New in Translation: Four Poems by Mohammad Abdelbari 

Introduction by Huda Fakhreddine

To read Mohammad Albdelbari is to listen to the voice as well as the silence. In his poems, sound guides, punctuates, and makes meaning, but his silences are haunted by the echoes of familiar voices too. He draws on the Arabic tradition’s imaginative and creative memory, evoking the languages and worlds of its great poets as well as its masters of prose.

His poetry is a journey in the Arabic poetic landscape that extends from the Jahiliya to this day, and yet its arrival point is new and surprising. 

Photo: Wikimedia user Abaadiali.

Abdelbari is a Sudanese poet and writer. He has won multiple poetry awards and honors across the Arab world such as The African Arab Youth Award and Sharjah Award for Arab Creativity.  He has published five poetry collections among them al-Ahilla (The Crescents) 2016, Lam yaʿud azraqan (No Longer Blue) 2020, and Ughniya li-ʿubūr al-nahr marratayn (A Song to Cross the River Twice) 2022. A volume of collected works is forthcoming in 2023 from Sophia Bookstore, Kuwait.


A Song for Crossing the River Twice

Translated by Huda Fakhreddine

Autumn arrives,

gold and gold unite:

color and soul.

The assembly flourishes,

the clear dry

greeting the wet obscure.

Charms of time flow, 

elevating moments to epochs.

And here, I sit back

to witness nature slipping out of one marvel 

into another.

A breeze grows into a youthful wind,

an adolescent cold aspires to its older self,

birds break open the South,

and songs lament the stalks to the field.

The clouds are on alert,

the trees escape green’s grip,

and there, a path where loss shines

like blood on a dagger.

Two dusks make a sunset, 

of saffron and musk.

Here now,

ordinary grief

leads me to magnificent grief,

and then, a sadness takes hold,

soft like supple snakeskin.

Reckless, my imagination runs,

voiding the difficult gap between poor and rich.

And as my senses intensify within me,

the least of me aspires to the most.

See! I see the bareness of garments

as they wrap around to shield the bare.

Touch! I touch

the frailty of a thought not yet formed.

Taste! I taste

white conflicted between sweet and salt.

Smell! I smell

distance burnt in a voyager aged by the voyage.

Hear! I hear

the rumble of feathers falling on marble.

Here now,

where the glass condensed in the sun hasn’t shattered yet,

where short shadows 

haven’t waned into their shorter selves, 

and where wrinkles on the faces of ghostly trees

haven’t yet appeared.

Here I shall return.

The time has come

to return the sources to their source,

time to fall 

into the scattered regrets of yellowed leaves,

time to long for the forest,

and how that forest longs for its wild roots!

Now that life, the sapphire, has uncovered its red secret,

I drag the nine elements of my dirge

in search of an element

to draw my soul out of its soul

as waters are drawn out of rivers.

Now I feel, now I know

that silk itself has never felt a silk like mine,

that I am the transformation,

a darkness slowly rising to light,

that vaster than my world

I am, 

that in the seafarer

the sea itself can drown.

-From A Song for Crossing the River Twice


Translated by Huda Fakhreddine

Where to my Jahili mystery?

Where to now 

that no end is in sight,

and no beginning?

Where to,

when time has lost track of itself

having wandered in you 

and veered?

When will you speak?

Even fog has forsaken itself

and cleared.

I am a neigh, angry and loud,

saying that the horse has rebelled

and seethed.

I fled toward my impossible face

but when I reached it,

it disappeared.

For a lifetime, I’ve been held back

from what I wanted because what 

I didn’t want


I’ve been broken down 

in light and water, broken down

but no bow of color has yet


I go out,

the oblivion of streets rises to its feet

I enter,

the air in the room 


I strained my intuition

but nothing proved true.

I exhausted my imagination,

but nothing was move 

to be!

O desolation of the distant unknown,

O regret of a sword smeared,

I want you both.

Descend upon me. Fill me

the way a glass with wine 

is bleared.

Here I sit on the edges,

and the last thing I’m capable of

is cheer.

                                    -From The Crescents

Two Andaluses 

Translated Omar Abdel-Gaffar

Like clouds and crescents,

they departed, 

leaving their windows orphaned.

They departed

and the void has never found solace since, 

the mountains no longer birthed hyachinths. 

They departed, 

without the names that protect them, 

they, whose faces used to flow like honey. 

They only carried with them a gleam of light 

with which they carved

metaphor into marble

Here they are,

place has collapsed around them,

time itself forsaken them. 

They slipped into the poem, as it came to a close, 

and they gathered in memory

like ruins.

The cracks of the night ask them:

When and why?

How? Who? If? And for what?

They arrived in the desert on the seventh weeping night, 

and set up their yearnings

like tents.

They are our voice, haunting and obsessive.

When reigned in, it swells. 

They are the salt of our bodies.

We will not be blind to this nor oblivious. 

We can never be like water

which forgets that it forgets,

and resists both the journey and the settling?

Rivers have no past or history or longing.

Eternally forward they move.

They flow on.

Never in its life did a river stop, 

to greet ruins.

It is as though the one who first

released the river to flow,

made looking back a sin. 

Oh friend, Andalus, the place, is near, 

only an arrow’s span away.

Greet her open doors and enter.

Embrace the friendship of the wine.

Leave your eyes, 

two Ummayads yearning for Damascus,

to their melancholy.

Do not fear Castille. 

She is menacing and hostile no more. 

She told your shadow as it surrendered: “Disappear

only to return seldom, after absence.” 

This is your share of the return, call, as I do, 

 “visiting old friends.”

Oh Friend, Andalus, the time, is distant.

So be to the forlorn a guide.

Granada is beyond reach, not a place, but time, she is, 

now in ruins. 

Do not be fooled by the light.

Above you a star slumbers, 

her light not fizzled out yet. 

The muwashshaḥ has abandoned its arrangement, 

and the hawk on banners now flies away a dove.

Do not question the doors. See them as they are: 

Paintings and the painter unknown.

As you grow old in this echo, 

hanging your days on smoke, 

describe to me how you have fallen into elegies, 

and let us find each other, 

as stranger and stranger do.

                                    -From The Crescents


Translated Omar Abdel-Gaffar

Though language is within my reach–

silence is my share of Babylon.

I consort with the gods of Olympus. 

I am only absent

to reveal a perfect presence.

I opened for Meaning a single path. 

My lightning sparks within

and strikes inward.

I usher all my things towards the doors

so that I may recline alone in the inhabited void.

For trees lose their wisdom

when they befriend 

a passing shadow.

In the ancient niches, 

I complain of what my ramblings and queries 

have unearthed 

Vision allows me to witness only its death

as the sea only manifests itself

in waves on the shore. 

The strange guest haunts me, 

Leaving me alone

in the bewildered’s prayer.

Every time language turns

to exult in itself, 

it brings my endings

back to my beginning.

At the limits of heaven, I write:

“Sorrow belongs to the names, 

and all the names are mine.”

Oh stone staircase to the dead,

take me to them, as they 

rehearse their infinite bewilderment:

Take me to the dead,

that I might find freedom, even as

I drag my shackles and chains.

The dead lift me

as wounds elevate the warrior.

There is no path except to taste my own blood

and drop the burden of distance from my shoulders.

I am in absence now:

a word, beyond the impossible, still in need of a speaker.

And perhaps I am not, 

for every being

drowns in liquid time.

Excessive in existence,

I sprout in both the murderer and the murdered.

My mirrors have always failed

to capture my face in a likeness.

I find no solace in places,

as if I dangle from a moon

without mansions.

The paths tell me

“Your people are here.

Now is your turn to receive this truth 

passed down from one traveler to another.” 

                                    -From The Crescents

Huda Fakhreddine is a writer, translator, editor, and associate professor of Arabic literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Metapoesis in the Arabic Tradition (Brill, 2015) and The Arabic Prose Poem: Poetic Theory and Practice (Edinburgh University Press, 2021). Her translations of Arabic poems have appeared in BanipalWorld Literature Today, Nimrod, ArabLit Quarterly, Middle Eastern Literatures, among others. 

Omar Abdel-Ghaffar is a JD/PhD student in History at Harvard University. His research focuses on late medieval Islamic law and court procedures.