Attempts on Death

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.

Sample Poems


Thirty years later.
On the road from Amman to Bagdad,
14 September 2003


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
     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
     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.


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
is a mausoleum

The Euphrates
which sprang from Anu’s phallus
flows into the pubic triangle
of the Arabian peninsula


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


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

Baghdad, November 2003

In Baghdad’s National Library

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

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


Of the massacre
all that remains are shoes
a pile of tanned skins

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

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

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


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

the spherical, the abbasid
rotates on herself
masters her trajectory
in her, since Al-Mansour
millions of pilgrims
This Wednesday 13 August 2005
the Tigris had three banks
The third was a place of pilgrimage

for millennia
dried out dates
falling from their bunches
onto an earth
paradise between two rivers

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

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
they nourish once more the walk
where fire and light melt
days and chaos
faces and clay

crossing the river
towards the sanctuary of the imam
that the river
is the imam
who, towards Allah
will guide their steps on the water

Paris, October 2005