Sorrows of the Black City

by Muhammad al-Fayturi

When night casts its net of shadows over the streets of the city
shrouding it in grief,
you can still see them —
slumped in silence, staring at the cracks.
And you think they are calm,
but you're wrong — they're on fire!

When darkness raises its statues of marble
on the streets of the city
then smashes them in fury
then the city will lead all the people
down the spiral staircase of the night
into the deep distant past.
The past with its ambergris shores
is dreaming of memories
too deeply to be roused.
And inside everyone something begins to stir —
a fresh wall made of clay,
stuck with diamonds and desires.
When night sleeps and day wakes
raising its candles in the dark
peace ebbs back to its home in the grave.
At that, the heart of the city
turns futile and wretched —
it is an oven at noon, a lamp for the blind.
Like ancient Africa, the city is truly
an old woman veiled in frankincense,
a great pit of fire, the horn of a ram,
an amulet of old prayers, a night full of mirrors,
the dance of black women, naked,
shouting their black joy.
This coma of sins was kept alive by the master,
ships filled with slave girls,
with musk, ivory and saffron —
gifts, all without joy, despatched by the winds of all ages
to the white man of our time
to the master of all time.
A plantation stretches out in imagination
to clothe the naked, to loosen their clothes,
flowing like its ancestors through the veins of life,
dyeing the water, and dyeing God's face,
its sorrows on every mouth
breeding tyrants and iron and slaves,
breeding chains, every day breeding some new horror….

And yet, on the streets of the city,
when night constructs
its barriers of black stone — they stretch out their hands,
in silence, to the balconies of the future.
They are locked-up cries
in a locked-up land.
Their memories are stab-wounds.
Their faces are sad, like the faces of the blind.
Look, there they are,
heads slumped in silence. And you think they are calm.
But you're wrong. Truth is, they're on fire….

The literal translation of this poem was made by Anna Murison

The final translated version of the poem is by The Poetry Translation Workshop

Notes

The literal translation of lines 4-7 is problematic because it is not always clear what the subject of the verbs are - e.g. in line 4 the line is literally 'you see her' which would appear to refer to the city, which is a feminine noun. It could even refer to the roads. However, when I studied this poem previously in class we took it to mean the people of the city, which seems to fit better in light of the last stanza, which repeats the same lines, but following on from a description of the people. I imagine the ambiguity is deliberate.

Lines 12-17 also pose a problem as it is hard to show whether 'the darkness' or 'the city' is the subject. In this case the Arabic verbs are clear since darkness takes a masculine verb and city a feminine verb, but it is harder to show this in English.

The final version was produced in the workshop and then finished by Sarah Maguire.

Comments

  1. December 9th, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    Sandra Chitayat says:

    This poem was actually given to us in an exam on Arabic Literature, in English. We have been studying poetry through tradition to modernity. I recognize imagery that appears in the Iraqi Modernists of post WWII, like Nazik Mala'ika, and al-Sayyab, as in the locked-up cries, and the balconies. So he is part of that tradition but as a black poet whose father is a Sufi, there is the Black African dimension and the oppression of slavery that we should not forget, and remember their suffering with which they have paid for the freedom of their descendants.