from The Baghdad Train

Manuel Forcano

What's left to us in this world that fades and darkens
is the pleasure of remembering.
—Ahmad Hassim

For some time you've been travelling underground
passing through the dark tunnel of your desire,
and the gentle jolting of the metro
brings you, brings to that winter body of yours,
the summer and the heat of loose clothing
of that journey on the Baghdad train
that pulled out late and full to bursting
from Aleppo's Central Station,
Syria. Third class:
carriages without doors,
windows without glass, iron seats,
country people, soldiers, djellabas and turbans,
dishevelled garments, golden tan on necks,
arms, hands, voices, bare
feet, each one a son of Apollo,
you'd say. A great piling-up,
heat and more heat, very little room:
hours of travel deciding whether or not to lick
an unmoving drop of sweat
so close to you that you are a tree
rooted in that, the only water.
In the toilets of the damaged carriages
sex between the rust and the cracked mirror.
The wheels were snatching sighs
from the rails. "Because I've come
to fasten you to myself in thirst,"
he told you, when your mouths parted.
Love is also a kind of speed:
with a caress, a landscape
that is a monotone of nothingness bursts
suddenly into the green of orchards with water tanks,
and from the topmost blossom on the palm tree
you see how the white ibis takes off.

The track was the parting drawn through that bald landscape:
the desert is an excess of emptiness,
a chunk of sky fallen upside down
like an insect dying, belly to the air.
They say that it has no roads, no directions,
that it’s all a going astray, but we all go
towards the mirages: imagined water
that crackles in the distance like dry wood
at the back of this space you can't see when you look at it.
But it's spacious enough, in the end,
for all the kisses not given,
for all the caresses projected on to the bodies
that chance has not offered you,
for all the seeds of desire never swollen into fruits.
The whirlwinds of air ripped the surface of the desert
the way that sharks’ fins
rip through the sea.
The wind roaring in at the windows
lashed us with sand:
with eyes shut
we travelled through the empire of light.
A carriage of blind men
under a metallic sun.

We were coming to the city of Raqqa,
a camel-drivers' stop on the road to Palmyra
and where they say the poets made the caliphs fall in love.
At the station, dressed in Turkish fashion with a fez on his head,
the water seller served date juice
in a single cup for the thirst of all:
tears from the palm tree
to make dry throats happy—he kept saying.
Another offered me essence of flowers,
myrrh, jasmine water, musk,
oil of honeysuckle from the oases,
scented pollen, and in a bottle,
snow from Lebanon.
He anointed hands and arms and made me smell them:
how much spring can a body bear?
A boy was jingling glass cups on the fingers of both hands
and to show that they were unbreakable
dashed one of them with great force on the ground:
"Intact!" he cried, offering me one.

Far into the desert,
the ceiling of the tunnel we were going through was the sun,
a shameless belt of liquid light,
a wall falling down on top of us
that would never finish crushing us.
But all at once the bridge over the Euphrates:
what eye wept that river
that cut the thirst of the desert into two banks?
From which god's pleasure was it born?
What light painlessly gave birth to that blue?
And you sank your eyes in it
to rejoice like the naked stones
in the depths of the water's caressing
in the quietness and that silence
among the calm of the waterweeds,
those flags of slowness.
For from time to time everything grows confused
as in that war-torn Syria
described by Ammianus Marcellinus in his Histories:
in you too castles burn,
ships sink and princes die.
Your troops wander astray,
die of thirst. In no city
do you feel safe and the roads
are paths between fields of felled trees.
You ask for shelter from one who, like you,
has lost everything,
and from a window you watch a lifeless
body float down the Euphrates
with an arrow stuck in the middle of its breast.
The lover you once had.

We came into the city of Deir ez-Zor:
the banks are in love and the bridges are the kisses.
There it is torture not to fulfil desire
and the river makes even more meanders
because it cannot find the sea. Half-naked,
black-haired boys the colour of wood
were diving headfirst from Frenchmen's bridge
and smoothly entering the water
just like the camels' hooves
in the sand of the dunes.
Some of the divers drew their breast along the riverbed
in slow movements among bubbles
and for sheer pleasure
the river flowered in foam.

In the Deir ez-Zor souk
Bedouin were offering crayfish
and fish in baskets: "All free of bones!"
one of the vendors was calling in a loud voice
and resting his brown hands
on the ice.
The wind set the coloured kerchiefs fluttering
on the heads of the Bedouin like the banners
at the old meetings of the tribes:
at night in the desert they lit a fire
and competed to see who could say in lines of poetry
the words that were most like the flames.
The silence was a scorpion lying in wait
beneath a stone. The rain
offered up its nipples to drink from.
That it doesn't rain in the desert is a lie:
if you listen carefully,
under the sand you can hear the water rising
towards the roots of the palm trees,
towards the wells, towards the chafe of bodies
and the groans behind the tents and in the pens
where the camels with their sleepless eyes
are resting.

The train was moving on
through that desert landscape like a blind man's eye,
with only here and there a rickety tamarisk,
bushes with colourless flowers,
spines with roots.
And then suddenly, far-off,
the silhouette of the castle of Rahab:
In the eleventh century the Abbasid prince Ibn Tauk
built it tall and powerful, he said,
as the waist of a lover.
He kept the day on fire all night long
with sumptuous feasts: torches,
mirrors, silken cushions, and on the drums
the hands of Numidian slaves, odalisques
with veils and sequins,
fruit on gold and silver trays,
overturned cups and laughter,
bodies like grapes that a hand presses.
That it doesn't rain in the desert
is a lie. The cries of joy
that came from the banqueting hall
made the windows swell, grow round.
Outside, the guards on sentry duty
up on the ramparts wept for envy.
Suddenly, an earthquake.
Not a cry. And the silence
and the same cloud of dust as now
suspended above the ruins.
People search among the stones
for pieces of those mirrors where joy
remained engraved. Even now
we dream the pleasure of others.

It was a scoured bone, that desert,
and the river flowed there, sad and silent
as a speaking mouth would be for a deaf man.
Stretching away imposingly on the other bank
were the tumbled walls of the city of Dura-Europos:
the huge Tower 19 half-listing
like a tree with sickly roots.
In 256 AD the invading Persians
broke through by digging a breach.
The Romans had gone to meet them down in the tunnel.
Their bare hands confronted each other in the dark
and they recognised each other by touching:
with shaven face: Romans;
with beard: Persians.
But part of the tower collapsed on top of them
and archaeologists found skeletons of these enemies
clasped in each other's arms beneath the ruins. The embrace
is the most perfect of gestures.

At night it was as black as it could be.
The sky was the powerful body of a slave
who sleeps after a day beneath the lash.
And in the carriage, amid the encumbrances,
an arm in the darkness wrapped itself round me:
we took the quickest way
of unfastened clothing to nakedness.
What little space for lips
among the kisses. How swift
the blaze. How soft
the ashes. Outside,
shining far off in the blackness
were the lofty flames of the refineries
like reflections of a golden chain
on a shaggy torso.
The train travelled through the tunnel of night
until you woke up with the dawn:
day, like a new candle,
was being born in order to burn. The sky
was the colour of naked legs
and still you might see traces of caresses on skin
just like the track the caravans leave
on the dunes.

The train halted at Abu Kamal:
at the fords where now the flocks cross the river,
in the third century the Parthians took Valerianus,
emperor of Rome, prisoner:
he was fleeing in terror from the enemy. The army
in total disarray. With his guards
he hid in a bed of tall reeds.
At last a moment of peace,
a rest for the old emperor:
to dismount, take off his helmet,
bathe his feet in the water, doze a little
in the shade of the plumed reeds.
Their chargers closed their eyes as they drank.
But a troop of Parthians rode yelling into the reeds,
and took the old man prisoner,
who saw how the last of his soldiers
fell dead, causing the flowering reeds to bend.
The current bore away petals and blood.
The shining swords
came slowly to rest at the bottom of the river.
And they carried off Valerianus into the desert
and in chains,
his palate split with thirst,
the sun's teeth fastened in his flesh.
In Rome, his son Galianus
placed the diadem on his own head
and with a smiling toast
accepted the genuflections of all.
Do not curse him: all kinds of affections
suffer desertions.

Patience is pretty―the Arabs say.
The landscape was a blind man gazing into a mirror:
a nothingness made of so much light,
a waterless sea as flat as a ceiling.
The iron skeleton of the carriage burned
and the high temperature made your skin drip
with sweat. A slow glaze
that imposed stillness on you
and pushed your bones deep into your blood.
Every buckle undone. Buttons
loosed from buttonholes. Nudity's coat.
And inside the carriage you saw mirages:
a boy drinking from a bottle. What thirst
makes us believe the other to be water?
All dreams
are an oasis far out on the horizon,
a garden of shadows, feeling like wheat
in your body and a hand gently squeezing
the tips of the ears.
Pleasure, above all: a waterwheel
emptying its many scoops over you.
That it never rains in the desert is a lie.

And suddenly in the carriage a murmur,
jostling and crowding at the windows,
fingers pointing at a far-off line of green
that grew as we travelled onwards:
clapping and laughter, happiness
and exclamations of joy:
"God is beautiful and that is why he delights in beauty,"
someone recited from the Qur'an.
We were approaching the palm-groves of as-Sawari,
an immense forest of palm trees
risen from the spat-out stones
scoured by couples during a kiss
in the secret rendezvous of the Bedouin
on nights when there was no moon.
the way the vine lets fall its leaves
on the trellis. Thirst for pleasures:
with one tug of the pulley the bucket penetrates
the well.

Leaving the dry hump of the desert behind,
we were suddenly swallowed
by a tunnel of nine million palms.
The train ran through the half-shade
of that immense and swollen orchard.
It was harvest time
and the dates, black and glistening
or a voluptuous red,
sweated sweetness.
Have you ever been rained on by honey?
Men were hanging from tree trunks,
they swayed among the fronds
and with gold sickles shining in the sun
they caused the bunches to fall to the ground.
The harvesters sang:
What is love
that makes the palms seem ever taller?
The honey stuck to their muscles
and they glowed as when the sun
lights up the inside of a pomegranate,
like kings or ancient warriors
about to join battle.
They greeted the train with shouts, laughter,
and swung, clinging to the palms,
birds amongst the hair of the trees.

Boarding the train at Salihiyya
a snake-charmer:
the melody of a flute awoke
the reptile with its brilliant scales and engorged neck.
For the pleasure of that music the snake rose up slowly,
and coiled itself as tongues do
when mouths meet in a kiss.
Beauty is dangerous
and the poison that draws you hypnotizes you:
like the flute-player's hand,
stretched out before the snake's slender fangs,
you dare
to tempt your fate.
You too have been courageous:
you have kissed like a fruit that bites mouths,
you weren't afraid to abandon yourself to joy
with one whom you found best fitted your desire
and you made your own the risk of the delicate tree
that the bear's back wants all to itself
as it rubs itself against the trunk.
Silence fell in the carriage
when the flute player stopped playing:
the snake dropped suddenly
into the basket.

We came to the city of Ramadi.
During the sultanate of Abu Saïd―
so say the chronicles―
a storm buried it in sand
and only the tip of the minaret
survived. The sky grew dark
as the blinkered eyes of the ass
that keeps the mill turning,
until the wrath of the wind rose spiralling upwards
and everyone discovered that sand can bite,
that it's a sea that feeds on wreckage:
immense and derelict the city
beneath the sand. An unstrung lute,
said the silence afterwards.
Everything remained as smooth
as a just-made bed.

But they rebuilt the town: new streets
above the grounded flight of a few ducks within the dunes,
new palm trees grown
from date stones in the hole of corpses' mouths.
New wells out of which,
from time to time,
cries would rise up through the water.
At Ramadi you have to walk
as though across a frozen lake:
for fear of shattering what's there,
mindful of what's below.

translated from the Catalan by Anna Crowe