Samih al-Qasim: The Last Train

The great Palestinian writer Samih al-Qasim has died. While known primarily as a poet, al-Qasim was also a talented essayist, writing regularly in the Arabic-language press of Palestine/Israel. He was also a remarkable public speaker and letter writer. His correspondence with Mahmoud Darwish instantly became a classic of Arabic epistolary literature. Truly unique in the modern canon, they are not just monuments to poetry and language, but also friendship and love.

al-Qasim addressed the following "letter" (from 1990) to the memory of a talented Palestinian poet, Rashid Hussein, whose tragic death in 1977 greatly impacted the poets of that generation. No less than the letters to Darwish, this missive shows al-Qassim at his most profound. 

[Image of Letter from Rashid Hussein to Samih al-Qasim, May 18, 1970]

[Image of Letter from Rashid Hussein to Samih al-Qasim, May 18, 1970]

Rashid, my brother —

Believe it or not, but after all this time separated from one another, you may find it hard to recognize me when you stand there on the station platform, waiting for me to arrive on the last train.

I will see you when I step off that train. You will be the tallest one in the crowd waiting at the station. I will call out your name and you will come running, cigarette in mouth, as always. You will stop and stand off a bit and ask, “Is this really you? What did you do with your mad childhood? From which fire did you inherit this gray ash on your temples?”

I will tell you, “I have made my peace with death. I have swallowed the bitter colocynth of wisdom to its dregs.”

And I will say to you, “I still grieve your death.”

And you, typical of you, will try to comfort me as I mourn your passing.

O Rashid, you unhappy man, you most unlucky brother! On the thirteenth anniversary of the senseless event of your “having had enough,” I went to Musmus to pay you a visit. When you left us, I went to visit your mother. I nearly fainted when I saw her—she looked so much like my own mother! I am not talking about feelings or emotions, but a naked truth, a bare fact. For days, I was haunted by the terrifying fact of that visit.

There is something else, too: I never elegized you. I do not even know how I was supposed compose such a poem. I want you to tell me the truth: would you be angry if I wrote an elegy for you, about you? Would you consider that an unfriendly gesture, and me, the kind of friend who believed in unsubstantiated rumors?

Rashid, my brother—recently, I went through my old files. There among the papers I stumbled across several letters from you. They amazed me, but it pained me to read them. They somehow cast the light of death into my heart. Touching them left your hot ashes on my fingertips.

Your letters said, “I never came back to you. I belong to time.”

Time said, “You belong to me. And also these letters.”

I said, “So let’s belong to Rashid—like a tear in ink, like ink on paper, like paper on the wind.”

Please excuse me, my brother, my friend, my comrade. Forgive me, dear Rashid, when I offer these letters up for all to read, even though they were a part of your life that you meant for me alone.

These letters spoke to me. After you died, they told me, “I belong not to you, but to time and the wind and family.”

Is this a last letter to you? Do these words apply more to me than you? Are they a memory of a friendship that has been knocked senseless, like an olive tree hit by artillery fire?

I dispatch these words to you on two wings—on the ashes of the rose, and on the smoke of song. Can these words speak what is beyond speech?

Questions, my brother. Questions, my friend. How will we—who live in an age indentured to questions—ever become foolish enough to wait for the answers?

After death became a familiar face in my heart and around my home, I made my peace, without mercy and without bargaining.

And it seems to me that in doing this, I have also reconciled myself to life, for now we have an easier time getting along and understanding each other.

What remains of this life is less than what has passed. You and I will see each other again, because we have always chosen to meet. Even as we have been prevented from meeting as life in living, we will meet as a death in living, as a life in dying.

We will meet again. You will be waiting for me on the platform when I take the last train. You will have no trouble recognizing me.

— From Ramad al-warda dukhan al-ughniyya: Kalimat ‘an Rashid Hussein, kalimat minuh, kalimat ilayh, ed. Samih al-Qasim (Haifa: Maktabat Kull Shay’, 1990).