Editor’s note: Within an Arabic literary translators’ email group, there was a vibrant discussion about how to translate الغجر, with suggestions ranging from Travellers to Roma or Romani to transliteration. Translator Kay Heikkinen helpfully pointed us to Kristina Richardson’s Roma in the Medieval Islamic World. In this instance, the translator, Adil Babikir, opted to go with transliteration.
Three Songs for the Ghajar
By Mughira Harbya
Translated by Adil Babikir
Only a ghajari knows the meaning of love.
On the back of his last surviving horse, he awaits his death:
releases his woman’s hair to the wild wind,
and, with his lips, plays the kiss melody.
he returns to life and melancholy.
He learns to walk on mountaintops;
For he hates the sea and filthy ports.
He learns to chat with horses and brothel maids in the morning
And, from his seasoned grandmothers, he learns the art of deceit.
When he makes love,
he does so in the Lord’s public parks,
the well and the bucket are present,
as are the rain and the lusty soil,
the cunning lock and the eternal key,
the decorated gown and the waistcoat embroidered with roses and experience,
no one betrays anyone.
Only a ghajari knows the meaning of love;
For his heart is not perforated with lovers’ stabs.
He never says to his woman:
I gave you a hand,
never boasts about how he carried her on his horse,
and together they fled far away.
He keeps her in his warm embrace on rainy nights
and desolate darkness.
In winter he firmly locks the tent’s windows
sets fire to the wood of the unrestrained self
and sets her body on fire until she loses memory.
“We’re starving,” a ghajari says to his woman,
as he lets loose his last surviving horse.
“We have only a few friends left
who care to peer through our empty pots
and our hearts packed with sorrow, and little fun;
who burst into tears when they run their fingers
over our children’s exposed ribs.
I offered my books for sale
but no one showed interest.
I offered my mother’s legacy:
The rusty bird cage
the wooden henna bowl
her ragged wedding dress
and her lonely wardrobe, like a perforated wall.
Her ankle bracelets.
But brokers hurled me away.
Friends were caressing my collapsing shoulders
slipping songs into my pocket, and fields of hope,
But my woman ran away.
They brought in plenty of bad liquor
chanting an endless flow of childhood songs.
I know I am an insolent rogue
No house or wilderness can accommodate me
I’m good for nothing.
Hunger drove me mad.
I had to eat my child’s candies,
devour the mint field.
My woman ran away,
probably in an empty car,
while friends stayed behind,
filling my pockets with girls.
Rubbing her ankle bracelets against a stone,
the ghajari’s woman said:
It’s not wise
to send birds after traveling funerals;
for the winds tend to expose secrets of the dead.
It’s not wise
to sing while at the last gasp.
For the distant mountains won’t play out their drums.
They just let out howls from the distance.
It’s not wise
to bandage a bleeding heart;
because, out there,
a sweetheart is still craving blood and life;
craving to have you beside her at night
Here I am, she says,
With night’s nails scavenging my heart,
and singing my way in the wilderness.
I never experienced the taste of mirrors.
Never saw my face peering at a homegrown flower;
or myself leaning on the road’s shoulder,
on my way to your pale park.
I was walking alone.
Roses kept blossoming out of distant vases
in forgotten gardens.
They were springing out of my barren shirt.
Mughira Harbya is a journalist, poet, and writer. Many of his short stories appeared in Sudanese newspapers and Arab online platforms. His first poetry collection, Tayr Ghairr Mujannah, or Unrestrained Birds, was published by al-Musawwarat Publishing House, Khartoum, in 2017. A second volume, The Concerto Taste, is under contract for publication.
Adil Babikir is a Sudanese translator into and out of English & Arabic, living now in Abu Dhabi, UAE. His translations to English have appeared in Africa World Press, Banipal, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Al-Dawha Magazine, and others. His translation of Tayeb Salih’s Mansi: A Rare Man in his Own Way, (Banipal Books, 2020) won the 2020 Sheikh Hamad Translation Award. Other published translations include The Jungo: Stakes of the Earth, by Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin (Africa World Press, 2015), Literary Sudans: an Anthology of Literature from Sudan and South Sudan (Africa World Press, 2016), The Messiah of Darfur by Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin (excerpted in The Los Angeles Review of Books, 2015), and a translation to Arabic of Summer Maize, a collection of short stories by Leila Aboulela (Dar al-Musawwarat, Khartoum, 2017). He is the author of Modern Sudanese Poetry: an Anthology (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).