love after love (f/m)

by Nariman Youssef

Recently I’ve been playing with the sexual identity of words.. when listening to a song or reading a poem, I change the grammatical gender and see what that does to the overall meaning. This is not always fun in English, where only the rarest pronoun occurrence is gender-specific (although that doesn’t mean we don’t prescribe a social gender to the text based on other factors… how many people would read this and imagine a man speaking?). But anyway, there’s an obvious way to get over that limitation of the English language: translate it into Arabic.

Arabic is a fully gendered language (grammatically I mean), but the generally followed rule of thumb is that a person is masculine until proven guilty! (In other words, when a sentence refers to both males and females or when the gender is unknown, everything defaults to the masculine.)

Now take a few seconds to think about how the following poem would translate (into Arabic or any other explicitly gendered language):

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Although this is one of my all-time favourites, and although I relate to it on a personal level, and feel that the words are speaking to me etc. –me being a woman who usually refers to herself in the feminine when there’s a linguistic choice– I somehow still managed to reach the 10th line before it occurred to me how strange it was that I was translating into masculine forms. I was doing it without thinking, perhaps partly influenced by the fact that the poet is male (the magnificent Derek Walcott*), and partly I guess by the defaultness of masculine in Arabic. I changed tack, then went over it again, and finally opted for a playful interchange between feminine and masculine. What I ended up with made me think of Virginia Wolfe’s Orlando whose protagonist changes gender halfway through the novel.

سيحين وقتٌ
تسعد فيه
باستقبال نفسك
على بابك، في مرآتِك،
ويبتسم كلاكما لترحيب الآخر،

ويقول، اجلسي هنا. كُلي.
ستحبَّ مرةً أخرى تلك الغريبة التي كانتك.
تقدِّمَ لها النبيذ والخبز. وتعيدَ مرةً أخرى قلبك
لنفسه، للغريب الذي ظل يحبكِ

طوال حياتك، الذي تناسيتِ
من أجل آخر، الذي يعرفكِ عن ظهر قلب.
انزع رسائل الحب عن رفوف المكتبة،

الصور، القصاصات اليائسة،
قشِّر صورتَك من على صفحة المرآة.
اجلسي. واحتفي بحياتِك.

That was the outcome of my self-indulgent exercise. The process was fun.. I may come back to the poem itself in a few weeks to evaluate.

* Let me take this opportunity and state for the blog-record, that if I had any say in the matter, Walcott would’ve definitely become Oxford poetry prof.. And that –and this is me speaking as a ‘practising’ feminist– I think that allegations of sexual harassment have nothing to do with his status as a poet nor with his suitability to deliver public lectures to students.