Nine poems by Youssef Rakha
Youssef Rakha is of course the author of the breathtaking كتاب الطغرى (Dar El Shorouk, 2011) [The Book of the Sultan’s Seal], which is due to come out in translation next year in English and the on-the-verge-of-being-released التماسيح (Dar Al Saqi, 2012) [The Crocodiles]. These poems (and much else besides) can be found on his website, an audio-visual-textual treasure trove which is worth losing yourself in for a good while. Much of the content is in English and/or French for those who don’t read Arabic.
The first two poems can be found here and here in Arabic, while the remaining seven come from his collection يظهر ملاك [An Angel Appears], which is one of the collections free to download (here) from the main page.
Youssef now has these translations up on a beautiful page of his own, each illustrated with a photograph, and now video versions as well: Angel of Death [Arabic and English/Arabic at top of page]; The Angel (A god who renounced his faith) [English]
The Angel of Death gives counsel to a bereaved parent
Barely a minute and you tread with dimmed eyes:
Is your patience exhausted in a minute?
There is nothing in all the universe that will show you mercy
Nothing that will halt the saw’s stroke through your bones.
And do not tax me,
Don’t make your misfortune a plea to me
When you know
That I am under orders:
I bear on my shoulders Earth’s lamentations
A thousand times redoubled.
Do not assume that I possess the meaning of anything,
For when blood stains the asphalt
I see a dark blotch, nothing more,
Though I feel all that’s felt by you plus
All those like you.
I’m the one who keeps you company, moment by moment,
Unable to delight in your delight
Because I know your pain entire,
Even in your moments of acutest pleasure.
All I can promise you now
Is that when you look
You shall not find a trace of the dead one in the bed
And as a supplementary service from me,
You shall not find a bed in the room,
Indeed, there’ll be no room there,
And you will stand with nothing before you,
Nothing at all,
And all I ask in return?
That life is nothing but waiting for me,
Me, who grinds hearts utterly,
Not for a single moment spared
The sound of their beat.
For Mohab Nasr
All these years my friend
As though we’re here by mistake
Waiting until the roads clear
To drive unlicensed trucks
And face the border guards
With forced laughter and cash.
We dream of places that were they found
We’d be no good for, my friend,
Forced to mix with the statues
To swap their talk with them
To be jammed in among them
With frozen limbs, looking and not seeing,
Our heads bowed down at home
We excuse ourselves from going to the quarries
That we might try reproducing in secret,
Mourning our endangered line.
All these years plucking up the courage
To declare we are not statues
And then collapse in pieces from their plinths,
Dead with flattened heads,
With eyes bulging out like mother-of-pearl,
With holes in our bones.
How is it, my friend, after all these years
All we can utter is croaking?
The Angel (A god who renounced his faith)
You asked me what I would like to be in your eyes,
I said: God.
For a time I granted you favours and punished you.
Were you fleeing my grief, when you failed to tell me
That you had a cuckold Lord bestowing gifts upon you all the while?
How you could not accept my seal stamped on your brow
When you were so set on veneration?
And did you think creating you was such a little thing?
Son of a bitch,
Why let me plow when you meant to burn the fields?
The Angel (Your picture)
Sleep now, as though you’d never in your life occupied a frame,
As though your hands had never set even this picture in a frame,
As though they had not arranged cuttings that float
In an inch of water which you made a sea.
Not your crooked leg among the runners
Nor your teeth clamped on the shoulder that carries you,
Nor a victim, naturally: You’ve never in your life been a victim.
Sleep, despising those you call “coherent”,
Believing that your feet tread a path you forged.
Don’t for one moment ask about the handful of dust
You are wont to throw in the faces of those that call you to account,
Staggered by the abuse; how vulgar it was.
Forget that your air is not your own, that you breathe
With an army of respirators, that you
Are like the moneymen: every step calculated.
You are a beast in your strength; you’re in demand…
Your contemporaries really are spiteful: you are resplendent with tragedy
A pioneering presence on every screen.
Sleep and hug, like the downy pillow, the certainty
That you’re the genius, alone in a society of retards.
Pay no mind to the frame you put around your picture
Nor that once you thought it ugly. Pay no mind
To the fact your picture was ugly, ugly
Enough—once you’d framed it—to burn.
Coffee on the way back from the airport
When the light blinded us, I said to you: Morning’s taken us by storm
And you were muttering, your eye to the glass.
You said: The day’s come much quicker than I expected.
You said: Here is bad, but there is worse;
No. Here is worse than there.
You said: Although I… Although she… Although all these things…
I’m optimistic, then noticed that your coffee
Was no longer crowned with steam.
You were muttering, like I was a mirror or tape recorder,
Just an old container
That traversed the distance with you
Your eye to the glass, from which the night departed
With sudden harshness.
In the 24-hour café:
Another departure hall? The seats on their heads
Legs in the air and your strained face giving out
The same feel as the empty furniture,
The furniture they flip to wash the floor.
You were exactly like the airport:
You did not want to be up at this hour
Where the chairs are flipped and the officers yawn, disgruntled
As they stamp the passports.
You said: How do places get smaller!
You said: How many stamps and visas in my passport?
How many meaningful journeys?
You said: Perhaps life’s more fun south of the equator.
This is how you were muttering when the light blinded us.
I said to you: Morning’s taken us by surprise it seems
And you said: The day’s come quicker than I expected,
Much quicker than I expected.
This heavy lamp with the tapered rim
Like a medieval instrument of torture:
Have you seen it squatting innocently between our beds?
(Thus spoke my friend who is staying with me in the room
Where the sea sounds like cars on the Corniche
And in the weave of the blanket I’m sleeping on
The memory of a lifetime spent between Cairo and Alexandria
On the rails.)
I will wait until sleep overtakes you (he went on)
Then raise it high in the air above your head
(And I tried remembering
Why it was we had to take the last train
After nights of unjustified sleeplessness
So that no sooner did we reach our room
Than each lay down on his bed
And there was nothing in the world to warrant waking.)
I’ll wait until sleep overtakes you (he repeated)
And screaming the scream of a suicide bomber on the brink of the deed
Will relieve my hand of the lamp’s weight, over your head.
For Ahmed Yamaani
A little before dawn I come out of the 24-hour café looking for a newspaper stand where I might find the magazine with my picture in it. I walk a long way through the pitch-dark streets and pass kiosks whose occupants I question, but I don’t find what I want. No one’s with me at the café: I left my laptop open on the table and in my bag hanging from the back of the chair are my house-keys and ID card. Even so, when a white taxi stops for me I get in next to the driver straight away and he drives the car down streets ablaze as if with daylight, though it’s nothing but the orange street lights that have proliferated to a terrifying extent. An hour or more goes by with neither of us speaking, then he stops in a place not pitch-black or ablaze and when I hand him the fare he opens his zipper and takes out his erect black cock. As though I had returned to the 24-hour café, I find myself in the midst of a group of young people, huddled in sixes or sevens around cars from which comes trance music, either talking to one another or standing silent. I feel they’re my friends, or that I’m one of them, but I’m surprised that we’re all males—not a girl or woman among us—and I recall that I haven’t seen a single woman, not in the café, not in the street, not even in my imagination. Then I catch sight of my bag, which has my house-keys and ID in it, on the shoulder of a munaqqaba who’s striding along on the other side of the street and the corner of the laptop’s poking out of the bag’s opening. I try catching up with the munaqqaba but she gets into a white taxi that stops for her and takes off and where I expect to see my picture in the magazine I find a picture of a naked girl who in no time is lying on the café’s table sighing, caressing my forehead, her cunt growing wet, as she says: “Isn’t it awful to be a man in this town?”
My thinnest girlfriends always complain
Of gaining weight, which confuses me
When I think of fat girls.
But then I remember
That I’ve never suffered from loving my lover,
Except when it provides a good excuse to leave her,
And I reflect that things are less important
Than they seem, if we look at them
Which eases my terror a little.
So I say to myself that the world is really like this:
The thin fear fat,
The fat love food,
Lovers never suffer for the right reasons
And everything does not ride
But you did not endure all this only to hear the terrible click of a door closing and know how much you yearn to hide the thing before you, the awful thing that you don’t want to see. At this point, that which gives the world meaning becomes just part of the world, terror takes its own life and the same story ends or begins.