Fawzi Karim obituary

Other lives: Iraqi poet and painter whose work has been widely translated

My friend Fawzi Karim, who has died aged 73, was a major poet of the Arab world and beyond. His poetry has been widely translated; I met him while working on English versions of his work.

Plague Lands, his first book of poems in English, was published by Carcanet in 2011 and was a Poetry Book Society recommendation: an elegy for the life of a lost city, a chronicle of a journey into exile and an exploration of the history of a civilisation, it drew on his own experience of exile from his native Iraq.

Incomprehensible Lesson (2019), the second Carcanet selection of his work, describes his gradual acclimatisation to his refuge in Greenford, west London, while still possessed by the experiences of the past. The British poet James Kirkup wrote of Fawzi: “Karim is a poet for our times, with his strong yet beautiful voice, his indignation … and the haunting memories of certain lines that seem intended for all of us, but that few can hear in the endless tumult of what is called life.”

Fawzi wrote more than 23 books of poetry and a novel, Who Is Afraid of the Copper City (2016), as well as 15 works of criticism, including The Emperor’s Clothes: On Poetry (2000) and Gods the Companion: On Music (2009). Much of his criticism relates the arts to each other – such as Music and Poetry and Music and Painting (both 2014). He also painted, and works of his graced the covers of his two books in English.

Fawzi was born in Baghdad, one of eight children of Karim Toma al-Tai, a grocer, and Sania Hassan al-Ali. Aged 21, he was the youngest participant in the international poetry conference hosted in Baghdad in 1966. He received his degree in Arabic literature from Baghdad University in 1967, then worked as a teacher and freelance editor.

Alienated by the ideological movements sweeping across Iraq in the 1960s he left, first for Lebanon, in 1969, then returned to Iraq in 1972 before joining his brother Sadiq Toma in Britain in 1978. He worked as an editor and wrote on literature, European classical music and art for journals and newspapers in the Middle East. From the 90s to early 00s he wrote a regular column, The Ivory Tower, focused on the arts, for Asharq al-Awsat and syndicated to a number of Arabic newspapers.

Fawzi would often complain that Arabic poetry suffered from a desire to spell out a message, but in his poetry, meaning is what emerges from the language, rather than a preordained attempt at communication.

He is survived by his wife, Lily Altai, whom he married in 1981, two sons, Sammer and Basil, and two grandchildren, Maya and Layla.

Anthony Howell

The GuardianTramp

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