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We report with great sadness the news of the passing of Iraqi poet Hassab al-Sheikh Ja‘far (1942–2022)1. In his memory and in tribute to his life and works, we are sharing the poems we published in Banipal 46 – 80 New Poems (Spring 2013), translated by Camilo Gómez-Rivas2.
Buy me a cognac
I am not that dissipated woman, that wretch
so I’ll have more.
The night is long
so where to? Suspicions buzz (as do the police)
I won’t stay more than a few minutes
I am not that fearful woman
Closing time is soon and
the office is close.
In the lobby, the hotel is full
so if you need company
I’ll come back.
We just need the bottle
I have fruit
and savory slices
Music cradles us with tenderness
The world, to me, is all
noise and monkeys.
Who disturbs us and changes our course?
Who staggers under the load?
What time is it? Ah!
and return and return.
Maria reminds me of one of the women
in novels, Maria
the pitchers and the pension
On eid nights, she’d share
a bottle, joking
and repeating the details:
A dancer, married to a wealthy man, and a storm
overwhelming the water-logged ships
and the rider alighting at the sanatorium, the madness.
The year ended
as she recounted these details.
It made me suspicious at first,
apart from her calling me Victor
“You look like him, his features, his fingertips”,
“the eyes, the eyes,” she insisted.
And then I returned from a trip,
after the break,
to find her in my bed, asleep.
I asked the maid for help. She proposed
I sleep next to Maria
“And if she turns over?”
“Just hold her and be very quiet!”
On the way to the end of the night
or the end of the bridge
where shadows drift
and the cemetery rustles the buckthorn
whether ghost or empty jubbah,
be my companion until dawn
be Desdemona on her black wedding
in her wasted youth,
shroud or sail
Be snow over her closed quarters
I will pull off the mask
from your devastating quicksilver face
before the roosters crow
in the empty yards
Night of rain
wake the hands of the rock
(maybe in the letter there is help for wakefulness)
She wrapped her abaya around her, clumsy and hurried
A falling banner spurring on the wind and the tree
She didn’t forget either shoe or cup or slipper
a handful of piastres under our hands.
So I said what once some of our brothers said:
Shunning has become the reward for those who were honest with us.
And I said: “There is no good. For the world lends a hand
in either case. Hens or crabs.”
wake my warbling mouth!
Maybe in the letter there is attachment to the traces of the camp
and the wandering king wears his robe
at the crossroads
fearsomely filling the hands of the wind and the trees,
night of the gypsy
By which wall is the treasure hidden?
I had rented a room in her house
and every time she treated me to a glass of tea;
she would return and propose the excavation
(She wasn’t crazy or joking)
Let’s dig up the floor, I said,
at the north wall
but the pickaxe found nothing but dirt.
So we dug in front of the south wall.
Stairs upon stairs
in a maze, in which we saw
nothing but steam and fog
Still, I led us down with a faint pocket torch
and all at once (the eye had not seen before)
On the balconies, in the corridors,
no one could be seen but a frail old sheikh,
leafing through a tattered manuscript
“Our next steps
may lead us to the treasure,” I said.
But everywhere we went we met the scrawny Tatar
bent over, wary
of who we were,
scouring his empty files
The hour the light turned pale and the furniture swung back and forth
and thick rope dangled from the ceiling
the hour the walking started, deliberate, suspicious,
no passersby to be seen
the woodwormed stick prodded the blind man into the corner,
algae climbing over his bony shoulders.
The hour the books flew from their places
crashing in a pile
The hour the plate was filled with worms
and the spinster’s swing brought down the clown
The hour the chicken hatched the fox’s egg
and the creditors split
what was left of the fuel in the heater
(In the end, as usual, litter is loot
in the hands of amateurs)
The hour wall split from wall
waiting for guests
and the goat was content with dance and carnival,
brass rings clamped around its neck in the act of begging
leaving with its shadow swinging between shadows
1 Born in Missan, Iraq, in 1942, Hassab al-Sheikh Ja‘far published his first poem in Al-Adab magazine, Beirut, in 1961. Two years earlier he had won a scholarship to study in Moscow, and gained a BA and an MA in Literature from the Gorky Institute in 1965. After returning to Iraq, he work in the press and for radio stations, and in 1970 began publishing his collections of poetry in Baghdad. He published nine poetry collections and two novels, and translated several anthologies of Russian poetry into Arabic. He has a collection of his poems translated into Italian and his poetry has been the subject of several academic theses in Morocco and Iraq. He was a member of the Iraq Writers Union’s Board, and attended poetry festivals and recitals in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, France and the UK. His translations of Russian poetry include works by Sergei Yesenin, Anna Akhmatova, Mayakovsky, Alexander Blok, and Pushkin.
He won the Soviet Peace Award in 1983 and the Owais Award for Poetry in 2003. The Owais Award’s General Secretariat stated: Since his early poetic beginnings, Ja’far showed a rare awareness that enabled him to contribute to the rise and enrichment of new Arab poetry. He managed to develop the traditional Arab poem in a way that made it an extension of past Arab poetry while reflecting the characteristics of modern poetry. His experience allowed him to write balanced poetry linguistically and aesthetically. He developed lyrical, dramatic and narrative forms, making use of maxims and folklore, while maintaining a strong link with heritage. All these characteristics combined to form unique poems so fresh and awe-inspiring.
2 Camilo Gómez-Rivas translates poetry from Arabic to English and is a contributing editor of Banipal. He is presently Associate Professor of Mediterranean Studies in the Literature Department of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Click here for more.