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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the May 2006 issue

from “The Rising of the Ashes”

TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: La remontee des cendres (The Rising of the Ashes) is the title of a small text, written in French by the Paris-based Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun. It was published by Editions du Seuil in 1991, in a bilingual edition, the Arabic translation rendered by Iraqi poet Kadhim Jihad.

The book is composed of two poems, the first dated February-April 1991, bears the title of the book,
The Rising of the Ashes, and addresses the devastation of the Gulf War on Iraq and the human consequences of the West's aggression on the Middle East more generally. The subject of the second section, The Unidentified, is the displacement and killings of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion in 1983.

I found the small book in 2003 when I was working on translating Francophone African poetry, from above and below the Sahara. It seemed a horribly relevant moment to translate this text for English-speaking, and particularly American, readers.

The passages below are selected; they do not occur consecutively in the poem. Each short section is separated from its neighbor by an asterisk.

from The Rising of the Ashes


This body that was a body will no longer stroll the length

   of the Tigris or the Euphrates

loaded by a shovel that will not remember

   a single pain

put in a black plastic bag

this body that was a soul, a name and a face

turned over to face the ground of sands

detritus and absence.


I am sleeping in other bodies emptied 

    of their entrails

they were still warm

the one that moves does not have an arm

it is a starving cat struck by lightning.


They tell me: the grief for us is in 

     the gaze of our children.

Who will tell them the history of our defeats?

Will they believe us?

I see them spit on the defunct faces

so many useless verbs.

Oh the verb, the words, the litany of the famished

bitter bread buried in the low land

I see them run to pick up our worn-out shoes

they make a fire with the poems written by

    the generals

and burn our memory.

They did not spit any longer.

They do not speak anymore.

They forget.



We have gotten astray.

We have been for a long time.

Our guides walk on our shoulders.

They are always armed.

They do not know how to sing or dance

but they write sentimentalizing poems

and uninspired discourses.

They spit on anonymous faces

as in the festivals of ancients times.


from the second long poem, The Unidentified


Abd al-Qader Hantach

April 8 1983

He had a wife who loved to laugh, three children and

   a donkey.

The eldest was absent

they had blindfolded his eyes and marked his shoulder with

   a cross.

Hassan and Hahla guarded

the house during the day and the despondent tree of childhood.

They watched the sky, inappropriate host to unhappiness.

Abd al-Qader Hantach sold sand.

They killed him will bullets on the coast

and spared the donkey.

He had had fifty eight years and an immense season

   of statelessness.



Khodr Said Mohammed

April 27 1983

This body that the flies undress

hand outstretched towards the sea.

The index finger selects a fishing boat

at silence's shore.

A sun rises to name it:

Khodr Said Mohammed.



 Fatima Abou Mayyala

They came in through the roof

they closed the doors and windows.

they stuffed a fistful of sand into her mouth

   and her nostrils, Fatima.

Their hands ripped her stomach

blood was retained

they urinated on her face.

Fatima took the statue's hand

and walked lightly between the trees and the sleeping


She reached the sea

her body raised above death.


He walked hopping like a sparrow 

on tiptoe like an awkward dancer

he didn't want to injure the land which slipped way.

The sea scoffed at him

like the night delivering him to ash

dust of a dwelling that was.

He knew the way and patience

paradox and death

the strange smell of used memories

the useless taste of drifting.

He let himself be carried by the wind

statue of forgetting

blind omen of a light shredding the night.

In his pocket there was a little earth and many keys.

He talked about houses he built in his sleep

And said to him who passed the door,

"I do not know if at the moment of my death there will be 

two squares meters of ground where I will be tolerated."


Read more from the May 2006 issue
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