Ahmed Matar: Ayna Sahbi Hassan?

15 Oct

This is an attempt at a translation of Arabic poetry into English ‘poetry’. By poetry I really mean doggerel but this is partly intentional. I have translated a short but very memorable poem by Ahmed Matar which, while it is not quite doggerel, is written in a very simple almost simplistic style. This is clearly intentional as it means, as I hope you will see, the ending is all the more powerful when put in such a trite context.

As is very common in Arabic poetry it is all rhymed on the same sound. Almost no translators, for good reason, try to replicate this in English but in this poem I have done so. This is again to heighten the contrast between the ‘light’ and the ‘heavy’ etc. etc. Though it might just end up sounding stupid. It has also forced me to change the same of his friend from Hassan to Trent thus give the whole poem the feeling of being set in Alabama or some such place. This was not intentional but it is perhaps a little amusing.

Ahmed Matar is, by the way, a very good political Arabic poet who has the bonus for Arabic students of having a style that is relatively easy to understand. This poem is about a president who visits various areas across his country to ask about problems. The author’s friend stands up to complain but it does not go very well. I apologise to Ahmed Matar for this translation

A visit from our trusted president

Who tours our country’s vast extent

He gave a speech and thus it went:

“Have no fear to voice dissent

the days of fear are truly spent”

So up he stood, my old friend Trent

And asked him: “Mr President

Where’s the food with rich content?

Where’s a house with decent rent?

Where’s a job with no torment?

Where will medicine be sent?

Oh honoured Mr President

Though you have the best intent

We haven’t even had a cent!”

Then spoke the trusted president

With voice full of great lament

“This causes me a deep torment

To her these words of discontent

In this land, at this event.

But thank you for your words well-meant

And better times are in ascent.”

Another year it came and went

And came again our president:

“Have no fear to voice dissent

the days of fear are truly spent”

Not one single malcontent!

So up I stood with good intent:

“Where’s the food with rich content?

Where’s a house with decent rent?

Where’s a job with no torment?

Where will medicine be sent?

And, sorry Mr President,

But where now is my old friend Trent?”

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