Six Poems by Amjad Nasser

English PEN shares the concerns of our colleagues at PEN American Center that distinguished poet, novelist and editor Amjad Nasser was denied entry to the U.S last month

Amjad Nasser is a distinguished journalist and one of the most celebrated poets writing in Arabic today. Born in Jordan, Nasser spent the 1980s reporting in Beirut and Cyprus before moving to London in 1987. He has lived there ever since, and continues to work in journalism. He has published ten collections of poetry, four travel memoirs, and the novel Land of No Rain. His work has been translated into ten languages.

On 30 September 2014, Nasser was invited to the Gallatin School of New York University to inaugurate its ‘Gallatin Global Writers’ series. Three days prior, before boarding his flight at Heathrow Airport in London, U.S. Homeland Security interrogated Nasser—who holds dual British and Jordanian citizenship—and informed him he would not be allowed to travel to the United States. You can read an essay Nasser wrote about the incident for the website Jadaliyya here.

Despite Nasser’s absence, the poetry reading at NYU was held as scheduled in protest, with a reading by Nasser performed via Skype. Behind an empty lectern at the Jerry Labowitz Theatre, Nasser presented his poems onscreen in the original Arabic to a full theatre, followed by the English translations. You can read some of his poems below.

Our colleagues from PEN American Center in New York have since sent this letter, in partnership with Split This Rock, protesting Nasser’s exclusion to the Department of Homeland Security. They have yet to receive a response.

 

Adam’s Kingdom
Translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon

I

This rose is made of mud
This glitter is made of coal
This child,
this scoundrel,
this good man,
this acrobat are
made of clay

These faces are masks for other creatures that do not resemble us. Tear them so you can see the wires and reels transmitting the messages of the ax and the barrels falling down on heads like the rain God sends to other nations. I should not blaspheme as I wait in line with those nameless dead standing before the heavenly archive. They do have names, but it makes no difference in these catacombs.

Who can count the last breaths of those whose faces have fallen off on their way here? Who saw how those who did not have a rendezvous with death, but found themselves on its skull-adorned path, and it herded them like an absurd fate? How many hands does death have? How many arms? How many feet? How many sensory setae to be able to move, like lightning, between faces with no names and names with no faces? What is its time zone? Does it have an alarm clock? Does it not feel nauseous as we do when it inhales Mustard or Sarin?

II

Do not say it is the appointed time. Do not say it’s preordained. Do not say there is a wisdom that our myopic eyes cannot see. After arriving here I no longer believe that. There is chaos in the ranks of those waiting before the heavenly archive. They do not know why they are here. This is not the time of those horrified children who cling to their mothers’ dresses.  For they had time, but someone decided that it should be the time. It was not God. Nor the Angel of death. Do not add to his already heavy load.

No

There was time

There was

Was

But someone is toying with the dates and numbers in God’s vast calendar. It is not Satan. His eternal exile with tyrants, fornicators, and sinners is enough. Someone is taking advantage of the nap God is taking to toy with histories and destinies. Someone should pour cold water on his enormous forehead so he may see what is taking place. He probably will not like what he will see no matter how foul a mood he is in. Someone should lift this massive mane off his eyes so he may see what is taking place in the kingdom of his creature, Adam.

III

All this flesh is too much. Flying flesh. Fresh. Stale. Who wants all this flesh? The wild beasts are full and they do not play around with feet or throw body parts around. New flesh drives away old flesh. The earth, itself former flesh, is no longer able to take and digest it. This flesh will not turn into dust for a long time. It has no place in dust crowded with other flesh.

No graves

No tombstones

No names

The dead pushing the dead, thinking there is a refuge from this treacherous apocalypse which took them by surprise when they were in their sleeping garments. Let he who can turn the beast into a human present his evidence to me. Or let him be silent otherwise. Silence is, at least, a possible perplexity, and perplexity is the faint possibility of human existence on this continent of bones. You saw them flying without wings, because knives prefer individual body parts. It is easier for them to sever a hand or a foot, slit a throat, or rip open a belly, than to reach the source of wailing that proves these beings, now torn to pieces, were originally, walking on two feet. They had hands that shook and protested and perhaps were able to embrace.

Do not lie. You saw them all. You were sitting around the table and were bothered by the insolence of those who sent you these body parts, stripped out of their context. You lowered your heads pretending to bow before the blood spilt, but you were afraid the screams, body parts, and blood running away from the veins would ruin your appetite.

Father, forgive them not

For they knew what they were doing

IV

What type of beasts copulated to give birth to these who walk on two feet, stand upright and excel in crime as if penning a love poem. Those who eat with one hand and prepare offerings with another. They inhale and exhale as the most evolved mammals should.  I am entering one history and exiting another, blending the scenes of earth and heaven. I only hear bones wailing. Are these video games or cartoons whose beings will dust off the blood and debris from their bodies and pick up their scattered body parts to return to how they were before?

They slap and push everything before them.

I mean the rain

I mean the storm

It is odd that there are storms and rain here, just as there. Cold rain like crystal jugs rolled out by the hand of an angry god. Falling upon the heads of those waiting in endless lines before the heavenly archive. I saw skeletons running faster than the trees running before all. The ice-cold wind pushing them back. Naked, with no sex. They could be males or females waiting for their heavenly numbers.

Here, names,

letters,

words,

have no meaning.

Numbers do matter.

V

My mother has her own way of wailing to make death a pinprick. Come, mother, from beyond stones and dirt, below the medicinal herbs that followed you to the grave. Come and wail for those lying here. Dark winds are whistling through their windpipes. They are waiting for the chariots of death which are carrying the others. Come and sing for them that song you used to sing for father after he returned at night from his long walk.

I hear someone next to me saying: Look, this is my throat. I used to sing and call my young brother with it in a funny manner. He used to laugh and ask for more. What can I do with it now that it has been slit and all the laughs and songs taken out? They threw it amid the trees and a bird whose name I do not know picked it up and brought it to me. I do not know if it is my own throat. Nothing distinguishes it except that stream where the song flowed. The one in which I made the self-declared god a running joke.

I want to go into a coma

Anesthetic

Into the fifth heaven of grass

Where God’s forking foot is washed by the virgins of paradise

 

Song of Myself
Translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon

I was this leaf once

falling slowly

I was the tiger thinking it is free

while in a fenced garden

I was the woodworm gnawing

at the cradle and the scepter

I was the dirt disintegrating

in a pot of Geranium

The hand that used to water it

no longer there

 

If You Are Passing Through Rome
Translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon

Since you will not strike roots in the earth and will not lean like a willow to a brook, what use are these glances you cast. At times fierce, blank at others, but imploring in the end. You will only catch what appeared by mistake; the hand under the table, or a face that looked back unintentionally. It is not with a glance alone, no matter how long, concentrated, or even Medusean, that you, who are passing through Rome, can change the ways of Romans. This is not a cardboard décor that will crumble under your sweeping glance. Touch it with your hand to believe that reasons gather at times in an idiotic laugh, or a shirt with figures. You have no knowledge as to why that woman, who is passing by like a long gasp, is holding on to that man who appears so unattractive to you. Or how that bulky man leans on the woman who could fly away with a breeze. It is not with the glance alone, no matter how trained, piercing, and intense, that you could stir the sugar spoon in her coffee. For you, alone, believe that lowering an eyelash, or a knight bending down, can barter a life of flesh and blood. So, when your glances return crestfallen, do not say that it is money, fame, or even luck. The one passing through does not leave a tattoo on an arm, or a scar on a chest. But remember that reasons have gathered themselves for you in another Rome with one word. You do not know how it was revealed to you, nor how you uttered it, because the glances cast upon the one who fell in your arms with a full load of her lavender have gone astray.

 

Do Not Do What the Romans Do
Translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon

Since no family awaits you for dinner and there is no campaign to discipline the barbarians beyond the borders, what use is it to do in Rome as the Romans do? Sit amid the arrows flying off around you and see how you will emerge almost without a scratch. Light, even if the past has deposited all its weight into your feet. At this late hour, you, who pass through Rome, will not change what has become of the Romans. Do not be surprised, then, by the surging noise in the cafes, nor the songs glorifying love and not war. This is another era where trees do not overstep their own shadows and do not die in poems, as they used to before. Smile, if you can, to those who think that life is the family’s obedient maid. For when you saw the men of the royal court walking slowly in front of the solemn funeral procession, there was someone having a drink with a woman in Beirut, and someone making a salt-carrying camel kneel down in Timbuktu.

 

03-03-03
Translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah

The day, according to rumor, that the old bearded man with Middle-Eastern features admonished an English girl not to take the subway, after she handed him back his wallet which had fallen out of his pocket, that day passed without menace.

Those sequentially paved threes, a rendezvous struck with the devil’s instruments, were, at the end of the matter, no more than a banal numerical omen.

Otherwise, that day, as an electronic sign by the municipality of Hammersmith on King Street indicated, was just another Londoner day.

A day shorter than an Arab’s joy, with a temperature of 11 degrees Celsius, a usual sky of an ashen-gray dome, and the automatic doors of King’s Mall that open and close like startled eyelids, while policemen, in their black uniforms and pointed caps, as if they had just stepped out of a cheap tourist pamphlet, shoo away a homeless man about to urinate in front of River Island’s shopping window, as a bored traffic cop issues a citation to a Volkswagen van, seventies model, with a large spray paint on it that reads “No to War,” parked on the yellow line.

03-03-03, Monday (which is also the third weekday in the Arabic week), is just another day in London:
I did not fall in love,
Resurrection didn’t happen,
Bin Laden didn’t strike again,
Palestinians are still on TV screens in Dixons
carrying on their suggestive death,
Bush and Blair are competing for who’s got the longer
incisors, and the world, as Wallace Stevens said, is ugly
and people are sad.

Meritocracy
Translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah

For whom
if not for the one who subjugates the nights
while leaning on star and flute
does silk flutter black in abandonment’s beds

For whom if not for those who walk lightly on earth
does reed puncture insomnia’s breath

 

About the translators

Sinan Antoon is a poet, novelist and translator. His latest work is The Corpse Washer.

Fady Joudah has received the Yale Series for Younger Poets prize, the Griffin International Poetry prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other honors for his poetry and translation.

 

English PEN would like to thank Amjad Nasser and his translators Sinan Antoon and Fady Joudah for allowing us to feature these poems, and PEN American Center for letting us to reproduce this piece.

 

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