in residence: three poems by monem mahjoub (lybia)

Monem Mahjoub
Author text
Monem Mahjoub Mélissa Boneté

Monem Mahjoub (b. 1963) is a Libyan linguist, philosopher, poet, historian and political critic. In countless articles and more than 25 books, he has tackled issues ranging from language, history and religion to humanism, cultural development and politics. As a result of his critical publications on Muslim fundamentalism, Mahjoub has received several physical and verbal death threats in recent years from supporters of fanatical militias in Libya and Egypt.

He ultimately sought refuge with ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network), an organization of which the international house of literature Passa Porta is also a member. Thanks to a partnership between Passa Porta and VUB, Mahjoub found temporary shelter in Brussels, where he can now work in safety on a book of philosophical essays about identity and a study of the twelfth-century Arab scholar Ibn Bajja (Latin: Avempace).

Poetry has also been part of Mahjoub's multifaceted writing for a long time. In 1989 he published his first collection of poems, The Book of Illusions, in Beirut, followed in 2003 by Recital, published in Tunisia. But "I cannot imagine a whole life of poetry for myself,' says Mahjoub. I write poetry whenever I feel the need to 'reset' myself and to live life as I can imagine it. As a form of remedy, perhaps. In my poems, I do not flee from life; I use poetry to find the meaning of the life I seek. If we turn our back on poetry, we get homesick and go back to it with greater desire."

Here you can read three recent poems, translated from the Arabic by Zeena Faulk.

Locust Time

In the sandstorm

silhouettes pale behind the window

[an alteration]

through which Tripoli vanishes.

I can see the desert

through the glass into which the locusts slam

as the feverish air seeps in.

Gravel dings from all directions

a flint melody

humming through the parched, vast valley

that stretches like a sheet of gray linen.

Sand-coated eyes look up to the sky

craving a glimpse of a cloud

remembering the scent of fresh-cut grass —

that same old grass.

Where would water come from, to reach this field?

Whenever it rains, a winged stallion descends,

sprouting a story.

Whenever the skyline moves an inch,

I see a wild cat

its bushy tail dragging an abandoned harbor.

What signs can a cat see?

The locust’s time.

Dust knows its way to your secret

and you will lie there, alone and unknown.

The man tattooed the back of his palm.

The woman tattooed her brow.

The people rejoice when night enters their homes.

Tomorrow, it may rain.

Perhaps, it will rain.


The Art of Poetry

The bone of a sea-beast adorned the wrist of a mad woman

who shouted in the faces of passers-by and laughed, bitterly —

I was crossing Bismarck Street when the pub closed its doors.

For writing to survive the windstorm, it must thicken

in the supple water

or in the scattering of soot

Living in poetry has paved the way for cold fires.

The tree is an early warning guarded by the moon —

the watchword: addiction.


War Poems

From the February blues

I made a sheet of see-through paper

to wrap up this troika.*


Place: Tripoli

Date: 23 May 2020

Subject: These days, no one hears the sound of the sea


It’s the war that is stripping:

You won’t find a cheaper ad

for the art of dying.


The war is escalating

while people are weighed down—stuffed full

of the national anthem.


Smoke, as dense as a black stone, covers the white city.

Eyes kohled with soot gaze into the nothing

while veteran soldiers compare two wars.


Last night

a stray bullet went past and

has yet to arrive.


This child no longer sleeps:

whenever he closes his eyes

the ground beneath him crumbles.


The first scream was like a gasp

then there was a silence.

Who now could stop the wailing of the spirits?


Nothing happened.

We just died

as we always do.


The city recovered —

yet every night, familiar voices and calls

vibrate beneath the rubble of bar La Corniche.


With his experience at dancing,

he wanted to dodge an unseen mine.

He swam in a white light and many suns.


I hid from the bullets

behind a palm tree

and my shadow hid behind the neighbouring tree.


After all those bloodthirsty gods,

the zombies are preparing

to emerge from the rubble.


The militiaman made a wallet

that he crams into his back pocket,

big enough to encompass the whole city.


After he died,

the militiaman remembered

he was never alive.


The old bukha* seller told his dead neighbours:

You could have hidden

in a barrel.


The child who was searching for his mother

followed a cat

and it led him to the camp of the rats.


The soldier said, while looking for his head:

No oxygen, and my hands are amputated —

the phosphorus doesn’t seem to be working anymore.


He went home, but

the war kept surprising him

every time he turned.


The boy’s synthetic limbs tremble

whenever he gets closer

to school.


I dream that I have no head

and I walk around like that, knowing neither time nor place.

Should I wake up now? Or should I keep on walking?


Translated from the Arabic by Zeena Faulk

* A troika is a tercet-line poem. By using this term, Mahjoub is also referring to the African Union Troika (AUT) that held sessions to discuss the Libyan political and security crises.

* Bukha is a term that the locals use to refer to liquor.

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Monem Mahjoub