City of Non-Existence

A collection of poems translated by students at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani (Kurdistan)

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This anthology of personal favorites, poems originating in Kurdish, Arabic, Farsi and Turkish, was collected, translated, and edited in a class of ESL learners, taught by poet Marie LaBrosse, at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani (Kurdistan) in 2012.

 

 

Roseanne Khalaf: Preface to "Beirut: Writing the City"

Some years ago the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa invited me to participate in a conference held in Morocco. The assignment was to write about my own city, Beirut, and later about the old cities of Fez and Casablanca.  It proved a challenging and thrilling experience--one that has forever altered the way I view workshops and writing.
One evening in Casablanca I shared with Chris Merrill my dream of introducing gifted Lebanese students to professional creative writing workshops. To my delight, a year later, he visited Beirut and together, with the support of Provost Ahmad Dallal, at the American University of Beirut, we organized a two-week workshop conducted by American novelist Claire Messud and poet Tom Sleigh.
In 2011, a second workshop was hosted by Solidere, the Lebanese company charged with renovating and developing the Beirut Central District, and sponsored by English Speaking Union- Lebanon, in particular supported by its Chair Youmna Asseily. Held in the heart of down town, it afforded fourteen gifted students from six universities throughout Lebanon the opportunity to fully explore the city’s history as an overarching theme, whether in fiction, nonfiction or poetry.  Angus Gavin, lead architect at Solidere, provided insights into the master plan for the Central District; archaeologist Hans Curvers illuminated Beirut’s rich, multilayered heritage alongside the challenges facing his teams while excavating and preserving ancient sites in a burgeoning, modern city.
It was an extraordinary and delightful happening.  Chris thought it pure pleasure to explore the central district with students, who fearlessly turned their impressions into polished sentences: “They saw the city anew, and in their writings so did I.” For me, the importance of bringing students from diverse backgrounds and universities together to revisit their city and share in the creative process was a truly enriching experience. 
I was alone, meanwhile, recollecting weekly excursions with my teta (grandmother) to the vibrant, ancient and colorful souks of Beirut, teeming with life and the deafening hum of activity. Jostled by shoppers and vendors we made our way along dusty, narrow cobblestone streets, accompanied by the scents of exotic spices, a pungent waft from the fish market, and the clip-clop of donkey’s hoofs. My child’s imagination was fuelled and my senses awakened to the enticements of a city nourished by a mix of people and cultures; teta, by contrast, never failed to caution that an unresolved, violent past would inevitably disrupt the future.  For me, that remembered cityscape has become the space of unfiltered experience, of things seen, and absorbed, before being understood. Its transformation now into a upscale hub, updated for more global tastes, confines any revisiting to my imagination.  Not having that old city to return to fills me with an intense sadness; and comparably, the post-memory generation of young writers represented here can only connect to the past virtually, for their memories are not shaped by lived experiences of the historical Beirut but rather by stories, photographs, images, and others’ recollections of it. Not surprisingly, these young people feel simultaneously connected and distanced as conflicting sectarian accounts thwart all attempts to create a unifying narrative.  This absence of historical memory contributes to shifting, fragmented, and ambiguous accounts and recollections, often viewed through the prism of separate social settings and political circumstances.
In prewar Beirut commercial and cultural exchange encouraged a cosmopolitan, bustling city center, a contact space for the country’s many religious and ethnic communities. During the horrendous destruction wrought by almost two decades (1975-1990) of civil war, Beirut’s center was the most devastated part of the city. Today, Solidere’s reconstruction and renewal of this highly contested space continues to be an enormous challenge, and a highly controversial urban regeneration project.  Meanwhile, the immediacy of interaction and the innovative texts created in our workshop acted as a bulwark against destruction and fragmentation, offering the participants a deeper connection to Beirut’s fast-changing heart, and a better understanding of how that space continues to shape Lebanon's pre- and postwar realities.

Marie LaBrosse: Introduction to "City of Non-Existence"

The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), looking out from the foothills of its host city, is made of glass. When I would arrive with the sunrise, the backlit silhouette of the mountain range outside of town gain texture would turn dusty purple, then dusty in the higher light of day. When I would leave with the sunset, the city would slowly go electric until the sprawl below became handfuls of scattered sequins. Construction in every neighborhood, ongoing at the university as well, brings with it cement powder, the thin wooden poles that are the locally sourced scaffolding, and blue tarps in various stages of repair and tatters. Litter accumulates among the wild narcissus that grows in the spring. Men erect tents to gather for tea and cigarettes by the roadside. The shepherd I sometimes see on my morning commute, grazing his flock by the highway with its artistically arching steel street lights, is constantly on his cell phone. It is a surprising city in the midst of great growth. 

The university is part of this growth. It is the first institution in the country that offers an American-style liberal arts undergraduate experience. Additionally, the instructional language is not Arabic or Kurdish, but English. All students must have academic fluency in English before they enter the undergraduate program. Some of our students have grown up in-country speaking Arabic or Kurdish, others have attended Turkish schools or sought refuge in Iran. Other students, returning from the UK and other countries in northern Europe now that the threat of Saddam Hussein has passed, have conversational or greater fluency in English, German, and Dutch, among other languages. This rich linguistic landscape means that all our students are, to greater or lesser extent, English language learners. 

We rely on our Academic Preparatory Program (APP) to build the foundational command of English, but fluency in a language is an endeavor of constant upkeep. Throughout the undergraduate composition sequence, we reinforce the work of APP and try to help our students become their own best editors, honing their memory and knowledge of grammar and structure. This can be dry, especially for young adults ready to begin their independent, professional lives. As a lecturer in the English Department, I'm always thinking about ways to transform the work of fluency into play, pleasure. 

The streets in Sulaimani are named after poets and the walls of Cha Hanishab, the historical teashop in town, are crammed with paintings and photographs of famous poets and other cultural figures. All this hinted at a millennial terrain which I could only glimpse. My desire to see the wide horizon dovetailed with the more basic drive need to continuously emphasize fluency. I proposed a workshop in literary translation. 

Here, I should stop and explain: unlike in the United States, children in Iraq grow up hearing, memorizing, and responding to poems. In other countries, poetry is not inherently motivating for students. In Sulaimani, poets and poems enjoy popular reception. At a reading I hosted with a well-known Kurdish poet, two hundred people attended. All the Americans were astounded. All the local people kept asking what had gone wrong: had we failed to advertise? Typical attendance of a reading is in the hundreds. Readings begin with a standing ovation as the crowd chants the name of the poet and the bodymen pry fans off the poet's sleeves. 

The workshop students loved poems so well, they both gravitated toward and feared translation. They wanted to give the poets they loved new life in a new language, but dreaded betraying the texts they held dear. In service to these poems, these revered poets, the students would argue for hours over word choice, diction, syntax, tense, image. The finer points of the students’ acquired language became riveting.

Beyond entering the mechanics of English through the beloved, intimate territory of poetry, the class helped re-define "liberal arts" for the students. Because the university and many of its faculty and administrators are American, there is the common misconception here that the liberal arts approach is western. If done right, though, liberal arts should transcend national alignment. 

The translation workshop brought the region’s cultural texts into what had been a very western conversation. It married the foreign with the familiar. It legitimized the knowledge with which students entered the class. In this way, too, the workshop transformed the tensions they carried within them into the very reasons why they were ideal translators. Translators are liminal. 

The young Kurdish nationalist educated in Turkish schools: the love she bears her Turkish teachers complicates a stance that she considers central to her identity. The young Kurdish man who grew up in Baghdad, fluent in Arabic: his hesitant Kurdish shames him. The young Kurdish man whose family sought refuge in Iran for over a decade: he holds so many languages inside his head he has to shuffle through them to get to English. These tensions, which isolate these individuals in their society, also position them to stand between cultures, between languages. Where others must stand on the shoreline, these students can become bridges .

As this was the first workshop-style course at the university, we used the first six weeks of class to orient ourselves  toward a writer’s terminology, evaluate a selection of translations  and individually experiment with translation and revision . I asked all students to translate a poem a week for two reasons. One: they would have to think on a small, almost minute, scale, about language. Two: they would be forced to produce. Even if the speed compromised the initial quality, it would help students immerse themselves in the task of translation. 

After these orienting weeks, I asked each student to choose an author they particularly identified with, and dedicate themselves to that author’s work for the remaining eight weeks of the semester. I hoped that each student, in choosing an author to focus on, would become fluent in that author’s voice, learning style through immersion. As well, I hoped that the choice of author would continue to create personal investment in the challenges that would come with the extended assignment.

Already, the class had begun to laugh ruefully about the immense difficulty of translation. In English, a common mistake the students make is to substitute “too” for “so.” Rather than indicate a great degree of difficulty, they claim a prohibitive level of difficulty. As in, “Last night’s homework was too difficult, Ms. Marie.” 

I began to tease them a little, “Too or so?” At first, they groaned, “What’s the difference?” But, after several weeks of inspecting language at its elemental levels, they began to differentiate. They’d roll their eyes and correct themselves, “So.” Finally, one day, Nergis walked in after battling with a particularly troublesome Yehya Kamal poem. She dropped her bag on the table and sighed, “Wallah, Ms. Marie, that poem is too difficult.” And before I could ask, she pointed her finger at me and added, “Too!” 

But it’s the pleasure of difficulty that inspired these students to finish what you now see collected here.

From Turkish, the students chose two authors: Yahya Kemal and Bedhirhan Gokce. Nergis, a Turcoman student fluent in Kurdish, Turkish, and English, told me how she “met” Yahya Kemal’s “Silent Ship” in secondary school. The assignment was to read and analyze, but Nergis instead committed the poem to heart and studied it for years. From Arabic, the students have translated poems from Jameel Al Zahawi (Jamil Al-Zahawi), Ma’arouf Al Rasafi, Nazar Qabani (Nizar Qabbani) and Ghada Al Saman (Ghada Al-Samman). These translations came primarily from two students, Soran Huner and Sivar Qazaz, two Kurdish students fluent in Arabic. 

Soran’s translation of Qabani’s “I Fear” appeared in workshop as it is published here. As the class remarked how beautiful his work was, he joked right back: he thought by choosing a shorter poem, his work for the week would lighten. He had found the opposite. In the prism of the short poem, every cut on the stone changes the light that emerges. Sivar, who chose to translate Al Zahawi and Al Rasafi, had more political and personal motivations in the texts she chose to bring into English. The Iraqi poets who combine verse, philosophy, and science, who defy the predominant image of “terrorists who walk around with their guns attached to their hips,” interested her. Over the course of the semester, she came to believe that through translating these poets, not only could she prevent their footsteps from fading, but she could become a part of the dissenting minority in Iraq that she so admires.

From Kurdish, the most common mother tongue among students at AUIS, the students selected a range of poets from classical to contemporary including Mahwi, Sheikh Raza Talabani, Ahmad Mukhtar Jaff, Abdulla Pashew, Sherko Bekas, and Muhammad Omar Othman. Hemn and Shadman took on the classical Kurdish poet, Sheikh Raza Talabani. Both saw Talabani, as Hemn said, as an inventor. Nations, Hemn maintained, pride themselves on their inventors, whether they be military, religious, or literary. Both Hemn and Shadman saw Talabani as a man unafraid to be different, new, startling. The risks he took as a poet were risks that the translators had the privilege of participating in. Danar chose the short fiction of Ahmad Mukhtar Jaff, a writer famous among the Kurds, as a pioneer in socially conscious literature. Much of his writing displays standards of living Jaff sought to change. 

Muhammed Abdulla, having loved and memorized many of his poems, chose Muhammad Omar Othman. Nicknamed “The General of Autumn,” Othman’s poems functioned as a heart-breaking mirror for Muhammed Abdulla’s self-described anguish as a Kurd. Abdulla Pashew visited AUIS as a guest speaker and is known for his unflinching honesty in matters political and personal. Sherko Bekas, the recently deceased director of Sardam Publishing House, also visited the university to give a reading.

Finally, included are two of my own poems that Nergis asked to translate. Seeing the obvious pitfalls of her request, I prompted her for a justification. Her response was graceful: “There are always people willing to translate a famous poet’s work.” As well, she said, how fun it would be to translate a poem in conversation with the poet. I acceded. 

The linguistic complexity of these poems alone might make translation feel “too” difficult. While much contemporary Kurdish poetry draws solely on a single dialect, almost all classical Kurdish poetry draws not just on multiple dialects, but several languages. Some dialects have diverged so severely that a speaker of one cannot understand another. So, while a poem may have “only” two or three languages, it may also contain several dialects that function as separate languages to a translator. As if that weren’t enough, classical poems also, of course, use words and phrases that residents of the region no longer use. Without a comprehensive dictionary of classical Kurdish, it takes time and an extended network to track down these words.

Finally, consider the current political boundaries overlaid on the people speaking these various languages and dialects. The red star marks an approximate location of Sulaimani and AUIS.mini lnaguage map

The national and international tension present on this simplified map might make translation impossible were the students in the workshop not able to, in honor of poetry, put their writerly identity before their ethnic or political identity.

The community we created among the workshop members went beyond the campus. We hosted our final reading in Cha Hanishab, the same teashop that had inspired me to wonder about the history of the region’s literature. Under the portraits of the cultural pioneers who had come before them, the students of this first workshop gave their first reading. They read in Farsi, Turkish, Arabic, English, and three dialects of Kurdish. And as they posed for pictures after the reading with the brothers who own and operate the teashop, they created a new generation of portraits that now hang beside their idols.

Sheikh Radha, 'Sulaimani, the Haven of the Babans'

Sheikh Radha Talabani (1836-1910), 'Sulaimani, the Haven of the Babans'

(translated from the Kurdish by Shadman Hiwa)

 

I remember Sulaimani when it was the haven of the Babans,
Not ruled by Persians, nor was under the Ottomans.
In front of Sira's Gate, all gathered: sheikhs, ascetics, mullahs
the Saywan Hill for the needy was like the Ka'aba for pilgrims.
The king's council was crowded by the marching of soldiers,
The sound of music and timpani reached Kaywan's Palace.
Nostalgia for those times, those instants, those moments, those days,
when Kaniaskan Square was full of archery and horse-racing.
With only one assault, he conquered and tore Baghdad down:
Sulaimani, you want the truth! It was Sulaiman's father.
Arabs, I won't judge your ascendance, you are transcendent, but
Saladin, who conquered the world, was the descendant of the Babans.
All the easterners and the Sultans in the west,
were surprised by the supremacy of that lion.
The lightened graves of the Baban's descendants be blessed:
the rain of their good deeds was like April's clouds.
When Abdulla Pasha defeated the Governor of Senna,
Raza was at primary school, aged five and six.

Salmi B. Simitian: 'Dreams of Color' and 'Ghadi's House'

Dreams of Color

Once a house by the sea
Its rooftop like the mountains in the distance
Sea breeze passed through its windows
Purple drapes danced
Purple drapes waiting for the sails
The sun sets
Now multicolored drapes in the windows
Still as the night
Bright colors but no sails
Now a mall by the sea

                                                                                                    ----

Ghadi’s House

Once there was a boy named Ghadi who wanted to build a house. “I want to build a house” he said “a house so magnificent, strong and beautiful that it will endure all storms where my children, grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren will live happily ever after.”
But he didn’t know how.
So he went for a walk to think.
On his way he met the Lion. “Mr. Lion, how should I build a house that’s magnificent, strong, and beautiful?”
“Build it like a castle” said the Lion. “Then your children, grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren will think you’re a king.”
Ghadi didn’t want a castle, so he thanked the Lion and continued his walk.
Then he met the Bear.
“Mr. Bear, how should I build a house that’s magnificent, strong, and beautiful?”
The Bear answered: “Build it like a cave in the mountain, then it will be as magnificent as the mountain, and withstand any storm.”
But Ghadi didn’t want to live in a dark cave, so he thanked the Bear and continued his walk.
He walked and walked. Then he met the Turtle.
“Mr. Turtle how should I build a house that’s magnificent, strong, and beautiful?”
The Turtle answered: “Build it like a lovely and cozy tent with colorful rugs. Then you can carry it away every time there is a storm.”
But Ghadi didn’t want to move from one place to the other, so he thanked the Turtle and continued his walk.
Ghadi walked and walked until he reached the forest. Just as he thought “I still don’t know how to build a house that’s magnificent, strong and beautiful,” he heard a
hoo hoo hoo. He looked up and saw an owl.
The Owl opened his eyes wide and said, “Let your house be part of nature and let nature enter your house. Let the sunshine and the breeze pass through your windows, so there is laughter and peace.”
“But how do you make nature part of your house? How do you let the breeze pass through?” asked Ghadi
“Hoo hoo hoo, you’ll find out,” said the owl.
So Ghadi built his house close to the ancient trees. He planted many new trees and flowers around the house and invited his animal friends.

                                                                                                                      -----
 

Mounawar Abbadouchi: 'The City of Mirrors' and 'The Old Mousseline'

City of Mirrors

The streets are empty but you are not alone as you make your way through the maze of buildings reflecting silvery light off of their glassy surfaces. Next to you walks a stranger with silent steps. You look right, he looks left; you look away and he ignores you. Your startled face stares at a grinning one with teeth like gleaming pearls. You turn the corner but there you find him standing in front of you. Dead end. When were there so many buildings? You squeeze through a narrow alley onto a deserted square. You seem to have lost him; he is nowhere to be seen. You turn around, relieved, only to see him standing there with that same grin on his face and that same malice in his eye. You look around and you notice for the first time the city’s nocturnal populace: silent figures that walk without echoing footsteps in the dead night. Old men are infants, infants are villains, lovers are beggars, beggars are kings. And there he stands grinning, waiting. You spin around and run without looking back in the mirror.

                                                                                                          ---

The Old Mousseline

It hung cold on its hanger, the light beige garment. It had not hugged the waist or kissed the curves in nearly 30 years. Where the bosom would have once been were small dark stains, collected by time. The flowy material smelled like the wood of the wardrobe and dust. How many occasions this mousseline must have attended, how many conversations it must have had, how many heads it must have turned when it entered a room, and how many hearts it must have teased standing there, cocktail glass in ring-adorned hand, its delicate hips swaying to the sound of some slow tune. Taken out of its dusty wardrobe, the old material breathed for the first time in years.

Joanna Abillama: 'The Serpent Queen'

 

 

The Serpent Queen

 

She grew up by the sea
Dreaming of how big she’d be
How charming and graceful
And utterly tasteful!
 
You’ll see Mother, once I’m eighteen
And finally a proper queen,
From all corners of the world they’ll come from me
All insist on calling me The Lady
 
True, she had reasons for her pride
Youth and innocence were by her side
But soon, they were all to be taken away
The night the prophetess came in to say:
 
O Serpent Queen, our blessed mother, ruler of our land, sea, and air
Whose body nourishes and encircles us, keeping us from despair
I am afraid I come tonight, a bearer of grave news
A vision, a dark prophecy, I’ve been granted by my muse
 
Seven times you are to die, and seven times to be reborn
Seven times, you’ll shed your skin, only to find another to be worn
Many masters you shall know, and blood and tears shall soak your gown
Yet each time you’ll raise your head, refusing to stay down
 
The queen shook violently, and screamed: No, I cannot die!
I refuse to listen any longer, prophetess. It’s obvious you lie!
My tower shall protect me from those who seek my demise
And I, myself, shall carry out justice on anyone who tries
 
Silently, the prophetess slipped out the gate
Leaving the burdened queen to ponder on her fate
And as the years pass by, the vision became reality
The queen found herself locked in the cold grasp of History
 
She was tired of the battles, tired of remembering what went on
Who were the murderers in her midst? Who were the black swans?
I deserve a respite, for goodness’ sake!
Won’t anyone give me a break?
 
I want new shoes, new styles, new marbles…
I might even get myself something that sparkles
At once, she felt a breath of life go through her
And knew it was time for a transformation to occur
 
The Serpent Queen took back her throne
Of glistening jewels and Canaanite stone
Gazing at all who came to see,
She spoke: I am Beirut. Admire me.
 
                                                                                          ___
 

Aisha Marie Ahmad Aleiou: 'Ishtar'

Ishtar

 

In human form the sea has walked and presented her gifts in the sultriness of summer when the air is at its dampest your goddess strolled amongst you. Invisible since Phoenician eyes, masked beneath the blue, Ishtar has beautified your lands, fertilized your women, defended you in times of war and deprived your artists of love so as to feel the muse of pain upon their scrolls.

Gorging ravenously at her gifts you’ve fattened your appetites to forever be unsatisfied. Taut belly and dyed textiles cherished more than humanity, your carnage no longer fulfills your desire for divinity. And in your missionary propaganda you’ve converted the souls of believers to the heedlessness of their patron.

None seek forgiveness in the garden, her temples flattened, replaced by shrines of steel. Moral mortals dissolve into fungal pestilence. Sacrifices have ceased, sea growing murderous in its wait as it browns in bacterium lace, bubbling with vindictiveness. Her powers pull the sea and as history repeats itself she shall find a way to speak.

And she shall roar, hiding the sun as she lifts above the earth returning humility to the infestation of grandeur. To shrivel is the fate once more. You shall remember your Phoenician ancestors and acquire their sight as engulfments of salt remind you. 

She will return wearing bloodied pearls.

                                                                                                       ----

 

Nasri Atallah: 'The Room'

 

The Room

 

The alarm clock went off and I ignored it for as long as I could, its piercing shriek revelling in the violation of my eardrums. It was too far away for me to hit the snooze button. I did that on purpose returning from a drunken night, placing the clock just out of reach. The relentless buzzing would eventually levitate me out of bed and over to the annoying little appliance, where I would smack it into pained silence. 

 I got up. I smacked. I was awake.

 The sunlight was edging its way through an imperfection in the cheap Swedish curtains. A ray of absurdly bright light rested on the tattered edges of an unloved Tom Waits record. Which made me sad. 

 I pulled apart the curtains, opened the creaky window, and let the city invade my room. 

 I stumbled over to what was left of my mirror. A pitiful reflective shard of myself staring back at me. 

 I walked back to the window to look down at the people who shared this city with me. The people who made every day a series of mediocrities.

 The unreformed murderers masquerading as businessmen in borrowed suits and debt-laden cars. The voluptuous bimbos floating around in an inexplicable mix of vacuity and despair. 

 Then I stopped. It was too early to be contemplating. Maybe I should start by getting the dirt out the corners of my half-opened eyes. Maybe I should scrape the smell of whatever it was I drank last night out of my being. 

 But I stayed at the window. Numb. Detached. Just there, really. I saw a bit of paint from the building’s facade peeling off from the edge of the window frame. So I helped it along in its decay. I poked at it. I pulled. I tore.

 The crumbling face of the building looked pretty enough from across the street, but from here I could see how worn it was. I peeled off a satisfying chunk of paint, cement and matter. 

 And I let it fall to the street below.

                                                                                                   ----

Ziad Dallal: 'An Expression of the City'

An Expression of the City


In the 1970s the power of words exhibited itself like a Shakespearean fool. But like every performance which dares to open up a space for change, its reception was violent.

So God's scratched record went round and round and round and round again and mistakenly exclaimed: In the beginning was the word, and the word was with the Rhizome and the word was Multiplicity.

I have been thinking of Noor for a long period of time. He’d only appear fragmented, as if whatever material created him held the intensive potential of forming only bits and pieces of his body; was my imagination just another abortion? Sometimes, a male imagination lacks the maternal components of perfection. It wasn’t until chance whispered the ruinous lyrics that a muse came to my assistance, and Noor presented himself to me completely. I fell to level zero, weighed down by the immanence of his pathetic image. He looked old; few strands of grey hair sprung below his bowler hat. His eyes didn’t seem to move together symmetrically. His clean-shaven face revealed the wrinkles a life of toil and work would provide. But his fingers were smudged with an array of colours mixed together; his fingernails were dark as if he had touched the end of the rainbow and caused the collapse and merging of the seven colours. His hand reached out to his glasses and he took them off as if he didn’t need them, as if my imagination was at fault to put them on his face. He threw the glasses away and looked at me with a sense of disbelief and murderous horror. His sharp eyes made it seem as if I’d illegally nailed him to a reality he didn’t wish to be part of, and with a quick sudden movement, he kicked me to the ground and stomped on my body with successive superhuman stamps. But the floor was also a wall.

Noor took me underground and I saw the Rhizome.

The Rhizome is the hidden content of every plant. It lies underground and survives fires and fungus and parasitic insets. It connects to everything around it, to the rock and soil, to the roots of vegetation, to the bases of buildings and the ruins of ancient civilizations. It is like a vine, but it does not climb; it simply spreads like the heat of the black sun. One cannot demarcate neither beginning nor end. All of it seems like a massive middle-part, different plateaus connecting to each other like a neural network. It has no centre, and no organization. It is a multitude of labyrinths stringed together; each entrance is an exit, and each exit an entrance. On each gate, Ariadne’s thread becomes a part of Penelope’s web. The Rhizome network flows like the movement of nomads across vast deserts; the mapping of their movement spells out multiplicity; and the multiplicity excluded any possible trace of a victorious one over another.

In the 1970s multiplicity was misunderstood for the dividing line of a bipolar separation. Multiplicity became the opposite of unity. Blood was shed in excess, and the war had the quality of excessive consumption and not of conquest, as if the sun would cease to blaze if the bombs had stopped; the sun, they thought, was the fruit of their bloody madness.

“The sun is black!” Stray dogs howled as they scampered through the rubble of the continuously destroyed city. When rubble had covered the earth like the veil of Maya and nothing was left to destroy, the bombs headed elsewhere. The streets, resting after a period of explosive exhaustion, slowly witnessed a rite of spring in the form of greenery, and the deathly Green Line was created; the rhizome expressed itself through the green shrubbery. It grew along the horizontal street, not longing for the sun or the stars.

                                                                                                      *

Van Gogh would be ever more frustrated today; neither his brush strokes nor his cypress trees would or could satisfy this city. He’d cut off both ears, and all in vain. While arbour forests reach out vertically towards a sky, and the city of yesterday mirrored such growth, the city of today deceives. Don’t be mistaken by the façade of tall buildings: this city is the tain of the mirror; it identifies with difference and expands virulently in all directions like a rhizome. At each point, larval, embryonic, with the potential to trap within it all kinds of manifestations, but the manifest image remains voluptuous like Andres Serrano’s lower lip swelling like the reception of Piss Christ and Tarantino’s hackneyed brilliance: the space of previous products displayed in homage of a past still expanding and mushrooming like a drop of ink in water. The murderers of Guy Ritchie’s London crime sagas infuse it with a comic charm that seduces every observer. And every observer necessarily becomes an actor; and actors sustain the part. Of course, all of us actors know that we would not be seduced if we did not allow it. There is beauty in the hospitality we see in the tain of the mirror, the hospitality of no-reflection. “Be what you want to be,” the city tells me, “on condition that you don’t try to represent me.” So Van Gogh cuts off his ears when he looks at the tain of the mirror.

                                                                                                             *

"Longing and ambition promise nothing. Neither do beginnings. If any location is witness to that, it is Beirut" said Noor as he matter-of-factly tried, against his intentions, to satisfy the questions targeted towards him in the opening of his exhibition in the city centre of Beirut.  His answer came as a response to the multitude of questions, which, conflated as one, would be “why are all your paintings situated underground?”

The refreshments and finger-food pastries were being packed and disposed. The exhibition space, one of the corridors of Beirut Souks, looked much relieved by the absence of the eyes that incomprehensibly stared down paintings of different colours, yet of one theme. Noor walked along the lit corridor, alone with his art for the first time since it was collected and moved. The delicacy which he had painted and had tried to portray had vanished suddenly. Instead, all the canvases seemed glossed with the invisible markings of the phantom pupils of wandering eyes.  He felt an uncanny disconnection with the arrangement of colours in front of him. Frustrated, he hurried to his favourite painting.

He stood beneath it, humble like a son under his father’s eyes. Embroiled by Fate, read the small tag paper next to it. The rectangular canvas presented shadowy figures and formless shapes, as if it were a portrait of smoke. In its centre, a marble Jesus hung in mid-air, his hands enveloping the whole painting, extending beyond the boundaries of the canvas. Beneath the marble Jesus, a broken remnant of the crucifix lay trenched in the ground. On the side of the remnant, the word whore was blazoned with a curvy font, glaring like a fallen neon sign. Noor’s own Golgotha scene was located under soiled sky; the dark brown of the underground replaced the azure of the sky of martyrs so that in the horizon, it was revealed that this was all happening between two different levels of the crust of the earth, spreading horizontally in all directions so that not even Jesus’ arms can envelope its scope; this was not a beginning and not an end, but only a middle among many. Faintly, next to the blazoned whore, a simple grey glove lay beneath a diamond.

It was the diamond that calmed him down. 

He flashed back to the opening of the souks. Visitors and guides had flooded the Souks like swarming locusts. Passing through the Jewellery Souk, he had noticed all the women inside arranging the sparkling rocks with gloves in their hands, focused on positioning the necklaces perfectly around the synthetic neck. At that moment, the diamonds showed more than shine; they made visible Ariadne’s thread.

He had followed the thread through his own personal tour; the diamonds had led him to martyr’s square; and beyond that, to the basis of an old destroyed tower, the bourj. He had trotted like rapid fingers across a piano board, musically harmonizing every step along the thread.

With the prophetic sense of ecstatic urgency; he had seen that this city was built over loss. But it was the beautiful loss felt when purchasing a diamond, or when sacrificing a life.

The loss remained underground, hidden among the force-field of energy from matter annihilated. The inheritance from seven civilizations and seven destructions rumbled against cement and stone and gravel and glass. Noor had felt it and depicted it. And then there was of a womb scraping its insides; the thread undoing itself.

Diamonds are of most value, they say, that have passed through most jewellers’ hands. Whores by that rule are precious, he remembered.

He snapped out of his epiphany when he heard the explosion of fireworks by the nearby seaside. He looked around him and saw no one. Again he would leave his paintings alone. He wondered through the city centre. The street lights were yellow and bright. The cobblestones underneath him made the streets seem eerie; the downward street, Italian-based architecture, and the after-taste of wine made him feel like Montresor’s pawn.

The city seemed to spread in front of him like a chessboard. Beyond the board, the sea was a swallower of life. Every stride was one step closer to death; a buzzing in his ear reminded him of his waxing mortality. He was an exemplar case of the loneliness of success.

He continued to walk straightforwardly, like a pawn, until he saw a figure in the distance, swaying as if floating inches above the ground. She must be the queen, he thought, still transfixed upon the chess metaphor. The two figures came closer to each other and within seconds he could see her flowing hair and her loose cardigan, which reached her knees.

He veered his direction suddenly to the left, the signature kill-move of a pawn. But can a queen be captured by a pawn?

She stood still in front of him, waiting for a word; but the word didn’t come. Her eyes, brown, sparkled as she looked straight at him. He hid his hands in his pockets and was beginning to apologize when she spoke.

“And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour”. She gave him her hand and he accepted, the buzz in his ears still ringing.

“I know you,” she exclaimed, her thin wrists touching his aged ones.

“How?” He asked, forgetting who he was.

“That’s an odd question. You’re Noor.”

She led him back to the exhibition. His paintings still hung motionless. Embroiled By Fate in the centre. She led him to it. “What were you trying to represent?” Her question had a demanding tone to it. 

He looked at her, sneering. He let go of her hand and realized that she knew who he was; she knew his artwork, and he had yet to know her name.

“What’s your name?” he demanded in return.

“Nehmah,” she matter-of-factly stated, “so, why this mixture.”

“Look around you,” he said, trying to evade the question, as he tried to do with the journalists earlier.

“So this is the city? What fate is the city embroiled by?”

He felt smothered by her youthful presence. Nehmah the Queen, reversing the dynamics, choking him with a question she was entitled to ask. His face flushed with the redness of a dim flame, his blood filled his tired cheeks and forced him to raise eyebrows as he bellowed uncontrollably, “LOSS!”

“Yes, I knew that. Just wanted to be sure.” 

“So, are you satisfied?” he said angrily, cringing, snatching her hand violently. But she didn’t seem threatened.

“No. You’ve captured the essence of this city. You’re too nostalgic.”

“I am not! And there are no essences.”

“What makes a zebra a zebra?” She unsheathes her wit like a hidden dagger.

“A zebra is just an expression of its DNA. My painting is just another kind of expression.” 

“This whole exhibition is like a graveyard of things lost. What are you trying to bring back?”

“It’s not about bringing back.” He fell silent again. A part of him knew that she was right, but he did not want to admit it. Finally, he sighed and submitted, “Things always return, but they return differently. This is a mode of expression. You can get meaning out of this, but at the same time, you can get as many meanings as the pairs of eyes that see it. The only truth concerning meaning is that there are multiple meanings. Art is not a divine mirror.”

And in a space of a second he realized that Ariadne’s thread was just a part of Penelope’s web. She smiled and dragged him away from the exhibition, like a whore leading her client to the bedchamber. The buzzing in his ear resembled the sound of a trumpet. Was it the trumpet of the apocalypse? Or the sound of a Sacred Queen returning to her castle? 

                                                                                                     ----

Ghiwa Ali Dandish: 'The Cockroach'

The Cockroach

Looking for something that is brown 
My long antennas always move
Suddenly, the sun disappears
Where to hide?
A giant foot falls from the sky
    
                                                                                  ----                    
                

Toufic Sarieddine, 'Letter' and 'The Tour'

A Letter

                                                                                                               To be acknowledged on December 22nd, 2012.

 Dear Armageddon:

You’re late. And if you have already come, you’ve failed, and seeing as how the world is still overpopulated, failed miserably. In the tradition I grew up believing, in public fear and private anticipation, the demons that would be the death of me and my ilk have played in my imagination, and the ways I will help them have been planned out boyishly. So where are you, sweetheart? If you haven’t departed from your place of chaos yet, I would like you to bear in mind a few things: The first is that not all of us feel the same thrill to kill, only those of us called Republicans, so make sure your demons seek them out first, and you shall have my drumsticks, and I the banging at your side. Second, make sure to get a video of the Queen of England shrieking. For it is this that our first post-apocalyptic YouTube hit will be. A snapshot, though not as easily spread, is also adequate, in the absence of the centurial shrill the Queen’s first scream would be. On a note of appearance, do recruit your slenderest demons, for they will not be greeted by the hateful focus of self-defense, but in the hateful focus of sheer jealousy. Oh, and on that note, make them have visible six-pack abs as well. Third, I myself am completely on your side, but not at your disposal, for if you kill me—which would be a very tedious task, I assure you—you will lose perhaps the only drummer on post-Armageddon Earth. Those cockroaches need something to entertain them through evolution, as well as musically stimulate them. Get a move on.

Safe travels, 

Tofy.

P.S.: May I suggest the following: Homosexuals left alone would be a delay, but an almost-certain end to the human race. Dwell on that for economically selective slaughter. 

                                                                                                                            ---

The Tour                                                                                                 

With my sunglasses on, everything will have a purple tint. Good. The mood is optimistic yet wary of the swelter to come; we're wetting our brows and mustering the Arab in some of us out to seek dates and shade.  I am next to Ziad, who is sporting an unpredictably mainstream-looking cap. Downtown seems to have absorbed the relics beneath it, like a plant, acquiring an archaic texture to complement its modernity, for if I lend a blind eye to the wares on display and the (in theory) magnetic ‘SALE’ stickers, I find it easy to think the shops medieval apothecaries and charm-sellers in an Arab bazaar, boasting the best items an enchanter can acquire--‘Half-price on tongues!’ and all that jazz…  

Above the shops, windows; each window witness and entrance to a different life, a different story: Nouveau-riche, heir/heiress, lucky bastard, a really good thief, or--and I’m sure this is the minority--a high-paid hard worker. We move. Accursed sun, I won’t flatter you with any fancy original prose, so just fuck off. Sale sale sale, shop shop shop, money money money, the souks seem to be the destination of a pilgrimage of consumerism; that is, after Hamra Street has been passed. 

Oh goodness, the swelter starts; breeze save me this morning! Our host stands in waiting, next to an old monument. He himself looks to be an old monument, until the further stripping of the second half of that title. He, like an old monument, has an air of refined antiquity about him, complete with quintessential shades of brown--his suit and its appropriate accompaniment.  Seven times destroyed, seven times rebuilt, I must say, I’m proud of the endurance but ashamed of the strength… 

Unearthed, and crafted for the Haves, jewels are on display, treating our passing eyes to a bedazzle of bedazzle.  Our host shows us a scaled-down downtown--a businessman’s view, with no people around to oppose anything. I can do whatever the fuck I please to this downtown. Structural functionalism thrills me in this air-conditioned room. Appropriate. Plans and plans, businessmen in a measuring contest; each skyscraper an erection taller than the rest, “Behold my manliness!” Many tanned workers at work and in sweat around us; boiled, fulfilling, erections. I wonder who is doing more work, they or their hirer. 

Our host’s accent fails to filter out his confidence, but I hope real tourists don’t get as bored as I am. Everything seems duplicated. Mass production for mass consumption and (again) all that jazz… The wind carries the cool as well as the freed tobacco whiff of a far-off laborer, clutching his worries in one hand, a piece of beaten spirit in the other. I cough, happy to have shared his unhappiness.  The wind makes me wish I had straight hair, how very picturesque that would be… 

On the bus it's cool, no walking in its short-lived fourfold. Ah the sea. Crumpled sheath of blue infinity stretched out to a universal horizon--the horizon we all know. As it was the mother of the word ‘flow’, it does so ideally, and so beautifully. I will pretend it  isn’t being slowly poisoned, and enjoy. The sea and wind brush against each other playfully, like lovers, giving birth to a mass of waves, forever in constant birth and death, rise and fall, ebb and flow. The tsunami safety measures manifested behind me a series of semi-circular structures, leaving the sea in the back wrathfully writhing in containment. It yells in anger and strong splashing, echoing its oath for revenge at those summoned to weaken that revenge. Legions of rising and falling tents of water before me, camping toward conquest? No, containment. They find a dark end to their ocean-long journey on pathetic, mutilated earth. No more to be greeted by the soft sands and grateful bodily pulses of a simpler time.     

Our tour guide carries a comb and has disciplined his hair thrice per bus trip for a total of twelve brushings. I weigh what word/words to accompany this with: Cute vs. Classy vs. Preserving of the hair time spared him. 

‘Tis midday in midsummer, at the economic center of the economic center of Lebanon. A precise working formula for intrigue and swelter. The Roman baths are beneath us now--History, brown and crumbling. And now I end this, upon further scribbling.     

                                                                                                            ___

Ghada Al-Samman, 'The Eraser'

Ghada Al-Samman (1942-), 'The Eraser'

(translated from the Arabic by Sivar Qazaz)

 

I spend my night writing you love letters;The eraser
Then spend my day 
Erasing each, word by word. 
Your eyes are my golden compasses;
They point me toward the sea of separation!  

 

Mahwi, 'Untitled'

Mahwi (1830-1906), 'Untitled'

(translated from the Kurdish by Danar Rashid and A.M. Levinson-Labrosse)

 

As he places his lips on my lips, my soul rises.
As his lips depart, my soul vanishes.
Holding sugar, savoring of salt, any way it tasted, I would say:
The blossom, new and opening, is that mouth, those lips.
Anyone seeing my beloved in a crowd would say,
“God, who are all those monsters around this angelic being!”
The days exist for the night, as time to strive for sustenance.
Even a king, if he lets the day pass by, will weather the night hungry.
Spring was a beauty that became old autumn’s mockery:
The garden and its traces have vanished, only a handful of twigs remains.
Even the city of non-existence is now no place to be wild:
It is a desert belonging to Majnun [1], mountains designated for Kohkan [2].
It is inevitable idiocy for Mahwi, driven as he is by the deceit of the self built from evil [3].
Only the mercy of God could close [4] the mouth of that biting snake [5].
 
Untitled
 

  [1] A poor young man who fell in love with a plain woman. He swore, against all others’ protests, that his beloved was beautiful beyond compare.  Because of his poverty, she would not marry him. Mad with love, he wandered into the desert to finish out his days.
 [2] Another man without fortune who fell in love with a beautiful woman married to a rich man. Consumed with love, he moved into the mountains to carve his beloved’s name, Shirin, into every stone.
 [3] In Islam, there are two selves, analogous to the proverbial angel and devil that appear on our shoulders. One self is built from good, one from evil.  At the end of this line, Mahwi plays with this concept using the phrase, “the self built” - a shortening of that full phrase, “the self built from evil.” To render the full meaning for English speakers, we’ve included the full phrase.
 [4] “Close” here has violent undertones - more like slamming a door than like closing a book.
 [5] It’s possible that this poem is actually several poems shoved together. As classical poems have been passed down, distinct poems have often been combined.  

 
 

Yahya Kemal Beyali, 'Mehlika Sultan'

Yahya Kemal Beyali (1884-1958),  'Mehlika Sultan'

(translated from the Turkish by Nergis Ismet and A.M. Levinson-LaBrosse)

 

Each in love with Mehlika Sultan, seven young men,Mehlika Sultan
As night fell, snuck out through the city gates:
Each in love with Mehlika Sultan, seven young men,
And each of them a true lover.

She was like a ghost, the world’s most beautiful,
From the moment she entered their dreams;
All went to see her, that sacred, unknown beauty.
Went into the mountains of Kaf.

All, shepherd’s rough wool, on their backs,
For days, they travelled, their heart grieving.
Every day when night covers the horizon,
They said, perhaps this is the last evening.

But the exile of wishing has no edge;
Always the road lengthens, the heart saddens:
Each wanderer, as long as he lives, walks;
Before reaching the range, he dies somewhere.

Mehlika’s true lovers
Came to a well that had no hand wheel.
Mehlika’s true lovers
Looked into, their eyes full of fear, the water.

They saw: ”A secret universe in the mirror…
A horizon with death cypress all over…”
They thought for a moment something has been born:
That, long eyed, long haired fairy.

Of these sad wanderers, the youngest
For a time, looked at the ruined well,
And then, for some reason, took a silver ring
From his finger and threw it into the water.

Like raising water from that well, it became a dream!..
They came to the final point of this journey;
An imaginary world sprung in to existence.
They immigrated to that imaginary world.

Each in love with Mehlika Sultan, seven young men,
Years passed, haven’t yet returned.
Each in love with Mehlika Sultan, seven young men,
From there, they will not return, people say.

                                                                                                      *

Mehlika Sultan

Mehlika Sultan'a âşık yedi genç 
Gece şehrin kapısından çıktı: 
Mehlika Sultan'a âşık yedi genç 
Kara sevdalı birer âşıktı. 

Bir hayâlet gibi dünya güzeli 
Girdiğinden beri rü'yâlarına; 
Hepsi meshûr, o muammâ güzeli 
Gittiler görmeye Kaf dağlarına. 

Hepsi, sırtında aba, günlerce 
Gittiler içleri hicranla dolu; 
Her günün ufkunu sardıkça gece 
Dediler: ''Belki bu son akşamdır'' 

Bu emel gurbetinin yoktur ucu; 
Daimâ yollar uzar, kalp üzülür: 
Ömrü oldukça yürür her yolcu, 
Varmadan menzile bir yerde ölür.

Mehlika'nın kara sevdalıları 
Vardılar çıkrığı yok bir kuyuya, 
Mehlika'nın kara sevdalıları 
Baktılar korkulu gözlerle suya. 

Gördüler: ''Aynada bir gizli cihân.. 
Ufku çepçevre ölüm servileri.....'' 
Sandılar doğdu içinden bir ân 
O, uzun gözlü, uzun saçlı peri. 

Bu hâzin yolcuların en küçüğü 
Bir zaman baktı o viran kuyuya. 
Ve neden sonra gümüş bir yüzüğü 
Parmağından sıyırıp attı suya. 

Su çekilmiş gibi rü'yâ oldu!.. 
Erdiler yolculuğun son demine; 
Bir hayâl âlemi peydâ oldu 
Göçtüler hep o hayâl âlemine. 

Mehlika Sultan'a âşık yedi genç 
Seneler geçti, henüz gelmediler; 
Mehlika Sultan'a âşık yedi genç 
Oradan gelmeyecekmiş dediler...

Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, 'The Act of Love'

Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse (1985-), 'The Act of Love'

(translated from English to Turkish by Nergis Ismet)

 

Aşkın Ifadesi

Şüphesiz tabiki, siir değersizdir. 

Birine sor, gercek nedir? ve hepsi
  bir seye dokunmak, bir seyi tutmak icin ulasacaklar:
  bir masa, bir insan.  Ama ani bir sessizlik vücuda 
çöktüğü zaman, sanki okyonusların dalgaları yeni
  durumş gibi, omuzundan tutacak 
hic kimse olmaz. istediğin nedir 
bir yüzeye dokunmak icin ulaştığında? 
Gerceklik dersin, demek istediğin dokunabilirliliktir. 
Ve aşk dokunulunabilir—şiir, şüphesiz
  camdan dışarıya, yol kenarında esen rüzgarla birikmiş
lastik parçaları, kuruyup küçülmüş kabuklar, 
şeker kağıtları ile karışması için bırakabiliriz. 
Bu sorun değil? Bir aşkın ifadesi olmasi hariç, 
bu sorun değil. Benim günlerim gibi,
sadece bir kızın gunleri, hic kimsenin ve hic bir şeyin,
gercekten bağlı olmadığı, hatta hayatın
  tanımı bile. Hepsi kendisi için önemlidir. 
Bildiğin bir şehirde kaybolmayı dene. 
Bir sürü insanın varığı onlara, 
benimkinin bana önemli olduğu kadar önemli ve tek, ama hala
ben onları düşünmem. Hatta onları hayalimde bile doğru
  canlandıramam. Katılıyorum, belkide benim anlamamı istediğinden
  daha derin, hiç bir şey sorun değil. Kesinlikle 
ne bu şiir, nede bu şair.

Act of Love

 *

The Act of Love

Sure, of course, the poem is worthless.
Ask someone, What is real? and they’ll reach 
for something to knock on, something to grab:
a table, a person.  But when the sudden silence comes
to the body, as if the ocean had just then ceased
to wave, there will be no one to grab
by the shoulder.  What is it
that you want when you reach toward some surface?
You say reality; you mean tangibility.
And love is tangible - the poem, sure,
that we can let flutter out the window, drift
to the roadside to pile up with blown out tire shreds,
shriveled rinds, candy wrappers.  
It doesn’t matter.  Except as an act of love, 
it doesn’t matter.  Like my days, 
just one girl’s days on which no one and nothing 
truly depends, not even the definition
of life.  All of it self-important.
Try getting lost in a city you know.
So many people whose existence is as important, singular
to them as mine is to me, yet
I don’t think of them.  Can’t even accurately imagine
them.  I agree, deeper than you meant 
me to maybe, that nothing matters.  Certainly 
not this poem, not this poet.

Jameel Al-Zahawi, 'My Honesty'

Jameel Al-Zahawi (1863-1936), 'My Honesty'

(translated from the Arabic by Sivar Qazaz and A.M. Levinson-LaBrosse)

 

I love honesty in words and deeds Honesty
And I hate the tendency toward hypocrisy.

I don’t deceive anyone about anything 
Or harbor a desire to drink the foam: give me the milk!

And I am not for those who see goodness 
In keeping the truth hidden 

Nor for those who hold that religion standsHonesty2
Up from God’s inspiration sent down to prophets 

But I hold religions are creatively made 
By wise men in possession of their minds.

Nor am I for those who live on the illusion
That the soul will ascend to heaven: 

The earth swims in space Honesty2b
And what is heaven if not that space?

And I am not for those who take pride 
In those praised for shedding blood 

Nor for those who associate with the past - 
They live looking back.

Nor am I for those who judge others 
Except the judges presiding over the judiciary.Honestyimage

Nor for those who are all flattery to your face
And then unseen speak only hostility.

Nor am I for those who see lineage as all 
Encompassing; it can’t raise creatures to any great height.

Nor am I for those who seek shelter from 
The epidemic in humming prayers

Nor for a clan that prays and fasts 
For the divine reward they were promised

Nor for those who hold that God rewards 
Ablutions and prayers with a virgin 

Nor for those who believe things perish,
That air forms from nothing;

Life is accumulation and death merely dispersion
Each separate existence is only a change in form.Honesty4

And I am not for those who give great 
Favor to men and not women 

But the earth revolved until 
This one and those became confused. 

Bedirhan Gokce, 'Snow'

Bedirhan Gokce (1981-), 'Snow'

(translated from the Turkish by Nergis Ismet)

 

How it snowed today, this night near to the morning.
Everywhere so white, like a new bride.
One by one, fell down the love song of the sky.
It cleaned the sin from every sinner’s face...

Flowers opened in every face as it snowed.

Happy and innocent, for the first time,
Laughing like children, like children they are.
Each flake fell like a gift from the sky...

They fell down from the street lights, one by one
Calmly, they came down, without touching each other.
Angels carry each one of them,
My mother used to tell me, though I did not believe her.

One became a thousand mixed with ten thousand,
It increased and and raised a step from the ground.
One by one, people started to go out into the street,
Each footprint in the snow remained as our sins...

God had fallen over the people just like a snow,
He cleaned and whitened each of us, like a white bird.
Before we were cleaned, tar coal over tar coal,
We were not able to look at mirrors even in daylight.

People are bad these days, nothing changes with time,
We cannot blame past time, all we have done to ourselves.
And what would we do, if it didn’t snow?
But God, again, pitied us, look, he reached us.

Snow, white as snow, and our mothers’ milk, too, 
The bride’s dress and also the shroud we wear,
In one of them we cry, while in the other we laugh,
Among all these whites, come and distinguish.

snow

 *

Kar

Nasıl kar yağdı bugün, gece sabaha karşı,
Ortalık bembeyazdı, sanki bir gelin gibi.
Tane tane döküldü, göklerin sevda marşı,
Günahtan arındırdı, tüm günahkâr yüzleri...

Yüzünde güller açtı kar yağınca herkesin,
İlk kez böyle günahsız, ilk kez böyle neşeli…
Çocuklar gibi gülsen, çocuklar gibi sen
Gökten armağan gibi döküldü her tanesi...

Sokak lambalarından, süzüldü tane tane
Usul usul indiler bir birine değmeden.
Melekler indirirmiş her bir kar tanesi,
Annem öyle derdi de inanmazdım küçükken.

Bir iken bin oldular, on binlere karıştı,
Çoğaldı da yerden bir karış açtı.
İnsanlar döküldüler yollara birer birer,
Değen her ayak izi bir günah gibi kaldı...

Allah kar gibi yağdı kullarının üstüne,
Temizledi akladı, bembeyaz bir kus gibi.
Her birimiz yıkandı, katran katran üstüne,
Bakamaz olmuştuk biz aynalara gün gibi.

İnsanlar kötü artik, zaman hiç değişmedi,
Geçen zaman ne yapsın, biz ettik kendimize.
Bu karda yağmasaydı halimiz ne olurdu?
Allah yine acıdı, bak yetişti bizlere...

Kar da bembeyaz yağar, anamızın sütü de
Gelinlik de beyazdır, giydiğimiz kefen de,
Birinde ağlarız biz diğerinde güleriz,
Beyazdan ak beyazı, buyurun sıyırın işte…

 

 

Mohammed Omar Othman, 'Fog and Haze'

Mohammed Omar Othman (1957-), 'Fog and Haze'

(translated from the Kurdish by Muhammed Chawsawa)

 

I am the shout of a million trees,Fog
Facing the tempest, limbless and fallen.
I am the wailing of a million birds,
Nests collapsed and homeless.

From the window of an endless autumn,
I gaze out at the world in fog, 
The blood of shed leaves.
I gaze into the darkened lamps of houses.

--

I am an Ismail now, not the knife of Ibrahim the father but
The knife of homesickness, that monster, beheads me.
Which of the angels will intervene before my death and beheading?
Which of the angels will give an animal, a scapegoat, to this homesickness?

Sheikh Raza Talabani, 'The Lover's Malady'

Sheikh Raza Talabani (1836-1910), 'The Lover's Malady'

(translated from the Kurdish by Hemn Bakr Abdullah and A.M. Levinson-LaBrosse)

 

It is destined, I know, I swear to God, and it kills me: the lover’s malady. 
Come, please, for the love of God, release me, physician.

Come, please, let my hand touch the glass chimney of your neck
Til my rival’s belly splits like a weighted tablecloth.
My fate is jinxed.  I am afraid the pain of separation
Will kill me and I will not reach the country of my beloved.
Your eyes - magicians, magicians! - mesmerize. 
With a glance, they could turn an ascetic a hundred years old.
When my tortured heart is far from you, oh being’s relief,
It’s east and west, between me and patience, patience.
Every downhill has its uphill, but
I haven’t seen, I swear to God, anything but downhills in pursuit of your love.
Without tendrils of hair framing your face, appearance fixed, or 
perfume, without make-up mixed in with your beauty, beauty, 
A Sheikh would trade, if he took one look at your forelock, 
His sacred cloth and prayer beads for the red belt, cross-wood, and cross.
He’s wretched, crippled by separation,
So, have mercy on Radha, it is virtuous to show mercy to strangers.

malady

Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, 'Here and There'

Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse (1985-), 'Here and There'

(translated from English to Turkish by Nergis Ismet)

 

Burada ve Orada

Üzüm bağları var Afganistanda,
verimli dirençli zemin, ve bir kaskın yetersizHere
gölgesinde oturup meyve yiyen
askerler: bir salkım avuçlarında. Üzümler
tüneyen bir kuş, uzatılan ellerde:
aç askerler şarkı söyluyor, kuşlar da şarkı, söyleyerek cevap veriyorlar.

Kandahar asmaları kuşlarını büyütüyor,
kökle sonlanan ince ağaç gövdeleri,
ince bacaklar dal ve çıkıntılar altında
ilerliyor. Bu şarkı söyleyen kuşlar, sıra şeklinde dinleniyorlar, taki
ikinci çiftc,çi mekanik tohumları ekene 
dek. Sonra titriyerek, püskürürcesine 
uçuşa geçiyorlar, ağac kökünü bırakıyorlar: bütün alan dolu.

Bir ormanda, Italya’da, bir baba ve oğul
şarkı söyleyen kuşları, yapıştırıcı kireç ile yakalayıp
akşam yemeği kazanmak için satıyorlar. Konanı 
yakalamak için, ulaşabildikleri dalları yapıştırıcı ile
boyuyorlar. Alıcılar çocuğa söylemiyorlar:
Fansa’da restoran müşterileri eğilip bükülerek,
bu kuşların ve nadir yiyeceklerin
servis edileceği, önce başların yenildiği, arka odalara girecekler.

Düzenli esen rüzgara ve yağmura--
oluk kanallarında kısa gürültülere inat --
sevgilim ve ben, köpeğimiz ayaklarımızın üzerinde, bir aradayız:
kaz derisi, fanila, yastık üstü
dizler şefkatle sarılıyorlar, arkalarda önlerle,
güçlü bir önkol göğüslerin arasında,
dağların vadileri kucakladığı gibi,
hepsi verimli, yeşeren bir şekil oluşturuyor.

 *

Here and There

There are grape fields in Afghanistan,
fertile fighting ground, and soldiers
who sit to eat the fruit in the scant shade
of a helmet: a bunch in the hand.  The grapes 
are a bird perched on the outstretched hand:
the hungry soldier sings, the bird sings in response.

The Kandahar vines grow their birds, 
thin trunks ending in rootstock, 
thin legs marching along under the shoots 
and canes.  These songbirds, rest in rows, until
the second farmer plants the mechanical 
seed.  Then, they tremble, burst 
into flight, leave stumps: a field full.

In a forest, in Italy, a father and son
catch songbirds with lime to sell
for supper.  They paint the branches
within reach with glue to hold 
what lands.  The buyers don’t tell the boy: 
in France, restaurant goers will slouch 
into back rooms where the birds, a delicacy, 
will be served, eaten head first.

Against the steady wind moan and rain -- 
short shouts in the gutter spouts -- 
my lover and I, the dog over our feet, pile:
goosedown, flannel, pillowtop,
knees tucked into knees, nates to nether
region, a strong forearm between breasts,
the way mountains nestle valleys, 
all contouring into a single, lush shape.

Nizar Qabbani, 'The Diary of an Uneducated Dog'

Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998), 'The Diary of an Uneducated Dog'

(translated from the Arabic by Soran Hunter and A.M. Levinson-LaBrosse)

My king, my king,
I don’t want your sapphire or gold - dog
Nor your finest clothes.
All I need is for you to hear me:
My poems carry
All voices of Arabs,
All the curses of Arabs.
If you, my lord, don't love poems and songs 
Then tell your swordsman to give me the freedom to bark.
My king, my king,
There's no doubt that you could cut off every head
But why you are against love and lovers?
Why are you, my lord, against the ink and the paper?
You have everything you ask for:
Soldiers, prisons, and gallows,
Thunder and lightning bolts.
You have the balance scale and the judgment staff. 
You have rewards and punishments.
On the other hand, I only plant lilies 
And let birds free.
Your habit, my lord,
Is shooting birds.
Tell me why, my lord?
You are against planting and herbs.
You are against the sea, rain, and clouds.
You won awards for terrorism.
Tell me why?
You hate books.
Tell me why?
You guard your kingdom from the threat of grammar, spelling, definitions.
Tell my why?
You fear  
The education of dogs.

Abdulla Pashew, 'The Peddler and the Pack Mule'

Abdulla Pashew (1946-), 'The Peddler and the Pack Mule'

(translated from the Kurdish by Hemn Bakr Abdullah and A.M. Levinson-LaBrosse)

 

A peddler rode a pack-mulePeddler
For a long way 

Without letting the animal rest
Until they arrived in a grassy place –

When the donkey saw
The wide pastures 

He fancied himself nature’s guest,
Neither ghost around nor load on his back,

And he began braying and jumping,
And the world became his spring.

The cunning owner, just then,
Heard behind the hills

A ruckus, the noise of a crowd, 
And realized his peril,

And said, “Dear donkey, listen - 
The sounds of bandits!

Let me load your saddle bags and 
Save you from them.”

The donkey laughed, 
“Master, my sweaty friend,

You load my burden on your back
To save yourself.

I am a donkey, a toiler,
And with a saddle blanket on my back,


What difference does the master make? Pain is pain
If I am yours or the bandits’.”

 *

دێوهرهو کهر

 

دێوهرەیەك بە سواری کەر،

رێیەكی دووری گرتە بەر.

 

نەیهێڵا کەر بدا بێنێ،

تا ڕێیان کەوتە بژوێنێ.

 

کەر کە بینیی وا لەو ناوە

گیاوگۆڵ سەری پێىوه ناوە،

 

میىوانی گەورەی سروشتە،

نە خێو، نە باری لە پشتە!

 

بە زەڕەزەڕ، بە غارەغار،

دنیای هەموو کردە بەهار.

 

لەپڕ خاوەن کەری زۆرزان

هەستی کرد وا لەودیى تەلان

 

هەرا و هۆریا و دەنگەدەنگە،

ئیتر زانیی کاری لەنگە!

 

گۆتی:(( کەرە گیان، گوێ گرە،

ئەو دەنگە دەنگی ڕێگرە!

 

هەتا زووە با بارت کەم

لە ڕێگران ڕزگارت کەم))

 

کەر دایە قاقای پێکەنین...

گۆتی: (( قوربان، هاوڕێی شیرین!

 

بارەکەی من لە خۆت بار کە.

هەتا زووە خۆت ڕزگار کە.

 

کە من کەر بم، بارەبەر بم،

کوىرتان لە پشت، هەشبەسەر بم،

 

فەرقی چییە؟ دەرد هەر دەردە،

کەری تۆ بم، یا هی جەردە!))

Ahamad Mukhtar Jaff, 'The Issue of Conscience'

Ahamad Mukhtar Jaff, 'The Issue of Conscience'

(excerpt; translated from the Kurdish by Danal Rashid)

 

[...] After I relaxed for a while at a teashop, I went looking for a rented room to inhabit. I found a room with a small rent. In the night, I pondered how would I live here? I remembered that I have some poor writing. I would go to the municipality palace and write appeals for people. Then I was afraid they wouldn’t allow me. The next morning, filled with anxiety, I went to the palace. It was crowded like an ant colony with impoverished villagers.

I noticed that there were a number of appeal writers. Their situation didn’t seem bad as there were crowds around them. I didn’t hesitate; I bought some paper and ink in a nearby shop. I placed my workshop in a corner of the palace near to the gate. In that day, my only work was an appeal which God turned to evil on me. I waited to see the result of my first appeal, waited while the mayor read it.

Still it is unsolved; because of my terrible handwriting or the illiteracy of the mayor? Then, he clearly had read the appeal because he saw that instead of writing, “My sheep are counted once this year and they put tax on them twice. I’m unfairly treated,” I wrote, “I have two flocks of sheep which are counted only once. Please, look upon this unfairness.” The head of the office angrily said: “Hey, man, where are you from?”Issue

“Sir, I’m from this town in origin”

“What does this deception mean? Since you don’t know how to write, why did you put yourself in the place of an appeal writer? Look at this terrible hand writing and this nonsense appeal! Instead of appealing against the unfair case of this poor man, you made it worse for him. I will send you to police right now and you will be under arrest. You will be judged with tribal laws so that no one will dare do this again.” As he mentioned tribal law, I was surprised since those laws are used only for conflicts between two tribes including murderers and victims in which it is deemed unsolvable by the court. Or on some occasions, it is used for cases where judiciary laws hurt the regional interest of that place.

I was scared and thought that my situation might be dire. With a fearful voice I asked: “Sir I don’t belong to a tribe and I am not a tribal leader. I’m a poor man, working day and night for my survival. What do I have to do with tribal laws?

He shouted to the room, “Who is over there?”

Suddenly some men emerged. He shouted over to them, “Beat him as much as you can afford!”

I received many smacks and punches on my face, I was shattered with kicks. Then, he handed me the report about my appeal. I observed that my terrible handwriting was much better than his dirty handwriting. I contemplated and said, “God, you are the Omnipotent! Some people are put under trial for terrible handwriting, and others live a happy life despite it.”

Jameel Al Zahawi, 'Equality in Age'

Jameel Al Zahawi (1863-1936), 'Equality in Age' (translated from the Arabic by Sivar Qazaz)

How many men of sixty have married adolescents,
Their gray hair burning as fire on their heads?

For an unknown term, he does his work with her,

And it might be short, that term,

And the tether of kindness, afterward, is his last concern,
Whether it stretches between them or not.

She married without apprehending her future misery:
Is her husband one of the ogres or a man?

He curses her, not for a sin, then kicks her - 
She bears all his insults.

And after that, he scurries off as an ostrich would to 
His friends, dry inside as dead wood,

Four never enough to satisfy his insatiable hunger,
While, for a wolf, one lamb satiates.

Her family forced her to marry
The rich, coveted, old Sheikh.

In his house, he has wives,
Three, but the Sheikh wished four,

She sleeps with him in the house: as he is
Old as her father, tell us, how is the union made?

In the house, she will live miserable or die depressed.
Death by sorrow is better.

In the house, sorrow, misery, and despair will appear
To her, as ghosts; she will receive disasters as guests.

And she was wedded to the Sheikh, giving as her gift
her misery, a gift he greatly enjoyed.

She begged him, Please, Sheikh, don’t bring me your desire.
You are my father, but even older.

If your gray hair didn’t deter me,
Your ignorance would.

The Sheikh refused to fetter his lust,
Unhappy to leave what he expected.

He puffed angrily, angling his brow,
And grabbed at her as she pushed him away,

Telling her, Asmaa, you are mine by Sharia
And what Sharia makes mine shall obey.

God in heaven made you mine.  He is
Wise and prescribes the right and the wrong.

When she saw there was no one to defend her, preserve her
From the Sheikh, when the Sheikh began to tire,

She lifted a cup, prepared
With poison, and, provoked, gulped it down.

Age

 

 

Mohammed Omar Othman, 'The Lady of the Red Dress'

Mohammed Omar Othman (1957-), 'The Lady of the Red Dress'

(translated from the Kurdish by Muhammed Chawsawa)

 

Thirty winters have elapsed and
Though the storm’s hand has shaken the bark of her bole millions of times,
The heavy sleet has not been able to shutter the window’s gaze.

Thirty springs have elapsed, too, 
Without his bringing a hand to gift her a flower for her white, unkempt hair.

Thirty autumns have elapsed, too:
Along with her yellowed fingers, her eyes, seeds of Narcissus, have wilted,
     and the bloody 
wildflowers of Lady
her lips have crumpled.

These thirty summers, also, have burnt her.
Were she snow, she would have evaporated.
Two of her tiny teardrops
Are bigger than Zrebar, Khazar, and Zalm.

Thirty years before, at dusk, she in a red dress, held a bouquet, 
He, unsteady, as if on embers, searched for her, 
Careless of what accident waited for him.
They, the lovers, approached the crossroads, their meeting place.
Before they could join hands,
A car, calamity, took him from her.
In the street, blood streamed.

She, the distraught one, all evenings
In the same place, the same dress, and pain, and misery,
In the crowds of people, she looks desperately for her lover’s appearance 
Refusing to believe that he rests between walls of soil.

Her face has fallen, wrinkled, like an apple from its tree.
Still, she stands, still waiting, the loyal lady.
Damn this era that has forgotten her.

Sherko Bekas, 'When I Was a Child'

Sherko Bekas (1940-2013), 'When I Was a Child'

(translated from the Kurdish by Muhammed Chawsawa and A.M. Levinson-LaBrosse)

 

When I was a child,

My left hand wished,
Similar to our neighbor’s well dressed children,
To have a watch.
I mourned.
My mother could only biteChild
My wrist:
With her teeth, 
She would draw a watch.
Oh, that delighted me! 

When I was a child,
The meaning of happiness
Was: in the bath,
The bubbles, lanterns of green and red 
That I made
Puffed from the soap foam.

When I was a child,
In winter,
In the heat of the hearth,
I would sit
Looking at the embers,
Bright and blossoming,
I wished,
As a child,
To go into the embers,
To sit down,
To make them home!

When I was a child, many evenings
I was sent to Mrs. Manija’s house
To buy pickles.
That taste so delicious because,
After looking over my shoulder,
At the narrow alley’s switchback,
In one or two shots, 
I snuck the juice from the glass.

When I was a child,
Love meant to me:
The night before the feast,
Till morning, till my eyes opened,
With me, in an embrace, 
slept my new shoes.

When I grew up,
My left hand saw
Many real, beautiful watches
But none like the watch 
Fitted by my mother’s teeth
On my fore and upper arm,
None could please me that much.

When I grew up,
None of my room’s forty lamps and lights
Could, like the bubbles of the soap foam,
Make me chuckle.

When I grew up,
I didn’t make any flame of my stove
A home to live in.

When I grew up, no food

Tasted as that shot of pickle juice did.

When I grew up,
I didn’t bring any shirts, ties, and new suits
Into my bed
As I did with my feast-day shoes,
The ones that, my eyes wide in anticipation,
Slept with me, in an embrace - - 
None of them, none of them!

Sheikh Raza Talabani, “Five Bricks to the Messiah"

Sheikh Raza Talabani (1936-1910), “Five Bricks to the Messiah"

(translated from the Farsi by Shadman Hiwa and A.M. Levinson-LaBrosse)

 

In the garden of dreams, my heart became a precious essence.
Love for you, carved in black and white, a chessboard, on my breast,
went slithering like a python over the treasury. 
Your eyes, nose, brow, profile and feather-fine wrinkles, all five,
Make your beautiful face, all five.

When my eyes took in your golden body,

That beauty, my heart and soul fell unconscious.
The morning birds all began to shout,
Cedar, rose, jasmine, bray, and euonymus,
for the pinnacle that is you, sacrificed themselves, all five.

Never have I seen kindness like yours on earth,
whatever we called you, you are Joseph of Canaan.
An ascetic, when he saw you, vowed on the Quran that
The sun, the moon, mars, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn,
Demand your presence, all five.

The lover, the one whose heart is injured, rightly said,
"You are lost in your desire for flowers, won't you
Please bestow your kindness on a poor man like me.”
I and the ascetic and the abstinent, the king and the mendicant,
Spend our days kissing the paw of the dog at your gate, all five.

If you wish to triumph in the path of love,
You, Radha, must drink the morning's wine.
If you can even hear advice, don’t let love for him make you morose.
Wisdom, reason, senses, heart and spirit (Oh, Messiah)
Are all lost for the love of your curly hair, all five.

Bricks

 

 

Mohammed Omar Othman: 'A Fall Letter'

Mohammed Omar Othman (1957-), 'A Fall Letter'

(translated from the Kurdish by Muhammed Chawsawa and A.M. Levinson-LaBrosse)

 

Oh girl, whose dress is green even in fall, who places fresh flowers in her hair,
Don’t dream of my hands as a belt for your waist!
Haven’t you seen how the white fire of age has devoured my head of hair?
I’m afraid for it to come too close to your forest of black.
Haven’t you seen my fingers that are ten dry sticks?
If they become the comb for your hair, they will break in an instant.
Don’t blame me if you see my eyes looking like the clouds of winter.
The poem’s shore is enough for me to embrace.
If you hear that I have killed myself, know that
I couldn’t voice a poem to hold my misery.

Letter

 

Nizar Qabbani, 'I Fear'

Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998), 'I Fear'

(translated from the Arabic by Soran Hunter)

 

I fear to say to whom I loveFear
"I love you"
As the wine in the jar
Loses something
When we pour it.
 

Mohammed Omar Othman, 'A Telegram'

Mohammed Omar Othman (1957-),  'A Telegram'

(translated from the Kurdish by Muhammed Chawsawa)

 

Do you know why to my world’s poem...all is fall...all is hurricane?

I only feel fall...fall is my nation

I am nostalgia...don’t ask me...what is nostalgia?

My life is a refugee, loneliness, and seclusion

I would like to be a cloud...fall down on your branch and bole

Be a butterfly...in midnight be the charred around your lamp

We are two dew drops...tomorrow the sun of misery will either take us away

Or we are two leaves...the fall storm will place our heads into embrace of nostalgia!telegram

Yahya Kemal Beyali, 'Silent Ship'

Yahya Kemal Beyali (1884-1958), 'Silent Ship'

(translated from the Turkish by Nergis Ismet and A.M. Levinson-LaBrosse)

 

When it is time to take anchor from time,
A ship departs from this harbor to nowhere.

As though it has no passenger, silently it begins its trip:
Neither a handkerchief nor an arm moves while it departs.

The ones left at wharf are sorrowful because of this trip,
For days, they look to the black horizon with tears in their eyes.

Poor hearts, this is neither the last departed ship,
Nor bitter life’s last mourning.

On the earth, the loved and the lover wait in vain,
Unaware that the lover and the loved won’t return.

It seems that many of those gone are pleased with their places:
Many years have passed; no one has returned from his trip.

Abdulla Pashew, 'Children, an excerpt'

Abdulla Pashew (1946-), 'Children'

(excerpt; translated from the Kurdish by Shadman Hiwa)

Children

Oh, those who live a severe life
On the oily chest of Babagorgor,       
Nearby the fountain of the inverse flames, 
I saw a tomb of clay.
On it, was written:
Here, a lovely Kurdish child
died of hunger.

 

 

Matar, 'Optimism'

Matar (1954-), 'Optimism'

(translated from the Arabic by Sivar Qazaz)

 

A knock on my door: a creature carrying the horrible shackles of slaves,
Infection in his mouth, obituaries in his hands, 
Malevolence in his eyes,

His head between his legs, his legs blood,
His arms festering,
He said: I have good news for you.
I said: Good?!
He said: Record:
Your sorrow will seem like a memory
Compared to the severe misery you will live in! 
If you rent,
You will no longer pay:
They will give you a house with iron rods!
Killing you, once uncertain, 
Now is for sure!
The power of faith in you will increase. 
You will survive the fire, 
Martyr, as if you never entered it!

optimism

 

 

Acknowledgements

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, community.  In particular, we wish to thank Athanasios Moulakis, former President, and Darcy Wudel, former Dean of Faculty, who approved and supported the creation of this class, to Kyle Long, Director of Communications, and the Communications Office, specifically, Kaitlin Taylor and Bzhar Boskani, who put together publicity materials for our final reading at Cha Hanishab.

Our gratitude, also, to those without whose support a place like the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani isn’t possible.

As well, many thanks to Chris DeBruyn, whose photographs give this book such beauty.

Finally, thank you to the students and their families who make this institution and this project possible.

 

Photo Credits

“The Eraser”: Marie LaBrosse

“The Peddler and the Pack Mule”: Marie LaBrosse

“A Fall Letter”: photographer unknown

All other photographs: Chris DeBruyn

 

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The IWP Publishing Gallery gathers work on the faultline between creative writing, translation, and language pedagogy. Colleagues worldwide contribute original texts, or curate collections of work.

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