Khaled Mattawa

Poets as Translators - Stephen Haven



(1) Cricket Mountain
(2) "Selima!"
(3) Days of 1932
(4) Days of 1948

Translations from the Arabic:


(1) Savage Continents
(2) To Where?
(3) For Jamal Juma'a



Khaled Mattawa

Cricket Mountain

THE BRIDGE UNDER our wheels moaned, some said, because it was built in time of war. Others were more specific-it moaned because of the two men buried in the concrete. Rommel built it; the British maintained the asphalt after he left. My father would drive across it with the car lights off. The haze from the city was enough to show the way, he explained. Then he'd stop by a channel that carried sea water to the salt fields. There were no birds, not even the sudden flop of a fish, or the rumble of the city's thousand pariahs that roamed the streets and howled through the night. My father would rest his hand on my shoulder to quiet me in case I wanted to talk. Then soon there would be nothing in the world but the sound of crickets, an ordered machinery, a vibrating zone. The sound of the crickets would crawl, like a creature wanting to let itself be known, yet quick to withdraw. You would feel the air shiver around you. You could almost feel the sound of crickets wrap you like a shroud. If you closed your eyes you could almost see their hidden machinery, the idea of their purpose, the mass of their history, the infinity of their future births and deaths; and you could almost feel the mass of this heap of intangibles rise up like a mountain of silver -- glittering, luminous, suddenly doing away with the night. . .
     And who was I then, and who was my father?
     And what was that city that tangled us in its muddy streets?


Khaled Mattawa


MY COUSINS HAD a parrot. He called only the name of one of them. Whenever the parrot called her name he would then close his eyes and roll his neck as if to clear his blue throat. I would run to the kitchen to bring peanuts which he ate slowly and deliberately, the peanuts he picked from my palm clicking against the insides of his black mouth. I would then plead with him, calling my cousin's name, calling out all sorts of names. But the parrot would look past me bewildered as though the noise took him too by surprise, as though it had come from a house which-to him and to me-was hopelessly shut.

The parrot was never named and that may explain why no one mentions him now. My cousin whose name he called married years ago and fought her husband through two pregnancies, but did not divorce. Sometimes when she cooks his meals she begins to feel a dull hate tighten like a muscle inside her. When this happens she sets for a walk, placing her feet carefully to avoid stepping on porcupine carcasses or wild artichoke spikes, looking at the ground for snake and scorpion tracks, listening for the wild wolf-dogs that lurk on the outskirts if the city. She travels for a long time to sit under a eucalyptus tree, to dip her feet in the stream that sometimes runs past the house, deep in the lost parrot's heart.


Khaled Mattawa

Days of 1932

THE TRAINER COLLECTS his coins to the crowd's sparse clapping. No children that want to pet the monkey today. He whisks Noosa, who has grown arthritic the last two years, carries her home in his arms. As he reaches his house, he opens the door to a small room. Three young monkeys, fresh from the Sudan, are huddled in a corner, their eyes taken by the sudden light. The trainer walks in, his steps uncertain. He was told this would work. He takes a deep breath gathering courage and suddenly yanks one of the new monkeys -- the one on the right -- throws it in the middle of the room. He shouts "Dance."

Noosa jumps from his arms and dances, three hops and a twirl, three hops. The other creature whimpers, frozen in place. The trainer grabs a whip hung from a nail on the wall and lashes the monkey behind the neck. He shouts "Dance" and the whimpers turn to screams. The whipping continues until he feels a streak of sweat run down his face. Noosa keeps on dancing. The trainer pulls a hatchet and with a single swing he severs the new monkey's head. He is startled by his swiftness as the head slaps the mud walls and lands like a bruised pomegranate. Blood shoots up from the monkey's neck. The two monkeys in the corner scratch the stone floor. With their hands they cover and uncover their eyes which have turned the color of dark plum seeds.

Noosa stops dancing. She has danced enough today, the trainer thinks, wiping blood off his cheek and carefully placing the whip and the hatchet back in their places. For a minute he begins to think of other things, how he forgot to pay the milkman, and how the milkman's cow reminded him of a good water buffalo his father had, a healthy calf every two years. Then he remembers that he needs to bring leftovers for the monkeys (the new ones prefer carrots to bananas). And in the evening there will be tea and checkers with his friends. But when he locks the door to the monkey cell he thinks again of the matter that has occupied his mind for months -- what will he do now that Noosa has grown old.


Khaled Mattawa

Days of 1948

A TRAIN THREADS through twilight heading north. A young couple step in from a small station. She smells as though she had given her father's cow a farewell hug. He, wearing his brother's suit, carries the fields' dark soil on his shoes. They look around them and find an old turbaned man -- an imam of sorts. They want someone to marry them quickly, before they reach Irbil. The old man asks for witnesses, and soon the peasant women's ululations spread through the train. The newlyweds shyly accept gifts prepared in haste, and stare at their feet. And we, who have come to pity them, sing nuptials and wish them good luck.


Hatif Janabi

Savage Continents

In these forests in their embroidered dresses
or black bones
someone knows how they begin and end
someone knows how to move without stumbling
in search of the soul's guiding flame
someone who weeps genuinely
and someone who pretends to weep
someone who cries
O fire O gilded wedding
be my flag and draw my steps
A darkness
has shamelessly crowned himself a king
In these swamps
I saw them like worms enter
How they knelt to him how they twirled around him
I left my colt
mad galloping in the prairie
someone was crying: O prairie prairieee!
nothing except an echo
I saw the colt of the Euphrates
crazed galloping in the prairie
I followed her
and my cape ballooned
with wind and dust
and when I asked them for the way
my cape filled with grass and stones
and when I told them let us go
my cape ripped to pieces and I cried O prairie
cinders and dust are my clothes
I hung my heart on an olive tree
and in the Baghdad of my allegiance
and the Arab peninsula of my mind
tossing and turning like a holy verse
crippling the traitor's hand
No color here blackness is white and whiteness black
These cogwheels are our gold
and the singer's nectar
The wailers died
and everyone has taken to song
I followed them with black and white
with green and red with sound and echo
with a nation of women
naked and grieving
I said: let this be Sheba
Is there any word
Is there a word
Baghdad Baghdad
the hoopoe has burned
and all are like prey
in a race with the wind
I cried O prairie
my heart hangs from an olive tree
O prairieee!
I followed them with a nation of women naked
their hair ruffled and coarse
I cried these steel wheels are our gold
When we arrived
waters flowed red
and the roads were empty
except for smoke and burned skeletons
and no sign
because this is a day of doom
Flames are the only gold
I followed her with red and white
white and red sound and echo
and I saw my colt
wrapped in blood
mad galloping the prairie
I cried O prairie
nothing but an echo
O prairieee!

(Translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa)


Hatif Janabi

To Where?

1. Where steps are you taking this distance
with a spiral of my blood
and my mother's coat
with my sister's solitude and my father's silence
and a friend's collapse
Is it with the disillusion of date palms
my heart drops
or with a miracle to sweep pavements and to chase
demons with the fork in the road
2. I see in the smashing of mirrors
our childhood
her old breasts dangling her belly flapping
a helmet on her head
her hands
two blazing flames
3. Where are we heading hoof of thunder marble feet
spreading a blanket of hope
passing with our rock solid loneliness
4. I see what remains of my kin and of friends jewels
made of dust
I see that the candles
and the perfumes bottles are buried in silt
and that what we read of Laila's love and the devotion
to the land
are a mythical dream
from a mutinous age
5. Where to my body muddied and raging in the prairie dust
haggard and worn without mercy or a vessel
to gather your extremes and to give you a field of quiet
like the fall of a broken wing
in the open palm of indecision
I say where to my body
6. I see myself beating at darkness
tossing my heart's weeds
at a tamed lion
stretching my coat to cover
the shameful parts of poetry and poets
7. I saw a gang of grasshoppers
and another scaled and gray
waving for me to stop
commanding me Do not lose your Arab tongue
and when I stopped
I saw
that I was without country or guide
my blood spilled in corridors and in barbaric rooms
8. To the rhythm of a woodpecker
to the hissing of snakes
in these jammed roads we walk
I the bedouin and the flower of my soul
strolling gardens and alleyways
and in a second -- my rose finds her kin --
and you my love where to now?
9. I see a scarlet dome
blazing with light
and I hear a low raspy voice
coming with the wind
none other than my love's voice
I stroked my hair
and found a country and a double-edged axe wailing
I found vineyards a goblet and two beasts
sipping my blood
I said drink up
and pour the remains
on the bald head of this wretched age
with the blessings of god and the messengers

(Translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa)


Sa'adi Youssef

For Jamal Juma'a

Finally. . .
if you sit on top of the earth's sphere
happily dangling your feet, flayed from roving,
ready to write poems,
remember there is someone who wishes
to make a seat out of your head
and to dangle his scaly feet on your chest
in order to muffle the first wails of poetry

(Translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa)




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