Abed Ismael

Translated by: Issa J. Boullata


Abed IsmaelSorrow lies in the pupils of the eyes,
in the pure flash
conspiring with lightning,

in the slight eyelashes,
in the tremor of the lips,

in the echo which releases its thunderbolts
in the veins of words,

in the stretched-out hand
that draws an horizon,

in the soul of the absent one
that flies after daylight like a butterfly,

in the leaning home
and the leaning heart,

in the absence hanging on the wall
like Mary’s dress.

It is painful, O sky

It is painful, O sky, to see you
driven to the underground basement of the poem,
as the poet flogs you
with the stick of allusions,

thins your blue with hammers
then casts you on the naked white.

He melts every comma
and sharpens every mistake
and pours oblivion on you
until the last star.

It is painful to see you
insulted exactly like me
and firmly tied to the letters with unseen chains
around your neck and ankles
and between your teeth.

And exactly like me, you wait
for a tender hand
that will sweep away the dust from you
and return you to where you came from,
to the Spirit of God.

A mere ghost

A mere ghost goes out of the door,
descends the winding stairs
and greets God,
who arrays the clouds.

He greets the barber of solitude
who cuts distractedness
with the scissors of fear.

Then the sweeper of days with a bent back
heaps up time like hay
in the barrel of absence.

The creator of electricity,
uttering a laugh that shines like a chisel,
unscrews the lamp of your soul
at the last supper.

The carpenter of hope
fastens the wood around your hands
and spreads the sawdust of hallucination
in the corridor.

Then the watchmaker, the son of time,
sets the hand of the clock at zero with one eye
and releases the dogs of non-existence.

Past dates

Past dates in the diary
are your days, first and foremost;
you throw them in the wastepaper basket
without appointments.

Your past dates
are white pages, no more.

Adolescents use their scissors
and make paper kites of them.

. . . Days fly.

Our days without appointments fly
more lightly than coloured wind.

We fly behind them
. . . in the windy current of every white year.

O blue string, don’t break
and let my days fly in the wind,
white or black,
weightless like the appointments.

Don’t wake him up

Don’t wake him up.
The violets have grown longer than his dreams,
and the mirrors, washed with rainbows,
roam freely in all his house.

Don’t wake him up.
Ten moons have perched on his balcony,
and obscure blue love
is born like a smile on his lips.

Don’t wake him up.
This sleeper in holiday clothes
is dreaming of a metaphor
that unites night and day
in a single flower vase.

Don’t wake him up.
He is the one whom we buried in the song
and covered with earth
in a square metre
of the poem’s suffering.


The statues leave their open squares,
cross the streets like human beings,
enter the public parks
and are crucified under the sun of May.

The statues walk in their sleep,
enter the military barracks
and exchange arms with the guards.

The statues suffer in secret,
crack slowly in the stillness
and their dreams rise up from the cracks.

The statues leave at high noon
carrying our secrets, one by one,
conveying our staring looks,
our dreams peeling off.

The statues are our bodies riddled with nails,
the statues are our souls standing up.

Where does it come from?

From where does this wailing come,
this broken voice,
this black voice,
the voice of pitch-black darkness?

From what minaret,
from what nearby tomb,
from what heart?

It’s a voice that carries felled trees,
collapsing balconies,
and a dead man walking uncovered
in an open plain. . .

Train your camera on the echo
which no one hears,

and take a snapshot of me walking behind the call
with a hat tilted forward
and a broken heart.

The above poems are from the author’s forthcoming collection
Lam Sarab [Mirage Glimmering]

Mirrors of Damascus

Do you think it is morning
that takes me by the hand
and leads me to a wonderment
cast by Solomon’s hoopoe
in the face of the dumb man?

Or do you think it is night
falling behind the museum wall
that flies, then alights, then flies
and leaves a black feather
in the blowing wind of the heart?

Do you think we need to loiter longer
so that we may say that cats
are the soul of the city
and that the sky will rain gold one day
on Victoria Bridge
and wash our bones with more than one shower?

And that one day
we will wait for a meteor to fall into our well
in the Jahiz Park
and kindle our water with ringing?

Did you really need sadness
in order to stand like a fountain in Umayyad Square
and sprinkle melancholy like drizzle over noon’s clothes?

Did you need your amputated hand
in order to put Qasiyun
in the guestroom
and let it drink regret every evening?

And did you need the hammer
in order to furnish electricity with the five senses
and demolish the father who had become a wall?

That life, which jumps off the bus
and crosses al-‘Abed Street
and drinks black coffee
and reads the (. . . ) newspaper
then leans to backgammon
and to the scream of the state on the chessboard,
is our life. . .

The life, which walks at the end of the night
and sees with its own eyes the perforated barrels
and the rifles trained on our backs
and the telephone receivers hanging down on the pavements
as if a crime has just taken place,
is our life. . .

The life, which passes in front of Parliament
heavily armed with applause. . .

The life, which enters the bedroom
with dark sunglasses
and a revolver at its hip. . .

The life, which waits in a queue
in front of Cinema al-Kindi
waiting for a film or a mine. . .

The life, which wanders in the streets like a dog
searching for some far or near barking,

And the life, which waits for life
like half a bow on the bridge,
is our life. . .

We used to exchange gardens with the guards
and carve a rainbow in the water
and mix the wind with heated debate
and erase our emotions like cemetery watchmen

We went up to Rukn Al-Din
on crutches of love
then around the tomb of the Shaykh
seven lean times
and down to al-Rawda
where ashen revolutions waited for us in ashtrays
as well as pictures of the dead fading in the smoke of water-pipes

Here al-Rahib
draws a line in the sand
pays for his cold coffee and leaves
after reading his attributes typeset in italics
and he smiles, happy with the new rumors.

Here al-Bayati
lights a cigarette from another
and one poem from another
and burns in turn like the Phoenix

Here al-Nawwab
is silent
after thirty years of screaming

Here we all are from A to Z. . .
enveloped in smoke, debate, fire, the road, defeat,
the dream, disappointment, consciousness, lightning, jinn and mankind,
poetry and prose, figs and olives, fighters and the killed,
fog, crystal, and the seven gates of Damascus. . .
. . .

Then we go down further to al-Marjeh Square
scorched by the pavements with repression
and we drink the wall of the citadel,
and the cellar of the police station drinks us

Then we go down with the rays of the helmet
and the military salute
and the dawn carrying an axe under its armpit,
and we read the Qur’an’s Opening Chapter
over the bones of the river –
the river which Medusa
– or the eye of sculpture –
and turned into a walking stone

Even the scream became a stone
and so did the night melting over Semiramis
and the wind that blew. . .

How beautiful the wind is
when the wind becomes a stone that blows!

And we used to blow, stone after stone,
then fall into the well of the city

and hear our bones being ground
and our deep-seated desires ringing,
one lira after another,
then go down and down. . .

From our steps black death flares up
as we scratch the piled-up horizon
in front of the Umayyad Mosque:
How many stars we have buried there,
how many missed appointments!

We dig up those clouds carded like cotton
and we dream
we all dream
of white shoes
and white rain

And we see horses passing
and hoofs striking sparks
and swords shining

And we see blood flowing
and a Hallaj
in front of the Nawfara Café
drinking cola with the Germans

Why cola, Master, between the Infinitude
and the squeaking of this light?

Why does silence glitter like gold
between your teeth?

Why does al-Hamidiyyeh
rise from its stony sleep
and release its ghosts in our face
and we become—you and I—ghosts of rain
carving our spells on the trees of night?

And we dig a deep well for forgetfulness
in front of the Post Office building –
so that no letters can arrive –
then we go to al-Hejaz Café
with more than one passing train in our blood
with a distant whistle in our distraction
and a railway in our consciousness
shining with passengers who had met their death.

Why should we not yearn for the beautiful iron rails
and see white rain falling
on the Post Office building
and forming once more the faces
carved on the innocent air
in front of the Hejaz railway station?

That – there – is our flying seat
and those are the bones of noon
uncovered in front of the building of the Ministry

That is a fragment of sky
sinking to the bottom of the glass

That is our skeleton
conversing with the white waiter
one year after the appointment

This – here – is your hand in my hand
squeezing the fast seconds
and the beating memories between our fingers

And that – there – is our cloud on the bridge,
not raining for the sake of anyone
but going to its usual blowing, as if in a natural goodbye

Those are the emotions of seven o’clock
raining on the guards’ room of the broadcasting station
and on fear which rolls
like the helmet of the censor

That is Medusa seeing our depths as they really are
and carving a letter for every emotion
and a flying arrow for every bird

Carving the air and water,
earth and fire

The carving becomes minutes running away
or light whiteness, blowing on the elements

It’s a carving which walks in its grave
like a dead man walking in his sleep
passing daily in front of the viewing platform
heavily armed with applause

Like an evening which holds me by the hand
and leads me to a wonderment
cast by Solomon’s hoopoe
in the face of the dumb man.

Mirrors of Damascus is in the author’s collection of poems
An Hour in the Sand, Dar al-Kunuz al-Adabiyya, Beirut, 2003

Notes on the poem (mirrors of Damascus)

One of the bridges of Damascus where the unemployed gather.
A beautiful park in the centre of Damascus and a place where lovers and foreigners meet.
One of the most famous squares of Damascus and River Barada runs beside it.
A bare, small mountain overlooking Damascus.
A main street in the centre of Damascus.
One of the most famous Damascus cinemas favoured by the poet.
A Damascus neighbourhood in which stands the tomb of the great Arab mystic, Muhyi al-Din Ibn ‘Arabi.
Muhyi al-Din Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), known as al-Shaykh al-Akbar (the Great Shaykh).
A popular café in downtown Damascus frequented by intellectuals, politicians, artists, and poets.
Hani al-Rahib (1939-2000), a Syrian novelist.
‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati (1926-1999), an Iraqi poet, one of the most famous contemporary Arab poets.
Muzaffar al-Nawwab, an Iraqi political poet born in 1934, noted for his fiery declamation of verse.
A famous old square in downtown Damascus that used to be a passageway for caravans in the past.
A legendary creature in Greek mythology which transformed into stone everyone and everything she looked at.
A well-known hotel in downtown Damascus which hosted important political conferences.
One of the most famous landmarks of Damascus and the Islamic world, built by the Umayyad Caliph al-Walid ibn ‘Abd al-Malik in 705 A.D.
One of the most famous mystics of Islamic theosophy. Born in Persia in 857A.D., he wrote in Arabic and saw in the supreme mystical experience a reunion with God. He was condemned for blasphemy and executed on the cross in 922 in Baghdad.
A famous café near the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, frequented mostly by foreigners.
A long, roofed market built in 1780 on the way leading to the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.
A popular café in the old part of Damascus, near the famous Hejaz Railway built by the Ottomans at the beginning of the 20th century.

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