On a major thoroughfare between a porn theatre and a filling station, it was just past the central cemetery and the bridge over the railway lines. A young communist lived in the room across from yours. He worked in a hotel. You had no job and no prospects but, for the moment, didn’t care. You’d sit together at the brittle table in the kitchen, all dark browns and orange, smoking, and listening to cassettes of sixties pop tunes, with small cups of coffee, now and again a beer. You had a couple of books and some traveler’s checks. Day after day you’d wander the sunburnt city, surprised, over and over again, at how often you got lost.
WADIH SAADEH’S LANDMARK POEM IN ROBIN MOGER’S TRANSLATION
Farewell God I walk looking at my feet off to the cafe to meet my friends
Farewell I grow old the cafe in the square I mount two steps and sit
Heard Carmena Burana and went now the player sings alone
by the closed window
Light rain against the pane light rain against the port across the way
Farewell Four o’clock I have a date with my friends
Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time. Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.
In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?