On World Poetry Day: A Kaleidoscope of 21 Arabic Poems in Translation

Today is World Poetry Day — and the birthday of Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998) — and thus ArabLit will take an exceptionally eclectic & arguably nonsense tour through the entire history of Arabic poetry in English translation, based on what’s available free online in at least a good (and preferably fantastic) translation.

Yes, there’s too much emphasis on modern poetry. Yes, we’ve heard of Mutanabbi. Yes, we realize this poetry is not in proper chronological order, and that there are actually 23 poems:

Al-Mu’allaqat 3, 1978. Indian ink on paper, 92 x 64 cm. © Dia Al-Azzawi. Courtesy Galerie Claude Lemand, Paris.

1) “Untitled,” Imru al-Qays, (501-565), tr. Kareem James Abu-Zeid. 

Here, Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s reads from his forthcoming translation of Imru al-Qays, on SoundCloud. We can also recommend Michael Sells’ translation, but there doesn’t seem to be an excerpt online.

2) “Three Hunting Poems,” Abu Nuwas (756-813/14), tr. J.E. Montgomery


Rays lit up the sky
Black night struck camp—
Proof it was day.
I brought out Colt—a stallion of brute power and pedigree.
Fire’s energy coursed
Through his tight-twist, taut-rope joints
He was sent to earth by night clouds guided by a rising star
Showered with their gifts
Blessed by clouds black with rain
In constant downpours.
He drank from their bounty. Limbs grew strong.

3) The Poet and the Wolf,” al-Buhturi (820-897), tr. 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.

4) “An Elegy,” Abu Ala’a al-Ma‘arri (973-1057), tr. Kevin Blankinship

 I scorn delight, even the flashy grin of a pale storm-cloud –

            Let hazy skies rain only a sneer!

Now my mouth, bared wide in a smile,

            Is the wide mouth of a red wound, untoothed,

And my teeth like full-bodied girls — mentioned

            Fondly in speech but kept hidden, protected.

5) “Untitled,” Abu Amir al-Fadl ibn Ismail al-Tamimi al-Jurjani (11th century CE), tr. David Larsen

I have a cat whose foot-pads I dye with henna
before I put henna on my own newborns.
Then I tie cowrie shells to her collar
to repel the harm of evil eyes.
Each day, before I feed my family, I see that she gets
our choicest meats and purest waters.
The playful thing. When she sees
my face contorted in a frown,
sometimes she sings, sometimes she dances,
sparing no exertion for my diversion’s sake.

6) From “The Translation of Desires,” Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), tr. Michael Sells

At the way stations
stay. Grieve over the ruins.
Ask the meadow grounds,
now desolate, this question.

Where are those we loved,
where have their dark-white camels gone?
Over there,
cutting through the desert haze.

7) “To A Girl Sleeping in the Street,” Nazik al-Malaika (1923-2007), tr. Emily Drumsta

In Karrada at night, wind and rain before dawn,
when the dark is a roof or a drape never drawn,

when the night’s at its peak and the dark’s full of rain,
and the wet silence roils like a fierce hurricane,

the lament of the wind fills the deserted street,
the arcades groan in pain, and the lamps softly weep.

A guard frowns as he passes with trembling steps,
lightning shows his thin frame, but shadows intercept.

8) “Cure Your Slavery with Patience,” Saniyah Saleh (1939-1995), tr. Marilyn Hacker

Cure your slavery with patience

and prayers

or so I was told

Cure your oppression and memory with sleep

as for me

I sat under the high, thorny trees

until they flowered

9) “Tattoo,” Muhammad al-Mahgut (1934-2006), tr. 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

10) “Rain Song,” by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926-1964), tr. Lena Jayyusi and Christopher Middleton

It is as if archways of mist drank the clouds
And drop by drop dissolved in the rain . . .
As if children snickered in the vineyard bowers,

The song of the rain
Rippled the silence of birds in the trees . . .
Drop, drop, the rain

Before you curse my choice of translation (although go ahead!), read Ghareeb Iskander’s criticism of the available versions. More translations of al-Sayyab here. Also read this by Sinan Antoon.

11) From “Eleven Stars Over Andalusia,” by Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), tr. Agha Shahid Ali with Ahmad Dallal

It opens:

“10. I want from love only the beginning”

I want from love only the beginning. Doves patch,
over the squares of my Granada, this day’s shirt.
There is wine in our clay jars for the feast after us.
In the songs there are windows: enough for blossoms to explode.

I leave jasmine in the vase; I leave my young heart
in my mother’s cupboard; I leave my dream, laughing, in water;
I leave the dawn in the honey of the figs; I leave my day and my yesterday
in the passage to the square of the Orange where doves fly.

You can find much more Darwish on his birthday post.

12) “Celebrating Childhood,” Adonis, tr. Khaled Mattawa

From the poem:
Even the wind wants
to become a cart
pulled by butterflies.
13) “The Dream of Houses,” Sargon Boulus (1944-2007), tr. Sinan Antoon

From the poem:

There is a street somewhere

lined with houses

Washed by the whiteness of memory

one ceiling after another

I move about inside them

Storming like a night

Fashioning stairs out of my words

Voices too faint to be heard by anyone

14) “At Kerak Citadel,” Saadi Youssef, tr. Elliott Colla

From the poem:

Always, at sunset, the castle walls begin to breathe.

The war is over—it has been two or twenty centuries now.

But then suddenly when night falls, the war comes back.

Soldiers in their towers light their candle, far from the gusting wind

And alone, they cry to themselves.

15) “Untitled,” Salah Faik, tr. Sinan Antoon

From the poem:

After months of pain

I took x-rays of my chest

The images astonished me:

Moroccans dancing

A Jew from my childhood

is selling fabric in an alley

Charlie Chaplin is sitting with my father in the guestroom

Where father hid his clean dinars

16) “Lower Your Voice,” Wadie Saleh, tr. Sinan Antoon

Lower your voice please!

I want to hear what silence is saying

Perhaps it is saying: come!

And I want to follow it

17) “The outstretched hand,” Mohab Nasr, tr. Robin Moger

An arm is severed

But the past remains there,

Like a void in my sleeve

On the verge of greeting someone.

18) From “Petra,” by Amjad Nasser, tr. Fady Joudah, in A Map of Signs and Scents: New and Selected Poems, 1979-2014

From the excerpt:

All who wrote about Petra imagined it as female. A pagan
goddess like the morning star, a queen in a golden chariot
pulled by four horses, a young shepherdess guiding a herd of
goats, a Bedouin woman weaving an endless mat, a queen
daughter of a queen. The feminine metaphor is ready at
the tips of their pens, just as I did in discussing el-Siq. Still
others wanted to be more contemporary in expressing a
femininity that is difficult to pass through with ease: some
wrote about a blonde tourist who rolls up her pants and
wades in a captivating mirage, or an archeologist who
impersonates at night the images of ancient queens, or a
student of history whose name is that of a famous Arabic
lover, as she guides a team of students like a gazelle,
ascending to el-Deir. Still, it is possible for the sensory
metaphor to flip into a Sufi ramble within one range. The
sensory and the abstract merge, how wondrous, in ink.
Sometimes it is difficult to tell them apart. The abstract has a
roothold in the sensory, perhaps a drip in the urns of utmost
desire, the impossible desire, drop by drop, until vanishing.

19) “Rose of Dust,” Mohammed Bennis, tr. Anton Shammas

From the poem:


Shattered places
and the breeze
of dawn wakes up on me


My shoulder still in slumber
A cloud bowing
to the flicker of infinity

20) “Celebration,” Iman Mersal, tr. Robyn Creswell 

From the poem:

The thread of the story fell to the ground, so I went down on my hands and knees to hunt for it. This was at one of those patriotic celebrations, and all I saw were imported shoes and jackboots.

More by Mersal.

21) “The Scream,” Ahmed Yamani, tr. Robin Moger

From the poem:

My sister screamed in the night

Take me to my brother’s house

And there she screamed that same night

No no! Take me back to the house of my father

They took her back

And when she made to scream again

The night had passed

And the men had gone to work.

Also 21) “March Light,” Golan Haji, tr. Haji and Stephen Watts, in  A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know

From the poem:

The sparrow that flew down from the washing-line recognized me without knowing my name. His legs were thinner than the line, weak but they served his needs well. I terrified him when I appeared & the terror took his wings high & away. He doesn’t differentiate between all of us who are called human; it’s the same whether it’s me or someone else since his shining eyes don’t feel safe with any of us. But I hate it that I keep watch over the name I was given to capture me, that I drag it & it drags me, and that it’s stuck to my face & has become part of my voice. Sometimes it seems strange to me when I read it or hear it, or it bores me & I detest it. Like everyone I have spent a long time imprisoning myself in my name, since all of us are buried alive, each in his own : a grave of fear & delight & misunderstanding.

Also 21) “Anatomy of the Rose,” Soukaina Habiballah, tr. Kareem James Abu-Zeid

From the poem:

When the rose perceived the distance
between itself and the earth,
it brought forth its thorns.

When the rose realized
that a single leg
couldn’t take it anywhere,
that it was voiceless
and mostly had no echo,
it thought of fragrance.