely born in Surabaya, Indonesia, where he had lived until the age of 10 before his father took him to Seiyun, the hometown of the Bakathirs, so he can have an Arab upbringing with his half siblings there. Indeed, his uncle and prominent linguist and poet, sheikh Mohammed bin Mohammed Bakathir, taught him Arabic. Additionally, other sheikhs taught him religion and history besides his formal education in al-Nahda School for Sciences in Seiyun.
Bakathir’s talents began coming to the spotlight at a very early age as he wrote poetry at the age of 13. In an interview with him on the Kuwaiti television he says: “Yes, poetry was the first art I practiced in my literary life when I was in Hadramout where there were no theater plays or short stories. Poetry was the only literary form that is connected to our ancient Arab culture. I still believe, however, that poetry remains the first art any literary writer practices even if he grew up in a country with theaters and short stories. Poetry is the first language and art of youth in my opinion.”
Bakathir was fond of writing at an early age. He wrote in “al-tahtheeb” magazine that writer Hassan Baraja’a began publishing in 1930. During that period, Bakathir began writing for Egyptian periodicals. Later on, when he moved to Egypt, and as a sign of gratitude to al-tahtheeb that used to be manually handwritten at first, he took care of printing it in Cairo with funding from Sir/Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Kaf, one of Hadramout’s most well known public figures.
When he was still in Hadramout, Bakathir was in touch with the most prominent Arab literary figures at the time such as Hafez Ibrahim, Ahmed Shawqi and Khalil Mutran among others. Bakathir tells the story of Hafez Ibrahim’s visit to Hadramout with so much pride saying that it felt like the day of Eid. He set a massive banquet for Ibrahim and invited the most important writers to celebrate this visit.
After some time of writing to a number of important poets of his contemporary time as well as various readings in Arab and other transnational literature that echoed from Cairo, he decided to move there. In Cairo, Bakathir became incredibly famous and published scores of plays and novels. According to some literary critics, Bakathir is considered the pioneer of free verse Arabic poetry.
Bakathir’s Reform Efforts
Bakathir spent a while learning and teaching in al-Nahda School for Sciences in Seiyun. During his lifetime, the Arab and Islamic worlds witnessed eminent transformations including the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Sykes Picot Agreement as well as the British, French and Italian colonization of most of Arab countries. This was also the time where many calls and writings that call for Arab and Islamic reform spread by reformists such as Muhammed Abduh, Jamal al-Din al Afghani and Muhammed Rashid Rida among many others.
With his high sensitivity for intellectuality that goes beyond the traditional literary roles, Bakathir tried to invest his talents and presence in combating traditions that he saw as obstacles in the way of reform in his society. He took responsibility in fighting those he called “rigid.” The most significant work of his that marks this period is his famous poetic story Hammam fi Bilad al-Ahqaf (Hammam in the Land of Hills). In the first chapter, he addresses the general situation in his country as well as the hegemonic traditions that, falsely, take disguise in religion and marginalize thought and women’s education. He rejects traditional educational methods that depend mostly on memorization and critiques values that either put money first or denounce certain crafts. In the second chapter, Bakathir critiques certain social phenomena and superstitions that spread, falsely, under the umbrella of religion. Later in chapter three, he speaks about his reformist ideas through the efforts of the protagonist of the story, Hammam. Here, the protagonist emphasizes the importance of women’s education and the social will against certain traditions that stand in the way of progressiveness. In the story, Hammam’s sister, Fatima, was a public speaker who spread Hammam’s thoughts among women. As the plot goes, Hammam gains many supporters, women and men. Among his supporters was Hosn, a woman he falls in love with and marries. The story ends with Hammam and his friend Amer migrating because of the pressure they faced as a result of their ideas. When one looks deeper into the story, it becomes clear that Bakathir was actually narrating his own story through the protagonist, Hammam. He was telling the story of his reformist efforts and the issues he tried to address not out of rebellion and rather out of love for his society that he aspired for its progress.
Those in power were not happy with Bakathir’s reformist ideas as Dr. Ahmed Baharetha mentions in his article Fi Thekra Rahileh al-Khamsin: Bakathir Matroodan (On his 50th anniversary: Bakathir Expelled). In the article, Dr. Baharetha writes a story that was once told by a Sheikh from al-Kathiri’s ruling dynasty in Seyun at the time. The Sheikh, who was also one of al-Kathiri Sultan’s royal guards, says that Bakathir did not leave Seyun because of his wife, Nour Basalamah’s death. It was when the Sultan called for Bakathir to his palace and told him at the gate to either leave the country or go to prison. This is when Bakathir left to Aden drenched in sorrow. The tone of the Sultan shows the amount of pressure Bakathir had been experiencing throughout his reformist efforts that led to his expulsion from the country. It was clear that the coalition between the authority and traditional powers was intact in the face of change.
Some say that Bakathir’s efforts came as a result of his influence by Jam’iyat al-Ishlah wal Irshad al-Islamiyya ( Reform and Guidance Organization) in Indonesia. He may have been influenced by the organization, however, when examined further, his life trajectories show that he never actually opposed the Alawis who established al-Nahda School for Sciences where he used to teach in Seiyun. This is what makes it less likely that he engaged in the Alawi-Irshadi conflict in Hadhramout and diaspora, a conflict that wasted many internal efforts that could have invested in reform instead as Dr. Baharetha mentions in his masters thesis in Hadhrami literature in the South East Asian diaspora.
It is possible that Bakathir’s diasporic life is what made him realize how big his mission was and that his knowledge and intellectuality make it a duty for him to use his literary tools for this mission. As a result, Bakathir wrote against British colonialism and corrupt authorities. A great example of such writings is Mismar Juha (Juha’s Nail) that he wrote in 1951. After this play, Bakathir became a pioneer of symbolist theater as Egyptian newspaper al-Asas stated on 22 October 1951: “Ali Ahmed Bakathir’s play, Mismar, Juha shows a new path in Egyptian theater. He managed to create a symbolist theater in the most comprehensive and splendid ways. The play that was performed by the Modern Egyptian theater group in their first performance of this season was the hit of the season.”
Bakathir did not stop here. To the contrary, he employed history in his novels such as Salama wa al-Qiss (Salama and the Priest), Wa Islamah (O’ Islam), Laylat al-Nahr (The River’s Night), al-Thaer al-Ahmar (The Red Rebel), Sirat Shoja’ (a Braveman’s Biography), al-Fares al-Jamil (the Beautiful Knight). These novels addressed the Moghul conquests, the final days of the Fatimid rule as well as the Qarmathian revolution that shows the socialist struggle with capitalism and highlights the author’s perspective on Islamic justice that he believed it rejected injustice and backwardness.
In the 1960s, Bakathir was viciously opposed by the leftists in Egypt who led the art and media scene between 1958-1969 and did not allow much space for his plays to be performed. He was also marginalized in terms of media coverage. This siege continued until he passed away. However, he never stopped his literary and knowledge production as he once said: “I have absolute faith that my works will see the light one day and will have the place they deserve. This is why I will not stop writing without care for what gets published during my lifetime. I see a next Muslim generation that will receive and welcome my works.”
When this period became too overwhelming for Bakathir, he decided to go back to his country to continue what he started as he saw a beam of light in the revolution that led to Yemen’s independence from the British. In this context, Dr. Abdu Badawi, Bakathir’s friend, says: “He used to constantly say that he wanted to migrate back to his country, that he would rather be a shepherd in Hadramout than this deadly silence in Cairo as he felt dead when he was forced to stay away from theater.” When Bakathir went back to Yemen in 1968, a year after the independence, his shock was great. He saw that nothing had changed and at the same time he did not see much hope in the regime then. My father, Dr. Abdullah Nabhan, tells us that Bakathir visited our family in their home in Dammon, Tarim in Hadhramout, for he was close friends with my uncle Ali Ahmed bin Nabhan. During that visit, Bakathir said that the ruling class in Yemen was fighting over power and had no real interest in building the country. He went back to Cairo full of disappointment and on his way back, he passed by Kuwait where he gave a radio interview saying that he saw an orientation in Yemen that did not please him and that orientation was in charge of the press and he feared for the country from that. When the interviewer asked: “Did you warn from this orientation?” Bakathir answered: “Yes, everywhere.”
Bakathir went back to Cairo in the same year. A year after, in 1969, he visited London and met with the British orientalist Robert Sargent who had previously offered him a lecturer job in London in 1962. Sargent welcomed Bakathir and told him he could still have the job and start in five months. This was the same period Bakathir also received another offer from the BBC for a literary program cooperation. However, Bakathir still went back to Egypt that he was too attached to and was not able to leave. After all, it was in Egypt that he became the famous writer he was and as he once told one of his friends: “I swear that the generous land of Egypt has never ceased to remain open for me. It is only some villain souls that are too small to have me around.”
With this, Ali Ahmed Bakathir had the last chapter of his life in isolation in Egypt. He left a great legacy behind in literature, especially in theater and novels. This creative hard working writer was a pioneer of free verse poetry and symbolist theater and a social reformist in his country and the rest of the Arab and Islamic worlds that he was loyal to until the last days of his life as his works bear witness. On the first day of Ramadan 1389 AH/ 10 November 1969, Ali Ahmed Bakathir passed away.
This was a brief journey in a wide universe that this pioneer led. It is more of an invitation for researchers to shed more light on Bakathir’s reformist and intellectual efforts. It is the least we can do for such a man with such a legacy.
Nabhan Abdullah Saleh bin Nabhan: Civil Society and Cultural Activist