Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Keys - Fatma Kandil

Recently I came across the 2001 anthology 'The Poetry of Arab Women', edited by Nathalie Handal. I was a little surprised to realise that it had not once crossed my mind that hitherto, all the Arabic poetry I'd read had been written by men, and also that I had not once reflected on this fact.

So, here is the first of hopefully several poems by Arab women to be posted here.

According to the anthology,
"Egyptian women writers have always played an active role in the growth and evolution of the literary scene, and they continue to do so; and poetry written by Egyptian women poets continues to flourish."
Fatma Kandil was born in Cairo in 1958. A well-known new generation poet and short story writer, she also edits a journal of literary criticism, Fosoul (فصول).


المفاتيح التي لا تفتح الأبواب
هي المفاتيح التي تغلق الأبواب
والمفاتيح المشنوقة في السلاسل
لا تملك إلا دراما الرنين
لكن المفتاح الذي يموت في جيبي
يذكرني بأنه قد آن الوقت لكي أكون إمرأة عاقلة ، تسكن بيتا
بلا مفاتيح . . . . بلا أبواب

The keys that don't open doors
are the keys that lock them,
and keys tangled in chains
have nothing but the drama of jingling.
But the key that dies in my pocket
reminds me it is time
that i became a reasonable woman
who lives in a house
without keys, without doors.

Original translation by Khaled Mattawa, with revision by readers of this blog.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Ayat al-Qurmezi

Ayat al-Qurmezi is a 20 year-old Bahraini student recently jailed for a year for reciting poems critical of Bahrain's rulers. Read more about it here or watch her at work below:

Friday, 10 June 2011

On Wishes - Mahmoud Darwish

Mahmoud Darwish is one of the most well-known Arab poets. He was born in 1941 in Palestine, in the village of Birwa, which was destroyed in 1948. His family then settled in Galilee. He received little formal education. His first volume of poetry, 'Birds without Wings', was published in 1960. In 1971 Darwish left the country and moved first to Cairo, becoming a contributor to the newspaper Al-Ahram.The political question of the Palestinian homeland forms the subject-matter of most of Darwish's poetry. As Denys Johnson-Davies explains in the introduction to 'The Music of Human Flesh', a compilation of translated Darwish poems, 'the key to an understanding of his poetry is that it consists largely of an extended and desperate love affair with his lost homeland. However unsatisfactory and painful the love affair, however hopeless of consummation, he has no choice but to continue with it.'

Don’t say to me:
     Would I were a seller of bread in Algiers
     That I might sing with a rebel.
Don’t say to me:
     Would I were a herdsman in the Yemen
     That I might sing to the shudderings of time.
Don’t say to me:
     Would I were a cafe waiter in Havana
     That I might sing the victories of sorrowing women.
Don’t say to me:
     Would I worked as a young laborer in Aswan
     That I might sing to the rocks.

My friend,
The Nile will not flow into the Volga,
Nor the Congo or the Jordan into the Euphrates.
Each river has its source, its course, its life.
My friend, our land is not barren.
Each land has its time for being born,
Each dawn a date with a rebel.

 عن الأمنيات

لا تقل لي:
ليتني بائع خبر في الجزائر
لأغني مع ثائر!
لا تقل لي:
ليتني راعي مواشٍ في اليمن
لأغني لانتفاضات الزمن
لا تقل لي:
ليتني عامل مقهى في هافانا
لأغني لانتصارات الحزانى!
لا تقل لي:
ليتني أعمل في أسوان حمّالاً صغير
لأغني للصخور
يا صديقي! لن يصب النيل في الفولغا
ولا الكونغو، ولا الأردن، في نهر الفرات!
كل نهر، وله نبع... ومجرى... وحياة!
يا صديقي!... أرضنا ليست بعاقر
كل أرض، ولها ميلادها
كل فجر، وله موعد ثائر!

Translation by Denys Johnson-Davies

The poem was set to music in the 1980s by a Palestinian group, Sabreen.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

My Angry Cat - Nizar Qabbani (1961)

You're repeating yourself
for the twentieth time.
Is there another man in my life?
Yes. Yes. What did you think?
Even graveyards have visitors.
There are, my dear sir,
a lot of men out there,
and no garden is ever devoid of birds.
You're just an experience I had,
and here I am,
tired and bored from this experience,
out from under your spell.
I'm cured of all
my weakness and gullibility.
Niceties do, after all, always end.
You love me!
There you go again,
dredging up all that ancient history.
And since when did you ever show
the slightest interest in me
outside the contour of my hips?
Where does this sudden gush of love come from?
I was never anything more
than a forsaken chair
among your expensive furniture,
a garden you chose to raze
without shame or repentance.
Why are you staring at my breasts
as if you owned them?
And why do you weep as if you
stood before a lost kingdom?
Your glorious kingdom, dear sir,
has just crumbled.
There. I've settled my score
in an instant.
You tell me now
who's losing the game.
I opened myself to you
like the Garden of Eden,
gave you all the sweet fruit
and green grass you desired.
Today I offer you
neither heaven nor hell.
This is what you get
for acting the ungrateful.
You faithless. If you'd only treated me
like a human being - just once -
this other man wouldn't exist.

 قطــــــتي الغضبى

للمرة العشرين ..... كررتها
"هل في حياتي رجل اخر ؟؟"
نعم ..نعم .. فهل تصورتني
مقبرة ليس لها زائر

مااكثر الرجال ..ياسيدي
لاروضة إلا لها طائر

تجربة كانت .. وها أنني
نجوت من سحرك ياساحر
شفيت من ضعفي ومن طيبتي
فطيبة النفس لها اخر
تحبني !! ليتك ماقلتها
هذا حديث غابر..غابر
منذ متى ؟ اصبحت تهتم بي
منذ متى هذا الهواى الغامر ؟
هل كنت إلا مقعدا مهملا
يضمه اثاثك الفاخر؟
مزرعة نهبت خيراتها
لاذمة تنهي ولا زاجر
ترنو الى مفاتني مثلما
يرنو الى امواله التاجر
يا أيها الباكي على ملكه
لقد تداعى ملكك الزاهر
حسابي القديم .. صفيته
بلحظة . فمن بنا الخاسر ؟
كانت لك الجنات مفتوحة
ثمارها .. وعشبها الناضر
واليوم .. لا نار ولا جنة
هذا جزاء الكفر ياكافر

لو كنت انسانا معي مرة
 ماكان هذا الرجل الاخر

Translation by Nayef al-Kalali

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Child Scribbles - Nizar Qabbani

My fault, my greatest fault,
O sea-eyed princess,
was to love you
as a child loves.
(The greatest lovers,
after all, are children)

My first mistake
(and not my last)
was to live
in the taste of wonder
ready to be amazed
by the simple span
of night and day,

and ready for every woman
I loved to break me
into a thousand pieces to make
me an open city,
and to leave me behind her
as dust.

My weakness was to see
the world with the logic of a child.

And my mistake was dragging
love out of its cave into the open air,
making my breast
an open church for all lovers.

 خربشات طفولية

خطيئتي الكبيرة الكبيره
أني ، يا بحرية العينين ، يا أميره
أحب كالأطفال
وأكتب الشعر على طريقة الأطفال
فأشهر العشاق يا حبيبتي
كانوا من الأطفال
وأجمل الأشعار ، يا حبيبتي  
ألفها الأطفال ..
خطيئتي الأولى وليست أبداً خطيئتي الأخيره
أني أعيش دائماً بحالة انبهار
وأني مهيأ للعشق يا حبيبتي
على امتداد الليل والنهار ..
وأن كل امرأة أحبها ..
تكسرني عشرين ألف قطعة
تجعلني مدينة مفتوحة ..
تتركني - وراءها - غبار
خطيئتي ..
أني أرى العالم يا صديقتي
بمنطق الصغار

خطيئتي ..
أني نقلت الحب من كهوفه
إلى الهواء الطلق
وأن صدري صار يا حبيبتي
كنيسة مفتوحة لكل أهل العشق .. 

Translated by Lena Jayyusi and Diana Der Hovanessian

This is in fact an extract (all I can find in translation) from a longer poem. The Arabic has been posted here in an edited version so as to fit the translation and avoid confusion (a shame, I know!). The full poem can be viewed by clicking here.

If you're a fan of all things kitsch, check out this youtube video of the poem.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

On Love - Khalil Gibran (The Prophet)

Forgive me, perhaps I'm cheating a bit here, because the original text of The Prophet was of course written in English, and because despite Gibran's poetic writing style, the book is made up of 'poetic essays' rather than 'poems'. My reasoning, therefore, is that it's just too good to leave out, that Gibran is Lebanese, and that students of Arabic might find this a more enjoyable way to learn some new vocabulary than spending another lonely hour with the Hans Wehr dictionary.


إذا المحبة أومت إليكم فاتبعوها,
وإن كانت مسالكها صعبة متحدرة.
إذا ضمتكم بجناحيها فأطيعوها,
وإن جرحكم السييف المستور بين ريشها.
إذا المحبة خاطبتكم فصدقوها,
وإن عطل صوتها أحلامكم وبددها كما تجعل الريح الشمالية البستان قاعاً صفصفاً.
لأنه كما أن المحبة تكللكم, فهي أيضا تصلبكم.
وكما تعمل على نموكم, هكذا تعلمكم وتستأصل الفاسد منكم.
وكما ترتفع إلى أعلى شجرة حياتكم فتعانق أغصانها اللطيفة المرتعشة أمام وجه الشمس,
هكذا تنحدر إلى جذورها الملتصقة بالتراب وتهزها في سكينة الليل.
المحبة تضمكم إلى قلبها كأغمار حنطة.
المحبة على بيادرها تدرسكم لتظهر عريكم.
المحبة تغربلكم لتحرركم من قشوركم.
المحبة تطحنكم فتجعلكم كالثلج أنقياء.
المحبة تعجنكم بدموعها حتى تلينوا,
ثم تعدكم لنارها المقدسة, لكي تصيروا خبزاً مقدساً يقرّب على مائدة الرب المقدسة.
كل هذا تصنعه بكم لكي تدركوا أسرار قلوبكم, فتصبحوا بهذا الإدراك جزءاً من قلب الحياة.
غير أنكم إذا خفتم, وقصرتم سعيكم على الطمأنبنة واللذة في المحبة.
فالأجدر بكم أن تستروا عريكم وتخرجوا من بيدر المحبة إلى العالم البعيد حيثما تضحكون, ولكن ليس كل ضحككم; وتبكون, ولكن ليس كل ما في ماقيكم من الدموع.
المحبة لا تعطي إلا ذاتها, المحبة لا تأخذ إلا من ذاتها.
لا تملك المحبة شيئاً, ولا تريد أن أحد يملكها.
لأن المحبة مكتفية بالمحبة.
أما أنت إذا أحببت فلا تقل: "أن الله في قلبي", بل قل بالأحرى: "أنا في قلب الله".
ولا يخطر لك البتة أنك تستطيع أن تتسلط على مسالك المحبة, لأن المحبة إن رأت فيك استحقاقاً لنعمتها, تتسلط هي على مسالكك.
والمحبة لا رغبة لها إلا في أن تكمل نفسها.
ولكن, إذا أحببت, وكان لا بد من أن تكون لك رغبات خاصة بك, فلتكن هذه رغباتك:
أن تذوب وتكون كجدول متدفق يشنف آذان الليل بأنغامه.
أن تخبر الآلام التي في العطف المتناهي.
أن يجرحك إدراكك الحقيقي للمحبة في حبة قلبك, وأن تنزف دماؤك وأنت راض مغتبط.
أن تنهض عند الفجر بقلب مجنح خفوق, قتؤدي واجب الشكر ملتمساً يوم محبة آخر.
أن تستريح عند الظهيرة وتناخي نفسك بوجد المحبة.
أن تعود إلى منزلك عند المساء شاكراً:
فتنام حينئذ والصلاة لأجل من أحببت تتردد في قلبك, وأنشودة الحمد والثناء مرتمسة على شفتيك.

 Love Beckoning (original illustration)

When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God's sacred feast.

All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life's heart.

But if in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.

When you love you should not say, "God is in my heart," but rather, "I am in the heart of God."
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.

Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love's ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

A Woman - Saadi Youssef

Saadi Youssef (b.1934) is an Iraqi author and poet. He left Iraq in 1979 and now lives in London. You can find out more about him by reading the interview on his website. Below is a video of Youssef reciting this beautiful poem.


كيف أنقلُ خَطوي لها الآنَ ؟
في أيّ أرضٍ أراها ؟
وأيَّ الشوارعِ أسألُ ؟
أيَّ الـمُدُنْ ؟
ولو اني اهتديتُ إلى بيتِها ( لأقُلْ جدلاً )
هل سأضغطُ زرّاً على الباب؟
كيف أردُّ الجواب ؟
وكيف أحَدِّقُ  في وجهها ؟
كيف ألـمُسُ ذاكَ النبيذَ المرقرَقَ بين الأصابعِ ؟
كيف سأُلقي التحيةَ ؟
أُلقي عذابَ السنين...
قبلَ عشرين عاماً
في القطارِ الـمُكيَّفِ
قبّلتُها الليلَ كلَّــهْ !

How will I drag my feet to her now?
In which land will I see her
and on which street of what city
should I ask about her?
– and if I find her house
(Let’s suppose I do)
will I ring the bell?
How should I answer?
And how will I stare at her face
as I touch the light wine
seeping between her fingers
How should I say hello . . .
and how will I take the pain of all these years?
Once –
twenty years ago –
in an air-conditioned train
I kissed her all night through  . . . 

Translation by the poet (taken from his website)

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Desert (The Diary of Beirut Under Siege, 1982) - Another Extract

Further to my post a few months ago on this poem by Adonis, here's another extract from among its 35 verses.

 الصحراء  (مختارات من يوميات حصار بيروت ١٩٨٢ )


أتناقَض؟ هذا صَحيح
        فأنا الآن زرع و بالأسِ كنتُ حصاداً
        وأنا بين ماءٍ و نارٍ
        وأنا الآن جمرٌ و وردٌ
        وأنا الآن شمسٌ و ظلٌ
        وأنا لستُ ربّاً -
أتناقَض؟ هذا صحيحٌ...


Am I full of contradictions? That is correct.
       Now I am a plant. Yesterday, when I was between fire
         and water
       I was a harvest.
       Now I am a rose and live coal,
       Now I am the sun and the shadow
       I am not a god.
Am I full of contradictions? That is correct...

Translated by Abdullah al-Udhari (Taken from 'Victims of a Map')

If you enjoyed that, you can see the first full 20 verses at another website by clicking here.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Fugitive - Abdul Wahab Al-Bayati

Abdul Wahab Al-Bayati (1926-1999) was an Iraqi modernist poet born in Baghdad. A 2004 book, Love, Death and Exile, features many of his poems in Arabic with English translation, and can be viewed online.
أني هارب طريد
في غابة
في وطن بعيد
تتبعني الذئاب
عبر البراري السود والهضاب
والفراق يا حبيبتي عذاب
أني بلا وطن
أموت في مدينة مجهولة
يا حبيبتي
وحدي بلا وطن

I dreamt I was a fugitive
Hiding in a forest.
The wolves in a distant country
Hounded me through black deserts and over rough hills.
My dear, our separation was torture.
I dreamt I was without a home,
Dying in an unknown city,
Dying alone, my love, without a home.  

Translated by Abdullah Udhari (taken from Modern Poetry of the Arab World)

An Interlude

I Lost My Way

I lost my way
saw you in a dream
and held you -

Roots unfurled
and fell
into place

The salve you brought
to stroke my wounds
seeped through

An open door
So come and go, as you please
But at nightfall -

Return to me,

         Release me,

                   Leave me.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Place Will Fit Everything - Ashur Etwebi

Here's one from Libya, seeing as it's in everyone's thoughts at the moment. There's an interesting article on Words Without Borders which gives a background to literature there.

Born in Tripoli in 1952, Ashur Etwebi is a novelist, poet, and practices and teaches medicine.

سيسع المكان كل شيء

صوت الريح يمتد
 موسيقى الجاز تخفي بعضا من صخبها
 تحرك الأيدي شيئا في الفراغ
 أقول: رومانسية قديمة
 لابأس سيسع المكان كل شيء
يهبط البصر على مسالك رخوة
يتمطى بها المعدن الرخيص
 شجر يابس وأخر ينزع
من الرمل الغريق ماءه غصبا
 أقول: كآبة عابرة
لابأس سيسع المكان كل شيء
 في النهار تأتي الشمس إلى الجبل
تضع يدها
يد الأحبة باردة
 تضرب الحجر بالحجر
ترقص الأعشاب الجبلية وراء الحجر
لا تراها الشمس
القمر وحده يتبعها إلى ما وراء المنحنى
 والحجارة الحارسة  ترقب من بعيد
 أقول: صدفة عابرة
 لا بأس سيسع المكان كل شيء    

The Place Will Fit Everything

The sound of the wind stretches its limbs.
The jazz music witholds some of its ruckus. 
Hands move something in the dark.
I say: just an old romanticism...
No matter, the place will fit everything.

Vision descends upon flaccid pathways
and rides them on cheap metal. 
Dried out trees and others take their water
from the drowned sand by force.
I say: a passing depression.
No matter, the place will fit everything. 
During the day the sun approaches the mountain,
places its hand upon it,
its cold hand of lovers,
strikes stone with stone.
Mountain scrub dances behind the stone.
The sun does not see it. 
Only the moon shines upon it all the way beyond the bend
and the guardian stones watch from afar.
I say: a passing coincidence.
No matter, the place will fit everything. 

Translation by Khaled Mattawa( taken from this book, which can be viewed online through amazon.)

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Words for a revolution: Here We Will Stay by Tawfiq Ziad

11th February 2011, Egypt - the people take back their country.

There are many pieces circulating on the internet commemorating the revolution: from Wust El-Balad's pleasant 'Sout El-Horreya' to Wyclef Jean's, er, well-meaning, though perhaps not particularly memorable 'Freedom'. I've seen some Egyptian friends posting to facebook videos of poetry recitals too, click here for one with English subtitles.

I'd like to contribute the following poem. It is not new, and was written for another cause, but it embodies the same spirit, I believe, as we, watching from all over the world, have seen in the eyes of Egyptians over the last two weeks.

The poem is by Tawfiq Ziad (1929-1994). A Palestinian politician, political writer and poet educated in Nazareth and Moscow. He fought for the rights of Palestinians in Israel through the Communist organisation, Rakah and was elected mayor of Nazareth in 1973. In addition to translations of Russian literature he published collections of poetry, much of which was concerned with the Palestinian struggle and resistance.

هنا باقون

كأننا عشرون مستحيل
في اللد , والرملة , والجليل
هنا .. غلى صدوركم , باقون كالجدار
وفي حلوقكم
كقطعة الزجاج , كالصبار
وفي عيونكم
زوبعة من نار
هنا .. على صدوركم , باقون كالجدار
ننظف الصحون في الحانات
ونملأالكؤوس للسادات
ونمسح البلاط في المطابخ السوداء
حتى نسل لقمة الصغار
من بين أنيابكم الزرقاء
هنا غلى صدوركم باقون , كالجدار
نجوع .. نعرى .. نتحدى
ننشد الأشعار
ونملأ الشوارع الغضاب بالمظاهرات
ونملأ السجون كبرياء
ونصنع الأطفال .. جيلا ثائرا .. وراء جيل
كأننا عشرون مستحيل
في اللد , والرملة , والجليل
إنا هنا باقون
فلتشربوا البحرا
نحرس ظل التين والزيتون
ونزرع الأفكار , كالخمير في العجين

Here We Will Stay
In Lidda, in Ramla, in the Galilee,
we shall remain
like a wall upon your chest,
and in your throat
like a shard of glass,
a cactus thorn,
and in your eyes
a sandstorm.

We shall remain
a wall upon your chest,
clean dishes in your restaurants,
serve drinks in your bars,
sweep the floors of your kitchens
to snatch a bite for our children
from your blue fangs.

Here we shall stay,
sing our songs,
take to the angry streets,
fill prisons with dignity.

In Lidda, in Ramla, in the Galilee,
we shall remain,
guard the shade of the fig
and olive trees,
ferment rebellion in our children
as yeast in the dough.

Translation by Sharif Elmusa and Charles Doria

(The full poem is a bit longer, read it here in Arabic). 

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

al sha'b, yurid, isqat al nizam!

 "The People Want the Regime to Fall"

Incredible scenes in Egypt. Such bravery, and such strength, shown by the people. It is a proud moment, though the road ahead is surely long and difficult.

An article about The Poetry of Revolt - here. 

A moving video, an interview with activist Wael Ghonim - here.

Who knows what is around the corner...

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

If one day the people desire to live

by Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi.

(Updated 30th Jan)
In light of the current situations in Tunisia, and now Egypt, this poem by al-Shabi seems to be gaining popularity as perhaps a sort of anthem for resistance - a clear statement that the power for change is in the hands of the people.  That said, it was already a very well-known poem in the Arab world. A Jordanian friend of mine said he studied it in the 5th grade at school. Writing in the Guardian, Soumaya Ghannoushi celebrates the Tunisian people's revolution as an example of change from inside. The Arab world does not need direct foreign intervention/aggression in order to be democratised. It is so sad to hear of the mounting death toll, but on the other hand it is a proud moment for the Arab people, I believe, as they take their future into their own hands.

 إذا الشعب يوماً أراد الحيـــــــاة
فلا بــدّ أن يستجيب القــــدر
 ولا بدّ للــــيل أن ينجلــــــــــي
ولا بـــدّ للقيـــد أن ينكســــر
 ومن لم يُعانــقه شوق الحيــاة
تبـــخّر في جــوّهـا واندثــــر

If, one day, a people desires to live, then fate will answer their call.
And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall.
For he who is not embraced by a passion for life will dissipate into thin air,
At least that is what all creation has told me, and what its hidden spirits declare…

Translation by Elliot Colla (one of a few suggested at )
 Click here for a song version by Latifa al-Tonsia.