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Singing Iraq: poetry by Fadhil Assultani

About the author
Fadhil Assultani works as the literary editor of the Arabic daily al-Sharq al-Awsat. He began writing poetry in the 1960s and his publications include a book of poetry called Burning in Water. He was born in a small town near the city of Hilla, south of Bagdhad and, after studying at the University of Bagdhad, became a journalist. He has taught in Iraq, Morocco and Algeria, and now lives in London.
Incomplete Anthem

What will Iraq catch as she travels by sea for a thousand years?
Water in the veins? The peals of sons
sinking to the depths of the sea?
The world has returned, and Iraq has not.
No limits appear while she is travelling – what will she catch?
Will it be fish swimming in the sea?
Some oysters?
Shoes thrown overboard by people?
Shoes and papers roaming the sea for a thousand years?
The veins of the dead are her nets
our bodies with their necks cut are her fish-hooks

What will Iraq catch?
An ounce of sand, a basket of Euphrates’ water.
On the other bank creatures are sleeping, and life is born
God is in the mosque and life is between the thighs,
while she travels the sea – what will she catch?
Basra misguided her land, and sold her Negroes.
A world collapses under a shout from the poet al-Mutanabbi,
A brick from Caliph al-Ma’moun’s ruined house could rebuild it again

Her sons are in the water and sky,
dead and alive who are dying
while she travels the sea.
What will she catch?
A sperm and a piece of clay drifting in the water
A sperm and a piece of clay longing for life?

From my distant chair I see the dead rising
shaking off their sleeves the dust of graves
as if it were the day of Resurrection

Have the dead risen
to draw something on the sand
and returned – to sleep?

Return, Iraq! You are not the master of the ship
nor prince of the sea.
There is no tower there,
no dam to keep back the tide.
You are naked like the waves.
There is no cloud to shade the caravan
and no tiny star to look down from your sky
no harbour calling you, and no houri to sing to you

Everyone has returned
but you have been in the middle of the sea for a thousand years
There is a dress of canes you spread out as a sail
and the wind rolls it up as tiredness envelopes you
Are these your hands? Or two wooden boards?
Where did you throw the tower of Babylon?

Which god bought it?
Where did you hang the cities of gold?
On which neck have they become – necklaces?
Where is your first engraving?
Where is your first obelisk?
Where is your beloved Ishtar?
In which bed is she sleeping now,
to give birth to the legendary terrifying beast?

Iraq has come
and Iraq has gone
in her peace and in her war.
The water gulps her down
and the wind plays with her robe – it imagines it is a sail
sometimes, and sometimes it takes a rest
in her heart.
Delusion, delusion
all the times have passed you.
We knew you as a deity and wild beast
a house and a bier.
You were the obelisks high up, and the water-moss from Babylon.
A bed of Babylonian water-moss?
A bed of Sumerian stone so as to take rest?
A bed of love because the earth is narrow?
You have the sea, expansive like life
the columns of cities which have departed from you for the sea?
Pillows of books which have departed from you for the river?
Will your face return again?
Two steps to Astarte
two steps to the kingdom,
will you enter there?
You will reach it and die.

A bed of Babylonian stone?
A bed of obelisks high up?
A stair to go up?
Two steps to an apartment in heaven.
Will you enter it?
You will reach it, and return.


(translated by the author, with thanks to Richard McKane)


R.S. Thomas*

Like you, I too
hear in silence
barking in Babylon
and sometimes I see in the dark
vultures tear apart my corpse which was thrown on to a Baghdad street.
But like you, I too sometimes hear the fluttering of swans in an
unknown sea
and the breaking of the waves on a distant shore.
And I see fish breed and the sea drifts them to the coast
to enter the net of eternity.

Sometimes, like you, I hear
in the middle of the night tenebrous music
and a voice summoning me,
and I leave my home
hoping to see a voice I am familiar with:
No voice is there.
Who is, then, calling you or me all night?
No one.
Wandering voices in the wilderness?
Who was, then, behind the door,
Listening in on Death’s voice,
creeping on the walls of the room?
Was it you, or I?


(translated by Saadi A Simawe and Melissa L Brown)
*This poem was written one month before RS Thomas’s death in September, 2000.


A Tree

I remember now, in my forties,
a tree
next to my home
beside a brook.

I remember now our secrets:
how she used to spread her shadows under me
bend her branches around me
and slip into my clothes
putting me on
as I put her on
together entering the brook.

I remember now, in my forties,
my stories to the tree about the gardenia
and about the girl
who left us
only shadows over the water.



And I moved away
how far did I move away?
But I still see her
stretch her branches towards me
in order to lift me – to heaven.

(translated by Saadi A Simawe)

شجرة

إذكر الآن في -الأربعينْ-شجرة
ْ جنب بيتي تماما
فوق ساقيةٍ
واقفةْ .
أذكر الآن أسرارنا :

تفرش الظلَ تحتي وتثني الغصون ورائي وتندسّ بين ردائي
ثم تلبسني
ثم ألبسه
اثم نهبطُ .. للساقية
. أذكر الآن- في الأربعين-
حديثي عن الرازقيّ ،
وتلك الفتاة التي تركتنا
وحيدينِ..

ظلين فوق المياه
.....................
وبعدتُ
-كم بعدتُ –
غير أني أراها
تمدُ الغصونَ إليّ
لتأخذني..للسماء


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