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Prolific Iraqi poet and novelist, Fadhil al-Azzawi is a member of the influential Kirkuk Group of poets and writers, which had an important impact on the development of Iraqi literature and culture in the last three decades of the twentieth century. Azzawi grew up in Kirkuk, but moved to Baghdad to study and later work as a journalist and editor. He became famous in the 1960s for his poetry, which was radical in form and content, and was imprisoned twice for political reasons. He left Iraq in 1977 and has since lived in exile in Berlin.


Azzawi is of Turkmen descent. He was born in 1940 in Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, and grew up there. He later moved to Baghdad, where he studied English at the University of Baghdad. He started composing and publishing poetry at the age of fifteen while still in Kirkuk. His radical politics and daring writings resulted in his arrest and imprisonment for two years between 1963 and 1965. This experience inspired him to write the novel The Fifth Castle (1972). His resistance to the rising totalitarianism of the Ba’th Party in the 1970s intensified the harassment and intimidation against him. Having earned a scholarship to study in East Germany in 1976, Azzawi left Iraq the following year to study journalism at the University of Leipzig, and settled in East Germany (now Germany), where he still lives. He continued his political activities abroad by co-founding an association for Iraqi culture in exile in Beirut and speaking out against the dictatorship in Iraq. The Iraqi authorities pressured the East German government to deport him, and when it did not, refused to renew his Iraqi passport; Azzawi had to travel on a passport issued by the Democratic Republic of Yemen. In East Germany, Azzawi worked in journalism and translation, continued to write poetry and fiction, and finished a doctorate in journalism at the University of Leipzig in 1983. He then moved to East Berlin.


Name: Fadhil al-Azzawi

Birth: 1940, Kirkuk, Iraq

Family: Wife, Salima Salih

Nationality: Iraqi

Education: B.A, University of Baghdad, 1966; Ph.D., University of Leipzig, 1983


  • 1963–65: Imprisoned
  • 1969: Publishes a literary journal, Shi’r 69 (Poetry 69), which is banned after four issues
  • 1969–1976: Editor, later managing editor, Alif Baa weekly
  • 1971: Imprisoned after reciting controversial poem
  • 1972: Publishes novel based on prison experience, The Fifth Castle
  • 1977: Leaves Iraq for East Germany
  • 2003: English-language edition of selected poems, The Miracle Maker , published in United States
  • 2007: Complete poems published in Cairo; The Last of the Angels , a novel, published in English by American University in Cairo Press


Azzawi’s hometown, Kirkuk, left an indelible mark on his genesis as a writer and intellectual. In the 1940s and 1950s, the city was a melting pot of ethnolinguistic diversity. Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Assyrians coexisted in relative peace. The presence of the Iraq Petroleum Company influenced the city’s culture and society through interaction with its English-speaking employees. In addition to Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Assyrian, the local library provided access to English-language books. All of the above, coupled with Azzawi’s interaction with other members of the Kirkuk Group, provided him with a uniquely rich cultural environment. After moving to Baghdad, Azzawi, not unlike other intellectuals of the 1960s generation, immersed himself even further in world literature, especially Anglophone literature. His access to English put him in a favorable position. The global revolutionary spirit of the 1960s inspired him to break radically with all traditions and seek a new space for creativity. It was insufficient, in his view, to break away from meters and rhymes to write a different and modern poem; a genuinely modern poet had to possess a radical worldview and must be independent and free from ideological constraints. This, of course, was antithetical not only to the Ba’thists who believed that cultural production must be at the service of grand political goals, but also to some in the Iraqi Communist Party—a very potent political and social force at the time—who deemed Azzawi’s calls for the intellectual’s total independence from power a dangerous deviation. In 1969 Azzawi founded and published a radical journal, Shi’r 69 (Poetry 69), but it was banned by the authorities after its fourth issue.

In addition to his unique prose poems, Azzawi wrote an “open text” where an unprecedented fusion of genres and blurring of the lines that separate them was achieved. The style, content, and even title ( The Beautiful Creations of Fadhil al-Azzawi ) took the Iraqi and Arab literary scene by surprise.

Along with many other progressive intellectuals, Azzawi was imprisoned after the first Ba’thist coup d’etat of 1963. The two years he spent in prison helped to sharpen his critical sensibilities and insights and provided the material for his important prison novel, The Fifth Castle . After prison, Azzawi returned to finish his college degree in English in 1966 and worked as a journalist and editor on various publications. He was very open and allowed younger writers and poets to publish in the journals and magazines he edited. In 1971 he was detained briefly after reciting a controversial poem. Realizing that the increasing pressure on independent intellectuals would lead to prison or elimination, al-Azzawi decided to leave Iraq and used a scholarship to study in East Germany as a pretext.

Azzawi remained active in exile and continued to work and write. In the 1980s, the SADDAM HUSSEIN regime, aided by massive oil revenue, had succeeded in buying and co-opting large segments of the Arab press and Arabic-language press in Europe. Azzawi and other dissident intellectuals were blacklisted from most Arab publications throughout the years of the Iran-Iraq war (1980–1988) when the West and its Arab allies were backing Hussein’s regime. Azzawi persisted and producted two novels and five collections of poetry, as well as numerous translations from German and English. He also continued to critique the Iraqi regime and its vicious policies and practices in the few journals where such criticism was welcome, especially the London-based al-Naqid .

In addition to poetry, novels, and essays, Azzawi contributed two important works of literary criticism in the 1990s. The first, Deep into the Forest (1994), was a critical study of poetic modernism. Azzawi exposed some of the misreadings and mistranslations of modern Arab poets and critics and provided a more sober narrative of the evolution of the prose poem in the Arab world and its problems and challenges. The second book, The Living Spirit (1997), was a cultural history of the 1960s generation in Iraq; this generation had been maligned and misrepresented inside Iraq, since many of its members were not Ba’thists and had refused to be co-opted by the new regime. Based primarily on his own recollections and impressions, the book celebrated and saluted the rich contributions of that generation and its influence on the Iraqi and Arab scene.


I went to Germany to study and that was one of my goals, but the main one was to write freely. I lived long years of exile, even when I was in Iraq. They were dangerous years, but I do not wish to wax tragic and mope. Therefore I say: The place where I can sit and write and think freely is my homeland. Writing itself is my homeland…. I have refused to return to what resembled a homeland in the past, so how can I return now to a wasteland? I cannot do that. I have no conditions except that Iraq itself is a country once again. What exists now is occupation and warring sectarianisms. It is a total destruction of all the bases. When Iraq is Iraq again, then I will return. I see myself as if in a storm. I plunged into it without thinking of gains or losses. I don’t know where I am or how far I will get, but I know that the adventure alone is worth it all.



The slow accumulation of translated texts and the increased interest in the literature and culture of the Arab-Islamic world has allowed for a better appreciation of the work and contribution of Azzawi. Since the late 1990s, but especially after the publication of his poems and novels in English, Azzawi has been receiving the critical attention he deserves. He has been invited to read his poetry in various international festivals and venues in Tokyo, Paris, London, Cairo, and Beirut, just to name a few. In 2005, he was invited to participate in the P.E.N. festival, World Voices, in New York.


Azzawi’s rich and complex body of work, his impact on the Arabic prose poem, and the inspiration he has been to younger poets and writers will surely sustain his status as one of the pioneers of the genre. His career has been marked by uncompromising independence from ideological constraints and a consistent struggle for social justice and liberty, without ever compromising his aesthetic standards. His epic novels have distilled the complex sociopolitical realities of key epochs in Iraq’s history, together with the rich vernacular culture of the city of Kirkuk.


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