Last week, Egyptian poet Emad Abu Saleh became the third-ever winner of the annual Sargon Boulus prize, given out each year on the anniversary of the great Iraqi poet’s death:

Although Editorial Karwán has brought out a translation of Emad Abu Saleh’s acclaimed collection كان نائماً حين قامت الثورة (He was Asleep when the Revolution Came, 2015) in both Spanish (as El Elogio del Error) and Catalan (Elogi de l’error), in English, it seems, there has been only the publication of two earlier works by the reclusive poet in Banipal in 2006.

Happily, Huda Fakhreddine here shares four poems she translated as part of her forthcoming The Arabic Prose Poem: Poetic Theory and Practice (March 2021), selected from three of Abu Saleh’s collections.

A Naïve Melodrama

By Emad Abu Saleh

Translated by Huda Fakhreddine

I will tell you of a man
who lived alone,
all his life. 
He was a carpenter in a movie;
an old man.
His hands trembled badly.
The saw almost slipped from him
and tore up the screen.
He was supposed to 
love a girl
(old enough to be his granddaughter, of course).
She was to sit on his knee
in the moonlight.
He was to read her sappy poems
a young student had written for him 
in return for playing with his wood:
 
“Your eyes are more beautiful than the sea,”
“your lips sweeter than jam”
and “your voice lovelier than music.”
 
And as usually happens,
her mother marries her off
to another man.
 
The director fixed the frame
on the man’s back:
He was in vacuum
jumping up 
and waving his hands.
Most likely, he was trying 
to fly to the sky
to beg God to bring her back.
As he jumped
it seemed as if his pant suspenders
were pulling him, 
once again,
down to the ground.
 
The last scene was this:
A saw slicing into one wrist
and a bracelet wrapping around another
(a textbook technique that dazzles teenage eyes).
 
As for me,
I am against him, 
against the man.
He should have been more responsible.
He should have respected his age
controlled his emotions, thought of the girl’s future
and wished her a happy life. 
 
That’s why
he constantly haunts me.
When I open my eyes in the dark
I find him sitting there
bleeding
in silence
at the edge of my bed.
Although he didn’t really slice his wrists.
It was all just acting.
A movie.
 
THE END.

(An Old Man Pained by Laughter, 1997)

Poetry

By Emad Abu Saleh

Translated by Huda Fakhreddine

(Spacious Graves, 1999)

There is a story about a king who had been sitting on his throne ever since
people learned how to speak. He was a beautiful youth who never grew grey.
His subjects loved him. They memorized all that he said to his children and
carved it into the walls of their houses.
 
It happened that the king grew vain. He sat among his guards, listlessly
reiterating his hallucinations. He listened to no one except his freeloading
entourage. One of his subjects said to him once, as he peered down from his
high tower: “Wake up my liege.” The king chopped off his tongue and threw 
him in a deep dungeon. 

Other kings who were expanding the boundaries of their kingdoms attacked him
one night when he was drunk his royal bed. They divided his blood and his
kingdom amongst themselves and left him a heap of skin and bone. 

How terrifying time is!

It seems that after all that glory, no mention of him will remain in the
future. 

From time to time his ghost screams: “My kingdom…my kingdom,” but his voice
is lost in the noise of the world. 

(Spacious Graves, 1999)

*

Against Poetry

By Emad Abu Saleh

Translated by Huda Fakhreddine

-Give me a cigarette
 *There you go.
-Who are you?
*A poet.
-Why do you sit in the garden?
*I’m waiting for poetry.
-It doesn’t live here.
*Do you know where?
-The dumpster. 
*How?
-When two hungry people find one whole apple that has slipped
from under a happy family’s teeth. 
*Do they eat it together?
-There were going to split it but suddenly
a blade gleamed
from the same house
and ended the conflict 
in favor of one mouth. 
*Does it live anywhere else?
-The slaughterhouse.
When the arm of a saint tumbles 
and wraps around a whore
in a sincere reconciliation
that comes too late.
*Are you a poet?
-I was.
*Not anymore?
-It lured me and then abandoned me. 
*Why do you sit in the garden?
-To advise the children.
*What do you say to them?
-Beware of it.
It sometimes hides in candy.
*And to young poets?
-You still have a chance to escape.
It will turn you into dogs
panting in its footsteps.
Write novels instead. 

*

Zaynab

By Emad Abu Saleh

Translated by Huda Fakhreddine

My mother tells me:
“If I die,
Don’t bury me at night.”
 
I’ve gotten used to her
terrorizing me since I was a child.
In the morning she tells me:
“I will die in the evening.”
In the evening, she tells me:
“Tomorrow, I die.”
 
This Zaynab, 
for those who don’t know, 
is a room of tears, 
a sack of pain,
a store of darkness, 
a box of sorrows.
 
If only she’d die, 
and have mercy on me
If only I’d die,
and she’d have mercy on me.
 
But
why does she 
keep asking me
to bury her in daylight?
 
Does she plan to raise chicken in her grave?
Will she plant a tree in it?
Does she think the sun will 
shine for her there?
 
What does she want with light, anyway,
after she has become completely blind,
after the flies of time have eaten away
the honey of her eyes?
 
If I weren’t certain that she can’t even 
write her name, I’d think that
she’d read Lorca.
 
He too used to say:
“If I die,
leave the balcony open.”
 
(He was Asleep when the Revolution Came, 2015)

Emad Abu Saleh’s (b. 1967) first poetry collection Matters Already Decided was published in 1995. His poetic career has thus far been unusual, idiosyncratic, and punctuated by periods of self-imposed silence. His self-publish works are only privately circulated, even after he has established himself as one of the prominent prose poets of his generation. For more see “Poets of the nineties: poetry against poetry.

Huda Fakhreddine is Associate professor of Arabic literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Her book The Arabic Prose Poem: Poetic Theory and Practice is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press in March 2021. 

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