Salah Jahin’s ‘Cigarette Ash’

Salma Harland translates the legendary “Cigarette Ash” («تراب دخان» ) written by the legendary Salah Jahin (1930-1986) in 1967:

Cigarette Ash

By Salah Jahin

Translated by Salma Harland

I found a pencil in my pocket

That has been worn down to the nub.

It was pale, feeble, and adrift,


Among cigarette ash and peanut skins.

And so was I, 

Aimlessly wandering the streets

As the night spread out against the land and I,

Dark, evil, 

And oppressive,

As dark as a million soldiers in raven dress

And unsightly boots

Revelling the night away.

The people, sullen and forlorn,

Trailed along

Like a jilted lover

Or an oppressed soul

Longing for the dawn.

I drifted further into the night with a heavy heart

—For the moon had promised to meet me by the Nile

But she left me stranded—

I searched for her in Haram, I searched in Qalaa and Bulaq,

I left no stone unturned in Imbaba and Warraq,

But she was nowhere to be found.

My eclipsed moon was bleak.

In a blink, I fell from the heavens to Earth,

But the land was also bleak:

Soot blackened the coffeehouses

As radios broadcasted the same old drivel.

Oh, moonless night,

As black as kohl without bright eyes.

Back in the day, the moon was as a child of mine,

Covered in down feather like a bird.

Back in the day, she was young, as green and crisp as key lime.

I used to cradle her, then strut across the neighbourhood

And say: “Come and see my dear child.”

“Bless her; she is a good omen!” they would say.

“May she grow up in your grace and good days.”

She grew up, but not in my embrace;

I lost her in a heedless moment.

And here I am, aimlessly wandering the streets

As the night weighs long and dark upon the land and I.

I found a pencil in my pocket

So I wrote this song of anguish.

Salma Harland is an Egyptian-born, UK-based translator and academic researcher. She holds an M.A. in Literature and Philosophy from the University of Sussex, a PGCert in Translation and Interpreting from the American University in Cairo, and a BA in Translation from October 6 University. She was also a recipient of the Chancellor’s Postgraduate International Scholarship from the University of Sussex and two Academic Excellence Scholarships from October 6 University. Her literary translations (from and into English and Arabic) have appeared or are forthcoming in ArabLit Quarterly, Jadaliyya, Banipal, Eurolitkrant, Romman Magazine, Turjoman, and Egyptian Researchers.