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Poetry

A. The Moroccan Quarter, Jerusalem¹

 

Will that museum,
the Museum of the Wailing Wall, ever welcome a swallow,
or shake the hand of the Mediterranean,
_________________as Cadmus and Ulysses did? Will it ever bring
a woman back to life, the woman Europe was named after?

Peace unto you, human steps,
_________________you have become an architecture that stands for nature.

Indeed, history has lower levels and rungs.
____________________________Dust mocks the truths of water.
But why can history not distinguish tears from ink,
or a nail from a letter of the alphabet?

An etching made on a skull, not on clay.
Visits from the ruins of divination
_______________________never recorded.

Spume that topples the throne of water.

A system rises leaning on its stumps.

And on Solomon’s swamps sails a ship,
not from the West or the East,²
______but from the dust of meaning.

Baptize yourself in these swamps then.

No harbor, no refuge in the Moroccan Quarter
________________________except language—
______________________________an open wound, like the Book of Job.

Tell me, Book of Job:
Imprisonment, assault, torture, starvation, expulsion, exile, murder,
______are these the spoons
______you left at your elegant and sumptuous tables?

 

B. A Song

 

A man who loves his shackles
a wife fully veiled
a girl wearing a headscarf
and halal meat.
A hotel, a restaurant, a coffee shop, a graveyard.
No contradictions except
between an apple and Averroës.3
Table where the earth’s bosom trembles below,
______Writhe in hunger
______for a spoonful scooped from the belly of the whale,
____________or seek a path to that angelic swamp.
You soothe history with colors.
You paint an image for the staff that became a serpent,
for the sea to open its thighs and let drifters pass,
for the mountain that hosted Noah, his flood and his ark,
for the terror that no canvas can portray
_______________________and that mocks all our colors.

Writhe in hunger,
____________O table where the earth’s bosom trembles below,
wail out your hunger pangs.

 

C. Reflections

 

What can the children say to this ball they kick around
_________________________________________and call life?
How do they grasp the world, while the iron that grips
their throats
____________is mined from the pits of the unknown?

Traces of divination undulate in the Book of Job.
Gardens. Rivers of honey. Effeminate boys.
And the remains of books erased by other writing.

To the battlefield, angel soldiers!
The commanders are swimming in the dust of their underpants.

The curtain is black. No light to hold the windows in place.

 

D. Narrative

 

I have never seen the moon arrested and dragged to the harbor of holy books as I saw it that day. Like a pebble rubbed between fingers, a precious stone that adorns fingers and ankles. Yet, it sat tired in its work clothes, like an infant whose mother, the sun, denied her breast. It was held captive by the Book of Job. The before and the after, cartilage and bone in pavilions where birds of paradise take off and alight.

Apple skins
fall at Eve’s feet.

The mob cries out to the bow maker:
“Where is your bow?”4

The staff that became a serpent did not know that every alleyway in Jerusalem is a storehouse filled with prayers, all contradicting each other. Prayers impregnated with human moans (released ages before the flood) hobble to climb their own ladder.

 

E. Song

 

Who can read religion or write poetry,
____________when the unknown shatters the spine of the land,
“and as the earth erupts her final quaking?”
5

The earth, planet of our wayward days—
______angels in it, devils
______and divinity, symbolized and felt—
is it not our only womb?

 

F. News

 

A schoolboy crosses a checkpoint.
He defiles what ought never be defiled.
Prison will suffice him until his old age.

In the alley the smell of blood seeps from ages before the flood. Civil servants inspect the spout, monitored by soldiers. Thirst here surrenders its knowledge only to helmeted heads.

On a mountain of garbage the atoms dance.
A crimson angel, an electronic army
and every machine spreads a new disease.

 

G. A Saying

 

What wall are you pointing to, Book of Job?

This wall rises from sand that was never a labyrinth? It was once a sail and in it the god of law fused with the silver of architecture.6 It descends from towers that abut planets that muddle any possibility of a horizon. It stands now, a rubble of barbed wire, a recklessness filling the air.

The wall lives multiples lives in this ___ephemeral world. In the hereafter it will be merely a military shirt, guarding a camp filled with captives being tortured by divine executioners.

Anxiety fills a northern crack in the wall, shaded by words that know the unknown, and sleep that resembles waking.

The sun above dares to confess its age and infirmity. Shaded by the wall, she sits by a window facing the Mediterranean—a sea that has no middle ground,7 only tomb or sky.

But, how close the tomb appears!
____________________________And how distant the sky!
What can I say?
No, there is no sky any more.
No Sama’8.
The Seen is a sword, the Mim mortality,
the Alifs are an oppressive ancestry.
The glottal stop a vast emptiness.

 

H. Questions

 

I ask you, Book of Job,
how can a person build a bridge between two sides
when he sees only one of them?

What does a woman covered with a veil of cotton or silk say
to a woman covered by a veil of steel?

( . . . )

“As for your male and female slaves whom you may have—you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession. You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another…”9

And I ask you finally:

What becomes of a nation administered by killing and built on crime?

(…)

___________“Woe to him who builds a city
____________________________with blood,
and roots it in murder.”
10

 

I. Other Questions

 

When I read you, Book of Job, I see
___________how it swings inside you, how easily it breaks
this thin reed called humanity.

Is the other not the pulse of the infinite in you?
Is he not your other self?

Where is your end, Book of Job?

Why do you not stop erasing it, as if
you had never ceased to erase yourself?

Are you a journey to the world’s extremities?

If so, then you and the other are one.

But where is your other,
where do you end, O Book of Job?

 

Translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa.
Read our editor’s interview with Khaled Mattawa here.

 

NEA logoThis translation is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

 

  1. The Moroccan Quarter was a 770-year-old neighborhood in the southeast corner of the Old City founded by a son of Saladin in the late twelfth century. It was razed by Israeli forces after the Six-Day War in order to broaden the narrow alley leading to the Western Wall to allow better access for Jewish worshippers seeking to pray there.
  2. “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is as if there were a niche and within it a lamp: the lamp enclosed in glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His Light: Allah doth set forth parables for men: and Allah doth know all things” (From the Quran: Al-Nur 24:35, translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali).
  3. Averroës is the Latinized form of Ibn Rushd, or Abu al-Walid Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd (1126–98), the translator and commentator of Aristotle and great proponent of rationality in Arabic and Islamic thought. As such he stands for rationality here, while the apple stands for the human fall from paradise and for the irrational in all the monotheistic traditions. In commenting on Aristotle, Averroës argues that the power to judge “is divisible according to being and indivisible according to place and number. That is, perhaps what judges different things and contraries is divisible according to being and form, but indivisible according to subject and according to matter, as we say about the apple that it is indivisible in subject and divisible according to different kinds of being in it, namely, color, smell, and flavor” (translated by Richard C. Taylor).
  4. A well-known Arab proverb says, “Give a bow to the maker of bows”—implying that a problem can be resolved only by a person with practical knowledge of the subject at hand.
  5. A description of the Day of Judgment in the Quran reads, “When the earth is shaken to her (utmost) convulsion” (Quran: Al-Zalzala 99:1, translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali).
  6. Maimonides, in The Guide of the Perplexed, explains that in a saying that has two meanings “the external meaning ought to be as beautiful as silver, while its internal meaning ought to be more beautiful than the external one…as happens in the case of an apple of gold overlaid with silver filigree-work having very small holes. When looked at from a distance or with imperfect attention, it is deemed to be an apple of silver; but when a keen-sighted observer looks at it with full attention, its interior becomes clear to him and he know that it is of gold. The parables of the prophets, peace be upon them, are similar. Their external meaning contains wisdom that is useful in many respects, among which is welfare of human societies…. Their internal meaning, on the other hand, contains wisdom that is useful for beliefs concerned with truth as it is” (translated by Shlomo Pines).
  7. The Arabic word for the Mediterranean, Al-mutawasit, also means middle or medium, and relates to the word tawasut, which means fairness, mediation, and moderation.
  8. Sama’, the Arab word for sky, includes the letters Seen, Mim, and Alif—the first letter of the alphabet.
  9. Leviticus 25:44–46
  10. Habakkuk 2:12

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