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Salah 'Abd al-Sabur

 Tale of the Sad Minstrel

I. That Evening

Salah Abd al-SaburYou spoke to me
Of winged horse-shoes
Sparking all round,                                                
Flashing, igniting
The golden crescents
Of city minarets;
You spoke to me
Of a bunch of swords hard,
Stuck in a rock so stark,
To be drawn only on a spell:

Namely, the names, the charmed names of
                                        your bunch,
How great, how formidable,
How good, how nice, how sweet - uncon querable!
`0 minstrel', you ordered, `Sing us a song
`(But keep your eyes down
`In our presence)
`Sing us a lay
`To tickle our pride
`In the victory of the side,
`And when the appointed hour comes
`(An hour unveiled
`By a cloud dispelled)
`We'll drink up the dregs
`When the devil's helmet begs
`To be a goblet bright
`For the wine of superior knight'.

II. A digression
(For which please accept apologies)

It's my job, my lords, to sing!
I hug my lyre, all right,
But then my heart,
Pierced with arrows five
Is my secret treasure

My real measure,
Both orchard and grave.
That's where I plant my corpses dear, Taken in times of fear
And buried in a bosom abysmal.
It's to it that repair
In my solitary raptures
When on occasion I dare
Face the evening
Without my regular provision
Of hash and women!
I unshroud them,
Stand them up
Or stretch them across,
Drive away sleep,
Peer into their diamond dumb eyes, Then run away for wine and tears.
An account of the corpses must be giv n: One belongs to a poor and hungry child Which I had buried in time
So remote and obscure;
I cried as I did so,
I cried, was broken, dissipated,
I cried, was duly truncated, and, Cloud-like, thinned out, dissolved,

And must have disappeared.

O pity, pity, my lordly knights! For all of a sudden
Two heads have grown
On both shoulders:
One had eyes bright
That peered ahead,
The other had lidless eyes
With an eyeball
Coiling in his nape
Like a snake.
My aplogies, I have to be brief, For the corpses, so many,
Buried year after year, so many, Must go to sleep.
`I offer you drink and opium,
`To doze off peacefully, good souls, `I offer you tears and groans,
`My dear dead!'
What have you now to say
What noises could you make
O tortured dead?
You there! Didn't I bury you
A year ago?
Strange corpse!
You came to life

In the beginning
So rough and coarse,
So monstrously disfigured:
You had long shanks but no knees, With a wide mouth, spreading
As if a faint smile
Stuck, weed-like,
Round your jaws!
O body of the old clown, sleep!
O child, in whose garments
I lived for years, sleep!
Lie on your bed of dust
And munch your solitary crust!
And you, whose eye-balls are so glazed, Whose lips drop forth words
White and briny - poisoned froth. And you, didn't I bury you yesterday? (It was an old, wise greyhead
Who found himself dead
When required to draw on wisdom
The wrong way round;
His head actually rolled on
From leg to abdomen
Back into position
But fearful and rotten).

Sleep, my friend,
Bear up your torment
And adjust their wisdom
To your old garment.

III. Another Short Digression
(which may prove useful)

My position, my lords, I take
At the end of the corridor;
We are, all in all, four:
The court jester,
The official historian,
The sooth-sayer,
And the minstrel.
We have neither names nor swords
And all are hirelings.
The gilded robes we wear
Are borrowed from the Sultan's wardrobe With whom we have a vast friendship Deep and vast like an abyss!

IV. Going back to that evening

Assembled were you all
My lords, that evening!
O how great and good,
How high and mighty!
The pearls of our city,

The stars of our sky!
Marching in court, singly,
You outshone yourselves in splendour, Trooping together,
The glory of your heads
Lent tight to one another
Rather than melting together!
(And this, I must say, is
Truth unembellished).

Great God! how wonderful you are, How gentle, how noble,
How grave, how brave,
What cleverness, what nerve,
In riding, charioting, galloping, jostling, In the laying of an ainbush,
In making a conquest,
In reconstruction, destruction,
Inking pages, thinking wages,
Inking, thinking, blinking, Experimenting, dementing,
Training, straining,
In music and verse and singing, Womanizing, buying, selling, renting, In science, technology,
Morphology, phonology,
In short

You're the gift of heaven
To mortal earth,
A handful of mortals,
A proof that God
Can create the ideal
In the shape of a mortal!
Can it be so odd
That God
Should squeeze all excellence into one, Rather, into a dozen?
(Truth unembellished, let me swear By the dead who scratch
Under my skin).
That evening I was sad
And was tired, that evening;
Perhaps you do not know
What sorrow means, my knightly lords. (It is not, whatever it is,
Your kind of sadness).
Mine is a sorrow that can't be Quenched with wine or water
Nor can it be dispelled by prayer,
It is a death-bound caravan
Moving in deserts wide,
Ghost-driven in lands wild,
Dogged by regret;

But the call of a trumpet
Summons me to take over, to
Drive it along
To the caverns of oblivion
In a world of unbeing.
It is I then
Who drives the death-bound caravan
To resurrection
Out of sepulchral caves
Scaling sun beams
To a preordained morrow.
Imponderable is my sorrow,
`0 minstrel', you ordered, `sing us a song', `Keeping your eyes down
`In our presence
`Sing us a lay
`To tickle our pride
`In the victory of the side
`And when the appointed hour comes
`(An hour unveiled
`By a cloud dispelled)
`We'll drink up the dregs
`When the devil's helmet begs
`To be a goblet bright
`F or the wine of superior knight'.

Well, I did sing a song;
But the refrain
Betrayed my ill-disguised pain!
One of you, perhaps the guard-barman
(He walked about with extended hand) Whispered in my ear
In such raucous tones:
Shall I tell you the secret?
Shall I tell you the secret?
Whenever I recall the event, my glorious lords, The dead begin to quiver
Within my broken heart,
My sharp - edged bones would dart
Up from my shanks to prick my throat,
And fear would soar in the gaping
Space within my drained eyes.
Did I ask a question then?
I must have done,
For an answer came along.
It must have been,
To judge by the man's doubled figure, Doubled or doubling, but babbling, blabbering: Your tunes have betrayed you
Minstrel boy!
(I am nearly fifty,
and, mark my word,

it might start
a good friendship)
In your mysterious voice
A broken tune is audible,
Suspicious, ill-purposed,
As though an ironic doubt
Like a bloated body, floats
And sinks in the abyss
Of your scarred uvula.
Soon I was dismissed
From the palace, my noble knights,
Turned into a hopeless vagabond,
Hungry and humiliated.
Eventually the steeds of the devil's company Arrived: you went, all out,
Winged ostriches. Alas! with bastard hearts.

V. A Belated Confession

The truth is, knights proud,
I felt you were
The real shroud,
And that was why
Iwas sad.

*A sequence from an earlier volume, namely, Meditadons ot& a Wounded Thne, where the effect of the
1%7 military defeat is most apparent. Cf - 'Introduction'.

---An Anthology of the new arabic Poetry in Egypt
SelectedK translaten and introduced
By M.M.Enani
General egypitian book organozation
- 1986

Translated by Diana Der Hovanessian
and by Lena Jayyusi (first translator)
Modern Arabic poetry an Anthology
By Salma Khadra Jayyusi


In this way the day slipped
off the slope of the sun
and evening fell
like a collapsed wall.
Sky and earth: one embrace.
Windows of the sick,
lights on bridges, eyes of gendarmes,
and minarets blink now.
In the market place walls of darkness
are piled up at the doors
and the dark walls, stacked together,
collapse like tombstones from a fallen mountain.

The night ends with a delicate cloud
tinged pink, like a petal
lost in the darkness as day rushes forth.
(0 twilight red, color of
my life, that was a real goodbye we said.
Night has lost you. Day has lost you.
Memory alone brings you back.)
In this way night dies
with the sun springing to mount the sky
and the streets inhaling
the sounds of din,
braziers of light spilling
illumination to make shadows
piercing the stones.
O noon, you fill my heart

with fear and grief, showing
me more than I want to see.

Blessings on you, noontime blaze,
your light stings the eyes and
dims sight, changes houses
and people into solid cubes
of pastel stone.

And this is how the delicate color gray is born:
Weariness creeps into the veins
of the sun at day's end,
street noises dissipate
and are absorbed into the
soft contours of gray,
(the color of my days
not days lived in life,
but in contemplation).

Now dusk. Now a parting glance
from the sun leaning fatigued
against the hills.
Now, blackness.

And my life passes while I
live in expectation,
waiting for
one radiant moment in
the darkness of night
or one quiet moment in
the clamor of day.


She called me the man of sands
I called her the lady of green
We met in my twilight days
Called to each other like happy children
Shyly we got acquainted
Each of us feeling, with wonder,
The color of the other
And exchanged our names.

Then we parted
Don't ask me what happens to things when they break
Or to echoes when they fall
in a silent vacuum!
But I recall that once upon an evening
We dodged the scythe of Death's reaper
Cheated Time's cock-crow
And etched on the wall of the night
An image of our two shadows, blended our colors
On the border of a rumpled pillow
Then subsided
Into an armchair.

And here you see me contemplating this image,
drinking to it in my solitude
So pour a glass of wine to this image, please.

This is the gist of the story.

Translated by Lena Jayyusi and JoIn Heath-Stubbs


The people of my country wound like falcons
Their songs are like the chill of winter in the rain's locks
Their laughter hisses like flame through firewood
Their footsteps dent the firm earth
They kill, steal, drink, belch,
But they have their human worth and are good
When they have a handful of money
They hold fast to their belief in fate.

As one entered my village there sat my Uncle Mustafa
Who loved the Prophet
Who spent the hour
Between dusk and nightfall surrounded
By musing men
To whom he told a tale
Rooted in experience
A tale that stirred
Within their souls
The pain of man's mortality.
And it made them weep and bow their heads
Staring into silence
Into the gulf of deep terror and silence.
"What is the purpose of man's striving, what is the purpose of life?
Oh God!
The Sun declares Thy glory, the crescent moon is Thy brow
And these unshakable mountains are Thy steadfast throne
Thou art He whose will is accomplished, Oh God!
A certain man rose to eminence, erected castles
with forty rooms filled with glittering gold
And on one faint twilight evening
Azrael came to him
his fingers grasping a small book
And Azrael stretched out his staff
with the secret of life and death
and that man's soul was pitched into Hell!
(Oh God! …
How cruel and full of menace thou art,
Oh God!)"

Yesterday I visited my village
Uncle Mustafa had died
They laid him to rest in the earth
He built no castles (his hut was of mud)
And behind his ancient coffin
Walked those who, like him, owned only an old cotton gown
They said no word of God or Azrael
For it was a year of famine
And at the door of the tomb stood my friend Khaleel
Uncle Mustafa's grandson
And when he stretched up his brawny arms toward the sky
A look of contempt flickered across his eyes
For it was a year of famine.

Translated by Lena Jayyusi and John Health-Stubbs


The winter tells me I shall die alone
One winter just like this, one winter
The evening tells me I shall die alone
One evening just like this, one evening
That my past years were all in vain
That I live in a naked world.
The winter tells me that my soul
Shivers with the cold
That my heart died last autumn
Faded with the first fading leaves
And dropped with the first drops of rain
That each chilly night
Thrusts it deeper
Into the stone's core
That if summer's warmth comes
To wake it, it will not
Stretch with the roses
Its arms up through the snow.

The winter tells me that my body is sick
And my breathing is briar
Each step a hazard
That I may die between one footfall and the next
In the torrential rush of the city
Die, none knowing me
Die, none weeping for me
Perhaps it will be said among my friends
When they gather:
Here he used to sit but he is gone
As others have gone
God rest his soul!

The winter tells me that what I thought
Was my cure, was really my bane
That this art when it set me trembling
Brought about my downfall
How many years since I got this wound?
But still my head is bloody!
Poetry my ruin, for this
Everything's run to waste
For this, I became a dorp-out
For this, I'm crucified
I hung there, cold, darkness, thunder
Shook me with terror
when I called, there "`as no answer,
I knew that all was lost!

The winter tells me that
To live in winter
We must hoard warmth and memories from summer's heat
But like a wastrel I scattered
At autumn's onset
My harvest, my wheat, all my grain,
This, then is my punishment:
The winter tells me
That one winter just like this
I will die alone
Die alone
One winter.

Translated by Lena Jayyasi and John ileath-Stubis


Restless she stirs as she reclines,
A setting sun,
Bleeding with a hidden light
Torn in fragments in the crook of the shadow.
Restless she stirs as she reclines,
Covers up her wrinkled legs
stretches out all blue
Her eyes now kindle, now go out,
Her lashes droop and tremble
As she recollects a golden age
In company with a man so crazy
He could not keep from laying her down on the grass
And devouring her breasts
till she wept with exhaustion.

She arises from her bed when night falls
Laves her old age in water of the sea
and sleeps, to be born a virgin in the approaching morning.
She shakes her pendulous breasts
Searches between them for the key to the room
Looks about her feeling her way through the sands,
And gets up, worn and gray.

From the nearest shop she buys
Bread for her needs, and cigarettes and wine,
Goes back again and drowses in her past
Making it anew.

The morning pulls the tresses of the virgin sun
And spreads them upon the earth.

She smiles in death
Her hands upon her breasts
Water dribbles at her mouth.

Translated by Lena Jayyusi and John Heath-Stubis

Salah 'Abd al-Sabur

An Eyptian by birth, and graduate of the University of Cairo, Abd al Sabur soon rose to an authoritative position in the Egyptian literary scene in the capacities of poet, editor,essayist and play writer.

He held the positions of Undersecretary of State for Culture, and Director of the Egyptian Book Institute. Embodying humanistic as well as socialist ideals, Abd al-Sabur's poetry reveals a personal vision that is quietly contemplative, and imbued with a sense of approaching death. He attributes to poetry a moral and spiritual value which he regards as mystical.
Working with Lewis Awad on the literary supplement of a1-Ahram newspaper, Abd al-Sabur came to share his enthusiasm for modern movements in poetry in the West, particularly as exemplified in the poetry of T.S. Eliot. He attempted to introduce previously unacceptable realistic themes to Arabic poetry in the innovative spirit with which Eliot had transformed English poetry, and experimented more extensively than any other major modern Arab poet in the genre of drama in free verse.

Some of his notable publications include al-Nas fi Biladi [The People in My Country] (1957), )Aqulu Lakum [I'm Saying to You] (1961), AhIam al-Faris al-Qadim [Dreams of the Ancient Knight] (1964), Aswat al-Asr [Voices of the Age] (1961), Wa-Tabqa Al-Kalimah [And the Word Remains] (1970), and `Umr min al-Hubb [The Age of Love] (1973).

His best known play in free verse is Mas'at al-Hallaj [The Tragedy of al-Hallaj] (1965). Abd al-Sabour's collected poems as well as plays appeared in Beirut in 1972.

Abdel Sabur was a follower of the free art which viewed art as an expression of unbridled imaginativeness, true, vehement emotions, within a highly romantic context. He believed that genuine poetry could be written only through absolute self-communion. He remained faithful to his own principles all through his life until his death on August 14, 1981.

He took part in popular demonstration against British occupation, and in 1949 he was arrested at the age of 18. Abdel-Sabur showed an interest in literature in his early life, tended to poetry from his father, who had attempted during his youth to write poetry, and later taught his son rhetoric.

Abdel-Sabur started writing verses at the age of 13. In his early youth, he tried to find for literature a new significance beyond rhetoric eloquent expression, attending to approach other realms of arts such as music and painting. He was so happy when he found himself face to face with such great men of letters as Taha Hussein, Ahmed Amin, Ibrahim Nagui, he was a teacher While in the teaching profession, he co-edited "Al Thaqafa" (Culture) magazine, until January 1953, where he wrote several poems and short stories. In 1954, he had his poem" Melancholy" published in Al-Arab (Letters) magazine .

Abdel-Sabur literature was not confined to poetry, but rather extended to poetic drama. Within a period of ten years, he published five poetic plays. The first was "The Tragedy of Al-Hallaj (1965), based on which he was granted the State Incentive Award for Theater in 1966.
His poetic style had the advantage of blending spontaneity with craftsmanship. One of his major concerns was the question of modernization and revival, which Arab civilization has been going through since the mid-15th century.

He believed that new life could never be built only by reviving the hole mass of ancient heritage but rather by discussing those parts in compatible with the modern time and exploring and rejuvenating those aortas instrumental to the enlightenment of the nation.
He, therefore, maintained that, while keeping in contact with other civilizations, we should keep loyal to national identity and heritage. He interpreted the talent melancholy in his poetry as some sort of his sense of responsibility; a positive rather than a negative.

In his own words, "I am not possessed with melancholy; I do rather possess it as a stimulant to achieve self-rejuvenating and higher and more conscious prospects beyond the ego".
Salah abdel Sabur rejected the concepts of intellectual unity among poets; he was rather in favor of variance within harmony, where each poet had his own distinct character and his own intellectual starting point.

Abdel Sabur's poetic dictum have several sources, some of which were derived from sophism, the Holy Qur'an, the Bible as well as philosophical, historical or folkloric origins.

Salah Abdel Sabur passed through a number stages along his poetic career. The most significant transformation, following his early beginning took place when he moved from the expression of common issues of his notion to that of his private worries, concerns and deep chagrins . While in the former his expression was characterized with firmness, optimism and faith in life in the latter he was depressed and pessimistic.

3 Phases :
In addition to poetry and poetic drama, the great poet also practiced critical writing. In literary studies, he issued 14 books, wherein he reviewed Arabic and international, old and modern literary heritage, including various literary genres.

He also tackled many intellectual and art issues in a broad human context. He paid special attention to contemporary Egyptian thought. He also contributed critical essays to Rose El Youssef and Sabah El Kheir Magazines and Al Ahram daily.

Abdel Sabur's intellectual and literary career can be divided into 3 phases: Phase I starting in 1991, was characterized by his infatuation with Marxism. Within 10 years his admiration of Marxism had abated, as he failed to achieve any satisfaction or peace with the theory.

He then turned to existentialism, to which he remained committed to a philosophical up to around 1971. His play "Night Traveller" expressed the failure of his attachment to existentialism to satisfy his spiritual needs as a poet. The later phase of his life were marked with deep-rooted faith in good, right and justice. After a deep and protracted concern with man alone, he thought it was then time to turn to God with firm rational faith. "Now I am
in peace with God", he said ,"I do believe that every addition to humanity is a step forward to perfection; to God proper."

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