Translated by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari and Anthony A. Lee (Michigan State University Press, 2015)
It is very hard for English speakers to find anything on the Web, in bookstores, or in libraries, about the Jordanian poet and fiction writer Tayseer al-Sboul, who was born in 1939 and died young, by his own hand, in 1973. Now translators Nesreen Akhtarkavari and Anthony A. Lee have gone some way to rectifying this situation with a bilingual volume entitled Desert Sorrows, containing all of Tayseer’s poems. It is an impeccably made book, with long and informative pieces at the beginning to help readers get acquainted with the late Jordanian writer. Translator Anthony A. Lee’s preface, in particular, stands out. It is beautifully written and touching, and it explains the deep kinship he feels with Tayseer’s struggles and work.
As Lee says in his piece, some of the writing may at first strike a sophisticated Anglophone reader as clichéd and simplistic. This is a problem that has as much to do with cultural differences as with the act of translating. There is a reason (beyond language) that North Americans and Brits and Australians (etc.) know so little about Nigerian and Palestinian and Egyptian (etc.) writing, whether it be poetry or prose: there remains a huge divide between people of different cultures. And it’s not just “relatability”; it has to do with the question of what is considered good/new/fresh. For example in much early 20th century Spanish poetry, writers were still referring to the soul, el alma. But for Americans or Brits, the word or concept of soul seems, and has seemed for a long time, abstract and old-fashioned. Antonio Machado, who mentions the soul a lot, just hasn’t traveled as well as Lorca outside the Spanish-speaking world. What is anointed a good poem within a comfortable MFA context in 2015 is not so easily going to be accepted as a successful poem on the occupied West Bank, and vice versa. And I’m not even referring to the intricacies of translation.
Which brings me to Tayseer, who had a tragically short life but produced a novel, a few stories, and poems still much admired in the Arab world. Lee cites the following lines as examples of what could strike us as “flat. The images of the desert [are] too clichéd, and the narrative [seems] too stereotyped to represent the author’s real experience”:
From time before time,
in the darkest caves of eternity,
it [a Bedouin’s voice?] stretched through the Arabian Desert
flowing like a dream, magic, melancholy,
like the nights of Scheherazade.
As Lee discovered more of Tayseer’s poems, he realized there was more to him than he first realized. He cites these lines, and recognizes depression:
Winter has ended.
Boredom has ended.
I know I love the spring.
I long for it with desire.
But my suffering heart, full of winter,
Appears at no fixed season.
My life is winter.
I read the preface after the poems, and I confess those lines jumped out at me too; they are especially poignant if read in the context of the whole poem.
Tayseer’s voice is lugubrious and heavy with abstractions; it is rife with lines that in most American workshops and MFA programs would meet with disapproval, lines like “The flowers of love will not grow in my barren heart. / If you come, my heart will not remember you.” Consider the first of these. It was written in the 1960s but could strike the sophisticated American as something from 3000 B.C.: the issue is the pairing of “flowers” with “love” and the phrase “barren heart.” If you look at much of this work from an “MFA perspective,” you’d say there’s not much here. But in this sense the three introductory prose pieces at the beginning of the volume do help us put Tayseer’s work and words in perspective. We do need a lot of background. We do need to know that he lived in Syria and Lebanon for a time and believed passionately in Arab unity, was suspicious of Western cultural intrusions, and was deeply (catastrophically) thrown by the outcomes of the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1967 and 1973. If we as readers come to know about his life and times, his struggles and passions, then lines that may at first seem dull take on new meaning.
I believe the poems in this edition are not presented chronologically. (I could be wrong about this.) For some reason, the strongest poems come in the last third of the book, when the poet, never cheerful to begin with, goes into exile, despairs, and takes his leave. I love “Andalusian Song” and “A Gypsy.” When I first read these pieces (before reading the introductory remarks), I imagined the poet temporarily in exile in Spain and visiting Seville. I took “A Gypsy” to be about the stirring song of “ancient” Flamenco performers as they sing and play castanets and guitar and stomp their feet. They remind the poet of the splendid days, a thousand years ago, when the Moors prospered in Spain and Arab culture thrived all through the Mediterranean. My interpretation could be off, but it is an enjoyable poem to read; speaking of Lorca versus Machado, it invokes the spirit of the great Gypsy poet from Granada who also died young and violently:
I am running away, carried along by distant roads,
my black faith, unknown, terrifying.
My journey ends
in your eyes, the graveyards of everything mysterious.
If I make a sacrifice to you,
it will be my heart.
Rain on me!
Rain on me
torrents from your cloud of mystery.
Rain on me! You are still wealthy
with the scent of grass on your breasts,
and the dew-drenched earth.
If Tayseer hadn’t shot himself in 1973, he might still be with us, and would be in his seventies. I wonder what he would have made of developments over the last forty years. Possibly he would have seen some good in the way his country has developed, an enclave of relative peace and prosperity. Given what we know about his character, he probably wouldn’t have much positive to say. Recently Jordan was in the news because of the savage killing of a Jordanian pilot by Islamic State fanatics; he was burned alive in a cage. I wonder what Tayseer would have made of that atrocity. I wonder what he would have made of the Iraq War and the Arab Spring. Obviously he left the world—for reasons we’ll never know for sure—much too soon.