We are grateful to Sadeer Jabra for permission to publish a translation of this poem by Palestinian poet Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, who was born in Bethlehem in 1919 and died in Baghdad in 1994:
By William Tamplin
“Soliloquy of a Modern Faust” (مونولوغ لفاوست معاصر) was published in 1959 in Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s debut poetry collection, Tammuz in the City. An earlier version of the poem had initially appeared in al-Adib (June 1954, p. 14). A daring work, Tammuz in the City altered modern Arabic poetry with its importation of meters and rhythmical cadences from contemporary English poetry. In the years before the book’s publication, Jabra had translated T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” into Arabic along with portions of Sir James Frazer’s writings on Adonis, Tammuz, and the death-and-rebirth cults of the ancient Near East. These influences are on display in this poem, which details the inner turmoil of an exiled Palestinian whose mind is still rife with memories of the traumas that caused his family to flee. Jabra and his family fled their home in Qatamon in early January 1948, after the Haganah blew up the Semiramis Hotel next door, killing around 25 civilians. Reflecting on this poem twenty years later, Jabra wrote:
In the mid-1950’s I remember talking about the Faust syndrome in Palestinian intellectuals. I wrote a poem entitled ‘Soliloquy of a Modern Faust’: the Palestinian as thinker, as collector of books and ideas, as organizer of experience and observation now making his compact with Mephistopheles in return for action. He will go through the cities of the world ‘like the night, like the storm,’ possess Helen and dally with Margaret, ever on the move, driven by a ‘godly lust, a giant’s appetite,’ finally to demand an apocalypse, an involvement in a cataclysmic act: the world might end ‘with a whimper,’ but exile could only end ‘with a bang.’”(Jabra, “The Palestinian Exile as Writer,” 1979, pp. 84-85).
By Jabra Ibrahim Jabra
Translated by William Tamplin
and a thousand enemies and friends
All I have left are
their names and faces, which
by night attack
and then fall back
The wave of days rises
and recedes, bidding farewell to
shells of love and hate
upon the body
resounding with the echoes of words.
You expelled me from my country
my column my support
This tongue and this pen
(and Mephistopheles behind me)
pushed, to Where life is
in the roaring rush of trumpets and of lovers
lips rising to meet lips
from across the barriers,
either side of the fetters’ guards,
pushed, to Where they sell
perfumes blouses shoes milk cheese cars cigarettes tractors plows silks teeth medicines and consciences,
Where they tear down and build up
houses cupolas bridges prisons amusement parks palaces banks brothels and hovels.
I have tried them all
Institutes and pulpits, temples and graveyards
streets glimmering with glass
And behind the gates
the rulers, the priests and the prostitutes.
Mephistopheles pushes me
every touch with his magic,
leading me through
city after city
Passing like the night, like the tempest, like
flocks of swallows on cloudy evenings.
On the baize tables
women’s hands clutch at cards:
“Carré, flush, ace,
We spent the summer in Geneva
and bought chairs from Italy and
Our seventh house was rented today
for seventeen hundred dinars”–
In the wasteland
women’s hands clutch at shards:
“We drank tea without sugar,
We spent the summer scraping the well dry
bought ten yards of linen
and they raised the rent on us to
one dinar a month.”
Are you grinning from ear to ear
because the deed I signed in blood lies
in your breast pocket?
Didn’t I possess Helen and
dally with Gretchen and
wrap one thousand ripe waists
around my arm?
Prepare to travel! I have a godly lust
a giant’s appetite. Is there nothing new?
They will fly to the moon
and send down death with the rain:
London Paris Moscow, in the blink of an eye
now a ruin – once a scene.
But my father,
did he not die of hunger in a fat year,
of thirst on the riverbank?
Is there nothing new?
Did they not clutch with iron fingers at
my throat, my brother’s,
my cousin’s, our neighbor’s,
and all our quarter’s people’s?
573,227 soldiers supplied with 723,465 rifles and 36,000 mortars, and 24,500 vehicles, and 11,345 planes, exalting the name of their country by killing, every week, 264 men, children, and women who demanded the right to life, on the shores and in the hills.
76 nations speaking 42 languages convene to defend human rights, and uproot one million men, children, and women from their fertile land and thrust them in tents, among the rocks, under the snow.
In our alley there was a blind man
who’d thrum his oud, and sing, and then
fall asleep on it in our shadow
for an hour or two around midday.
They killed him, and in his guts the bullet sang
a final song.
Between the houses would
our buxom neighbor run
barefoot, after a fleeing deer.
They blew up her house one night, and in the morning
we found nothing of her save her bare foot.
In the wailing, barking cities,
of golden teeth
and wooden lips,
in the tortuous mountain paths
in the flaming distances of deserts
between one exile and another
Will you give our blind man back that shadow
as that buxom lass runs after our gazelles?
May they fly to the moon!
May they send down death with the rain!
Do you yet hiss with spite in your laughter?
Are you slowing down hell for me,
or hurling the deed in my face?
Prepare to travel.
Of my suffering, only the easiest
From Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Tammuz fi al-madinah: shi‘r, Dar Majallat Shi‘r: Beirut, 1959. pp. 27-33.
William Tamplin is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, where he teaches Arabic. He received his PhD from Harvard in 2020 with a dissertation entitled Apocalypticism in the Arabic Novel. He is the author of Poet of Jordan: The Political Poetry of Muhammad Fanatil al-Hajaya (Leiden: Brill, 2018) and numerous articles and translations. A Fulbright scholar and a Georgetown Hoya, Tamplin was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky.