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Poetry

Sometimes Wisdom Possesses Me

By Iman Mersal
Translated from Arabic by Khaled Mattawa
Egyptian poet Iman Mersal explores themes of freedom and revolution.

The light is self-obsessed
on the ceiling, in corners, on the table.
Pleasure has brought them to the edge of sleep.
Of course this is not my voice.
Someone is singing
behind the black curtain I lean on for support.

If I look down
I will see worms flee the floor
and climb my nakedness.
I will not pay attention to how I look
so that they don’t either.

The men talk of the nation’s future,
the wives help the lady of the house,
the cat sits to a feast of garbage
and the more than one spider on the ceiling
make no fuss.

It seems the family’s children liked me.
After I gave them a paper boat
I failed to convince them
that the copper tub they filled with water
is not a sea.

“Then a heavy silence prevailed.”
Those Bedouins
knew early on that words fly
and cannot be weighed.

And for other reasons
I did not hear a revolutionary talk
except to defend his old revolution
to new silent listeners.
Prophets are quiet by necessity
as they get closer
to the one who sent them.
The difficulty was not in keeping their mouths shut,
but
in where to place their hands
when they fall quiet.

One day wisdom will possess me
and I will not go to the party.
I will have to date the onset of my freedom
with the moment
I became no longer indebted to your ears.

© Iman Mersal. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2006 by Khaled Mattawa. All rights reserved. 

Read About Context Explore Teaching Ideas

The light is self-obsessed
on the ceiling, in corners, on the table.
Pleasure has brought them to the edge of sleep.
Of course this is not my voice.
Someone is singing
behind the black curtain I lean on for support.

If I look down
I will see worms flee the floor
and climb my nakedness.
I will not pay attention to how I look
so that they don’t either.

The men talk of the nation’s future,
the wives help the lady of the house,
the cat sits to a feast of garbage
and the more than one spider on the ceiling
make no fuss.

It seems the family’s children liked me.
After I gave them a paper boat
I failed to convince them
that the copper tub they filled with water
is not a sea.

“Then a heavy silence prevailed.”
Those Bedouins
knew early on that words fly
and cannot be weighed.

And for other reasons
I did not hear a revolutionary talk
except to defend his old revolution
to new silent listeners.
Prophets are quiet by necessity
as they get closer
to the one who sent them.
The difficulty was not in keeping their mouths shut,
but
in where to place their hands
when they fall quiet.

One day wisdom will possess me
and I will not go to the party.
I will have to date the onset of my freedom
with the moment
I became no longer indebted to your ears.

© Iman Mersal. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2006 by Khaled Mattawa. All rights reserved. 

Definitions

“Then a heavy silence prevailed”: An Arabic expression to describe an overwhelming silence.

Meet Iman Mersal

A portrait of Egyptian writer Iman Mersal

Find out why Iman Mersal describes herself as being “displaced” in this interview from Poetry Parnassus.

Meet Translator Khaled Mattawa

Watch Khaled Mattawa talk about his work.


(Watch the video on YouTube.)

Hear the Names

Listen to pronunciations of the Egyptian Arabic terms in this story, read aloud by Noor Naga.
(Listen on SoundCloud.)

Look at and Listen to Cairo

Look at photographic portraits of Cairo residents: “In Cairo, a Painterly Cast of Characters.”

Then, listen to a This American Life report from Cairo during the 2011 revolution, where “men talk of the nation’s future,” as in the line in Mersal’s poem.

Background on Egypt
A black, red, and white mural reading "Freedom Egypt"

Mural, Egypt, 2013, photographed by stttijn. License: CC-BY 2.0.

To learn more about Egypt’s history, read the BBC’s timeline of key events from 7000 BCE to 2018.

To find out about current events, visit the newspaper The Egypt Independent

More from Iman Mersal

Watch Iman Mersal read her poem “The Clot.”


(Watch the video on YouTube.)

You can read more work by Iman Mersal in Words Without Borders or on her blog

More on Iman Mersal

Watch a video of images set to Mersal’s poem, “Alternative Geography.”


(Watch the video on YouTube.)

Then, read the section on Iman Mersal in “The Distant Imagination of the Middle East’s Exiled Writers,” an article published in The National, a state-run Egyptian newspaper.

More from Translator Khaled Mattawa

Watch translator Khaled Mattawa explain why translation is “ingrained in [his] sense of identity.”


(Watch the video on YouTube.)

You can find more translations by Khaled Mattawa on the Poetry Foundation website.

Women's Impact in Egypt

Find out more about other work by Egypt’s (Revolutionary) Women Writers.

Then, read about the history of women in Egyptian revolutions and politics.

Look at photos of graffiti by women in Egypt, and of paintings, drawings, and sculptures by the contemporary Egyptian artist Anna Boghiguian

More Prose Poetry

Learn about and read works of other prose poets who were influences for Mersal: Sargon BoulusSalah Faik, and Adonis.

Next, read the essay “Walt Whitman and Me” to learn about the Arabic Romantic poets and their connections to Baudelaire, Whitman, and other poets translated into Arabic. 

Finally, read prose poems from Iraqi poet Nazik al-Malaika, another famous innovator of this form, who spent the last years of her life in Cairo. (This site also sets the poems to instrumental music.) 

More Poems About Real and Imagined Parties
More Poems About Choices and Resolutions
To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English

The light is self-obsessed
on the ceiling, in corners, on the table.
Pleasure has brought them to the edge of sleep.
Of course this is not my voice.
Someone is singing
behind the black curtain I lean on for support.

If I look down
I will see worms flee the floor
and climb my nakedness.
I will not pay attention to how I look
so that they don’t either.

The men talk of the nation’s future,
the wives help the lady of the house,
the cat sits to a feast of garbage
and the more than one spider on the ceiling
make no fuss.

It seems the family’s children liked me.
After I gave them a paper boat
I failed to convince them
that the copper tub they filled with water
is not a sea.

“Then a heavy silence prevailed.”
Those Bedouins
knew early on that words fly
and cannot be weighed.

And for other reasons
I did not hear a revolutionary talk
except to defend his old revolution
to new silent listeners.
Prophets are quiet by necessity
as they get closer
to the one who sent them.
The difficulty was not in keeping their mouths shut,
but
in where to place their hands
when they fall quiet.

One day wisdom will possess me
and I will not go to the party.
I will have to date the onset of my freedom
with the moment
I became no longer indebted to your ears.

© Iman Mersal. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2006 by Khaled Mattawa. All rights reserved. 

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