Fadhil’s Descent – Michigan Quarterly Review

Fadhil’s Descent

Accompanying the launch of Decades of Fire: New Writing from the Middle East and North Africa, a special Spring issue of MQR dedicated to the documentation of political, social, and cultural transformations of the past three decades, MQR Online is featuring additional non-fiction, poetry, and fiction not available in the print issue. We have gathered work here that, as Guest Editor Huda Fakhreddine writes in her introduction to the print issue, confronts the Middle East and North Africa as a bind, one that the writing presented here and in print might “begin to unravel in the mind, by some rearrangement, some association or unexpected juxtaposition, some turn of phrase, some wild metaphor.” 

“Fadhil’s Descent” appears here translated by William M. Hutchins.

Fadhil's Descent


Every time I reach a city, the rain takes me by surprise,
Wiping away my traces.

From where did this train come to this empty desert?
From which town? Which village?
No landmarks on the way of the mountain – passer,
No compass in the hand of the continents’ discoverer.

I was neither dead nor alive.
That was my only source of pride.

I packed my bags with goods I bought from the future, 
As it chanced, from the first shop in the middle of the road.
In the furnace of bitter winter
I lit the firewood of the past
To warm my dry limbs and sat, 
Waiting on the platform of this distant station.

I had no ticket for the trip.

When the train finally arrived, its whistle screeching
Like a widow mourning her treacherous years,
And its smoke piercing the star-studded sky,
A serpent twisting through the folds of the sands’ swelling robe,
I saw Adam, the secret-bearer, walking in fetters,
In a noisy, rowdy wagon, surrounded by drunks and prostitutes,
Between two policemen cursing their bad luck
And staring at the horizon through their binoculars, 
Searching for spies hiding behind the trunks of infernal Zaqqum  trees
Listening to the last news of the afterlife.


“What are you doing here, Adam?”
I called affectionately to him,
But he said nothing.
From inside the window, he waved at me,
Greeting me with his passport,
Which had been canceled in Paradise’s police station,
Before he was expelled to a city that I saw once in dreams
Called oblivion. He left me 
A bottle of wine that he had filled in heaven.
I got drunk on it, praising God for this blessing.

The train passed him by.
No one asked about me.


In a distant village in the fog
I saw the Master of Time like a demented general standing on history’s platform. 
He wet his whistle between one word and the next,
Casting his reverberating sermons
From behind my back to the world.
I saw nations crowding into public squares
And applauding ghosts descending with parachutes from the first explosion
Into the middle of fiery games of creation’s festival,
Moving from one galaxy to another,
Scattering their suspect seeds
To happy stars.


In a film shown free of charge,
In which I played the role of my life a thousand times,
I found a bird weeping
In a cage a hunter had forgotten in the infidels’ grove.
I went and set him free.
As he fluttered his wings, I placed him on the palm of my hand.
Blazing with happiness,
He became a hot coal that burned me,
So I cast it into the darkness
Hoping that someone else would pick it up.

It wasn’t my film.


On the platform of a distant station
I sat on my suitcase to collect the fragments of my self
While gazing at the schedule of arrivals and departures.
I still had a long wait before me
Among tourists clutching their wallets
Fearful of theft.
Someone saw me and nodded, greeting me from a distance.
Others passed me, pushing their luggage carts before them,
Ignoring me.


I don’t remember much of my past life now:
Just that I was once soiled with blood
And washed by a midwife in a basin filled with water from our salty well.
The scream of pain I released in my cradle
Resounded in the city’s ear
Like a song a drunkard croons, returning from the bar
At the end of the night.
People passing in the streets smiled then,
Knowing children scream all the time
To make their mothers anxious
And keep them from sleeping.

A heavy downpour cleansed the world of its dross.
The war stopped, in the trenches,
And machine guns emerged from the muck
To be oiled.

The sun rose
To welcome my happy birth.


“A little angel with butterfly wings,”
My mother says,
“Has fallen from our only almond tree,
In the courtyard of our house,
Melting from shyness,
Bearing in his hand a bouquet of flowers for me.”
He didn’t tell us how he heard the news.
The newspapers said nothing of me.
He didn’t tell my mother about the Holy Spirit—as angels usually do,
Nor what I must do with my life in the coming years.
All he said was that he came
To reassure himself that I had arrived safely, and
To bring me greetings from his Supreme Master in heaven.
I thanked him for his trust.


Many informers spread my news
In every town and village.
The blind king dispatched his soldiers to cut off my head.
But the wolves mauled them in the desert.
I resigned my destiny to the fates
And waited for the Magi to reach Mahallat Chuqor 
As they followed the light of a star that led their exhausted camels to me, 
Stepping down from their legend and mounting 
The stone steps of Kirkuk’s Citadel
To bring me the glad tidings.

Women seated on mats at their doorways
In The Prophets Alley,
Peeling apples, pricked their fingers.
Among them was Zulaykha , whom lust once seized
While she waited for Joseph to emerge from the public baths. 
They saw the Magi record my name in their ancient rosters
Before leaving myrrh and frankincense for me.

I never saw what they recorded about me.
I never saw blood drip from those women’s fingers.


I’ve read many books
By light poles in the streets
And I’ve written many verses by the light of the moon:
About Layla the Amiriya –who once waved to me 
From the neighbors’ roof terrace,
And about Shakespeare’s beautiful maiden,
Juliet, who violated the mores of her clan by loving me,
and drove her jealous lover to stand beneath the balcony
muttering to the stars and threatening to kill himself.
When I matured, I became addicted to sitting in coffeehouses,
With Bedouin poets
Who trained their natures to perform odes;
Or to drinking mint tea near our house in Wadi Abqar
Where philosophers hid their philosopher’s stone in their pockets,
tormenting the spies seated on benches beside me
By talking instead about this and that.


There’s not too much left for me to relate about my life to come.
I was once captain of a ship tugged by the winds,
But I wasn’t Odysseus;
And I wasn’t returning to Ithaca.
In the end, I lit my fire atop the mountain 
When I reached the island.
On the way I’d pursued a stray gazelle and led her to my grove,
Allowing the ships lost at sea
To anchor by my safe shore
And the hungry sailors to knock at my door
So that I could feast them on my heart.


“Good morning, poet!” or
“Good evening, poet!”
That’s how Goethe always greeted me when he saw me sitting
In his favorite bar in Leipzig: Auerbach’s Cellar.
That’s what geniuses typically do.
He mistook me for Mephistopheles, who purchased poor Faust’s spirit from him
In exchange for a handful of gold coins.
So I rise and lift my hat respectfully,
Inviting him to drink a mug of cold beer,
and to toast ourselves, we the exiles of the world.


I threw my pearls in the dirt
And let the blind find them.

At the end
Every light is a veil. 

I let Satan beat fives with sixes,
Pushing with his thick cudgel
His lost sheep, grazing on the grass of Hell’s valley.

There, after the curtain is lowered on the spectacle
And the audience left the hall,
I told the children my most beautiful tales
To keep my conspiracy alive to the end.


Nothing important occurred after that:
Just a few wars
To pass the hours of a long history,
Years in prison
To study the evolution of insects up close,
A quarter century in exile
but without gaining credentials from tyrants’ courts,
Many poems I forgot in bars
On the tables of immortal drunks.


The spirit bleeds but leaves no trace of injury
While reality gushes legal arguments
From its well, which only spurts out lies.
Whatever fills the mouth, a long tongue repeats,
Letting the past scatter its pages
Over the missionaries’ table,
While language twists and turns on its bed,
While the scream of the disappeared 
Drives sleep from our eyes.
Then morning fawns on us,
its nightingale singing in the tree
To wake us for our morning tea
Before leaving for work
to use up what remains of our time.


All these legends have been told before,
As if we had never been here
Listening to the narrators
Talking about us,
seated on sages’ thrones.

There, while the banquet is being given in our honor,
I see life sit like a charming lady in the guest parlor,
one leg crossed over the other,
Leaning back in a chair embroidered with the withered flowers
Of bygone eras,
Watching the vase fall 
Silently to the floor
Just as death emerges from the servants’ room
To sweep away the shards.


In locked rooms
The priests light their candelabra
While sitting before TV screens
Watching, with bulging eyes, scenes from Resurrection Day
Broadcast live from Heaven’s throne, 
The dead left to flower on the grass
In the public parks, 
All there for us to see, we who have survived drowning,
We who laughed once and wept,
who emerged 
To sing our hymns in the wilderness,
Combing the curly hair of our ancestors
Then joining the banquet
With the last remaining victims.


Men, women, and children carried me on a litter of palm fronds
To a city I didn’t recognize.
I didn’t object or agree.
I heard them talk about me, but I said nothing.
When everything is said and done:
No one dies of love.


Many masons before me have struck boulders 
With their hammers.
I have as well,
Seeing the spark make blind rocks moan
As the falcon returns to his nest on the highest peaks,
Scaling Time’s living bosom with his lethal claws
To where the mountain disperses its noble snows
To distant valleys,
Ordering its towering slopes to squander torrents
And release flooding rivers
Into parched deserts.

En route to the future, I scattered 
All my life’s gold behind me,
Refusing to receive
My fair share of the world.

On this night I raise my hand
As an omen of another life.
I climb the boulder of this exile,
Plucking a blazing ember from the hearth of history,
I toss it into the darkness of my days
And walk the street alone
To reach myself.
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