Happiness

We present this work in honor of the poet’s 55th birthday.

11-30 Mersal
Iman Mersal
Egyptian
b. 1966

 

I believe the stretcher
whisked by two
as the patient’s coma is interrupted on it.
I doubt the sympathy in the eyes that follow the scene.

I respect the fisherman
because he is the only one who understands the fish.
Then I peel its scales spitefully.

I have no patience to contemplate the sea
while my fingers are stained with the palette’s colors.

At the moment of waking
my spirit is dark.

I do not remember any of last night’s dreams except
the urge for an objective history
of pleasure’s link to pain
darkness to terror,
terror to waking from sleep
to face a dark spirit.

Happiness therefore
lies in steam shovels which alone are worthy of love.
Their tongues precede them
as they neutrally overturn the memory of the earth.

 

Translation by Khaled Mattawa

Dawning

In honor of Revolution Day, we present this work by one of today’s most evocative Egyptian poets.

07-23 Lababidi
Yahia Lababidi
Egyptian
b. 1973

 

There are hours when every thing creaks
when chairs stretch their arms, tables their legs
and closets crack their backs, incautiously

Fed up with the polite fantasy
of having to stay in one place
and stick to their stations

Humans too, at work, or in love
know such aches and growing pains
when inner furnishings defiantly shift

As decisively, and imperceptibly, as a continent
some thing will stretch, croak or come undone
so that everything else must be reconsidered

One restless dawn, unable to suppress the itch
of wanderlust, with a heavy door left ajar
semi-deliberately, and a new light teasing in
Some piece of immobility will finally quit
suddenly nimble on wooden limbs
as fast as a horse, fleeing the stable.

The Man Whose Ola Cart Fell Over

06-05 Kaldas
Pauline Kaldas
Egyptian
b. 1958

 

A man pulls his cart piled with clay olas
maneuvers the knotted traffic
olas for sale to contain cool water
quench the sand starched mouth

Futile to unlock this tongue
I’m lost here
mazed into a pattern of textures and rhythms
snatched by the clutches of the tied bird of prey in the zoo
out of tune with the peacock caged in the pet store
stitched into the canvas of human sweat
to divulge the secret of this magnet that draws us near
a reckless gesture stumbles into the ola cart
scatters clay shards
and continue

That Evening

We present this work in honor of the poet’s 90th birthday.

Salah Abdel Sabour
Egyptian
1931 – 1981

 

You spoke to me
Of winged horse-shoes
Sparking all round,
Flashing, igniting
The golden crescents
Of city minarets;
You spoke to me
Of a bunch of swords hard,
Stuck in a rock so stark,
To be drawn only on a spell:
Namely, the names, the charmed names of
your bunch,
How great, how formidable,
How good, how nice, how sweet – unconquerable!
‘O minstrel’, you ordered, ‘Sing us a song
‘(But keep your eyes down
‘In our presence)
‘Sing us a lay
‘To tickle our pride
‘In the victory of the side,
‘And when the appointed hour comes
‘(An hour unveiled
‘By a cloud dispelled)
‘We’ll drink up the dregs
‘When the devil’s helmet begs
‘To be a goblet bright
‘For the wine of superior knight’.

 

Translation by M.M. Enani

Exodus

Ali Mahmoud Taha
Egyptian
1901 – 1949

 

The street is empty
as a monk’s memory,
and faces explode in the flames
like acorns—
and the dead crowd the horizon
and doorways.
No vein can bleed
more than it already has,
no scream will rise
higher than it’s already risen.
We will not leave!

Everyone outside is waiting
for the trucks and the cars
loaded with honey and hostages.
We will not leave!
The shields of light are breaking apart
before the rout and the siege;
outside, everyone wants us to leave.
But we will not leave!

Ivory white brides
behind their veils
slowly walk in captivity’s glare, waiting,
and everyone outside wants us to leave,
but we will not leave!

The big guns pound the jujube groves,
destroying the dreams of the violets,
extinguishing bread, killing the salt,
unleashing thirst
and parching lips and souls.
And everyone outside is saying:
“What are we waiting for?
Warmth we’re denied,
the air itself has been seized!
Why aren’t we leaving?”
Masks fill the pulpits and brothels,
the places of ablution.
Masks cross-eyed with utter amazement;
they do not believe what is now so clear,
and fall, astonished,
writhing like worms, or tongues.
We will not leave!

Are we in the inside only to leave?
Leaving is just for the masks,
for pulpits and conventions.
Leaving is just
for the siege-that-comes-from-within,
the siege that comes from the Bedouin’s loins,
the siege of the brethren
tarnished by the taste of the blade
and the stink of crows.
We will not leave!

Outside they’re blocking the exits
and offering their blessings to the impostor,
praying, petitioning
Almighty God for our deaths.

The Final Poem

We present this work in honor of the 10th anniversary of the poet’s death.

Andree Chedid
Egyptian
1920 – 2011

 

A forge burns in my heart.
I am redder than dawn,
Deeper than seaweed,
More distant than gulls,
More hollow than wells.
But I only give birth
To seeds and to shells.

My tongue becomes tangled in words:
I no longer speak white,
Nor utter black,
Nor whisper gray of a wind-worn cliff,
Barely do I glimpse a swallow,
A shadow’s brief glimmer,
Or guess at an iris.

Where are the words,
The undying fire,
The final poem?
The source of life?

I’m the Girl Banned from Attending Christian Religion Classes

We present this work in honor of Coptic Christmas Day.

Shaimaa al-Sabbagh
Egyptian
1984 – 2015

I’m the girl banned from attending Christian religion classes, and Sunday mass
Although I am a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus
In Train Station Square at the height of the morning
Even then, all the windows were open and the blood was racing the cars on the asphalt
The eyes of the girls were running in Heaven, catching the forbidden rocking chair.

I am the girl banned from love in the squares
I stood in the middle of the street and gathered in my hand the stars of the sky, individually,
And the sweat of the street vendors
The voices of beggars
And the people who love God as they damn this moment that the creatures of God approved
To crucifying Jesus naked in the crowded square on the clock arms as it declared one at noon
I, the girl banned from saying no, will never miss the dawn

Translation by Maged Zaher

At the Threshold of the Book

We present this work in honor of the 30th anniversary of the poet’s death.

Edmond Jabès
Egyptian
1912 – 1991

“What is going on behind this door?”
“A book is shedding its leaves.”
“What is the story of the book?”
“Becoming aware of a scream.”
“I saw rabbis go in.”
“They are privileged readers. They come in small groups to give us their comments.”
“Have they read the book?”
“They are reading it.”
“Did they happen by for the fun of it?”
“They foresaw the book. They are prepared to encounter it.”
“Do they know the characters?”
“They know our martyrs.”
“Where is the book set?”
“In the book.”
“Who are you?”
“I am the keeper of the house.”
“Where do you come from?”
“I have wandered.”
“Is Yukel your friend?”
“I am like Yukel.”
“What is your lot?”
“To open the book.”
“Are you in the book?”
“My place is at the threshold.”
“What have you tried to learn?”
“I sometimes stop on the road to the sources and question the signs, the world of my ancestors.”
“You examine recaptured words.”
“The nights and mornings of the syllables which are mine, yes.”
“Your mind is wandering.”
“I have been wandering for two thousand years.”
“I have trouble following you.”
“I, too, have often tried to give up.”
“Do we have a tale here?”
“My story has been told so many times.”
“What is your story?”
“Ours, insofar as it is absent.”
“I do not understand.”
“Speaking tortures me.”
“Where are you?”
“In what I say.”
“What is your truth?”
“What lacerates me.”
“And your salvation?”
“Forgetting what I said.”
“May I come in? It is getting dark.”
“In each word there burns a wick.”
“May I come in? It is getting dark around my soul.”
“It is dark around me, too.”
“What can you do for me?”
“Your share of luck is in yourself.”
“Writing for the sake of writing does nothing but show contempt.”
“Man is a written bond and place.”
“I hate what is said in place I have left behind.”
“You trade in the future, which is immediately translated. What you have left is you without you.”
“You oppose me to myself. How could I ever win this fight?”
“Defeat is the price agreed on.”
“You are a Jew, and you talk like one.”
“The four letters JUIF which designate my origin are your four fingers. You can use your thumb to crush me.”
“You are a Jew, and you talk like one. But I am cold. It is dark. Let me come into the house.”
“There is a lamp on my table. And the house is in the book.”
“So I will live in the house after all.”
“You will follow the book, whose every page is an abyss where the wing shines with the name.”

Translation by Rosmarie Waldrop

The Defense Speech

We present this work in honor of the poet’s 90th birthday.

Salah Jahin
Egyptian
1930 – 1986

 

Tonight I dreamed that I was in a horrific situation
Speaking with the words coming out as sobs
Honorable Judges
My defense is simple.
My words are neither deep nor foolish.
Simple
Simple, like the clothes of the helpless barefoot poor
Simple, like a friend’s name on the lips of a friend
Simple, like the tear of an innocent person
Simple, like a hungry beast in the wild,
Simple, like a handful of flour
Honorable Judges, conscience and zeal, O supreme and mighty
My defense is powerful
Powerful, like the cry of a drowning man
Calling for a life boat, calling with the last of his strength, for life
My defense is powerful like an iron hammer
Powerful, like a threatening glare
Powerful, like the statue of a god
Powerful, like the axe of the fireman on the fire doors
Honorable Judges
Honorable, Noble, Great, Grand, Exalted
My defense is supported
Supported by all the great words
By the Torah, the Bible, the Psalms of David,
by the Holy Quran
My defense is supported by the moaning of violins everywhere
by all the rustle of the breeze
by mothers’ lullabies to babies in their cradles
by every “I love you” and “Oh”
by the sound of kisses.
And every true smile
Supports my defense.
And I raise my meek finger
and say my piece
Honorable Judges
Honorable Vultures roving above my corpse
I will say my piece
But before I speak my piece
You tell me
What is my charge