Writing the North African Experience


Centre for African Poetry: Let us begin by inviting you to humour our ignorance. The title of your 2011 novel is translated Book of the Sultan’s Seal, but we wonder which of the two names we have seen for it in Arabic is more accurate – khutbat al-kitab, or Kitab at Tughra?

Rakha: Kitab at Tughra is the title. Khutbat al-kitab means, literally, “Address of the book”; it’s a formulaic canonical phrase for “introduction” or “prologue”, which here and in old Arabic books doubles as a kind of table of contents; on the surface the novel is modelled on a medieval historical text. It may be worth mentioning in passing that the original sense of kitab, which is the Arabic word for “book”, means simply “letter” or “epistle”: every canonical book is addressed to a patron or a friend, and that’s an idea that is particularly meaningful to me.

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Imogen Lambert: “They tweeted martyrdom with lattes”

Tower of Babel

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined…

yrakhahipa 6

Photo: @sultans_seal

Night bites my shoulder. I turn to you, through a nylon window
To a state of limbo, there on a map
Under rivers of paper
We never drown, gazing on bridges
Night hugged my waist, like my mother, wailing
Where are our parents?

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Mohab Nasr: The people are sleeping-مهاب نصر: الشعب نائم يا حبيبي

The people are sleeping: Two versions

“The people are asleep,

Don’t wake the people, darling,

So she’d tell him

Whenever he cracked his knuckles on the balcony,

Whenever his eyes shone behind the door

Like a password,

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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.


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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The Heavenly Jeep


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Bruce Andrews: What could be the connection between literature and the digital?

Electronic Poetics by Bruce Andrews

Going electronic. Radical or so-called innovative literary writing faces (& that means faces up to) the facts of life in the digital age. If you have been committed to foregrounding the processes by which language works, to the unsettling & detonation of an established medium — what then? How simpatico is this potential cyberworld as a staging area & as a reading environment? 1 

Raw material: if you use language in its ‘unfinished’ (less thoroughly socialized) state or at a molecular level, the project lends itself to the jammed, disjunctive situations of the screen with its striking dispersions or overlaps. Densities of significance can become visibly spatial, programmatically animated or varying or self-mistranslating.

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Three Girls on Mother’s Day ❀ ثلاث بنات في عيد الأم

2013-02-16 18.57.36

الشخص الثالث
“نملية” مطبخها عامرة بالمسلّمات. لكن هناك دُرجاً أعمق من إحساسها بالصواب، مخصصاً لبذرة الرجل الذي ترى في وجهي كيف خيّب رجاءها قبل أن يموت (لولا ضرورة الخروج من بيت أهلها، لماذا كانت ستحمل بذرة هذا الرجل بالذات؟ ولولا أنه يرى الإنجاب جريمة، هل كانت ستكتفي بطفل واحد؟) في شعلة سخان الغاز-مصانع القوات المسلحة، نفس غيظها من “دش” مؤجل منذ أدركتْ أن هذا الرجل، فتى أحلامها الوحيد الممكن، يراوده الانتحار. وبماذا كانت تحس وأنا أستنشق النهد العبقري لحبيبة تكرهها في الغرفة المجاورة؟ حين تكتشف كم من النقود أنفقتُ في ليلة واحدة، وأكون لازلت نائماً في الرابعة مساءً، تغضب على رَجُلِها قبل أن “تلوشني”. ويظل تشنّج نبرتها حتى يذوب القرف على وجهها في حزن يكبرني بثلاثين عاماً. أتذكر أنها فعلاً أحبته، ولا شيء بعده في البيت أكبر منها سناً. فأسترجع التنهيدة التي ترسلها كل ليلة وهي تُخرج الزبالة، متفننة في حماية الأكياس البلاستك من القطط الجائعة حتى لا يتسخ مدخل الشقة التي لم تكن أبداً برجوازية بما يواكب تطلعاتها. وأسأل نفسي بحيرة: هل يقرّبنا أم يبعدنا الميت الواقف وراء الباب؟

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Fake Painting: An iPhoneography Poem

The Angel (Your picture)


Sleep now, as though you’d never in your life occupied a frame,
As though your hands had never set even this picture in a frame,
As though they had not arranged cuttings that float

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Kali: A Poem


“Oh, the fire of my guts…”

Umar Ibn Al Farid


The Hindus have a goddess who vomits snakes
Who’s wreathed in severed heads (her hair oil:
Brain paste) and lays down mass graves
For fun.
They believe that all that checks her evil
Is waterfalls of blood.

If you approached this goddess,
If you entered her circle,
If you knelt before the sundered limbs,
Hanging at her chin,
You’d see the opening of her mouth beneath her eyes,
two quarries of fire:
A well lined with knives.

And though she is, in origin, a kind goddess,
Tending crops and lovers,
And though this terror is only her angry aspect
(Because the Hindus’ gods, praise God,
Each have more than one
And to each a name)
It’s best you pray to her by this name…

My Lady of Dismemberment and Temptation
I need to be God, if only for a night,
I need to refashion one person in this world
That my existence might stand tall. And when I take possession of that person,
As Night and Famine are thine,
I shan’t make do with standing in a line of believers
Which I saw with my own eyes in Nepal
Most of them poor, without the price of ram or lama,
A sacrifice befitting thy spleen,
(They shall grease thy statues with what their fingers lap
From the sluggish brooks of blood,)
And the offerings they bore did not surpass
A scrawny duck or cat killed by a car,
A monkey, spine broken from an ill-judged leap,
Or a blind rooster seeking feed with his beak.
I shan’t make do with standing in their line
And watching the tiny necks broken between fingers.
I shall be of purity and clarity sufficient
To offer myself to thee true and whole,
Without fear or grief.

My Lady of Dismemberment and Temptation,
For my brain to become a paste to preserve thy hair from split ends,
For my bones to become pikes for thee to tilt at the bodies of innocents
And my heart a bonbon in thy mouth,
I need to be God.

Trans. Qisasukhra.wordpress.com

Indoors: Hipstamatic Tintotypes with a Poem

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For Mohab Nasr

All these years my friend

As though we’re here by mistake

Waiting until the roads clear

To drive unlicensed trucks

And face the border guards

With forced laughter and cash.

We dream of places that were they found

We’d be no good for, my friend,

Forced to mix with the statues

To swap their talk with them

To be jammed in among them

With frozen limbs, looking and not seeing,

Our heads bowed down at home

We excuse ourselves from going to the quarries

That we might try reproducing in secret,

Mourning our endangered line.

All these years plucking up the courage

To declare we are not statues

And then collapse in pieces from their plinths,

Dead with flattened heads,

With eyes bulging out like mother-of-pearl,

With holes in our bones.

How is it, my friend, after all these years

All we can utter is croaking?

Trans. Qisasukhra

An extract from “The Crocodiles”

Extract from The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha



24. Today, I’m convinced we were a room no one managed to enter except three lovers. Of them, it’s Moon who figures in memory or imagination, though the last to reach us: the shade for whose sake we left a door ajar. As if the other two got in by mistake. Is it because we never knew from where she came or where she went after it all came to an end? Was it for the sake of the tomboy traits, which were to lead us to covet one woman above all others in our circle? Moon was the closest to us in age and the only poet. Perhaps for her hyper-insubstantiality and her retention—despite the slightness and small size—of a lion’s charisma, perhaps because she was the most changeable and extreme, the one whose behavior it was impossible to predict from one day to the next, we left a door ajar for Moon.

25. In the evening I think on Moon as reports reach me from afar. Very far, it seems. Each time I’m made aware of the army’s thuggery then the lies of the military leadership and their political-media cheerleaders, each time I become conscious of people’s readiness to credit lies, I’m ever happier with my remoteness. Here I shall be cut off and secure; allowed to remember. It’s truly pleasant to be spending my time tapping away with a clear head while Egypt burns, and I reflect that the problem—perhaps—is that it doesn’t burn enough; that over there are those that talk about the threat the demonstration poses to productivity and the importance of getting the economy going even as young men are abducted and tortured; that people run for parliament on the grounds of their familiarity with Our Lord, while Al Azhar’s men are murdered with live rounds. Because of this, because these events, in spite of everything, are limited, and because their significance is squandered with people’s readiness to believe in lies, I feel the necessity of remembering and am content with my remoteness.

26. In the evening I think on Moon as reports reach me and I’m thankful for the file before me on the computer screen as bit by bit it fills with words. I congratulate myself for creating a folder I named The Crocodiles—for this to be its first file—because, since doing so, I’ve lost the urge to descend to the battlefield of Tahrir Square or Qasr El Ainy Street and I feel no guilt. At times—and this is all there is—I am overwhelmed by grief. A biting light flares in my head, blinding and paralyzing me for minutes each time, and I shake and awake to a severe pain in my stomach. An hour later—not a tear shed—comes a burning desire to weep. I know none of those who’ve been killed personally, and though I’ve often put myself in the place of their family and friends—I know some of their friends—I don’t believe I’m grieving on their account. The pain whose light bites into me is a symptom of something else, a thing I don’t know how to formulate. As though you went to sleep in your comfortable home and woke to find yourself naked in the middle of the road. As though we have nothing else but this.

27. I think on Moon and remember that in 12/2010 or 1/2011, following the outbreak of Tunisia’s protests—even as the Tunisian police were killing people in the streets—one of the loyalists of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali’s government appeared on Al Jazeera asking in a tone of disbelief, “Is the solution to burn the country? Is the solution to burn the country?” Now, a year on from the outbreak of protests in Egypt, I repeat his words with differing sentiments, his voice ringing in my ears as the reports reach me: Is the solution to burn the country?

28. And since I think on Moon… It seems to me, objectively, looking back, that she so engineered her life to obtain the maximum possible quantum of love from the maximum possible number of people, even if the love were—given that Moon was full of it and never made any real effort with anyone, inescapably—superficial and short-lived. We alone, and maybe two or three others, knew her well enough to love or hate her from the heart… But this is a tale for later.

29. In her craving for love bought cheap or at no cost at all, and in being—even her—married and quite ready to love someone other than her husband, Moon was much like the other two; only, it seems to me that she surpassed them in one essential respect. Perhaps she was too clever to take on trust the free and constantly fluctuating affection in our circle. I don’t mean that she stopped striving for it with wholehearted devotion for a single day, but I believe that she, unlike Saba and Nargis, realised it would never benefit her so long as she was not prepared to pay the price. Thus, and following the same logic, it seems she did not convert it directly into an evenly-balanced transaction.

30. Saba gathered people around her by tootling a trumpet the sound of which they admired, then used them on a daily basis, as part of her sense of achievement in life. Nargis reeled them in by depicting herself as a victim of poverty, ugliness and backwardness who had managed to triumph over all these things; she’d acquire them like artworks, piece by piece, then in her time of need brandish them like qualifications and titles in the faces of inquisitors… But Moon did something shrewder, immeasurably so. I don’t know how to describe what it is that Moon did, even after reviewing everything I know of her, but I believe it’s firmly linked to ambivalence. The space for ambivalence with Moon—her vanishing and surfacing, her protean appearance, the importance she attached to secretarial work, greater perhaps even than writing—the space for ambivalence with her was wider than anything else; it was what equipped her to find her ease in a closed room composed of us, myself, Nayf and Paulo, it’s walls constructed from the scrutiny of poetry.

31. Around the time the The Crocodiles were founded, Moon’s poems had begun to make a shy appearance in our circle. We conceded they were considerably better than the other works by women, but for all that, up until 2001 when she became part of our lives without our being conscious of the change, we paid her no mind beyond a passing nod of admiration.

32. “Blood” (one of Moon’s first poems): Today, too,/ the vivid red poppies/ open inside clothes,/ unseen by all but you,/ and louder than the swish of speeding cars outside/ Edith Piaf’s voice/ informing me that this pain’s/ your child I never bore.// Why does the music remind me that they’re not roses,/ that their purpose is to prettify the drug,/ that they seem innocent and are evil?// Every month,/ with a joy greater than can be comprehended by your dissection,/ the deception pleases me/ as I moan until you pity me a pain/ that leaves me weak and craving,/and while you lick my tears, within me vicious laughter detonates/ as I kill another/ of your children.

33. Now, it feels like Moon is fundamental and still present, so much so that I can’t believe she had not yet appeared by the end of Millenium Eve; that at dawn on 1/1/2000—while we were on our way back from the huge official party called “Twelve Dreams of the Sun” held on the Giza Plateau, at dawn on 1/1/2000—life still barely held a thing called Moon.

Translation by qisasukhra.wordpress.com

Nine Poems in English, Illustrated

Out of the blue, which is occasionally a beautiful blue, a reader of Kitab at Tughra gave me an unexpected and very dear gift: nine of my poems in English, beautifully translated. By way of gratitude and to celebrate, I spent the evening making black and white, square format pictures with the poems at the back of my mind – with the intention of producing one picture for each poem. I think of Sargon Boulus as, truly moved, I post these texts with thanks and acknowledgements to qisasukhra


The Angel of Death gives counsel to a bereaved parent


Barely a minute and you tread with dimmed eyes:

Is your patience exhausted in a minute?


There is nothing in all the universe that will show you mercy

Nothing that will halt the saw’s stroke through your bones.

Sit a while

And do not tax me,

Don’t make your misfortune a plea to me

When you know

That I am under orders:

I bear on my shoulders Earth’s lamentations

A thousand times redoubled.

Do not assume that I possess the meaning of anything,

For when blood stains the asphalt

I see a dark blotch, nothing more,

Though I feel all that’s felt by you plus

All those like you.

I’m the one who keeps you company, moment by moment,

Unable to delight in your delight

Because I know your pain entire,

Even in your moments of acutest pleasure.

All I can promise you now

Is that when you look

You shall not find a trace of the dead one in the bed

And as a supplementary service from me,

You shall not find a bed in the room,

Indeed, there’ll be no room there,

And you will stand with nothing before you,

Nothing at all,

And all I ask in return?


That life is nothing but waiting for me,

Me, who grinds hearts utterly,

Not for a single moment spared

The sound of their beat.





For Mohab Nasr

All these years my friend

As though we’re here by mistake

Waiting until the roads clear

To drive unlicensed trucks

And face the border guards

With forced laughter and cash.

We dream of places that were they found

We’d be no good for, my friend,

Forced to mix with the statues

To swap their talk with them

To be jammed in among them

With frozen limbs, looking and not seeing,

Our heads bowed down at home

We excuse ourselves from going to the quarries

That we might try reproducing in secret,

Mourning our endangered line.

All these years plucking up the courage

To declare we are not statues

And then collapse in pieces from their plinths,

Dead with flattened heads,

With eyes bulging out like mother-of-pearl,

With holes in our bones.

How is it, my friend, after all these years

All we can utter is croaking?


The Angel (A god who renounced his faith)


You asked me what I would like to be in your eyes,

I said: God.

For a time I granted you favours and punished you.

Were you fleeing my grief, when you failed to tell me

That you had a cuckold Lord bestowing gifts upon you all the while?

How you could not accept my seal stamped on your brow

When you were so set on veneration?

And did you think creating you was such a little thing?

Son of a bitch,

Why let me plow when you meant to burn the fields?



The Angel (Your picture)


Sleep now, as though you’d never in your life occupied a frame,

As though your hands had never set even this picture in a frame,

As though they had not arranged cuttings that float

In an inch of water which you made a sea.

Not your crooked leg among the runners

Nor your teeth clamped on the shoulder that carries you,

Nor a victim, naturally: You’ve never in your life been a victim.

Sleep, despising those you call “coherent”,

Believing that your feet tread a path you forged.

Don’t for one moment ask about the handful of dust

You are wont to throw in the faces of those that call you to account,

Staggered by the abuse; how vulgar it was.

Forget that your air is not your own, that you breathe

With an army of respirators, that you

Are like the moneymen: every step calculated.

You are a beast in your strength; you’re in demand…

Your contemporaries really are spiteful: you are resplendent with tragedy

A pioneering presence on every screen.

Sleep and hug, like the downy pillow, the certainty

That you’re the genius, alone in a society of retards.

Pay no mind to the frame you put around your picture

Nor that once you thought it ugly. Pay no mind

To the fact your picture was ugly, ugly

Enough—once you’d framed it—to burn.



Coffee on the way back from the airport


When the light blinded us, I said to you: Morning’s taken us by storm

And you were muttering, your eye to the glass.

You said: The day’s come much quicker than I expected.

You said: Here is bad, but there is worse;

No. Here is worse than there.

You said: Although I… Although she… Although all these things…

I’m optimistic, then noticed that your coffee

Was no longer crowned with steam.

You were muttering, like I was a mirror or tape recorder,

Just an old container

That traversed the distance with you

Your eye to the glass, from which the night departed

With sudden harshness.

In the 24-hour café:

Another departure hall? The seats on their heads

Legs in the air and your strained face giving out

The same feel as the empty furniture,

The furniture they flip to wash the floor.

You were exactly like the airport:

You did not want to be up at this hour

Where the chairs are flipped and the officers yawn, disgruntled

As they stamp the passports.

You said: How do places get smaller!

You said: How many stamps and visas in my passport?

How many meaningful journeys?

You said: Perhaps life’s more fun south of the equator.

This is how you were muttering when the light blinded us.

I said to you: Morning’s taken us by surprise it seems

And you said: The day’s come quicker than I expected,

Much quicker than I expected.



A homicide


This heavy lamp with the tapered rim

Like a medieval instrument of torture.

Have you seen it squatting innocently between our beds?

(Thus spoke my friend who is staying with me in the room

Where the sea sounds like cars on the Corniche

And in the weave of the blanket I’m sleeping on

The memory of a lifetime spent between Cairo and Alexandria

On the rails.)

I will wait until sleep overtakes you (he went on)

Then raise it high in the air above your head

(And I tried remembering

Why it was we had to take the last train

After nights of unjustified sleeplessness

So that no sooner did we reach our room

Than each lay down on his bed

And there was nothing in the world to warrant waking.)

I’ll wait until sleep overtakes you (he repeated)

And screaming the scream of a suicide bomber on the brink of the deed

Will relieve my hand of the lamp’s weight, over your head.





For Ahmed Yamaani


A little before dawn I come out of the 24-hour café looking for a newspaper stand where I might find the magazine with my picture in it. I walk a long way through the pitch-dark streets and pass kiosks whose occupants I question, but I don’t find what I want. No one’s with me at the café: I left my laptop open on the table and in my bag hanging from the back of the chair are my house-keys and ID card. Even so, when a white taxi stops for me I get in next to the driver straight away and he drives the car down streets ablaze as if with daylight, though it’s nothing but the orange street lights that have proliferated to a terrifying extent. An hour or more goes by with neither of us speaking, then he stops in a place not pitch-black or ablaze and when I hand him the fare he opens his zipper and takes out his erect black cock. As though I had returned to the 24-hour café, I find myself in the midst of a group of young people, huddled in sixes or sevens around cars from which comes trance music, either talking to one another or standing silent. I feel they’re my friends, or that I’m one of them, but I’m surprised that we’re all males—not a girl or woman among us—and I recall that I haven’t seen a single woman, not in the café, not in the street, not even in my imagination. Then I catch sight of my bag, which has my house-keys and ID in it, on the shoulder of a munaqqaba who’s striding along on the other side of the street and the corner of the laptop’s poking out of the bag’s opening. I try catching up with the munaqqaba but she gets into a white taxi that stops for her and takes off and where I expect to see my picture in the magazine I find a picture of a naked girl who in no time is lying on the café’s table sighing, caressing my forehead, her cunt growing wet, as she says: “Isn’t it awful to be a man in this town?”


The claim


My thinnest girlfriends always complain

Of gaining weight, which confuses me

When I think of fat girls.

But then I remember

That I’ve never suffered from loving my lover,

Except when it provides a good excuse to leave her,

And I reflect that things are less important

Than they seem, if we look at them


Which eases my terror a little.

So I say to myself that the world is really like this:

The thin fear fat,

The fat love food,

Lovers never suffer for the right reasons

And everything does not ride

On everything.


Love (Marriage)


But you did not endure all this only to hear the terrible rap of a door closing and know how much you yearn to hide the thing before you, the awful thing that you don’t want to see. At this point, that which gives the world meaning becomes just part of the world, terror takes its own life and the same story ends or begins.


Poems by Youssef Rakha

Translations by qisasukhra.wordpress.com (The text may vary slightly on qisasukhra, but there is no such thing as a final draft)

God’s Books: Interview with the Vampire


God’s Books: Interview with the Vampire
Mohab Nasr, Ya rabb, a’tina kutuban linaqra’ (Please, God, give us books to read), Cairo: Al Ain, 2012

“Any pretence of having specific reasons to stop writing poetry at one point or to return to it at another will be a fabrication,” says Mohab Nasr (b. 1962). “All I can say for sure is that I was surrounded by friends who used up my energy in conversations, which gave me a sense of reassurance of a certain kind, the extent of whose hazardousness it took a long time to realise.”
Thus the seemingly eternal vicious circle, perhaps even more pronounced outside Cairo, the underground literary centre of operations—in Alexandria, where, after a stint in said centre in the mid-1990s that cost him his government schoolteaching post, Nasr was living again:
To write, you have to have a reader; but, being a serious poet in late 20th-century Egypt, your reader can only be a fellow writer; you might as well just talk with them at the cafe—and, beyond an inevitably skewed sense of personal fulfillment, what on earth in the end could be the point of that?
Prompted by his short-lived marriage to the feminist-Marxist activist, aspiring theorist and Student Movement icon Arwa Saleh (1951-1997), Nasr’s experience of Cairo had been more depressing than instructive. But, like the bite that makes a man immortal, freezes him in the age at which it happened and binds him to a routine of bloodsucking, spending the day in a tomb and surfacing only in the nighttime, the experience marked him; some 14 years later, when unprecedented protests broke out while he lived and worked as a cultural journalist in Kuwait, it would prove obliquely regenerative.
Cairo gave Nasr a direct taste of the wannabe aesthetician’s pretensions and the wannabe autocrat’s mean-spiritedness so rife among Generation of the Seventies activists and writers; it made him aware of the potentially fatal fragility of the Arab Intellectual—a creature as mythical and parasitic as a vampire, and perhaps ultimately as irrelevant to consensual reality, since its emergence in Muhammad Ali Pasha’s times.
It was in 1997 that Nasr’s first book of poems, Ann yassriq ta’irun ‘aynayk (or “For a bird to steal your eyes”), was published in a small edition in Alexandria: the year during which his divorcee, Saleh, finally killed herself.
They had not been in contact for months and he felt no guilt about the incident; he felt he had done all he could to be supportive, and anyway what drove her to suicide as he saw it, the inevitably failed attempt at literally embodying moral-political principles, had nothing to do with him. But the horror of what happened left him unsure not only about moral and political but also emotional and aesthetic issues.
Following the event, he started working on a long and involved text he still refers to as The Fragments, in which—without the arguably necessary theoretical equipment, as he readily admits—he tried to work out the meaning of life in the context of his experience. But, realising the result was too abstract to lead anywhere, he gave up.
The process was to be echoed far more recently—and perhaps also more meaningfully—in the wake of 25 January, 2011, when Nasr began responding to a Facebook comment by an old Muslim Brotherhood-sympathetic coworker who asked, “What if the Brotherhood comes to power?” It was as if the question unplugged a cache of latent energy:
“Instead of writing a few lines to him I found myself reviewing with him the entire history of the concept of the state and the decisive point separating two histories before and after the emergence of modernity and capital. I dealt with the rise of the notion of identity as more of a slogan than a truth; with the way the scaffolding of society had been taken apart; and with the resulting absence of society. It ended up as an incredibly long Facebook ‘note’, and I repeated the experiment with several other topics after that.”
Nasr had himself been a Muslim Brother once, however briefly, as an Arabic student at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Arts (he graduated in 1984); and it was not as if, by the time his Fragments took on such concrete form—for which he thanks the revolution—he had made no discoveries.
“When the writer creates an image to be attached to, they stand directly behind that image and lionise it as a ‘conviction’—a mask: when you remove it the writer goes away with it, vapourises. The real writer places their image at a distance, knowing that any image is a moment out of something fluid, a portion of existence in flux; and when they place it between the covers of a book, they are also placing it between two brackets of doubt…”
As is nearly always the case with poetry, it is next to impossible to say anything about the present book, apart from: “If you know Arabic, read it!” Mohab Nasr defines the poem very tentatively as a text that says something it never actually makes explicit, linking it to the cliche of knowing that someone is lonely when you notice how compulsively they chatter. After a hiatus that lasted over a decade, poems came back to Nasr like a reunion with a long lost friend, once he was out of Egypt. There was a sense of vertigo, he says: he was less confident than simply, shyly joyful; and he would send his texts to a select number of fellow writers to make sure they really were poems. The revolution, which would set off a parallel process of nonfiction writing, made his emotions raw and intense. Finally history was opening its door, he says, even if only monsters and dwarfs came through. It is interesting to note that, unlike much Generation of the Nineties poems to which it is linked, the present book makes absolutely no concessions to sensationalism: besides the fact that—prose as they remain—they are written to be read out loud, Nasr’s poems achieve the Nineties objectives of concentrating on immediate (physical) reality, drawing on day-to-day life and avoiding rhetoric precisely by avoiding direct and formulaic approaches to the New Poem. The language and images are extremely familiar, easy and recognisable; but they are just as extremely hard won.
“The life of an image in a book is the death of that image in reality. It is being free of the image’s limitations, of the illusion that an image however satisfying actually represents life.”
Thus the seemingly eternal life cycle of genuine or meaningful (literary) discourse, as opposed to the discourse of the Poet (the Arab Intellectual) who, precisely by placing himself above and beyond, manages effortlessly to be nonexistent as well—the echo of an echo of a lie:
To write, you have to have been a reader; you read what books life throws at you, but you also read the books of life itself—the people, the places, the things, the relations—as honestly, as sceptically, as unpretentiously as you can; then, when you tell someone else about what you have read, you contribute to an exchange that will somehow at some time actually shape a collective consciousness, a social state of being, life.
By 1999 Mohab Nasr will have met his present wife, the young short-story writer and fellow Arabic teacher Jehan Abdel-Azeez, with whom he settled down in Kuwait in 2007, three years after they were married. By then there had been a year of employment in Libya, and a difficult year of unemployment.
Kuwait seemed to open up a new space through both the slave-driven routine of having to produce a newspaper page every day and distance from Egyptian intellectual life, where the problem has less to do with a scene that puts pressure on or unsettles you than it does with one in which “the battle is lost from the beginning, even with yourself, because it is completely spurious”; he had felt he could only respond to that scene by letting it choke on its own lies.
“In the same way as writing in itself creates delusions, so too do opinions laid down easily during informal gatherings among writers,” he says in response to my questions, typing into his laptop in a seaside cafe back in Alexandria, a city he now visits only for holidays:
“They create delusions of belonging to a common, mutually comprehensible language… There is an extremely subtle difference between the writer creating images of consciousness as an interactive and critical medium and the writer creating those images with the intention of being attached to them as a person, of using them as a shield against society,” a tool for upward mobility, a sense of individual distinction, a lucrative link with the—political—powers that be, “not a way of relating to human beings at large.”
Prompted by this belief in a common ground, a multiparty dialogue, a welfare that eschews elitism without being populist, with Nasser Farghali, Hemeida Abdalla and the late Abdel-Azim Nagui, Nasr founded a literary group, Al Arbi’a’iyoun (or the Wednesdayers)—three issues of their eponymous journal were published in the early 1990s—and was later among the founders of the much longer-lived and by now well-known non-fiction journal, Amkenah, edited by Alaa Khalid.
In both cases his tendency towards excessive abstraction seems to have got in the way of a greater or longer-lived contribution on his part, but it was the increasingly dog-eat-dog conditions of life that drove people away from each other and dissipated the collective momentum (Amkenah charges ahead thanks to Khalid’s individual dedication).
Nasr’s nonfiction, an open-ended form of critique that can be seen as both amateur sociology-philosophy and political commentary-journalism, reveals a moralist eager to transcend morality, an aesthete well aware of the absurdity of art for art’s sake and an aspiring scholar with neither the patience nor the dispassion for scholarship; it reveals, in short, exactly the kind of man of letters whose scarcity has robbed the scene of vitality for decades, reducing the Role of the Intellectual to yet another empty slogan.
“I always suffered from this idea of abstraction as a writer, and even though I still believe in abstraction I feel it is necessary for live examples of the abstract concepts to be always present. This is what the revolution has done, or let’s call it the dissolution that facilitated such unprecedented human boiling over: the essential questions—even if they are extreme or naive or fallacious—have risen to the surface, come out (if temporarily), broken free of the hegemony of a cultural sphere that is dead and in shameful conspiracy with itself.”

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha


Please, God, give us books to read
by Mohab Nasr

I was a teacher;
I considered that natural.
For this reason I began to bow
to words I did not say;
and to communicate my respects to my children.
I tried to make them understand that it was absolutely necessary
for someone to read,
to review with his parents—
while he hurls his shoe under the bed—
how exhausting and beautiful respect is:
that they have no future without words.
You yourself, Dad,
are bowed over the newspaper
as if a cloud is passing over you;
and when I call out to you,
I see your temple
stamped with melancholy,
as if it was raining specifically for your sake.
Read, Dad,
and call my mother too to read.
Let the cloud pass over all of us.
Please, God,
give us books to read:
books that smell of glue,
their pages like knives;
that cough out dust in our faces
so that we realise our life is a cemetery;
whose covers bear a dedication from the respected author
to the retired bureau director;
cleanshaven in preparation for being slapped
and others that howl
in the margins
at people who, like us, loved
and, like us, became teachers;
books in the form of Aloha shirts
at the Reading Festival;
books on whose giant trunks we can urinate
to unburden ourselves as we go on walking.

Aw, aw…
because we too are books, God,
flailing blind in our bed of love—
aw, aw—
because we are squeezed in on Your bookshelf
looking on Your miracles:
angels on the wall,
losing gamblers tearing up their bonds;
the despair of hands that strike
and hands that sleep, hurt, on the same pages.
Aw, aw…
Then someone screams: What goes on there?

The desks of the bosses arranged in the form of the Complete Works,
snakes and bears,
crosses and wall magazines,
disgust and rotting bread,
the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?

Lost with ideas on wheels,
lost at home
and on the streets,
unseen to You or ourselves,
alone before our bosses
who are also alone,
alone with the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?

Translation © Youssef Rakha


Banipal Interview with SARGON BOULUS

Interview by Margaret Obank*


Sargon Boulus has the rare experience of being an Iraqi poet who has been part of the American poetry since the late sixties. Today he is passing this on to the new generation of young Arab poets through his poetry.
He is one of the most important Arab poets today. He started publishing poetry and short stories contributing to Shi’r magazine of Yousef Al-Khal and Adonis in Beirut. When he went to the US, he was ‘lost’ the Arab world until he re-emerged in the mid-80s with his Arrival in Where-City collection of poems.
His poems and translations have appeared in numerous Arab magazines and newspapers, and he published four collections of poetry. Now in his early fifties, Sargon seems still to have all the energy and vibrant imagination of his youthful days in Iraq and Beirut.
Besides writing poems and short stories, Sargon is well known as an accomplished translator into English and American poets such as Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden (he is soon to publish a complete an his translations of Auden together with extensive notes and an introduction on Auden’s life), W. S Shakespeare, Shelley, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Robert Duncan, John Robert Bly, Anne Sexton, John Logan, and many other poets including Rilke, Neruda, Vasko Popa and Ho Chi Min.
Since the mid-80s, he has been on the move between San Francisco, Paris, London and Cologne a last year has lived in Schoppingen artists’ village in Germany, where I visited him last September. We spent a day under the Sh?ppingen sky, eating, drinking and talking about his life, his childhood, his views on poetic form and his endless experiments with the Arabic language.
I keep going back and forth into the past. The discovery which comes usually late is that most of the material that has made you and still works on you, even today, lies somewhere there, mostly in childhood, so that, in a way, I think that whatever happened to you in childhood, your circumstances, the place you lived in, the time, the happenings, these shape you up, especially if you are a poet, if you are a writer, and later on you would come back to this material and discover that that is your real capital. So I keep going, as I said, in these late poems back into that time, to shape them up anew, see them in a new way, kind of bracket in the perspective, tighten it and bring out the deepest possible meaning in those scenes and happenings and family background.

English lakes and lawns
Well, I was born in this small town of Al-Habbaniya. It was all water- an artificial lake built by the English I think – and I was born very close to the water. I think water is an important symbol to me even today and so I use it a lot. One of my first memories: I was sitting with my mother close to the water, where we had this kind of shack, small house, on the lake and we were just watching for hours and listening to the water, and a sunset which still lingers in my mind, even the light, the shape of it, the form and the hues.
It is these small subtle details that can drive you along the path of your life, the rest of your life. Al-Habbaniya was a small town and most of the Assyrians happened to live there because they were brought thereby the English. This is really important history for me because somehow I am involved with it, my bringing up and all that. In the twenties, I think, after the Assyrians were massacred in the north and the English took them over and put them under their protection, they moved from Henadi, which was a British air base, and brought to Al-Habbaniya, which became a military camp, a famous camp.
My father used to work for the English and one of my first and very cherished memories is when as a kid my father used to take me to the place of his work, which was a camp where only the English lived with the Iraqi workers. We used to see these English ladies in summertime among their flowers and lawns, a totally different women from the women that I knew like my mother, my sisters and the other women in my, family. Here was another type of image of humanity, let’s say, and I was like sneaking a view through the trees, from far away into these gardens. For me, I think now, that’s a vision of paradise, paradise meaning something very flowery, full of color. I’ve even written about this somewhere, some lines in a poem. Of course I wasn’t aware at the time that they were occupying the country, I was too young.

My small treasure
So the making for me is very important, going back through memory, back into those details which never exist anywhere in anybody’s head except mine. And that’s what I count my small treasure, beautiful details of the world. I guess they shape up your taste in life things we are talking about, they make you who you are and as a poet, of course, they are very precious because what are you going to write in poetry unless it’s about the deepest things, unless it’s about delving into the far recesses of memory, and through that making a vision of the world in every way.After childhood, we left Al-Habbaniya and moved to Kirkuk, a city in the north, totally different, with almost no water.
There is a river, Al-Qa’em, which has no water nine months of the year and suddenly floods the rest of the year. My latest book, being published in German and Arabic, is called (Witnesses on the Shore -Shehood Ala Al-Dhifaf) and is based on a poem about the flood of a river which is dead most of the time and suddenly it flares up and drowns the whole town. So from Al-Habbaniya, to Kirkuk, a city that was dry and rocky with totally different people: mostly Turkomans, Turkish Mongolian people who have been there for thousands of years, and lived mostly in a very high stone castle. It has left such an impression on me, it’s like history is right there facing you every day.

I wrote so furiously
I started writing when I was 12: I published my first poem when I was 13 or 14 and since then I haven’t stopped. It just grabbed me, this magic of words, of music. In the beginning I wrote so furiously; I have some notebooks from that time and I have noticed from the dates that on one day, for instance, I would write 5 or 6 poems, of course, short, violent ones, but 5 or 6 and that is a lot. So it was some kind of thing to do with destiny.
Yes, I believe in that -in a poet’s case it is always true; that that magic, once it strikes you, you can never live without it. You always go back to that source to find out – how did this happen? Why did this thing happen to me? Why was I chosen, in fact, to see the world in this way, through words?
My parents never went to school; all they knew was that I was scribbling all night, alone in my room on this paper, and my mother used to pity me and tell me as a young kid: “Why don’t you go and play? Why don’t you go to the movies? Why don’t you enjoy your youth? Your eyes will be ruined!” Of course, I could never explain to her and she would never have understood. And even today, imagine at this age, whenever I write a poem I go back to that feeling. I try to capture it.

Spirit and words
It’s like a magical drug of spirit and words. The Arabic language really has that magic and once it reveals itself to you you are trapped. That’s why in Arabic they say “Adracat,hu hirfatu al-adab”, meaning “the profession of words has struck, he’s cursed”. At the same time I consider it a blessing as well as a curse, beaus today, if you ask me, I would say I want to do exactly as I have done. I want it all over again. I think that in poetry I have found something besides just pain and just nibbling at the bones of history.
Arab history, Assyrian history, Armenian history, all the peoples, all their languages poured into the Arabic language. The Arabic language is probably 70 per cent Syriac, Aramaic, even Sanskrit, and other languages, so there is no pure language in this sense. It happened to be the strongest so it pulled around itself, like a magnet, all the dying languages that had seen their day centuries ago. It was a powerful language that absorbed other languages.
Even today I can tell you many words in which you will hear echoes of Assyrian, Hebrew, and much Syriac and Chaldean. You know, the Chaldeans had a tremendous civilisation after taking over Babylon from the Assyrians, their language was all over the Middle East.
So, when I write my poetry in Arabic, I tell you this – and if s a secret between me and myself – some- times I feel that I am really writing in all these languages, because I believe, finally, that any language contains all the dead memories of the races who contributed to it. When I am doing that I am delving in this great river. Like the great dictionary, Lisan Al-Arab (The Arab Tongue), it’s so huge, it’s more than 20 volumes, but most of it is dead because it is not used.
However, the portion of the Arabic language that’s used today is incredibly alive; it is craving new developments, new versions of the reality which is changing all around it. So in a way we are using like five per cent of the dictionary because all those beautiful words, which are beautiful, lost their use, they were invented for another age.

Linguistic fundamentalists
This brings us to something very important, even political and that is – writing is politics and in Arabic especially and specifically with the Arabic language. This battle over the Arabic language itself, it is a very sensitive thing, like no other Language I know of because the Koran happens to be the source of the ultimate eloquence. Of course it’s not the source, because before it there was the language – fantastic and great – in the jahili times, but it’s political in this sense, let’s say, not only the religious fundamentalists but the linguistic fundamentalists, too, are afraid of change. And that is what is happening now. For instance, it happens only in the Arab world – the fight, the real war, about the forms of poetry.

The prose poem
In fact, till now, the prose poem is not accepted. They call it a prose poem. Why? Because the Koran Suras are supposed to be written in the form of prose poems, so in a subconscious way these linguistic fundamentalists are feeling threatened by it and so we are looking at half a century whereby the prose poem is still considered like a kind of weird foreign body that’s forced itself into the Arabic language, although this form has proved itself finally. That’s one of the battles that a poet who writes in Arabic has to be involved in.
I’ll tell you, this is really crucial for anyone to understand when we talk about Arab poetry. There are three forms, three movements, starting with the great classic poetry which extends from before Islam, from the jahilis, from Imr al Quais and the great ancient poets and then it extends even to the present – in fact the last great poet who wrote in that form died recently, Al-Jowahiri, and with him this thing is now totally buried and gone – there is no such thing we could compare it with in literature. A classic Arab poem is one which goes on for 50 to 1,000 lines and it has to maintain one strict rhyme, and there is no other thing like it in any other literature.
In the late 40s, a man called Badr Shaker Al-Sayab in Iraq came and tried something similar. He was influenced by English poetry, and mostly the romantics, by John Keats specifically, Shelley and, of course, Byron and Wordsworth and finally Edth Sitwell, his main influence. This means not free verse, not blank verse, rhymed verse, but rhymed in variations, not just in one strict rhyme, three or four lines in the same tone maintaining the old metrics of the classic poetry. What happened was a revolution, an absolute revolution. Two thousand years of Arabic poetry was turned upside down. Many still kept writing, like jowahiri, but it was finished, it was gone. At the same time, in America, the immigrant Arab poets like Gibran Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Al-Rehani and the rest, who were influenced by Walt Whitman and the American free verse movement, wrote what we would call the prose poem, meaning no metrics, just a prose piece, blank verse, and so that one was attacked too – it was considered just prose.
Then a magazine called Shi’r (Poetry) came out in the late fifties established by Yousef Al-Khal and Adonis in Beirut which carried this whole thing forward – a real giant step. Now, these were people who had read the western canon, Adonis in French and Yousff Al-Khal in English. Compared to their contemporaries they were far advanced in their look toward poetry, towards Modernism, towards revolutionising poetry. Today, when you study Arabic poetry, Shi’r magazine stands at the heart of the matter.
When I was in Kirkuk in 1961 I sent poems to Yousef Al-Khal, 16 poems, which were published, opening the magazine, and I was hailed in Al Nahar newspaper as a new discovery, a young poet – which was true, I was very young. And so Yousef Al-Khal and me started a correspondence and that is the start of my relationship with the magazine.

Sound and images
In fact, that decided my fate – the strong relationship I had with Beirut, where I could publish things I could never dream of publishing in Iraq, which was strict and still did not accept the new poetry. You know, in Iraq there is a complete establishment of defenders of classic poetry, and I was a real revolutionary at that time. I wrote in metrics but in such a strange way – beyond Al-Sayab, beyond what was written then, no rhyme, just strict, almost Surrealistic sound and images but truly furious the poems are still there.
Well, I have never stopped, I published a lot in Shi,r magazine because as I say, Yousef Al-Khal and Adonis encouraged me so much to a point where I’m dedicating the book I am working on right now (which is poems collected from the seventies to eighties) to them both. In a way, these people decided my fate. When I had this connection with the magazine I kept dreaming and, of course Beirut was there, behind the whole scene, behind the words. Beirut was for us a dream, a golden capital, especially in the sixties – it’s history now, after the war, after the ruins.
Now I used to know jabra Ibrahim jabra in Baghdad, who worked for IPC, the Iraqi Petroleum Company, and who edited a company magazine, a nice literary magazine. I published poems in it because they paid and because Jabra was such a nice man. He had of course studied at Oxford and Cambridge and I loved to go there just to talk to him.
By then, I was reading like a madman – I had discovered the whole English language: my brother used to speak English and had a nice small library at home and my father of course spoke a little English because he worked for the English in the same way most Assyrians, I think, had some connections to it.
Reading like that is what decided my views on literature and poetry.
Me and a friend of mine, Jan Dammo, a beautiful poet, found some English anthologies of poetry sold very cheaply on the streets of Baghdad. So we both started discovering the poets and what I didn’t completely understand, I imagined, and so my imagination was being sharpened. When you are very young, your imagination is so alive, anything like that could fire it like in a crucible. I think that is the most important thing in a poet’s life.

‘Your place is in Beirut’
One day Yousif Al-khal came to Baghdad and jabra Ibrahim jabra called me to say: -Yousif Al-Khal is coming tomorrow and he wants to see you.’ Well, I go to his house and meet the man who for me was truly not only an idol but an example of the true poet who went to the West and came back and established a magazine. He was a truly big name, a magical name with a great aura. He told me: “Your place is in Beirut. Come to Beirut. You are one of us.’ And after two months I was in Beirut.
How I got to Beirut is a very long and interesting story. In ’67 1 was 22 or 23, the perfect age for adventure, for cutting north, because you are afraid of nothing. No money! Nothing! You have to go! At the time, jabra (poor guy, mercy on his soul), thought like anybody else, I was going by airplane, with a ticket and passport. He had no idea I had no ticket. In fact I had no money. I sold a few books and made about 44 dinars. And no passport of course! No-one would give me a passport!

Crossing the desert
Jabra gave me the manuscript of King Lear (his translation of it) to give to Yousef Al-khal to be published – which I took for two months across desert. I crossed the desert to Hassaca and then to Homs and then to Damascus – and then to Beirut and that’s a tremendous adventure in my life. I’m still writing about it. It’s a very symbolic thing in the life of all the prophets and poets – what they call the dark night of the soul. Well, the desert you cross is like another world! Truly it was like that and I was living a vision.
When I walked into Dar Al-Nahar publishing house in Beirut with the manuscript of King Lear in my hands, and saw Yousef Al-Khal sitting at his desk, it was like yesterday. He said: ‘I told you!” He looked like he was expecting me, it was incredible.
I had crossed the desert on foot, with no suitcase, nothing, only a small bag with the manuscript of King Lear and some of my poems in a notebook I still have with me here today. This notebook is still the source of magic to me. It contains the poems I wrote when I was young, most of them not published. It has “Baghdad 1961″ written on the cover which is leather and indestructible and I carry it everywhere with me it’s like my magic icon. When I need a poem, when I’m dry, I just open that book and look at the paper and the lines, and it gives me the vision of that source.
My days in Beirut were divided between Yousif Al Khal, the newspaper where Adonis worked, and Horseshoe, that fantastic café in Beirut (which still exists!), where on evening you’d have everybody there, even international figures like Samuel Beckett. I worked with Al Nahar newspaper, and with Yousif Al-Khal on Shi’r magazine until I left in 1969 for America. Yousif Al Khal especially, was thus involved in shaping my destiny.
Beirut at that time was at the peak of its golden time, that was the golden age of the Arabs, and there is really nothing like it now, no way. was an open city and its beauty, it beaches like Long Beach, enthralled us. We used to go there, Adonis Yousef Al Khal and I, with many other people. It was a gorgeous place where bikinis were worn like on the Riviera.
I lived there with my aunt, my father’s sister. But most of the time were so wild, there were so many writers and poets we’d never get home.

Leaving Beirut …
But Beirut became too small for me. I had incredible dreams. After all I had come to Beirut with the idea of going to America – America was always in my mind, and the West. In the beginning, I started reading book by Sherwood Anderson called Weinsberg, Ohio, it’s a classic of American fiction. And then of course, Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, with their fantastic, fabulous worlds that I could imagine.
Whatever I read I imagine -it becomes absolutely visual. It becomes real!I even live it!
It is this dimension of my imagination has pulled me all my life. In fact, I’m here at this moment talking to you in Germany because of that. I do believe so! You see, I read and Rilke and H?lderlin, and these great German poets and I always wanted to know Germany, to live there. And here we are, although I had to go to America first and it took me a while to fix things.
However, before I could leave Beirut, they got me in jail in because I had no papers. One day I went to Shi’r magazine and Yousif Al Khal said: “What is this?” There are secret police looking for you. “What have you done?” But I never told him the story. I never told him that I had crossed the borders without papers. In fact, I started sleeping on the Rocha, the place where lovers jump from, like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and in friends’ apartments.
One day, when I was really sick of it all, I went to the police station. They put the handcuffs on me and told me: “We were looking for you!” I stayed in jail for a few days – it was full of Palestinians at the time as the Palestinian resistance movement was just starting and they were being caught at the borders. We became friends, we were about 300 in one room and they were all telling me their stories.
Out of jail to New York!br> Ghada Al-Saman, who was a very powerful writer at the time, knew the Lebanese president, and through him she brought the captain of the jail in his pyjamas one midnight to release me, but there was one condition -I had to leave Lebanon, and either go back to Iraq or somewhere else. ‘Somewhere else!” I said.
Yousif Al Khal helped me a lot. We went to the American Embassy and he told them about this young man who had translated two anthologies of American poetry in Shi’r magazine and introduced the beat generation of poets to Arab readers. He told the American Ambassador: ‘All you have to do is talk to this young man, just talk to him!”

American literature
So the Ambassador asked me about American literature. I started with Walt Whitman, and then came to the new names which the Ambassador had never heard of and probably will never hear of, and he said: “Enough! You got it.” So they gave me a paper, although I still had no passport.
That is how I got to New York. I borrowed $50 or $60 and went to New York without knowing anybody, no money, nothing, alone. Imagine that! I cannot believe even now, how I survived, nor how I got to San Francisco, which was my final destination because I had read and written about San Francisco before even seeing it.When I wrote about the Beat Generation in Shi’r, the introduction had to be about North Beach, San Francisco. When I finally got there, I discovered that all I had said was true, the way I had imagined it! And the hippies and the beats – well, I immediately joined, long hair, beads, the whole thing!
When Yousf Al Khal heard about me he said: ‘Sargon now is finished, lost completely, he’ll never come back.” His idea was that I would go to America and get educated, get a few PhDs or something and come back.
Etel Adnan helped me get from New York to San Francisco. I had met her one day at Shi’r magazine -this small sweet lady. She used to send her works to Yousff Al-Khal and I translated them. All her works published in Shi’r are translated by me, although most of the time I didn’t put my name. She said: ‘Sargon, if you come to America, please come and see this beautiful town, San Raphael, where I live.”
She sent me a ticket, and welcomed me at night with another lady and it was beautiful because Etel was a hippy. She thought she was Indian, in fact she is half Syrian, but she acted and thought like she was an Indian.
The first few days when I was there we sat in a famous cafe which is still there, called Buena Vista, it’s right on the bay and from it you can see Alcatraz jail, the famous prison. We were with some American Indians who were having a revolution there and trying to take over Alcatraz.
Anyway, I joined the Indians with Etel Adnan. They were a dream for me. We had only seen them in movies when John Wayne used to kill a few thousands – I think in one go! On the screen the white cowboys shot them like flies, so we always felt pity for them. For me they were fabulous people, and here they were for real, in San Francisco, with feathers and blankets and beads.

I was an Indian
I was fascinated and made friends with many of them. The Indians were in real poor shape, they still are, they had some kind of vulnerability to alcohol of which the whites took full advantage, and many, men and women, were alcoholics. But I don’t blame them, do you, when you have your whole land taken away, the white man is taking over your land and he doesn’t want to give it back – they don’t want to give them that tiny rock. They beat the hell out of them and chased them out. Sure, at that time I was an Indian and felt like one.
San Francisco is the center of creativity in America, the center of America. There is East Coast, New York, the publishing world, the business of literature and there is the West Coast, which is San Francisco and that is where all the new movements emerge from, always, even today, so there was the so-called San Francisco Renaissance, a tremendous movement with Kenneth Rexroth, whom I met, as master of ceremonies. Through him all the great poets of the beat generation came out, like Gary Snyder, and then Ginsberg, Kerouac, then Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I knew his daughter Mary, who became an exotic belly-dancer and was the girlfriend of a friend of mine, Gary Gach, a poet who still lives in San Francisco.
We used to go and see Kenneth Rexroth, but that’s on one condition that you don’t say a word, he’s the one who talks! He was such a genius, such a man of knowledge. He’s an encyclopaedia. In fact he’s famous for reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica from cover to cover every two years – he’s an incredible man. San Francisco is the place of awareness because writers there are the most open. They are not like the New Yorker writer and poet, the sophisticated Europeanised type. No, they are cosmopolitan. San Francisco is the city that is actually made up of all the cities in the world: You have Paris, you have London, you have Rome, and you have Berlin, in this city you have China. It is international and culture is absolutely open. I think for an artist, especially a poet, that is the city. I mean, I spent a quarter of a century, more, in San Francisco, never getting bored one minute – the readings, the fantastic trips, especially in the seventies and the eighties. It was the time for me, that is the thing that I treasure, the adventures, the open spirit, and then Berkeley, which in the late sixties was THE place for revolution, for stopping the war in Vietnam.
The first night I arrived in Berkeley, I saw a procession of students with candles singing against the war, to stop the war in Vietnam and what they were reading but the poems of Ho Chi Min, which I had just translated into Arabic and published in Dar Al-Nahar in Beirut. Prison Diary (Youmiat fi Sijin), it’s my first book. It was a great thing for me and in that procession I immediately made wild friendships with these students and for the first time with beautiful hippy girls, you know the ones with beads and flowing hair, with little kids. They took me with them and we lived on an abandoned ship in the bay, near San Sausalito, which is a city of the stars, the movie stars. The hippies lived in the harbour side by side with the yachts of these stars. This ship of ours was from the time of Mark Twain, you know the one with the crazy propellers and pedals, a paddle steamer. We had a juke box in it and a grill for making hamburgers. So, it was hippy girls, with their kids, naked, following them, making hamburgers and dancing to the music of Bob DyIan and Janis Joplin – it was a dream, an incredible dream.

This tremendous energy
The book I am working on right now is called Edha kunta Na’eeiman fi Markab Nooh (If You Were Asleep in Noah’s Ark) which is taken from two lines of poetry by Ruhmi, the great Persian mystic poet. He says: “If you were sleeping in Noah’s Ark, drunk,/what do you care if the flood has come?” The book contains the poems I wrote in America exactly at this time we have been talking about. I had found out that all I knew about writing – before I came to America it was nothing – was unequal to the occasion, just techniques and ways of writing that couldn’t contain the tremendous energy I was living, so I started asking myself, how I’m gonna express this’ In these violent poems in America I felt I was controlled by language, instead of me controlling the Language- So I had to create this flowing rhythm, this mad flowing rhythm of language and then everything is being dragged by this fantastic current. Well, I’m reading the poems now and I feel that I’m analysing myself through them.
For me, from the start till now, writing poetry was and is a very crucial, very intimate thing and deeply connected with my inner making, my inner life. Otherwise, why would I write poetry, why not fiction, why not essays? I tried to invent new ways to force the Arab language to contain the tremendous flow of new information, of new realities, and I wrote these fabulous poems, which I am collecting right now, some of them are 25,30 pages. I’d never dare write a poem that long these days. I don’t know how I did it. But I couldn’t be bothered to publish any of these poems then and I thought no-one would publish them. So I lived, immersed in this life and writing, all this time without publishing.

A letter from Adonis
Well, one day an Assyrian lady from Beirut, Violet Yacoub, came to San Francisco, and she said: “I have a letter for you from somebody called Adonis.” “Adonis!” I said – it was like a bell ringing. This is in ’72 or ’73 and I was completely cut off from the Arab world. I read the letter, it is a beautiful letter and in it Adonis told me: ‘You are present among us, you are never absent, although you are not here and I want you to give me for Muwaqif [his magazine] all that, you have, anything that you have.”
I gave Adonis whatever I had and he published it all, in newspapers, in magazines, in Morocco, everywhere.
Well, these poems came out and a lot of people have told me that probably they’re my best, in the sense that you can’t write things like that consciously, they just have to come out somehow.
My first collection (Al-Wasool ila Medinat ‘Ain (Arrival in Where City) is revolutionary in its style. Most of the poems were written in America and they were part of what I was trying to write about the absolutely modern situation, trying to capture it. After its publication in 1985, I started a different period and although these poems were published in ’85, some had been written in the late 60s, 70s, 80s. I published a second book of poems in Morocco, which I wrote mainly in Greece. I tried to capture in it the Mediterranean feeling, which was why I called it Al-Hayat Qurub Al-Acrypol (Living by the Acropolis), and it is true I was living very near the Acropolis. Every day I would walk through the Acropolis, and climb there and walk through the Plaka, so the seas and scents, feelings and details are mostly Mediterranean.

Coming from Assyria …
Is there any influence in my work from my Assyrian background? Well, as a child I was writing in Arabic, although I have written certain things in Assyrian. But I soon realized that Assyrian is a very limited language in the sense of an audience. First of all, throughout the whole Middle East where Assyrians exist their language is suppressed – they don’t have schools, they don’t have magazines, they don’t have books, but almost secret societies. The first school I went to was in a church in Al-Habbaniya where the priest used to teach us and I read Assyrian. It’s a beautiful language, it’s a great language and sometimes I feel like writing a fantastic elegy for the Assyrian language, how it’s dying and I’m seeing its death.
But then I realized, when I was struck by the Arabic language, when the gift came to me, that all languages are really one. I mean, Arabic is almost like Assyrian to me, that’s strange, but it’s really true. For me the sound of Arabic is like some kind of cover for what’s beneath it – meaning all these ancient languages never really die. They are there. This might sound like an illusion but they are there, they are steamed up into Arabic and they are right there.

They changed their names
Of course, throughout the years I went and studied these things, I studied Turath, which is the classics of Arabic language. I found out that some of the greatest Arab poets were in fact Assyrians. They changed their names, they’re all in history. Emr Al-Quais was Assyrian and Nabi Al Dhubiani, who was the poet of the kings, of the palace, was actually Assyrian. He was Monovesian, a kind of Christian at that time. Now who could be Christian in Iraq and not be Assyrian – either Assyrian, or Syriac or Chaldean, Assyrians considered all these people one. Then, Abu Tammam was Christian – he changed his name. Ibn Al-Abri, a great historian, is Ben Khafri in Assyrian, so he’s Assyrian. I can tell you hundreds of names like that. Ibn Ar-Ruhmi, he was in fact Greek and Christian. These things are facts in Arabic literature. So, the way I see it is that there is no such thing as pure Arabic literature. It all is from here and there, especially from Iraq and Syria where the tremendous movements of classic poetry took place, the revolutions of Abu Tammam in Syria and Al Muttanebi in Iraq, these movements just dragged with them all the past of mixed origins, mixed languages, mixed knowledge, mixed terminology – and this past is all there in the poetry and the prose.
I think that s what most of the poets, throughout history, have done. They have done exactly that. Because what finally counts is not the language, it’s what the languages say.
In my books, particularly the last three, I have been doing exactly that. I’ve been putting in Assyrian phrases or sentences, such as “Shimmet baba bruna rukhet kutcha” (In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost), sometimes without translating them. They’re obviously Assyrian, but not in the sense of being just Assyrian, that would be just chauvinistic.
I want to make the language, which for me is the Arabic language, carry everything. I’m putting things from Robert Lowell, from Paves, from Caesar Vallejo. For the first time I’m indicating that this Arabic language can take anything from the world. That is the point really, the rest is just details.
The language is not dead, it can take anything. As far as I know, no one has done it before. They can’t, they don’t dare, and plus they can’t -as simple as that. It’s a matter of how to do it, and to do it right (not just to do it for the sake of doing it, no, that’s meaningless), but do it creatively. That way it’s necessary, it is contributing to the idea of poetry and the enrichment of the language.

Arabic is unexplored
For my own work, from my own experience of the language, I have been doing these experiments with the Arabic language for a very long time, in fact from the start, and I still feel that the Arabic language is material unexplored as yet. Let’s put it this way – it’s unmined. You know, it’s like raw material for me. I feel that this language could be ex-tended endlessly into some new idiomatic formulations – which I’m doing all the time. Look, I have a series of poems which I have been publishing in the London Al-Hayat newspaper, which are translations, but I don’t call them translations, I call them “poems after the poet”.
I believe that the art of translation is to get into rewriting the text. For instance, I’ve published sonnets by Shakespeare, poems by Shelley re-written into the modern idiom of Arabic, plus Haikus, Chinese, Poets like Po Chui-i, others plus Greek poets classics Sappho, all these came out through the years and they are still coming out. I am still doing experiments in a sense. what I do is take the text and imagine how would it sound if it was written originally in Arabic. That’s the whole idea. That’s what I do. My imagination goes into the sound of it. How would an Arab poet write such a sense, write such emotion?
A sonnet by Shakespeare? What I discovered is that the power of the sonnets is in their flow – uninterrupted. In Arabic that is almost impossible. Why? Because of the line ends. They stand as obstacles to the flow.

The flow of breath
So what do I do? I establish a new kind of line, which is continuous and at the same time I do this in my own poetry. I’m working with sounds and I’m working with the line that extends into the other line non-stop to get the flow of breath. This has never been done in Arabic. Why? Because of the metrics.
So what am I doing? I am compressing the language in such a way that it takes the place of the old metrics. It would be another metrics, as did western poets like Ted Hughes. Ted Hughes wrote what you can call syllabic poetry and before him Auden, of course. Syllabic – it depends on the syllable.
Now I’ve talked about this many times in interviews in Arabic, but they can’t understand it. They don’t know what I’m really doing, so every critic who writes about me never mentions these things because they aren’t even aware of them. They don’t know the mechanics, the techniques, they just don’t know. When they do write – and they have written extensively about these books and poems of mine, they talk, of course, about the material and what I’m saying, but what I’m saying is not so important to me as HOW I am saying it. That’s the whole point.
The other major side of my activities is translation. Through translation I can penetrate and in fact I have heard, many, many echoes and reactions from people who have told me face to face, or by phone, or by letter that I’m striking something there.

A beautiful shock
At the Oman Festival in the summer I truly, personally, physically saw the reactions with my own eyes, heard them with my own ears. In such desert places like these small places in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and Sharjah, even towns in the desert, I found people who knew my poems and are actually aware of what I am doing, people from a godforsaken village, in a desert. It was a shock to me, a beautiful shock.
Let me tell you something. Every poet, throughout their life, actually looks forward to something like that. It’s a fantastic moment. All these years that I have put in, thinking at the same time that no-one would be even aware of what I was doing (and it’s a fact that the damn critics are not), and suddenly you find a simple student somewhere who has been probing through your doings and your techniques and actually has grasped something of that thing that you have been trying to develop. For me it’s such a bliss, such a reward, in fact it’s the only reward. That’s enough for me. That’s the only reward a poet ever looks forward to.
When they tell me this modern poetry is too complex for this simple man, that’s all bullshit, it’s not true. Because who is this simple man? There is no such thing as a simple man, all human beings have their complications and inner depths. I believe this, and so when something touches them they know it, maybe by instinct, maybe by knowledge. Sometimes knowledge is Intuitive. That’s what we’re talking about.

Arabic is always shy
When we say that about poetry in Arabic, we are talking about something very remarkable, very vitalising, because Arabic is a language that resists, a language of resistance. It’s like it’s being raped. It’s very true. Arabic is always shy, it’s a shy language. In fact, it’s a language which is almost virgin, even in its terminology. At the end of the 20th century – we’re gonna have the year 2000 very soon – the Arabic language still doesn’t accept simple erotic words. They can’t name for instance the penis or the cunt, which in other literatures is just a very regular, natural thing to say.
We can’t say that in Arabic, so I try to build into the language the sense of being absolutely free and powerful in the way I handle the syllable, the meaning, the structure of the poem, of the sentence. Through that, I think you can say anything. in fact I tried to do that, you know, in the Oman Festival last summer and I put all that meaning into a few lines.
By insinuation you can do that, by sound – everybody knew what I was talking about. So I’m talking about all these things without mentioning the names. That’s how you can develop poetry – by insinuation, by sound. When I say certain sounds, the connotations are there. They know what I am talking about on another level, and that’s the mystery of poetry.
That’s why poetry is a unique language, completely separate from the language of fiction, essay, the regular prose. In poetry you can do that because every sound counts. And I’m doing that precise and very economic thing with language, with a language like Arabic which is always too full of decoration, unnecessary words and fat – linguistic fat. I’m cutting it like a butcher and I’m trying to show the bones behind the flesh and I think that’ s something worth doing.
Yes, this is really mind-blowing. It is really hard. I spent nights and days thinking how, how to do it. How? What do you do as a poet, as a truly working poet, is do incredible endless experiments. And you do. Some of them fail. I’m not saying you succeed just like that, there is no such thing as that. Hundreds of them fail but one succeeds, and if, from 200 pages, you can get five pages that are good, then I consider it some kind of success. ‘that’s the way.

A little bit of frustration
It’s long work, always thankless. After a while, after writing for 30 years, you feel a little bit of frustration because here is a whole world where idiots are taking over things and some rich sheikh or someone, with billions of dollars and oil can live such a fabulous life, and own all the papers and magazines and here is a poet sweating and laboring to advance the language. You know what that means, I think that is one of the most honorable missions in life, and they’re totally neglected, so sometimes a poet, if he gives up, he is really justified. But then you try to fight against despair.
We try all the different ways we can to push the wheel of poetry into the future, the real future in that sense. For me, that’s the true revolution – from inside. Not from outside. Not shouting, but working silently and seriously with such a prolonged effort from inside – and that’s how things are to me, that’s my belief, it’s what keeps me going in this fantastic solitude.
Sometimes I find oases like this sweet small German village or anywhere else in fact, just to pursue these fascinating, complex ideas of mine.

MARGARET OBANK was born in Leeds, UK. She has a BA in Philosophy and English Literature from Leeds University and MA in Applied Linguistics from London University. in 1992 she organised a Festival of Iraqi Culture, one year after the Gulf War. She worked in publishing and printing and was a lecturer in Further Education. She is marred to Iraqi writer Samuel Shimon.

Three Short Pieces from last October © Youssef Rakha


“We never used to have sectarian tension”
Posted on October 20, 2011        
That being, of course, a lie. And lies, however well meaning, just may be the crux of the problem.
Had a truly secular state ever emerged in Egypt, perhaps it would have made sense to blame Copts for their sectarianism. As it is, surely Coptic sectarianism is part of the struggle for an effective concept of citizenship? As I wondered whether the Maspero protest of 9 Oct might be the “third revolution” promised but not forthcoming since March, I tweeted, “They are shooting at the Copts.” I remember this because coworkers who immediately saw the tweet – they presumably do not follow the same people – berated me lightheartedly for spreading unconfirmed (mis)information. What their notebooks and iPhones as well as security personnel in the building were telling them was that it was a mob of Copts who were wreaking chaos and, inexplicably armed, firing at the Central Security and Military Police personnel who were attempting to control them. Lying through their teeth, pro-Supreme Council of the Armed Forces news personnel from this building and elsewhere reported Armed Forces casualties.
As a Muslim-born Cairo-dweller, I feel this is an occasion to say how I grew up in an atmosphere of sectarianism partly justified by its being – understandably, since they were the minority – even more intense among Christians. It was normal to be told by a quasi-religious acquaintance about a third party, for example, “True, he’s Christian – but he’s actually a good man!” Unlike the average Copt, who will just be careful who they are speaking to, saying little if anything on the topic to an interlocutor they deem unsympathetic, an educated urban Muslim will reflexively, categorically deny the existence of a sectarian problem in Egypt, citing religious, patriotic or pragmatic arguments to say that, in effect, the position of the Copts in Egyptian society could not possibly be better than it already is.
With the rise of Islamism since the Nineties this has taken on variously sinister motifs: identifying salib (Arabic for “cross”) with salibi (Crusader), for example, an adherent of fanatical dogma may suggest that, simply by virtue of who they are, Egyptian Christians are in fact the enemy. In this way the historically pro-Muslim Conquest Copts – and Copt simply means “Egyptian”, as opposed to the equally Christian Greek rulers of the land – are turned into allies of “the Jews and the Americans” (as in those responsible for the existence of Israel and their Roman-like, Muslim-hating patrons). But even among “moderate” Muslims, arguments for “national unity” – a concept which, though an essential part of its rhetoric, the regime established by coup d’etat in July 1952 has systematically rendered meaningless by excluding and discriminating against Copts, encouraging both Coptic deference and Muslim complacency – fail to take into account centuries of inequality including occasional persecution.

Of homogeneity and bakshish
Posted on October 15, 2011        
Long before a “revolution” could have been anticipated, people – especially urban Arabs – noticed something about Cairo. In a roundabout way, the title of a book of poems by the Lebanese globe-trotter Suzanne Alaywan, All Roads Lead to Salah Salem (a reference to one major road linking northern and southern ends of the megalopolis) accurately expresses that sentiment: Of all the world’s cities, Cairo seems to have the capacity to absorb people into its folds, to make them – in appearance and attitude if not in thinking or values – like other people already established inside it; it has the capacity, brutishly but somehow peaceably, to iron out difference.
The poet was not at cross purpose with the fact. I tend to think she, like others within and without, saw it as inevitable but positive, a possible answer to otherwise intractable inter-issue dilemmas which liberalism, with its emphasis on individual rights, could only solve with the help of economic and institutional hardware not available to the Arab or the third world. The more or less forced homogeneity of course has its roots in a culture of compromise and hypocrisy, in people’s willingness to lie about how they feel in order to benefit from other people, whose difference – in looks, tongue, dress code, income level – offers further justification for practically robbing them.
Yet, as the aftermath of events has demonstrated, there is more to that proverbial Rome of the mind than simple untruth. Decades of corruption were also decades of voluntary repression, in which excessive panhandling just might have been a sublimation of mugging, and pay-for-your-difference an ameliorated form of the marauding mob. The difference-eliminating software is after all as evident in Arab nationalism as it is in political Islam, and perhaps even Mubarak’s client government sought to accommodate the interests of global liberalism only insofar as the world order, up to and including Saudi Arabia (which as far as I am concerned is a greater threat to Egypt than Israel) could provide that government with the required alms.
That is over now, despite the military and its supporters, backed by said world order, doing all they can – hitting below as well as above the belt, even idiotically risking sectarian war in the process – to reinstate the beggar-mentality status quo. Egyptians should be thankful for the “revolution” not because it proved successful or achieved its goal, but because it will make elimination of difference by begging increasingly impossible. People can no longer pretend to be safe from their compatriots, the myth of “national unity” is no longer viable, not all those who are different can pay.
Whether they like it or not, the Other will assert themselves at last, bringing forth even through catastrophe all the many beautiful Egypts that have been squeaking for dear life.

Side effects of Revolution
Posted on October 6, 2011        
I have developed an addiction since February:
Laptop in lap, voluntarily bedridden, I watch old episodes of al Ittijah al Mu’akiss (or, as translated by the relevant talk show’s self-possessed impresario, my fellow Hull University alumnus Faisal Al Qassim: Opposite Direction).
Dozens of them from before the Arab Spring are freely available on YouTube – the Nakba, Hezbollah, torture, hijab, George W, Iraq, Iran, Sudan – many as relevant to Tahrir Square as anything. Sidling into bed of an evening, high on Revolution, I would select a topic that suited my mood, listen with mounting suspense to Faisal’s retro rhetorical intro, and lick my lips over the promised discursive violence, not to say deranged bawling. That, at least, is how it started.
All very civilised and edifying. Each head-butting match has a compelling topic, a thought-out script and, seemingly, the right pair of contestants ready to express two sides of an issue. Ah, objectivity! Yet as with so much else on Al Jazeera, something somehow remains askew.
I do not mean the channel’s populist bias, the systematic and directionless manner in which it incites viewers (often to embrace political Islam), nor the unspeakable hypocrisy it sustains by doing so while it remains an organ of the Qatar government.
I do not mean Faisal’s brand of impartiality, which is to argue each case with vehemence irrespective of whether he might actually be spreading misinformation, never taking into account the implications of a given argument for the larger picture. It is okay, for example, to present Saddam Hussein as the wronged hero of Arab glory and call him the Martyr, so long as you are pointing up dependency, corruption and sectarianism in the current Iraqi regime; you only get to describe Saddam as he was if you happen to be bestowing blessings upon Iraq’s US Army-controlled experiment with democracy…
Yet what I mean is something, slightly, else: the obscene polarisation, the rhetorical opportunism, the insolent lies; the ultimate vapidity of a good 40 out of each 45 minutes, which forms the substance of my addiction. If al Ittijah al Mu’akiss is what it means to be politically engaged, I must say that political engagement is not a good thing. Just below the surface, it is very uncivilised and profoundly delusional. And it is a condition of which I have not been cured since I went out to chant slogans and endure tear gas.
It wrings my heart to think that, in six months, Tahrir Square has turned into something not all that different from al Ittijah al Mu’akiss.

Slide Show & Night Tour by Yasser Abdellatif

Square Cafe – المقهى المربع

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Night Tour by Yasser Abdellatif

Before he grew familiar with the way to school
the sickly child grew familiar with
the doctor’s place:
the pharmacy below the clinic
with its brown closets
and a young attendant wearing fashions that date back two decades
wrapping the bottles in paper printed with the logo,
which she reeled off a large roll with a metal core,
and noting the times of the doses in clear writing.

On distant mornings
you and your mother would go down to her to buy the medicine.
Why, then, did the pharmacy shift places
in the night,
sliding at least four buildings across?

There is a restaurant at the street corner
whose glass facade which the steam misted over
shows appetising, low-priced food;
it seems very close, over at the curve.
Night after night you will put off having dinner there
and go along with what it takes to stay up and be tired;
the day you make up your mind,
with a strike,
some diabolical hand will have lifted the whole place
off the map of existence.

And in the dark quarter of your knowledge of the city
beyond the street with which you thought the world ended when you were small
is an old traffic post and the ghost of an elderly policeman at the crossroads
with sleepy lights on a night moist with dew.

There stands a forgotten variety theatre
where the numbers are performed on a narrow stage
flanked by two tiers of seats on which the onlookers have gathered.
You are an onlooker and a backstage hand,
your viewpoint flits between the two places
from pointers to clamorous lives
and promises of sustained indulgence
to where safety
fares better than regret
which is as light as beer foam.

Translation of the title poem of Yasser Abdellatif’s last book © Youssef Rakha

Lawrence Ferlinghetti: The World Is a Beautiful Place

The world is a beautiful place

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don’t mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don’t sing
all the time

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind some people dying
all the time
or maybe only starving
some of the time
which isn’t half bad
if it isn’t you

Oh the world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t much mind
a few dead minds
in the higher places
or a bomb or two
now and then
in your upturned faces
or such other improprieties
as our Name Brand society
is prey to
with its men of distinction
and its men of extinction
and its priests
and other patrolmen

and its various segregations
and congressional investigations
and other constipations
that our fool flesh
is heir to

Yes the world is the best place of all
for a lot of such things as
making the fun scene
and making the love scene
and making the sad scene
and singing low songs and having inspirations
and walking around
looking at everything
and smelling flowers
and goosing statues
and even thinking
and kissing people and
making babies and wearing pants
and waving hats and
and going swimming in rivers
on picnics
in the middle of the summer
and just generally
‘living it up’
but then right in the middle of it
comes the smiling


Lawrence Ferlinghetti


One arm left



When one of them dies you realize

Parents are like limbs:

They don’t stop hurting amputated.

Moaning theatrically to tell the world

How long suffering she has been,

The one who hasn’t died draws up

At the threshold to her chamber,

One hand on the peeling door frame

Apparently to keep standing.

I can only see the back of her

As I go on pacing the hall.


Cramps, burns, festering lacerations…

How could I have saved my arm from

The battering of the years?

It is not that I like the old crutch;

I just feel sorry for all that it has suffered

Which makes it a terrible burden,

Unwanted and perpetually distressed.

That must be why I tend to it,

Crank my neck till it hurts

To excavate the knots of pain

In its furrows of tired sinew.


Suddenly my mother crosses over,

No longer moaning. And before I stop,

I see her hand hovering to the ceiling.

Lighter than all the burdens in the world,

She reminds me: I, who wished him dead,

Will never be rid of my father.


© Youssef Rakha

Rewritten from Arabic by the author

Some of Sylvia Plath’s Last Poems


Sheep in Fog

The hills step off into whiteness.

People or stars

Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.

The train leaves a line of breath.

O slow

Horse the colour of rust,

Hooves, dolorous bells -

All morning the

Morning has been blackening,

A flower left out.

My bones hold a stillness, the far

Fields melt my heart.

They threaten

To let me through to a heaven

Starless and fatherless, a dark water.


Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.

I want to fill it with color and ducks,

The zoo of the new

Whose names you meditate —

April snowdrop, Indian pipe,


Stalk without wrinkle,

Pool in which images

Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous

Wringing of hands, this dark

Ceiling without a star.


Kindness glides about my house.

Dame Kindness, she is so nice!

The blue and red jewels of her rings smoke

In the windows, the mirrors

Are filling with smiles.

What is so real as the cry of a child?

A rabbit’s cry may be wilder

But it has no soul.

Sugar can cure everything, so Kindness says.

Sugar is a necessary fluid,

Its crystals a little poultice.

O kindness, kindness

Sweetly picking up pieces!

My Japanese silks, desperate butterflies,

May be pinned any minute, anesthetized.

And here you come, with a cup of tea

Wreathed in steam.

The blood jet is poetry,

There is no stopping it.

You hand me two children, two roses.



After whose stroke the wood rings,

And the echoes!

Echoes traveling

Off from the center like horses.

The sap

Wells like tears, like the

Water striving

To re-establish its mirror

Over the rock

That drops and turns,

A white skull,

Eaten by weedy greens.

Years later I

Encounter them on the road—

Words dry and riderless,

The indefatigable hoof-taps.


From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars

Govern a life.


Color floods to the spot, dull purple.

The rest of the body is all washed out,

The color of pearl.

In a pit of rock

The sea sucks obsessively,

One hollow the whole sea’s pivot.

The size of a fly,

The doom mark

Crawls down the wall.

The heart shuts,

The sea slides back,

The mirrors are sheeted.


The woman is perfected.

Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,

The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,

Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:

We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,

One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.

She has folded

Them back into her body as petals

Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed

From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,

Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.

Her blacks crackle and drag.