Samih al-Qasim: "While I Walk"

One of my favorite songs of Marcel Khalife's is " منتصب قامتي أمشي " -- the words, by Samih al-Qasim, of course. Going back over his work this past week, I am struck by how important death was to his writing and thinking. It's easy to think of this song as a nationalist ballad, glorifying sacrifice, death the redeemer. Yet, listen to this song next to other nationalist songs -- or contemporary jihadist ballads -- and the differences show clear. Also, Khalife arranged this as a duet between a men's chorus and a women's chorus, back and forth. Death here is much sadder than in most songs about revolution, and the struggle for life against death reduced to a set of stark images -- an olive branch, a coffin, a red moon, a garden, rain and fire. 

Here are the words:

آه آه آه آه.... 
منتصبَ القامةِ أمشي مرفوع الهامة أمشي 
في كفي قصفة زيتونٍ وعلى كتفي نعشي 
وأنا أمشي وأنا أمشي.... 
قلبي قمرٌ أحمر قلبي بستان 
فيه فيه العوسج فيه الريحان 
شفتاي سماءٌ تمطر نارًا حينًا حبًا أحيان.... 
في كفي قصفة زيتونٍ وعلى كتفي نعشي 
وأنا أمشي وأنا أمشي

Translated, this falls flat:

Strong of stature, I walk. Head raised high, I walk.

A burst of olive in one hand, and my funeral bier on my shoulder...

The power of the poem/song lies in the repeated refrain "and I walk," whose punch comes the work being done by the letter " و " (waw). As any student of Arabic knows, "waw" means "and" though in this particular construction -- followed by an imperfective verb -- it describes an action that is ongoing, what is called a "hal clause." "Waw" means "and," but here it is better translated as "while." The refrain affirms the action of walking onwards, standing tall, carrying peace and death at the same time. It also suggests that the hero is walking on despite everything else. This sense of "carrying on despite all this" is how the song/poem articulates its unique sense of resistance, contained within the single letter "waw." 

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.

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).