The Iraqi-Assyrian Sargon Boulos (1944-2007) was born in Habbaniya, Iraq, into an Assyrian Christian family. He moved to Kirkuk with his family in the 1950s and began writing poetry from an early age. He learnt English at a young age due to his father’s association with the British and read English and American poetry avidly as a youth, especially the American Beat poets. After moving to Baghdad in 1964, he befriended Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, who sent his poetry to the avant-garde Shʿir magazine published in Beirut by Yusuf al-Khal and Adonis. Buluṣ ended up in Beirut in 1967 after an adventurous journey across the desert without any identity papers. His ultimate ambition to go to America and engage closely with the Beat poets he idealized was achieved in 1969 when the U.S. ambassador in Beirut, impressed with his knowledge of American poetry, granted him a visa. He went first to New York and then to San Francisco, where he made his home and lived for most of his life. After the first Gulf War he spent a number of years living in Europe and died in Germany.[i]
According to an interview in 2003, Boulos saw himself as fulfilling a call latent in classical Arabic poetry; Imru’ al-Qays, in his view one of classical Arabic’s greatest poets along with al-Mutanabbi, `Umar Ibn Abi Rabi`a and others, aspired to change consciousness through the meaning of poetry, just as he [Boulos] aspired to strike deep into the Arabic poetic consciousness with a voice that the Arab reader is currently unfamiliar with.[ii] His point of entry into his engagement with Imru’ al-Qays is a hadith attributed to the Prophet Muḥammad, which has him calling Imru’ al-Qays “the best [ash`ar] of poets and their leader to the [Hell] fire” in reference to his supposedly hedonistic lifestyle. This poem appeared in the collection “The Carrier of the Lantern in the Night of the Wolves” [Ḥamil al-Fanus fi Layl al-Dhi’ab] that was published in 1996.[iii] Boulos invokes the power of this image to renew his bond with an unbroken tradition by invoking the same demons that haunted Imru’ al-Qays during his long night.
The words italics are taken from Imru’ al-Qays’ mu`allaqa that Boulos attempts to weave into his poem and engage in a dialogue with. I have used `Adnan Haydar’s translation of the mu`allaqa here.[iv]
I have embers
For this night
There is a heater
Towards which I open my hands
I listen closely to a storm stir in the dark like a hyena in heat
Its distraught howling no longer enraptures me
I listen closely
to hear the desert sing
and not the ever louder neighing of America as if it a thousand wounded horses
were around me, to another age, blown away by a sand’s powerful hand
into the gaping jaws of Time where the ruins
are always lying in waiting
at the edge of the sand dune
between ad-Dakhul and Hawmal
They are always there.
They are always voices and from meandering to meandering
The wind prattles in our valleys like a decrepit old woman closely linked to us
whom we do not want to die
whether we are in the West or the East
In puzzlement, we try multiply one by the sixths of the other and say
“my father lost me as a child”. Yes he lost me
and I will not rest
wine today and business tomorrow says the wind[v]
And I have wine, embers and a mu`allaqa[vi]
With them, I may defeat a demon that visits me at this hour
at this hour always, as if we have a fixed appointment
Burdened with all my deep-seated rancor, he does not accept lateness
To teach me the hidden secrets of my heart of hearts
And this accursed dusk, ever-thickening with shadow after shadow
I dream of the last drop to drip from its curtains
with all kinds of cares
with sands, with the barren expanse of my imagination, and with you, with you as well
and with Destiny
O King escaping from that brute
al-Mundhir ibn Ma’ al-Sama’[vii]
That brute who is nothing but a name that pursues us till the gate of Inferno
That name, hollow like a drum. That tyrant. That
slave That brute, he is always there.
That shadow, which occupies a corner in the heart and will not be budged
Just like your poisoned robe (a “present” from “your friend” the Byzantine Emperor[viii]
He is there.
A mortal blow from his mounted hand
Our illiterate enemy, frenzied and more blind than a night that spread its backbone
that worm hanging from the bottom of the pear
in the garden of our isolation
verdant and luscious as far as the eye can see
The claw buried in the flesh of the rhymes;
It will not, will not be dislodged, O Imruʾ al-Qays!
Neither by victory or non -victory
it might dispossess a man of everything
until he ends up on the mat No embers No wine
Translated from the Arabic by Suneela Mubayi
[i] See Sinan Antoon, “The Divine Sponge” http://vomena.org/blog/2009/02/the-divine-sponge/ [ii] Interview with Adnan Sayyid Aḥmad, al-Ḥiwar al-Mutamaddin 687 (Dec. 12, 2003), http://www.ahewar.org/debat/show.art.asp?aid=12732 (my translation).
[iii] Sargun Bulus, “Ila Imri’ al-Qays fi Ṭariqihi ila-l-Jahim” in Ḥamil al-fanus fī Layl al-dhi’ab: shi`r (Cologne: Manshurat al-Jamal, 1996), 50-2.
[iv] Adnan Haydar, The Mu`allaqa of Imru’ al-Qays: Its Structure and Meaning, Journal of Arabic Literature, 2 (2): 1977 (pp. 227-57) [v] “wine today and business tomorrow” attributed to Imru’ al-Qays when he was told of the murder of his father by the Banu Asad tribe used subsequently as a popular saying to denote a hedonistic attitude towards life.
[vi] “hanging poem” the name given to the long pre-Islamic odes that were hung on the walls of the Ka`ba in Mecca and considered to be the earliest “great compositions” of Arabic poetry.
[vii] A principal adversary of his, who pursued and repeatedly tried to slay him and was eventually responsible for his murder.
[viii] According to anecdotes, Imruʾ al-Qays’ adversaries conspired with the Roman emperor of the time, with whom Imruʾ al-Qays was trying to forge an alliance to regain his slain father’s kingdom, to murder him by sending him a poisoned robe as a supposed gift of honor.