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 1. 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. 2. “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. 3. 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. 4. 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. 5. 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. 6. 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. 7. “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. 8. 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. 9. 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. 10. 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. 11. “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. 12. 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. 13. 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. 14. 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. 15. 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. 16. 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. 17. 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. 18. 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.