Ghassan Zaqtan

1954 / Beit Jala / Palestine

Alone And The River Before Me

I have a suspicious heart, brother,
and a blind statue,
and the news that amateur refugees brought from Baghdad stunned me
there's a lot they haven't seen yet
they were crossing the bridge by chance

intentions are in the ports
befuddled as their owners left them,
incomplete as the murdered left them
and where our friend, the one you know, pointed, we went
without a moan or groan

our country is far
and intentions good

we left, as exiles leave, houses more beautiful than the roads
and women more faithful than passers-by
we weren't discouraged and our will wasn't stolen

we dreamt, as residents dream, of roads more beautiful than the houses
of women who furnished our bodies and altered our language
though this took us neither to hill nor sea

an infantry marching out of some front appeared
we heard its drone but didn't see it, and with worn-out eyes
and cracked feet they shook off the mud over the marble
and dried their boots on the billboards of the ‘founding father'

we watched
as if we had seen nothing, heard nothing

and it was possible to remember their lustful dreams, chase the ghosts
and touch the buttocks of women to be sure it was just a dream!

but there's no mercy for the dead in these cold corners
no reward for those who are in the know

there's only listening to the mountain where caves are born
and darkness grows like a carnivorous plant…

the cry of the birds at the bursting dawn didn't overtake us
we didn't stumble over the wisdom or obsessions of our predecessors
though what we saw is worth telling!

… and then
a bunch of slaves started climbing out of a hole, up the walls
even if the doors were wide open
they climbed down to the city, roamed its markets
men and children were shouting in the dark
swatting it with drums and dancing,
women undressing on the edge of an abyss to distract death
from their children
as one of the locals explained to us

we felt grateful for our exile and residence

and said to ourselves:
we are only marching exiles, our shadows don't trail us over the earth
and like textile workers we hold threads and spin them to weave memories
that breathe behind us and follow our steps like bewildered dogs

who are we that we should dislike what we don't know
or love what we have no business in!

then a jealous boy appeared:
his jealousy remained glistening on the fence after he left
and it blocked the path of cats, pedestrians, and the scent of basil
after the amateur refugees, with the news from Baghdad, had gone

his jealousy leaned on the breasts of a young woman
who came out of the shadows and took off her veil, placed it
on the grass by the soldiers' boots
just as I was moving to another dream …

all this would have been worthy of consideration and repetition
had a young philosopher from Ramallah not died at 4:16 that morning
surrounded by his students, admirers, and three friends
(two men and a woman) it would have been possible also to remember
and add other scattered things
so grief can appear and treason mature

chief among them
Buddha's lilac statue

or the photograph of a house owner in his furnished living room
staring at us out of his conservative classical death

the father's hermetic contemplation
a complicity of sorts with the daughter
as he expires beneath the oxygen apparatus

a woman's voice as she conceals her infidelity
through the phone's ten thick layers

it would have been possible to document his death or to remember
other scattered things in another context, like his dead weight
or the white of his eyes resembling a final resurrection
before the sirens were lit

if only he did not stand a bit crooked from the world, as happened with Cavafy
whose poetry he did not concern himself with as he did other poets

I have a suspicious heart, brother
and my stance is whole
there is no one who can guess the whirling in my head
and I no longer trust those night travelers!


I have a suspicious heart and my admirers are obstinate
and in the wadis
if you look closely are birds and hunters
who wear in the dark longing's smell
and its form

hunters who have other motives in the light
other labyrinths
and paths that make a hyena pant
and the signifier and the signified are lost

among them:
wind-instrument blowers

wily attars in the markets

barefoot narrators behind the slaves

and pretentious mockers standing on their bank
where we were born
white from black fathers

there are among them more than enough to make me superfluous…

my guests are blind and dervishes
as aforementioned
I describe them as they appeared
in secret
as blessed and guarded narrators born
with absent minds
but if absently
they died they'd notice

in meaning they have a jinn's rank
and its language
and in structure a paranoid's body
and levity

…and for some reason I can't quite recall now
he moved a little away, turned his back to me and stared at the river
and said: I have nothing left to give you except this:
and pointed to the water
then wiped my face with his hands

I became alert and imagined I was in a garden in Baghdad whose fence
I had passed by when I was a kid…
and there was in the dark a fishing boat
a soft paddle transmitting the scent of sparks from across the river
quiet sounds coming from the brothel,
and all this seemed to me like breathing…
what I don't see as it has gathered

I rose and looked around
and there I was alone and the river before me,
with two maidens in it, one black, the other white
and whenever I slept or was distracted he would come, sit before me,
talk to me and I would listen, then he'd wipe his hands
with my face and I'd awaken, transported from one land to another land
one time to another time…

until I reached the Tigris bank that night where the two maidens were
and I realized the state I had been in, and longed for those I'd left behind

so I composed these lines for the occasion:

I raise your secret to all expose mine to man and jinn
I light a fire of jasmine and chase a dream of fleeing mirth
I gather behind you the crowd's shadow a salaam of vanishing to the vanished
and in pleasure I am alluring and in sleep I see the invisible
as if I were your radiance and you my whirling spell
I played and spun the soul of life as one seeks a plaything
and let loose prophetic horses and rode drunker than a drunk
so here I am before you a triumph brought to the victor
you're all I have as I'm paraded the pleased around his benefactor

I elevated him higher in my prayers and embellished his favours then remembered
what he had told me as he was bidding me farewell:

‘as for that which you did not ask me about
it's your secret, no one else's
and it doesn't concern me
I neither help you with it
nor release you from it'

and I had asked him about all things but this!

he had tutored me
when I was a kid,
I would repeat whatever he said
three times
before the rooster crowed,
I would listen
then repeat what he had said twice
and by the third time
I'd add to it my own.

Translation by Fady Joudah
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