New Poetry in Translation: ‘The Light Isn’t Surrounded by Guards’

A new poem in translation from Egyptian poet Mohsen Mohamed’s debut collection, published in 2020:

The Light Isn’t Surrounded by Guards

By Mohsen Mohamed

Translated by Sherine Elbanhawy

I am the son of my father and Uncle Amir,

I am the son of the soil and son of the plough

a collective sum in an individual’s heart

melting into the people’s wounds

my agonies the pulse of this land

I am the son of my father and Uncle Amir,

because he taught me to be a sculptor

and sculpt from the darkness of the night

a luminous horse with my chisel.

I am the son of my father and Uncle Amir,

my companion, my friend, my colleague

because I wore his glasses.

He diluted me in his sorrows—

because his embraces warmed me

on internment’s cold nights,

his gaze was a duvet of love on the sleepers

and on those sharing blankets to sleep on the floor.

He says there is still goodness in this life, as long as there’s charity

among the poor for the poor

singing who hands and who receives.

My son, he said, bitterness is past

there’s only what’s left—

his sweet laughter reflects on his cheeks.

Hey, you know what, Uncle Amir, my friend,

I am like Egypt in chains, with her pennies

living on a gasp of air when

hungry and the coins are scarce,

poor like me. When

their palms gripped our necks

and our souls suffocated from a hundred chokes

we relax and stretch our bodies—

an inch or a handspan in her prison.

Like me, happy and sad

she cries during mute nights and we laugh

when someone asks, we say:

With God’s grace, we get by.

I’m like Egypt in chains

I look like my father in the picture,

with his worries and his suffering,

our hopes walked slowly at first

but now they’ve ceased, seeing

our pain remains as long as there’s life on earth.

But we are different from each other

in our suffering and its understanding.

My father hasn’t shed a tear

he leaves it—if it deviates

he balances it—if it is fair

he said, it changes the meaning of our existence

fluctuates or balances—

what does it matter if the world is unjust.

Even when it’s fair

an unshed tear in a child’s eye

is unable to change the lies of this world

his laughter will vanish and reappear

as my eyes adjust

then it appears suddenly unexpectedly

as if the sun had risen

he would rise alone

hum the melody of his moans

to the rhythm of his pain, his violin strings churned

he was Sufi in his love of birds and its spiritual soliloquies

but he neither walked nor stopped at night

he danced his despair on the stairs

then stood and clapped.

He didn’t stop nor hobble on hope’s bridge, he crossed over

And he inherited my grandfather’s stoop

and the spirit of a toddler delighted at his first first steps

which he imitated on his cane.

Hey Amir, prince of princes, I also

limp along

except from afar I glimpse

the traits of the star or her moon

so I hobbled on hope, even hopped on one foot

as I continued to walk all the way to the end.

I never said that turning back would be easier—

my despair sidetracked me, so I’m delayed.

I’m not in a hurry with you all.

Hey Amir, I’m being patient.

We will sculpt the horse with bells

that ring in the dawn and sing

we will still lean on hope, and push on

behind her moon in a cell.

We will sculpt the mare with feeling

our heartbeats filled with life,

despite poverty and want,

mouthfuls scraped from the bowl.

I’ll pass by each of you

share my smile out fairly

my poetry to the people.

Amir, tell my father Fouad*

and I’ll sing and definitely say: Hey, guys:

‘Rays of light aren’t surrounded by guards.’


* Fouad Haddad, father of all the poets, and poetic father of author. Title and line inspiration from his poetry

*

Also read Mohamed’s “On the Bursh After Dinner,” also translated by Sherine Elbanhawy

Photo excerpted from author photo in prison.

*

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 Rowayata 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.

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