فوزي كريم 

Fawzi Karim





Plague Lands


A long poem


in a version by


Anthony Howell




after a translation by


Abbas Kadhim
Part One


Canals created by rain…

Teetering houses, stacked like disks of bread,

The windows tattered sieves,

The doors holding their breath in case there’s a call in the night,

The power cables droning with the current of suppressed desires,

And the alleys twisted, just like a warrior’s braids.

The Tigris will nudge us with its epics

And, with its wand, expose the deceit

of skies that weep for the days to come.

Fish leap out at their observers;

Bury their heads in their garments’ folds,

And, having secreted eggs there, give up the ghost.

Waves drench the pores of our mutual yearning with the scent of myth.

Waves caress our pillows in the night hours,

And mirrors alternate with the sun in searing our bodies.

Waves throw up the smell of dung, palm pollen, clay, gharab,

Willows, the furnace’s mouth,

The ominous cry of the crow behind the fence,

Reeds and silt and the scent of Khidhr candles.

Sacrificed blood stains the tunnel of my boyhood:

the one that leads to the myth.

At the entrance to an alley – out of which poured everything –

I imagined Gilgamesh.

Go pluck a rose from the home-grown oleander

And sell its scent to the vendor.


On the day that I was born,

My father began to prepare for the flood,

My mother remained unaware

And the Great War ground to its halt.

At this mighty junction of deteriorating time

We were naively growing up reckless.

We would salute that oleander, hot with our uniqueness:

A family of diverse individuals – distinguished by our father’s face,

While our mother’s linked us like a many-blossomed tamarisk.

Who can blame my brother for punishing

my insatiable self-curiosity?                

Who can blame my mother for nourishing

my yen for unreachable fantasy?



The girls next door are not to blame,

nor are the boys with dreams laid low

because of the revolution.           

No one’s to blame.

Though the eye turns black as night itself,

And the days are knots in barbed wire.


My father died, and my mother died. 

And the oleander was used for firewood.

No one’s to blame:

Neither the wrongdoer nor the one wronged;

Neither the thief nor his mark;

Neither the adulterers nor the one who stones their homes.

I can’t fault the sun for scorching me,

Nor the cats that pounce behind the ink-black drape of fate:

Black cats spitting fever pounce beneath the skin.

Darkness under the mask…

And the cats keep pouncing, scratching my face,

Their claws scrabbling for the mere noise in the scratched voice.

The soul cats pounce

In silence, as if the house had vanished, as if

Hundreds of towns and whole countries had vanished;

Utterly shrunk by the shut down horizon.


No one can blame the mystic, who pokes the nipple and mutters,

“The truth is out!”

While she exposes a pair of innocent breasts.

No one is ever to blame,

For desire is a can of worms!

Or, in my case, book-worms, I guess.

I read  “The Book of Beasts” by al-Jahidh

And the “Perfumed Garden”.

I read “The Trials of Destiny” quite deeply,

With “The Fruits of Literature” beside me.

I then wrote a book

On “The Classification of Souls in the Monastery of Solitude”

That dealt with those gone astray in the maze of the state.

And I wrote an “Elucidation of the Certain Alexandrianisms

in Verse Wanderings by Bewitched Waters”,

And on “The Soul’s Transcendence of Sexual Repression”.

In an appendix is reserved

a blank space for a book on the untold.

I have not written this yet.

But this is why I was never awed

by my Sufi friend in the Café Ibrahim,

Nor silenced by the dogma of my friend the revolutionary,

            fashioning a slogan from some principle.

As for debate in the Café Gardenia,

All I ever wanted was a drink.


Summer was heavy, heavy…

The dead more fatigued by the sun than the quick.

It’s a stiff drink that fortifies one’s being

from the rot of the daily round

And renders one far tougher than the grass

Burnt by incendiary slogans and wavings of flags.


“Things in the bar seem to hug one another:

This table, the chair, the leftovers from the appetizer,

The water from some thawed ice a crescent at my heel,

The shadow cast, and the warmth of the hand

still holding the emptied glass.

Do you hear a voice?  The waves

Go pounding through my head.  Drowning’s on the cards.

Things hug one another.”


War detonates as Baghdad sets out for the markets.

I was born, I think, in a mellower year;

A year when people still paused at the smell of corpses.

Now I smell the roasting of a thigh, 

And the deep voice: “That roasting thigh is a traitor’s.”

He pours on more kerosene

And the fire glows and the smell of flesh gets stronger. 

My brother and I began as the chanters of slogans.

We saw the world with its trousers down and laughed.

We opened vents for the smell in our shackled bodies

And the smell disappeared within us.

That revolutionary summer had just such a smell.

And my father said, “Whoever goes sniffing out corpses

would want to be rid of their stench.”

My father was never wrong.  But it was a mellower year

A year when people still paused.   A year

That saw the barrier go down between me and that smell,

Between me and the era, between me and its dogma.


Summer reveals the apparal of Baghdad:

In it the stars of the military shine,

To emerge at dawn as a crown of thorns

Placed on the people’s gray.

Their temples are the archive

Testifying to the pronouncements of the revolution.

Bitter the ordeals it engenders.


And poetry, shaven of pate, shepherds everything, high on a hill.

A rural man with a flowing gown,

How striking he looks, as the sun sets, one who enjoys his aloneness.

One with a view about everything, just as he sees fit:

“I am at one with the breeze, and this is how I am.”

And poetry departs, when under threat; heads for

The snow-capped peaks.  Poetry always departs,

Its leaving silhouette ever viewed as apathy.

Now I shall enter into the forebodings of al-Rumi,

Enter the house occupied by the clairvoyant in the verse of al-Tayyib,

Lock myself into the cages of Abu Tammam,

And, orphaned, I’ll tend the prohibited fruit in the orchard of Abu Nuwas

With the literary pangs of the Saqt al-Zand

And I shall descend, like the punters of Baghdad,

Into the dens of the poor who wear nothing but shadows,

As Ibn Nubutah would reel from the dens of Shawrjah

Enwreathed in the heady aroma of spices and debt.


Penny-wise, they say.

But what if you seriously need

To become well-off?

It was Iraq that betrayed us,

Although we never exposed it to much

Beyond the pain of our leaving,

And, as if covertly,

Abu al-Hasan al-Salamy

Tails this departure, and that one,

While a trace of Ibn Sakrah –

Finely-featured, powdered clown, auguste –

Perches, perches moon-like, on the fence.


Neither our crown prince nor caliph,

Nevertheless, you snubbed us!

Keep up the snobbery, I say,

For I have no pay you can stop,

Nor a job for the losing.

Not that this makes me perfect.

Paragons of virtue get accused.

Poetry alone is a burning without smoke,

Though some rhymes do have their undertones.

A few light words can wreck a reputation,

And, however delicate the musk,

Smeared on, it can become a stench.


Then Ibn al-Hajjaj reiterates his low laugh:

“I fled from my home to a country,

Where the famine turned my pecker yellow.”


Famine turns the pecker yellow!  Hurry to Beirut

Only to be deafened by the rantings of performance poets.

Spoken words turn the market riotous, 

And it’s a riot, writing for the market. 

Plagiarised melody roars out its rant,

And the sea rolls out a premonition, hints at a rage

That seems, to the fugitive, strange.

All he is fleeing is his witnesses’ contempt.

“The honed blades of home stroke my side

And the noose of yearning fits around my neck,

So I might as well keep pestering that girl made of stone,

Color in her navel and her breasts

With my brush, and conjure up a Beirutesque kerfuffle!

Taking me up by the scruff of my fright,

She scatters me over the coffee-shops of Rawsha

Like a spray misting from the sea.

If I’m going to sober up, I’d better steer clear of the news-stands

- Their spice is stronger than the dens.

There’s no way to slip off the mare

That gallops through the meadow-lands of memory.

I try to be alone with the darkness of the sea.

I sit on the beach, I stretch a foot into the chattering well.

Toes touch the warm fluff of mystery.

Then, at the crossroads of intangible and tangible,

I try to embrace my immortality.

The wine-dark sea is a mirror for those coffee-shops

And sparkles like the necklace that adorns

The ivory throat of Beirut.

I stare in awe at a quart of `araq

And the remnants of a stony-hearted scent.

I leave Beirut as I left home, again with a strange premonition:


It ‘ll break out.  It’s possible.

It’ll break out.

They will pitch its tent there.

Yes, its dusty tent will appear.

Its cats will yowl

and spray their eager scent…


With threadbare rags we patch up the holes in the tent.

It’s jam-packed with corpses, of course,

Putrefaction piled on putrefaction.

Of the dead, only their halo

Is visible to the far away viewer;

Resonating, silver as the moon.


That’s not the moon.  It’s a millstone.

And this is War, and it’s blind.


It sets forth blithe as a girl

With a come-hither look for the ignorant;

But then it burns its candle at both ends

And ends up a loveless thing, a crone,

Hair cropped, in the dock, detested,

Posing, obscenely, for denouncement


Do I really care about Baghdad?

The Turkish siege was interminable.

How many heads did it harvest?

Didn’t the Tigris monopolise the corpses,

And someone do a good trade in flags?

They pulled in the besiegers through some hole in the wall. 

The captives multiplied

And the hangings stretched across the Eastern Gate.

It costs so little to stretch

The necks of the lower ranks. 

Summer was heavy, heavy…

The dead more fatigued by the sun than the quick.

It’s a stiff drink that fortifies one’s being

from the rot of the daily round

And renders one far tougher than the grass

Burnt by incendiary slogans and wavings of flags.


I see women go breathless after bowls of soup

While young men lap the Almighty’s wounds,

Then a kid tugs at a soldier’s boot

And the clock stands still, tells nothing.


Dulce et decorum est.   The sun hisses

Like wires hiss above flags.  Dulce et decorum est.

The sun dries the blood on perished lips.

Dulce et decorum est.  Dulce et decorum est.

Dulce et decorum est.  Dulce et decorum est.

Dulce et decorum est.  Dulce et decorum est.

Dulce et decorum est.  Dulce et decorum est.

Dulce et decorum est.  Dulce et decorum est.

Dulce et decorum est.  Dulce et decorum est.

Dulce et decorum est.  Dulce et decorum est.

The kid pulls off the boot of his reclining warrior.

The kid pulls and the neck stretches and so does the rope

And so does the night .



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