Two Poems from the Iraqi Diaspora

February 16, 2023
translated by Khaled Mattawa
A somber black and white photograph of a boy standing on a beach looking at the ocean
Photo by Alex Arbelaez / Flickr


It’s okay to veer toward Tetouan,
to stay a while,
to be released from a pair of pliers, the two mountains
that have gripped Tetouan since Tetouan rose,
a white
in a cage of mountains.
There is no escape but to the open sea,
the sand that saves us from touching rock,
the water where we land as if falling into a secret—
Atlantis has dissolved in the slow waves of sleep.
We are now in Martil
between blue blue and white,
between sea and sand,
between one cup and another.
We are barefoot in the nearly deserted old bar,
that still sports a Spanish look from a bygone age.
A cat comes,
a cat must come to join us
to nudge the field forward into the night.

German Trains

Where are all these trains taking their passengers?
They roar at dawn,
at night,
at noon.
Even the pillow trembles in fear of these trains,
the neighborhood willow shudders,
the beer hall door,
the Asian store,
and Buddha’s statue.
Even the dew is shivering.
Where are they taking their passengers?
Where will they cast them?
Where are they heading?
The world has regained its senses—we know that.
Yet . . .
. . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . .
These trains are going in the opposite direction
(toward stations from two centuries ago)
rumbling with their passengers,
their unsuspecting passengers.

Translations from the Arabic

Born near Basra, Iraq, Saadi Youssef (1934–2021) was considered one of the most important contemporary poets in the Arab world. Following his experience as a political prisoner in Iraq, he spent most of his life in exile, working as a journalist and activist throughout North Africa and the Middle East. He authored over thirty books of poetry, two novels, and a book of short stories. Youssef lived in London at the time of his death, where he was a leading translator of English literature into Arabic. He translated works by many major writers, including Walt Whitman, Federico García Lorca, C. P. Cavafy, Vasko Popa, and Giuseppe Ungaretti.

Mattawa Photo © Khairy Shaaban

Khaled Mattawa is the author of six volumes of poetry, most recently Fugitive Atlas (2020; see WLT, Winter 2021, 76). A MacArthur Fellow, he teaches at the University of Michigan and edits Michigan Quarterly Review. His translation of Saadi Youssef’s selected poems, Without an Alphabet, Without a Face, won the PEN American Center Poetry Translation Prize in 2003.