TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: La remontee des cendres (The Rising of the Ashes) is the title of a small text, written in French by the Paris-based Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun. It was published by Editions du Seuil in 1991, in a bilingual edition with the Arabic translation rendered by Iraqi poet Kadhim Jihad. The book is composed of two poems. The first, dated February-April 1991, bears the title of the book, “The Rising of the Ashes,” and addresses the devastation of the Gulf War on Iraq and the human consequences of the West's aggression on the Middle East more generally. The subject of the second section, “The Unidentified,” is the displacement and killings of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion in 1983. I found the book in 2003 when I was working on translating Francophone African poetry from above and below the Sahara. It seemed a horribly relevant moment to translate this text for English-speaking, and particularly American, readers.The passages below are selected; they do not occur consecutively in the poem. Each short section is separated from its neighbor by an asterisk.
from “The Rising of the Ashes”
This body that was a body will no longer stroll the length
of the Tigris or the Euphrates
loaded by a shovel that will not remember
a single pain
put in a black plastic bag
this body that was a soul, a name and a face
turned over to face the ground of sands
detritus and absence.
I am sleeping in other bodies emptied
of their entrails
they were still warm
the one that moves does not have an arm
it is a starving cat struck by lightning.
They tell me: the grief for us is in
the gaze of our children.
Who will tell them the history of our defeats?
Will they believe us?
I see them spit on the defunct faces
so many useless verbs.
Oh the verb, the words, the litany of the famished
bitter bread buried in the low land
I see them run to pick up our worn-out shoes
they make a fire with the poems written by
and burn our memory.
They did not spit any longer.
They do not speak anymore.
We have gone astray.
We have been for a long time.
Our guides walk on our shoulders.
They are always armed.
They do not know how to sing or dance
but they write sentimentalizing poems
and uninspired discourses.
They spit on anonymous faces
as in the festivals of ancients times.
from “The Unidentified”
Abd al-Qader Hantach
April 8, 1983
He had a wife who loved to laugh, three children and
The eldest was absent
they had blindfolded his eyes and marked his shoulder with
Hassan and Hahla guarded
the house during the day and the despondent tree of childhood.
They watched the sky, inappropriate host to unhappiness.
Abd al-Qader Hantach sold sand.
They killed him with bullets on the coast
and spared the donkey.
He had had fifty-eight years and an immense season
Khodr Said Mohammed
April 27, 1983
This body that the flies undress
hand outstretched toward the sea.
The index finger selects a fishing boat
at silence's shore.
A sun rises to name it:
Khodr Said Mohammed.
Fatima Abou Mayyala
They came in through the roof
they closed the doors and windows.
they stuffed a fistful of sand into her mouth
and her nostrils, Fatima.
Their hands ripped her stomach
blood was retained
they urinated on her face.
Fatima took the statue's hand
and walked lightly between the trees and the sleeping
She reached the sea
her body raised above death.
He walked hopping like a sparrow
on tiptoe like an awkward dancer
he didn't want to injure the land which slipped away.
The sea scoffed at him
like the night delivering him to ash
dust of a dwelling that was.
He knew the way and patience
paradox and death
the strange smell of used memories
the useless taste of drifting.
He let himself be carried by the wind
statue of forgetting
blind omen of a light shredding the night.
In his pocket there was a little earth and many keys.
He talked about houses he built in his sleep
And said to him who passed the door,
“I do not know if at the moment of my death there will be
two square meters of ground where I will be tolerated.”
From La remontee des cendres. © Tahar Ben Jelloun. Published 1991 by Editions du Seuil. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2006 by Cullen Goldblatt. All rights reserved.