Two Poems by Reem Abbas
In these two bilingual poems, Reem Abbas probes notions of language, family, and voice. Elegant and rhythmic, Abbas makes use of the gaps between words and worlds, raising questions of home and remembrance.
Wasafiri 111: Translating Lives, examining the nuances and meaning of translation across the world, is available for order here.
ها يا ريم طمنيني كيفكم؟. Nana rings for it has been twelve
hours since we last spoke and the image of us veering
off Al-Baha’s sharp turns perturbs — this free-wheeling
polished body being tossed into air, glistening under a
desert sun like a fish breaks surface to flash its scales. But there is
neither water nor earth, only painted doors of ramshackle homes
hidden by fog and a perilous plummet. I look out onto
colourful doors and reply, we’re fine. كأننا
طالعين المهاجرين my sister observes, and I ask: why is it
called ‘The Immigrants’? My back presses into the seat as we swerve.
Ears patient, I strain for Baba’s glottals over music and white
noise. We zip through views of cities ancient and old, hit brakes for packs
of baboons that cross the streets of both. Sometimes, Baba says, they even
occupy houses that are مهجوره Instead of snapping shots
as my wiser sister does I read what rancorous predesti
nations decided Beirut would be a show of shards that shimmered
أحمر. I have been trained to detach, to know only a handful
of fragrant tropes. So I read with Oriental eyes while inertia
bends and hurls my body, sends flying whips of hair —
but here, a voice of cool turquoise lyricises:
لِأجلِكِ يا مَدينَةُ الصلاة أُصلّي
and there’s no mistaking the melancholia with which the nay
apostrophises after a lost bīlād. How do I, whose trun
cated Syrian syllables, I, whose g’s are no longer hard, whose
ط is lost to translation, whose Nana must lip-read to understand
speak to you? Baba’s eyes catch mine in the rear view and in them are
Spenser and Darwish, Hafez and Hîkmet. In what ear do you re
sieve my words; I hear my own? Micro-aggressions
and false assertions. Politics and poetics. هجره and home.
1. ها يا ريم طمنيني كيفكم؟ (hā yā Reem, ṭamenīni, kefkom?): So, Reem, put my heart at ease, how are you all? | Nana: grandmother.
2. طالعين المهاجرين كأننا (ka’enna ṭal’īn El-Mhājirin): It’s as though we’re ascending to El-Mhājirin. El-Mhājirin, formally Al-Mouhājirīn, comes from the root َه َج َر which means ‘immigrated’. It is a Syrian neighbourhood in Damascus to which people of various backgrounds emigrated in the 20th century. Located on Mount Qasiyoun, its high altitude affords a beautiful view of central Damascus.
3. مهجوره (mahjūrah): abandoned. This word also has the root َه َج َر
4. أحمر (aḥmar): red
5. ألِج أل أك يا َمدينَةَ الصلاة أُ َصلّي (lī’ajliki yā madīnat as-salāh usalī): For you, O city of prayer, I pray. Taken from Fairuz’s song ‘Zahrat El Mada’en’.
6. Bīlād: Homelands.
7. هجره (hijra): (Im)migration
8. ط (ṭa): a letter
It came to her through the pitch of night.
Travelled speeds like closing space, bodies before impact:
elsewhere sea pants shore, wingspan tucks into plume,
groundsel folds on air, arms on child, shade on moonlight.
It came as a frequency incessant through layers of sleep,
through sticky eyes fumbling for a phone. The voice
was calm, barely audible in the silence of night.
So much like her mother’s it strained through
distance even radio waves seldom meet.
She listened, flattening crinkled sheets.
So unlike her mother’s rippling alphabet, it
spoke of silence and sleep. Laylat-ul Qadr and heaven.
It’s a blessing, she’s lucky — firdaws forgiveness firāq.
This night, an absence and a presence, marks a
different dawn. Inna lillāhi wa inna ilayhi rāji’un.
This pitch came in heaving breaths, wringing silence.
Doubled over up and out, her body remembered sujood,
purge so much like prostration. It came to her in
the pauses between: wine-red Vimto, sour tang dibs
el rumman, fattoush crunch, qahwa murra. Her mother
broke her fasts with a cigarette, inhaled fumes like
fresh air, clouds of bakhour. She remembered in
white spots and teased vision, fast acid sting that prickles skin:
the waning moon, perishing, told her it was Ramadan.
1. Hamasāt: whispers.
2. Laylat-ul Qadr: the night in which the first verses of the holy Quran were revealed to prophet Muhammad (saws).
3. Firdaws: Heaven.
4. Firāq: Parting.
5. Inna lillāhi wa inna ilayhi rāji’un: ‘Indeed, to God we belong and to God we shall return’ (2:156).
6. Sujood: Prostration.
7. Dibs el-rumman: pomegranate molasses.
8. Qahwa murra: a Syrian bitter coffee.
Reem Abbas is a polylingual poet-critic. She has published her poems in PNR, PBRUM, ArabLit Quarterly, and in the philosophy journal Crisis and Critique. She was one of the Poetry Translation Centre’s Undertow Eight from 2021-22. She is currently writing her PhD on the classical Persian literary influences on the work of Basil Bunting at the University of Cambridge.
Edited by Farhaana Arefin and Malachi McIntosh, Wasafiri 111: Translating Lives considers translation as a practice and as a metaphor for all creative writing. With fiction from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Chinmay Sharma, a conversation with Will Harris, a special selection of life writing curated by Nina Mingya Powles and Stacey Teague, poetry from Hu Xudong, Jane Wong, and more, it’s an issue that delves into the heart of what translation means for the writer, translator, and reader.