Three Poems by Riyad al-Saleh al-Hussein: ‘Simple Like Water, Clear Like a Bullet’

Decades after the death of Syrian poet Riyad al-Saleh al-Hussein, his words remain alive among readers:

By Ibtihal Mahmood

Thirty-five years after his death, at the age of 28, Riyad al-Saleh al-Hussein’s poems remain bold, invincible, and “simple like water, clear like a bullet” — with a breathtaking prophetic trait immersed in blue.

A boyhood in Der’a; an early poetic talent interrupted by kidney failure; a loss of hearing at the age of 13 caused by a medical error; end of formal schooling; a trip to Bulgaria to alleviate the effects of the butchered medical procedure; relocation to Aleppo – then to Damascus; love; death; and burial in Mare’, Aleppo. Out of these elements, three collections of poetry sprang forth in his brief lifetime (Failure of Circulation, 1979; Daily Legends, 1980; Simple Like Water, Clear Like a Bullet, 1982). The latter was published only five months prior to his death.

Al-Hussein’s short life and unexpected departure, his reticence, and his choice of a semi-secluded lifestyle all left a lot of room for speculation, especially regarding the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. In one narrative found in an introduction to the complete collection of his poems (Almutawassit Books, 2016), Syrian poet and artist Munther al-Masri, a good friend of Riyad’s, alludes to the possibility of a death induced by heartbreak. After growing concerns about his absence, al-Masri says, two of Riyad’s friends — Iraqi poets Mahdi Muhammad Ali and Hashem Shafiq — found him on the verge of death in his own room, curled up in his bed, shivering, hallucinating, and begging for a sip of water. They rushed him to al-Muwasat Hospital in Damascus, where he passed away in the afternoon of November 20, 1982.

His fourth collection of poetry, A Bull in a Jungle, was published one year later. The collection ends with a poem titled “Habit,” with a final line that reads, “I have grown accustomed to awaiting you, O Revolution.”

What a strange coincidence, as al-Masri puts it, that Riyad al-Saleh al-Hussein bid the world adieu with a “Revolution.” Twenty-nine years later, a Syrian Revolution reenthroned al-Hussein as an icon of the new wave of poetry, taking his poem “Syria” as its anthem:

O cruel Syria

like a scalpel in a surgeon’s hand

we are your good children

we had your bread, your olives, your scourges


A Small Revolution

translated by Ibtihal Mahmood 



I will start a small revolution

in this black room

I will tear up books, sorrows, old photographs

and replace the furnace with a chair.

Soon… Soon

I will think of flowers, wasps in the forest,

and of horses shivering behind bars.


I will start a small revolution

lay my head on the pillow

close my eyes to a savage dream

reach out to my heart

and sing to Rosa Luxemburg.



ثورة صغيرة

بعد قليل

سأقوم بثورة صغيرة

في هذه الغرفة السوداء

أمزِّق الكتب والأحزان والصور القديمة

وأضع الكرسي مكان المدفأة

بعد قليل… بعد قليل

سأفكِّر بالزهور ويعاسيب الغابات

والخيول المرتعشة خلف القضبان

بعد قليل

سأقوم بثورة صغيرة

أضع رأسي فوق الوسادة

أغمض عينيَّ على حلم متوحِّش

أمدّ يدي إلى قلبي

وأغنِّي لروزا لوكسمبورغ.



translated by Ibtihal Mahmood 

In the evening, the men arrived, spent, from the pasture

in the evening, the women arrived, spent, from the fields

the men’s hearts about to fall

the women’s eyes about to cry

in the evening, they came and danced until the morn.

The wound became a song

and fatigue, a flute.

But one man

kept his seat in the far corner

the gun in his hands like a snake

life, in his eyes, a time of clay…

The man watching silently

not watching television

not dreaming

not sleeping

that cur…

What is he thinking about?




مساءً جاء الرجال متعبين من المرعى

مساءً جاءت النساء متعبات من الحقول

للرجال قلوب موشكة على السقوط

وللنساء عيون موشكة على البكاء

في المساء جاؤوا ورقصوا حتى الصباح

الجرح صار أغنية

والتعب مزمارًا

غير أن رجلا ما

ظلَّ جالسًا في الزاوية البعيدة

البندقيَّة بين يديه كأفعى

والحياة في عينيه زمن من فخَّار…

الرجل الذي ينظر بصمت

لا يبدو أنَّهُ يشاهد التلفزيون

ولا يبدو أنَّهُ يحلم

ولا يبدو نائمًا


ما الذي يفكِّر فيه؟

The Sleeping Boy

translated by Ibtihal Mahmood 

Before he went to war, he marched toward the bed

closed his eyes and slept…

He saw in a boyish dream

a spacious plain with galloping deer

a flock of birds

peach trees

moonlike flowers

He saw a very spacious day

and deep into the day, a man came walking

threw a bloody shirt at the child

the plain vanished, the deer perished,

the trees followed

the day disappeared…

The handsome boy said: that’s okay.

He closed his eyes with his own eyes

and slept

saw twenty angels perched near him

proposed: let us eat oranges

let us play cat and mouse

I will hide on top of my bed

now find me, dear cat/angel…


And from the farthest sky

a bomb dropped over the handsome boy’s bed

the angel flew

the cat meowed, seeing the child’s finger sinking in the dirt

the handsome boy said:

That’s okay, that’s okay

Exhausted, he went back to bed

closed his eyes with his own eyes

and slept…

Saw in a dream

fish on the walls

a wolf swimming in a pool

a crocodile returning to the nightclub

and a woman waiting for God before the Palace of Justice.

The handsome boy cried:

I don’t want to see anything

I want my mother, my bottle, my blanket.

The handsome boy said something

not that pleasing

yet not distasteful:

“long live the duck

long live the river

long live the cat

long live the trees

long live my sister, my brother

and down with the tank” …

He closed his eyes with his own eyes

and slept, once and for all



الولد النائم

قبل أن يذهبَ للحرب مضى نحو السرير

أغلق عينيه ونام..

رأى فيما يرى الأولاد

سهلاً فسيحًا تركض الغزلان فيه

سربًا من عصافير

وأشجارًا من الدراق

أزهارًا لها هيئة أقمارٍ

رأى نهارًا واسعًا جدًا

ومن أقصى النهار جاء رجل يسعى

ألقى على الطفل قميصًا من دمٍ

فاختفى السهل وماتت الغزلان


اختفى النهار..

قال الولد الجميل: لا بأس

أغمض عينيه بعينيه


رأى عشرين ملاكًا يهبطون قربه

سألهم: هل تأكلون البرتقال

هل نستطيع أن نلعب لعبة الهرّة والفأر

أختبئ الآن فوق سريري

جديني أيتها الهرّة/الملاك..


ومن أقصى السماء

جاءت القنبلة فوق سرير الولد الجميل

طار الملاك

وماءت الهرة حينما رأت إصبع طفل في التراب

قال الولد الجميل:

لا بأس، لا بأس

عاد إلى السرير متعبًا

أغمض عينيه بعينيه


رأى فيما يرى الحالم

أسماكًا على الجدران

ذئبًا يسبح في البركة

تمساحًا يعود للملهى

وامرأة تنتظر الربّ أمام قصر العدل

صاح الولد الجميل:

لا أريد أن أرى شيئًا

أريد أمي وزجاجة الحليب والقماط

قال الولد الجميل شيئًا

ليس حسنًا جدًا

وليس سيئًا جدًا:

“عاش البط

عاش النهر

عاشت الهرّة

عاشت الأشجار

عاشت أختي وأخي

ولتسقط الدبابة..”

أغلق عينيه بعينيه

ونام أبدًا

Ibtihal Mahmood is a Jordanian-American writer and translator based in Seattle, Washington.