Zeinab Assaf
Zeinab Assaf
Prayer for the Absent

A thousand other girls have the same name: Zainab1
In the Shi’ite canton
dreams carry themselves
as if God drew our features in a hurry
Like happiness, our eyes are stolen
some of us play up the charms
and cast away sorrow with colours
Some of us make our black dresses
sails for bearded young men
But it is that same name
wailed during Ashura
And so we cry,
We cry for an impossible love
we cry our personal epics.
Each one of us becomes a real Zainab
who carries heads to slaughter with a smile.
She marches with the prisoners
but who sees her?
Who will aid Zainab when she calls out?
(When my grandmother hung this iron collar round my neck, she said: You must learn to deserve it)
And I am still trying
I will tell you about
Zainab, sand, and severed heads
This Zainab I banish
but she grows on the thresholds of my joy
with her abayas black as ravens
Zainab, who is purposefully sad,
who cries as she is born
to a thousand lashes, a thousand veils,
a checkpoint,
and a brother waiting for his beard to grow
so he can join a religious party
Zainab whose thirst ends with
I will tell you about her
she who deemed herself
a veil and a womb.
[. . . . .]

When she was a young girl she hid
“the Prince of the Arabs” under her dress
She told the stories of her grandmother
faster than her imagination
She put her hands together
so the stars wouldn’t fall
as warts onto her fingers
It is unfair to accuse Zainab the grandmother or the spinster
of a happiness she never experienced.
The girl of the thousand battles
and tin shacks,
Zainab, shy in her redness,
proud of her thorns.
I will tell you about the one who believed
that happiness will sneak in
through an abandoned window
She loved him
and he was a believer
in the Holy Trinity
and the Immaculate Conception
But then there was the imam, the morning call to prayer,
and the prayer for the absent.
Before he departed
she gave him a heart and a piece of paper:
He threw the heart away
and put the paper in his pocket.
He was about to board a train
as she was waving to the void
and gathering all her senses
How is it the river of her anguish
did not explode before him?
But, when alone with herself, it gushed forth?
Zainab who cried
for words he did not utter
nor even hide
She believed his wandering letters
Now she cannot return
to her human clay
The sea is the sea,
it cannot extinguish a blaze
All this water and it cannot extinguish a blaze!
Zainab, who blew her tears
into balloons so he could play,
clouds falling
over his hair, nose and eyelashes
But he too did not notice!
[. . . . . ]

Translated by Sinan Antoon
from the poet’s epic poem
Salaat al-Ghaeb [Prayer for the Absent],
Dar Mokhtarat, Beirut, 2005

1 Zainab, the poet’s first name, is a common name for Shi’a women, is also that of Zainab bint Ali (d. 682 CE), the granddaughter of Mohammed, the daughter of the first Shi’a Iman, Ali b. Abi Talib and Fatima al-Zahra, and the sister of al-Hasan and al-Husain. She accompanied the latter to Karbala where he was killed. Zainab survived and was taken prisoner and tradition has it that she was forced to march to Damascus unveiled.

Zeinab Assaf will be reading at the Ledbury Poetry Festival on Saturday 7 July at 2.30pm. For more information, please click here

For details of the London Banipal/Institut Français Reception and Reading on Monday 9 July, please click here and then scroll down the bottom of the page