Two years after the death of beloved Egyptian poet Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi — who passed away on April 21, 2015 — translator, author, and editor Mona Anis brings us a fresh English version of his “Writing”:
Anis, a long-time deputy editor-in chief and literary editor at Al-Ahram Weekly, interviewed El-Abnoudi back in 2008. During their talk, El-Abnoudi — one of the most best-loved Egyptian colloquial poets — mentioned “Writing,” from his 1999 collection Ordinary Sorrows, as among his best works.
“In this poem I found myself writing an obituary of my mother months before she died,” El-Abnoudi told Anis. “In 1991, I was in Ismaliya, and I found myself sitting at the kitchen table writing this poem in a single session as if it had been dictated to me.”
The poem is dedicated to the memory of El-Abnoudi’s mother, Fatma Kandil, and in it he pines for a sort of “magic writing” that could transform the universe.
From Anis’s 2008 profile:
This kind of inner struggle between aspiration and the words that actually get set down on paper, between dreams and reality, is something that has always been at the core of El-Abnoudi’s work, to the extent that his detractors in Egyptian intellectual circles have sometimes accused him of wanting to have his cake and eat it: of wanting, in other words, to be at once the voice of revolution and a favoured writer of the regime.
El-Abnoudi’s popular poetry was also used as lyrics by a number of popular musicians. As Randa Aboubakr notes in an introduction to her translation of “Yamna,” even when El-Abnoudi’s poetry appears in print, “this poetry, due to its oral roots, still owes part of its richness and popularity to oral performance.”
Feel free to read it aloud.
By Abdel Rahman El-Abnoudi
Translated by Mona Anis
Edited by David Tresilian
How I long to write –
Writing that could bring Toba to Baba*,
Stroke nightingale feathers,
Make the poor happy,
Converse with the sea,
And make the cloud speak.
(Advanced age has taught me to avoid sadness,
Happiness and regret.)
The feeling of my death approaching
(Not a big deal)
Has brought me closer to myself,
But has prevented any writing.
Why should I dislike them,
When I was once like them,
Having the same dreams?
And dismantling kingdoms.)
Have led to peril a thousand times.
They made me grow faster,
As I was a quick learner.
But now that I am aware of my age,
Writing escapes me.
My heart is like a slow nightingale,
Startled and sweet.
No matter how many nights
It masterfully sings,
It remains naive,
Unable to share the prey of eagles,
Or keep away from pigeons.
Here it is:
Standing still as the sun disappears,
Looking up at the clouds
And watching a universe
That refuses to arise,
Like a lonely shepherd
Afraid of wolves.
Alas, the distance that separates the above
There are two parts of me
That rarely love each other.
If one is present,
The other disappears;
One is a true knight,
And the other is young and immature;
One is a boy in love,
And the other is an old man
With greying hair.
As the two journey on together,
Trying to avoid depression,
Writing eludes me.
The sound of your voice, my friend,
Is warm, gentle and meek.
It opens up a happier world
Where nature flows
Like a waterfall of tenderness
Running through our generous moments.
Even the dullest of moments
Could trigger wondrous illuminations,
Resonating in our lame and
But our laughter – if we laugh –
Resonates with pain.
What was the question again?
It was already answered before it was even asked,
Orally or in writing.
In the heart of the night,
With a little food,
Quivers before her departure
Like a wing clad in sad feathers.
She has paid off her debts,
Bought the cloth for her shroud,
And stands before death
Crying, ‘son of cowards,
Why doesn’t he come?’
I tug at the tail of her dress,
Unable to sing
As my heart turned to stone.
Sadness no longer makes me cry,
And dreams yield nothing.
A masterful nightingale,
Cries, ‘enough of this world,
A world that is bitterly cold,
A coldness we were ill-prepared for.’
Each time my mother revisits my worries,
Writing runs away.
My love, the train is standing still
Like a tear in the eyes of an orphan
That doesn’t want to fall.
You are the most graceful of
All graceful things;
You, like the dawn with innocent lips,
You, as white as an empty page,
You, the rarest of the rare.
But my love, the train is still standing still,
Amused by the waiting,
Refusing to continue talking
But not keeping silent,
Neither visibly straight,
Nor clearly divergent.
It is a train that ran
On suffering lips.
The train has left boredom in its trail,
A boredom that seeped into
Good evening to the sunset
As we both depart,
Determined to go far away
Like two palms shrunken with the cold,
Like winter roses.
It’s no easy thing for the sun
To discover, as it departs,
That nothing remains of the day.
(Only faces glimmering and fading,
It’s hard to tell whether they are rising or falling.)
It leaves behind threads
Trampled in the dust
By khamseen riddles.
Was gulped down,
Concentrating a whole world
And swallowed when the opportunity came.
It’s the fear of the sunset
That makes writing run away.
My friends have run away from me,
And I depart
With a dark heart.
Nobody knows my heart
Better than I do,
A heart that has stopped
Wanting either food
It departs bearing the names
Of people who forgot me long ago.
They slept, hating my words,
Cursing my name.
When I wanted them to intercede for me,
My greying hair reflects
Every crumb of what I believe.
Oh, how bitter the taste of departure is!
Photographer, take a photograph,
A third, a fifth,
Take a photograph of my wound,
Whose secret has bewildered all healers.
Perhaps if I know the secret,
I can confront writing.
I planted, and when the plant turned green
And time seemed opportune,
About to feel happy,
Time decided to reconsider the matter,
Throwing me in the way of peril,
Demanding that I deal with my alleged disgrace.
Time changed the hearts of my friends,
Changed them all.
They repeated the allegation,
And believed it.
They kept on repeating it
In the morning and at dusk.
I looked at my hands in the sun,
And I liked the smell of my song,
Believing in the few steps I had taken
Towards that which I could see.
Maybe what I saw was still not ripe,
Maybe I had only touched its fringe,
As it touched me,
Swimming in my veins?
Is this a man or a wolf?
A harbinger of paradise or of a jungle?
And where exactly lies
The writing I should believe in?
When there was no longer any danger,
I forgot the martyr,
Once my friend.
His death when the army was defeated
Had shaken me.
They did not lay his gun next to him,
Or plant a tombstone in the sand.
(Funeral flowers for an ugly death
Are also ugly.)
In the anthem
My martyr did not want
My great love.
Now his name is mentioned
Like stale bread,
Part of the sinister smile
On the face of the leader.
And the beginnings of aspiration;
Helplessness and the vindication of the poor
Lies the will to confront
And the inability to write.
All boats leave eventually
As the sea has a vociferous story.
Anyone wanting an easier journey
Shouldn’t count each wave
And shouldn’t forget to smile
When groans temporarily fade
As the harbour collects the wounded at dusk.
If only I could believe in boats
Before the fog descends,
Perhaps I could regain my equanimity
And be prepared for writing.
Mona Anis is an Egyptian writer and literary translator. She was deputy editor-in chief and literary Editor at Al-Ahram Weekly, 1991-2012.
Poems by El-Abnoudi in translation:
Ebb and Tide, translated by Mona Anis
The Prisoners’ Laughter, translated by Aisha El-Awady and Ahdaf Soueif
The Usual Sorrows, translated by Ahmed Aboul Enein
Yamna, translated by Randa Aboubakr
Al Midan, translated by Samia Mehrez’s “Translating the Revolution” class
Interviews and profiles:
Mona Anis in 2008: “An Upper Egyptian Odyssey”
Youssef Rakha interviews al-Abnoudi: “Our Revolution”