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21 January 2016

History is a meeting place

No utopian: the poet Abdulkareem Kasid.

By John Berger

In my hands

From past and future

I’ll grab two stones

And run with them.

Even in the lightest

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breeze I’ll fly,

Summon a wind, to come

And wipe out every trace

And I’ll sit like an orphan

By the roadside, mourning

My two stones.

Recently I began reading the Iraqi poet Abdulkareem Kasid and I go on reading and rereading him. I find his voice deeply impressive and highly relevant to what is happening in the world today. I read him in English, translated from the Arabic by the poet himself, his daughter and a friend.

This cat–

Does it eavesdrop

On my chatter?

He was born in Basra in 1946. Today he lives in London.

His voice, the stories he conjures up, the way he questions, makes me think of the experience of being in a desert. There are spots in the desert where the space between sand and sky seems to be infinite, and there are other spots where there seems to be no space, and land and sky appear to be joined. If one walks through them, however, the touch of the air on one’s upright body is the same in both cases. And the touch of Kasid’s words on one’s imagination is like that.

Poem after poem describes being stranded, but in each poem the reader is touched by the presence of a past and a future.

Today most analyses and commentaries about events – about terrorism, about migration and economic insecurity, start their accounts too recently. The entire world altered fundamentally during the last decade of the 20th century, during the 1990s. It was then that the agencies, the lobbies, the multinational organisations of speculative financial capitalism became the supreme decision-makers concerning the evolution of the globe. Hence globalisation.

The dogma of neoliberalism rendered classical politics obsolete. Parliamentary politicians became powerless; all they could do was talk. The media took over the same empty, vacuous language. Terms such as “Europe”, “international solidarity”, “independence”, have become obsolete and unsubstantial. And the proliferation of acronyms in global reporting reflects this same drift towards unsubstantiality.

What now keeps the world turning is the next immediate acquisition: the next deal and loan for finance, the next purchase for consumers. Any sense of history, linking past and future, has been marginalised if not eliminated.

People are suffering a sense of historic loneliness. The French refer to those who are forced to live in the street as SDF – sans domicile fixe. We are under constant pressure to feel that we may have become the SDF of history. There are no longer any acknowledged occasions for us to receive the dead and the unborn. There is each day’s life, yet what surrounds it is a void. A void in which millions of us
are today alone. And such solitude can transform death into a companion.

Kasid, and the tradition to which he belongs as a poet, are not nostalgic about the past, any more than he is utopian about the future. Kasid frequents history as if it were a meeting place, not to prove any argument – but for company.

A café in the distance –

I see it now as a tree

Its roof made of branches

and leaves

Chairs made of wood.

The people who go there

like to sit down

Lightly, on the branches.

This article appears in the 13 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie