Lit & Found: Muhammad al-Maghut, tr. Elliott Colla

Over at this website,, translator, scholar, and novelist Elliott Colla has been bringing out poetry from Muhammad al-Maghut’s 1970 collection, Joy is not my Business.

As Huda Fakhreddine wrote of the towering Syrian poet in Jacket2:

The Syrian poet Muhammad al-Maghut (1934–2006) embraced the persona of the outsider, the loiterer, the hobo. He performed it in his life and in his poetry. This marginal posture guides and supplements the reading of his work and the perceived achievement of his poetic project.  The story goes that he joined the Baʿth party because its office happened to be closer to his house than that of the rival political party. Moreover, the Baʿth had the added advantage of a fireplace in the winter. And so, by accident, he ended up as a political prisoner in the Mezzeh prison outside of Damascus where he began writing on cigarette boxes. It didn’t occur to him that his writings were poetry until he showed them to his cellmate (none other than the poet Adunis) who said they might very well be. This is how al-Maghut himself likes to portray the beginning of his poetic career and his political involvement, a funny coincidence.

Muhammad al-Maghut

In the last few days, Colla has published the translations: “Human Surplus,” “Slaver,” “Tattoo,” “Blockade,” “Orphan,” “Canned Gypsy,” and “Dream.” Of these, “Tattoo” is also available in Sinan Antoon’s translation on Jadaliyya, while “The Orphan,” has also been translated by May Jayyusi and John Heath-Stubbs.

There have been at least two book-length translations bringing together work from across al-Maghut’s collections: Fan of Swords, co-translated by May Jayyusi and Naomi Shihab Nye, and Joy is My Profession, co-translated by John Asfour and Alison Burch. However, both seem to be out of print.

Of the 1970 collection, Colla writes: “As in his earlier diwans, these poems are always rooted in personal observations about the everyday and the banal. But whereas the poems of his first collection were intensely individual and sometimes idiosyncratic to the point of solipsism, here we see the poet reaching outwards to others, toward shared experiences, and even collective struggle.”

“Human Surplus,” here from Colla’s translation, ends in a dazzling heap:

My head aches

Like walls mixed with deceit

I collapse

Like snowy mountain peaks under the Spring’s sun


If only countries could be exchanged for one another

The way dancers are in a cabaret.

1 Comment

  1. Arabic cultural history may need to scrutinize its canonical figures, and interrogate the standards of assessing their achievements. Al-Maghut’s tropes of preaching to his audience strike odd tunes in the twenty-first century. His wife, Saniya Salih, was a greater poet and her work stood the test of times. Pain and estrangement in her poems cast a dark shadow on her relationship with a husband who could have been more supportive and appreciative of her superior talents.

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