Tuesday, August 12, 2008


It wasn't so long ago when I was mad at myself because I've been writing poems to Baghdad in English. I felt ashamed that I couldn't express myself easily in Arabic. Not because I was fluent in English but it was because I haven't read much in Arabic for a while. That's when I went back to one of the bilingual anthology of Arabic poetry VICTIMS of a MAP. It includes an excellent collection of three of the most modern Arab poets: Mahmud Darwish, Samih al Qasim and Adonis.

I'm not going to talk neither about the poems nor about the poets themselves but I just want to thank them because they wrote to Baghdad what I couldn't write.
Here is a poem written by Mahmud Darwish with the title A Horse for the Stranger (To an Iraqi poet). I've learnt parts of this poem by heart because when I was in the seventh grade I a member of the chorus who sang along with Ali Abdullah in the Conferences Palace. I was young just like most of the kids my age did not understand the poem then. However, I ran into this beautiful piece of verse that captures all my senses and makes me want to read it again and again.

Mahmud Darwish died couple of days ago. May he rest in peace.

A horse for the stranger
By Mahmoud Darwish

(To an Iraqi poet)

To elegise you
I bring twenty years of love.
You were there alone
furnishing exile for our lady of lime,
a house for our master at the height of speech.
Speak for us to ascend higher and higher
along the well's spiral stairway.
O my friend, where are you?
Step forward,
let me bear the burden of your speech,
let me elegise you.
If it were a bridge we would have crossed it already,
but it's a home, it's an abyss.
Since the Tatars returned on our horses,
the Babylonian moon has established a kingdom
in the trees of night
that is no longer ours.
Now new Tatars drag our names behind them
through the dust of narrow mountain passes.
They forget us.
They forget palm trees, the two rivers
and the Iraq in us.
Didn't you tell me on the way to the wind
we'd soon be filling our history with meaning?
That the war would soon be over,
that we'd soon build Sumer in song again,
soon open the theatre doors to everyone
and to every kind of bird?
That soon we'd return to where the wind first found us?
O my friend,
there's no room for the poem on this earth.
Is there any room for this earth in the poem, after Iraq?
Rome besieges the rains of our world,
plays back its moons like coppery jazz,
exiles time to a cave,
blows its Roman breath on the earth
for you to open up your exile to an even greater exile.
We have rooms here in the gardens of August,
in a country that loves dogs
but hates your people and the name of the South.
We have remains of women banished from daisies,
our good Gypsy friends,
the stained steps of bars,
Arthur Rimbaud,
a sidewalk of chestnuts,
and enough technology to wipe out Iraq.
The wind of your dead blows northward.
You ask me, "Do I see you?"
I say, "You see me dead on the five o'clock news."
So what good is my freedom, O statues by Rodin?
Don't wonder and please don't suspend my memory
like a bell on our date palms.
Our exile's been lost
since the wind of your dead blows northward.
There must be a horse for the stranger
so he can trail behind Caesar
or return from the string of the flute.
There must be a horse for the stranger.
Couldn't we have sighted at least one moon
that didn't signify Woman,
couldn't we have seen the difference,
O my friend, between sight and foresight?
We have what veils us of bees and words.
We were created to write about what threatens us
of women and Caesar,
earth when it becomes speech,
the impossible secret of Gilgamesh,
the escape from our era to the golden yesterday of our wine.
We walked toward the life of our wisdom,
our songs of nostalgia were Iraqi songs,
about palm trees and the two rivers.
I have a moon in the region of Al-Rusafa,
I have fish in the Euphrates and the Tigris,
I have an avid reader in the south,
a sun stone in Nineva,
a spring festival in Kurdish braids to the north of sorrow,
a rose in the Gardens of Babylon,
a poet in the southern province of Buwayb,
my corpse under an Iraqi sun.
My dagger is on my image,
my image is on my dagger.
Whenever we turn away from the river, my friend,
the Mongol passes between us.
As if poems were clouds of myth
east is not east,
west is not west.
Our brothers have banded together in the impulse of Cain.
Don't reproach your brother
for the tombstone is a frail violet fading away.
A grave for Paris, a grave for London,
a grave for Rome, New York and Moscow,
a grave for Baghdad.
Was it right for Baghdad to take its past for granted?
A grave for Ithaca, the difficult path and the goal,
a grave for Jaffa, for Homer and Al-Buhturi.
Poetry is a grave,
a grave made of wind.
O stone of the soul, O our silence!
To complete the labyrinth
we think Autumn's lodged within us.
We are pine needles,
fatigue bathing our bodies like dew,
floods of white seagulls
looking for the poets of foreboding in us,
looking for the Arab's last tear,
looking for the desert.
Not one bird is left in our voice
to fly to Samarkand
or any other city.
Time is shattered,
language shattered,
and this air which we used to carry on our shoulders
like bunches of grapes from Mosul
is now a cross.
Who will bear the poem's burden for us now?
No voice rises, no voice lowers.
Soon we'll be uttering our last praises of this place,
gazing at tomorrow
with the silks of old speech trailing behind us.
We'll see our dreams in corridors
looking all over for us
and for the eagle of our blackened flags.
A desert for sound and a desert for silence,
a desert for eternal absurdity,
a desert for the tablets of the law,
a desert for school books, prophets and scientists,
a desert for Shakespeare,
a desert for those who look for God in the human being,
the last Arab writes:
I am the Arab that never was,
the Arab that never was.
Either say you have erred or keep silent.
The dead won't hear your apology,
they won't read their killer's journals
to find out what they can,
they won't return to Basra the Eternal
to find out what you did to your mother
when you recognised the blue of the sea.
Say we didn't take the journey just to return
the last words said to your mother, in your name:
Do you have proof you're my only mother?
If our era has to be,
let it be a graveyard as it is,
not as the new Sodom wants it to be.
The dead won't forgive those who stood
perplexed like us at the edge of the well.
Is beautiful Joseph the Sumerian our brother
so we can steal
the beauty of the evening stars from him?
If he must be killed
then let Caesar be the sun
setting on slaughtered Iraq.
I'll beget you and you'll beget me,
and very slowly, very slowly
I'll remove the fingers of my dead from your body,
the buttons of their shirts and their birth certificates.
You'll take the letters of your dead to Jerusalem.
We'll wipe the blood from our glasses, my friend,
and reread our Kafka,
and open two windows onto a street of shadows.
My outside is inside me.
Don't believe winter smoke.
April will emerge from our dreams.
My outside is my inside.
Pay no attention to statues.
An Iraqi girl will decorate her dress
with the first almond flowers,
and along the top edge of the arrow
drawn just above her name
she'll write your name's initial letter
in Iraq's wind.
Paris, 1991
From: Eleven Planets


Salute to Baghdad
By Adonis

Put your coffee aside and drink something else,
Listening to what the invaders say:
With Heaven's blessing
We are directing a preventive war,
Carrying the water of life
From the banks of the Hudson and the Thames
So that it may flow in the Tigris and Euphrates.
A war against water and trees,
Against birds and children's faces,
A fire on the ends of sharp nails
Comes out of their hands,
The machine's hand taps their shoulders.
The air weeps,
Carried on a reed called earth;
The soil becomes red and black
From tanks and launchers;
On missiles and flying whales,
In a time improvised by shrapnel,
In space, volcanoes spitting their lava,
Stagger, O Baghdad, on your pierced sides;
The invaders were born smoothly
In the lap of a four-legged wind
From their private skies,
As it prepares the world
To be swallowed by the whale
Of their sacred language.
It's true, as the invaders say,
This mother-sky
Only devours its own children.
Do we, therefore, have to believe,
O invaders,
That there are prophetic missiles,
Carrying invasion,
That civilisation is only born out of depleted
Old-new ashes under our feet:
Do you know which abyss you have reached
O you lost feet?
Our deaths live in the arms of the clock,
And our sorrows are about to sink their claws
In the bodies of stars.
O what a country this is:
Silence is its name,
And there is only pain;
There it is, filled with graves,
Some still, some moving.
O what a country this is:
A land swimming in fire,
Its people like green logs.
O how enchanting you are, Sumerian stone,
Gilgamesh still beats in your heart.
There, he is about to disembark,
Searching for life,
But his guide this time
Is nuclear dust.
We have shut the windows,
After wiping the glass with newspapers
Chronicling the invasion;
We have laid our last roses on the graves:
Where do we go?
Even the road does not believe our steps

London, April 1, 2003
Poems translated by Sinan Antoon

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Blogger khalid jarrar said...

please give us a link to the original arabic ones? :)

8/12/2008 1:02 PM  
Blogger attawie said...

can't find any of the links. I had them before formating the pc.
Read them from a hard copy. anyways
فرس للغريب
الى شاعر عراقي

8/12/2008 1:50 PM  
Blogger attawie said...

oh but i remember this part very well because i like it the most:

وللقمر السومري على شجر الليل
مملكة لم تعد لنا
منذ عاد التتار على ارضنا
والتتار الجدد
يجرون اذيالنا خلفهم
في شعاب الجبال
و ينسون فينا
و نهرين
ينسون فينا العراق


8/12/2008 2:05 PM  
Blogger David said...

Hi Attawie,

I have been trying to understand the two poems. The first one is so long that my train of thought seems to get lost as I wander through the imagery. The poet wants to elegise someone. I presume he is talking about historical Iraq. I know that an elegy is like a lament for the dead. So, I think he is trying to conger images of the Iraq of the past in the poem. I had to look up Tatars. I see that it refers to the Mongols. I know what they did to Baghdad. That was a horrible crime against humanity. The crime was not just the loss of life, but the loss of knowledge and culture. He then refers to the new Tatars. The poem dates to 1991, so I presume it is a reference to the first Gulf War. I am sure that was a very frightening time for many of Iraq's people, especially the children. He talks of Rome besieging. I am going to guess that he is referring to the Western powers, perhaps the U.S. specifically. I just re-read the rest to the end. Once again, I feel that I am having difficulty unifying what I have read. Perhaps one reason for my difficulty is that the poet makes a lot of references to things that are known to Iraqis, but not to me. One theme that he returns to is the well. Is he thinking of a water well? I can imagine that in a country with a lot of desert, a well is a very important place of social gathering. Perhaps it is a place for meeting friends and making new acquaintances. He speaks of graves for many places, an understandable and sad consequence of war. At the end, the poet seems to suggest that the current war and death will pass, the dead will be mourned, and life will go on. I like: "An Iraqi girl will decorate her dress
with the first almond flowers". I think he is trying to suggest that the girl represents the rebirth of Iraq after the darkness. Then he talks of the name of the attacker being written on the wind. I presume that he means that attackers that were once strong will eventually fall and fade into history, while Iraq will endure. It is a complex poem, I hope that I have seen into some of the poet's intent.

Now, to the second poem. It is much more direct in its imagery. There is no mistaking that the poet is referring to the current war in Iraq. "With Heaven's blessing", this is indeed how Bush saw his decision to invade Iraq. It is a very disheartening vision. But, this is understandable, as the poet wrote these lines in 2003, when the future must have seemed very bleak indeed. Perhaps he did not suspect that the worst for Iraq was yet to come. The poem is dark and painful. I can only hope that the future will continue to be brighter. I am a little hopeful these days as friends in Mosul and Baghdad seem to be living more of an ordinary life, but I know there are still dangers ahead. I hope that the road that the poet saw five years ago has now turned a corner leading to a better place for Iraq.

8/14/2008 11:42 AM  

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