Galal El-Behairy: The Tartan Shirt

Your letter’s tucked away
in the sleeve of a tartan shirt:
it flies towards you
and greets you.
Yet I fear that if they searched that shirt
it, too, would become afraid
and forget how to speak.
I fear that as soon as they set it free
it would run away, promising
never to return.
Then it would be just a shirt—nothing more.
Forgetting its ID,
it would walk slowly among the masses
and be ambushed
and stripped of its dignity
by His Eminence
who would do it harm.
It howls and cries… but who is there to call to?
‘Help me, world! For shame!’ it yells.
Then the officers start beating it,
and some might even
loosen their belts. And so
that venerable shirt of mine returns to prison
and is accused: ‘Enemy
of the state.’
I’ll write your response:
It will either reach your door
or remain in the shirt
and be lost.


My dear young lady,
my loving rose:
It is to you
that the prisoner writes,
surrounded by soldiers,
soldiers everywhere.
He greets you
and misses you—
you, a song carved on walls,
you, the caravan of ports,
of doors,
the jailer of the man
who is a part of you.
You, the one who blocks the ears
and suppresses the truth
and denies the call to prayer
until all that’s left
are the claws of ghouls
crushing all hopes
and burning all dreams.
All that’s left
are the waterwheels groaning
and a thieving, toothless fox.
But all that’s needed
is a bit of faith
for your daylight to return,
for you to be fertile and green again,
for your fire to scorch
the cowards’ nests.
I hope your health returns, you beauty—
you, the last old woman
and the first young lady
in the eye of time.
In the end, I’ll love you.
As a prisoner, I’ll love you.
As a free man, I’ll love you.
Even when you stubbornly oppose me,
still I’ll love you.
So ends the letter
of your lover, the prisoner
surrounded by soldiers—
soldiers everywhere,
soldiers and walls.

Tora Prison. June 27, 2018.

Translated from Egyptian Colloquial Arabic. The translators have chosen to remain anonymous .

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