Robin Moger Translates Mohamed Al Maghout

The Dying of 1958 *



Not men them flaming in the rose gardens

but cubs who roared for the last time

beneath the north rains.

They shouldered history

like fruit crates borne across the mire

through the filthy schools, the brothels of the south.


I know them.

I know chivalry


the precepts flowing

over the backseats of taxis.


In windowless rooms like lovers’ rooms like smugglers’

they were tallying their victims on addometers

and the long names were

incensing them. There

in the the great lair overlain

with powdersmoke and ink gas

was the dispute lifting

off the peach blossom

the sweating feet

the victims’ portraits

covered up in flies, and me

raising my hand like the broken metre

and no one answering. There

in the extinct rooms where the sweat bleeds where

the wilting moustaches, bent by desert wind.


My lord

I am that Civilized Man with the chestnut blaze

with creed and comb and basil leaves in hand.

I address you the tobacco running

from the corners of my mouth:

The age of Terror and Siesta, of slapping

pale boys at the barricades is past.

Nothing but the red blood now

the creak of the tables borne on backs.


Are we really to return to corvee and tillage and clouds

of Tyrian purple? Will

the silos of first laughter

burst open if we hole them

with bullets with our obscene

fangs? Are we to return?

When and why? and no one there

but the green moonlight and

the dried dung of the country.


Mother Father: two old things

of mud and cough and stark bone.

My kin My brothers:

old things of soup and snot and tattered clothes


are we to return?

When and how?


I saw your filthy socks upon the table of war

I saw father’s grave filthy as a washroom

and my worn-out mother sift the soil

in her hands

as in a lab to see:

Is this dust full of straw

and stones and nails worth all

this longing this defiance these ringing words?

This dust transported

shoe and hoof:

Is it worth this poverty this vexation the pistols

buried between thighs?


Don’t gather her up, my lord

she sees me only in the final pages, grimed

behind me thousands of mountains, the dusty valleys

Or kill her

In my eyes

the coldness of the Caesars

In my forearm rock millions

of empty arms.


Kill her, kill

the walls, the cars, the tractors shovelling mud

but let me raise my hand up to your face, so

to tell you of the small stars

the buses’ on-off din the millions

of noses and of eyes we collide with

under veil of thunder.

Let me show you the prodigious seethe

of experience and grievance, here

between your mouth, heart and history

hard and pointed as a beak.


No I will not stand behind the table three-legged or tri-horned

I shall not turn my gaze from you

if there is no girl undressing

or no pot steaming. I saw you

bleeding on a step upon the flight of stairs

O dry-eyed lover

and the fat dripping on your secret pages.

There in the distant bell-wired rooms I saw you greeting

everyone but me, tossing your cigarettes

to everyone but me and me

five fingers five nails like the rest

stood before you a dumb idol

my tear tracks straight as pines.


O golden god if you but knew

generations and generations shall live by the grace of these fingers

nations and nations by these hands tattooed like those of Bedouin.


I know. Why? because

I am poor and nothinged

and I stand upon the river’s other bank

on the black hot dying side, side bowed

like a waterfall beneath

the weight of small udders

and the bras ripped at the crossroads.

I have set

my case on my back like a bird to cross

trenches brimming with blood and addometers

and my cigarette was level

with peaks by the thousand

on thousands of forests my tears came down

and I contemplated accusation and control

the veils fluttering down in autumn

pissing beneath the flaming sun

and hurling peaks

like gravel in the valleys.

Sad and terrified I was

craning my head like a songbird

through the windows and the lanterns

aflight above my hair. I saw

the stabbed doors

the feet of heroes deep in sward

the blue hills which had ever trembled at my tread

gleaming before me like mule teeth

teeth solitary weeping down

a long history of plunder and ululation

of grown men jostling at the urinals.


There is a small village in my arms

a spoon small and yellow as the bulbul in my garden.

Crimson blood you shall never know my wound.

Distant hunger you shall never know my mouth.

Rivers from humidifiers

of green air, blue, of air sieved clear

shall not shift this lilac grease this sweat

hanging like the sword from my belt.


My lord forgive me

I am cockeyed as you know

I see things only grimly, fallen


I look with your green eyes O

scion of Tadmor Sumer the other

gem-bright cankers,

I look to these tears shed in the tomes.

It is not waiting this

which we endure, it is

gum at the base of the foot,

ugliness in the cannon’s mouth.

The heroes’ ashes drop

into your ashtray

O coward

inside you slops like Sidon’s waves

the blood of children.

What do you know of patience and struggle

of licking stamps in the frost? My lord

you have denied me my portion my small portion

gleaned from the fields of all the world

and rolling in a whisper round

the edge of whip and pan. Never shall we triumph

while the owl cries. Never

and the sword divided.


Night holds its spider like a lily in its hands

and sings upon a tree somewhere

in the far East.

Gather your fingernails. Lay them here

before me on the table. Gather all

the lips that have kissed

and the breasts defiled, here

with the newspapers, the pipes, the instruments

of vengeance. I cannot believe


(the sun is beautiful,

the windows at play

one with another

are lambs at pasture)


that my daughter crawls now at the horizon

flows like water over the threshold.

I want to swallow that child and bury her

in my entrails like the secret. I want a scythe

to gather those blue eyes,

a Barbary yacht to fetch my girl and I

to a lead tomb behind the seas

where the moon glows

and languor flows with dream

from the corners of eyes.


Entomb your children all, rip them

like fake currency. O thee

rank as mire: lean back your heads

a little to let the blue air pass, to whistle

on the stairs.


From the window I see

a cloud strolling

a child-sized village drawing near

to me, a whole green village all

its fields and wedding feasts and birds

a butterfly that settles on my collar.

Ah summer! Summer, comrades!

Words are gummed the guns are gummed

If you want victory or

the old days, what am I to do? I fire

into your head a small bullet,

a small hole like a nostril which saves

a whole people

from yearning, from stammering,

from victims dragged by their moustaches.


Tyrant, listen, your blood is not

Phoenecian blood nor Arab

and your bald head does not bear the crown we passed down

in our stories.

We want a hollowed head in which a whole umma

may sit.

Your smooth skin its pores imported never

dirtied never flayed in the rose gardens never

shall the breeze of exile cross it.


My lord, I am not hungry, my eyes

are blue loaves.

I respect you

as an angry man who has lost things

dear to me and meaningless. I lost

carelessness and pride,

the only two breasts that were mine in this world.

I have left my stomach my fingernails my pride

in the interrogation centres and worn-out

climbed the stairs past shaven heads bedewed

to talk with you of the sourness

of a mouth in the morning

of sticky collars, of the poverty

that grips me like a garotte.

Let our eyes meet not

as enemies estranged but as enemies

with weapons drawn

in the sheep pens and treed valleys

where there are no pavements which know me

nor sun striking the blades, where all we see’s

the glint of fences and stenographers’ machines.

The long miles we crossed beneath the wing of darkness

were no longer long no longer short they were

sunned graves unmarked

rotten bones of beaten heroes

who died with scraps between their teeth and cash rolls

glistening in their pockets and their guts

Not from hunger nor carelessness but for

sake of the difficult, the sifted words

for sake of the storylines and the rainclouds

driven farmwards by the lash.

Bones of the whole civilization

Bones of death and struggle and defiance all

crumbling apart and blanching like the burning

willow leaves.


Syria O

beloved, for whom

our selves we sacrifice,

O ships of honour

no port your own,

we know you

are prideful, you

do not ask for help.

Should they tear up our bodies

to the number of your stars

split like sponge our children

and strew their blood across

prologues and plinths, we

shall not betray you O

beloved. Ever from behind

the streets and stars and brush

the damp pulleys and blue tears

shall we observe your birds and villages

whirled and stormed, sheets

of newsprint in the street.

Ever shall we infix like

pincers at your border.


Old woman abed with her clothes and shoes and wrinkles her

keys at her belt: Do you not long for your far-off and aging child?



I am hungry


through my shirt’s buttonhole I see

my entrails’ edge.


* This poem was written in 1958 and won the coveted prose poem prize awarded by the Lebanese Al Nahar newspaper  that same year. It was not published as part of a collection until the release of East of Eden West of God in 2005, a year before Al Maghout’s death.
In January of 1958, motivated by fears of a takeover by an increasingly powerful Communist Party, a Syrian military delegation visited Cairo to make a second petition for a merger with the Egyptian state. Protocols were signed the following month leaving Gamal Abdel Nasser president of the unified state on terms that he had been able to impose. Syria was renamed The Northern Province of the United Arab Republic and the most senior figures in the Baath Party and Syrian armed forces sidelined in favour of Egyptian appointees. There was, of course, a crackdown against Syrian communists.