Meanderings & mawqifs of poetry, poetics, translations y mas. Travelogue too.

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The Many Lives of a Political Poem: From Hebrew, to Arabic, to Another Life in Hebrew

August 2nd, 2014 · Gaza Strip, Human rights, Israel, Man-made Disaster, Palestine, Poetry, Translation, Uncategorized

via the always excellent Arab Literature (in English):

Over at The Paris Review, poet and translator Peter Cole writes about the ironic new life that Benjamin Netanyahu has given to Hayim Nahman Bialik’s poem “On the Slaughter”:

A young Bialik; Cole writes, about thirty.

In the days after the three Israeli teens were murdered, most likely hours after their kidnapping, Netanyahu publicly expressed condolences to the families while quoting from Bialik: “Vengeance … for the blood of a small child, / Satan has not yet created.”

Netanyahu continued by adding: “Hamas is responsible — and Hamas will pay.”

As Cole writes:

Never mind that the poem intoned by Mr. Netanyahu wasn’t Israeli: it was written long before the state was founded and very far from it. “On the Slaughter” was the thirty-year-old Odessan Hayim Nahman Bialik’s immediate response to the April 1903 pogroms in the Bessarabian town of Kishinev, where some forty-nine Jews were slashed, hacked, and cudgeled to death, or drowned in outhouse feces, and hundreds were wounded over the course of several days. Women and girls were raped repeatedly. The Jewish part of town was decimated. Netanyahu quoted just two lines, carefully avoiding the one preceding them: “Cursed be he who cries out: Revenge!”

Cole also adds, interestingly, that the poem received a “potent 1966 translation by the first star of Palestinian resistance poetry, Rashid Hussein.” He further imagines that the poem could have had another life in Arabic, as one might well imagine “a YouTube reading of Hussein’s translation by a thirty-year-old poet in what’s left of the Gazan neighborhood of Sheja’iyeh[.]“

Cole noted, over email, that his wife, Adina Hoffman, wrote more in-depth about Rashid Hussein and his Bialik translation in her My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century.

Rashid Hussein, not yet 30.

Indeed, there is a beautiful brief sketch of Rashid Hussein in the book, a poet Mahmoud Darwish would call “the star.” Hoffman writes that Hussein was the first Palestinian poet “to have graduated from an Israeli high school, and this gave him a window onto both Hebrew literature and world literature in Hebrew translation. The window worked in complex ways, making him more sympathetic to the feelings of his Jewish countrymen — while it also granted him the insight to write, as he would that same year, that ‘whoever denies us [Arabs] the right to express our suffering and our hopes must also deny Bialik and [Hebrew-language Russian-Jewish poet Shaul] Tchernikovsky most of their nationalist poems.’”

Also: “Rashid would go on to translate a book of Bialik’s poems into Arabic; he was hired to do so by the editors of a series sponsored by the Hebrew University, but it was an assignment of of which he was proud.”

As Cole further noted in email, very little has been written aout the translations, but, “So far as we know—they didn’t circulate beyond Israel’s Arabic readership. … Whether or not they were ever reprinted, in Beirut, say, or anywhere else — we just don’t know. But it seems unlikely.”

Cole adds that Hussein’s “aim in doing the Bialik was, in part, to make a statement.”

It is impossible to know what Bialik would think of Netanyahu’s use of his poem, but the poem, like other political poetry, seems to have its own declared allegiance.


Read the poem in English translation

Read the poem in Arabic translation

Two poems by Hussein, trans. Sinan Antoon

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Gaza’s writers keep writing under the bombs

July 21st, 2014 · Gaza Strip, Palestine

via The Electronic Intifada:

Smoke rises after an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City on 19 July.

(Mohammad Othman / APA images)

Despite Israel’s relentless aerial bombardments, shelling and ground attacks for nearly two weeks, Palestinian writers in Gaza have responded to the latest onslaught by doing what they know – writing.

According to an email from Ra Page, director of Manchester-based Comma Press, which recently published a collection of short stories from writers in Gaza, “all of theBook of Gaza contributors are writing away like crazy, whilst they have power.” (Eighty percent of households in Gaza currently have only up to four hours of power per dayas Israel has badly damaged the Strip’s electricity infrastructure.)

These writers include Nayrouz Qarmout, whose work is currently being translated for publication, and Najlaa Ataallah. Ataallah has built upon her existing Arabic-language writing — which includes two novels and a short story collection — with English posts to her blog, in the hope of sharing her experiences of the bombing and invasion with a wider audience.

Her response to the ninth day of the current attack includes this passage:

Did I die?

No doubt, this is all your hallucination of what it’s like to be dead. I’m still thinking of being not dead. Yes, I kicked him out. I triumphed upon him. He did not hug me nor took me with him to the sky.

I’m still here. I’m on this ground.

You are delirious. Your temperature skyrocketed. Your body trembles uncontrollably. Your mother recites the verses from the Quran over your head. The bed shakes.

“What day is it today?”, you asked your mother.

She lowers her head, trying to answer you. It looks like she too has forgotten the day and the date.

But that’s not what you are asking for…

You wanted to know which day of the aggression is this day. Did you pass the ninth day without death harvesting you, or are you still inside this ninth day cycle?

More of Ataallah’s writing can be found on her blog.

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Israeli shelling destroys poet Othman Hussein’s Gaza home

July 20th, 2014 · Palestine

Burned books from the collection of Palestinian poet Othman Hussein

Burned books from the collection of Gaza poet Othman Hussein. (Maysoon Hussein)

via The Electronic Intifada
Submitted by Sarah Irving on Sat, 07/19/2014 – 17:15

The ongoing Israeli onslaught against Palestinians in Gaza has already hit its cultural life with the demolition of the home of artist Raed Issa by an air strike on Tuesday.

This has been followed by the destruction of the house of poet Othman Hussein and his family in Rafah in southern Gaza. According to family friends in the UK who spoke to The Electronic Intifada, the house, located in Shuka, an agricultural town east of Rafah, was hit by tank shells on Thursday, 17 July. The home was completely destroyed, although Hussein and his relations were able to escape harm.

Othman Hussein is a well-known Palestinian poet whose work has appeared in many publications, including Masharef, the journal founded by the great Palestinian writerEmile Habibi. In English translation, his poetry has appeared in Izzat Ghazzawi’s 1997 collection Modern Palestinian Poetry in Translation and most recently in A Bird is Not a Stone.

Hussein’s contribution to the latter anthology, perhaps ironically, includes a poem entitled Camp Block 5, which describes a fierce Israeli attack on a Palestinian refugee camp and the courage of its defenders:

I have to go, I said: I have to. The barbarians are besieging time and place, besieging this rapid breathing in the side-alleys of frustration’s long journey. Explosions ripple, fear controls the situation. Justified and upstanding fear in the face of history at a great crossroads. They monitor us and we monitor them and we besiege their glory with our weakness. Tank shells and small-arms fire and their hatred, all these roll before the demolition machines.

I will go now. Many children, half asleep and stumbling and falling as you hurry them from their houses at the hour of dawn. Houses that will be levelled like accusations in just a moment.

A father carries his children and rushes like a missile out of what will shortly be a pile of cement…

(Excerpt from Camp Block 5 by Othman Hussein, translated by Henry King and Sarah Irving)

Othman Hussein was also one of the many who have spoken out against the degrading treatment dealt out to Palestinians by Israeli security forces in Gaza, as cited in a 2007 article by Israeli journalist Amira Hass.

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Bye, Bye, Johnny

July 18th, 2014 · Music, Obituaries

I’ll always remember that late night more or less incoherently right on conversation about the blues at the bar of the El Quichote, sometime in 1970. And the music, the music will always be there. Thanks.


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July 17th, 2014 · Gaza Strip, Human rights, Israel, Middle East, Palestine

gazabombingThe horror of what’s happening in Gaza is there for all to see. Here are the opening lines of Mahmood Darwish’s poem on Gaza:

Gaza is far from its relatives and close to its enemies, because whenever Gaza explodes, it becomes an island and it never stops exploding. It scratched the enemy’s face, broke his dreams and stopped his satisfaction with time.

Because in Gaza time is something different.

Because in Gaza time is not a neutral element.

It does not compel people to cool contemplation, but rather to explosion and a collision with reality.

Time there does not take children from childhood to old age, but rather makes them men in their first confrontation with the enemy.

Time in Gaza is not relaxation, but storming the burning noon. Because in Gaza values are different, different, different.

The only value for the occupied is the extent of his resistance to occupation.

You can read the whole poem & see a range of images from Gaza on Tom Clark’s blog, here. You can also follow detailed analysis of the situation on Jadaliyya, here.

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Jörg Fauser

July 16th, 2014 · Literature, Translation, Uncategorized

On this day, back in 1987, my old friend the German writer Jörg Fauser died, hit by a car. There isn’t much available in English, but check here & here. Way back when — very early 70s — I translated bits & pieces of his prose for underground magazines, but have no copies or docs of all that left. Like Jörg all his life, I was a beat-inspired Burroughs-devotee wanderer in those days. Below, a German-language video of a TV appearance late in his career, & beneath that an English-language review of his crime novel, The Snowman:


From LIBIDISSI’s hip randomness it’s a big step up to THE SNOWMAN (Bitter Lemon Press, 249pp), which appeared in Germany in 1981 and took twenty years to make it into English. It seem that the author, Jörg Fauser lived the life of his central character, right up to his untimely death wandering onto a motorway and right into the path of a truck. Our fictional anti-hero here is Siegfried Blum, the ultimate loser-adventurer. His is a soul attracted by pretty much everything in this life that nice people warn against. We meet him first in Malta, close to forty years old, trying to sell a stash of Danish pornographic magazines. Just before the local cops eject him from their Mediterranean patch he chances upon a lovely big load of cocaine. READ ON! The source of this book’s considerable charm is the good, well actually pretty bad, Herr Blum, and upon his capacity to court disaster. All of which gives a dark tale of paranoia and life in the underworld a comic edge; just enough oblique humour to cause a reader to smile at this rag-tag life of ours and its underworld vicissitudes.

The Book

Fauser, Jörg: The Snowman / translated by Anthea Bell. – London : Bitter Lemon Press, 2004. – 249 pages ISBN 1-904738-05-2 Original title: Der Schneemann (German)

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It’s July 4th, Go Dancing!

July 4th, 2014 · Uncategorized, Whatever

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And now, for something completely different…

July 3rd, 2014 · Uncategorized

Video showing Lingodroids playing a location language game.

Schulz, R., Glover, A., Milford, M., Wyeth, G., & Wiles, J. (2011) Lingodroids: Studies in Spatial Cognition and Language, ICRA 2011, The International Conference on Robotics and Automation, Shanghai, China, May 2011

For more information on Lingodroids go to:

School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering
University of Queensland, Australia

Australian Research Council

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Khaled Mattawa on Mahmood Darwish

July 2nd, 2014 · Arab Culture, Criticism, Cultural Studies, Poetry

Via Electronic Intifada:

An accessible look at Darwish’s life and work, at long last

Mahmoud Darwish(APA images)

It is hard to talk about modern Palestinian culture without mentioning Mahmoud Darwish. The late Palestinian “poet laureate,” one of the greatest poets writing in Arabic in the twentieth century, Darwish’s brilliance looms large, six years after his death.

It is surprising, then, that until now there has been no accessible account of his life and work. Volumes of academic analysis exist, but with Mahmoud Darwish: The Poet’s Art and his Nation, Libyan poet and critic Khaled Mattawa offers lay readers the first overview of the man, his writing and their place in the cultural landscape.

This isn’t a biography. Although one would be fascinating, Darwish always insisted that his poetry should represent his life story. So this book doesn’t feature salacious speculations into the identity of his Israeli lover, “Rita,” or probing into his marriages. Rather, The Poet’s Art takes the events of Darwish’s life as a framework within which to fit discussions of his writing and its political and cultural context.

Aside from some introductory framing, the book is laid out chronologically, beginning with the well-known story of Darwish’s family fleeing to Lebanon during the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, returning later to find their village destroyed.

Mattawa traces the influences of life under the early State of Israel on Darwish’s poetry, including his experiences of imprisonment and house arrest for writing and traveling “without a permit” to deliver his poems to audiences across the Galilee.


Mattawa describes the tensions within Darwish’s feelings about literature during this period. On the one hand was his belief in adab al-itizam, the “committed literature” of the 1960s which was firmly rooted in political practice, emphasizing the need for art to be accessible to “the people.” On the other was the desire to write poetry that came from within.

One result of this was the way in which much of Darwish’s work in this period eroticizes and feminizes Palestine: she is a beautiful, desirable woman, lost or stolen away. To a detached reader, these could be the poems of a lusty young man, but once placed in the context of Darwish’s daily life, their subtext becomes clear. The ambiguity was also a means to smuggle nationalist sentiments past the Israeli censor.

Mattawa also looks at the unusual creative situation in which Palestinian poets of the time — Samih al-Qasim,Tawfiq Zayyad and others — wrote.

They were largely cut off from new trends in Arabic literature, with occasional books and magazines smuggled into Israel. So, despite their political differences, Darwish came to admire and love the work of Haim Bialik, the Zionist poet who preached Jewish self-defense after witnessing the aftermath of pogroms in the Ukraine. According to Mattawa, Darwish read the revolutionary Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca in Hebrew translation for the rest of his life.

This mirrored the complexities of Darwish’s relationships with Israeli artists. He worked to bring Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli writers together and was criticized by some Arab commentators for his sympathetic portrayal of Israeli figures. As Mattawa puts it, “Darwish instinctively knew that in order to assert the humanity of his people, he needed likewise to assert the humanity of his adversaries.” But Darwish also believed in the political necessity of “penetrating Israeli intellectual circles,” and supported the armed Palestinian resistance.

Palestine’s cultural representatives

Although Mattawa is fundamentally an admirer of Darwish, celebrating his blend of technical mastery and vivid images, his book is not a hagiography on the personal or aesthetic levels. He admits — as Darwish himself did — that his poetry of the 1970s erred too far on the side of politics over aesthetic excellence, and that like the Palestinian resistance itself, Palestine’s cultural representatives found themselves needing to spend the 1980s seeking routes for renewal and revivification.

One of the ways in which Darwish achieved this was through his work alongside the great Palestinian writer and critic Edward Said. As Mattawa puts it, Darwish and Said produced two “masterpieces” of Palestinian culture almost contemporaneously — Darwish’s Lesser Roses and Said’s After the Last Sky. The two men certainly influenced one another, and worked closely to create the declaration of Palestinian independence in 1988, crafting the Arabic and English versions together.

This makes it all the more striking that both Said and Darwish were amongst the most prominent critics of the Oslo accords signed by the Palestine Liberation Organizationand Israel in the mid-1990s. Although Darwish lived the rest of his life based inPalestinian Authority-ruled Ramallah, artistically he spent that time exploring new limits, fighting creative rather than political battles.

As Mattawa points out, this included “undermin[ing] a paradigm he had championed for years,” moving away from the idea of Palestine as romantic beloved as “an unsatisfactory solution to collective trauma.” In the reverse of Darwish’s early works, inThe Stranger’s Bed, Penelope, wife of Ulysses, says “I am not a land/ or a journey/ I am a woman, no less and no more.”

And although Darwish’s more “difficult” later poetry may never have been as popular as his earlier work, Mattawa sees him as having “offered … his credibility as a cultural figure to bridge a public reared on traditional poetics to the new poets” of Palestine. This highlights one of this book’s most important acts: deconstructing the idea of a monolithic body of work labeled “Mahmoud Darwish,” and allowing the changing circumstances, ideas, politics and artistic practices of the poet’s life to show through in all their complexities.

This isn’t a lengthy book — the text comes in at 174 pages — but it acts as a useful bridge between the academic scholarship on Darwish and the general reader. It is particularly useful in that as well as applying literary theorists such as Mikhail Bakhtin and Gayatri Spivak to Darwish’s work, Mattawa engages with Arabic literary criticism from figures such as Raja al-Naqqash, Ahlam Yahya and Adel Usta — important, insightful writers whose work is largely inaccessible to Western audiences.

For the reader seeking a clear-eyed, unsentimental, yet admiring and in-depth look at Darwish’s work and the historic events in which he wrote, this is an excellent book. For an academic publisher, the price tag isn’t outrageous, but it is to be hoped that Syracuse University Press make a paperback edition available in the near future.

Sarah Irving is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone, a collection of contemporary Palestinian poetry in translation. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh.

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Anny Gaul on Sinan Antoon on Translation, Poetics & Politics

June 30th, 2014 · Arab Culture, Arabic, Poetics, Poetry, Prose, Translation

via the always excellent Arab Literature (in English):antoon

Translation as Mourning, Translation as a ‘Form of Cultural Interrogation’

by mlynxqualey

In a lecture at the American University in Cairo last March, Iraqi poet and translator Sinan Antoon wove together poetics and politics, linking an understanding of translation as “extended mourning” with observations from his experience as a translator of Arabic poetry into English. Anny Gaul reflects on the lecture and on the politics of Arabic-to-English translation:

By Anny Gaul

The notion of translation as mourning echoes numerous articulations of the relationship between translation and death. Drawing from Walter Benjamin’s notion of translation as a text’s afterlife and Iraqi critic Kathim Jihad’s assertion that “every text remains in mourning until it is translated,” Antoon posited that translation itself is a form of mourning. This, perhaps, is where politics enters the conversation: an understanding of translation as mourning implies that a translation’s very existence is somehow predicated upon death or violence.

The relationship between translation and death is easy enough to grasp in the case of individual loss (translating the work of a poet who has died, for example). But what does translation as mourning mean in light of collective forms of loss? What does this mean for the role of a translator like Antoon, an Iraqi in exile translating texts from Arabic to English in early 21st century America? In the context of what Antoon describes as “wars of terror that are labeled as wars on terror,” when the relationship between the societies of translation’s source and target languages is one of occupation and war, how is that relationship brought to bear upon the languages themselves?

The conventional answer might be that translation can serve as a kind of antidote to violence: that amidst Islamophobia at home and atrocities abroad, texts in translation offer an alternative way of engaging with the “other,” a means to understanding or tolerance.

Antoon offers an alternate reading of the increased attention given to Arabic literature and translation in post-9/11 American society (although he is not the first, or the only person to do so), describing translation “as a form of cultural interrogation…”

But as Antoon pointed out, “the relationship of the living to the dead is a political one,” and the relationship between societies can never be fully set aside. The politics of language renders even the most recondite of literary texts political. Antoon offers an alternate reading of the increased attention given to Arabic literature and translation in post-9/11 American society (although he is not the first, or the only person to do so), describing translation “as a form of cultural interrogation,” an ethnographic examination of a culture blamed for Americans’ own experiences of trauma and loss.

How, then, might a writer or translator address the relations of power that inevitably frame their work? Antoon locates possibilities in the poetry of Sargon Boulous, an Iraqi-Assyrian poet (whom Antoon has translated), whose work mourns the losses Iraqis have experienced without resorting to narratives that themselves constitute practices or representations of violence –– such as those of ethnic and sectarian conflicts, in which the memory of death so often becomes a rallying cry for the perpetration of more violence.

Although Boulous uses classical Mesopotamian tropes in his poetry, Antoon explained, he does not abandon a critical stance towards those motifs and the ends to which they have been deployed throughout Iraqi history. Perhaps the most poignant metaphor is that of the walls of Uruk, constructed by the epic hero Gilgamesh as his legacy –– a substitute for eternity, not terribly unlike the notion of translation as mourning.

Meditations on walls that come down also invite meditations on what bloodshed and sacrifice was required to construct the walls (literal and figurative) in the first place. 

The implicit parallels between translation and walls also speak to a questioning of the notion that translation is a straightforward means to cross-cultural understanding: both walls and translations can be understood as marking and facilitating division. Meditations on walls that come down also invite meditations on what bloodshed and sacrifice was required to construct the walls (literal and figurative) in the first place. Similar questions might be asked of the violence that has prompted increased interest in translations from Arabic today.

One response to the tensions raised by these questions lies in Antoon’s discussion of the ghosts, a recurring motif in Boulus’ poetry. These ghosts, victims of sanctions and invasions, seek no revenge or retribution. They want to be spoken to, not for, in a way that gives rise to a particular “ethics of mourning.”

Of course, to speak to and with, rather than for, is also the foundation for an ethics of translation itself.

Georgetown University graduate student Anny Gaul blogs at

mlynxqualey | June 29, 2014 at 6:38 am | Categories: Iraq, translation | URL:

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