Samih al-Qasim: Two Platform Poems

Two platform poems from Samih al-Qasim.**


“Rafah’s Children” (1971)

To the one who digs his path through the wounds of millions

To he whose tanks crush all the roses in the garden

Who breaks windows in the night

Who sets fire to a garden and museum and sings of freedom.

Who stomps on songbirds in the public square.

Whose planes drop bombs on childhood’s dream.

Who smashes rainbows in the sky.


Tonight, the children of the impossible roots have an announcement for you,

Tonight, the children of Rafah say:

“We have never woven hair braids into coverlets.

We have never spat on corpses, nor yanked their gold teeth.

So why do you take our jewelry and give us bombs?

Why do you prepare orphanhood for Arab children?

Thank you, a thousand times over!

Our sadness has now grown up and become a man.

And now, we must fight.”


“Shalom” (1964)

Let someone else sing about peace,

Sing of friendship, brotherhood and harmony.

Let someone else sing about crows

            Someone who will shriek about the ruins in my verses

            To the dark owl haunting the debris of the pigeon towers.

Let someone else sing about peace

            While the grain in the field brays,

            Longing for the echo of the reapers’ songs.

Let someone else sing for peace.

While over there, behind the barbed fences

            In the heart of darkness,

            Tent cities cower.

Their inhabitants,

Settlements of sadness and anger

And the tuberculosis of memory.

While over there, life is snuffed out,

In our people,

In innocents, who never did any harm to life!

And meanwhile, here,

So many have poured in … so much abundance!

Their forefathers planted so much abundance for them,

            And also, alas, for others.

This inheritance—the sorrows of years—belongs to them now!

So let the hungry eat their fill.

And let the orphans eat leftovers from the banquet of malice.

Let someone else sing peace.

For in my country, on its hills and in its valleys

Peace has been murdered.


**  Translator's note:

Much of Samih al-Qasim's poetry can be called "platform poetry," following Salma Khadra al-Jayyusi's term (i.e., poetry meant for live recitation at a contentious political event). The language is direct and at times didactic. The address, though in formal Arabic, is topical and relatively uncomplicated, the images and phrases tied closely to a particular situation. Ambiguity and play, normally hallmarks of poetic discourse, are muted in this genre. Even when accurate and relatively felicitous, translating this kind of poetry into words on the page entails taking them out of that immediate situation and the context of public performance with its feedbacks and improvisations. Which is to say, this kind of poetry -- and indeed, much of al-Qasim's work -- loses much (or most) of its power when rendered into silent words on the written page. Moreover, this poetry is both rhymed and metrical in the original, but not in this translation. In this sense, these translations give a sense of some of the images and phrases of al-Qasim's poetry, but very little of the power they would have had for live audiences. 

The first poem here, "Rafah's Children" ( أطفال رفح ), could have been written this month, in the wake of Israel's latest atrocities. In this way, the poem is a terrifying and uncanny reminder of Israel's violent history and how a single, out-of-date occasional poem -- composed to commemorate a particular moment of violence in the early days of Israel's occupation of Gaza -- becomes topical again when these same events repeat themselves.

I've translated the second poem, " السلام " ('Peace,' in Arabic) as "Shalom," since in this poem al-Qasim speaks to the duplicitous and patronizing idiom of "peace" and "coexistence" -- not to mention the linguistic violence of the colonizer's language, modern Hebrew -- with which Zionists have always addressed Palestinian citizens of Israel. Though the poet uses the Arabic word, al-salam, the Hebrew shalom, looms everywhere in the poem's immediate context.