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.
Hide the laments of your heart in light song.
You son has come to stay in the valley.
Then to wander through the wilderness
Where ladies, wrapped in soil,
Walk along the ramparts
Walls lie beneath them, and walls.
In the wastes are cities into whose halls he enters
Seeing nothing but towering walls
Punctured by blind peepholes
And marble floors stretching out, empty
Beneath the last echoes of singing voices
But nightly go the singers
Behind the walls, where the ants and crickets live
Where not hope, but the deposed kings wait.
Where donkey manure clothes the history of states,
The memory of conquests, and the letting of blood.
Hide your desire—really, hide it! And hide also the desire of the other sons.
Beneath their feet, the lust of years and years
Chases their flesh as they race
Through the collapsing walls
Collecting the fullness of lips
In ceramic cups
Squeezing arteries and veins
So as to draw in thick blood the appetite of the night
On pages of stone.
The eagle seizes the sun in its beak
While the viper brings forth the wisdom of its poison.
Disguise your desire—disguise it well!
Don bracelets of silver and pure gold,
Bracelets of thorn and bindweed.
Ur, Nimrud, and the sacred virgins
In the temples of Babel and Byblos
Offering their bodies to strangers
So that the hills might bloom (above the old city ramparts)
So that the fields of grain might tremble with gold,
And the anemones might shiver in the meadows
Beneath the claws of the kites and crows
The lips of the widows and the virgins are parched
(Verily, cover your hunger, cover it well!)
And meanwhile, the night drags on across the walls,
And beneath them, walls
Beneath them, walls.
— From Tammuz fi-l-madina (Beirut: Dar Majallat Shi‘r, 1959).