“The City of Translation”

“The rich collection in this issue of Shahadat reflects Sousan Hammad’s unique approach to translation as a form of collective engagement and draws on the works of poets from urban milieus in Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and Lebanon that are transformed through the emotional force of poetry. From the poems of Najwan Darwish, set in an imaginary Haifa, and Alaa Khaled’s Alexandria, a city that exists in its own reveries, to the surreal dreamscape of northern Lebanon in Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s tales (translated from French by Marilyn Hacker), The City of Translation helps create, or recreate, the places that are constantly pursuing us.”

The Mythopoetic Emperor


Today I remembered ‘Napoleon of Amman’. He was a legacy that stretched from my mother’s adolescence to my childhood summer visits to the city, a legacy that became a tourist attraction for all those passersby who encountered his brazen presence downtown; whether he was taking naps under the public sun, shouting curses at the king, or swearing new world orders. He was a bearded man with matted white hair. In profile, he had a handsome face and always stood like a Napoleonic statue. (Even when he wasn’t wearing the military costume.) The last time I saw him was at a downtown café several years back; I sat nearby, contemplating how I would walk over and congratulate him, maybe shake his hand, anything to show him my admiration – for he was the only person I knew who blasphemed the King in public. So when I told my friend that I was going over to say hello to Napoleon he laughed at me. “The last time I saw someone try and talk to him, Napoleon slapped the guy in the face.” Well, I thought, surely he wouldn’t hit a girl? And so I sat there and watched him from our table, hoping to get any kind of acknowledgement: a wink, a nod. But all he did was ruffle his matted hair.



It surprised me to learn you would carve your imperfect little heart and leave it for me in Jaffa. I found it on the shore, precisely where you told me to go in the note you wrote me. (Your sister handed me the letter at your funeral.) I am amazed at how the waves guided such a fragile object, especially with the unpredictability of the sea. Which brings me to my question: how did you carve it so perfectly? The fish must have gnawed at it because there is a gaping hole in the back. But I suppose that’s alright. You knew your heart would never be perfect after they tucked the pacemaker inside you. It took some negotiating to convince airport security to travel with your heart from Palestine to France, but I reasonably explained everything and the portly officer agreed to let me pass with your imperfect little heart in my pocket. It sits on my bookcase for now until I find a better place. I did what you told me and soaked it in salt water, but I fear your heart is exhausted. It is beginning to look like a rock.

H, LTD. (A Collective Translation)

surveillenceThe skyscrapers of __________ tower above H. – industrial giants of steel and glass and sky. Its capacity to capture signals is extremely good. This is because it is one of the highest points in a flat land: a fine metal pointer indicating the sky, and beyond that, space.

H. is surrounded by ancient structures and modern complexes, walls, wires, and air conditioning.

Movement detected: 12h27. 15/11/11, object, person, male, long, brown, garment, shoes, hair: short, face: dark.

H. feels a bit intimidated and out of place among the passers by. Then H. looks up and sees the street sign: David Ben-Gurion Place, and it feels like sudden, sharp bursts of pain, closely spaced, methodic even, pierce H’s skin, one after the other—one, two, three, four, five— tracing a round (a pentacle?), and then a weight as though something had been hung from H. A brief respite, and then another sequence of stabs, moving along horizontally as though tracing a script. This was aggression of a different sort, so unlike the pains H. had become accustomed to, the random punctures and lacerations of which H. still bear the scars—they ache and breathe the way old wounds do.

I try not to mourn my own death. I am a very good wall, I must say, though I am crumbling and old. I keep the past, and I keep it away from the present. I was chosen because I have always done what I’m told; if a building must come down for each person’s 15 square meters, I lose little sleep. Every day, I see in the streets absent worshipers flocking to the un-mosque; five times I listen to the unsounded call to prayer calling from the un-mosque. And everyday my silent, empty companion remains asleep, unconscious, un-alive.

Everything is between light and dark, but everything is both light and dark. Only very occasionally is this reception interrupted: powerful winds can cause dust clouds to form, mini-tornadoes that whip round and up to the very tip of the building, forcing the aerial to bend. H. stops to listen, and is reminded of home in ________.

The shadows appear to give definition while at the same time flatten it. H. is warmed by the experience, and though H. can only see a corner of the sky and a few tufts of plants, they give an impression of power; it is they who constitute the sacredness of the land. They have long root memory. And if the city were deserted they would belong there too.

Movement out of view, rotation: 180 degrees, small object, out of view: 2h37 – 12/11/11.

H. is both elated and bereft.

I will no longer divide, I will no longer keep out, I will no longer conceal the truth. I will no longer, then, be a wall, and I will fall… I will sacrifice my existence so that my friend can again exist, because one reality negates the other. I only hope that as an un-wall I can keep offering the mosque the same lonely company its un-being has given me.

Facing away from camera, figure walks over iron barrier, towards dwelling, enters it: 12h30 – 15/11/11

H. breathes a sigh of relief.

That ever-present feeling of dissolution, of crumbling away into dust, a gradual shedding of my burden that will only cease when I myself am gone. Which may occur sooner than anticipated. I have heard whispers. They say I am no longer needed, no longer welcome in this land.

Movement out of view, rotation: 93 degrees.

Empty for:

Vagabonds of a Marketplace


The pigeon, always present in this prose, believes not in hibernation. Perched on a bookshelf of a room not his, he coos, with his comrades, only when it is dark. The battle starts promptly when you turn on the light. You see that he has destroyed all your novels, including your cherished lamp. You call for help. He interrupts you with doctrines of an -ism, claiming the house was his long before yours, and points at the historical proof: shit, two-feet thick, that is crusted on the ground. You repudiate mythology and tell him it is not convincing, and that building a wall made of shit is an even greater fabrication. You try sweetly to negotiate with him: I stay, but you can have the roof. You tell him he can have the satellites and ledges, and any other rooftop crevice to perch and shit on. You think you have convinced him; but, when you later turn on the light, you find that he is now perched on the window, ready to announce an air strike of shit and piss. You throw a book at him, the only weapon you can find, and you think you have killed him. But right when you are about to celebrate victory, he swarms at you with a combative impulse, knocking you down to the ground. His contempt does not subdue you, but you happen to be tired: a fatigue convincing enough for you to believe that the only solution is to obtain a reconciliation with the pigeon.

eternal corpses

I never asked for her name. It wasn’t until today that I remembered her at all.

It was May 15, (the date of the Nakba) and an exhibition was organized by a friend of mine who had been collecting household items from historic Saffuriyeh. One could politely call them antiques: the irons and scissors, mirrors and pots, carpets and jewelry, but that word seems too pretentious. These items were much more meaningful, for they laid bare a history one could never forget: items that were left behind when the villagers of Saffuriyeh fled their homes in 1948. Thousands waited, wanting to go back, but the village was surrounded by unfamiliar people brandishing weapons and divine manifestations. They waited and waited, but for each day the people waited the feeling of indignation became more unbearable. And so, one day, the people went back into their homes and took back what was theirs – their brushes and clothing, food and canisters, pipes and cutlery – all that they could hold was carried away to their itinerant homes in nearby Nazareth.

There she was, walking around the room singing and smiling. When she saw an old pair of brass scissors that once belonged to a barber of Saffuriyeh she looked around for acknowledgement then picked the scissors up and pretended to cut her hair, which was loosely covered by a white scarf.

A crowd gathered around her, and so began her monologue: I am 77 years old (or is it 81?) and I was born here. No matter that she was unaware of her age, for her memory of everything else was acute. With pride and humor, she told us stories about her childhood in her birthplace, Saffuriyeh: a village in the north of Palestine that was once surrounded by innumerable trees. Today, it is a colony named Tzippori where Jewish-Israeli settlers live inside the ravaged memories of homes not theirs. She retracted the statement about her age. I don’t know how old I am, I don’t know when I was born, she said. I imagined what the empty inscription on her tombstone would inevitably say. When people ask me how old my father was when he died, I respond with hesitancy and a vague number. He never had a birth certificate, like the lady in the scarf. We calculated that he may have been born in the late ‘30’s or early ’40’s, but we never precisely knew.

Saffuriyeh – that is my town, the lady in the scarf said. I lived there, we lived there. We had a home but it’s gone now. The lady stopped talking and went back to her reflective nature. Her clothes looked big on her. She looked like a little girl dressed in her father’s coat and mother’s heels. A costume, one would assume, of the archetypal shrunken matriarch. She smiled that joyful smile again and began to sing.

How odd it must have been for her to step into that room, I thought. It was decorated precisely as it would have been 62 years ago. Did she know it was all fabricated? No matter. This is her time to play. And so she picked up and put down all the pieces that lay bare on the shelves, whether it was the oversized mortar that was once used to pound herbs, or the hair comb that looked like it had been made in haste – she played and played as if the world was on pause in 1948, singing all along. I pictured my mother standing in our kitchen wearing a floral dress and singing as she did when she cleaned or cooked. I searched for my memories as she searched for hers. There were moments when the time and space confused her, but onward she went gazing at the broken memories surrounding her. Pay no heed to the fluorescent lights above your head or the fabricated landscape outside the window. Pay no heed, I wanted to tell her. But I never did. I never even asked for her name.