What happened to artists in Iraq?

What happened to artists in Iraq?

What happened to artists in Iraq?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 26 2003 1:34 PM

Exile's Return

The story of one of Iraq's most important poets.

Like all powerful totalitarian regimes, Saddam Hussein's long reign produced a defiant dissident culture in exile. The fate of numerous Iraqi intellectuals who escaped Baathist censorship and continued to write in diaspora is not as well-known as the activities of various Iraqi opposition groups, though it ought to be.

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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.

By the time Karim left Baghdad, he had become known for his independent thinking and his dislike of Baathist ideology, expressed during hours spent in cafes and bars with fellow poets and writers. He was no longer allowed to publish even innocuous pieces of journalism, such as book reviews, under his own name. His subversive ideas were a variation on one theme: You can either be a poet or a Baathist, but you can't be both. Although he was not the only Iraqi poet with a hatred of ideology, he became the most persistent defender of a poet's need for political freedom, devoting a book of essays to the subject (which has not been published in English).

In 1993, Kanan Makiya, a leading Iraqi dissident intellectual, quoted this poem by Fawzi Karim in his seminal book on Saddam's rule, Cruelty and Silence, as an example of a defiantly personal voice in an era of dehumanization:        

Each sail not counted as yours, oh policeman of the border,
Sailing not in useless search for The Meaning
But fleeing from all those black meanings,
Know that it is mine.

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As Makiya saw it, without individualistic, non-ideological writing such as Karim's, "a morbid hatred of the West and Israel is going to remain the focus of increasingly degraded notions of 'Arabness' or 'Islamic identity.' "

This poem was written in 1979, Karim's first year in London (where he ultimately established himself as a columnist for Al Mutamar, the London-based Iraqi opposition newspaper, and for the international Arab daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat). He had left behind a country in which his very poor neighborhood and family home had been razed by the Baathists to make room for luxurious gardens for Saddam's palaces. In Iraq, his days as a free writer were numbered; most of his friends who had refused to collaborate with the regime and had not emigrated would soon be dead, as a result either of torture or illness. (Karim himself suffered a serious heart attack a few months after arriving in England, when he was in his 30s.)

Karim's poetry is particularly interesting for its unusual combination of free form and classical language. In the 1940s, free verse was introduced into Iraqi poetry, under the influence of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. After more than 2,000 years of following a strict symmetrical meter, Iraqi poets found an entirely new style of writing, which then spread from Iraq throughout the rest of the Arab world. Though Karim writes in free verse, his use of Arabic is uncompromisingly rooted in the linguistic complexity and tradition of the Quran (although his poetry is entirely devoid of religious content). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the burdens of exile and of memory are two of his recurring themes; Karim writes about human tragedy in all its "demasked nakedness" and vulnerability. But these are not abstract ideas: He writes about them, and the death and loss of friends, family, and home, in the context of his life. He also believes in a profound link between poetry and music and sings his poems as he writes them.

For the new generation, Fawzi Karim represents the conscience of the deeply wounded Iraqi culture: a reminder that it was once possible to write without fear, and now will be again. A few years ago, a younger poet who had violently disagreed with Karim about the need to choose between poetry and ideology organized a well-attended public reading in Baghdad, at which he read a poem he dedicated, or rather addressed, to Karim: a personal confession about the mistake he'd made in believing that ideological commitment was compatible with the freedom of being a poet. Although some younger readers find Karim's rich verse difficult to decipher, his moral fearlessness in a time of spiritual and political repression has won him wide readership in Iraq, and his return is eagerly anticipated. (He now plans on dividing his time between Baghdad and London.)

All political movements, including the democratic ones, are couched in intellectual thought, yet the complex role of intellectuals in the birth of totalitarian regimes is a rarely explored theme in modern cultural history, from Stalinist Russia to Nazi Germany. The irony tends to be deep and painful; the regimes usually turn on those whose words and ideas had served as their initial sources of inspiration. (The most poignant example of such a writer is the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, whose writing career began in the 1950s with ideological [Marxist] poetry denouncing the émigré as a traitor, but soon blossomed—at home and in exile—into a major literary oeuvre exploring the themes of memory, exile, and the effect of totalitarianism on the human soul.) Fawzi Karim believes that, as part of the post-Saddam revival of Iraq, Iraqi intellectuals must understand and accept their own culpability. "Saddam did not emerge out of nowhere by accident," he told me. "He was an evil tree planted by ourselves, as intellectuals, in the 1950s, when we began to define our life as a struggle between various, mostly left-wing ideologies. All of us intellectuals contributed to preparing the ground for Saddam Hussein. And we are shocked and don't feel responsible! Yet I think we are responsible."

Saddam Hussein had a fear of the written word, like all dictators, and controlled it as ruthlessly as he controlled human life. But while Iraqi writers were persecuted, Saddam paid lavish monthly salaries to other Arab writers, in many countries, in exchange for celebratory prose and poetry. The lists of these writers have now become available and will be published in Iraq. The position of Iraqi intellectuals in the new political climate will be very different from their counterparts in other Arab countries. Karim says: "We should now learn to treat political ideologies not as secular religion to be subscribed to blindly and used as weapons, but as interesting books; we should study them, and then put them back on the shelf, where they belong. For this, we will need a lot of time, and patience. But I am an Iraqi poet: my time is like water."