This lock-in Monday, as part of our ongoing series of stay-at-home literature, a poem by Iraqi-Canadian poet Issa Hassan Al-Yasiri, translated by Iraqi-British poet Ghareeb Iskander:
A Primitive Prayer for Uruk
By Issa Hassan Al-Yasiri
Translated by Ghareeb Iskander, with thanks to Hassan Abdulrazzak
God … O God
For Uruk, I ask you
Is your first seed
And the grandmother of all your cities.
For your adorable girl
Seven thousand springs old
But has not crossed her childhood’s doorstep
I raise my prayer for you.
Give her back her earrings, God
Return to her clay oven the fire
And the rain to her farms
And take away death which harvests her children.
Is the tree that shelters your birds
And the river where the sinner purifies
And the arms in whose embrace the woman feels happiness.
Her minarets glorify Your name
Her churches’ bells ring for your majesty
And her taverns are open all night long
For the witty tramps to have shelter.
For those who are still living in
And for those who left
Save her O blessed, the shelter and the light.
May your name be sanctified O God
Master of the heavens
And the King on earth
The protector of fish in the water
And the baby who swims in his mother’s womb.
Uruk’s hand has stretched
To steal some of your fire
She revealed the secret of the Flood
Took Enkidu from his pasture
To give him to death
That it did
Not to lose your glory on earth.
Uruk’s people have their sins
And I have my sins and errors
We attended Ninlil’s bedchamber
To ask her moon for light
At the same time
We rejected Ishtar’s obedience
And we refused to sit at her body’s table.
you know, O God
How delicious is Ishtar’s body
The kings of Earth
Placed offerings in front of her marble breasts
And her lake fenced with grass
As for us,
We turned away our faces from her
And she did not capture us.
So why did Uruk become a home for sadness,
Where weepers wonder.
Uruk did not say to you:
Let me see you.
She just cried aloud.
Forgave her O God.
What should the mother do
When she sees her children being led to death
Or they leave her quickly
Like a flock of sparrows, whose nests have been ransacked by night cats?
Uruk is the dearest city to your heart
Your first seed
Hold her so that her foundations would not collapse.
O God … O God
I am the farmer who plows Your land
Takes care of your sheep
Warming women’s bodies
Feeding children’s mouths
Listen to this my prayer
Uruk is your honorable city
Lit by the sun during the day
And by moon during the night
It is a home for people friendly as children
Compassionates like sweethearts
And sinners like human beings
This is Uruk
It’s about to collapse, so hold it!
Keep away from her
Those who put the lamb to the wolf’s mouth
And the sparrow in the owl’s nest
And those who contaminate the spring water.
O God, O God
I am your innocent, naive and wronged servant
I swear by your majesty
I have followed your commandments
I did not reject any of them
I did not kill a mother’s child
Or take away a brother from a brother.
I did not break a woman’s heart
Nor did I betray a friend
Nor defiled his honor
I never cut a tree
Nor ban a farmer from his farm
On someone’s neck I did not put a yoke
I neither participated in a war
Or destroyed a house
Or dispersed a family
I did not raise my eye to look at my neighbour’s wife.
In my paper ships
I have crossed this marsh
And arrived at the bank in bright clothes
As if I am ready to meet my herd
Or enter to the bedroom of my bride.
I am the one who offers to your starving, a loaf of bread
The only one I possess.
And when I pass the chandlers
I beg them to light your houses
To make them smell nice.
May you listen to your servant, O God
And return Uruk as it was
Return us to Uruk
And the bed of happiness.
Issa Hassan Al-Yasiri was born in southern Iraq and spent his early years as a shepherd tending his family’s cattle. Like hundreds of other Iraqi writers who sought exile, Yasiri ended up as a refugee in Canada, where he has been living since 2001. Yasiri has published more than 10 poetry collections, including Passage to the Cities of Joy (1973), I Call You from Afar (2008), and Peace Be Upon You, O’ Mariam (2012). An edition of his collected poems was published in Beirut in 2017 under the title The Complete Poems of Issa Hassan Al-Yasiri (Beirut: Al-Mu’assasah al Arabiyyah).
Ghareeb Iskander is an Iraqi poet living in London. He published several books, including A Chariot of Illusion (2009); Gilgamesh’s Snake (2012); Translating Sayyab into English (2013); and Gilgamesh’s Snake and Other Poems, a bilingual collection, which won Arkansas University’s Arabic Translation Award for 2015 (2016). He has taken part in many international poetry festivals and was Scottish PEN’s featured writer in 2014.
Other translations in our stay-at-home series:
Zakaria Tamer’s ‘The Flower,’ tr. Marilyn Hacker
Lock-in Limited Release: Naguib Mahfouz’s ‘The Man in the Picture’, tr. Karim Zidan
Ali el-Makk’s ‘Forty-One Minarets’, tr. Adil Babikir
‘Eyes Shut’ by Rami Tawil, tr. Nashwa Gowanlock
Bushra Fadil’s ‘Phosphorus at the Bottom of a Well.’ tr. Mustafa Adam
‘A Street in the Pandemic’ & Other Poems by Jawdat Fakhreddine, tr. Huda Fakhreddine
To support the ongoing work of ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly, consider buying an issue for yourself or a friend, or helping us out by donating through Patreonor PayPal, or, if you have one, by asking your institution to take out a subscription to the magazine.