The Syrian poet Osama Esber presents three new poems that grapple with the reverberations of living through the current global pandemic. Written in Arabic, they are accompanied by Lisa Wedeen’s English translation and introduction.
At the beginning of 2012, as Egyptians and Syrians marked the second year of their revolts, protesters also took to the streets of Hadiboh, the tumbledown capital of Yemen’s Socotra archipelago (pop. approx. 50,000). Like demonstrators elsewhere, the Socotrans were calling for both local administrative change and national political reform. While the Socotran protests, occurring since March 2011, were small, they were no less significant than the more spectacular rallies in the epicenters of Arab revolution. Indeed, the spread of revolution to Socotra, the largest and most populated of the archipelago’s four islands, shows the extent to which the events of 2011 have resonated even at the very margins of the Arab world.
Many of the slogans of the Egyptian revolution have been poetry, and as compositions with rhyme, meter and purpose, they resonate with very old conceptions of lyrical form. But slogans are not literary texts whose meanings can be reduced to a purely semantic level. Most often, they are part of a performance — embodied actions taking place in particular situations. This fact opens up avenues for thinking about literary aesthetics and political practice, and it shows the relevance of cultural analysis for the study of revolution.
Something’s happening here. In one of the largest street demonstrations in Tehran since the 1979 revolution, thousands filled Vali Asr Street (formerly known as Pahlavi Street) on Monday, forming a human chain nearly 12 miles long and stopping traffic for nearly five hours. They wore strips of green cloth around their wrists and heads in support of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. They sang “Ey Iran,” the unofficial national anthem composed in the Pahlavi era by one of the leading figures of classical Persian music, the late Ruhollah Khaleghi. Banned for a time by the Islamic Republic, the song’s lyrical melody touches a deeply patriotic vein.
there have been no words.
i have not written one word.
no poetry in the ashes south of canal
no prose in the refrigerated trucks
driving debris and dna.
not one word.
today is a week, and seven is of
heavens, gods, science.
evident out my kitchen window is an
sky where once was steel.
smoke where once was flesh.
fire in the city air and i feared for my
In January 1998, unidentified gunmen entered a movie theater and small mosque near Algiers and massacred 120 men, women and children.
By the hunger of the children of Iraq
By the sound of frantic running in Kosovo
By the swollen bodies in a river in Rwanda
and Afghani women and the writers of Algiers,
I am a disbeliever
in everything that refuses to kiss full on the lips
the ones still living
and receive them in the bosom of the self,
no matter the religion or the nation or the race
Hajar in America
We came over together
I spoke no English
He had a mission: grad school, then it’s back to save the masses
Here I am now with the baby on my hip,
alone in Newark, on foot, looking for milk at the all-night Exxon
I hear he’s marrying her,
the teaching assistant with the frosted hair
I have to learn how to drive.
Hijab Scenes #7
No I’m not bald
No I’m not from that country where women can’t drive cars
No I would not like to defect. Thank you,
I’m already American
What else would you like me to explain
relevant to my opening a bank account,
reserving a seat on a flight?
Or here, in early morning, how early you ask and I say let’s get on with the day, a conversation is always a political thing because it involves two entities and the possibility of death interrupting it is always real, always there, and it could happen here, any time, by the stairs, the fountains, the music, and let’s drink to things unsaid!
Being served a soda or some fresh nuts by an unassuming man in the small, crowded kiosk across from Jerusalem’s central bus station, it would be hard to know that you were in the presence of one of the most powerful and original Hebrew poetic voices alive.
The story of this poet, Yehezkel Kedmi, is just as unlikely, and presents the true anguish of those parts of Jerusalem so often swept under the rug. Living by his wits on the streets since the age of 13, and still homeless, Kedmi depicts the struggle and suffering that shaped a generation of Jews from the Arab world. Through a dramatic, almost epic structure, Kedmi’s language parallels that of the prophets and the great classical medieval Hebrew poets of Andalusia.
Never in his life
Did he read or write.
Never did he fell a tree
Or stab a cow.
Never did he talk about the New York Times
Behind its back.
Never did he raise his voice to anyone
Except to say:
By God, I won’t take no for an answer!”
And in spite of all this?
His case is hopeless.
His situation is desperate,
And his rights nothing but a grain of salt
That fell into the ocean.
My client knows nothing about his enemy.
And I promise you
That if he had bumped into the Star Trek crew
He would have served them fried eggs
As the twentieth century comes to a close, the voice of Etel Adnan continues to speak the prophetic visions of legendary women shut out by men at history’s dawn. In the tradition of Zarqa’ al-Yamama of pre-Islamic Arabia, and of Cassandra in Greek mythology, Adnan’s poetic premonitions and indignant outcries against injustice seem to be doomed to fall short of reaching the ears of the Arabs she most pointedly addresses in her poetry.
Hey Jeep, Hey Jeep
Sami Shalom Chetrit
1. Eight kids in an army jeep
Eight soldiers, one major:
eight kids and one minor
2. Hey Jeep, Hey Jeep 
3. And his son Ishmael was thirteen years old
at the cutting of his uncircumcised flesh.
4. And eight of his sons in the army jeep
and his son cries to the Lord but no one hears
5. And behold his father running:
Run, Muhammad, run,
your son’s spirit is coming towards you
6. Lord, Lord, where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
Dan Almagor personifies Israeli popular culture of the post-1948 period. He is the master lyricist of the modern Hebrew song, with over 600 compositions and 300 translations to his credit. His songs have been performed on many official and semi-official occasions, and he has composed for the Israel Defense Forces troupe and regularly placed his versatile talents at the service of the state and the Zionist movement. Dozens of Almagor’s plays and satirical and musical revues have been performed in Israeli theaters and cabarets, and even on Broadway. His musical about Hasidic life, Ish Hasid Haya, broke all Israeli records for a dramatic performance and was seen by a third of the country.
Under normal circumstances, Arabic literature of any kind passes virtually unnoticed in Israel, despite the fact that a few of the most well-known contemporary Arab writers are Israeli citizens. But the publication of “Those Who Pass Between Fleeting Words,” a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet adopted by the Israeli “peace camp” as a “moderate” (and himself a former Israeli citizen), has sparked a furor across the entire political spectrum.
O those who pass between fleeting words
Carry your names, and be gone
Rid our time of your hours, and be gone
Steal what you will from the blueness of the sea and the sand of memory
Take what pictures you will, so that you understand
That which you never will:
How a stone from our land builds the ceiling of our sky.
O those who pass between fleeting words
From you the sword — from us the blood
From you steel and fire — from us our flesh
From you yet another tank — from us stones
From you tear gas — from us rain
Above us, as above you, are sky and air
So take your share of our blood — and be gone
Go to a dancing party — and be gone
Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Majdhoub (1921-1982)
Hand on the Prophet, God
Help and support me with him
who speaks for the people
on Judgment Day —
with him who drinks pure water
from al-Kauthar, Paradise river.
On the square’s other side
clear light spreads
a rainbow of hope and joy,
a spring flowing through
the darkness of night,
dance driving souls here
slowly one moment,
another faster than breath!
In the Refugee Camp
The huts were of mud and hay,
their thin roofs feared the rain,
and walls slouched like humbled men.
The streets were laid out in a grid,
as in New York,
but without the dignity of names
or asphalt. Dust reigned.
Women grew pale
chickens and children
feeding them fables from the lost land.
And a madman sawed the minaret
where a melodious voice
cried for help on behalf of the believers.
Of course he gazed at the sky
on clear nights,
at stars drizzling
soft grains of light,
at the moon's deliberate face,
at the good angel wrapped in purple air.
He had no ladder
For the fifth year you come to us
lugging a burlap sack on your back, barefoot,
on your face the sadness of heavens
and the pain of Hussein.
We’ll receive you at every airport
with flower bouquets,
and drink — to your health — rivers of wine.
and recite insincere poems in your presence,
and you’ll get used to us
and we to you.
We ask you to spend here your summer vacation,
like a tourist,
and we’ll offer you a royal suite
we’ve prepared — for you.
You may enjoy the night and the neon lights
and the rock and roll and the porno and the jazz —
Khalil Hawi, Naked in Exile (The Threshing Floors of Hunger) (trans. Adnan Haydar and Michael Beard) (Washington DC: Three Continents Press, 1985).