All those theres: Sargon Boulus’s Iraq

4 September 2011: Baghdad via San Francisco, for Youssef Rakha, makes more sense than Baghdad

Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time. Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up. the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.

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In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?

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New Translation of al laji’u yahki

The refugee tells

The refugee absorbed in telling his tale

feels no burning, when the cigarette stings his fingers.

He’s absorbed in the awe of being Here

after all those Theres: the stations, and the ports,

the search parties, the forged papers…

He dangles from the chain of circumstance –

his destiny wound like fibre,

in rings as narrow as

those countries on whose chest

the nightmares have piled up.

The smugglers, the mafias, if you asked me,

might not be as bad as that sky of hungry seagulls

above a damaged ship in Nowhere.

If you asked me I would say:

Eternal waiting in immigration offices,

and faces that do not smile back, no matter how much you smile;

who said it was the dearest gift?

If you asked me, I would say: People, everywhere.

I would say: Everywhere,

stones.

He tells and he tells and he tells,

because he has arrived but does not taste arrival,

and he feels nothing when the cigarette burns his fingers.

Sargon Boulus (1944-2007)

Translated from the Arabic by Youssef Rakha

Listen to Sargon reading by clicking on the little microphone

A REFUGEE TALKING
A refugee absorbed in talking
Did not feel the cigarette burn his fingers

Surprised to be here
After being there – stations, harbours,
Visitations, forged papers

Depending on a chain of details
His future was fibre-like
Laid out in small circles
An oppressive country
Afflicted by nightmares

Smugglers, emigration bandits, if you asked me
Commonplace people maybe, hungry sea-gulls
Over a wrecked ship in the middle of nowhere

If you asked me, I would say:
Endless waiting in immigration bureaus
Faces that do not return smiles whatever you do
Who said: the most precious gift

If you asked me, I would say: Human beings are everywhere.
You would say: Everywhere
Stones

He talks, talks, talks
He had arrived but did not enjoy the taste of arrival
And did not feel the cigarette burn his fingers

© 2007, Sargon Boulus
Publisher: First published on PIW, Rotterdam, 2007
© Translation: 2007, Kees Nijland
Publisher: Poetry International Festival, Rotterdam, 2007

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