Tagore in Iraq: Anti-imperialism, solidarity and the universality of Asian cultures.

Jun 11, 2021 4 min read

Rabindranath Tagore was a great Bengali poet, novelist and anti-colonial thinker whose words articulated the spirit of Asia in an era of imperialism and turmoil. Tagore was  born in 1861 in Calcutta and passed away in 1941. During Tagore’s height as a poet in 1916, both India and Iraq were suffering from British colonialism. In light of the Indian Anti-colonial struggle Tagore made a visit to Iraq in 1932 to see what he could learn from Iraq and foster stronger ties between Iraqis and the Indian struggle for independence. For Tagore, the British and their aggressive and soulless search for endless domination and oppression was the disease that tormented Asia. Around that same time many countries and movements experimented in nationalist ideologies to liberate themselves from the British, including Iraq.

However, in Tagore’s eyes nationalism was a western materialistic ideology that only divided the Asian people. Tagore instead pleaded for solidarity amongst all Asian countries based on their deep spiritual and religious traditions. Tagore believed that Asia has a depth that no nationalism, imperialism or any form of repression can truly erase nor conquer.  For it was Asia where all our great philosophers and sages like Confucius, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad came from and united all of humanity. Tagore states:

Each country of Asia will solve its own historical problems according to its strength, nature and need, but the lamp that they will each carry on their path to progress will converge to illuminate the common ray of knowledge...it is only when the light of the spirit glows that the bond of humanity becomes true

Tagore’s visit to Iraq happened in a context where Iraq had just came out of a violent struggle against the British occupation. The British were consistently bombing Iraqi villages for not paying taxes as well as supporting large landowners to violently attack and exploit peasants. Moreover, the British had been festering ethnic and sectarian differences between Iraqis. Iraq’s initial illusive independence in 1932 had a certain optimism to it at the time, even though the British maintained their grip on Iraq until 1958 and violence quickly regained itself after 1933. For Tagore however Iraq at the time was an inspiration because India was still struggling to gain independence and simultaneously was suffering from ethnic and sectarian conflict fanned and exploited by the British.

Photo of Tagore in Baghdad Iraqi Iraqi poets to the right of him: Abd-Al Ghani al Rusafi

When he came to Iraq he saw the British bomber planes and reflected how they were used for carnage and destruction against the Iraqi people. Where before, humanity used to look up to the sky for hope from the divine, people now feared the sky for it brought terror and destruction. Tagore stated:

From the beginning of our days man has imagined the seat of divinity in the upper air from which comes light and blows the breath of life for all creatures on this earth. The peace of its dawn, the splendour of its sunset, the voice of eternity in its starry silence have inspired countless generations of men with an ineffable presence of the infinite urging their minds away from the sordid interests of daily life...If in an evil moment man’s cruel history should spread its black wings to invade that land of divine dreams with its cannibalistic greed and fratricidal ferocity then God’s curse will certainly descend upon us for that hideous desecration and the last curtain will be rung down upon the world of Man for whom God feels ashamed”

Tagore’s visit to Iraq was also a search for the universalism of Asian cultures in countries like Iraq. He was invited to a Bedouin camp in the Iraqi desert who hosted him with food and drinks. The Bedouin then presented to him a war dance. During the dance Tagore reflected on how different the Bedouins were to him because they grew up in the environment of the desert. Lost in this train of thought about the particularities of Iraqi bedouin culture, a Bedouin sitting next to him suddenly said to Tagore: “ Our Prophet has taught us, that one is a true Muslim from whom no fellow human-being fears any harm’. This very universalist and human message that came  from the Bedouin surprised Tagore. Tagore felt that the Bedouin corrected his thoughts in which he  saw the Bedouins as different and particular to him. What the Bedouin said to Tagore instead, was a beautiful evidence of how Asian civilizations, despite their different customs, music and languages, always have a universal humanity under it that unites mankind.

Yet, Tagore knew that this was not enough; for Asia to be free it would have to be free of  sectarian divisions as well. India in its attempt to free itself from the British was experiencing Hindu-Muslim conflict  and obstructing the road to liberation. In a meeting hosted by Iraq’s illustrious poets he told them about the disease of sectarian divisions in India and  Tagore  expressed hope to take back a message of peace to India.  Tagore looking back on this occasion wrote the following poem about openness and unity:

The night has ended.

Put out the light of the lamp

of thine own narrow corner

smudged with smoke.

The great morning which is for all

appears in the East.

Let its light reveal us

to each other

who walk on

the same

path of pilgrimage

Iraq demonstrated to Tagore a timeless message for all of us to salvage: solidarity, anti-imperialism and cultivating the universality of one’s own culture. May our region see the birth of the likes of Tagore. The Struggle for spiritual, economical and political independence must be revived along the lines of solidarity between the oppressed.

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