This Monday, a new poem from Mohsen Mohamed’s debut collection, published in 2020:
Translated and introduced by Sherine Elbanhawy
All the poems in Mohsen Mohamed’s debut collection No One Is Answering are lyrical, rhythmic, and moving. They are deeply human reflections on the intricacies of prison life in Egypt.
The language of life in Egyptian prisons is embedded in the title of “On the bursh after dinner.” “Bursh” is the Arabic word for the prison-sanctioned-bedding rolled out on the floor like mats which are given to inmates. The poem’s mention of the inherited colonial “Mixed Courts” is another element specific to Egypt.
Every added detail immerses the reader further in the relationships formed between the inmates. But inside the sadness of separation, there is laughter, affection, and hope.
On the Bursh After Dinner
By Mohsen Mohamed
Translated by Sherine ElBanhawy
Farewell to the prison bars and walls
Farewell to friends and our nighttime talks
when you divvied up the moonlight amongst us.
The moon in the sky met you all by chance
bewildered, lonely, shivering
so you kept him company, and warmed his light with your coat.
Farewell to the wire-mesh windows that curtail hands from passing through—
while morning dew seeps in to seek your smile
Farewell to a stranger whom you will long for
Farewell to one you loved and missed—even before you left.
When you’re out, living in the sun, look up
to see how many stars are missing from prison’s night
Farewell to your friends, and remember that if you’re outside—
there are people here, who never forget the ones who’ve left.
Your fellow inmates still gather on the bursh after dinner—and talk
They bring you up in conversation
and your absent image enlivens the talk—
Even before we start
your name is still the same, in your handwriting,
on a wall opposite the door
next to our names
We still go in sequence from one ward to another—
with every door that opens, and every absence—
of the afternoon’s recreation sun
We collect and distribute books, with monthly rations of medicine.
Still, we steal moments of happiness from them—as if we were overgrown children
as if we were playing hide-and-seek with the cops—
when one passes, we hide behind a bedsheet
we take a risk and try
the last mobile phone during visitation wrapped up and smuggled in
caught at the last minute, during inspection—
the last cop—by coincidence put his hand
somewhere by mistake.
Farewell to mobiles caught during lights-out,
and those caught through stupidity.
Farewell to the Mixed Courts*—
where we were together—companions
We glanced at each other as we were brought out in court
and died laughing at the judge
and the lawyers.
Farewell to the prison walls and cells
Still, the end of your ordeal is in motion
its role unfinished
still, the empty handcuffs await the hands of someone who hasn’t come
still, the washing line is the inmate’s drawn curtain—
your empty place next to me unfilled
the things you left and didn’t take
and memories, if you remember them, like fingerprints
on the walls: greetings to those who left.
Still, your fellow prisoners gather together
on the bursh after dinner and talk—
so don’t forget us.
Mohsen Mohamed is an Egyptian poet born in 1994. His first poetry collection about life in prison entitled No One is Answering was published in 2020 by Dar El Meraya for Cultural Production. Mohsen spent five years in internment, he currently studies philosophy at Cairo University, and is interested in writing and researching prison literature.
Sherine Elbanhawy is pursuing an MA in Islamic Studies-Women and Gender Studies at McGill University. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. She’s the founder of Rowayat, a literary magazine showcasing Egyptian writers. Her writing has been published in The Malahat Review, Room Magazine and others. She loves to travel, read and spend time with family, and friends.