New Poetry: Four by Aya Nabih, tr. Sara Elkamel

For Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth), four poems, newly translated by poet-translator Sara Elkamel, by poet-translator Aya Nabih. The poems appear in Nabih’s poetry collection Exercises to Develop Insomnia Skills, published by Kotob Khan Books in 2015.


Selected and translated by Sara Elkamel


The tree that used to stand in front of our house was chopped down last night, on account of road renovations. Remains of roots and yellow leaves are all they left behind. Today, I experiment with the terror that barrenness has spawned.

What could I expect, now that the barrenness I spent a lifetime raising like a child—to the extent that I used to call “getting rid of things” a hobby—had become my enemy? After I quit my job and extracted all the clocks from my room, I noticed that the large clock had left a barren space on the wall—one you could stare into in the absence of infuriating hands. Since then, everything seemed normal, except for time, which no longer seemed at all. I began to excise the furniture and gadgets from the room, as though I was practicing the art of letting go, until it was empty of everything but the bed, and the old wooden desk after I had arranged its drawers to match the barrenness. I had opened its three drawers a few days earlier, and taken out inkless pens; books I had intended to read; boxes of Ketophan that had failed to free me of my headaches; an old hole-punch; a faded photograph, cut out arbitrarily, of Abdelhalim—specifically, his portrait in the polka-dotted shirt; satin ribbons that will have no use; jars of empty watercolors, and old letters from my friends that would stay up all night in the desk-drawer, and force me to keep them company. Then I pushed the drawer shut on the origami birds.

I have discarded days in the wastebasket to make room for barrenness, and I seriously considered setting them on fire, to do my part in making the world a lighter place. But today, it seems that everything around me is giving me a taste of my own medicine, and banishing me.

I have been staring into the wasteland this room has become since this morning, thinking how great it is that my anxiety is gone, but I don’t know what to do now with a house without a tree, and birds that will never again chirp, and a window locked out of terror.

Complications of Love

If I lean against the bedroom wall someday, mourning the passage of time, I will despise my thoughts—absolutely all of them. Sometimes, I am nothing but my thoughts. For that reason, O world, let me become outraged at you for a while—for your distance. Your dawdling delays my rapture, which begins on fast roads. Now, an equal distance separates us. But if you should take one step away, I will take two, and if you should take two, I will murder you with a clear conscience. I have made the necessary preparations. The colored cellophane paper I will wrap around you occupies a designated corner in the room. The blood I will not agonize over removing. The knives I am hiding in a safe place, and I inspect their sharpness from time to time, only when I am feeling sad; meanwhile, you stay exactly where you are, savoring the sight of my love decomposing.

Side Effects

An excessive sensitivity towards life,

with the possibility of cavities appearing

on the walls of memory…

The cavities widen every time

the afflicted is exposed to nostalgia.


The fossilized hours

are as harsh as a wall,

are like my poems:


I have a place here

in the yellow room

and from my position

I can see the plastic flowers

above the fridge

resembling death…

(Perhaps these flowers smile

when the sky happens to rain over the vase.)

I am here—without a doubt—

how could “I” be there?

And outside the open window

is a still-life;

a night and a white, paper circle

that hides nothing but a scant slice of blackness.

When my left hand aches

the right hand moves to console it

like a cat licking its young in the winter.

I am here; no one else.

The room is yellow,

the night is a lakebed,

the moon is like my poems:

The hours seem fossilized

but something is urging me to believe

that yesterday,

my bedroom ceiling

did not hang this low.


Nabih’s work also appears in The Tahrir of Poems (2014), ed. and tr. Maged Zaher.


Aya Nabih is a translator and writer born in Cairo. She holds a BA in English Language and Literature from Cairo University and MA in Audiovisual Translation from Hamad bin Khalifa University. She translated Lydia Davis’s collected short stories Varieties of Disturbance into Arabic, and her poetry collection Exercises to Develop Insomnia Skills has been published by Al-Kotob Khan. She was an artist-in-residence in Marrakech, Casablanca and New York, as part of a dance and poetry residency organized by Tamaas.

Sara Elkamel is a poet and journalist currently based in Cairo. She holds an MA in arts journalism from Columbia University and an MFA in poetry from New York University. She is the author of the chapbook Field of No Justice (African Poetry Book Fund & Akashic Books, 2021).