Continent de douleures
Long poem by Fawzi Karim
Translated into French from the Arabic by Said Farhan
Editions Empreints, Switzerland. ISBN 2-940133-69-7.
With notes and a bio-bibliographic by the translater
Continent of man – continent of sufferings
Born in 1945, the poet Fawzi Karim, wile still adolescent, was in charge of the library of a mosque in Al-Abassia, an old quarter of Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris, where he swam and fish. It was the ideal breeding-ground for a life of poetry and defiant escape from the norm. Already passionately in love with language and old books of pre-Islamic poetry, he devoted much of his time, after school, to the preserving and enriching of the mosque`s library in long visits to the celebrated street, of booksellers, Al-Mutanabbi street, a treasure trove of old tomes and manuscripts. He made friends with the binders and printers and whenever possible bought books the considered worthy of the mosque`s library. It was perfect training for the life of a writer.
One day, searching through a pile of old books, he chanced upon the writing of jean-Paul Sartre, which immediately made a deep impression. He stop going to the mosque but stay at home to steep himself in existential theories, and to write poems in which he tried to resolve the problems that Sartre had aroused in his mind. These investigations brought him in touch with a generation of young artists, writers, novelists and political militants who gathered in the bars and cafes of Abu Nuwas street, at the time the Latin quarter of Baghdad.
He became a discible of the great Iraqi poet Al-sayyab (1927-1964) and published his first collection of poems AT THE BEGINNING OF ALL THINGS in 1969. After studying Arab literature in the University of Baghdad, he started teaching at a high school, where suspicions about the "persersity" of his "communist ideas" lead him to be relieved of his post on the rise of Saddam Hussein. He went in the exile in Beirut, and the theme of exile began to be one of the most moving elements in his later work. In Beirut he published his second volume: I RAIS MY HAND IN PROTEST ( 1972), and the Iraqi government let it be known that he was free to return to Baghdad. It was there he published his third collection MADNESS IN STONE, 1977. Shortly after his return, he had published an essay FROM EXILE TO THE CONSCIOUSNESS OF EXILE (1973) which revealed him as an observant literary critic. In his new books of poems, he proclaimed his firm opposition to all forms of repression, which led to his going to the exile again, this time to London, where in poor health, he married and had two sons.
The war with Iran increased his humanist opposition to the growing menace in the evolution of contemporary Arab politics, which he expressed in a vigorous essay significantly entitled THE EMPEROR¬S NEW CLOTHES (1992) in which ideas about the developments in Arab poetry were also forcibly expressed. It was a prolific period, in which he produced three imported books of poetry, THE BIRD DISENCHANTMENT, 1983, WE SHALL NOT INHERIT THE EARTH, 1988, and THE AMBUSH OF ADAM, 1990. In 1995, he published the book under review, CONTINENT DE DOULEURS, which is excellently translated into French by Said farhan, and has been elegantly produced and printed by a Swiss publisher, Editions Empreintes. It is a sad comment on the dire state of present British poetry publishing that no British editor thought of producing an English translation of equal dignity for a poet Who had sought refuge in the land of Shakespeare. And of course Fawzi Karim writes the kind of poetry that unconceivable in Britain today, where contemporary poetry amount to little more than tea-table chatter.
The book is called "a poetic autobiography". But it is also a personal elegy of great fervour and verbal magnificence for the Iraqis – exiled in foreign lands, starving at home, reduced to victims of a disastrous commercial war of greedy oil-grabbing. Using various poetic forms, references to the great antiquity of Arab culture and the modern adaptation of musical and rhythmical classic metres, Fawzi Karim vividly brought in front of our eyes the "caravan of red horses/ cast in the blackness of night in the legend of exile".
This is an impulsive sort of poetry, straight from the heart`s memory of another life, another world. There is no logic of development, no ordered sequence of events. Like history itself, it is a dramatic confusion of voices, a deep darkness illumined by sudden flashes of rich, sumptuous radiance:
The cloths of Baghdadis tell of summer
Illumined by the stars of military medals
That come out at dawn like a crown of thorns
Set on the people`s greying head.
That head holds archives of revolutionary demonstrators –
And with revolution grow dissensions
As in real warfare, manoeuvres begin in fanfares soon smothered in the dissonances of dying, the desperate irrelevance of bombs.
War when it starts is like a young girl
be witching the ignorant with here fiery:
fanned up, its conflagrations flare
she becomes an old miss with no lover,
frivolous, grooming her hair, offering
her repulsive lips to passing men….
In the total illogic of war, which slowly kills itself as it kills its victims, civilian and military, poetry becomes powerless with helpless sufferings and exile itself before the poet does:
And poetry goes into exile when
Pushed for space
- towords white mountain peaks –
Poetry is also going into exile
And even when turning away, its back
Stll looks familiar…
Gradually, Fawzi Karim`s poetic voice takes on the savage tones of prophetic fury:
… he frequents taverns, downing his
glass as if he were at home,
the wine speaking within him is barely capable
of prophesying from a mouth without inspiration,
of revealing the identity of the assassin
when he lies in a pool of blood…
The legendary figures of Gilgamesh an Enkidu penetrate "the wall of the past" – phantom drinking companions in Abo Nuwas Street – "the beloved street of our secrets…"
The most terrible thing in war is that there is fear in both sides, a fear that humanizes the enemy and his apponants, but is uncapable of butting an end to murder:
Distrust increases between us,
Shared tobacco and mistrust.
Be afraid, my brother, for I am afraid.
In that last line, the poet encapsulates all of absurdity of war.
The present situation of unresolved conflict in the world – in Iraq, but also in so many countries engaged in seemingly never-ending self-slaughter, is often mysteriously evoked:
My scull is a house of clay.
In my weeping heart, there is
Springtime and a guitar.
And I am a fisherman- in the pond of this apoch
I have lost my net.
To know no solution is enough for me.
I make use of my memory, it rises up to confront
And when the rope strangles my throat
My memory and I shall turn to shadows.
But still the war continues to break out everywhere, man continue to blast their fellow men off the face of the earth they were born to:
The war flared up at dawn, 17 January.
The horizon is grey.
A gentle breeze from the desert
breathes over the minefield.
The soldiers like hunters in a jungle,
Dig their claws in the tender flesh…
Now, it is good to see that, even in London, this exiled poet remains defiant, inveighing against "the norm" that he found in certain aspects of British daily life:
I defy the norm of your humid
democracy, of your chrysanthemums
of fog, you gentleman of the city,
the norm of your aluminium – blue eyes,
of you desires` stocks, of your fame….
Decidedly, Fawzi Karim is a poet for our times, with his strong yet beautiful voice, his indignations, his protests – and the haunting memories of certain lines that seem intended for all of us, but that few of us can hear in the endless tumult of what is still called "life".
(This review is published in the Banipal magazine, No.19. Spring, 2004)