by Golan Haji, translated from the Arabic by Golan Haji & Stephen Watts
White olive flowers, poking from scorched trunks,
I smell them in the moonlight.
It’s mid-May. I hear the tender slap of your hand against its lower branches,
that glimmer in the orchard night, their silver leaves rippled
by the breeze across their sheen of dust,
An owl flutters up–your son nurtured it like a tiny grouse in a guest-room,
it lives camouflaged like you, the door of its cage open, its eyes yellow
as narcissus eyes,
it will fly off tomorrow, in the dead of day, to tell your life to the vast prairies,
your life I fashioned from my own.
Will death then be so slightly drawn back
that God will cast his shadow across my blind eyes,
and shade my days that run between his hands,
a rosary beaded by a prisoner from tiny fruit pits?
When would the sea reach my bed without breaking over me,
a wall silvered by the sweat of our souls?
The moon–above the hills–is a silver bell.
The dew on the grass is the urine of the terrified who couldn’t escape.
The darkness dilates its coal-black eyes
(one of them a god’s dead from terror, the other a drowned son’s)
and time lain down between them, a bullet
shot by mercy into the forehead of terror.
I will hear in my final moments,
a prayer in a language I don’t understand,
and I will be happy.
Ships laden with cargoes of glances cast their anchors on the sea-floor of my head,
above them a sky that is not this sky
and someone waiting on the tiniest of islands for a glance of compassion,
and the one waiting is the double I live with everywhere but can’t see,
my insomnia-gossip telling me:
"You’re barred, so don’t leave.
You’re suspect wherever you go.
Soon, the cart of your memory will plunge into another mud
from which you will build another house and say:
'I wish I were there in the dog days of August,
Lying beneath clusters of black grapes muslined by my brothers’ old socks,
around which wasps swarm like drunkards.”’
With its mouth, Death feeds us black grapes in August,
its tiny eggs stuck to our eyelashes.
Our enemies revived our Gods,
resurrected from the ashes of our homes & the vapour of our blood.
Our friends, with their palms come down on our shoulders
to console us, buried our wings.
No bird of mercy touched our lips with its solitary wing.
No love abrupted our merciless timepieces with its water.
Warm in the lungs are our unsaid words.
And we who are warm because tainted time sleeps under our skin,
heavy because the time that died had crammed our tongues & bodies
with smashed stones that are no-one’s home any more.
We are burdened with what we avoided,
we are burdened by what we haven’t done.
We befriended here those we ran away from there.
Our light casts no shadow. Our bodies leave no trace.
A black ray of light had arrived before us,
with it the tailor of the world sewed the rend between
earth & heaven,
so another night poured over us,
this long, white night,
and freedom descended stairs we hadn’t seen,
burying itself in our midst, beneath grass & stones.
The ray is as black as our eyes,
we see its traces wherever we look,
shining in the corners of funeral notices & threadbare cloaks,
and with it a doll tied back the hair of its sleeping child,
and with it I throttled the voice inside my head,
tied my shoelaces & came to listen to you saying:
We heard our story being told before us,
& we kept silent, loathing our weakness,
& we withheld the tears we had saved for our sins.
They told us metaphors that we found laughable,
we heard that a wound is a window & a mirror,
in which a white hand waves
while we pause to rest in its shade, but photographers hunt us
down like snipers,
a white hand that tied my heart to a snake’s tail
and hung from your ears earrings that glinted like tiny hailstones.
They made us hear: “Your pain is lighter when narrated by others.
Your name is your stigma, your name is your heaven,
so dig a grave in your name & illuminate it with pain,
and stay as you are, in your wandering,
detained in this city or that,
a book no-one can understand,
a heavy book that will be drowned in the flood,
its covers eaten away,
and your name will be obliterated by time
and your black words melted in the black deep.
Say goodbye. Say I am the flower grown from your dirt,
fresh and trembling in the sun.
I am the lie you believed in & that I believed to escape you,
and if you uproot me, all the metaphors will shatter.”
Grand ideas leapt from the mountain tops and plummeted
to our lowest depths:
our good luck, that they’d failed in their attempts to fly.
The droplet that came back from hell without being evaporated,
that drop had fallen from the thirsty man’s lip
and sank into the sand to the depths of no meaning.
So be patient with me & don’t reproach me for being late.
That year will never pass,
it will poison at every moment every beat of the heart:
They all stared at you in silence,
knowing you would reach a cul-de-sac on the river bank.
So wake at daybreak and don’t insist I come at once.
I will fold away the old letter that yesterday embraced your face.
Cover with your palm the sparrow’s heart held in your chest.
Follow an ant as it climbs the stalk of a rose.
I am Death & I have no stories for you.
I am your redeemer & your healer,
and if you bleed once again, don’t ask for help:
this is your blood, even if drunk by the sun,
this is your harvest, even if of ashes.
The world is worse than it was this morning, sadder, quieter.
The far-off figures were still small when they arrived
like this drizzle.
They drowned in our pores, they clutched at our eyelashes,
they floated on the water of our dead feelings.
I lay down, whipped even by the rain, cast naked onto shores,
one shore after another.
So, have I arrived?
Everything pales on arrival,
restraining me, I the disguised one, surrounded by those who’d had hope
& those who were angry.
I would have narrated another story, had I escaped.
Words are abundant before any arrival & after every departure,
they bounce off everything like heavy rain, until they resemble dust.
No stories are left to tell their story.
I haven’t become a murderer, even if my hands frightened me,
and bewilderment scared me often in the night.
I had not realised which terror was the most extreme.
I foreswore my responsibility & blamed it on the ruins,
I hid from those who cursed me because I’d left stealthily like a thief running
away from killers,
and I attributed to myself stories that hadn’t happened to me.
I lied to those who sheltered me, I managed not to stutter, and said like a man castigating
“I’m not a stranger, so what am I guilty of? When is the punishment due ?”
I don’t know. I don’t know this ceiling: my breath, don’t abandon me as I sleep.
Where I had plunged into myself–a child crawling at his mother’s funeral,
an old man sleeping through the clamour of a wedding–
dreaming of what I can never remember, there in the distance where nothing is
nobody can distinguish the drowned from the saved.
Nobody can distinguish the drowned from those swimming.
The sky that had dried up the sea crumbled into it,
the fallen gods & the rocks of a rainbow
buried their cradles of waves
like a building collapsed over sleeping children.
A black ray of light coloured the faces of the drowned.
A solitary gull soars slowly at no great height,
lost like light in a desert of blue dust.
Whenever a god retreats or sleeps
he’s killed by his worshippers.
I knew nobody closely, because all were disguised as beggars:
cunning gods, penniless lovers, fathers humbled by their dark skin,
The sky wore a mask, the clouds dragged their heavy skirts,
the sunset blazed a tremendous masquerade.
It didn’t rain. The wind shook old drops off the sycamore branches.
The full moon shone like a trick to blind us.
The weight we lost during the wars
enabled us to fit our old clothes again.
We went back to what we’d piled up as alms & forgotten in bundles & closets:
socks we’d stuffed full of marbles & chalk for playground games,
shoes more wrinkled than our foreheads,
baggy trousers we’d dress scarecrows in if we managed to cross the border.
I coloured my rags and became a beggar, baffled at my courage,
a poor man playing the role of another poor man, falsifying my papers,
collecting my debts from those who hadn’t killed me.
I carried my moonlit night in the night of all souls
and trotted like a mouse inside an endless wall,
and I didn’t wake the water in which stars were sleeping.
And when I returned to where I was born,
I who was used to going back had to relive it all over again,
I sought out my companions & dusted from my lips an eternity of speechlessness,
just as my old swimming dog would shake off all the mud, my dog
who died on seeing me after all those years,
and I recited to myself the testament our enemies’ gods had sent to our gods,
waiting for a tomorrow where my son waits to bury me.
in the boat of this breeze you are alone.
time preys on life.
Here it is again, a loveless morning a sunless shadow,
then the same short December noon,
and in our hands the knot of insanity that hurt our teeth & bled our fingers
when we tried to untie it.
The child walks through much mud on his way home.
Nobody is in, except for his mother who doesn’t hear the door closing.
She doesn’t hear because she’s singing, and the ginger cat’s mewing on the threshold.
She’s singing in her loneliness
and steam from the soup runs down the window pane in the kitchen,
on the far side of the immense courtyard
where ants eat the lice in the lining of coats
and butterflies collect their debts in years of drought
and big teardrops shed by a sleeping girl dry under the apple tree ...
When the son comes closer, his mother thinks it’s the wind
so she calls out: “Come in, come in, take sweet tea with lemon.
The door is open, all of us are guests, like you.
Ah, my words, smoke of the fire in my liver.”
You who took your first steps at your mother’s funeral,
now carry in your arms the child you once had been, light & transparent.
You are still that same child.
Nothing changed. Nothing.
Our names become homeless.
Who forgets forgives who remembers.
Who took refuge in departure wishes to take leave of life.
We filled small rooms with the whispers of the humiliated,
we filled trains with our sacks,
green buses with our badly-bandaged wounded,
bulldozers with our memories, boats with the weight of our silence, the world
with our fears.
Then we sat amid the crowd where nobody usually sits,
the traffic lights gave out, the post boxes were smashed.
We lay down in a small park reached after a long walk, and we prayed to be in fear
We didn’t play with our phones so as not to terrify the neighbours,
that they not mistake our laughter for thunder
or backfiring motorbikes or the firecrackers of teenagers come in
from the suburbs.
We have with us a city that has departed the present,
and a child who feeds a famished animal that has gone to a corner to die.
We can’t know when what is no longer intact will collapse.
Earth will smoke us.
Your soul will rise up like a house built on the smoke of a cigarette,
and will ponder in its ascension your body
like a streetlamp gazing at ruins on a crowded street.
Earth smoked us.
And we were on the surface of her mirror while she bathed in the milk of the galaxies,
and we trod with care over the misty surface until we reached a conflagration
in another zone,
where we slipped enough to break our necks on the spilt water of those who had come
to extinguish it
and then prayed “may the end be the beginning.”
We kept on walking, immersed in the earth’s breath.
And we opened a huge door in the fog, not knowing where we were entering.
And we found ourselves in front of the bad omen of a square ultra-white façade.
With errant glances we went through its revolving doors, black as our eyes.
We only muffled our sighs when no more security bars remained in front of us
and no crimson alarms rang out
to expose the knives hidden in our silences.
We could smell in photographs the stench of dandies and heavily made-up women,
and beheld jostling crowds with a thousand fears shining in the pores of our skin.
Had we entered a furnace since those who cursed us cried out: “Is that hay or dry dung inside
Or had we kept walking, no longer knowing whether we were smoking or dying of cold,
Going forwards or backwards, with the future closing its circle around us
Like a lost ring & we its severed finger?
We opened the door and our breaths entered before us and so did the fog: immense
as the question we’d brought with us through the valleys & fields & hospital corridors,
and quick as the darkness, quicker than our hesitations,
coming from alleyways where patients sit on thresholds
sleepless as we are at daybreak, their foreheads wrapped,
drinking light-coloured tea,
cursing the wounds that hurt when they laugh.
In this white blindness I stretched my hand out towards what I could not see
fingering words that were crushed like snails underfoot on a road not taken,
under the sun that disappeared after burning our eyes
to show us the darkness it conceals.
Some words stopped growing and turned back to console us like silent dogs,
but the fearful are blind and deaf.
We had gone so far inside the die, suspended in its immense darkness.
Who is the enemy this time? Whose hand is the thrower?
Onto which shore will we be cast?
The roar bursts my closed ears.
I wish I had never had any fear.
I want the least of it, this world too much for me.
My pleasure is to remember in silence, my body thinning to air.
I forgot the names of streets & meals, I forgot the songs.
I forgot what I read, where I walked, what I’d seen and smelled,
where I slept and with whom, how long I remained lying down.
I say to myself, now as all things are muddied together:
“The quiet waters will show us marvels.”
Little by little this grey rain will remove the kohl of evening,
and before the train enters the tunnel,
the Suspension Bridge will have been left far behind, and the bougainvillea
crazily climbing the windows,
the umbrella with its ribs broken by the wind
like a spider whose prey had snapped its legs.
In the dimmed glass I will see my face when darkness gives it back to me,
pale and astonished, hungry after a long journey.
Who will I call out to in this intolerable crowd?
How will I become my own self’s city?
Wherever my eyes wander I see murderers.
I have to look for my own murdered.
I will start in the mirror.
The eye is a slave of what it sees.
Your fear blinded you,
my blindness set me free.