multivalence is the new ambivalence

The Treachery of Images

I had the non-pleasure to translate* the new Egyptian constitution,** just passed in a phony referendum, for Egypt Independent. Here is a summary of my thoughts:

ceci n'est pas une constitution

*      *      *

* It was important, to enable a wider debate, to make the constitution draft available in English as soon as it was made public, so it was necessary work and all that. But.. translation is above all very close reading.. and in this case, close reading meant 48 hours of being closely and painfully aware of every instance of contradiction and intentional vagueness that together make this pas-constitution practically useless as a legal text (except of course for those in power, who will be using it to justify everything and its opposite).

** In case you missed the link above, here’s my painfully-begotten translation: The official Arabic version can be found here:

falling into revolution

(written between May 2011 & October 2012)

I’m walking back from a dream where man-made canals
led to shopping malls of disaster and beauty,
where once I was saved from a sinister bus stop
by the smell of rain and the thought of sailing,
walking back from a black cushion and a wooden table
and these postcards blue-tacked to the wall and an empty
wine glass in lightning greens and all of it
in a mirror the size of my palm
reflected and reversed,
walking back from the early hours of grown-up
armed with a jar and a spoon, tripping
on the rhythmic possibilities of coffee and words.

Coming home
to a sand-dunes-and-sea-water-skied
cube of sunlight and dust,

free diving

On the way upward
I feel it:
umbilical cord
with the effort to feed me.

a holding in of,
a clinging to, the epitome
of the precious banality of my attachment
to this earth.

A few long seconds,
every doubt wiped clean,
sheer animalistic longing
to taste the air.

I break the surface and gasp,
born again
from the womb of the water.

*   *   *

Found clip. Random but relevant. And beautiful anyway.


From the novel Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

من رواية <قطار الليل إلى ليسبون> بقلم پاسكال ميرسييه

*   *   *

Gregorius ging die Bilder noch einmal durch. Dann noch einmal. Die Vergangenheit begann unter seinem Blick zu gefrieren. Das Gedächtnis würde auswählen, arrangieren, retouchieren, lügen. Das Tückische war, daß die Auslassungen, Verzerrungen und Lügen später nicht mehr zu erkennen waren. Es gab keinen Standpunkt außerhalb des Gedächtnisses.

Gregorius went over the photos again. And again. Under his gaze the past began to freeze. Memory selects, arranges, retouches, lies. The tricky part was that the gaps, distortions and lies become impossible to identify. There was no standpoint outside of memory.

 تصفح جريجوريوس الصور مرات ومرات حتى راح الماضي يتجمد أمام ناظريه. الذاكرة تنتقي وتعيد الترتيب، تهذّب وتنمّق، تكذب. العجيب أننا لا نعود نرى ما يدل على نقصان أو تحريف أو كذب. فلا يمكننا مراقبة الذاكرة من خارج الذاكرة.

*   *   *

Rain on train window

the only poem

a poem by Leonard Cohen (with my translation below)

This is the only poem
I can read
I am the only one
can write it
I didn’t kill myself
when things went wrong
I didn’t turn
to drugs or teaching
I tried to sleep
and when I couldn’t sleep
I learned to write
I learned to write
what might be read
on nights like this
by one like me

القصيدة الوحيدة
التي لي قراءتها
أنا وحدي
لي أن أكتبها
لم أقتل نفسي
حين ساءت الأمور
لم الجأ لدين أو دواء
حاولت النوم
وحين عصاني
تعلمت أن أكتب
تعلمت أن أكتب
ما يمكن أن يقرؤه
في ليلة كهذه
أحدٌ مِثلي

This is your universe

You wake up every morning and you hope.
Or turn to a warm body beside you.
Or pray to no one in particular.

This is living
at its most essential.
Bared down
to a shelter,
a meal of bread and time,
a book by candle light,
a perpetual scraping together,
of loneliness or a bomb
that grinds to dust
the house across the street.

To the absence of panic,
the drawing of the next breath
the fullness of nothing,
or love,
which is to say,
the necessity of faith in the reality of what is impossible
with or without a god.

One day you walk,
alone with an hour to spare,
past a dozen empty streets,
and stop at the sea.

Peace is the quiet you do not question.
Freedom is to take your shoes off
Possibility is a stillness that equates
your being
with the salt in the air.

You spread your arms to cover
the solid land behind you.
you will ever lose
is here.

things fall

Things fall into place today

Every small death
an opening
to a distant future history.

So what if we’re doomed
to suffering then oblivion,

a whole generation lost
down the spiral of its love
for itself?

Something else
some other time
will prevail.

Every nightmare begins
a dream.

Who knows what
it may become if
beyond the jolt of panic
there is still sleep.

Taking things personally

Mona Seif — my young friend who’s grown only wiser and more beautiful under the weight of twelve thousand sad stories — tells the story that started it all: how and why she got involved in the No Military Trials For Civilians campaign. The following is my translation of an extract (the full version -in Arabic- can be found here).

My battle against military trials for civilians started the day I stood at a protest and witnessed army personnel beating people with particular viciousness. Then I saw a young man being dragged behind a checkpoint and knew that he would get beaten badly. If it wasn’t for the courage of my mother who went up to them and insisted she wouldn’t leave without him –until they actually let them him go―this story that I still haven’t seen the end of, would not have begun.

My story is the story of Amr El-Beheiry who –15 minutes later―was arrested again.

فلنفتعل الأسباب

clay n colourtrain ridesautumn lightscattered wordsdancing handsdoodlesafter sunrisememories of headsspring greenpeacesea translucenceanklets in low lightfootsteps on sand


فلنَفْتعِلُ الأسْبَابَ لِنَحيَا..


on the fragility of time

from a prose poem by Mahmoud Darwish -my translation

At some stage of fragility that we call mature, there is no optimism nor pessimism. We have given up longing and naming the opposites of things. Having so often confused form and content, having learned to reckon before revealing. Wisdom has the way of a doctor looking at a wound. We look back to find where we stand from truth and from ourselves. How many mistakes? Have we come late to wisdom? There is no certainty in the wind, so what good in coming late to anything. Even if you’re expected at the bottom of the hill and invited to a thanksgiving for arriving safe… with no optimism nor pessimism, just late!


من ديوان أثر الفراشة لمحمود درويش


في مرحلة ما من هشاشةٍ نُسمِّيها نضجاً، لا نكون متفائلين ولا متشائمين. أقلعنا عن الشغف والحنين وعن تسمية الأشياء بأضدادها، من فرط ماالتبس علينا الأمر بين الشكل والجوهر، ودرّبنا الشعور على التفكير الهادئ قبل البوح. للحكمة أسلوبُ الطبيب في النظر إلى الجرح. وإذ ننظر إلى الوراء لنعرف أين نحن منَّا ومن الحقيقة، نسأل: كم ارتكبنا من الأخطاء؟ وهل وصلنا إلى الحكمة متأخرين. لسنا متأكدين من صواب الريح، فماذا ينفعنا أن نصل إلى أيّ شئ متآخرين، حتى لو كان هنالك من ينتظرنا على سفح الجبل، ويدعونا إلى صلاة الشكر لأننا وصلنا سالمين … لا متفائلين ولا متشائمين، لكن متأخرين!


hand on glass painting

..with artwork from Aalam Wassef