Translation: ‘In the Arab Maghreb’

Badr Shakir al-Sayyab

Here is a brutish rendering of an excerpt from Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s poem ‘In the Arab Maghreb‘. The narrator is an Algerian independence fighter, looking at a headstone with him name written on it. It was indented as an anti-colonial version of ‘The Waste Land’. ‘Abraha’ is a reference to the Ethiopian king who led the attack against the Ka’abah and who, the story goes, was defeated through divine intervention. In the poem the narrator recalls numerous episodes from history, the fight with the Ethiopians, the Battle of Dhu Qar, ‘Abd el-Krim’s struggle in the Rif Mountains and so on, which are signs of hope as he reflects on his own situation; this passage comes as he links himself and his struggle to his ancestors’ struggles in the past. The poem is dedicated to Messali Hadj, founder of the Étoile Nord-Africaine (the first Algerian independence movement), Parti du Peuple Algérien and the Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques.

‘في المغرب العربي’

[. . .]

فنحن جميعنا أموات

و أنا و محمد و الله

و هذا قبرنا أنقاض مئذنة معفرة

عليها يكتب اسم محمد و الله

على كسر مبعثرة

من الآجرّ و الفخّار

فيا قبر الإله على النهار

ظل لألف حربة و فيل

و لون أبرهة

و ما عكسته منه يد الدليل

و الكعبة المحزونة المشوّهة

قرأت اسمي على صخرة

على قبرين بينهما مدى أجيال

يجعل هذه الحفرة

تضم اثنين جد أبي و محض رمال

و محض نثارة سوداء منه استنزلا قبره

و إياي ابنه في موته و المضغة الصل

و كان يطوف من جدّي

مع المدّ

هتاف يملأ الشطآن يا ودياننا ثوري

و يا هذا الدم الباقي على الأجيال

يا إرث الجماهير

تشظّ الآن و اسحق هذه الأغلال

و كالزلزال

هزّ النير أو فاسحقه و اسحقنا مع النير

و كان إلهنا يختال

بين عصائب الأبطال

من زند إلى زند

و من بند إلى بند

[. . .]


[. . .]

For we are all dead,

I and Mohamed and God

And this is our grave: the ruins of a dusty minaret

On which the names of Mohamed and of God are written

On the scattered fragments

Of bricks and pottery.

O Grave of God, daylight has fallen on the shadows

Of a thousand bayonets and elephants,

The color of Abraha,

And the guide’s hand reflected from this and

The weeping and disfigured Ka’abah.

I have read my name on a stone,

On two gravestones, the space between them stretching over generations,

As if this pit were marked for two:

My great-grandfather, of whom there is but sand and black powder left in his grave,

And myself, his son in death and

Gnawing with him at the clay.

[And] a cry used to float out from my grandfather

With the tide,

A shout that filled the shores: ‘O valleys, rise up in revolt!

O blood that flows through generations,

The legacy of the masses,

Break now these shackles

And like like an earthquake

Shake off the yoke — or pulverize it and pulverize us with it.’

And our God strutted

Between the frontlets of our heroes

From camp to camp

And from flag to flag.

[. . .]


4 thoughts on “Translation: ‘In the Arab Maghreb’

  1. I will show you something different from either
    your shadow at morning striding behind you
    or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
    I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

    have you ever actually read The Waste Land? [please note correct title. wasteland [one word] has a specific meaning in English and is not what Eliot intended]. you do your writer no favours by comparing his short and very predictable piece of versifying about war, blood, weapons and revolution to possibly the greatest [and most obscure] poem of the 20th century. Which is neither ‘colonialist’ or a glorification of violence, but about the journey of the soul.

    And our God strutted
    Between the frontlets of our heroes.
    what price triumphalism, Kal?
    have you seen the fear on the street
    in the Maghreb, in your own country?
    you need more than this.

    • Thanks for pointing out my typo. ‘In the Arab Maghreb’ was written as a story about death and rebirth in the anti-colonial context. This clear from the excerpt and al-Sayyab’s own admission (he has several other poems along these lines dealing with oppression and related topics). The readers can decide ‘at what price triumphantalism’. My attitude on those issues is clear from the other posts dealing with them on this blog.

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