in residence: three poems by monem mahjoub (lybia)
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.
In the sandstorm
silhouettes pale behind the window
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.
From the February blues
I made a sheet of see-through paper
to wrap up this troika.*
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.
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?
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
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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