More on the Talented Ahmad Yamani and News of Arabic Poetry in (English) Translation

If you want your own Ahmad Yamani—in print, in English—you can of course pick the Beirut 39 collection (which features a few of his early works), or head back to issue No. 32 of Banipal. Or you can hop around online, notably stopping at Arabophile, Youssef Rakha’s site.

But you can’t buy a collection of Yamani’s in English.

Yamani, despite his renown within the Egyptian poetry-reading community, has not had a book-length work translated into English. Of course, I doubt that surprises you much.

If he were a fiction writer, the story would perhaps be different. But foreign poets, by and large, don’t seem to translate into the English-reading world unless they also—like Tahar Ben Jelloun—write prose. Or, like Darwish, have some political gravity. I was in a large used bookstore last night (I am still, unfortunately, traveling) and could find no Arabic poetry in translation. Not even Darwish. Not even perennial Nobel-shortlister Adonis.

Another factor: Many translators, particularly those who are not themselves poets, shy from translating poetry.

Translations do happen, of course. Darwish is finally coming out in English from major publishers (after his death); Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail has a new collection out in translation (although she now lives in the U.S.); Taha Muhammad Ali is available in English. (He even became semi-famous after Adina Hoffman published My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century.) And there are all sorts of things I never knew existed until I trolled around Amazon, such as the 2003 collection Angry Voices: An Anthology of the Off-Beat New Egyptian Poets.

In the end, there probably is a wealth of Arabic poetry in English: The Poetry Translation Centre, for instance, churns out quite a bit of new, translated work. Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi has a new poem up on the site. Words Without Borders and Banipal also produce poetry in translation. Poetry International features a number of Arab poets, although only four from Egypt. They do have Arabic, English, and audio recordings of a few poems by the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti.

Still, you’ll be hard-pressed to find English translations of most of the Beirut39 poets. Ah, but this was all by way of saying that translator Elliott Colla, a fan of Yamani’s, sent a translation of Yamani’s 1995 poem “Black and White Streets.” Colla admits to not being satisfied with the translation. However, the imagery is nonetheless startling and fresh, the dream-like narrative line is fascinating, and the last stanza is surely beautiful.

Black and White Streets
Ahmad al-Yamani
(January 1995)

The lights go out in the Cairo sky
On the metal bridge, a blind man struggles against the railings
Green paint smears against his clothes
But in the dark, it can’t be seen
He feels its softness against his skin
As he falls into the Nile
Two cars crash into me
One had been going the wrong way
Between them I am crushed,
Crushed so hard not a drop of blood pours form my head

Here I am, under the cars
In a small dwelling that wraps around my ribs
An ant jumps suddenly
And bites my right arm, and I call out, “Ah!”

Water hoses extinguish the car fires,
The dark and gray flames
The water startles me, but no one notices
It’s just as well
I crawl out from beneath the tires
In a tuxedo
And heading towards the old Opera House

The rain taps on my Rolls Royce
Tonight the music is thunderous
I need to dance with a pale woman
I drive the car to Clot Bey St.
Then leave it and hop on a horse-drawn cart
Crossing Abu l-‘Ela bridge
with a group of women going to off to visit the graveyards,
I fall asleep on one woman’s thigh
and wake up drenched.
In the student demonstrations, the police chase after me
I run to hide under the two cars
Again, no blood.

When the cars disappear in a yawning pit
I jump after them
and fall into a huge funeral
I greet everyone while laughing out loud
One man doesn’t like me—he clasps a chain around my right hand
and passes the other end around, one by one, to everyone else,
The dead man’s shroud flies gravewards,
There are the coffin salesman, the nurse, the cemetery guard,
With the dead man’s family, his children, and neighbors,
All in a souvenir picture to honor the deceased,
And here I am in my white galabeya in front,
holding the camera.

The man lets go of the chain and cries
the cigarette falls from my lips onto the carpet
and the funeral bursts into flames.

I run away,
With a child on my back
He was crying all alone
He won’t stop crying
I push his forehead and he stops
I press it again, and he starts crying again,
With those sparkling eyes
And that flat expression
That stays on his face for hours
While I try to run away, he drops out of my arms
And bursts into tiny flames

Is there something for me in these fields now
As I flee the murder I have committed?
Who will burn my fingerprints
Or flood these fields when I am gone?

The dead child takes up a wide swath
His eyes: blue
Thirty meters from the point of explosion:
His black shoes hang from a branch
His metal hand: slowly melting
His head: no blood
Send us a new box of colors
So we can paint his eyes, his tongue and lips
And then fly him up like a flag over the fields!

Then, when the night shines pure
And moon is nearly complete light
A caravan of camels passes by
And I join them at the rear
And sit in a distant café I’ve never seen before
Twenty spoons swirl in cups
At the same time
That is the only sound
A woman walks in, staring straight at my penis
I start to take off my clothes in front of everyone
We come at the same time
In an open corner in the cafe
The woman leaves, and, in the darkness, nobody else appears to take her place

Inevitably, the electricity will go out
We will never know whether the coal in the waterpipe is burning bright
Or about heat whose sources are unknown
We can never be sure about the little glasses my friends wear
Or the streets that remain closed to those that live there
Or about the windows that are gone from sight now.

All of this helps the words fly over our heads
While we talk for hours and hours
We talk until our throats go dry
All of this helps those words that come out whose meaning we never awaken to
Those powerful words we use for hours and hours
Till the door suddenly opens
Or two cars collide in the street
Or the water faucet begins to leak
Drop by drop
And we fall asleep to its voice.

More Yamani and news of Arabic poetry:

  • Unfortunately, I am missing the discussion of Yamani’s new book tomorrow at Dar al Ain (7:30 p.m.) because here I am, still doing my Ibn Battuta trick for a while yet. I hope you’re going! If you do, for goodness sakes, tell me about it.
  • Yamani’s poetry is discussed here by C.C. Burt, but I was not willing to pay $34 to download the article, even if it says, tantalizingly: “AHMAD YAMANi. The most problematic poet of this group for me, Ahmad Yamani’s poetry has also been a source of controversy in the critical reception of the…”
  • You can still join our SUMMER READING CHALLENGE: There’s poetry on the list, both classical (al-Mutanabbi) and contemporary (Darwish).

[Ahmed] Hegazi, the chief guardian of the House of Poetry, tells me that the group is interested in reviving poetry and bringing it to the attention of the mainstream public. It is not important whether the poetry is in classical or colloquial Arabic: what matters is to awaken the appreciation of poetry among the Egyptian people.


The group is also organising an annual competition for all poets under the age of 35. This year’s winner of the LE25,000 prize was Mohamed Salem Abadah, who was handed the prize at the opening day of the House of Poetry in late May 2010. More poetry competitions are on the board’s agenda.

Although I must disagree with the article’s conclusions. The poetry scene is one of those few places where “peace” is of no benefit. Long live poetic strife, factions, sub-factions, and disagreement!

  • Also in Al Ahram, Mursi Saad El-Din wonders if this is the age of the novel (in Egypt) or still the age of Arabic poetry.