In mid-January 2011, “If, One Day, A People Desires…” was my poem of poems.
It also didn’t hurt that al-Shabbi was a Tunisian poet, and Tunisians were the first to gather in public squares and fire a dictator. Egyptians, Syrians, Libyans, Spaniards, Greeks, Americans, and many others wanted to follow suit in shaking off their chains; many embraced (if only for a moment) this Shabbian life, this climbing of mountains and cracking of thunder.
Sure, new meanings were imposed on al-Shabbi, by me as by others, but such is literature. The poem reads differently now, in late November 2012, when the chains have been so recently shaken off and so recently clamped back on. It is not possible to hope quite so wildly. But it is a poem with staying power: It still awakens a door through which one can see something more.
Translating the poem is tricky. Below is an excerpt from the translation by Ghada Mourad that appeared in Now That We Have Tasted Hope (ed. Daniel Gumbiner), revised, I believe, from the version that appeared earlier on Jadaliyya:
If, one day, a people desires to live
Then fate will answer their call
Darkness must dissipate
And must the chain give way
And he who is not embraced by life’s longing
Evaporates into its air and fades away
Woe to one whom life does not rip
From the slap of victorious nothingness
Thus told me the beings
And thus spoke their hidden spirit.
The wind murmured between the cracks
Over the mountains and under trees:
—If to a goal I aspire,
I pursue the object of desire and prudence obliviate
Neither the rugged canyons will I shun
Nor the gushing of the blazing fire
He who doesn’t like to climb mountains
Will forever live among the hollows
The blood of youth in my heart roars
And more wind in my chest soars
So I hearkened, and listened to the thunder’s shelling
The wind’s blowing and the rain’s falling