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This piece is about 40 printed pages long. It is copyright © Osama El-Dinasouri, Mohamed Metwalli, Ahmed Taha, Maged Zaher, Gretchen McCullough and Jacket magazine 2008.See our [»»] Copyright notice. The Internet address of this page is http://jacketmagazine.com/36/egyptian-poets.shtml
[»] Ahmed Taha
translated by Maged Zaher
[»] Osama El-Dinasouri
translated by Maged Zaher
[»] Mohamed Metwalli
translated by Gretchen McCullough and Mohamed Metwalli
by Maged Zaher
Arabic poetry originated like all other poetic traditions — as an oral art. Two thousand years later, innovative contemporary Arab poets are still working to transform the oral nature of their tradition, and its established rhetorical and formal devices, with their cultural implications of favoring passion over intellect, the masculine over the feminine, and patriarchy over subversion.
Art is inextricable from the political. At its inception among desert nomads and tribes, oral poetry was the most advanced media form, and poets had an important political role: they were the spokespersons of their tribes. Poetry then had to be easily memorable, which was accomplished formally via regular rhythm and rhyme schemes, and rhetorically via hyperbole.
Now — in the late twentieth and early twenty first century — the avant-garde Arab poets face different political and cultural tasks. They recognize the need for a multiplicity of voices, and for a balanced dialogue between passion and intellect. They also recognize the need to challenge both the patriarchal aspects of their lives including the political dictatorships, and celebrate both feminine and masculine voices on equal terms.
The generation of poets represented here claims that the current recognized icons of Arabic poetry — mainly the occasional short list candidates for Nobel prize: Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis — although admirable and ground breaking, haven’t fully broken free from this oral and patriarchal tradition. They also claim that this intense celebration of these figures to the exclusion of other poets, is in itself a symptom of the ills of the romantic, patriarchal aspect, they are set out to challenge.
Of course there were many attempts to break with the strict form throughout the history of Arabic poetry: In the 1920s and 1930s the romantic poets’ generation — e.g. the Apollo group in Egypt — tampered slightly with the strict form by using softer language, imagery, and multiple rhyme schemes in the same poem. However, the usage of regular rhythm and hyperbole were still intact.
In the late 1940s, the Free Verse Movement started using irregular rhythm and rhyme schemes, which was considered to be a major break with tradition. However this poetic revolution stopped short from doing away with rhythm and rhyme entirely, which made it essentially — although necessarily a major step on the path of modernizing Arabic poetry — a variation from within the oral tradition, in terms of both form and rhetorical devices.
The innovation of the Arabic poetry in Lebanon started in the late forties and early fifties with the works of Youssef El-Khal, Onsi El-Haj and others. Adonis and El-Khal magazine Shi’r made a lasting impact on the Arabic language poetics, and the poets it published, who abandoned both rhythm and rhyme altogether: El-Khal, Adonis, El-Maghout, and others, acted as a precursor to the work of the Lebanese poets of the seventies and eighties: Wadih Saadeh, Bassam Haggar, Abbas Beydoun, who acted in their own as precursors to the poets represented here.
The Egyptian poets of the nineties generation took the achievement of their Lebanese predecessors several steps forward, via 1 — employing plain and simple language. 2 — writing about the “non-poetic” details of everyday life. Effectively, the poet opted out of being a hero challenging the world (a la Darwish and Adonis) and — in the work of these poets — poetry didn’t just stop being an oral art, it also rid itself from hyperbole and heroism. An illustration of this would be Ahmed Taha’s important article: “From Reciting To Writing” published in the first issue of the underground influential magazine El-Garad “Locusts” co-edited by Mohamed Metwalli.
Some terminology issues:
In the Arab world, the term “Prose Poetry” is used to describe poems that do not use rhythm or rhyme, even if these poems have line breaks. This usage is different from what the Western poetic tradition recognizes as prose poetry. In effect the Arab poetics tradition’s “Prose Poetry” is more equivalent to the Western poetic tradition’s “Free Verse.”
Meanwhile. in the Arabic tradition the term free verse is used to describe poetry that has irregular rhythm and rhyme schemes. (Imagine poetry written in the iambic but every line has a different count, with arbitrary rhyme scheme)
In the Arab world a continuous gap between the spoken and written languages exists. The written language is formal while the spoken is not. An example of this would be — for an English language speaker — to use the standard everyday English language for speaking, yet old Shakespearian English for writing.
Political speeches are always rendered in the formal language. They depend — at large — on the same rhetorical devices of hyperbole and exaggeration used in classical Arabic poetry. Most poetry is written in the formal language. The nineties generation poets still used formal language but they somewhat modified their diction to match journalistic and everyday speech.
Breaking with the existing rhetoric is considered a sort of a heresy and challenge to the culturally — romantic/patriarchal/religious — accepted language, hence the major cultural tension that surrounds this form of poetry. The aesthetic debate was often peppered by accusations of the poets who broke with the tradition as agents of imperialism or communism.
The three poets chosen for translation here are emblematic of the thematic and linguistic changes mentioned in this introduction.
The poetry of Ahmed Taha, the oldest of the poets included here, is an example of the transition: the poet’s protagonist is still, largely, a tragic figure, yet not a heroic one like the ones you find in Darwish or Adonis’ poetry.
Osama El-Dinasouri, who died in 2007 from a kidney failure, pushed the envelope further: His poetry is a consistent attack on the sentimentalism of the old tradition. In contrast to Taha’s tragic protagonist, Osama’s protagonist doesn’t take himself seriously most of the time.
Mohamed Metwalli pushes things even more, his protagonist is almost the anti-hero, and is more interested in the surrounding objects and their existence than his own thoughts and ideas. One reason that his poetry might be controversial is that Egyptian poetry readers couldn’t relate his poems to the aesthetic boundaries of the two thousand year old oral tradition. His poems were occasionally accused that they sound as if they are translated and not originally written in Arabic.
There are more women poets writing and publishing in this group — e.g. Iman Mirsal, Fatima Kandeel, Nagatt Ali, Hoda Hussein — than all published Arab women poets in the whole twentieth century. I am currently translating some of their work, which I hope to get published in a subsequent volume.
From: The empire of walls (cantos and stories)
Because you are crowded behind my mirror:
one face that is shooting — calmly — its looks
like assassins shoot their bullets:
The bullet jumps:
one street after another
one year after another
on some night, it will penetrate the head
on another night, it will penetrate the heart
and on a third night, it will penetrate the genitals
This is why
I have to rest now
I have to build a wall after a wall
behind my kingdom
as if I were the last emperor
Egyptians wander like hippopotamuses
next to their tombs
they forget the cities behind the river
and they get closer
They’re neither horses dashing off
in the middle of the desert
nor are they fish that open one door to the sea
and several doors to oblivion.
So why then, do you carry in this foreign land
a knapsack of ruins?
You bum around in the world
looking for a street that looks like “Shobra”
and coffee shops that look like the “Bostan”
you enter a tavern that you call “The Warehouse”
where you talk to porcelain bodies
and faces that look like tombs
covered with wax and colors
you talk with them in prose
your original features fade
The brown bartender asks you
you point far away to the “Opera” tavern
and lay your feet down and touch the base of the statue
you drink two shots with fava beans
capture the sparrow’s body between your canines
and hear it squeak
you think: how strange that all the world’s sparrows
land in the taverns of the “Opera” neighborhood!
who taught them this extreme politeness
such that, they step obediently between your teeth?
Was it the hoopoe — this old General in Solomon’s army —
who tricked them?
or was it a civilian president who fried them?
You can either get your 10th shot
or leave the tavern
and enter the forbidden zone...
Portrait of Anwar Kamel
You extend your spider web
beyond all exiles
and beyond the years that escaped you
this is why
the regime’s soldiers couldn’t hunt you
and your fragile threads remained
a dusky home for
the comrades who died or immigrated
How do you forget that you’re the one
who started departing
then invented your face
that we see so enigmatic
and the fingers that take refuge
in your eyes
whenever you hide
behind a stone table
or a silk coat
How do you hear now the beats of your body
whenever you read Nietzsche or Paul Eluard
you extend your hands to the desert
in order to meet God away from both the “Pasha” square
and the chairs of the “Odeon” café
you whisper to him about your rebellion
you remember your briefcase,
so you gesture to him
and give him the nearest poem, he reads it
and leans toward you
and the eyes smile
Portrait of George Henein
Because you write like a pirate
who is chasing after his letters
from one storm to another
a pirate who climbs his page
that is tattooed with skulls
and crammed with foreign slaves
and empty flasks
Because you scream whenever the shore
gets close to the ship
and you sigh whenever the bullets
play with your hair
as they move from one head to another
like music moves
You’re so sure then of life
and you hate it
you know what you’ll be after death
and you know that whenever you scream
your end will come
You leave your last lover
hug the violent water
and in your eyes:
piles of islands that you’ll never see,
battles that you haven’t fought,
bullets that won’t hurt you,
and the face of the home country you loved
your only home country
The wall of dream
All you have to do is to sit by yourself
with the minimum number of dreams
and without any money
to exhaust your heart that loves it
before you start your daily path
that sex is not the only road
however, it is the shortest one
and that women’s thighs are not the appropriate trenches
for class struggle
not because of their softness
or their flammable nature
but because they can’t contain a man
and his ammunition
So, the road has to be new,
and on both of its sides, a line
of this type of woman
that puts your dreams on fire
it doesn’t matter which time it is
nor the color of their underwear
because you’ll keep going
holding dearly your old books
that you haven’t believed in yet
The wall of dream (2)
But I’m not
an isolated god
looking for an empty sky
and I am not deprived of coffee shops
or taverns either
also, I’m not incapable of love
I write lots of poetry about women:
It is just that I need a political party
to gather my organs
and give me an identification number
that I can memorize
or a dictator
who takes off his helmet whenever he sees me
and places a bullet in my heart
like grandfathers would place candy
in children’s palms
From: A final portrait of Anwar Kamel
Anwar Kamel was an important member of the Egyptian avant-garde in the forties, a friend of George Henein and Edmond Jabes. Kamel was an early Trotskyite and wrote a book “El-ketab El-mamnoo’” that was banned then. After the military takeover in 1952, most of his friends either immigrated or were forced into exile. In the eighties, an old man, he published the new generation of Egyptian poets in his free, limited distribution, magazine/flyer “Fasilah”.
Shobra is a very crowded lower middle class neighborhood in Cairo where Ahmed grew up.
Anwar Kamel widens his exile:
For thirty years
you were alone in your exile
meanwhile, we crawled,
and wore fatigues
that our path goes through here
so you were widening your exile
and building a fortress of names between your tomb
and the regime’s soldiers:
this is George Henein
taking out maps from his armpit
in order to pick where he would be born
and where he would get lost
this is Trotsky
bending over a book
and pointing to his heartache
this is Ramsis Younan
drawing a city of dreams and illusions
and disappearing in its streets
this is Besheer El-Sebaai
writing a romantic apology
for not dying in 1848
this is Ahmed Taha
creating these traps and holes
in order to chase his runaway childhood
this is Cairo, your city
not a single alphabet letter can penetrate it
to disclose its streets that host different epochs
like homeless old people
these streets where deities are conversing
as if they were friends in a coffee shop
and this is “Shobra”
a body that extends like a graveyard
that is big enough for everyone
yet doesn’t fit a single person
Shobra that is embarrassed of its sagging breasts
so it kneels
and the dead,
and the grieving women
drop from it
like warm milk
yet the armies of police remain,
the empty cable cars remain,
the train graveyard in the north end of Shobra remains,
also the kids whose skin is mere dust,
men who mumble at night
and yell during the day,
women who weep — the same way they laugh —
beneath the weight of their husbands
or behind their coffins
women who get impregnated with men’s panting
and under their gowns their kids walk.
Laughing so hard
you used to talk about your first death:
“I used to be a professional dead man
but I was about to laugh when I saw the
soldiers in their fatigues crying
like a bereft mother who lost her children
because El-Telmesani has escaped
also George Henein
and Ramsees Younan
I’m the last survivor.
For thirty years
I repeated my sermon
lest I forget it
I would climb the fences of Heliopolis
and watch you fight
while surrounded by the soldiers
and the Bedouins
who threw pots of perfectly-rhymed-sounds to you
while exchanging bullets
as if they were exchanging playing cards, hugs, or sex
no blood was shed
no veins erupted,
and no fetus was formed”
Anwar Kamel dies a natural death:
I always saw you
lying on the road
bullets gathered around you like flocks of flies
meanwhile your gray coat is completely open
and next to you, was this dark featherless bird
that — moments ago — used to be your leather briefcase
before they removed your papers from it
Yet you died an ordinary death
that is similar to your last escape
and similar to this awful type of death that we have in
out of hunger
This canned death
that has already expired
and can only bring
this death that can be defeated by
aspirin and valium
You must feel jealous then of our surreal death
coming from the desert
riding its camouflaged camel
with computerized rockets in its saddlebag
and in the distance between its head and its fingers
a bowl of the leftover Fatta*
from yesterday’s dinner
* Fatta is a Bedouin food
Anwar Kamel didn’t build a home country in his briefcase:
For thirty years
you were alone in your exile
and you were thinking
“Where does the original Cairo sleep
and how did the barracks extend to reach my window”
You were thinking
“How could the lost George Henein
have a home country
to put his arm around
or sit with in a café
and maybe feel its body after his second drink”
As for you
the home country that sits next to you doesn’t know your name
even after ten drinks
it may stretch
you may rub your eyes a little
then it would go about its daily journey
and you would go with your daily journey”
Well, let it be then
you only have this chest without nipples
after all the comrades have left forever
like wandering butterflies
where nipples grow like grass
on coffee shop tables
waiting for the dry lips
of those who migrated from the east
Let it be then
you will surrender your body to them
without any sign that points to your
specializing in death for thirty years
let them bury it in the graveyard of July
and you go back to what you were:
a spirit that wanders
in the relics of Heliopolis
A last dance with Anwar Kamel
I’ll slightly disagree with you
regarding who should die first:
or the husband of the woman I’m sleeping with?.
The General who is in khaki,
or the General who is in jeans?
Yet we will agree before the night ends
that everyone should die
and we will agree that we will organize everything
whenever the time permits
in the evening that follows
your final departure
Anwar Kamel celebrates the 14th of July:
Don’t say that all these defeats have colored me
with the color that doesn’t show in the darkness
this was my color from the beginning
as it is your color now
call it whatever you want
it is all you have
There is not a half death for you to die
and there is not half a color for me to live it
this is why I will stay — as I was created — a terrorist
and stuff my head with these big-bellied dying children
and ambush these blonde worms
like a fat spider
I won’t suck their viscous blood
I will organize them in my old notebooks
placed deep in each of their chests, a spear.
I will return their horns they put in museum halls
and their eyes that were stuck to the heads of fish
maybe I would dance around their corpses
that are lined up without shiny coffins
maybe I would fill their limbs with my words
that don’t know Rousseau or Voltaire
and don’t care about the 14th of July
and don’t resemble these three words
that fall from the pages of books
like fetuses in their third month
that stuck to the rears of cannons
like genital flees
But I embrace every moment with this shiny sword
that falls like an angry god
to put the heads of kings, prostitutes,
poetry recite-rs, revolutionary intellectuals,
Generals, beautiful women, and men of God in one basket
I wish if I were there
I would have brushed against the shoulders of these women
who are peeling their vegetables
then would have sat immediately behind that basket
wetting my quill with fresh blood
and write a love poem daily
on my sweetheart’s head
How did the gods ask about the tomb of Anwar Kamel:
There should be a dark universe
where the gods who created it stumble
while searching in the rubble of ancient cities
for any monument from the past
I’ll guide them like blind people
through the ruins that I know well
pointing at what remained of
and canned sex organs
I’ll lie to them whenever I can
like tourist guides lie
to old folks seeking immortality
I will point at Paris’ skull and say:
here Anwar Kamel was born
and point to London’s vagina that is covered with gray hair:
here the faces of the revolutions of third world countries got stuck
and to Washington’s ass:
here third world countries’ officers became leaders
and to Moscow’s breasts that drip rotten milk:
here the leaders turned into philosophers
And when the gods try to return to their far skies
while holding their fake monuments
their eldest will ask me with his dignified voice:
what do you want you obedient servant?
I’ll kneel down in front of him
holding back a chuckle
and chant in a pious tone:
I want more flourishing cities,
and more valium.
Anwar Kamel doesn’t intend to be a saint:
Now, here are the comrades: The Decembrists, the Octoberists
and the romantic assassin writers
unifying their death
they all arrive
with their unkempt beards dangling
with lit pipes.
They will fill the earth with saliva
the air with coughs,
and the sky with something dark
that resembles smoke
In between their sporadic exhalation
their teary voices will echo
while reciting the books of the ancestors
who followed God’s calling
so their blood flowed on His door
while carrying sharp-edged crosses
And you never return
Here are the comrades
raising the white flags
with bloody stripes
and the smallpox scars that resemble the stars
and chant the book of the Ecclesiastes
And you never return
Here are the comrades
their feet shaking absently
while they pray for exodus
the jazz music calms down,
the psalms begin,
their bodies are free from December’s ice
and they begin the New Testament
with their feet flying in the air
their beards touch in ecstasy
and moans that are louder than rock music
in front of the sacrifice scene
And you never return
Maybe you will write the last page
starting with a greeting
and ending with an apology
not for specializing in death for thirty years
and not for escaping from the time of the military and the Bedouins
and certainly not for migrating with the birds in the fall
but because — unlike these birds —
you won’t return the next spring.
The wall of passing
you throw your black hair
and unleash my dreams
What right do you have then
to lock these dreams at night beneath your bed
while you are awake
waiting for their death
I don’t have a lullaby about my past to tell you
so that you can sleep
and my dreams break free
All I remember
is that I was born like this:
a wolf who can’t even howl
yet it always dreams of prey
a General, who begs his victories
at the edges of coffee shops
with medals crowded on his chest
like an ant colony
Maybe I was an ancient general
when I shot my bullets at your chest
and maybe I was a professional thief
when I thought about what is under your short pants
but I want a real medal
and major battles
that could last for years
and be enough for the death of all other Generals,
the destruction of all cities,
and the defeat of all warriors
Everything will be destroyed
except for this flabby house
where your undergarments are hanging
on its walls
and your thick shoes
lie in its corners
I’ll mash it with my hand to shape it like a plug
then hammer it on a forsaken sidewalk to mold it into a medal
I’ll make a flag of your bed sheet
that covers your bed and make it a flag
I’ll hang the medal on my chest
the flag under my head
From : One eye spaced out, one eye perplexed
You were supposed to die in my arms
wasn’t this what we agreed?
what should I do now
with the whole bottle of valium pills I had bought you
should I swallow them myself?
You changed so quickly
suddenly, you’re holding onto life
how astonishing: life!
isn’t it a dark depressing tunnel
and the endless journey
of suffering and confusion?
What should I do now
with the poem that I wrote for your elegy?
you ridiculed me
and I’ll never ever forgive you
Damn, what to do now
after I planned the future of my life
this life, that you destroyed with such a reckless move
I was about to start building
a stronger relationship with the flower shop
so it would give me the most beautiful flowers
at a reasonable price
so I could visit your grave
carrying a beautiful gift
My heart pounds very hard now
whenever I pass by Salah-Salem street
and, overwhelmed with tenderness,
I find myself driving toward the “Basateen” neighborhood
where the family graveyard lies
Oh, and regarding the bars:
I found an old and quiet one
with high windows
and yellowish wooden walls
I would have gone to that bar every night
I decided on which corner table
I would spend the rest of my life
drinking, smoking, and crying
where young poets come
and point at me:
“Here is the recluse, sad sentimental guy.”
Oh, you coward,
you ruined everything.
Under the tree
My friends went to the sea
and left me alone
next to their clothes and shoes
My friends are crazy
they play so violently
they throw buckets of water
and piles of sand
at each other
however, deep down
they’re really kind-hearted.
I sit under the tree, read
and think about life and death
I’m the philosopher of the group:
the handicapped who loves everyone
and no one hates him
I’m the handicapped man who loved the handicapped woman
who was under a faraway tree
spinning around herself, her hair disordered
and white foam dribbles out of her mouth
without noticing me...
The woman was
(no... the word woman isn’t the right one)
The girl was
(hmmm, not either)
The small woman was
Yes, this sounds right
The small woman that I loved
more accurately, the only woman that I loved
used to sit there alone merging with the night
starring at a deep clear well
she combed her short wet hair with her fingers
and kept on holding down her dark curls
one after the other
which led to the creation of small barren islands
that grew bigger and bigger
meanwhile the small black islands
in her head
started disappearing one at a time
My lover’s smooth and lovely head
Oh, my lover’s smooth and lovely head
I want to split you with an axe
oh, my small one
how did your tiny head
— through all these years —
contain this massive amount of hallucinations
listen to them: here they fly
like a defeated army of wasps
you can sleep now my love, sleep...
how pleasant is your smile
your eternal smile
with your whitened lips
and your empty gaze
that stare at an internal spot
so deep inside yourself
Instead of the boring and bloody
game of remembrance and nostalgia
from this night on
I’ll dream of you
Here it is coming from afar
the strutting wonderful shark
swimming determinedly and insistently towards me
it is not a shark, it is a sword fish
the water angry devil
with its pointed harpoon
oooh, here I am, my chest is penetrated again
fighting the waves on my back
and leaving a small stream of blood behind
The greedy sharks are gathering
to start their feast
Oh my God
even in dreams
the same memories
He said to her:
no love or desire
starting now we’re brother and sister,
meaning: “You’re as forbidden as my mother is.”
She sat silently for a moment and then said:
“Yeah, and it is not just about desire,
but also our siblings don’t usually like us.
— “They even sometimes hate us.”
— “Yeah you’re right,
but they help in hard times.”
— “Yes, but remember that sometimes
they are the only ones who harm us badly,
Then he left
he looked as if he were learning to walk
and disappeared in the nearest corner
She sat there
Staring — baffled — at his footsteps
she didn’t really know
whether she was supposed to be happy or sad.
Would you let me have
a small area of your body
not more than one square inch
in exchange for you having
full control of my whole body?
No, I don’t mean anything dirty
I’m simply in love with your ass
this small aristocratic hill
that overlooks from afar
the large desert of your back
and all that I want
is to be able to kiss it whenever I see you
and to pet it more than once whenever we sit together.
In exchange, you will have the absolute right
to kiss or touch me wherever you desire.
Oh, what a beautiful pair of buttocks
and it looks like me
more accurately, it looks like
this deep down convex in my soul
that I can’t reach
May I ask you sister
does it hurt you
as much as mine hurts me?!
I badly need to write a poem
Not because the muse is haunting me
nor because I’m deeply in love with a woman
who doesn’t care about me
simply I’m lonely
and because I’m shy
I don’t — usually — approach my friends first
(I used to have a friend
that I talked to whenever I wanted
but he is now abroad.)
However, whenever I write a new poem
I earn the right to drop by — unannounced — on any of them
even wake them up
without any feelings of embarrassment
actually, with enough joy
to make each of them sit for long hours
and share this joy with me
I’m not bad
I write the poems for my friends
— to be honest
I write them for myself —
I wrote once about dogs
not that I befriend dogs
— as you might think —
but because my friends are dogs.
Should I write then about my friends?
but even until now
there is a lot that I don’t know
oh, I wish my friends were dogs.
Translated by: Gretchen McCullough and Mohamed Metwalli
A Sparrow Flew Over the Station Buffet
Usually two strangers
In the train station
Would talk about the changing weather.
The man mentions the cloud that once blocked
The train cars
and passengers had to get off
To push it aside.
(He remembers well a woman who refused to get off
And sought refuge in the bathroom.)
The woman mentions the herd of goats
Which blocked their way
Making her yell out of the window in the face of the deaf shepherd.
(She remembers well the conductor who was eying her thighs appreciatively
during the incident.)
And usually when the waiter whisks away the fragmented sentences
Heaping up commas and exclamation marks in the ashtray,
In the background scene
A waterfall widens behind them
Sweeping away a sparrow
Whose death no one will remember.
No Flowers in the House Today
The mother is haunted by continuous nightmares
Like hallucinations of wounded soldiers
And the father’s relentless snoring is
Weaving in and out of the nightmares
Bones; heaped on two single beds.
The children are grown and gone
Leaving behind, greeting cards
That need someone to dust them off
And be surprised at the ancient dates
And maybe hum a melodramatic song from the sixties.
This rolled-up poster of Chaplin
Might need someone to unroll it
To exchange a pure smile
With good-hearted Charlie
Who silently witnessed the fading of the children’s laughter
Between these muted walls.
In the past, the father recorded some of their laughter on reel tapes,
And the mother stored the gadget
Under a chair in the living room
Hoping it would give birth to new voices
After the glimmer of the little elves has faded.
But no harm done!
Now they own a car, a video cassette to record
Whatever they please of children’s songs, a gadget to repel mosquitoes,
An Atari to kill boredom, a color television
To watch black and white movies and cry their eyes out.
They also have a lot of Kleenex to dry their tears.
On their phone, they recorded the number
Of a fast food restaurant,
Chatting with the delivery boy so long
Their meal would get cold
So they’d curse the bad food of the restaurant,
Hide underneath the blankets
With lit cigarettes in hands during their sleep
With no dreams at all.
No dreams at all!
That’s How the Magician Pulls the Pigeon out of the Hat
Sex is over
The woman in front of the fireplace,
With a coffee cup trembling in her hand,
Begins to deliver her pious sermon
On the morals of noblemen
When they woo the women of the Middle Ages
While her eyes are fixed
On the icicles sliding down the glass of the window.
Many trains have passed in the man’s head
Who stretches his feet toward the fireplace
To escape a bit from the Middle Ages.
He sees a woman who froze to death
One winter in front of the fountain
On a bench in a public square
While a pigeon
Kept pecking her hat for seeds.
(He stands next to her corpse
wondering about her history or her friends
But his wife leaves them and runs away, terrified.)
He wishes he could win her heart
And ask her about love
To detect the direction of her feelings
He wishes he could talk to her in front of the fireplace.
The woman summons the realm of the noblemen so well
A wide, hoop skirt grows around her waist
And a giant chandelier of candles dangles from the ceiling
A soft waltz slowly envelopes the room
But the man disappears completely
She finds herself alone...
She places him on stage in the epilogue
Of a Greek tragedy
And hides in the audience,
He doesn’t know the lines
So he speaks of the fountain woman and her views on love,
And the hat, and the pigeon...
The noblemen laugh
She hates him with all her might
-Moving her eyes away from the window-
To sip her coffee which has begun to grow cold.
Suddenly, they have sex again
But he wears a fashionable suit of a nobleman
And she looks like the woman from the public square
While the cold room is full of chandeliers, waltzes, a fountain,
Icicles, a hat, pigeons...and overwhelming happiness!
Wordsworth’s “Solitary Reaper”
And which, if I had been one of his Impressionistic contemporaries,
I would have replaced with a single red brushstroke
Amid a vague expanse of green dots
Turned shyly yellowish by a sun about to rise.
That reaper is sitting these days
-solitary still- with sharply defined features
Outlined by cosmetics — which has become mandatory at her age -
At a downtown café
With repressed sensuality
Kissing some young intellectual
Before excusing herself for a few moments and going to face the mirror in the Ladies’
To retouch her lipstick
That resembles the creamy wrinkled skin of light Turkish coffee,
It’s a crucial moment in her life
Reassuring herself of her beauty
Thinking up something to say to the young man outside
In defense of the opinions expressed in her new treatise
Emphasizing the generation gap from a class and economic perspective
And to feel more at ease during the expected conversation
She has pulled down her jeans to get rid of the remains of the beer
Sitting on the toilet with thighs which I don’t want to say are pitifully flabby,
So as not to seem callous —
It’s a crucial moment in my life too
Because I have always thought that the solitariness of Wordsworth’s reaper
Is rather different from my reaper’s
Didn’t the original reaper — come on, Wordsworth! — piss or shit in the field, for example,
Didn’t food get stuck in between her bright teeth, as usually happens to my reaper
During heated literary arguments over lunch with a young intellectual,
And didn’t her bare feet get stained with manure
To signify innocence and exuberance,
And was her sickle more or less different from my reaper’s cosmetic bag?
How she desired that middle-aged man,
With an immense moustache,
Whose face and clothes I have carefully chosen
To make him look younger and impressive.
He dashed into the bar suddenly,
As a bright idea lands like a dart into the heart of a boring novel.
And because she lives with her daughter — on their own of course —
In a building, also downtown
And because her daughter had entertained the same young intellectual
And they had become amicable enough to offend the reaper’s decency
After a few whiskies
She preferred to lie on her bed,
Leaving the window open, with a view of a crescent moon and a cloudy sky,
Waiting for the middle-aged man with the moustache to descend upon her,
Passing the time by impersonating the Solitary Reaper
Meanwhile, the daughter and the young man had polished off the bottle and started to think about getting rid of the mother’s inhibiting presence
How cruel, how monstrous and callous!
I say this pounding their chests with both fists
And looking at them with half-shut eyes
To tell the truth,
They have actually considered killing her
And dumping her bloodstained body
In the middle of some green field!
This may be the only musical kitchen in the building...
Here is a plump opera singer who loves food, especially goat meat, leaning against the stove. A goat thigh embedded with garlic cloves is in the oven. She’s singing parts of a modern opera written for her by her poet boyfriend — although this was not the age for poets to write famous operas — but the poet was patting a goat, tied up in a corner of the kitchen, whose turn had not yet come, before leaning on the other side of the stove and gazing appreciatively at his girlfriend’s long lashes, trembling, the pupils shrinking and enlarging as her passion for singing took over. The aroma of the meat created a sense of harmony in the room. It was the only hope in a future where artists sleep rough and starve. He placed the music sheets, he had just finished, on the wooden cutting board, with onions and vegetables, for her.
The cook — who was a loving mother to them both — opened the oven from time to time, inspiring hope in everyone’s heart; the singer would sing beautifully louder, and the poet’s writing would improve. If the goat panicked and tried to break free, the cook would bring her a couple of clover stalks in a beautiful bouquet. For it was everyone’s duty to calm the goat and create a pleasant ambiance for her. But the cook’s relationship with the goat was unequalled, even by the singer’s relationship with the poet...She even felt as though she was marinating slices of her own flesh while cooking every meal for them...She did not regret it, even if she became thin — as she was now — her bones protruding from her body...Art Above All.
The proof is that the two of them placed the roasted thigh on the table between them outside and busied themselves cutting it up, while the cook was sitting on a low stool in a corner of the kitchen feeling the purgation that follows a Christian self-sacrifice, soaking her apron with tears, while the goat — “the artist” — as the owners of the house used to call her — was gobbling the sheets of music and poetry with great appetite!
Birds of a Feather
Birds of a Feather
Yesterday my guardian angel was walking beside me on a small wooden bridge connecting the two banks of the river
In such perfect step with me
That I thought I had fulfilled my duties to him, to Nature, or to God.
The water caught fire suddenly
And a billboard lit up on the other side of the river
Saying: Long-Lasting Angels at Unbeatable Prices!
I was content, so I didn’t look around
But I smelt roasting flesh
And burning feathers.
* * *
I’m a nice guy
But I’m obsessed with birds
I love them all,
Whether aristocratic such as the parakeets, colorful tropical birds and peacocks,
Middle-class like pigeons and doves,
Or objects of racial discrimination like crows and sparrows.
I throw them crumbs, cherries and blackberries
And call them by pet names and terms of endearment
Just as others do with women.
That’s why I never had a so-called ‘happy home’
So I left my family and roamed the land in search of birds
And I don’t think I’m a nerd or anything
When I get a fit — like the other day —
When I saw a dish of grilled quail at the restaurant next door
Surrounded by parsley, forks, knives, teeth
And similar atrocities!
* * *
I’m a nice guy too
But I’m obsessed with advertisements.
If I glimpse a billboard out of the corner of my eye on the highway, for instance,
I stop the car immediately to read the whole sign
Then go on
And if I hum a sad old tune
I catch myself singing an old commercial jingle;
Soap, matches, beer, toothpaste: it doesn’t matter.
Only yesterday I had hoped to get rid of this obsession
When I dreamed I was deep-kissing a woman I had desired for a long time
Under a gigantic neon sign at midnight.
From afar, we looked like two dark spots
Before an awe-inspiring monument
And the sign was burning up bit by bit.
* * *
My guardian angel was a few steps ahead of me
I felt there was a flaw in our relationship.
Perhaps my indifference didn’t appeal to him
Nor my mockery of ideologies, including love
He was a serious angel
And I was playing the fool as usual.
He spread his wings in wrath
And flew off the bridge.
At that moment I sprouted a jester’s cape, reddish skin and gaudy colors
And flew off trying to catch him.
I only got three meters up in the air
(But I loved it!)
Before falling in the water,
Which later, as you know,
At the crossroads a man and a woman meet
And cling to each other,
Pretending it’s just the rain,
Under one umbrella.
While he imagines grass shooting up suddenly from the asphalt
She recites “The Road Less Traveled” to him.
At the flower shop the seller was fighting sleep
While a puppy licked in between his wounded toes.
The pub owner at the corner was dimming the lights
Taking off his apron and flapping it in the air.
A pair of wings sprouted from the bearded beggar
He hovered on top of the square clock
When it struck two a.m.
A raven swooped down to snatch a pair of spectacles from a British academic
While he was drying them under the light;
A raven’s gift to the beggar.
No one was watching the diva on the square screen
But a thirty-five-year old man
Who was convinced this was the most opportune moment
To commit suicide
As he sat on his suitcase.
At the edge of the countryside an exuberant poet
Embraced the fresh pastures
and was followed later by scores of immigrants
intending to sculpt a dream
at this late hour of the night.
There was a fat opera singer cradling a doll
She never gave birth to,
Addressing it with words of apology
As the notes jazzed up
Before tossing it, at the end of the scene,
Behind the set.
Yes, there was an emotional mayhem in the theater,
From which the man and the woman emerged
That’s why they resorted to outlandish fantasy
Under the umbrella:
They made an angel out of the beggar
And quickly deported him to the poetic countryside.
With their eyesight they moved all the sleeping flowers in the shop
And pasted them to the sidewalk.
Then they spoke with the suicidal man about the art of opera
When he was soaked by the rain,
Leaning against the glass of the flower shop
Next to a poster of the show.
They woke up the seller and scared away his puppy
As if they intended to buy a bouquet
But only bought a single dead rose.
The street cleaner swept away
Most of the passing conversations in the square.
What was left seeped through a hole in his shoes
What was left has sprouted in reality
Forming a plausible account of this moment,
Perhaps in the countryside,
At this late hour of the night!
Osama El-Dinasouri was born in Mahelet Malek village in 1960, and died from kidney failure in 2007. He earned a bachelor degree in marine sciences from the University of Alexandria, and worked as a teacher. He published regularly in non-official magazines like El-Kitaba El-Okhra (The other writing) and El-Garad (The locust.) He published four books of poetry and a memoir “Kalbi El-harem, kalbi El-habib” (My old dog, my beloved dog.)
Mohamed Metwalli was born in Cairo in 1970. He was awarded a B.A. in English Literature from Cairo University, Faculty of Arts in 1992. The same year, he won the Yussef el-Khal prize by Riyad el-Reyes Publishers in Lebanon for his poetry collection, Once Upon a Time. He co-founded an independent literary magazine, el-Garad in which his second volume of poems appeared, The Story the People Tell in the Harbor, 1998. He was selected to represent Egypt in the International Writers’ Program, at the University of Iowa in 1997. Later he was Poet-in-Residence at the University of Chicago in 1998. He compiled and co-edited an anthology of Modern Egypt Poetry, Angry Voices, published by the University of Arkansas press in 2002.
Ahmed Taha was born in Cairo in 1950. He earned a bachelor degree in finance from Cairo University. He founded and co-founded a number of literary magazines and groups: Aswat (Voices), El-Kitabah El-Sawda (The black writing), El-Garad (Locusts.) He introduced many writers in his magazines. He published three books of poetry, and many influential essays.
Gretchen McCullough was raised in Harlingen, Texas. After graduating from Brown University in 1984, she taught in Egypt, Turkey and Japan. She earned her M.F.A. from the University in Alabama and was awarded a Teaching Fulbright to Syria from 1997–1999. Stories and essays have appeared in: The Texas Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Barcelona Review, Archipelago, National Public Radio, Storysouth and Storyglossia, among others. Currently, she teaches creative writing at the American University in Cairo.
Maged Zaher was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt and came to the U.S. to pursue a graduate degree in Engineering. His English poems have appeared in magazines such as “Columbia Poetry Review”, “Exquisite Corpse”, “Jacket”, “New American Writing”, “Tinfish”, and others. He performed his poems at Subtext, Kootenay School of Writing, Bumbershoot, St. Mark’s Poetry Project, Evergreen State College, and other places.