‘Build Me a Difficult, Painful House’

If you’re in England, the High Impact Tour approaches, where seven Dutch poets (including Palestinian-Dutch poet Ramsey Nasr) will tour through Oxford, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, Norwich, and London. (If you’re not in England, the Cairo Book Fair is coming up.) 

Yesterday, the “literature of the low countries” tour posted a translation of Ramsey Nasr’s “the house of europe” (by David Colmer).

heavenly-life-by-ramsey-nasrIf you haven’t read David Colmer’s “rules for translating (poetry)” crafted for ArabLit, you should. Colmer was shortlisted for the prestigious Popescu Prize for his translation of Ramsey Nasr’s Heavenly Life.

But I believe the English translation of “the house of europe” first ran in Traduit de L’Arabe back in November, along with essays by Ahdaf Souief, Abdelkadir Benali, and Taha Adnan, among others. 

the house of europe / het huis van europa

my neighbour conceived a continent

a rolling realm where features are few

no wind or echoes, just furnished plains

to make our lives complete and long


the citizens are civilised to uniformity

rough edges gone and rounded off

like their languages, their coins and tomatoes

they roll on down the road in peace

it also thrives in me, this endless

longing for order, domesticity

my neighbour and I accept each other

we are the froth on our ideals

but sometimes when the world’s on fire

just before I go to sleep

I think softly of my origins

and smell you in the distance

where, under smoothly boyish skin

a pit of gaping contradiction

awakes a hundred-thousand-fold

a hole full of celts and cathars

etruscans, moors and magyars

reeking of milk and manly hides

of visigoths and proto-slavs

lapp hunters head up north

vandals settle at gut level

my flesh bulges and starts to melt

basque! saxon! merovingians

hook onto tender ribs

in hordes I fall apart and come together

turning into a good barbapapa

for all my travelling forebears

that’s europe with the works

my neighbour conceived a continent

but I need a room for my guests

a home for my mixed origins

or simply a barrel to sleep in

I need a place with discomforts

with old-style corners: badly arranged

draughty and incomplete, but real –

something to grip between cellar and roof

build me a rusty house against

the dizzy myths of the field of blackbirds

against the poppies of poperinge

and the gold teeth of auschwitz

against a prospect of mist and purity

build me a difficult, painful house

Credit: High Impact Tour website

You can also watch Nasr’s ‘High Impact’ film: