Twenty years ago last month Jabra Ibrahim Jabra passed away. A Palestinian refugee, Jabra lived an extraordinary life in difficult times. He survived expulsion from his birthplace in Bethlehem, earned a PhD in England, then went on to a polymath career in the arts in Baghdad. As a novelist, Jabra wrote some of the most challenging works of the modern canon, including In Search of Walid Mas'ud, The Boat, and (with Abderrahman Munif), A World without Maps. As a translator, he managed to bring life to Shakespeare and Faulkner in Arabic during the 1950s, in so doing he opened the door for a set of lively conversations about world literature among Arabic modernists. Without Jabra's translation of The Sound and the Fury, it is unlikely that novels like Men in the Sun, Miramar or Voices would have been written. As a painter, Jabra was an ardent champion of experimentation and abstraction, and he was arguably the leading essayist of the Arab world, writing widely on art, literature, history and memory.
As a poet in the 1950s, Jabra collaborated with other poets—Adunis and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, especially—who were also experimenting with mythical themes and the ritual dynamics of formal poetic composition. At that moment, for these poets the core truth of aesthetic modernism resided in the possibility that the dead and the old might give birth to the new—and do so in art. This poem appeared in Jabra's 1959 collection, Tammuz in the City, and attests to the poet's ability to imagine the deep, mythical ties connecting his native homeland, Palestine to his adopted homeland, Iraq.
Beneath the walls, walls.
And beneath them, walls.
Ur, Jericho, Ninevah, Nimrud—
On the debris where the sighs of lovers went to die
Where chattered then vanished the teeth of captives, stripped bare
There, now are hills that bloom each spring
Now home to crickets and ants,
Refuge to sparrows in the late morning
Feeling the last traces of the evening dew
Through tattered feathers
Beneath their tails lies a head
Before which millions once kneeled
Which ladies’ hands once anointed with perfume.
(Read the rest of the poem here)