10 Things To Remember About Syrian Poetry

To celebrate the launch of the Critical Muslim’s Syria issue, editor Robin Yassin-Kassab has made a list of “10 things to remember about Syria” that trends toward the positive: Maté, sufis, poetry, fatteh. ArabLit focuses on, No. 4, the poetry:

What? No Abu Tammam?
What? No Abu Tammam?

This list is hardly “canon”; in any case, a rich tradition allows the reader to deviate from a best-of list.

1) Ninth century poet al-Buhturi, often compared to another great ninth century Syrian poet, Abu Tammam. Here, from “The Poet and the Wolf,” trans. Tarif Khalidi:

Suddenly, a grey wolf!

Eye-catching, forepart and ribs upturned,

Limbs at his sides lanky, spindly,

Dragging behind him a rope-like tail,

His spine crooked, bent like a bow.

Creased by hunger, his resolve had hardened:

Nothing but bones, spirit and hide.

He crunched his fangs, in whose rows lurked death,

Like the crunching of one shivering from the cold,

Teeth chattering.

mutanabbi2) Tenth century poet Al-Mutanabbi, whose voice still echoes through contemporary literature. In the words of a character in Elias Khoury’s 2007 novel, As Though She Lay Sleeping, “Give me verse like that, give me a poet like Abu Tayeb al-Mutanabbi, and I’ll go with you to the ends of the earth.”

From Khoury’s novel:

“Listen, Meelya,” Mansour said, and fell silent. He had wanted to say that words were al Mutanabbi’s water and music his waves, that he mixed wisdom with rhythm so that his poetry became a door to awareness, and that the door had closed behind him when he died and no-one had been able to open it again for the last thousand years.

“If he couldn’t walk on water, he wasn’t a prophet,” she said.

“Listen,” Mansour said:

“Who has not loved this world betimes –
Yet still we find no road to love and consummation.
Your lot, in this life, of love
Is as that, in your dreams, of a phantom.”

220px-Al_Ma-arri_-_Aleppo_Syria3) Eleventh century poet Abu Ala’a al-Ma‘arri. Who doesn’t love this radical, rational vegan who supported animal rights and wrote the wide-ranging Epistle of Forgiveness? (On the translation of which: 1, 2.) That is, other than the strange fellows who beheaded his statue. Anyhow, trans. Tarif Khalidi, “A rain cloud“:

A rain cloud:
The sea had given its caravans to drink.
Once quenched, it took wing to high ground, jubilant.
But the king of the winds rose up to it with his troops,
And scattered it, unwilling, unfulfilled.

I wept for that cloud, having missed its quest,
Though neither its longing nor its passion was mine.

So too the nights:
They’re never generous when a creature pleads,
Never faithful to their promise.”

nizar4) Twentieth century poet Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998). Oh yes, I see that you claim you don’t care for Qabbani’s romantic work, but I know you listen to the poems of his that have been set to music and sung by Abdel Halim Hafez, Fairuz, and Umm Kulthum. From “Little Things,” translated by Bassam Frangieh and Clementina Brown:

When the telephone rings in our house
I run to it
With the joy of a small child,
I embrace the emotionless machine
And squeeze
Its cold wires
And I wait
For your warm, full voice to come to me
Like the music of falling stars
And the sound of tumbling jewels.
I cry
Because you have thought of me
And have called me
From the invisible world.

download5) Twentieth century poet Muhammad al-Mahgut (1934-2006), who was locked up on several occasions by Syrian authories for his membership in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. During his first imprisonment in 1955, he apparently met the influential poet Adonis and started writing poetry himself. From his “Tattoo,” trans. Sinan Antoon:


At the third hour of the twentieth century

Where nothing separates the corpses

from pedestrians’ shoes

except asphalt

I will lie down in the middle of the street

like a bedouin sheikh

and will not get up

until all the prison bars and suspects’ files of the world

are gathered and placed before me

so I can chew on them

like a camel on the open road

Until all the batons of the police and protesters

escape from grips

and go back (once again)

budding branches in their forests

adonis6) Twentieth century poet Adonis (1930 – ), poetic pioneer, frequently mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here, his “The Beginning of Speech,” trans. Khaled Mattawa:

The child I was came to me
a strange face
                He said nothing              We walked
each of us glancing at the other in silence, our steps
a strange river running in between
We were brought together by good manners
and these sheets now flying in the wind
then we split,
a forest written by earth
watered by the seasons’ change.
Child who once was, come forth—
What brings us together now,
and what do we have to say?

saniyya7) Twentieth century poet Saniyya Salih (1935-1985), here translated by Ghada Mourad, a section from her poem “The Trial“:

I am the hostage woman

Predecessors claim me; so do successors

I snatch myself from the mouth of the two voids

I dream of the end of the universe,

Perhaps human glory witnesses the end

Waits long until civilizations

Lovers and peoples expire,

Or maybe migrate,

And earth remains for me,

Only me,

For me to be Eve the wonderful.

ArnoutAicha8) Twentieth century poet Aïcha Arnaout was born in Damascus but has lived in Paris since 1978. From “The Fountain,” trans. from the French by Cécile Oumhani::

When the inscrutable
embraces sluggish time
spreading its invisible light between two suspended shores
rags of screams, a flight of black cloth
spread a hollow vertigo
down the native alley

Sanctuaries in ruins, fathomless crypts,
sepulchres with no remains merge
above a beaded sheet
wrapped around the earth’s flank

haji9) Twenty-first century poet Golan Haji (1977 –   ), born in a Kurdish town in northern Syria. From “Autumn Here is Magical and Vast,” trans. Stephen Watts:

Our dreams remember our dreams.
Like drenched cats we took shelter under the tree when it rained
and big droplets put out our cigarettes.
Flashlights moved across the theater of clouds.
The hankies were sodden. Chairs were abandoned
where I waited for your hand.
Roots lifted the pavement slabs in front of us
and I concealed your craving on my shoulder
like the tattoo of an unfulfilled desire.

10) Twenty-first century poet Ghayath Almadhoun (1979 – ), born in Yarmouk Camp, Damascus’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, here with a poetry film, “The Celebration,” trans. Catherine Cobham:


Voices from the Syrian Tragedy – Three New Poems

New in The Atlantic: Syria’s War Poets

Dissident Blog – What Does It Mean To Be a Syrian Poet Today?