It was with great sadness that The High Window learned of the death of the London-based Iraqi poet , Fawzi Karim, who died on the 17th of May 2019. With just four issues a year it is only now, somewhat belatedly, that I have had the opportunity of publishing this tribute to him with the assistance of his long time friend and collaborator, Anthony Howell. Anthony has kindly allowed me to reprint an essay he wrote on Fawzi’s work in 2006 and an updated version of the obituary he wrote for the Guardian.
I am grateful, too, for the assistance of Michael Schmidt at Carcanet for generously allowing me to reprint four poems from Fawzi Karim’s two Carcanet collections: Plague Lands and Incomprehensible Lesson.
In 2006 the Room in Tottenham hosted an exhibition and a series of events called Art across the Middle East – I wrote this introductory note at the time that attempted an elucidation of Fawzi Karim’s poetry.
AN UNDER-ACTED PERSONA
Stroking a thoughtful beard, he offers this thought: ‘The Arab poets of today cannot resist providing you with the answer.’ A thin darkness is spread by the beard over a sallow face. It is not much of a beard, but greying hair retains a hint of curls. Clearly he has been handsome, and indeed, he is so still, despite the palpitations. He must have cooked with an intensity that could threaten to bring on such tremors: a stew of delicious lamb and ladies’ fingers.
Slender, and obliged to walk slowly, there’s something threadbare about him, if not about his existence. A poetry of palms and oleanders gets written to the accompaniment of Bach. He ruined his health in the night, I guess – spoilt it in Beirut, having left Baghdad, after resisting polemics, dogmas, and maybe demands for praise-songs from dictators, though these might be excused as exercises in style. Still, he appreciates palm-hearts more than raised palms and has more in common with the French symbolists and with the innovations of Eliot and Pound than with the tenets of the Koran or the slogans of the Ba’athists.
There’s a sensuality about his lips, which suggests there’ve been times of dissolute living – Beirut and London – and the enjoyment of women – including Hilda Ismail from Saudi Arabia, – a fine poet in her own right, possessed also of an exceptional dark-eyed beauty. She took us to lunch in chilly Acton.
But as I deliberate now, I realised I’m confusing the writer with his creation: the world-weary poet of ‘Plague Lands’; inveterate drinker who wakes in the damp of dawn on mist-wreathed benches. Women ring. They visit. They take care of him. The poet remembers the names of the Baghdad bars better than the names of girls he met in them. His subtle humour ensures that he remains a witness rather than a key-player, though missiles land close to his boat in the river sacred to the memory of his father: the River Karim, that once was the Tigris. His face is that of an ancient ram – the one that got caught in the thicket.
According to recent research, the hashish-stoked myth of “the old man of the mountains” and the cult of the assassination attributed to the Ismaili sect may well be, very largely, a western interpretation of events concocted by the crusaders to incite horror and revulsion of Islam in Christian Europe. The Aga Khan, after all, is both the spiritual leader of the contemporary Ismaili community and the principal patron of The Paris Review. This does not, apparently, prevent the notion of a murderous sect being taken up by Al Quaida; though 1960s photographs of Osama Bin Laden swanning around Oxford in corduroy flares may suggest that perhaps Al Quaida is, as much as that old man, a product of the West and its propaganda, for suicide bombing as a political strategy owes more to Hegel than to the Koran – and certainly contemporary Islamic extremism comes over as being as inauthentic as any other “fundamentalism”.
During the era of the Mamluk sultans, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, when Cairo was the centre of the Arabic world, art, literature and architecture flourished, as it had done, indeed, during the previous dynasty of the Fatamids. Hospitals were excellent, and scientific research was encouraged. Encyclopedias were published. Poetry was not simply courtly and lyrical. Satire was appreciated, and homosexual love-poetry enjoyed. Alcohol and drug-taking were tolerated, despite sporadic clamp-downs which in turn might lead to a spirited defence of good-living.
One way or another, clamp-downs tend to be fueled by dogma, which in some periods may be of a secular, in others of a religious, nature. Saddam presided over the destruction of the old quarter of Baghdad, in order to facilitate the building of his presidential palace – but then, there’s no call for complacency. Tiger Bay was denounced as a slum in Cardiff after the war, and was demolished to make way for a ghastly, modernist estate. Secular extremism often gives rise to a backlash of religious extremism: after the failure of communism in Afghanistan, the Taliban presided over the destruction of the twin Buddhas. As Hogarth noted, dogmas get betrayed by their enthusiasm.
The trick is to tone down, rather than flex one’s muscles.
The romantic poets may distend their emotions, but, for Fawzi Karim, there are times when one needs to slacken the too-taut string. In his unified sequence of poems, Plague Lands, he develops the notion of the poet as a persona. However, the poet Karim projects into the sequence is not exemplary in any significant moral sense. He cannot come up with the right answer either, in the political sphere. He has no axe to grind. Instead, Karim draws on the tradition of flagrantly dissolute poets of the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries: Ibn Al-Rumi, Abou Nawas and the “marginal” poets who often combined a love of wine with a penchant for social criticism. The somewhat disheveled figure that emerges is “a less than conventional Arab”, able to claim some commonality with the Kurds, because he’s as scared of repression as they are. Almost without intending, he desecrates the holy ground of several received taboos. He enjoys a glass of arak, and he cruises the bars of Baghdad for girlfriends.
At the same time, when obliged to leave Iraq, the poet finds the pace of Beirut’s Westernized dissipations too frenetic – again, the poet is reluctant to carry anything to an extreme: he is not irremediably dissolute. And so he adopts the ennui of Baudelaire and the French symbolists. This world weariness is a foil to any temptation to burn anything at both ends, just as it is to embracing some religious ideal such as Sufism or to endorsing the political will of secular extremists.
Slogans make for banal poetry, and it is his pre-occupation with the fine-sounding titles and elaborate texts of a rich poetic tradition that arms him against the clichés of faith and ideology.
Karim’s is an under-acted persona, and his poetry is understated, yet interrupted by moments of convulsion. Written at the time of the first Gulf War, the Plague Lands sequence accords the reader responsibility for interpretation and allows a space in which the imagination must become creative, in order to derive meaning from the shadows he suggests.
Link to the archive of the Room for Art across the Middle East
FAWZI KARIM: 1945-2019
On the 17th of May 2019, Fawzi Karim passed away after a long battle with a heart condition that first affected him in his thirties. I had the honour to create versions of his poems in English. Today he is regarded as a major poet, not only of the Arab world, but also in the universal sphere.
Fawzi Karim was born in Baghdad in 1945. The youngest poet to take part in the International Poetry Conference hosted in Baghdad in 1966, he received his degree in Arabic Literature from Baghdad University in 1967. As well as writing verse he was the Arabic world’s foremost critic of classical European music and contributed articles on literature, music and art to many journals and newspapers in the Middle East. His poetry has been translated into French, Swedish, Italian and English. Plague Lands, his first book of poems in English, was published by Carcanet in 2011 and was a Poetry Book Society recommendation. It has been described as an elegy for the life of a lost city, a chronicle of a journey into exile and an exploration of the deep history of a civilization. It could be argued however that his sense of exile began long before his arrival in London, when he found himself alienated by the ideological movements sweeping across Iraq in the sixties. He lived in Lebanon from 1969-1972, and was resident in Britain from 1978.
Fawzi Karim leaves his wife Lily and two sons, Sammer and Basil, as well as the grandchildren he adored. Lily has sent me this description of how she and Fawzi first encountered each other:
“I had met Fawzi a month prior to his heart-attack in 1979. The Art school from which I had graduated was on the same road as the Arabic magazine where Fawzi worked. In that summer, after graduating, I applied for a part-time job as an illustrator at this magazine. It was there that I met Fawzi for the first time. I was at the time still reeling from the loss – to natural causes – of both of my parents two years earlier. At twenty-one, my world was in turmoil. Nothing made sense. I was drowning. Cut off from my family in Iraq and isolated from the Arabic culture in London, joining the Arabic magazine was in retrospect an attempt to connect with the culture I was born into. Fawzi was the first colleague I spoke to, since our desks were close by. His Iraqi accent reminded me of my mother whilst his gentleness and protective nature reminded me of my Nigerian father. He was knowledgeable about western art in general and art in Iraq in particular -about which I knew nothing, since I had come to England at fifteen. Fawzi had by then published four books – which I borrowed – but I did not understand his poems. England was not an exile for me, it was my home, where I felt accepted and free.
Days went by and Fawzi was absent from work. I was told that he had just left intensive care and gone home. I went to visit him. It was whirlwind connection. Before long we were an item, lived together, married and made our home in Lowfield Road where our first son Sammer was born. It was in those happy years that Fawzi published his collection Stumblings of a Bird.
Fawzi’s illness in the course of his last forty years, propelled this already serious man to continue leading a rich, purposeful and productive life. He cherished the friendships he made along the way with people of all generations and backgrounds. What mattered to him was their soul. He remained loyal to these friendships till his dying day.”
Incomprehensible Lesson (2019) was the second selection of his work to be published by Carcanet. It describes the gradual acclimatization of the poet to his refuge in Greenford, in West London, while still affected by the experiences of the past. James Kirkup has said that “decidedly, Fawzi Karim is a poet for our times, with his strong yet beautiful voice, his indignation…and the haunting memories of certain lines that seem intended for all of us, but that few can hear in the endless tumult of what is called life.”
During his career, he published more than twenty-three books of poetry and was also the author of a novel Who is Afraid of The City of Copper (2016) as well as fifteen works of criticism, including The Emperor’s Clothes: on Poetry (2000) and The Companion of the Gods: on Music (2009). Much of his criticism related the arts to each other – such as Music and Poetry (2014), and Music and Painting (2014). The poet was also a painter, who revelled in an untaught skill. Currently a catalogue of his artworks is being prepared for publication. Not exactly naïve, with a freshness that is more sophisticated than initial appearance might suggest, his paintings graced the covers of his two books in English.
However, there is nothing naïve about his verse, and often Fawzi would complain to me that Arabic poetry suffered from a desire to spell out a message. While remaining narrative, his poetry has much in common with Stevens and with Ashbery. Meaning is what emerges from the language, rather than a pre-ordained attempt at communication. In the nineties, he was editor of the pioneering literary quarterly Al-Lahda Al-Shi’ria, and his influential column on poetry and European classical music was entitled The Ivory Tower. Syndicated to a number of Arabic newspapers, this column was respected for its emphasis on the transcendent value of art and culture.
In an afterword to Plague Lands, Marius Kociejowski explores the poet’s life and illuminates the context of his poetry.
Fawzi Karim: Two Poems from Plague Lands
AT THE GARDENIA’S ENTRANCE
In front of the Gardenia’s bolted entrance,
A middle-aged man with the look of someone who has retired
I am also a middle-aged man, just returned from exile.
I squat a few feet from him,
And without wasting much time, I ask:
”Do you know when it opens?”
”The Gardenia Bar was my hangout before the war.
I used to have my own corner there
with my friends around me.
After the war, it folded, got forgotten.
But I have been coming here for a long time
waiting each day for its door to open.”
He stretched a hand out, holding a rolled cigarette,
And I stretched a hand to take it
And smoke spread, blurring the two men
waiting at the bolted door
On the sidewalk of Abu Nuwas Street.
Why is it only me who writes letters every month?
I try to respond to your silence,
Pretending that your silence is more eloquent
Than my words.
Every month I add to your name
All that I love of your traits:
Dear lady of longing, dear jasmine,
and dear flowers that encircle gardens…
Till my window-pane has gathered
from a mouth its dew of vapour.
Sighs of the lady of longing?
But it was night, breaths of cold night wind.
And so I finish my letter. And after thirty days I try to respond to your silence again,
Pretending that your silence is more eloquent
Than my words.
On one side, my always departing letters;
On the other side, your silence,
And between them
The earth and the sun keep rotating.
Whole histories are chronicled in the names of these two,
The one in writing and the other in silence,
While empires rise and fall.
Fawzi Karim: Two Poems from Incomprehensible Lesson
Close to my home in Greenford,
The carriages roll to a halt. After long moments
They go on to bisect London.
The line takes me (questions harass) ‘Where?’
To streets, buildings, parks marred by repetition,
So that I prefer my own blurred reflection.
Then I return by the same red line,
Musing how, from Waterloo Bridge,
The scene’s perfection amazed me:
Seemed an artistic print, framed in an exhibition,
How the tourists milling there
Scattered such colours – like a wedding breakfast –
Was it some performance on TV?
A lady at a party broke through my precautions.
I found myself once more in the role of exile.
The line goes on and on. The years
Sit across from me. I take out my passport.
They want to share its pages.
IN EARL’S COURT
A “Good morning” for the girl in the antiques
As the cat dozed behind the fanlight.
Same old steps, same old feet,
Bitterness of one who reaches in his pocket
only to discover there’s a hole in it.
My feet, their clumsy wanderlust,
And me listing my first friendships, my foolish acts,
quoting the adage: “Still waters run deep!”
I sang along – on the steps of St. Paul`s,
Aped the ways of lovers from a multitude of lands,
Effulgent in the eyes of all the tourists:
“Would Miss J. drink tea with me in Yassin’s?”
I messed my shirt with garish spots
and declared to the one I loved,
“I’ll never drink your fill a second time!”
Later I consoled myself – a poster which I stabbed
Made such a bloody martyr of the woman.
In the mighty cities, I felt myself an orphan.
Ah, initial impulses, companions!
In Earl’s Court I chance to bump into one
with whom I used to drink.
This is suspicious! I think.
Who would stalk my shadow even unto Earl’s Court?
One who might feed the flesh of his brothers
To the savage talons of his homeland,
Send the defected birds
back into the darkness of their cage?
I haven’t got over it yet, that sudden apprehension,
And when I saw him in Earl’s Court,
That one with whom I used to drink,
He hurried to avoid me, as if I were the noxious stink.
Who is following who? Which is afraid of the other?
A “Good evening” for the man in the antiques
As the rain drizzled down the fanlight.
Same old steps, same old feet,
Bitterness of one who has saved
a dark wisdom garnered in this cave,
One in retreat from his day,
Tossed into the folds of blue cold.
I no longer ask about my country,
as it may ask no more about my fate,
Yet I sing whenever I feel like a song,
“ My sleeves are filled with musk,
and my plaits are rich with henna.”
You can read David Cooke‘s review of Fawzi Karim’s Incomprehensible lesson in London Grip by following the link.