Nazik al-Mala'ika: "In the Mountains of the North"

As much as I admire Nazik al-Mala'ika's critical writing, I am not often moved by her poetry. This poem is different. It was composed while the poet was visiting the mountain hamlet of Sarsink, located in northern Dohuk province. I don't know the circumstances of the poet's residence in the village, but this poem speaks to a longing for home that is almost timeless. In Arabic, the verses have a sound pattern that are both experimental and traditional, combining a regular metrical foot ( فاعلن / فاعلن / فعلن ) with intricate and unexpected rhymes (A, B, B, A, C, C, D, D, E, D, E, F, E, F, E, G, G, H, H, H, G, G, G, G…). 

In the Mountains of the North

Bring us home, O Train!

For the darkness here is terrible, and the silence is heavy.

Bring us home—the distance is vast, and the track is long,

And the nights so short.

Bring us back—the winds wail behind the shadows,

And the howling of wolves beyond the mountains,

Is like the shrieking of grief in the hearts of men.

Bring us back, for on the mountain slopes

Walks a wretched dim specter

That has left its footprints on each dawn.

The dawn of each day ends in grief and longing,

The ghost of deadly exile,

Lives in the mountains of the sad north.

The ghost of a lethal lonesomeness haunts the sad north.

Bring us back—we are fed up with wandering,

Wandering across the steep slopes.

And we go on fearing and fearing

That these evenings of absence might stretch on and on

And that the howling of wolves might bury

Our voice and make it difficult for us to come back.

Bring us back to the south,

For there, beyond the mountains, are hearts.

Bring us back to those whom we left in the fog,

Each hand beckoning, tired and despondent

Each hand is a heart.

Bring us home, O Train!—We are tired of wandering, and separation has gone on too long.

Over there is a deep whisper,

Lisping behind each road,

In the deep ravines,

Behind the clouds,

In the tremble of pine, and gaunt village,

In the jackal’s howl, in the setting stars—

There, in the pastures, a restless voice is,

A whisper telling us to return

There, other houses are

And other pastures,

And other hearts,

There, there are eyes that refuse to sleep,

And hands that gather the darkest night in a flame,

And lips that repeat our names in the gloom,

And hearts that call in pain for us to come,

And call out to the stars,

In grief and stillness,

“When, O Stars, will we be remembered by those who have fled?

And when will they come home?”


A moment. We will return.

The darkest moment of the night will not find us here, we will return.

We will return, we will cross the mountains,

And envelope the clouded peaks,

The nights of the north will not see us

Here, in this place, ever again.

The stretching expanse will not sense

The fire of our breath in the terrible night,

In the silence of the terrible night.


Bring us home, O Northern Train!

There, behind the mountains,

Delicate faces are hidden behind the nights,

Bring us home, go back to the embrace of arms,

In the shadows of date palms,

Where our past days,

In long wait,

Halted to wait,

Seeking the return of the train,

So they could travel with the travelers,

So that our days might ask those passing by,

One after another, in longing,

“When will those who fled come back?”


We should go back, for there is an old ballad there,

Around us, a whispering to return,

How I would love to go back,

After all this painful wandering

Through barren mountain ravines,

Where wolves howl.

Let’s go back—for the dark night is cold as ice,

And there, beyond the distant expanse,

Warm arms are.

Let’s return—the mountains are baring their night shadow fangs,

And there, beyond the empty night,

The voices of our loved ones in the bottomless gloom,

Throbbing with deep longing,

Their voices are heavy with the tone of blame,

These voices that the mountain passes echo,

In the silence of the place, their voices

Sing round and around like time.

Let’s go back before the adders condemn us

To a long, long separation

From the shade of the date palms,

From our dear ones behind the muteness of deserts,

Bring us home, O Train!

The nights are so short,

And there, in grief, our loved ones wait.

                                                                         — Sarsink Village, Dohuk Province. 1948.