Three New Poems by Rula Jurdi: ‘Your Rhythm in the Reciter’s Chest,’ ‘Isfahan,’ and ‘The Heart’s Peel’

Lebanese poet, novelist, and scholar Rula Jurdi released her first poetry collection last fall. These three poems are from Jurdi’s 2013 debut, Ghilaf al-Qalb (The Heart’s Peel), published by Dar Nelson in Beirut, and were translated by Michelle Hartman.

The three poems included here are Your Rhythm in the Reciter’s Chest, The Heart’s Peel, and Isfahan.

Your Rhythm in the Reciter’s[1] Chest

By Rula Jurdi, trans. Michelle Hartman

The visitors tremble with the clamor of his beat

For he can revive the musical notes,

And take away their life

When your eye falls upon him

You turn Arabic

And your tongue savors for the first time

A taste of the Sun letters,

When your ear becomes

His slave

When it is oppressive,

You will have seen

Both he who resurrects the dead

 And those congregating around their graves.

The reciter says to language:

“Descend from up on high,”

It is overcome by his revelation

While you, unwillingly, bear witness

You recline so that his mourning voice may sleep

Joy eats from sorrow until it is satiated

You leave your passion on the ground,

Lying in its own blood,

Alone the reciter’s voice wakes up

And Mounts a horse like Burāq[2]

At that moment it flies

Beads of words then disperse

 In your Arabian mouth,

Like an enslaved Sassanid princess

You speak with a faint Persian lilt

He drags your chaste letter “K” to his letter “S”

Unrolls it, lifts it up,

Then spreads it out Iraqi-style,

Never softened by his lips’ reproach,

Your heart arches inside of you

The senses forsake their homes.

You become divided within yourself

Just like the handkerchief in his hand

When the poem wounds him

Or he is left to his date-palm voice

You die at the flash of a tear

Echoes rain down on you

From bosoms

Together you remain silent

As if the worlds are falling,

Neither one of you

Is on the scale of the universe now,

 Eyes shed their sparkles before him

Visitors repay his passion

But no one repays your love.

The reciter walks next to a wounded bird

To learn love

But you are neither sky nor water

You find it agonizing

That he sighs like a worshipper

Abandons you like the worshipped

When you hover at the brink, of a violent hunger

Inside you

Desire gossips about you until you give in

Tuck your hair back under night’s cover

And the living, speaking jasmine under the folds of your scarf

The reciter’s sweet basil is within his heart

And it overflows within him

He extends the veins to his lover

While your bond to him is more like a severed head,

If you reveal the joyful words

Wrap him up in his voice

Lest he feels cold

Then leave him with the visitors

So he may chant and burn for the beloved.



[1] The reciter in this poem refers to the “Rādūd” in the Iraqi tradition who chants funereal hymns for the house of the Prophet, especially al-Husayn.

[2] Al-Burāq is the name of the mythical steed that transported prophets to spiritual worlds.


The Heart’s Peel

By Rula Jurdi, trans. Michelle Hartman

She carried her small martyr

To the earth’s bottle

And entered it

At a two bows’ worth of distance or more

She saw the eternal fire

Like Rabi`a when she threw wool over her body

And so became a man even taller than other men

The honey-colored spider closes off the cave’s air

The prophet speaks with a book

So the Lotus holds in beautiful words

Prophet says to prophet: erase the direction of prayer

Take away the stations so I may pray

Move the Ka`ba to where she is

Place it before the smiling woman

Who has her martyr in her arms


Into a sky of clay she stepped out

She curved her only child

Like rising dough

And released him like a handkerchief

He flew around her hair and sang

He was neither a man nor a girl

He was a martyr

So she offered him letters

And took away all the heavens

She dragged her hair in clay

He said: This is a pomegranate for me and for you

So she let him go


Time’s chest is locked

Leaving the martyr to sleep

His mother clothed him

In twilight redness

And a tear that ripped open

The secret of the reign

He went out with his blood

Chanting, alone

Like the last Penitent in Ayn al-Warda


Her face wakes up to the defeat of a crescent

Between her and him

Is the heart’s peel

From the blue of the Mediterranean

She resurrects him and dies

Her face is his beautiful word

His word, a planet, a lock of hair

Fading between his childhood fingers



Rabi`a, the ‘first’ or archetypal woman mystic in Islam

The Penitents tried to atone for their sins in abandoning Husayn, grandson of the Prophet in 680. They rose against the Umayyads around 684 in a place known as `Ayn al-Warda near the Syrian-Iraqi border and all of them died.

The original Arabic available here.



By Rula Jurdi, trans. Michelle Hartman

The piazza is a rosary in the hands of passersby

Inside, you enter outside

The sky, a glass of gold

Behind you is in front of you

You are the carpet commanding all colors


Corners hide on the piazza’s page

Saffron is an interrupted conversation

The Bazaar: chests waiting in turn

To drop perfume in a scarf

The bridge reached the crescent’s altar

Laid thirty-three arches

The birds assembled, the sky fell


The king is Abbas,

And crowns are but a tattered rag

Unfitting for Isfahan

From the ink drop, sitting cross-legged in Kufi

From the fish stadium

From Nile blue in Qaysariyya’s light

Awakens Isfahan

The heart smells the lover’s mouth

And to the glowing moonlit night

Sings the pigeon citadel


The king is Abbas

The city a gift for half the world

As it becomes the other half

He can be soft on silver resting in the artisans’ hands

He can make his wife childless

Just when his son comes to look like him

Or appears to stride over his body

In his hand he carries the seven-colored stone

For a city other than Isfahan

With body parts flanked by palace and market

The king replaces his son’s slain shadow

And liquors up by a fountain of lemons


The sun has a palace, which emerges and disappears

The farsighted has only an eye or two

Man tries on the horse’s body

Running while the spears pant

A finger grips the morning’s hand

Like a child, Isfahan is afraid of losing her way

Milk is sleeping in thirsty mouths

A smell of it belongs to Isfahan

The four gates are women

And at the pond they are all visions

When Farhad left his horse alone

He and the carnation wounded each other


All the merry voices

Are stations for an elegant silence

Isfahan is born

From the beating on her copper,

The star orbits her and rests

When the drowned man slept

He laid not his eyes on her,

From musk, she handed him a board

And from his yearning, a seashore


Isfahan, a lock of hair

Unhurriedly braiding itself,

Beads of an echo in a broken necklace,

The Shirazi, for her sake, curved the lamp of fire

And frameless he found the world’s script

He was extracted from the city

When only he apprehended her beauty

The gazelle walked with him like a Qur’an

Bulls waved at him

Their flowers of jasmine



[1] The meydan (meeting place) is the grand piazza in Isfahan.

[1] Qaysariyya: Entrance to the Royal Bazaar

[1] “Man tries on the Horse’s body”: The centaur-like Sagittarius, a mythical patron of the city.

In a Persian epic poem, Farhad throws himself from the mountaintop and dies after receiving false news of the death of his beloved, Shirin.

[1] Al-Shirazi or Mulla Sadra is a 17th-century philosopher who lived in Isfahan.

On the author:

rulaRula Jurdi is Associate Professor of Islamic History at McGill University in Montreal. She published a number of her poems in Lebanese, American and Iraqi journals and newspapers. She also published two articles on Emile Habibi’s novel Al-Waqā’i` al-Gharība fī Ikhtifā’ Sa`īd Abū al-Naḥs al-Mutashā’il(The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessomptimist), which appeared in al-Ṭarīq and Edebiyat respectively. Her novel Al-Kathāfa: Qiṣṣat Ḥarb Lubnāniyya (Thick Air: a Lebanese war story) appeared from Dar Nelson in 2007. It weaves together three stories from the Lebanese civil war marked by displacement, death and futile love. Her poetry collection, Ghilāf al-Qalb (The Heart’s Peel) appeared in October 2013 from Beirut & Sweden, Nelson Publishing House. She participated in a number of literary and cultural forums in the United Stated and Canada including “Al-Andalus Remembered through Arabic Poetry,” at Yale University (1991); Literature in Translation and History at Skidmore College (1996), and “La liberté de créer,” by Le Cénacle culturel Liban-Québec in Montreal (2013). From the House of Iraq in Montreal, Consul General presented her with an award of appreciation and acknowledgement after reading her poems. This was part of an event that marked the designation of Baghdad by the United Nations as the Cultural Capital of the Arab world in 2013.

On the translator:

michelleMichelle Hartman is Associate Professor of Arabic literature at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. She is also a literary translator and is currently working on the intersections of the theory, practice and politics of Arabic-English translation. Her research and teaching interests cover Francophone literature of the Arab World; Arabic literature and the politics of translation; women’s literatures; language use and literature; nationalism and literature.She was the second runner up for the Banipal Translation Prize 2009 based on her translation of Iman Humaydan’s novel Wild Mulberries. One of her main areas of focus in her research is the politics of translation from Arabic to English, particularly the way in which theory and practice do and do not come together. Her literary and translation research is primarily on women writers from Lebanon and Palestine. Her new book (to appear May 2014), Native Tongue, Stranger Talk is an anti-colonial reading of how women writers from Lebanon who write in French use Arabic words to advance messages about gender, nation, ethno-religious belonging and class in their novels.