Although Iraqi writer Fadhil al-Azzawi is more widely known in English as a novelist (his The Last of the Angels, Cell Block Five, and The Traveler and the Innkeeper have been met with acclaim), al-Azzawi is perhaps better-known in Arabic as a poet. Both are true, as al-Azzawi’s work has moved between poetry and prose. He answered a few questions about his writing for our ongoing series on Iraqi poets and poetries:
ArabLit: A profile on Poetry International Web traces your earliest influences to the Qur’an, the Thousand and One Nights, and Turkish drunks singing their way home. Do you remember the first poems you read or heard that charged you with the desire to engage with this form? Or did you not separate out the idea of “poem” from the idea of “story”? What sort of writing did you first do as a teenager?
Fadhil al-Azzawi: I was still at an early age when I found my way to the fascinating world of the poetry. I remember also how I wrote my first poem. I read, in my schoolbook, a poem by Ma’rouf al-Rusafi, who was Iraq’s most famous poet at that time. The poem was short and simple, written in a traditional Arabic rhyme and rhythm, and it was about renewing friendship after a quarrel between two children:
Let us say we got to know each other just now!
Let us forget all what has happened between us!
In those years, families used to send children to the mosque to learn reading and Qur’an recitation before sending them to school. So I learned many parts of the Holy Book by heart. That helped me later to betterunderstand the classical literary texts.
The first book that filled my dreams with magic and fantasy was the Thousand and One Nights. I read it repeatedly and lived the erotic and heroic adventures of its figures. I found also a lot of pleasure in reading the ancient Arabic poems. And because I speak the Turkish language I discovered the charm of the Turkish quatrains, called “Khoriat” in Kirkuk, my hometown.
In primary school, I wrote a lot of poems, and at the age of sixteen I published my first poems in the literary magazines in Beirut and Baghdad.
AL: You mentioned that your mother (at your request) burned many of your poems when you went off to university. What was your family’s relationship to your poetry? And to poetry in general?
FA: Before leaving Kirkuk to study at university in Baghdad, I thought that all of what I had written before was merely a kind of “hand-training” at writing. I wanted to leave all that behind and begin anew. Before that, I had gotten from my mother one of the most important lessons of my life. When my mother knew from my schoolmates that I was writing poetry, and aiming to be a poet, she became angry and scolded me:
“We try to make you a man and work hard to secure your future, but you want to be a beggar.”
I replied: “A poet, not a beggar.”
She laughed at my naiveté: “And what is the real job of the Arab poets? Nothing but selling their praise poems, full of lies, to this sheikh or that governor, to this vizier or that king.”
I said: “I promise you I will not be like these people.”
In fact, my mother was not wholly mistaken. Most of the “traditional poets” in the past, but also in our modern times, used to put their poetry in the service of the dictators and despots.
In general, my family always supported me, and I think they were also proud to see people speak with respect about their son.
AL: Has your concept of poetry (what a poem is/isn’t) changed from when you were a teenager to today?
FA: I have never possessed a fixed “recipe” for what poetry is. Every time I sit down to write a poem, I face the problem of finding the right form for the poem I am planning to write. There are poets who spend a lifetime in writing the same poem. That means they repeat again and again the same form and language, and perhaps the same subject and the same theme in all their works. The poem that I write is different. Every poem should have its own idea, and necessarily every new idea will need a new structure or form. In fact, I try in every new poem to discover something new. I also like to play in my poems, not only with the language and the forms, but also with the meaning of the writing itself. If the concept of the poetry means writing poetry in a traditional form (as it is still possible in Arabic poetry) or in a modern form (free verse, prose poetry), I would say that I began writing my poems as a teenager in a modern form and am still using this form. But that reflects only a part of the truth about what I have really tried to achieve in every poem and every poetry book.
AL: You often cross genres. Is there a way in which certain ideas send you in the direction of a poem (or a story, or a novel)? Or do you figure it out as you are creating the work? Was there a tradition you drew on in crossing genres? Or were you aiming to use words in a new/different way?
FA: To turn an idea into a work of art, one needs to find the right genre for it. Anyhow, the idea will not count for too much before finding the appropriate literary form for it. Of course, there are ideas that can send you in different literary directions — of a poem or a short story or a novel — but the choice of the genre here depends on what are you going to say or to express in your work.
For example, when I was in jail, I wrote many poems about the prison life, but as poems they had to reflect or deal merely with certain images of prison life. But to say the whole truth about the real meaning of being in prison, of the complicated bond between the victim and his executioner, of the cycle of terror, I found myself writing my novel Cell Block Five. Anyhow, I often cross the barriers of genres to create a text that can be read in different ways: as a novel or a poem, as well as a short story or an essay.
My first published book in 1969 The Beautiful Creatures Of Fadhil al-Azzawi was a text in which I tried to unite different genres in one form. This was something new in modern Arabic literature, but it was not totally without roots in classical Arab literature. In most of the ancient prose texts, the authors mix lyrics with prose; in some cases, they even let their characters converse with one another in poetry.
AL: You founded a literary magazine, engaged with other poets and writers, and were part of a movement in a way that probably is unavailable to most young Iraqi poets today. Has Iraqi poetry shifted without those opportunities? Has it shifted with so many writers in internal and external exile?
FA: When we published the magazine Poetry 69 with its famous “Manifesto about Poetry,” we were attacked from all political and ideological sides: from the Ba’athists, who considered our manifesto as a direct challenge to their authority and their nationalist political and cultural project; from the communists, who saw in our manifesto “a Trojan Horse” for Western liberal ideology, because we highlighted the necessity of free and critical writing, and the importance of democracy in creating a new modern culture in Iraq and other Arab countries.
In the end, the authorities found no better way of facing us than of stopping us from publishing our magazine. Of course, the political and cultural conditions of Iraqi writers now inside and outside the country are very difficult; the exile-writers are scattered and most of them have gone astray; the others who are still living inside the country struggle only to survive.
In fact, we are now somewhere between comedy and tragedy. Under the dictatorship, we never lost the hope of changing the unjust regimes. After the occupation, we discovered how full of illusions we were. Suddenly, we found ourselves facing a large black void. There was nothing more to believe in. To be creative and to achieve something new and more human, you have to be able to dream and to hope. But the religious regime under the direct or indirect domination of the mullahs has done everything to destroy our dreams and hopes. That is the question.
AL: A few years back, you and Sinan talked about the place(s) of poetry in Iraqi life. Do you think poetry’s privileged position has shifted — in favor of novels and short stories? Or for other reasons? — during your life/worktime?
FA: Neither poetry nor fiction has nowadays a privileged position in the hearts and minds of the Iraqi readers. In fact, no one deals with the literature written after 2003 inside Iraq seriously. The new rulers, most of them religious, are against the modernity and do not read the contemporary texts on principle. The authentic literature in their opinion exists in the past alone. The texts and poems should have only one function: to praise Imam Ali, his son al-Hussein, and all the others in the prophet’s family.
Anyhow, we now have many novelists, and in the last five or six years many new Iraqi novels have been published and two of them (written outside Iraq) are shortlisted for the so-called Arabic Booker prize [the International Prize for Arabic Fiction]. But the number of those who still write poetry is also increasing in a very strange way. This happened because of the ease of publishing their poems in Internet. Of course, this development encouraged even the illiterates to be poets.
AL: There seem to be more ways to discover new Arabic novels than to discover new poetry. How do you discover new Iraqi and Arabic-language poets? What are you reading now that is exciting to you? Are there poems and poets to which you continually return throughout your life?
FA: Unfortunately, there is no real poetry to be discovered by those who stayed in Iraq. Most of the talented and good poets have left the country during the last two decades and obliged to live isolated from their readers. Even the good poets who stayed in the country preferred to resign, to seek refuge in what the Germans call “Die innere Emigration,” knowing that no one will care for what they could say, and worse than all that, they could be killed if they broke the sacred lines of the temple’s guardians.
Under the previous military dictatorships, the poets were always considered “dangerous” elements; their poems were no less powerful than rifles. Under the new regime, where the mullahs decide the type of the culture, the poets are considered “toothless wolves.” In a society emptied of millions of its best-educated people and morally destroyed, Allah’s voice silenced the poet’s howling.
Most of the books I read are books written in German or English. I read now one of the brilliant novels by the German novelist Thomas Lehr under the title “September” about 11 September and the occupation of Iraq.
The masters — who accompanied me throughout my whole life and from whom I can not learn enough — are so many that I feel ashamed to mention only some of them: Gilgamesh, Homer (The Odyssey), Dante (Inferno), Goethe (Faust), Imru’ul Qais in his erotic poems, Shakespeare in his plays, T.S.Eliot (The Waste Land).
By Amira Abd El-Khalek: Fadhil al-Azzawi: ‘All These Genres Mixed Together’
You can find excerpts of his work in translation various places: Words Without Borders, Poetry International, Banipal, Jehat.
Really interesting interview, thank you. The idea of a country with an alien generation of poets, disconnected and dissipated, is haunting.
You’re very welcome.
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