Ghassan Zaqtan

Translated by
May Jayyusi and Alan Brownjohn

Ghassan ZaqtanThe slain enemy
Think of me without mercy in their eternal sleep
Ghosts ascend the stairways of the house, rounding the corners
The ghosts I picked up from the roads
Collecting them from the sins around other people's necks.

The sin hangs at the throat like a burden
It is there I nurture my ghosts and feed them
The ghosts that float like black horses in my dreams.

With the vigor of the dead the latest Blues song rises
While I reflect on jealousy
The door is warped open, breath seeps through the cracks
The breath of the river
The breath of drunkards, the breath
Of the woman who awakes to her past in a public park.

When I sleep
I see a horse grazing the grass
When I fall asleep,
The horse watches over my dreams 

On my table in Ramallah
There are unfinished letters
And pictures of old friends
The manuscript of a young poet from Gaza
An hourglass
And opening lines that flap in my head like wingsِ

I want to memorize you like that song in first grade
The one I hold onto
Complete and
With no mistakes
The lisp, the tilt of the head, off key
The small feet pounding the concrete so eagerly
The open palms pounding the benches. 

They all died in the war
My friends and classmates
Their little feet
Their eager little hands… they still pound the floors of each room
They pound the tables;
And still pound the pavements, the backs of the passersby, their shoulders.
Wherever I go
I see them
I hear them. 

Additions to the Past

The letters in the widow's room
In the straw basket
On the bed purged of sleep
In the intention to fast which lurks
In the air of the corridor.

The vegetables, normally purchased in the morning
The tickets,
The dawn bus on a Thursday
The pillows
The candles
The forbearance…, where holy phrases are
Gaudily etched
In the carvings

The edge of the cupboard from the crack of the door
The door itself… where the assembled hymns
Flutter like kerchiefs on the darkness of the plain.

The shadow of the air
The novel she has not returned to the shelf,
She cannot remember!
Its heroes fall dead to the ground
She sweeps them up
One after the other
With her broom, her reproaches and her prayers

The letters remain unopened
The dead
Return through the crack of the door
To steal the flower vase
The orange sheet
And the covers

An Enemy Descends the Hill

As he descends,
As we watch him descend,
As he conveys to us that he is
About to descend

Warily, silently

His illicit presence
As he carefully listens at the shrubs.

His fear as he descends
The withheld silence
That he is not 'us'
Not 'here'
Death begins.

He seizes a flower
Just a flower
With no message to convey
No vase for it.

From the hill
He can see
The military checkpoint
The paratroopers
He can see the desperate people;
The slopes of the mountains;
The only path
Where their feet will leave imprints in the rocks
In mud and water.

He can also see
The losses from the hill

  1. Left hurriedly behind

The equivocation of shadows
Where the mustached enemy
Resembles the dead Arabs here.
In the slopes of the mountains
The caves will all appear peaceful
The road always look the same.

As he descends
The caves in the mountains
Continue to stare
They blink in the cold.


The Trench

How strange are the days of salt
It is as if they belong to others
And like a well-plotted tragedy
Just brought to a close
They begin to breathe as we remember them

The hills forgotten in the boredom of the slopes
The mountains that aspire towards the west
The wandering caravans of death
The faith of the dead, complete.

The hands that emerge from the darkness
To tell you everything
The deep fraternity that does not lead to wisdom
The words no longer suitable for high places

ٍStrange are the days of salt
Now alone in the abyss
Disparaged like rotten seed

And while we ascend,
Because that's all we can do
The days roll away into the distance behind us,
Abandoned, and can never return

Our dark complexions
Our attempts at sleep
…..Names, endlessly long titles
Dialects also
Proclaiming a countryside
No longer necessary.

How strange are the days of salt
They are not even worthy to be remembered.

The Camp Prostitute

What those intend who visit her house
Is palpably felt
So pure, so proud.

Those who stayed late in the fields
Will find her hanging near the little trees
The five mossy steps
Then the bougainvillea plant by the door.

Her bracelets jingling in their sleep like a phantom horse
Her undergarments coloring their dreams
Her breasts well trodden like the path to the mill
Her ritual movements between the bed and the wash basin
Like a popular song all the rage.

The still life on the wall
The sheets and two pillows
The scent of cheap cologne
The nails behind the door
Where the smell of their clothes still lingers
The jasmine outside the window

The numbed convolutions of her body
The strain pervading her silence

The intentions of those passing through to her house
The passersby and the visitors,
The students, clerks and chickens
The vans, the guards and the dogs,
The porters, the cats and the vegetable sellers
The fathers and sons
All those who have left their smell in her broken sleep
They were all of them there
Behind the kids
The cart
The coffin
So pure, on their way to her destination.

The Sleeper's Song

I ascend the seven levels
Of sleep
In sleep you are
An elegy to the departed
An icon of censure

I ascend
The seven levels of sleep
All of them.

Nothing happens
Nothing ends.

I switch on the light
So that the dead
Can see the dream.

The Habit of Exiles

My heart is suspicious, my friend inexperienced
My dream is blind
I was bereaved by the news of Baghdad
Brought out by amateur exiles
What are they to us?
They just happened to be crossing the bridge

The intentions are in the ports
Confused, just as their owners had left them
Deficient as the dead had left them
And where our friend, you know him, pointed,
We went on, without looking back, without a second thought.

Our country is far
And our intentions are good

As is usual with exiles
We abandoned homes more beautiful
Than the road
Women more loyal than these transient ones
But that did not deter us
Or weaken our resolve

We dreamt as settled people do
Of roads more beautiful than home
Of women to inhabit our bodies and speak a new tongue
But that did not carry us to the hills
Or to the sea

Infantry appeared from a battlefield
Whose uproar we heard
But did not see
With haggard eyes and cracked feet
They wiped the mud off on the marble
Drying their boots on the posters of the
Founding father

And we watched
But it was as though we neither heard nor saw

One could have recalled their voluptuous dreams,
And chased their ghosts
Touching the thighs of women just to make sure

There is no mercy for the dead in these cold regions
No reward for those who know

One can only listen to the mountains where the caves multiply,
And darkness expands like a devouring plant

We were not carried away by the screech of the birds
With the advent of dawn
We were not held back by the judgment of our predecessors
And their fears
Yet what we saw
Deserves to be told

…..then slaves began emerging from the chasm
Climbing the walls
While the doors were wide open
To descend upon the city,
Roam its markets,
Men and boys were there, shouting at the darkness
Chasing it away with drum and dance,
And women stripping naked at the edge of the abyss
To lure death away from their young
As an ordinary man explained to us
So we gave thanks to our exile and home.

We said to ourselves:
We are only exiles on the march
Whose shadows leave no traces on the ground
Like weavers we catch up threads
And weave them into memories that pant after us
As they follow our footsteps like distracted dogs

Who are we to hate what we do not know!
Who are we to love that which does not concern us!
When the amateur exiles who brought the news of Baghdad
Had gone
A jealous boy appeared
Whose jealousy
After he had left
Continued to gleam on the fence
And bar the way for cats,
Passersby and the scent of basil
Pressing on the breasts of a girl
Who, emerging from the shadows
Threw off her thick veil on the grass near the soldiers' boots.
Then I moved to another dream 
All that could have been pondered and repeated
Had not a young philosopher in Ramallah died
At sixteen minutes past four that morning
Surrounded by his students, his admirers and three friends
-Two men and a woman!
We could remember sundry other details and add them
To reveal grief and expose the fullness of the treachery
Foremost of all:
The lilac statue of Buddha

Or the picture of the landlord
In the hall of the furnished apartment
As he stares at us from
The classical pose of his death

The father’s private reflections
His deep complicity with the "girl"
As he lay dying in the oxygen tent

The woman’s voice down the telephone line
Concealing under its ten thick layers
Her betrayal

His death could have been recorded,
Other things remembered
Like the weight of his body
The whites of his eyes
In a final act of perplexity
Before releasing the light in the carriage

Had his posture towards the world not been slightly askew
As had happened with Constantine Cavafy,
For whom he did not care as much as for other poets

My heart is suspicious, brother
My stance is final
No one will guess
The storms in my head
I no longer have confidence in those
Who pass through at night.

Translated by May Jayyusi and Alan Brownjohn
For East-West Nexus/PROTA*

* May Jayyusi is a Palestinian scholar born in the Diaspora but has returned to Palestine and works as the Executive Director of Muwatin, the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy.

Alan Brownjohn is an eminent English poet.

East-West Nexus/PROTA is the Institute founded in 1980 by Salma Khadra Jayyusi in Cambridge, Massachusetts and London (with a branch in Jordan) for the dissemination of Arabic culture and literature abroad. It has produced to date several edited volumes on Arabic culture and history including The Legacy of Muslim Spain, (E. J. Brill, 1992); and eleven translated anthologies of Arabic literature including Modern Arabic Poetry, (Columbia University Press, 1987), and Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature, (Columbia University Press, 1992) in which Zaqtan is fully represented.

Palestinian poets who was born in the Palestinian Diaspora and now lives in Ramallah, working at the Palestinian Ministry of Culture. He is one of the foremost modernist generations of Palestinian poets.


* The reference here is to the Bamiyan Budhhas, two monumental statues of Buddha carved fr
om the mountain in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and, condemned by the Taliban as idolatrous, were destroyed in march 2001.

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