-
 

News

Iraqi poet Hassab al-Sheikh Ja‘far

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.

From the opening of Hassab al-Sheikh Ja‘far's collection

Collusion with Blue

 

 

I AM NOT THAT WRETCH

 

Buy me a cognac

fifty grams

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

and songs.

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!

 

I run

and return and return.

 

  

CLARITY

 

Maria reminds me of one of the women

in novels, Maria

at eighty.

Little remains:

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!”

 

 

THE MASK

 

On the way to the end of the night

or the end of the bridge

a raindrop

still swelling

where shadows drift

and the cemetery rustles the buckthorn

Apparition,

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

 

 

GYPSY

 

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.”

Angry night,

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

 

 

EXCAVATIONS

 

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.

Bottomless pit!

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)

Carthage? Babel?

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

 

 

BAIT

 

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.

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.

 

Published Date - 11/04/2022