Baghdad: The City in Verse, translated and edited by Reuven Snir
Selected Poems from the Book
Baghdad: The City in Verse captures the essence of life lived in one of the world’s enduring metropolises. This unusual anthology offers original translations of 170 Arabic poems from Bedouin, Muslim, Christian, Kurdish, and Jewish poets—most for the first time in English—from Baghdad’s founding in the eighth century to the present day.
Below, read a selection of poems from the book, chosen to illustrate the many different Baghdads that have existed over the city’s 1,250-year history: the city built on ancient Sumerian ruins, the epicenter of Arab culture and Islam’s Golden Age, the bombed-out capital of Saddam Hussein’s fallen regime, and life in a new but unstable Iraq.
[Stars Whirling in the Dark], by Muti‘ ibn Iyas (704–85)
[Stars Whirling in the Dark]
Muti‘ ibn Iyas (704–85)
It was morning in Baghdad, we were carousing,
stirred by a white face and deep-black eyes.
In a house where glasses are akin
to stars whirling in the dark among drinking companions.
Our cupbearer mixed wine or served it pure;
what a wonderful wine when mixed!
Saffron powder was sprinkled over us,
above our heads crowns of golden jasmine.
I was still drinking when sunset arrived,
between melodies of castanets and lute.
[Baghdad’s People], by ‘Ali ibn Zurayq Abu al-Hasan al-Baghdadi (?–1029)
‘Ali ibn Zurayq Abu al-Hasan al-Baghdadi (?–1029)
I have traveled far to find a parallel for Baghdad
and her people—my task was second to despair.
Alas, for me Baghdad is the entire world,
her people—the only genuine ones.
[A Qur’an in an Unbeliever’s House], by Abu Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Maliki (?–1031)
[A Qur’an in an Unbeliever’s House]
Abu Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Maliki (?–1031)
Baghdad is a fine home for the wealthy,
but an abode of misery and distress for the poor.
I walked among them in dismay
as though I were a Qur’an in an unbeliever’s house.
The Books, by Mishil Haddad (1919–96)
Mishil Haddad (1919–96)
Hulagu* will come and burn the books,
Before eyes grow feeble,
Before ideas are muddled,
Before their crowded languages teach us
He will come!
* Destroyer of Baghdad in 1258.
Mr. Edward Luka’s Profession, by Fadil al-‘Azzawi (1940–)
Mr. Edward Luka’s Profession
Fadil al-‘Azzawi (1940–)
The legend is fabricated in the Book of Creation.
The tourist practices selling leather masks
While the one-eyed king on his collapsed balcony
Talks about the Hittites’ invasion.
The act ends with Jean Genet laughing.
The institute students talk about a limping female
Rouge colors her cheeks; in her laugh the instruction
Embarrasses the janitors at the music department.
Mr. Edward Luka passes by
To al-Khallani bookstore,
But he fails in the recitation.
In Zeya Hotel, the orientalist forgets
His wife; he drinks apple wine at the bar.
Wearing a hat of feeble straw,
Summer oppresses Agatha Christie as she writes her
Detective novel about Babel.
In the third act of the comedy of errors
All heroes suffer, the thief dies.
Baghdad beggars learn to dance
At the Auberge nightclub.
Oh Judas Iscariot,
Give your face some meaning!
People fight one another before the altar
While from my doorstep I watch
Hunting falcons for embalming and
Think about killing someone still unborn.
The idea bothers the poet’s mind with meters.
He goes to the market, bringing the promised golden
Memorizing all Arabic meters, in the students’ café,
Feeling ashamed of fa‘lun, maf‘ulun, fa‘lan*
Picking up twisted voices
In the past’s throat,
Writing two verses of poetry, lighting the abyss
Between present and future, inflaming his genie mule
With a whip and leaving like a lance,
While the love-game,
All are celebrating tonight at the International Club of
For the sake of poetry, he tears off the masks of reversed
For the sake of the word, you abridge the world.
I will rise in this exile
Outside marks of profession,
Lashing faces of poets.
* A representation of metrical feet in Arabic poetry. The third one is an ironical fabrication by the poet.
[Happy in Baghdad], by Anwar Sha’ul (1904–84)
[Happy in Baghdad]
Anwar Sha’ul (1904–84)
From Moses I borrowed my creed,
but under Muhammad’s faith I have long lived.
Islam’s generosity was my shelter;
Qur’an’s eloquence was my fountain.
My adherence to Moses’ creed
diminished not my love for Muhammad’s nation.
Faithful I will stay like al-Samaw’al*
whether happy in Baghdad or miserable.
(Baghdad, February 1969)
* Al-Samaw’al ibn ‘Adiya’ was a pre-Islamic Jewish poet, proverbial in Arabic ancient heritage for his loyalty.
Salute to Baghdad, by Adonis (1930–)
Salute to Baghdad
Put your coffee aside and drink something else.
Listening to what the invaders are declaring:
“With the help of God,
We are conducting a preventive war,
Transporting the water of life
From the banks of the Hudson and Thames
To flow in the Tigris and Euphrates.”
A war waged against water and trees, against birds and
From between their hands
A fire emerges in nails whose heads have been sharpened,
The hands of the machine pat their shoulders.
The air weeps
Borne upon a cane called earth,
Dirt turns red and black,
In tanks and mortar launchers,
In missiles—flying whales,
In a time improvised by shrapnel,
As volcanoes shoot out their liquid lava into space.
Move, Oh Baghdad, on your punctured waist.
The invaders were born in the lap of a wind that strides on
By the grace of their private sky,
Which prepares the world to be swallowed by
The whale of their sacred language.
It is true, as the invaders say,
As if that mother sky
Only eats her children.
Do we all too have to believe, Oh invaders,
That there are prophetic missiles bringing the invasion,
That civilization is only born from nuclear waste?
Old-new ashes under our feet:
Oh misguided feet, do you realize the abyss
Into which you have now descended?
Our death now resides in the watch’s hands.
And our sorrows desire to fix their nails
In the bodies of stars.
Woe to that country to which we belong.
Its name is silence, and nothing is there except pains.
And here it is full of graves — frozen and moving.
Woe to that land to which we belong,
A land swimming in fires,
Its people like green firewood.
How glorious are you, Oh Sumerian stone.
Your heart still beats with Gilgamesh.
Behold he is getting ready to go down again,
Looking for life,
But his guide, this time, is nuclear dust.
We closed windows
After we had cleaned their glass with newspapers that
report on the invasion,
After we had thrown our last roses on the graves.
Where are we going?
The road itself no longer believes our steps.
A homeland almost forgets its name.
A red flower teaches me how to sleep
In the laps of Damascus?
The fighter eats the bread of the song.
Don’t ask, Oh poet, for nothing but disobedience
Will awake this land.
(March 31, 2003)
* A pen name of the Syro-Lebanese poet ‘Ali Ahmad Sa’id Isbar.
Excerpts from This Is Baghdad…, by Sadiq al-Sa’igh (1938–)
This Is Baghdad… [Excerpts]
Sadiq al-Sa’igh (1938–)
This city is amazing:
She was bombed,
Just as a broken watch is crushed,
But it is as if she
Were just born.
She is still heard ticking under the rubble,
Measuring her heartbeats,
Stroking her lost limbs.
An amazing city
In a state of dream and hallucination:
History remembers her poems by heart.
Her houses are devastated.
Her buildings deserted,
And yet her colorful flags
Submit themselves to April’s caressing wind,
Rising on roofs and poles
Surrounded by worn-out rags,
Yet held taut by innocent aesthetic feelings
Without traversing the borders of pain and forgetfulness,
Waving beneath the sun and shining,
Coloring the faces of the poor and streets
With the colors of skies and angels.
A city impaled by dreams of ancient times,
Her body inflamed,
Her temperature high.
In her depths reside
And creaking teeth.
This is a city hunted by history,
By snipers, lovers, and poets,
By raiders, barbarians, and petrol thieves
Whenever it seems she is kaput,
A drawn-out shout
Resounds from the depths of her soul,
Floats on the air like a broken wave:
“To die or not to die,
To live or not to live,
To be or not to be,
That is the question.”
Schoolchildren rescued from a hellish bombardment
Left their classes for the neighboring lane.
They cheered another punitive bomb
Tearing the sky, like a flying saucer
Passing overhead beyond roofs and boards,
Beyond laundry-loaded ropes
To inflict yet more misery
On the neighbor’s window.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
As I have said, this city is amazing:
Snipers, prophets, and killers
Seek her out;
Angels, poets and holy men as well,
East and West,
North and South,
One of the world’s beautiful cities,
Her depths are shaken by daily bombings
Without losing balance,
And, although her women
Whisper to their men at night
Lest the children should awake,
The men don’t listen;
They continue to reproduce.
This city is amazing:
Her residents are always drunken.
Her stars are never sober.
She was bombed,
Like a broken watch,
But she went on ticking,
As if she were just born,
From beneath the rubble broadcasting
On wings of broken light
A code for future generations.
Her heart keeps beating and beating,
With the sign of the broadcasting signal,
With all the strength and determination,
In all the words that are left to it:
This is Baghdad,
This is Baghdad,
This is Baghdad.
A Sorrowful Melody, by Bushra al-Bustani (1950–)
A Sorrowful Melody
Bushra al-Bustani (1950–)
The tanks of malice wander.
Is turned away like an abandoned horse
Scorched by an Arabian sun,
Chewed by worms.
Picasso paints another Guernica,
Painting Baghdad under the feet of boors.
Freedom is a lute
Strummed by a nameless dwarf.
Paintings in Baghdad’s museums
Are at the mercy of the wind.
The Assyrian smiling bull is frightened.
Forced to leave, he is confused and weeping.
In the museum’s corners and bends,
Played a sorrowful melody.