In a tower
Climbing the sky
Inside a closed glass room
A skeleton sat very close to me
And put its hand on my shoulder, mumbling:
“You are my brother,”
then gave me a butterfly
heading for the flame.
Descending in the dark
Tripping on the steps
The world came to me and put its heart in my palm.
It burned my fingers
Like an amber
Wrapped in ash
And blotted with human blood.
A permanent truce
Between man and what came before him.
A permanent truce
Between the wind and the tree.
Put out the fire,
Let the butterfly return to its flower.
From an old folk song
A couple of slaves fell on the roof
Of our house in Baghdad.
They were tied with a rope,
Back to back,
Wearing torn white clothes
I believe they were waiting for a ship, sailed by pirates
I believe they were staring at a horizon of trees.
I believe they were thinking of a distant island.
When I climbed to them and released them from the rope
They lit up in flames in my hands
And turned to ash.
IN THE COURT OF HONOR
In one of my incomplete poems
A sentence challenged another
And slapped it with its glove –
Inviting it to duel
In a the Court of the Honor.
At the end of the fight,
And as happens often,
One of my sentences was dead
And the other bleeding on the page.
I did not want
To get involved in the maze of criminal investigations
Between question and answer,
And so preferring to wash my hands of their blood
I threw away the whole poem.
No one was missing.
Cain was in the kitchen sharpening his knife
And Noah in the living room watching
The weather report on television.
They all arrived in their cars
And disappeared in the long alley
Leading to the party.
Our fair lady danced in the ring
And showed her treasures
Through her transparent dress.
We sat with other guests
And sipped our drinks to the dregs.
At the end of the night,
We gave the blind man his lost cane
And the murderer his bloody hatchet.
It was a party,
Like any other party.
VISION ON A BUS
As I was traveling by bus
Between this life and the hereafter
The angel Gabriel hopped in –
A hat on his head,
Its rim sloping over his forehead –
Wearing a wide coat
And looking like one of the fugitives
On the sidewalks of Bahnhof Zoo.*
He got in without buying a ticket
And sat on the seat beside me
Pretending to look through the window
Like an American tourist.
On the road he poked me in the waist
And began reciting his new holy verses
Into a tape recorder he held in his hand.
His monotonous voice nauseated me
And I rose to escape.
But he caught up with me and threw me back into my seat.
He pressed his gun against my chest
And said threatening:
“Next time, O prophet, I will shoot.
Now recite. Recite in the name of thy God who created thee.”
* A train station in Berlin
Placing my hands in my torn pockets,
Walking down the street,
I saw them watching me suspiciously
From behind the glass panes of stores and cafés.
They walked out quickly and followed me.
I deliberately stopped to light a cigarette
And turned around, like someone giving his back to the wind,
To catch a glimpse of this silent parade:
Thieves, kings, murderers, prophets, poets
Jumped out of everywhere
To walk behind me
And wait for my signal.
I shook my head in surprise
And walked on whistling
The tune of a popular song,
Pretending I was playing a part in a film
And that all I have to do is to walk on forever
To the bitter end.
HOW TO WRITE A MAGICAL POEM
There’s nothing easier than writing a magical poem
If you have strong nerves
And good intentions, at least.
It’s not that difficult, I assure you.
Take a rope and tie it to a cloud
And leave one end of it dangling.
Like a child, climb the rope to the end
Then throw it back to us
And let us try to find you –in vain-
In every poem.
Alone he walks toward the scaffold.
His hands behind him, seven rifles pointed at his back.
He thought of who will weep silently over him.
He dreamt of the sun after he is gone, and the birds and the rivers
And the . . . and the . . .
And he looked at a date palm the wind penetrated and shook.
He saw a cloud: - “Maybe it will rain after my death.”
He noticed a narcissus hiding among the grass behind the fence: -
“A man will pick it and give it to a happy girl
who will leave it behind on a bench when she leaves the park.”
He stretched his eyes to dawn breaking . He was alone.
When he climbed the wooden stairs
A dove sleeping on the scaffold
And flew away.
LIFE WITH RATS
Crouched in darkness,
We ate from a pot placed on newspapers spread on the floor.
Rats jumped to snatch food out of our fingers
Then stood in front of their burrows
Readying for another attack.
On cold nights
They hid between our thighs
Until we saw a giant rat in a forest
Dragging behind him a weeping girl,
Her neck tied with a rope.
In the morning, while we listened to the nightingale chirp in the tree,
We carried barrels of our urine
And dumped them in the ditch in front of the police station.
We came back with breakfast prepared for us by a policeman’s wife
Whom we’d made love to a thousand times in our dreams.
When evening came
They called us one after the other
And hung us from our shoulders to the ceiling fans
Until the rats began to fall
From the folds of our clothes
And howl from the whipping.
After a few years or maybe centuries
I saw the one I left in the darkness of the pit:
He was a young boy again wearing his pajamas as usual.
He lifted his head and stared at me for a long time
Then went quickly on his way.
I think he has forgotten me in the throng of life.
CROSSING THE DESOLATE VALLEY
This desolate valley is crowded with thieves
But I cross it alone.
I am afraid of no one
For I have no gold or silver in my saddle.
This desolate valley stretches before me
Dotted with stones that gleam like mirrors in the sun.
I drag my mules behind me
And sing happily to myself.
I n this valley rain pours down.
There is no cave to shelter me
And I don’t own a tent.
If the flood comes and the levy breaks
Who will save me in his swinging boat?
I go on nonetheless, holding in my fist my heart’s ember.
I set my fire to the world’s wood
And sit with ghosts that dine at my table.
I cross this valley alone
And let the wind blow behind me.
With our feeble arms
Newer and higher embankments
Against the coming floods.
Whenever a ship sank
The carpenters built another.
Memories of the future alone
Kept our hope alive.
Through the centuries
We heard the wailing of the drowned
We always survived.
A STATUE IN A SQUARE
I dream I am a statue
In a square that carries my name,
So I try to look like a general at war
Collecting the burden of his victims
As flowers for his funeral,
And I speak at night about oblivion
To justify the confidence of mankind in me.
I think it would be better to raise my hat and praise
The sun shining down on earth
And let my statue step from its plinth
To join a battalion of angels
Returning from exile
With a cage of nightingales
That they once hunted in a deserted island.
“Release the birds,” says my life.
“Let them flow over the heads of passers-by,
Leaving for you the memories of whole eternity.”
A chimney blows smoke in the wind
Sometimes it blows dreams
Sometimes it blows sadness
Or blows the remains of some men in a room
Telling stories from the past.
The chimney blows a woman’s silence
As she rest in the arms of a man remembering a city in terror
Hunched in the desert
Blowing its memories away.
A chimney blows us day by day
In the night of another sky
Away into the wind.
The poet stood at the podium
And introduced himself:
“My poems are birds!”
The birds floated over our heads and sang:
“We are poems!”
So you could say
That, yesterday in a café, I wrote a bird
And before that I dined on a poem in a lyric pub.
ON A DYING PLANET
The air is foul in the room,
But no one opens the window.
We carry our books in our left hands,
But no one asks us for forgiveness.
The corpse is lying in the cellar,
But no one cries.
We had to discover fire again
Before crossing our valley at night.
We had to pay our outstanding bills
Before giving birth to our happy babies
In laboratory tubes.
We should have consoled our Neanderthal ancestors
Before driving them away
To the mountains.
No hope of returning again
To the forest.
Aliens in a UFO
Are waving to me from behind their glass.
Countless planets and galaxies
Have been always awaiting my arrival
What am I doing here?
In the movie house of my bleeding soul, lying back on my dream – couch, I see myself in a film running daily in eternity.
It is snowing. This is Petersburg, glorious in its rags singing alone in the dark. Carriages with sleepy horses trot past leisurely, and along the sidewalksdrunks are hunting prostitutes.
I am in a tavern, on the table a bottle of vodka. From my corner I see Raskolnikov, a German cap on his head, wrapped in his tattered overcoat, shuffle along, followed by his greedy widows, to pawn his bloody hatchet with me.
Near a bus stop in a public square crowded with tourists Hamlet suddenly appears. He grabs my hand: “I pray thee, poet, write my story anew, I am a man, take me for all in all and let me be happy again.”
Opening his heart, confessing his foolish scruples that croak in his head like a crow in his castle in Denmark: “I am thy father’s spirit; doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,” he asks me to free him from his father’s ghost.
At the gateway of forgotten Ur-zaqura I hear the cry of Enkido, carried by the dead in a boat crossing seas of firebrand and burning water on their way to the underworld. I see Gilgamesh emerge out of a crack in the wall of my cold house like a friend, lost for centuries, now coming back:
“Let us go together! Be my guide!”
So we go deep into the forest looking for the deceiver serpent
that stole his magic plant.
Figures in tales and epics told to the children.
Figures of wars that had been won and others lost.
Figures made of tin to be sold in the brass market.
Figures of straw (all they need is a matchstick).
Figures for decoration in festivals.
Figures to be remembered,
Figures to be forgotten.
Vagabonds, villains, philosophers and kings,
generals, wise men and poets,
all come to me as shadows, escaped from their time-traps
to enter my heart.
They come one by one and knock at my door.
Confused, I open and welcome them.
Oh, damn, how I did myself in this valley of the dead?
Who led these souls to my gloomy house?
Oh, this is not my story, Oh I am not God
to carry the sins of mankind on my shoulders.
But as often happens, I get up, harrowed with fear and wonder,
I grope blindly at the light switch and see myself in the world again.
Outside in the street, I hear the trees
singing for me in the wind.
Thank God!, I say to myself, now I can sleep in peace
and forget this unsuccessful film.
THE SELF-DEFEATING POEM
They will never come, neither from here, nor from there
They will never come, neither from here, nor from
They will never come, neither from here, nor
They will never come, neither from here
They will never come, neither from
They will never come, neither
They will never come
They will never
I CONFESS THAT I HAVE LIVED MY LIFE
I confess that I have lived my life:
I tasted so many things
And forgot thousands more.
I loved women, I forgot to count how many
Cried over me.
I found friends for good times
And friends for bad ones.
I lived among forgotten victims
And learnt with my skin
The whips of executioners in prison cells.
I stood before unjust courts
Accused of blind love.
I wandered from desert to desert
And set up my tent in fairyland.
I let my horse drink from the waters of al-Kawthar.
I slept among thieves on the shores of Tigris
And sometimes lived in the castles of kings.
I travelled to cities, swimming in darkness.
I sat in the sun, and walked through snow,
Changing one land with another,
One pair of shoes with another.
I burned so many bridges behind me
And sailed in seas that could never be crossed.
In a time of drought I sowed seeds
In the valley of rains.
In darkness I lit thousands of candles.
Under the waking moon
I sighed like an old man in love
And wandered between continents.
How many times have I built paper palaces in my dreams?
How many times have I swapped reality for illusion?
I’ve told the truth and I’ve also lied.
I’ve doubted a little and believed a little.
I’ve smoked all brands of cigarettes,
Drunk in bars the best vintage wines
And written the poems of my life.
I’ve laughed so much in this world.
I’ve cried so much in this world.
I’ve passed by like a light in the night.
I’ve been here and I’ve seen,
I’ve stayed and I’ve left.
I confess that I have lived my life.
A NIGHT WITH THE VAMPIRE
In a tavern in Transylvania
- It was evening -
I met a slim man with a top hat
And a black silk gown.
He told me his name was Count Dracula
And had just left his plush coffin
To hunt for young beautiful girls,
Coming back home from discos.
I did not believe him, of course.
He invited me to his cellar
To drink a glass of red wine
In honour of his Irish creator,
When he took off his hat
And grinned at my face
I saw spiders roam in his hair
And his canine teeth drip blood.
I do not know how I escaped him
And with which stick I drove off his wolves,
Which chased me along the streets.
Was it professor Van Helsing
Who hurried to escape me?
Had someone draped garlic lace around my neck?
Or was it the beautiful Lucy who turned into a black bat
And let him follow her to the ruins
Covered in a blanket of fog?
All I remember now is that
When I woke up from sleep
I found that I had spent that horrible night
Laying up curled on the sofa in the living room,
As Dracula was still howling on TV,
burning in the sunlight infiltrating through the window.
Among the trees here and there,
Watching us curiously
While we come and go
Where something burns around us.
Its ash we call
Three Bedouins in a desert,
Carrying sacks strapped to their shoulders,
Walking one after the other
Stooped for eternity
Like defeated soldiers.
Three Bedouins in the desert
Walk on silently,
As the wind blows now and then
And wipes out their traces.
TOO MUCH WATER FLOWED IN THE RIVERS
Watching the waves
I sat at the bank
While jungle fires broke out
Leaving me their ashes.
You know that every boat we boarded
Was sunk by storm
And the waves dragged us
To the end of the Earth.
What should it matter
If we built our new home
Believe me, I will not sadden or regret
To see my hair fall out,
Or see time
Carrying his horrible scythe,
Like a cunning doctor
Who’s come to pull out the last of my molars,
As long as my friends like me as I am
And I can still love with all my heart.
I know I will stay young forever.
Only exile will grow old.
There is something that always happens:
A war can be declared suddenly
A baby born in a cave
A lonely heart broken.
Shall I forget all that?
There is something that always flows:
Water in a river
Wine in a tavern
Tears and blood too.
Can I stop all that?
There is something we always miss:
A sentence we learned by heart
An umbrella forgotten in a bar
A woman with whom we fell passionately in love.
Can I be happy about all of that?
And if nothing happens –
If I do not win a million dollars in the lottery
Or find a treasure in my garden
Or I do not make a trip to the moon,
Should I not be sad then because of that.
EVERYTHING TURNED OUT WELL IN THE END
What are we waiting for?
Every thing turned out well in the end.
The moon went out suddenly
And the lovers headed home,
The wars ended too
And we carried the corpses to the cemetery.
The hands that were stained with blood
We washed in the river.
Clouds darkened the sky,
The wind blew them away.
As we stood at the freezing bus stop
Our last bus passed and sped by in the dark.
There was nothing but to walk back on foot
Along the Milky Way.
Never trust the night at night!
What are you waiting here for?
A thousand years of travel
And no one has reached
We left the doors open
To the windows
And set all the continents
The blind sparrow
Will lead us
To the water’s source.
I WANT TO CHANGE MYSELF
After all my heavy losses
Here and there
After all my ever-bleeding wounds
From the lost wars of my short life
I saw how fragile I was.
I sat and thought about what I should do
To rebuild the ruins of my afflicted soul.
I think I have to change my body parts
One by one,
Some of them, at least –
To earn the happy days to come.
I think I need
A new pump for my heart
To love as many women as I want.
I ´ll need a lung, washed out of tar and nicotine
To smell the streets after rain,
And nerves of steel
To bear the blows of fate,
And new blood, rich with red and white blood
The victims of the coming wars.
A stomach that thankfully digests all I give it,
Sharp teeth to tear the barbarians
Coming down upon us from their snowy mountains,
A wide chest to be kind to treacherous friends,
Long limbs to win the Olympic Games,
And tender lips for burning kisses.
What would it matter if I were bald?
My remaining hairs
The wind will gently comb back.
My liver and spleen
I will leave as they are –
I really must spend as little as possible –
And my head will just have to find its way out of the trouble
The way it has always done.
In short: I have to be alive enough
To still look like myself after all.
FOR EVERYONE HIS OWN TREE
The desert was drifting its sands
In front of me,
And my horse was neighing wearily
In the stable.
Hence, I carried my meagre belongings
And went away to the farthest valley in the future
To sow my seeds.
Never say to the traveller: Come back!
What he has left behind is enough.
The eye lights up with the foam of the sea,
While a cloud veils the moon.
For everyone his own tree.
Someday, it will bear fruit
Of his life.
MEMORY OF SAND
A stone desert stretches into the distance
Flashing back a memory of sand.
Here is a hill lying forlorn –
No one has climbed it before –
Waiting in vain day after day
For a spaceship
That is never likely to come.
No hand has ever touched this rock,
No guide has ever crossed this red horizon,
Coated with the dust of a billion years.
But even something is missing:
Bedouins of the desert slipping into a valley
Gazelles bounding over grasslands
A dinosaur lumbering from its lair
Roaring and snickering
Wise men giving counsel
And sinners weeping at future’s gate.
And even someone is missing here:
Napoleon leading weary soldiers
To Moscow in the snow
Hitler stuffing his ovens with our bodies
And Stalin pulling history by the bridle
To the feeding trough.
There I knew that one day we would stand
And survey the memory
We’d pass to our grandsons
In our funeral photographs.
Memory of the rock alone
Could light the blind man’s way
As he walked forgotten
In the desert.
THE SONG OF THE WAITING SLAVE GIRL
I a cell they closed its door behind me
A slave girl came out of the wall.
She gave me the golden key to her heart
Leaving her hopeless kiss
On my mouth.
Years, long years passed,
Before I opened the closed door again
And came out.
At the door I saw her still standing,
Waiting for me
An old monster has passed here.
There are pagan ruins nomads left behind
On the stone stairway
Leading to the dry well.
Blood on the sand,
And warriors washing their swords
In a spring after the battle.
Many caravans passed through here.
We did not hear even the clatter of their horses
On the roads.
The prey grazes in the grass,
The knife in its holster.
Ah, let the prey graze on.
Leave the knife in its holster.
If you are a wolf, run on now to the forest.
If you are a captive
I will break your chains.
I have crossed this road before.
We have been here forever.
A JOURNEY TO DISTANT PLANETS
We are prisoners of solitude as we travel to more distant planets. On the way with our spaceships our nostalgia is enough to lead us to our lost sons. After a while, we will leave the Earth behind us. The hidden polar dawn follows the redness of the sunset, throwing its shadows over us as we enter its old orbit. And the nights sow darkness within us, ticking like huge clocks on the Equator; there we see the sparrow seesawing throw the storm and hear music playing for drunken dancers behind a closed door: We must not say too much after learning metaphysics in the labyrinth of wandering spirits. Translucent stars hang in the ether, glowing.
Listen, Pushkin, no more white nights here after we lost all we had once won on our journey. Oh, what are you saying? I can’t hear you. What are you saying? Speak up, even if no-one can ever hear you here! You should always look straight ahead to see the aeons passing by. Look, there is a man looking at us from the window, sitting on a chair, listening to the Big Bang, like a prince who calls up ghosts in the open air before casting his line into the river to hunt fish for eternity.
Listen to the water’s roar! The bell will toll soon and life will start over, like all the other times.
I found myself in a masquerade in a garden. The old guard should not have kicked me out as I had my mask on my head. That is the rule: No one is blamed for another’s sin. I sneaked in with the clowns who had painted red circles around their eyes, and wore beaked noses bought from a Japanese store next to ammunitions shop. I stood at the entrance welcoming the guests. Haroon al-Rashid entered on his horse which I took by the reins and led to a feeding stall. Witches came down from the sky on their brooms flogging the wind with their whips. And Cleopatra sang and played her accordion like she always did, while the snake around her neck swirled back and forth as if ready to give her a long kiss. Finally, the barbarians arrived drawing their swords, Hulako and Djengiz Khan too. Fearing for my life, I left the party through an opening in the fence. Tomorrow I will read in the newspaper the details of the whole battle.
At midnight, while it was snowing, I sat in my room, listening on the radio to a folksong about a nightingale that had died in a cage and a princess who had lost her way into the forest. Confused I heard a knock, gentle and low, like a rain drop on the window. Someone at white night was gliding high in front of the fifth floor of the house, whispering with a faint voice that I once heard, but forgot by the turns of life. He pressed his face against the windowpane und called me with my name, “Fadhil, let me come in, it’s freezing cold!” When I opened the window I saw two tiny black joyous eyes smilingly stare at me. Seeing me looking confounded at him, he entered and took me in his arms. He put his hand upon my shoulder and tenderly said: “Hi Fadhil, I am your brother, I came from a very distant planet to visit you.” Then he fluttered his coloured wings like a butterfly, lay himself in my bed and said: “Pardon me, I need to get some sleep, I have spent the whole eternity on the way to you.”
Translations by Khaled Mattawa and Fadhil Al-Azzawi
Fadhil Al-Azzawi (born in 1940 in Kirkuk of north of Iraq) is one of the leading poets and writers in the Arab world. He published thirteen volumes of poetry, seven novels, one volume of short stories, two books of criticism and memoir, and several translations of German and English literary works into Arabic. He edited several newspapers and magazines and founded the poetry magazine Shi’r 69.
Al-Azzawi participated in Iraq's avant-garde Sixties Generation. His early work was critiqued and lauded with great enthusiasm. He is widely read in English and his writing blends the Arabic literary tradition with western modernism and postmodernism.
Al-Azzawi studied English literature at Baghdad University. In 1977 he left Iraq to earn a PhD in the cultural journalism from Leipzig University in Germany.
He founded in 1980 in Beirut (Lebanon) with some other Iraqi writers “The Union Of The Democratic Iraqi Writers In Exile” and took part in Editing of Al-Badeel (The Alternative) magazine.
His works had been translated into many European and eastern languages like English, German, French, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Turkish, Hebrew, Kurdish, Farsi, Chinese, Indonesian and published in literary magazines and anthologies. He is currently a full-time writer living in Berlin.