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Poetry

Things Elude Me

By Iman Mersal
Translated from Arabic by Khaled Mattawa
A contemporary Egyptian poem about returning to a former home.

One day I will pass by
the house that used to be my home
and try not to measure the distance from it to my friends’ homes.

The plump widow whose cries for love woke me up many times
is no longer my neighbor.

I will invent things so I do not get confused.
Count my steps, perhaps,
or bite my lower lip, delighting in the slight pain,
or keep my fingers busy with tearing a whole packet
of paper tissues.

I will not try to find short cuts
to evade the pain.
I will not stop myself from loitering
as I train my teeth to chew on a contempt
that leaps from within.
And to tolerate
the cold hands that pushed me toward it,
I will remember
that I did not smudge the bathroom’s whiteness
with a darkness that is mine alone.

No doubt, things elude me.
The wall did not intervene in my dreams.
Therefore, I did not imagine a paint
to match the scene’s tragic lighting.

This house was my home for years.
It was not a student hostel
where I would hang an evening gown
on a nail behind the door,
or stick my old pictures with temporary glue.
I think the romantic sentences
I extracted from Love in the Time of Cholera
are jumbled together now
making an altogether comic text.


For the next poem in this sequence, click here.

Read Context Explore Teaching Ideas

One day I will pass by
the house that used to be my home
and try not to measure the distance from it to my friends’ homes.

The plump widow whose cries for love woke me up many times
is no longer my neighbor.

I will invent things so I do not get confused.
Count my steps, perhaps,
or bite my lower lip, delighting in the slight pain,
or keep my fingers busy with tearing a whole packet
of paper tissues.

I will not try to find short cuts
to evade the pain.
I will not stop myself from loitering
as I train my teeth to chew on a contempt
that leaps from within.
And to tolerate
the cold hands that pushed me toward it,
I will remember
that I did not smudge the bathroom’s whiteness
with a darkness that is mine alone.

No doubt, things elude me.
The wall did not intervene in my dreams.
Therefore, I did not imagine a paint
to match the scene’s tragic lighting.

This house was my home for years.
It was not a student hostel
where I would hang an evening gown
on a nail behind the door,
or stick my old pictures with temporary glue.
I think the romantic sentences
I extracted from Love in the Time of Cholera
are jumbled together now
making an altogether comic text.


For the next poem in this sequence, click here.

Meet Iman Mersal

A portrait of Egyptian writer Iman Mersal

“It is as if Iman kills one self so that another can mourn it . . . ” Read more about Iman Mersal and her work in the essay “This Is Not Literature, My Love,” which also describes what it’s like to be a young, single woman in Cairo.

Then, 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 in this four-minute video.


(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.)

Life in Cairo, Now and Then

Read an interview with a current resident of Faisal, the Cairo neighborhood where this poem is set.

Then, look at photographic portraits of Cairo residents: In Cairo, a Painterly Cast of Characters.

For a different, earlier description of urban life in Egypt, read or listen to “A Glance,” by Yusuf Idris, about a servant girl’s journey across a crowded Cairo street.

The Elusive Cairo Apartment

The female narrator of this poem remembers an apartment where she used to live alone. Watch a New York Times documentary in which another Cairo woman searches for an apartment: “She Wants Independence. In Egypt, That Can Be Dangerous.” 

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.

More from Iman Mersal

Read more poems on Iman Mersal’s blog. Then, watch her recite her poem “Amina” in Arabic, and read the English translation, published on WWB.  


(Watch the video on YouTube.)

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


(Watch the video on YouTube.)

More from Translator Khaled Mattawa

Listen to Mattawa explain why translation is “ingrained in [his] sense of identity.”


(Watch the video on YouTube.)

You can also read about and find more translations by Khaled Mattawa on the Poetry Foundation website.

Iman Mersal's Influences

Charles Baudelaire, 1844. By Emile Deroy. Public Domain.

Arabic prose poems were originally inspired by French ones. Read a poem about a former home by Charles Baudelaire: “A Former Life.” Then, read other prose poems from Baudelaire’s collectionParis Spleen. Want more? Read the entire book.

Looking for other modern poets influenced by Baudelaire? Try the Iranian Forugh Farrokhzad

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

Women's Impact in Egypt

Hear the story of the young Egyptian rapper Myam Mahmoud, who raps in one of her songs “Who says femininity is about dresses? Femininity is about intelligence and intellect.”


(Listen to her songs on SoundCloud.)

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

Finally, look at the “Harassmap,” an activist-led campaign to “end harassment, together” in Egypt.    

More Prose Poetry*

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.)

Then, read the French poet Baudelaire’s poem on a similar theme to Mersal’s, “A Former Life.”

* For Teaching Ideas 1 and 3

More on Avoidance and Memory*

Read another poem about painful memories, “You Mustn’t Show Weakness,” by the Israeli author Yehuda Amichai. (Amichai’s narrator says, “In the daytime I lay traps for my memories.”)

*For Teaching Idea 4 

More on Returning to a Former Home*

*For Teaching Idea 5 

1. Qasidat Al-Nathr (Prose Poem)
2. Elusive Emotions
3. Prose Poetry from Egypt and France
4. Avoidance and Memory
5. Returning to a Former Home
To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English

One day I will pass by
the house that used to be my home
and try not to measure the distance from it to my friends’ homes.

The plump widow whose cries for love woke me up many times
is no longer my neighbor.

I will invent things so I do not get confused.
Count my steps, perhaps,
or bite my lower lip, delighting in the slight pain,
or keep my fingers busy with tearing a whole packet
of paper tissues.

I will not try to find short cuts
to evade the pain.
I will not stop myself from loitering
as I train my teeth to chew on a contempt
that leaps from within.
And to tolerate
the cold hands that pushed me toward it,
I will remember
that I did not smudge the bathroom’s whiteness
with a darkness that is mine alone.

No doubt, things elude me.
The wall did not intervene in my dreams.
Therefore, I did not imagine a paint
to match the scene’s tragic lighting.

This house was my home for years.
It was not a student hostel
where I would hang an evening gown
on a nail behind the door,
or stick my old pictures with temporary glue.
I think the romantic sentences
I extracted from Love in the Time of Cholera
are jumbled together now
making an altogether comic text.


For the next poem in this sequence, click here.

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