Syrian poet and political dissident Kamal Kheir Beik– born in 1935 in Masyaf, Syria and assassinated on November 5 1980 in Beirut — was a lesser-known pioneer of Arabic free verse:
By Salma Harland
Kamal Kheir Beik was 45 when he was assassinated for his political views during the civil war in Beirut. His assassination—alongside two young colleagues from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Bashir Obeid and Nahia Bijani—remains a mystery to this day. A story circulated by his friends holds that a paper was found in his bloody shirt, which contained a last, unfinished, poem. It read: “By my horse / I laid dead on the pavement, homeland slipping away.”
Although born in Syria, Beik lived most of his life in exile, travelling between Lebanon, Switzerland, Australia, and France (where he survived several assassination attempts). He obtained his PhD from the University of Geneva in 1972, and his dissertation, Modernity in Contemporary Arabic Poetry, was first published in French in 1978 and later translated and published in Arabic in 1982. It presents a comprehensive critical multi-faceted overview of the modern Arabic poem with a specific focus on the production of Shi’r magazine.
His first collection of poems, The Volcano, was published pseudonymously under the name Cadmus in 1960 when he was only 25 years old. In 1965, he pseudonymously published his second poetry collection, Roaring Demonstrations, under the name Kamal Mohamed, before fully dedicating himself to political activism. Although Beik did not publish any further collections between 1965 and the day of his assassination, he never stopped composing poetry. Luckily, his close friends (Syrian poet Adunis, Lebanese poet Ghassan Matar, and Lebanese singer Makhoul Qassouf) had held onto most of these poems — which he used to write down on cigarette packs and snippets of paper — and later published three more of his poetry collections: A Notebook of Absence, Farwell to Poetry, and Rivers Cannot Swim in the Sea.
In his poems, Beik dissected and criticised grand narratives, such as Arabism and nationalism. Understandably, his poetry was deeply impacted by the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war, which evoked an overwhelming sense of disillusionment and despair. Beik also deconstructed classical and neoclassical Arabic poetic forms. When he was only 15, he composed his own poetical contrafactions (mu’āraḍāt) of the poetry of Muhammad Sulayman al-Ahmad (1903–1981), commonly known as Badawi al-Jabal, before fully taking to free verse in 1965. As Syrian poet Hussain bin Hamza says, Beik’s revolutionary contributions to Arabic free verse are on a par with Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Nazik al-Malaika, and Abd’l-Wahhab al-Bayati.
Two of his poems:
By Kamal Kheir Beik
Translated by Salma Harland
He was once a cloud, like me, before he poured down
The desert of barren faces.
We both fell… as the caravan moved on.
We waited for a thousand years
Just to see the dry branches blossom.
When they finally yielded their fruit,
We bloomed flowers that tell our story,
Budding leaves that rustle
How we accidentally became the rain
Some thousand years ago,
How we fell
Down the desert of barren faces.
Only then did we come to know,
Also accidentally, that when the caravan
Passed under us
They rushed, and hid in the tents.
كان مثلي غيمة ثم انهمر
فوق صحراء الوجوه القاحلة
وتساقطنا معاً … في طريق القافلة
وانتظرنا ألف عام
كي نرى فوق الغصون الراحلة
بعثنا، عبر الثمر
زهرة تنبئ عنا
برعماً يهمس أنا
صدفة، من ألف عام، قد تقمصنا المطر
فوق صحراء الوجوه القاحلة،
صدفة، أيضا، بأن القافلة
حين مرت من تحتنا
هرعت، واختبأت تحت الخيام
By Kamal Kheir Beik
Translated by Salma Harland
Glory be to me?
Glory be to the jailer, to the insects tampering with my body,
To the downpour of insults clouding me.
Glory be to the scornful walls
Imprinted with horror and rage
And to my white realms, plagued
With disappointment and reproach,
Slipping through my hands
Like shooting stars.
I look about… Where am I? When is tomorrow?
I have inwrought it with diamond and gold.
I have long exalted their revolution;
I have trembled with indignation
And consumed myself to illuminate their darkness;
My blood has long sung for them.
Oh God, if only you would rid me of my memory!
How ignorant, foolish, and misguided I was!
المجد للسجان، للحشرات تعبث بي
لشتائم تنهال كالسحب
المجد للجدران هازئة
مزروعة بالرعب والغضب
وعوالمي البيضاء غارقة
بالخيبة الرقطاء والعتب
وعوالمي تنهار بين يدي
تنهار مثل تساقط الشهب
وأدور.. أين أنا؟ وأين غد؟
عمرته بالماس والذهب
يا طول ما مجدت ثورتهم
وحرقت في ظلمائهم غضبي
يا طول ما غنى دمي لهم
يا رب لو تغتال ذاكرتي
كم كنت غرّا، جاهلا، وغبي
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.