‘The Prisoners’ Laughter’ by Abdel Rahman el-Abnudi

Egyptian poet Abdel Rahman el-Abnudi, born in 1938, is one of Egypt’s best-known colloquial poets. He has composed a number of popular poems speaking to contemporary events, one of which was the hopeful “Al Midan,” translated here by students of Dr. Samia Mehrez’s “translating the revolution” course.

More recently, he composed “The Prisoners’ Laughter,” dedicated to activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, who has been in military detention since Oct 30. Abdel Fattah missed the birth of his first child earlier this month.

The poem begins, in translation by Aisha El-Awady:

Flirting with its bars, the birds sing
and the cell, for your sake, hates the jailer.
Come taste with us the sweetness of the prison cell.

On its floor, you stretch your legs
your jailer, at a loss to describe you,
however hard he tries, will never know you.

The sun’s a stubborn torch … it won’t set,
it worries for you,
the sun grieves like every prisoner.

And the night, your partner in patience on this journey,
sings … and the night is inky in its darkness
its songs of suffering passed down from those who came before.

In the dark, reproach Egypt and coax her,
you who’ve for so long loved her
twins, in a moment of passion born.

Keep reading.

El-Abnudi’s Death on the Asphalt was listed as one of “Africa’s Great Books of the 20th Century” by a panel of judges at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. However, El-Abnudi’s work — like other colloquial poetry — is very difficult to translate, perhaps on par with how difficult it is to translate slogans and chants.

Listen to the poem in Arabic, el-Abnudi’s recitation:

Other translations of al-Abnudi’s work:

“Death on the Asphalt,” a poem for Palestinian cartoonist Naje al-Ali

“Your Sorrow”