3 Poems from Sillerman-shortlisted El Habib Louai

Moroccan poet Elhabib Louai’s Rotten Wounds Embalmed with Tar was shortlisted for this year’s Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry:

The other two finalists were Egyptian-American Hazem Fahmy, for Id, and Nigerian author O-Jeremiah Agbaakin for The Root of the Word Babble is Babel. The prize went to Zambian-born poet Cheswayo Mphanza for his manuscript The Rinehart Frames.

Louai is both poet, editor, and translator, and he edited and translated an anthology of contemporary Moroccan poetry that was published by Big Bridge Magazine.

They Got Nothing but Rainbow Colors in Blue Skies

I pass them everyday

Cycling at the outskirts of a shabby life

I pass them bent over in rows

picking the last ears of sweet corn

Their forlorn shacks in the middle of canebrakes

I pass them everyday

The Amazigh farmers who fought to the last drop of blood

shedding salty tears

over lands usurped by government officials in stiff suits

They got nothing except gadflies biting

& buzzing over their meek donkeys

No Gods show up in their arid lands to help them

with the harvest

They got nothing except

Seven sheepskins on hard floors

The Sultan’s black and white photograph on blank walls

A guerba of goat skin full of well water

Broken jugs, hay-stuffed rucksack pillows & clay plates

Jellabas made out of one thousand and one patches

I pass them everyday

The Amazigh farmers who fought for their native land

Their children rolling loose on crooked floors

to the corners of clay rooms, buttoned in cold,

their bones knitting shadows in dark

Dreaming of pullovers, raincoats and shoes

No representatives ever come to ask how school is going

Their dreams are drawn in sameness

No welfare checks or food stamps from phosphate revenues

I pass them everyday

The Amazigh farmers who fought for the land

Their wives never throw anything away

& their children eat last week’s greens rotting in plastic bags

They got nothing but rainbow colors in blue skies


Who Cares when you Die on Fifth Avenue


I never cared about

American Coke Zero,

Falafel or humus sandwich on McDougal Street

I called my mum

& said I am happy to subsist on Arab omelet

For two months I survived on slices of pizza

Like John Wieners on Broadway

When I think of it all now,

I tell myself misery was bliss

in the company of musicians

who played until the break of the day

I was more worried about elders in rags

sleeping in midnight subways

That made me forget about

ripe pomegranates harvested back home

I was more worried about the man

Who collapsed in the Fifth Avenue

Nobody cared! It was the American way

The sirens went on

& people lined in front of NYP Library

Since then I took every mention

of democracy with a grain of salt

Since then I understood why

Americans pray they’ll never fall sick

Since then my dreams were only about

universal healthcare for the wretched

So they can be sure

they’ll die in all the natural ways

Touched lightly by a professional angel


Prepare Thyself for Prison


Too much quiet

Is never a good sign

Life is as short as dwindling candlelight

Unless you stumble into prison

Then you get the impression

That life goes on forever


But at least, then you get rid of




Bills, refundable coupons,

& an endless commute.

You get three free meals a day,

A shower every Thursday

& probably a decent library

If your cell happens to be in Scandinavia

You could be re-acquainted with

Mayakovsky, Bukowski, Trotsky & Suzuki

They will teach you

The meaning of “Great Humility”

The only drawback is the lack

Of female companionship


When you get out of jail

You will imagine the life you will live:

A builder

Writer or producer of radio commercials

Hamburger or falafel seller

Blues player, diet pill advertiser

Telemarketing room manager

for dating services like Tinder


Yet, the time taken from you

By incarceration stares you in the face

Every day and late into the night

You will never be you again

A glance at yourself in the mirror

Hurts like a blade in your liver

You try to prove, at least to yourself,

You’ve been unjustly locked up

& you think of all the innocent ones

The system will never

Cough back into the street

You refuse to acknowledge

The permanence of barbed wire,

Armed guards and aluminum dishes

You attempt to prove to yourself

You did everything for the good

Of your brothers and sisters

Living in the shade of mercy


You attempt to prove

You aren’t human debris

By typing your thoughts

On a state typewriter five days a week

Locked up in the prison

of your everyday mind

on the outskirts

of your dear hometown.


A Prayer to End the War



I shall refuse to argue or shout:

“My loss is greater than yours!”

Or even complain trivially:

“My pain is more valuable!”

As if we have not dodged the same bombs together

As if we haven’t looked the same enemy in the eye


I will not marry the empty bed

in the empty corner of the empty shelter


our dry skins and worn bones

that survived immeasurable distances,

that outlived sickness unto death

will unite in eternal embrace & I shall eat you with kisses

El Habib Louai is a Moroccan Amazigh poet, translator, teacher, and musician whose poems, translations, and articles have appeared in a variety of international literary magazines, journals and reviews. His first collection of poems is calledMrs. Jones Will Now Know: Poems of a Desperate Rebel.