Saadi Youssef


Elsinore, Hamlet's castle

The trench with green water
is criss-crossed by twigs and birds,
by the shoes of tourists
and the ghosts of shipwrecked sailors . . . 
I cross it too
feeling the moat's wooden boards,
soft, and water-logged.
Like blood within blood,
the castle resides within itself.
But now you will not caress a wooden board
or a stone, you will not enter history
to enjoy the paintings exhibited in the hall
while you listen to the
swashing sea.
Now you will withdraw into yourself
like a snail into its shell.

You will listen to footfalls in a distant night.
To stifled breath, to the staircase
rising toward the questions.

So,  then, beware!

Translated by Sargon Boulus, reprinted from Banipal No 15/16.



Snow falls on the cacti, then a cry and a café, a star and encampments, a saint's gown rent by wolves, shoes made of fine leather.  How do turtles shiver on the shores of Hadramout?  The full moon moans from the bottom of the river . . . and the girls scream in rapture.  I do not need a bullet.  My only fortune in this world is the wall behind my back.  How green the grass on the steppes of Shahrazour!  I saw a rope being dangled.  Where is Youssef?  I was in the markets of Timbuktu . . . and I laboured.  One night a ship sailed us through the shoals of Djibouti . . .

Mogadishu tosses lamb meat to the sharks.  I have no destination.  I have a cat who lately has begun to tell me the story of my life.  Eternity ever receding, why have you too betrayed me?  This afternoon I will learn to sip the brutality of flowers.  What does treachery taste like?  Once I travelled taken by my song.  The soldiers' trains roll on . . . rolling.  Roll on.  Rolling.  Roll on.  Rolling . . . The snow of Moscow warms my tears.  There is no virtue to herdsmen as they settle and as they set for travel . . .  Cities dissolve villages with the shake of a finger.  My bread is made of coarse rice flour, and the salt of my fish is ash.  There is no chance I will be her lover tonight in the girls' dormitory.  No . . .  On Saturdays she closes her door to me.  I will burn the papers.  The police officer may arrive.  On the night train I dozed off in my chains.  And the wooden seat was my plane that crashed.  They are chanting for you, girl of the harbour tavern.  The strangers returned from their search for diamonds.  On the stone of Hejja the eagles of Hemair take their rest.  Once I almost found the child-moon in my palm.  Why did the people leave the park?  I do not want your hand.  Do not toss me your rope made of tatters.  Today I have found another torrent:
Welcome to life . . . welcome, my other lover.

Amman, 23/3/1997


America, America

          God save America
            My home sweet home!

The French general who raised his tricolour
over Nagrat al-Salman where I was a prisoner thirty years ago . . .
in the middle of that U-turn
that split the back of the Iraqi army,
the general who loved St Emilion wines 
called Nagrat al-Salman a fort . . .
Of the surface of the earth, generals know only two dimensions:
whatever rises is a fort 
whatever spreads is a battlefield.
How ignorant the general was!
But Liberation was better versed in topography. 
The Iraqi boy who conquered her front page 
sat carbonised behind a steering wheel 
on the Kuwait--Safwan highway
while television cameras 
(the booty of the defeated and their identity) 
were safe in the truck like a storefront 
on rue Rivoli.
The neutron bomb is highly intelligent,
it distinguishes between
an žIÓ and an žIdentityÓ.

          God save America
            My home sweet home!


            How long must I walk to Sacramento
            How long will I walk to reach my home
            How long will I walk to reach my girl
            How long must I walk to Sacramento
            For two days, no boat has sailed this stream 
            two days, two days, two days
            Honey, how can I ride?
            I know this stream
            but, O but, O but, for two days
            no boat has sailed this stream

            La L La La L La
            La L La La L La
            A stranger gets scared
            Don't fear dear horse
            Don't fear the wolves of the wild
            Don't fear for the land is my land
            La L La La L La
            La L La La L La
            A stranger gets scared

          God save America
            My home sweet home!

I too love jeans and jazz and Treasure Island
and Long John Silver's parrot and the terraces of New Orleans
I love Mark Twain and the Mississippi steamboats and Abraham Lincoln's dogs
I love the fields of wheat and corn and the smell of Virginia tobacco.
But I am not American.  Is that enough for the Phantom pilot to turn me back to the Stone Age!
I need neither oil, nor America herself, neither the elephant nor the donkey.
Leave me, pilot, leave my house roofed with palm fronds and this wooden bridge.
I need neither your Golden Gate nor your skyscrapers.
I need the village not New York.
Why did you come to me from your Nevada desert, soldier armed to the teeth?
Why did you come all the way to distant Basra where fish used to swim by our doorsteps.
Pigs do not forage here.  I only have these water buffaloes lazily chewing on water lilies.
Leave me alone soldier.
Leave me my floating cane hut and my fishing spear.
Leave me my migrating birds and the green plumes.
Take your roaring iron birds and your Tomahawk missiles.  I am not your foe. 
I am the one who wades up to the knees in rice paddies.
Leave me to my curse.
I do not need your day of doom.

          God save America
            My home sweet home!

let us exchange your gifts.
Take your smuggled cigarettes
and give us potatoes.
Take James Bond's golden pistol
and give us Marilyn Monroe's giggle.
Take the heroin syringe under the tree
and give us vaccines.
Take your blueprints for model penitentiaries 
and give us village homes.
Take the books of your missionaries
and give us paper for poems to defame you. 
Take what you do not have 
and give us what we have.
Take the stripes of your flag
and give us the stars.

Take the Afghani Mujahideen's beard 
and give us Walt Whitman's beard filled with butterflies.
Take Saddam Hussain
and give us Abraham Lincoln
or give us no one.

Now as I look across the balcony
across the summer sky, the summery summer
Damascus spins, dizzied among television aerials 
then it sinks, deeply, in the stories of the forts 
                                  and towers
                                  and the arabesques of ivory
 and sinks, deeply, from Rukn al-Din 
then disappears from the balcony.

And now
I remember trees:
the date palm of our mosque in Basra, at the end of Basra
the bird's beak
and a child's secret
a summer feast.
I remember the date palm.
I touch it.  I become it, when it falls black without fronds 
when a dam fell hewn by lightning.
And I remember the mighty mulberry
when it rumbled, butchered with an axe . . .
to fill the stream with leaves
and birds
and angels
and green blood.
I remember when pomegranate blossoms covered the sidewalks, 
the students were leading the workers' parade . . .

The trees die
not standing
the trees die.

          God save America
            My home sweet home!

We are not hostages, America
and your soldiers are not God's soldiers . . .
We are the poor ones, ours is the earth of the drowned gods
the gods of bulls
the gods of fires
the gods of sorrows that intertwine clay and blood in a song . . .
We are the poor, ours is the god of the poor
who emerges out of the farmers' ribs
and bright
and raises heads up high . . .
America, we are the dead
Let your soldiers come
Whoever kills a man, let him resurrect him
We are the drowned ones, dear lady

We are the drowned
Let the water come

Damascus, 20 August 1995

Translated by Khaled Mattawa and reprinted from Banipal No 7.


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