During a routine mushroom-picking expedition in the forest, a wheelchair-bound child gets separated from her grandfather and is left to face the forces of nature on her own. In today’s Translation Tuesday, Ilka Papp-Zakor takes us on a fairy-tale adventure that comes to a surreal and haunting conclusion.
Grandpa’s beard was made of cotton, and his face of crinkled crepe paper. His hands shook, so he almost always spilled his tea, but his eyes were beautiful. I liked to watch him read his old books in the evenings, squinting by the light of the oil lamp—we didn’t have electricity in our shack—rocking back and forth in his rocking chair, the corners of his eyes smiling delicately from time to time, which is how I could tell where he was in his book. I knew all his books by heart. That’s how our evenings would pass. He’d rock in his chair, I’d stare at him, and sometimes, when I’d grow bored of staring, I’d roll around in my wheelchair. Grandpa didn’t like that, because the wheels made an ugly sound on the uneven plank floors. But he loved me anyway.
He said I’d be a beautiful girl if it weren’t for my distorted features, my underdeveloped legs and mangled hands, but I was happy there was something about me that he liked. I had long, curly, golden hair, a little reddish. Grandpa said the bridge of my nose was freckled, though I’d never seen it myself, because our shack didn’t have a mirror either, and I couldn’t lean so far out of my wheelchair over puddles to catch my reflection clearly. In any case, Grandpa said these features were my sex appeal, and that when I’d have kids, I should strive to pass onto them only these two features, because they wouldn’t get very far with the rest. At the time, it was difficult to imagine that I’d someday have a family, and kids of my own, because I didn’t know anyone else besides Grandpa.
Though best known as the pioneer of “free verse” in Arabic, Nazik al-Mala’ika was in fact a fervent defender of Arabic meter, both in her poetry and in her criticism. Indeed, her theory of free verse was not very “free” at all, but rather took the undulating metrical feet of classical Arabic verse as the basis for a new prosodic system. Where classical poetry is governed by fixed line lengths and strict monorhyme, al-Mala’ika’s prosody allowed modern poets to vary the number of feet in each line and weave their rhymes as they saw fit. “Meter is the soul that electrifies literary material and transforms it into poetry,” she wrote in the critical text Issues in Contemporary Poetry. “Indeed, images and feelings do not become poetic, in the true sense, until they are touched by the fingers of music and the pulse of meter beats in their veins.”
To honor al-Mala’ika’s belief in meter’s vitality—the way it can anchor meaning in the body, transforming ordinary speech into a form of incantation—I have rendered her metered, rhymed Arabic verse into English metrical forms that reproduce, in some form, the music of the Arabic. Where al-Mala’ika uses the mutadarik or “continuous” meter in Arabic, for example, I use anapestic hexameter, English’s answer to Arabic’s most galloping verse form. Al-Mala’ika’s poetry, with its balance between tradition and innovation, ultimately teaches us not to deal so violently with the past, but rather to tread lightly in poetry’s ancient footsteps. My hope is that my English renderings of her verse might begin to do precisely this.
— Emily Drumsta
To A Girl Sleeping In The Street
In Karrada at night, wind and rain before dawn,
when the dark is a roof or a drape never drawn,
when the night’s at its peak and the dark’s full of rain,
and the wet silence roils like a fierce hurricane,
the lament of the wind fills the deserted street,
the arcades groan in pain, and the lamps softly weep.