New Poetry from Sudan: Mughira Harbya’s ‘Three Songs for the Ghajar’

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 WorldIn this instance, the translator, Adil Babikir, opted to go with transliteration.

Three Songs for the Ghajar

By Mughira Harbya

Translated by Adil Babikir

First:

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.

At noon,

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,

where:

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,

where:

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.

Second:

“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,

deity eggs.

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.

Third:

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 BooksAl-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).

mlynxqualey