Plague Lands

Fawzi Karim 

   Plague Lands and other poems 

Versions by Anthony Howell after Translations by Abbas Kadhim 

With an introduction by Elena Lappin and a biographical portrait by 

Marius Kociejowsky 

Published February 2011

A deeply influential and much-loved poet of the exiled generation is Fawzi Karim, an Iraqi Shiite who was born in Baghdad in 1945 and has been living in London since 1978. Karim's sense of internal exile began long before he left Iraq, when he found himself outside all ideological movements sweeping the intellectual life of his country. Karim was neither Communist nor Baathist nor religious nor anarchist. Nor was his poetry influenced by the Western avant-garde or by surrealism, as was the work of many of his peers. This non-political and deeply individualistic stance was a dangerous one in Saddam's Iraq, and an unusual one even among Iraqi artists in exile.

                                                                                                                                                    From Elena Lappin's introduction

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

I imagined Gilgamesh.

Go pluck a bloom from the home-grown oleander

And sell its scent to the vendor.

On the day that I was born,

While my mother remained unconscious

And my father began to prepare for the flood,

A world 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 discouraging

my insatiable self-curiosity?                 

Who can blame my mother for nourishing

my yen for some 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 ones who stone their homes.

I can’t fault the sun for scorching me…

But there are the cats that would pounce from behind

the black backdrop of fate:

The black cats that spit, that are fevered, that pounce

Under the skin of the mask of the face of the darkness;

Cats that keep pouncing, keep scratching my face,

Their claws in a scrabble for lost chords scratched from the 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 horizons shutting them down.

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-Jahiz

And “The Perfumed Garden”.

I read “The Trials of Destiny” quite deeply, the “Lives”,

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”.

The margin is reserved for a book on the untold,

though I haven’t 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 bar at the Gardenia,

All I ever wanted was a drink.


MPT Magazine No.1 / 2013 'Strange Tracks'.





An Iraqi Waste Land by Kathryn Maris


Fawzi Karims Plague Lands and other poems

Versions by Anthony Howell, translation by Abbas Kadhim,

Carcanet, 2011


Plague Lands and other poems is an unstinting collection. In addition

to offering poems whose voice, images and subject matter are

unlikely to be encountered elsewhere in contemporary poetry, the

book provides these perks: a riveting education on Iraqs recent

political history via an introduction by Elena Lappin; an intimate,

expansive interview of the author by poet and essayist Marius

Kociejowski; some samples of visual art by the author, who is

apparently also given to painting and drawing; and a thought-provoking

statement about the act of translation from Anthony

Howell, who refers to his reworkings as versions.


Although introductions and afterwords can be off-putting ( who

doesnt aver that poems should speak for themselves? ), the two essays

that bookend Fawzi Karims poems are themselves worth the price of

this collection. Spend a few minutes on each and learn, among other

things, how Saddam Hussein persecuted Iraqi poets but paid large

monthly stipends to writers in other Arab countries to extol him, and

that the Arabic language is abstract and boundless whereas English

is comparatively limited.


For a reader interested in craft, form and poetic lineage, the

following tidbit is particularly fascinating: after 2,000 years in

which Iraqi poetry followed a strict, symmetrical metre, free verse

was introduced in the 1940s, a result of T. S. Eliots and Ezra Pounds

influence. Karims poetry, according to Lappin, is an unusual

combination of free form and classical language.

Knowing this gives some insight into the long title poem

Plague Lands which reads, in some ways, like an Iraqi version of

The Waste Land: sprawling, myth-ridden, composed in multiple

sections, with fluctuating images and mini-narratives that sing in

a variety of styles and rhythms. Whereas Eliot invokes an Eastern

incantation ( Shantih, Shantih, Shantih ), Karim invokes a Western

one ( Dolce et decorum est. Dolce et decorum est ); whereas Eliot

speaks of hyacinths and the Thames, Karim alludes to the Tigris

and oleanders. There are many parallels, some oblique and others

more obvious.


Though Karims long poem is arguably more personal than

The Waste Land, it evokes the epic, mythic and political ( but

more on that later ). Gilgamesh and Enkidu, characters from the

great Mesopotamian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh, make a striking

appearance. They are dressed in contemporary clothing and appear

to be in a kind of temporal limbo. Through them, Karim makes

a statement about the nature of time and the cyclical patterns of

history. What happened before, will happen again, | and again and

again and again, says Gilgamesh. And he says later: The present

masks the past.


Although such pronouncements could and perhaps should

be read politically, and although Karim himself has been in exile

since the 1970s ( but now feels able to return to his home country

and plans to divide his time between London and Iraq ), he does not

in fact consider himself to be a political poet. To me this seems an

oversimplification, a question of definition. In fact he seems neither

political nor apolitical, but chronically of two minds about many

things. His long interview with Kociejowski suggests he is someone

with a flexible approach to the nuances of the world. He believes in a

life of the mind, but also believes that intellectuals were responsible

for laying the groundwork for Saddam Husseins regime. He is

influenced by English-language Modernist poetry ( Pound and Eliot )

but at the same time says, modern English poetry is still hard for

me, and much of what I see is, I think, very provincial. You need to

be a Londoner to understand a London poet. I am involved with a

metaphysical dimension, which is why I prefer poets like Czeslaw

Milosz, who are similarly engaged.

It is hard not to like the Karim that comes across in these pages,

this individualistic man who lives in the untrendy area of Greenford

and feels little if any connection to the contemporary British

poetry world. He seems so perfectly the real thing. The poems are

impressively versatile: some have long, incantatory, Whitmanesque

lines and lists, while others, particularly the later ones, are slim,

lyrical and image-based to a degree that is reminiscent of Objectivist

and Imagist poetry.

Of course much credit is due to Anthony Howell, whose

skilfulness and sharp ear animate this work. In a somewhat bristly

note at the end, he explains, I speak no Arabic and have never

translated from a language I speak. I translate in order to get in touch

with a poem. If I can read it in the original there is no need to go

through this process. Whether or not one agrees with this theory, one

cannot fault the result. Plague Lands and other poems will enlarge your

imaginative world.

Kathryn Maris


MPT readers can purchase Plague Lands and other poems with a 20%

discount and free UK p&p from

Enter the code MPTOFFER


                                                From PLAGUE LANDS

Plague Lands and other poems by Fawzi Karim. Versions by Anthony Howell after translations by Abbas Kadhim. Carcanet 2011.   Reviewed in Issue 54 of Tears In The Fence.

Review by John Welch.


   Fawzi Karim, poet, painter and music critic, is part of that Arab diaspora which carries on a rich and varied cultural life in this country but which only sporadically comes into more general view. A collection by another London-based Iraqi exiled in London, Songs of the Tired Guard by Buland al-Haidari, appeared way back in 1977. It was translated by Abdullah al-Udhari, who published it with his own TR Press. Al-Haidari died in 1995. Still resident in London is Saadi Youssef, whose selected poems Without an Alphabet Without a Face, translated by Khaled Mattawa, appeared from the American publisher Graywolf Press in 2002. Both these translations read very well in English –  al’Udhari’s other translations were widely published here in the 1970s and 1980s. Otherwise it is left mainly to the journal Banipal, now in its forty third issue, to represent a wide range of contemporary Arabic literature in translation.

   Born in Baghdad in 1945, Fawzi Karim came to London in 1978. As he comments, sardonically:

   So let us now praise exodus,

        Exodus en masse

    Let us  now praise exodus before dawn

   While checking inside the receiver

       and under the car

   Let us now praise exodus

      as those who are exiled already

       praise those of us who are exiled after them.

   Unto them let’s advertise our attractions

   And publicise our qualities to disbelieving lands

   ‘Plague Lands’, which takes up around two thirds of this selection, is a lament for the condition of Iraq under Saddam. Baghdad is evoked, with its:

   Houses as precarious as stacked-up disks of bread,

   Their window-nets like tattered sieves,

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

   The power cables droning with the current of suppressed desires . . .

The writing has a sensuous immediacy, with the oleander, a deadly poisonous shrub with beautiful flowers, as a recurring image:

   Ripples throw up the smell of dung, palm pollen, rushes and clay,

   Willows, the furnace’s mouth,

   The ominous cry of a crow behind a fence,

   Reeds and silt and the scent of al-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 bloom from the home-grown oleander

   And sell its scent to the vendor.

      In ‘The River’ he evokes the Tigris, where:

   The waves wash back from the bank,
And there’s my father’s shadow in his skiff,
And there’s a vein like the veins of a hand
Fossilized in the familiar cliff.
There’s green pottery, seals, and a mud tablet,
Villages blurred by their moss . .

The book’s cover illustration is a  painting by the poet showing him swimming in the Tigris, something he often did as a child, growing up in a poor Shia district subsequently destroyed by Saddam. But in this painting he represents himself as a middle-aged man. As well as a short introduction by Eleanor Lappin, indispensable background and context for the poetry are provided in a substantial and illuminating interview article by Marius Kociejowski. As he says to Kociejowski: ‘I remember the sense I had while painting this was of a man dreaming he is still swimming in the Tigris. As I said before, I do not live as others do, inside a current of ordinary time. . .  The water in this painting has a double nature. It reflects a richness of life which at the same time is horrible. It is like the Will of Schopenhauer, a blind force that gives life and death at the same time. When you read Sumerian literature, the water there has another life. In the marshes in the south of Iraq, where the Tigris and the Euphrates meet, you get this still water, the stillness making it seem all that much darker. . .’ It is significant that the Iraqi Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, featuring the work of six artists, has water as a unifying theme.

Another of the paintings, this time reproduced in the text, shows a group of men around a café table. There are repeated references in ‘Plague Lands’ to the intellectuals and café life. But he is unsparing in his criticism of his contemporaries, whom he sees as a generation blighted by ideological madness and drink. ‘When I describe the café scene as terrible, it is because there were no people there, only ideas. There were answers but never any questions in those places and yet each coterie had its own answer as to what the truth is.’ In ‘At the Gardenia’s Entrance’ he describes a return to his old haunt – after going into exile in Beirut he did go back to Baghdad for a time, before leaving again for London:

“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.

The last third of the book contains a selection of shapely shorter poems. As a teenager Fawzi Karim had had the job of looking after the library of a local mosque. ‘The Arabic books, especially the old ones, came mostly from Beirut and Cairo, and had uncut pages which one had to open with a knife. You could smell things rising from their pages. I could smell the shapes of words as they rose, and even their meanings had their own shapes. There was no separation, no paradox, between things. When later, insensitive to the religious atmosphere, I introduced volumes of modern poetry and prose, some of it quite irreligious, I was asked to leave.’ Eleanor Lappin writes of the ‘unusual combination of free form and classical language’ in his writing. His picture of the intellectual life of Baghdad is mirrored by his strictures on the way language as used by many poets. ‘In Arabic, there are many words which I’d call “unjust”. For example, often when we speak about something or someone we’ll automatically add ‛alā al-itlāq, which means “absolutely”. We use this word all the time and yet it doesn’t allow space for either the speaker or the listener to understand his limitations. What is said in Arabic is so abstract, so boundless, whereas in English you don’t employ more words than you require’. And in ‘A Marble Woman’ he describes ‘a shadow pairing of speech and stone’ and writes:

   I therefore observe, in the field of my verse,

   How the marble appears, in the night,

   As a shadow of meaning.

   Later one senses the bones, and there comes about

   An articulate warmth: the ultimate promise of speech.

Generous to Britain, despite being attacked by skinheads he tells Kociejowski ‘I appreciate its humanistic side even though, in 1981, I was attacked and badly beaten by skinheads in Earls Court. I was on the way home from seeing Rigoletto, carrying my bright red programme . . .’ The dilemma of the exile is everywhere present in the collection, and he has never yet gone back to his homeland. But he conflates this with the activity of poetry itself, an indication, among other things, of his absolute commitment to the practice of it: ‘So when a poet deals with language, he dreams about returning to its source, when the word was the thing, but already he is an exile because there is a gap between the thing said and what he desires. . . This is the first dimension of exile. If we go to another dimension, another level of exile, here you are, someone who thinks and feels and sees differently from the people around you.’

This is clearly a major poet, who confronts an appalling dilemma with passionate honesty and commitment.

It was back in 1970 Howell published  Imruil, a version of the 8th century poet Imru’al-Qays. This poem was translated into Hausa a couple of centuries ago and an English anthropologist made prose versions of the Hausa version – which Howell then turned into a sequence of short poems. He said he was ‘fascinated by the idea of the poem as snake, changing its language as a snake its skin.’ Of his translations of Fawzi Karim, made from versions by Abbas Kadhim,  Howell writes ‘I translate in order to get in touch with a poem.’ His versions, with their rhythmic control and mixture of the colloquial and the lyrical, are powerful and energetic.


John Welch