Poems by Chawki Abdelamir
Translated by Alan Dent
Baghdad 2003. The city is in flames, caught between a violent dictatorship and an illegal invasion. For the US it is ‘mission accomplished’. For Iraqis it is the beginning of a nightmare apocalypse in which over half a million people will die. Meanwhile the world’s cameras ‘stuff themselves with dust and human flesh.’
Attempts on Death is an attempt by the Iraqi poet and diplomat Chawki Abdelamir to understand the historic destruction of his country and the breaking of its millennia-old past into fragments. It’s a book about oil and sand, soldiers and civilians, heroes and martyrs, the innocent and the dead. Drawing on Sumerian mythology, Islamic history, Arab poetry and the everyday horror of twenty-first century warfare, Chawki tries to explain how Mesopotamia – the legendary paradise of palm-trees and vineyards, and the birthplace of human civilisation –is reduced to a delirious hell ‘where the dead are dying of thirst and the living of madness’. Grim, despairing and desperate, Attempts on Death is also a rich, sensual and ultimately optimistic book.
Thirty years later. On the road from Amman to Bagdad, 14 September 2003 1 Borders... Black with Iraqi women in a wooden cage between Jordanian barbed wire and Iraqi bared wire, corpses in rubber, prey to vultures, birds of the ruins, zenith, trembling star child, H3 Iraqi mouth breathing the air to the depth of the lungs... the road, sure of itself, believing in salvation, but, at each stop, at each turning, I make it hesitate, doubt. In the distance, windows of lorries, mirrors of the Redskins from westerns, asphalt marked by white lines of melted plastic, huge cardiogram screen of a people being dissected, hills, other hills always blacker, Afghan women’s burkas. An invisible lace ties the sky to their neck. 500 kilometres... 412 kilometres... count backwards as far as Bagdad... steps staggering away vertically as far as the gulf of a pyramid of time. In a lorry, mirthful guards. Their hands, children’s hands gripping soft toys, hold Kalashnikovs by the neck. No bird, not even migratory, no tree, not even thorny. Ghost Iraq. Creatures, images trapped in the entrails of emptiness, I distance myself from... I approach... Two points in me... between them, where am I? In the distance shines Bagdad... giraffe, a hyena tears its throat. The car, fly on a dragon’s chest, troubles the siesta of an asphalt giant. Tents... tents... in this homeland of ends, the Bedouin, crouched on the edge of the infinite, camp on the borders of time and place. Bullets groan in the duration’s chest. A generation of deer, at the moment of agony, emits its last rattle. Army, soldiers, mercenaries, dungeons... days of tinned food, life on the spree... On the heights of the Imaginary, I gather the black fruits of the bramble bushes. Dreams and ghosts are silent clothes which cling to my skin, suddenly wind round me in warmth. New exercise: fleeing the claws of exile, skedaddling from the claws of the homeland. Children in ash collars, with sparks in their eyes, asking recurrent questions, elastic playthings... The living... passing joys and clouds... Iraqi families, dates pressed in palm leaves... In the time of tragedy, the earth’s gravity as far as the absorption of bodies.... I remember... Newton – 1959 – Euphrates, the boys’ primary school. Between the past’s belly and the eviscerated present, Iraq without palm trees is a mother without children. Oh, palm tree, I know everything about your ancient flowering, your millennial childhood, your invisible kingdom. Beneath your feet bursts a civilisation without deluge or apocalypse, the descendants of kings and tyrants devour themselves. Nothing remains but the traces of dried up oceans, fossils and shells, tides of pain, forests of dry reeds exhaling their music, soul wandering in the night. Here, the abstract, sole master, will remain in the Make-believe of the Iraqis. Sole master to turn its back on the peaks of sense. Sole master to spread over everything the ornamentation of its colours and moons. On the horizon: delirium and minarets In the river: orbits and estuaries I push my way through silhouettes: green, yellow, crowned with Sumerian goddesses, and the halos of imams and saints. Above the fields of palm trees, cries scorch the sky’s blue. The prayer of Anu, the Sumerian father, comes back to me, announcing, while he embraced Inana and offered her a cup of plant blood, the spurting of the Euphrates from between her legs. I seize caliph Al-Mansour’s hand, tracing with his compass the arc of the defensive walls and the palace’s barracks, forgetting the portals of an Abbassid night spread wide above thousands of nights, of dawns of jinns. I spy out, in the middle of a territory as arid as a cake of warm bread, a song of yellow reeds. I extinguish, with the flesh of my palms, the fire which burns Tawhidi’s books, the crowns of flames which consume Hallaj’s forehead and Abdullah ibn Muqaffa’s arms. I bury myself, in Baghdad, in the cellars of a tavern. I see Hassan ibn Hani getting ready to extract a soul from the entrails of an old vat of wine. I question Mutanabbi: Where is the land of Iraq? He replies: From Tourban, where we are... There, the offering. 2 The stupor, in the eyes of the living is situated in the vigil kept by an extinct species of birds which took the route to exile and came back, never And death, they say is on the look-out for an antiquated organ which plays without pause The Sumerian lyre and the lady of Warka with the return of the schoolchildren and the piping of little souls torn like lilies which rediscover their shelter The tears flow between the faults formed by the questions which fall like meteors Unearthed by a southern peasant in a royal cemetery in Ur extorted by a western tourist a divine little statue is fear In each body pain is a mausoleum The Euphrates which sprang from Anu’s phallus flows into the pubic triangle of the Arabian peninsula 3 Descent of the children into the sky’s liver Descent of the ivy onto the heights of glances Descent of the palm tree into the raucousness of a flute Descent of the papyrus along our passions Descent of the birds into our chests’ cages Descents of the assassin into the lap of heavens Descent of heaven into the muezzin’s throat Descent of Allah into the throat cutters’ litany Descent of death as far as Allah Descent of the survivors as far as death Descent of the village beyond its viaticum Descent of the area into an informer’s notebook Descent of the sleepless night into the dawn of the disappeared Descent of the river in a shooting ship Descent from the balcony in a shout from the horizon Descent of the ruins Descent... descent 4 Allah Hussein is Iraqi. He lives in Baghdad, on bits of gold extracted from weapons and electronic devices thrown onto tips in the open air. Gold from the cemeteries Gold from queens’ necklaces Gold from taps Gold from minarets Gold from crowns Gold from teeth Gold from the innards of weapons Gold from the innards of mausoleums Gold from scalpels Gold from fingers Gold of life Gold of death Iraqi gold Gold Baghdad, November 2003
In Baghdad’s National Library I read, blind seer between lines of cinders I touch the text’s carbon like a child lightly stroking its father’s head as death approaches A chair from an office skeleton with blackened limbs gripping a still white leaf From the window smashed open by the flames’ arms a dishevelled palm tree rises and recites canticles out loud It sorts the index of lost titles and the major chapters of the fire’s history in Baghdad’s parchment I left In my hand, my pen a match 2 Of the massacre all that remains are shoes a pile of tanned skins Shoes which enter neither mosques nor the ancestors’ living-rooms and stay, as is customary, on the threshold Death prefers naked feet and bodies the worst fabric resists it more than skin and bone Shoes of all shapes of all kinds, all out of fashion for children who generation after generation have inherited them without tongues without laces Shoes Nothing remains of their owners which justifies a burial apart from reddish stains shades of spume not polishing and which can be covered with earth in the simulacrum of an interment Shoes from a distance little pyramids recalling those built by Hulago Khan in this very place, seven centuries earlier same geometry same place same materials In Baghdad the only difference between pyramids of shoes today and pyramids of heads yesterday is a link to the spirit of the time 3 In Abbasid Baghdad a poisoned corpse wrapped in a carpet thrown on a bridge One thousand two hundred and forty-three years after one thousand three hundred corpses drowned, poisoned, crushed thrown on the same bridge a bridge in Baghdad Baghdad the spherical, the abbasid rotates on herself masters her trajectory in her, since Al-Mansour windmills millions of pilgrims This Wednesday 13 August 2005 the Tigris had three banks The third was a place of pilgrimage Iraqis for millennia dried out dates falling from their bunches onto an earth paradise between two rivers Sailors of the first seas thrown up by the sea burying masts and the bones of boats in cemeteries called epic coming back to cultivate the earth, rivers marshes of reeds and of children imploring their new mausoleum the Departure The anticipated Imam his dome haloed with processions of walkers of banners and stars The victorious hero raised on shoulders advances in a coffin Iraqis indifferent to the springs swimming against the current preferring estuaries in death They walk domes and palm trees fraternising with storms and decorating themselves with simoon The path arrives they don’t In the cracked sky unshod they nourish once more the walk where fire and light melt days and chaos faces and clay Iraqis crossing the river towards the sanctuary of the imam unaware that the river is the imam who, towards Allah will guide their steps on the water Paris, October 2005