Bassam Hajjar
Bassam Hajjar (1955-2009)
Bassam Hajjar: The Tale of Joseph


Bassam Hajjar was the author of twelve poetry collections, which have recently been published in two volumes, hundreds of articles in literary criticism, art, and politics, and sixty books of translations in fields like philosophy, sociology, and fiction. His translations were highly instrumental in bringing the best of world literature to the doorsteps of the beholden Arab reader. The influence of these prolific translations, which he published long before writing his own prose poetry, is obvious in both the content and form of his writings.

His major themes are boredom, weariness, pain, absence, time, and death. His subjects are his home and its furnishings, his personal objects, and his familial relationships. These themes, in addition to his discussion of anxiety, isolation, sadness, and the Other, give his writings an existential character.

Here is one of the poems featured in Banipal 64, introduced and translated by Farnaz Perry

               “[Jacob] also said, ‘Oh my sons, enter not by one door;
                enter by separate doors’.”
                 “The Surah of Joseph,” 12: 67.

The Tale of Joseph

I promise you I will sleep.
But when I sleep I miss this silence.
I promise you I will wait for tomorrow morning with no condition,
with no hope,
I knew a man called Joseph
He does not like sleep
He does not wait for tomorrow morning, nor the morning after that
He was slim and could not tolerate loud noise
He would sit on the chair in silence
or walk the corridor in silence
He loved me
and he loved to stroll in the corridor.

I promise you I will sleep, but I am forced to leave
I was deluded
I was a ghost
so do not be fooled by my laughter or my weeping
or my heavy breathing
Do not be fooled by my tenderness or my clothes,
not even my boredom

I have worked as a servant for my soul, which I have wasted
wandering between absent-mindedness and wakefulness.
What does not make others laugh made me laugh
and what does not make others weep made me weep
and I ignored time as it streamed like sand
between my fingers.
And I loved
and I let loose my frayed shadow onto the pavements
and the roads
And I loved Joseph when he left me
just as he loved me when I left him
and I loved his hand being tender to the violets
and his eyes
and his figure that swayed like a cypress tree
in the wind.

He did not speak to me, but he gave me his shirt
and he did not hold my hand, but he said:
Wipe the darkness from my eyes because if I can see
I will be saved
and salvation is the wish of the dead.

I died and I was not saved.

He said: Do not be fooled,
this bitter taste in my mouth
is the remnant of a sleepless night
and clamour,
of anesthetized breaths,
and the remnant of a dream I had yesterday.

And he said: Do not be fooled,
we were the servants of our souls, and the harshness of our souls
turned us into
firewood that leaves ashes not embers,
dust not shoots.

I promise you I will sleep
but I am weary
and the hardship is in my heart not in the path
and the darkness is in my eyes,
in my hearing,
in the years that followed one after another
and I did not see.

I knew a man, his name was Joseph
He was a man of few words,
silent as a well.
He would sit on the chair
with his beautiful face
and dreamy eyes
and he would say he had never really lived as he had spent
his seventy years a servant to his soul
He gave it all that could be given
and he started walking through the rooms, the smells and the noise
and he grew middle-aged
counting the moments of the night
with no love for sleep.

I promise you I will sleep
for I am not concerned by any of this
I knew Joseph and he died
and I was never anywhere near him. Joseph liked to recount a dream to himself
He used to laugh or cry or be absent-minded
and recount
that weariness is weariness
that the day is hardship
that the night is night
that he smoked sixty cigarettes a day and did not
write a word
that he loved the balcony, the corridor, the pavement,
the cypress tree and the iron gate of the school,
that he lived and died
that he died because death is a tale
that the tale is what remains
or what perishes
or what is told
He does not know
because speech is a hardship
like walking along the corridor
like sleeping in bed
like being awake for some moments
like the numbness which seeps in
from a light resembling drowsiness,
from a dull drowsiness resembling the light that illuminates threads
of dust
in a bare room that is like a tunnel,
cold like the uniforms of nurses,
muffled like coughs.

I promise you I will sleep
that I will wait for tomorrow morning
and the one that follows
But I am forced to leave now,
not for work, or an appointment or outing
or anything like that,
for I am weary and I have served my soul as well as I could.
I knew a man whose name was Joseph
and he ran out of time.
He loved me as I loved him to be
and I loved him as he loved me to be
and he wrote my life story.
He wants me to bid him farewell,
and he is waiting for me
and if anyone wants to see me
say that he is there
on the curb
at the doorstep
Or tell them that
I never knew this man before,
in the tale,
the tale of Joseph who loved him,
silently, and Joseph left him
as if he had died.

* * *

Published in Banipal 64 – A Rebel named Hanan al-Shaykh