You might have seen him around—a shambolic figure wandering the streets of the centro storico, a rucksack stuffed with books weighing him down, his silvery hair unkempt and wiry as though ruffled by a perpetual wind.
He was a character, someone you noticed, but his modest attire gave no hint of his status as one of the world’s most respected international poets. He passed away on Christmas Day 2017 after sustaining a fatal brain injury brought on by a fall. To those of us who knew him and loved him, such as myself, Florence seems strangely diminished.
Hasan Atiya Al Nassar was born in Nassiriya, Iraq. He fled his native country as a pacifist who objected to the war with Iran, under the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein, which ordered the execution of one of Hasan’s brothers. Arriving in Italy in 1980 he lived in exile, first in Bologna, subsequently in Florence. Hasan wrote in Arabic and Italian, and his works were published in Italy, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia and the United Kingdom. His poetry has been translated into English, French, Spanish, German and Portuguese. Several important critics praised his work, including Francesco Stella of the journal Semicerchio, and he won many prizes during the 1990s and early 2000, including first prize in the Concorso di Poesia Città di Castelfiorentino in 1993 and the national poetry prize Maria Marino della città di Caltagirone in 2003. Despite these credentials and the acclaim he garnered as a poet, Hasan’s life as an exile was more often than not marked by extreme poverty and hardship.
Hasan Al Nassar was a complex, at times fiery man. He and I would often argue and clash, but we always managed to make peace and to resume our friendship. There was in him a refinement and exquisite sensitivity, a softness which was greater than his moments of surface anger and vitriol. I often noted in his (unusual for an Arab) green-blue eyes a marked innocence so that—for me at least—ultimately Hasan was child-like, with all of a child’s good-natured glee. If one paid him a compliment about his poetry you could immediately see his eyes light up: the poetry was the thing that meant the most to him and sustained him. I was often struck by his ability to lift me out of my own depressions and black moments. This was the sign of a distinctive soul, a man whose problems were perhaps far more serious than those of the average human being, a man who was forced to go for days without eating, and whose flat was often without electricity or heating; and yet he remained, despite it all, kindly.
This gentleness characterises his verse as well and is implicit in the poetry’s lyrical finesse, in its Biblical cadences that draw on hypnotic patterns of repetition, its simplicity, its profoundity of insight. Passages of searing melancholy abound in the poems of Hasan Al Nassar, as he talks of the blighted, scorched earth, the loneliness of exile, the sufferings of love and the consolations of nature. He achieved universality, sincerity, with the authentic accents of a mystical, oriental writer whose home has been snatched away from him.
In the early 21st century maybe we have all become a little bit like Hasan, the rapid changes brought on by technology and globalization having
stripped us of our sense of belonging and of our certainties. In a way, Hasan Al Nassar was an everyman, whose works give voice to the dispossessed, the homeless, those who have been cast out of Eden or, worse, never glimpsed it. In one of his finest, most visionary poems he writes of escape, and of vanishing, of a kind of dissolving: “Sparirà il corpo dal suo desiderio/Sparira dalla sua smania… Fuggirà l’assassino perché non ha una vittima.”
But the poetry of Hasan Al Nassar offers a kind of antidote against dissolution. Like all art worthy of the name it scores a victory in the battle against life’s transience.