Review: In Jerusalem and Other Poems, Tamim Al-Barghouti, translated by Tamim Al-Barghouti & Radwa Ashour
By Thomas Parker
I first learned of the Arab poet Tamim Al-Barghouti when my teacher had me read his poem “Ya Masr Hanet wa Banet” aloud as an exercise for my pronunciation of the Egyptian dialect of Arabic. The poem, written in the early days of the January 25th revolution, was full of the optimism of those eighteen days. I instantly fell in love with the poem, but as I learned the backstory I came to respect the author even more. On January 28th, Barhouti, being in Washington and the internet in Egypt cut off, faxed the poem to a newspaper in Cairo. From there, Al-Jazeera asked him to record a reading of the poem. That recording of his poem was broadcasted on large screens in Tahrir Square every couple hours every day for the remainder of the revolution. Here, I had been introduced to a poet whose words were powerful enough to inspire people even in the midst of a revolution.
As I looked into Barghouti more, the more I found worthy of admiration. Not only he is a master of poetry, but his command extends over a wide range of genres and registers. With Arabic being a diglossic language, there is a divide between the spoken registers, collectively referred to as aamiya, and fusha, which refers to both classical Arabic and what linguists call Modern Standard. This divide also exists in Arabic poetry, with fusha, traditionally seen as being the register appropriate for poetry, and a true shiir aamiya only emerging in Egypt in the twentieth century. While there have been great poets in both, I cannot think of another Arab poet in the modern period who was equally great in both aamiya and fusha poetry and certainly not as consistently. Owing to his background as a son of a Palestinian poet and an Egyptian novelist (both famous litterateurs in their own right), not only has Barghouti written in dialect, but has done so in more than one dialect, as his first two poetry collections were written in Palestinian and Egyptian, respectively. There is a further divide in Arabic poetry, as in pretty much all poetry, between shiir hur (free verse) and shiir arood (metered poetry), both of which Barghouti has written in, in addition to prose-poetry pieces. And what is amazing is that whether he is writing poems in Palestinian, Egyptian or fusha Arabic; whether he is writing free verse, metered or prose-poems, he does all with an equal level of mastery. All of this is basically a very long-winded way of saying that Tamim Al-Barghouti is, in my estimation, the greatest Arabic poet writing today. He was also, until this book, undoubtedly the greatest contemporary Arab poet to not yet be translated.
Lest I seem too harsh at times, it is in light of the previous statement and the pedigree I hold him to that the rest of this review should read. All of the poems in In Jerusalem and Other Poems, published by Interlink Books, were translated by Al-Barghouti himself and his late mother Radwa Ashour, the famous Egyptian novelist, memoirist and critic. Most of the poems, such as Genesis, The Ant, A Game of Chess, The Raid, The State, are shorter ones that are basically a single extended metaphor encapsulating some aspect of the absurdity of politics. There is also the titular poem In Jerusalem, a poem that made him famous in the Arab world, and two excerpts from longer prose-poems, which were, in my opinion, the highlights of the collection. The strength of this collection definitely lies in Barghouti’s metaphors and juxtapositions, his choice of imagery, and the little reversals at the ends of poems that shed new light on everything read before them. All of these make it through the translation unscathed. However, there is much that doesn’t. Unfortunately, the style of translation ultimately held the collection from being what it could have been and what many expected it to be during the long wait for the first English translation of his work.
One of the biggest flaws in the translation, and one emblematic of the style of translation, is that though all of the poems in the original rhymed, with the exception of the prose pieces, no attempt seems to have been made at making them rhyme in translation. I’m not sure if this due to an actual inability of the translators to do so or a philosophy of poetry translation that says it is impossible to do so, but the end product is the same. I should fully admit here that it is possible to sometimes make an unrhymed translation of a rhymed original that captures so many other elements of the original that the lack of rhyme in the translation is entirely excusable. Translation is an art of choosing what you want to lose and what you want to find in translation. However, in my experience ignoring something as large as rhyming is usually preferable in the case of a single poem and certainly not on the scale of an entire collection. Furthermore, the poems included in the collection are even easier to make rhyme in translation since they have no set form or meter. If a poem is not metered, then that it means that just because the translation rhymes it doesn’t necessarily have to in the same place. However, the lack of rhyme in the collection is only part of a larger and even more damning inattention to sound. This is not at all the same thing as saying it doesn’t rhyme. Rhyming is simply the most famous poetic device of sound, along other ones such as alliteration, consonance and assonance, which are scarce here with many of the poems sounding clunky. This to say, that poems are not only about their meaning, but their sounds too, and the best of poems, including that of Barghouti’s in the Arabic original, use the two elements together and use the one to highlight the other. For a famous example, consider how the sound of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, how the meter chosen and its constancy adds to the sense of the protagonist’s dread in the poem. Any translation of that poem that doesn’t also attempt to use its sounds, even if not necessarily in the exact same manner, to aid that general sense of the poem would be robbing its reader of comprehending the original’s greatness.
Let me now give a specific example from the collection itself of a translation choice that, though small, helps rob its readers of understanding the original’s greatness. In the translation of “In Jerusalem” we find that the first six couplets are italicized and separated from the rest of the poem. The English reader might find this a bit peculiar, as there doesn’t seem to be any real difference between them and the rest of the poem. The reason for this is that in the original the first six couplets were written in shiir urood, with the rest written in free verse. In the original, this difference in form between the first six couplets and the rest of the poem serves to make the introduction distinctive. It’s almost as if the poet is saying “Though we speak of contemporary Jerusalem, history, tradition is its introduction.” I find absolutely no reason why these first six couplets couldn’t have been written in monorhyme, with the rest of the poem being in free verse. While translating the first six couplets of “In Jerusalem” in monorhyme would not have fixed all the translation flaws in that poem, it does serve as the kind of choices in translation that would have pushed the poem closer to the greatness of its original. Here, we should keep in mind, that while “In Jerusalem” is a merely good poem in translation, in its original some lines were brilliant enough that when they were first presented in front of a live audience they pushed the audience into spontaneous applause.
I should be fair and mention that some of these translation flaws above are not unique to this collection, but indeed rampant in Arabic-English poetry translation. Far too often, we find Arabic poetry translated to English that is translated far too literally and is wary of taking risks. With native speakers of English who know Arabic being a rarity, the majority of Arabic-English literary translators are Arabs. While it is entirely possible for a non-native speaker to translate into his acquired language it is extremely difficult[l1] . So much so that some in the translation industry are categorically opposed to it, though this is a position I find too extreme. However, a bigger problem, and one that is shared by native speakers, is that of a philosophy of translation that waters downs poems in the aim of making it “understandable” or “readable” to “the English reader.” However, the problem here is clear: this approach will never produce great literature. What great literature aims to comfort its readers? Some of the greatest pieces of literature are challenging, not solely in terms of their content or their contrarian ideas, but also in their form and language. Great literature has the power to change, not only real-world events, but also entire literary traditions. If our priority was always making poetry “understandable” to the English reader, would the ghazal and rubiyaat forms have ever existed in English? I should repeat here that all of the poems in the book are good and, I mean, really good. Furthermore, Barghouti’s delectable choice of metaphors and juxtapositions and the strength of imagery do shine through in the translation. However, I cannot imagine that any reader would leave this book understanding that this is the greatest poet in the Arab world today. While I do recommend the book for those who cannot access any of Barghouti’s work in the original, it is unfortunate that the book ultimately proves witness that a great poet does not always a good poetry translator make.
 There are exceptions to this. The most notable one is that of Al-Andalus, or Islam Spain, whose poets would pen the form of poetry they invented, the muwashshahat in the Andulasian dialect of Arabic. There have also been a number of folk traditions of poetry, such as the Zajal in the Levant, and Bedouin poetry which have continued throughout the centuries until today.
 There is the exception of In Jerusalem which also credits Ahdaf Soueif, who is herself also a famous Arab writer and commentator. She was also the English translator of Tamim’s father Mourid Barghouti’s famous memoir I Saw Ramallah.
 There is some very light, almost imperceptible rhyming in “The State.”
 "In Jerusalem" was first read on The Prince of Poets television show (think American idol for Arabic poetry), a performance for which he gained fame thorough the Arab world. Though he was widely considered the best poet on the show, he came in fifth place, mostly likely for political reasons. For more on that, see here: http://www.arabworldbooks.com/Articles/article96.htm
If you want to read In Jerusalem and Other Poems you can find it here.
Thomas Parker is a Muslim-American poet, writer and translator from Texas. He writes original poetry in English as well as translating from Turkish and Arabic. He is the co-founder and poetry editor of the Bosphorus Review of Books and is currently at work on a debut novel.