Ghassan Zaqtan


Darkness has a hole,
with space for a hand,
black, with five fingers and an arm

Darkness owns a house,
haunted by the dead,
reburying their secrets in the bricks

Darkness kills the voices
mouthing from the stones,
choking in nettles at the bottom of the well

And a cry,
a hair-raising scream,
howls from the dark heart of the wood

The Trench

 The days of salt are unbelievable —
like dreaming a dream dreamt by somebody else.

And, like actors
dead at the end of an interminable tragedy,

they come back to life repeating their lines
the minute we remember:

the lost hills
sunk in the torpor of hills;

the mountains
towering in the west;

hearses that roam through the land
day and night;

the unshakeable faith
of the dead;

hands that loom out of darkness
waving their memories;

eternal brotherhood
that never leads to wisdom;

out of place.

The days of salt are unbelievable —
bad as the sowing of bad seeds,

so now they’re abandoned,
tossed in the abyss.

And, as we drag ourselves up once again,
(for what choice do we have?)

those days slide down behind us,
entirely obliterated;

like our dark skin,
like our vain attempts to sleep.

… But still, we have names and nicknames
as ancient as eternity,

and our accents will betray us
as strangers here, always….

The days of salt are unbelievable.
But now even they are hardly worth remembering.


The flight of birds
leaves the land blank

while the story is blank
and sleep is blank.

Blank silence greets the visitor
like an icon nailed to the door —

a dry echo of laughter,
dust stirred up

when the door’s
kicked in;

a requiem
frozen in winter;

the voices of the departed
flicker then fade

when the door’s
pushed open.

Let’s wait here awhile
to dry out our clothes.

I look back to see
our path

is littered with grief,
as useless as these broken plates.

Careful! Beware of the leader
commanding the roof —

sit still quietly,
don’t turn on the lights.

Careful! Beware of windfalls
rotting on the ground.
Your voice in my old room
cuts through the silence

the silence of dishes,
the silence of lightbulbs,

the silence of leftovers,
the silence of waiting —

all the silences
I’ve been hoarding for years

as I walked by myself
through the garden in summertime,

aching to heal all this absence,
to mend this damned eternity of emptiness!

 Beirut, August 1982

How I wish he had not died
in last Wednesday’s raid
as he strolled through Nazlat al-Bir —
my friend with blond hair,
as blond as a native of the wetlands of Iraq.

Like a woman held spellbound at her loom,
all summer long the war was weaving its warp and weft.
And that song, O Beiruuuuut!,
sang from every single radio
in my father’s house in Al-Karama —

and probably in our old house in Beit Jala
(which, whenever I try to find it in the maze of the camp,
refuses to be found).
That song sang of what we knew —
it sang of our streets, narrow and neglected,

our people cheek by jowl in the slums made by war.
But the song did not sing about that summer in Beirut,
it did not tell us what was coming —
aeroplanes, bombardment, annihilation…

The song was singing while my friend from Iraq —
who’d thought I was Moroccan from the countryside there —
limped bleeding to his death…
His blond hair will never fade,
a beam of light seared into memory.

 A Young Man from Al-Jaheer Expresses His Regrets…
     (Bir Zeit, 1997)

I must leave this town:

a town where the sun never shines on me,
where there’s never any shade,

a town with no bar to drown all my sorrows,
a place where no one even knows I exist!

I must move on surreptitiously,
with no regrets nor bitterness….

I don’t have a place in the official celebrations,
nor a seat of my own in the gardens.

Those birds have shown me the way:
I may not have a horse

but I have nothing to fear
there are no walls around me….

But I must leave at once!
I must throw its old laws to the dogs,

and grind its traditions in the dirt,
then slip away, under cover of darkness….

It was night the first time I got here —
the days before my hair had turned grey —

I fetched up here adrift and mixed up,
as rootless as a houseplant in a tub.

In those days my stride was firm,
and my voice never wavered,

In those days I never fell silent….
Now I’m exhausted by the gossip of this place,

I’m worn out by the corruption,
by those obtuse, hotheaded women

by the drunken, deluded parades every night,
by the babbling old men, the fanatics wailing and repenting….

I must get out!
I must shake this town’s dust from my feet….

So while the shepherds return from the well,
while the indolent elders sneak back from their dens,

while the preachers come out of the darkness,
and the windows slam shut in the sandstorm,

by the time they are wallowing in their dreams
and the lines become blurred

between the sacred and the profane,
where day becomes night….

— I’ll be away on the far side of the valley,
by the edge of the cedar woods, on top of the hill.


Translated by : Sarah Maguire

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