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Embroidery

We have a country

where we left our friends

tangled together in sorrow

or picturing snow

hoping  to whiten the hilltops of their solitude

 

What can we do

underneath a foreign sky

but listen to forgetfulness

as it embroiders our lives

like lace;

but regret adequately

in the open air

and dry up

reading books

 

 

The Knife Sharpeners

You send me a knife

I send you a dagger

you send me a dagger

I send you a knife

and once again

we open our exchanges

more vigorously than before

I send a knife

you send a dagger

I send a dagger

you send a knife

you send and I send

I send and you send

and so on and so forth

with greater thrust

with higher energy

with enviable enthusiasm

you send and I send

I send and you send

blood drips down

the span of memories

the span of promises

and gentle words

the span of dreams

childlike adolescent

and old enough to beget children

the span of couplings

indoors

and outdoors

with condom

or without

 

With immaculate success

we draw toward the end

with unprecedented success

in less than twenty-four hours

our job is done

no hope remains

of finding a trace of life

on the battlefield

not a heartbeat

not a twitch

not a tremble

nothing

 

 

I Call Up the Novelist

I eat breakfast alone

using only your yellow mug

with the decorative veins

and big earlobe

 

Every evening

your voice accosts me

guides me by the hand

to your usual spot on the sofa

where I keep watch

over wet fingerprints

you left on books and CDs

until I fall asleep

 

Rent is going up

prices are on fire

prices are going mad

I renew the lease

I hold fast and hang on

like a soldier on the last line of defense

 

I repeatedly read your favorite novel

I read the complete works of the novelist

I call up the novelist

we discuss the minor character

that affected you

he becomes my friend

 

I listen over and over

to the song that touched you

and had you snapping fingers

tap dancing and doing tango

I learn to tap dance

and take tango lessons

I become a dancer

 

I adopt a tom and a queen

that look exactly like your tom and queen

I wake up to their meows

and fall asleep with their meows

time flows by

time passes quickly

the years repeat

one after the other

like threads in your home sweater

 

A new day begins

my hand forgets me

on the handle

where you used to bend

coming in and out

I take the stairs

only to be met with streets

where your name is whispered

from the sidewalks

 

I haunt the cafes you would visit

until my eyes are conquered

I leave myself by the trees

you would stop by

until my sight is colonized.

 

I get used to your not being here

lighting candles in devotion to your absence

retaining its complexion as

pure and golden

every morning

I look for my socks

and my house keys

losing them each time

and saying: I forgot nothing

 

So diffuse and scattered

all over the place

throughout the week

supple and transparent

I descend into your specialized vocabulary

to the roads you’ve opened in the forest

and the species of flower you left to dry

inside books

the rings you dropped behind the dresser

your favorite brand of ballpoint pens

your go-to cinema

the bottle of champagne

you brought

to celebrate

the safe return of the swallows

who migrated across Africa and the Mediterranean

your recurring questions about the weather

the secluded creek you found

strolling by yourself on an island

your rage and silence

I’m torn apart like autumn

and rush forward

at full speed

to reach for

glory. 

 

 

Southwest France

For two hours

Thérèse, Pascal and I

have been cooking duck confit

we make conjectures and laugh

about the reasons why Natalie is running late

from the baker’s

from time to time

I follow the mist through the window

trailing aimlessly

behind a wild pheasant 

 

After I tired of exile

in my home country

I passed through fifteen years

and finally arrived, safe and sound

at a village of three houses

where I can transport a giant saucepan

full of duck thighs

and duck skeletons

sprinkle some salt

add some spice

and make jokes about the reasons why

Natalie is late from the baker’s

 

Plenty of water has passed under the bridge

French citizenship and an ATM card

a thorough knowledge of metro lines

and suburban trains

and the ability to transport duck skeletons and thighs

in a giant saucepan

and look out the window

to follow the mist trailing aimlessly

behind a wild pheasant.



Original ↓

تطريز

لنا بلاد

تركنا فيها أصدقاءنا

يلبدون حول الحسرات

أو يفكرون بالثلج

لتبيض مرتفعات وحدتهم

 

ماذا نفعل

تحت سماء غريبة

غير أن نصغي إلى النسيان

يطرز أعمارنا

كالدانتيلا

غير أن نندم جيدا

ونجف

في قراءة الكتب

 

 

شاحذو السكاكين

ترسلين إلي سكينا

أرسل إليك خنجرا

ترسلين إلي خنجرا

أرسل إليك سكينا

من جديد

 نعاود الأرسال

بحيوية أكثر من الإرسالية الأولى

أرسل سكينا

ترسلين خنجرا

أرسل خنجرا

ترسلين سكينا

ترسلين وأرسل

أرسل وترسلين

وهكذا دواليك

باندفاع أكبر

بنشاط أشد

بحماس نحسد عليه

ترسلين وأرسل

أرسل وترسلين

والدم ينقط

على طول الذكريات

على طول الوعود

والكلمات الحنون

على طول الأحلام

الصغيرة والمراهقة

وتلك التي قريبا سترزق بولد

على طول المضاجعات

في البيت

وفي الطبيعة

بالكبوت

ومن دون الكبوت

           

بنجاح باهر

نقترب من النهاية

بنجاح منقطع النظير

في أقل من أربع وعشرين ساعة

ننجز العمل

ولا يتبقى أي أمل

في العثور على أي علامة

في الميدان

لا نبضة

لا وجيب

لا اختلاج

لا رعشة

لا شيء

 

 

أتصل بالروائي

آخذ الفطور وحيدا

ولا أستعمل إلا فنجاتك الأصفر المعرّق

ذي الأذن الكبيرة

 

كل مساء

يعترضني صوتك

يقودني من يدي حتى ركنك المعهود

حيث أسهر على لمساتك

الندية بعد على الكتب والاسطوانات

حتى أنام

 

يرفعون إيجار المنزل

السعر يلتهب

السعر يجن

أمدد العقد

أستبسل في البقاء

كجندي يدافع عن متراسه الأخير

 

أقرأ مرارا روايتك المحببة

أقرأ الأعمال الكاملة للروائي

أتصل بالروائي

نتحدث عن تلك الشخصية الثانوية

التي أثّرت بك

ويصبح صديقي

 

أستمع وأستمع

إلى الأغنية التي لامستك

وجعلتك تفرقعين إصبعا بإصبع

وترقصين الكلاكيت والتانغو

أتعلم الكلاكيت

وآخذ دروسا في التانغو

أصبح راقصا

 

أتبنى قطا وقطة

يشبهان تماما قطك وقطتك

أستيقظ على موائهما

وأنام على موائهما

والوقت يجري

والوقت يمر سريعا

وسنوات عمري تكرّ

الواحدة تلو الأخرى

مثل خيوط كنزتك المنزلية

 

ويبدأ نهار جديد

يدي تنساني طويلا على أكرة الباب

التي انحنيت عليها

أثناء الدخول وأثناء الخروج

ولا آخذ الدرج

إلا كي تطالعني شوارع

توشوشني باسمك

طيلة أرصفتها

 

أرتاد المقاهي التي مررت بها

حتى تحتلّ عيني

وأتركني تحت الأشجار

التي توقفت عندها

حتى تستوطن نظراتي

 

 

أتعود على ألا تكوني هنا

أشعل الشموع أمام غيابك

كي يظل وجهه

صافيا وذهبيا

كل صباح

أبحث عن جواربي

والمفاتيح

أضيعها كل مرة

وأقول: لم أنس شيئا

 

هكذا مبعثرا ومبددا

في كل مكان

طيلة أيام الأسبوع

سلسا وشفافا

أنحدر إلى معجم ألفاظك

إلى الدروب التي فتحتها في الغابة

وأنواع الزهور التي جففتها

في الكتب

إلى خواتيمك المفقودة خلف الكومودينة

وماركتك المفضلة من أقلام الحبر الناشفة

صالتك السينمائية المعتادة

ونوع الشامبانيا التي أحضرتها كي نحتفل

بعودة السنونوات بسلام

بعد أن عبرت إفريقيا والبحر الأبيض المتوسط

سؤالك المتجدد عن أحوال الطقس

الخليج المنزوي الذي وجدته

أثناء نزهتك وحيدة في الجزيرة

غضبك وصمتك

أتمزق كخريف

وأندفع متقدما

بسرعة فائقة

إلى المجد

في الزوايا

هناك بين أوراق التوت

التي تتطاير كسرب من الفئران الصفراء

صادفت للمرة الأولى حياتي

واجتزت الباب الذي تركته على الدوام مواربا

ولم يجتزه سوى ظله

 

 

جنوب غرب فرنسا

منذ ساعتين

أنا وتيريز وباسكال نطبخ الإوز المصبّر

نتحزر ضاحكين

بأسباب تأخر ناتالي عند الخباز

من وقت إلى آخر

أنظر إلى الضباب وراء النافذة

يمشي على غير هدى

خلف ديك بري

 

بعد أن نفدت من الغربة

في مسقط رأسي

عبرت خمسة عشر عاما

ووصلت في النهاية سالما

إلى ضيعة من ثلاثة منازل

بإمكاني إن أحرّك فيها طنجرة عملاقة

مليئة بأفخاذ

وهياكل الإوز

وأضيف رشة من الملح

ثم أتبعها برشة من البهار

وأتحزر بأسباب تأخر ناتالي 

عند الخباز

 

تحت الجسر مياه كثيرة مرت

جنسية فرنسية بطاقة بنكية

معرفة دقيقة بخطوط المترو

وقطارات الضواحي

وتحريك الهياكل العظمية وأفخاذ الإوز

في طنجرة عملاقة

والنظر خلف النافذة

إلى الضباب يمشي على غير هدى

خلف ديك بري

Translator's Note

The following are seven poems from Saleh Diab’s collection J’ai visité ma vie (2013), a French-Arabic bilingual edition with selections from three books of poems composed over roughly twenty years. Born in 1967 on the outskirts of Aleppo, Diab encountered modern poetry as a participant in the Literary Forum at the University of Aleppo (1980-1986), a pocket of creative freedom and critical debate in an otherwise stifling cultural environment. In the 1990s, Diab re-located to Beirut, where he wrote for the literary supplement of the al-Nahar daily and published his debut collection. This was his first minor exile from Syria. In the year 2000, just as Syria was undergoing a momentous change of rule, Diab was invited to attend a poetry festival in France and decided to stay, fight for permanent status and eke out a living. This spontaneous decision to migrate brought him to extremes of precariousness and, based on the poems, nearly reduced him at times to the low existence of a clochard. The fictive speaker in these poems largely overlaps with Diab’s authorial self for whom the way of attaining upward mobility passes through romantic relationships with local women. The turbulent ups and downs involved in these relationships are depicted, dramatized and narrated with unusual vivacity and verve.    

Though the frankness and dynamism of Diab’s lyrical realism speaks for itself, it is interesting to note that he came to this idiom at the end of a lengthy process of self-training in austere modes of imagism that blotted out the biographical. His debut volume is tellingly titled A Dry Moon Watches Over My Life, the implication being that poetry’s objective dryness and moon-like distance proposes new ways of perceiving the smallness of his human self. At this juncture in his early writing, Diab fell under the influence of Poetry and Experience, a work by the American poet and critic Archibald MacLeish that was translated to Arabic in the early 1960s.[1] The book lays out an ethos of impersonal minimalism drawing on Ezra Pound’s modernism and classical Chinese poetics. In many respects, translation plays a part in the pivotal shift to autobiography that follows his move to France. For one, Diab became, in Salman Rushdie’s words, a “translated man.”[2] To write like he does in literary Arabic about domestic feuds and outdoor sex was inconceivable in Syria. The stern pruning of simple images made sense in Syria where poetic discourse was encumbered by official culture, enamored with romantic hyperbole or enclosed in hermetic symbolism. In France, delicate miniaturist abstractness was a dime a dozen and Diab instinctively sought a way to stand out rather than be assimilated.

Remarkably, Diab is anything but a Francophile even though he speaks French with ease in everyday comings and goings. With the current situation in Syria, his future in publishing depends to a large degree on the French book world. And yet he has little of the inferiority complexes with respect to the Parisian metropole that plagued the first wave of Arab modernism and its towering theoretician, the Syrian poet Adonis.[3] Diab shows sovereign disinterest for French poetry and Paris figures in his poems realistically as a hostile place of harsh weather, high rents, and gruff strangers. Given the relative receptivity to translations of the French book industry, the French language serves as a semi-neutral gateway into other more peripheral poets and poetries. Thus, some of the poems we read here are inspired by the domestic realism of the American poet and short story writer Raymond Carver, who was revealed to Diab in French translation. This influence is noticeable, on the macro scale, in the carefully crafted effects of self-revealing nakedness and artless immediacy, and on the micro scale, in specific details like the opening of champagne that recurs in several poems.[4] Over time, translation itself would occupy a growingly prominent place in Diab’s project: first, in overseeing bilingual editions of his work, and second, in undertaking translations from the Arabic and anthologizing modern Syrian poetry for French readership.

In an interview apropos the publication of a bilingual anthology of Syrian poetry, Diab remarks that he thinks of translation as a form of willful transmigration, causing poems to live in other bodies. An echo of this feeling is couched in the meditation on his physical migration in the poem “Southwest France.” The reference made in that poem to his agility in moving large saucepans in the kitchen is rife with suggestion to the restlessness of the migrant finding momentary calm in a French village. In Arabic, a common word for translation is naql, to move something from place to place (the intransitive form intiqāl means to move oneself, transition, relocate). In the same interview, Diab speaks of translation in the familiar register of intimacy and love:

 Translation is a form of writing.  It allowed me to enter the most intimate mihrab [prayer niche] of poets and see what concerns them and matters to them in the finest detail of their creative work. It made me read their texts deeply and understand them. I would not have been able to translate them with ordinary reading. Perhaps I had a certain desire to possess the poems I love through translation. Maybe I was dreaming I could become all the poets I translate. In translation, reading and writing cross paths and come together, a meeting enshrined in love.[5]

 

Reading this statement alongside relationship poems such as “The Knife Sharpeners” brings out the extent to which the exchanges between source and target language engage in a de-idealized love discourse: utopian and mutually destructive, impossible and unavoidable, exasperating and ebullient.

As to my own translation process, these English versions passed through a knotted triangulation process involving the original Arabic, my native Hebrew, and my limited French. I first encountered Diab’s poetry in Hebrew translation in the Haaretz literary supplement and was captivated by the sheer transparency of his voice. The deeper I went into the poems, however, the more I realized that his translatability is artfully constructed and, as such, suggests a seasoned poetic intelligence. The Czech poet Miroslav Holub has made some discerning remarks about the special force of writing, in particular historical conjunctures, original poems born in and for translation.[6] In possessing both local detail and cosmopolitan daintiness, such poems would travel light so as to have an afterlife in places and times more hospitable to truth than one’s own (Holub was referring to Soviet Czechoslovakia). Translating Diab first into Hebrew and then into English, I find each time anew the deceptive forms of creativity involved in writing poetry with no seeming national markers, poetry that would could cross over easily so as to live through unpropitious circumstances. In a national poetic culture such as Arabic, with a strong sense of ethno-linguistic exceptionalism, this is no small achievement.

The challenges posed by this register apply to both target languages but in some cases one language offered readier solutions than the other. Translating the adverbial phrase ʿalā ghayr hudā (used to describe the mist trailing behind the pheasant in the poem “Southwest France”) presented a difficulty for both. This is an idiomatic collocation meaning ‘with no aim or orientation,’ and yet the word hudā comes with religious baggage as in God’s righteous path. Its presence in a perfectly profane textual environment is quite shocking and calls attention to Diab’s deliberate self-distancing from the Arabic’s levels of sanctity. Neither in English nor in Hebrew was there an effective way to replace this bump, and I ultimately chose to employ a flat adverb so as not to disrupt the fluency. Some of Diab’s puns are easier to convey in the Hebrew due to the proximity of the peoples and their intertwined predicaments. In “I Call Up the Novelist” the author writes that his eyes “are conquered” by his lover’s old haunts. The verb, iḥtalla, denotes in common usage the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Diab repurposes the figure with the ideas it holds to ironize the language abuses committed by bad rhetoric in the Arab world, an irony that Hebrew readers are better situated to appreciate given their insider status. On the other hand, Hebrew lacks a sufficiently common term for “novelist.” Writers of novels are unfortunately subsumed into the general category of “writers.” English has the edge here in suggesting that the poem is enamored with prose and emulates the so-called “novelistic” eye for detail.      

 

[1] Archibald MacLeish, Poetry and Experience (Cambridge, Mass: Riverside Press, 1961).

[2] Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands (London: Granta Books, 1991), 17.

[3] On Adonis and his adaptations from Saint-John Perse see Robyn Creswell, City of Beginnings (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2018), 106–112.

[4] The image appears in Carver’s poem describing the decision to marry Tess Gallagher in Reno shortly before his death.  See “Proposal” in Raymond Carver, All of Us (London: Harvill, 1996), 290–291.

[5] For the interview see Hussein Bin Hamza, “Belonging to Human Time: A Syrian Contribution to Arab Poetics,” ArabLit, May 16, 2018. https://arablit.org/2018/05/16/saleh-diab-on-crafting-a-bilingual-anthology-of-syrian-poetry/

[6] On Holub’s situating of his idiom “halfway to translation” see Justin Quinn, Between Two Fires (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 111–122.


Daniel Behar

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