Abdel Aziz al Maqaleh: Poems

Abdel Aziz al Maqaleh was born in 1937 in Yemen. He has many poetry collections, some of which are Ma’rib tatakalam, 1972 (Ma’rib Speaks), Abbjadiyyat al Ruh, 1998 (the Alphabet of the Soul) and Kitab Sana’a, 2000 (The Book of Sana ‘a). He has published a number of literary studies such as Qira’a fi Adab at Yemen (A Reading of Yemenite … Continued

Abdel Aziz al Maqaleh was born in 1937 in Yemen. He has many poetry collections, some of which are Ma’rib tatakalam, 1972 (Ma’rib Speaks), Abbjadiyyat al Ruh, 1998 (the Alphabet of the Soul) and Kitab Sana’a, 2000 (The Book of Sana ‘a). He has published a number of literary studies such as Qira’a fi Adab at Yemen (A Reading of Yemenite Literature) and Azmat al Qasida at Arabiyya (The Crisis of the Arabic Poem).

Poem 47 of The Book of Sanaa’

The spirit of this city floats
On the water of years.
Do not wake her
Let her moan while her children drown.
Do not light her pale alleys,
For the streets are still wet
With the sweet blood of martyrs
Who died for their homeland,
And turned the pages of life too soon

Let her sleep to forget
Let her sleep to remember
do not scratch with words
The tomb she has erected
for her grief.
Above it moan corpses
Below it they are lost.

Translated from the Arabic by Huda Fakhreddine and Jayson Iwen

Huda Fakhreddine was born in 1981 in Beirut Lebanon. She is a graduate student of English literature at the American University of Beirut, where she also holds a minor in Arabic literature. She has a special interest in modern poetry, Arabic and English, and plans to pursue a degree in Comparative literature. She has worked on several translations of Arabic poetry and prose into English.

Jayson Iwen lives with his wife and three cats in Beirut, Lebanon, where he teaches at the American University of Beirut, and advises the literary and cultural journal Anima (www.animabeirut.com). His own poetry has recently appeared in journals such as Fence, Clackamas Literary Review, Third Coast and Reed Magazine. Jayson also writes regularly for the Emergency Almanac (www.emergencypress.org).

By All Means

It’ sleeping, it did not die.
It will emerge from its sleep
   (after a year)
I tell you, after twenty years
And it will wash its feet in the blood of kings,
It will dance till morning
And until evening 
It will pull out its executioner’s teeth and nails 
Without malicious joy without despair
Sleep will leave it
When its good sons emerge from their sleep.
The apples of every eye
Have your eyes had their fill of fear?
Are you not worry of coffins?
Haven’t the clouds of slumber and the mirrors of
been broken at the borders of nightmares?

Matyrs at “Change Square” in Sanaa

The Betrayal*

My faith in poetry is betrayed, as blood, 
gushing from the heart of the square,
now masks the face of words         

My eyes can no longer 
make out the shape of things,
the tone of things

Blood, blood, and more blood

It shrouds my soul, my tongue
it envelopes the horizon
and stains people’s bread,
falling on plates,
coffee cups, 
and the eyes of children.

What dark shadow
casts its corpse across our homeland,
in this city made of light?

What day long bloody hours
lurk over the public square, 
in a time of darkness,
hunting for young men 
at the age of youthful dreams
and the most beautiful vision
of days to come?

What shame it brings
when the light dies, 
shot by bullets of blind hatred

I have no words 
but pale ones,
and can offer only tears
streaming down my face,
onto the pages

I tell you: this people 
has sent many, many heroes,
and offered many, many sacrifices,
along the path to freedom!

Oh Ghaymaan!  Oh Aybaan! 
Aren’t you crushed as tears 
shed by the street turn to stone,
and the heart of the public square 
anguishes at the passing of sons 
who sacrifice for the meaning of change?

They bare their chests 
and raise their heads high
catching betrayal’s bullets
in a full embrace 
of the nation’s precious soil

Tens killed, hundreds injured,
is it enough, oh Ghaymaan,
that your heart weeps,
is it enough, oh Aybaan,
that you soul is touched by tragedy?

Or must we construct
a dam and mountains
made of human beings            
to obstruct this savage rising tide,
and stop the blood baths?!

* Translation of the poem and commentary by Stephen Day

Commentary on “The Betrayal”

Abd al-Aziz al-Maqaleh is Yemen’s best known poet, past president and current distinguished professor emeritus at Sanaa University, and long time director of the government-funded Yemeni Center for Studies and Research.  During the last three decades, al-Maqaleh has been widely recognized inside Sanaa as leader of the city’s top cultural arts and literary circles.  Frequent host at official ceremonies and private diwans, he moves easily among the country’s ruling elites and average citizens, generally accessible to anyone seeking his insights and opinions on important issues of the day.  At the Yemeni Center, he also welcomes any foreign visitors conducting studies and research about the country.

As an associate of top officials in Yemen’s ruling party, including President Ali Abdallah Salih and former prime ministers Abd al-Aziz Abd al-Ghani and Abd al-Kareem al-Iryani, Dr. al-Maqaleh regularly entertains government officials with readings of his poetry at official ceremonies.  Over the years, on many national holidays marking the country’s revolutions of September 1962 and October 1963, as well as the unification of north and south Yemen in May 1990, this senior poet’s voice could be heard, filled with quiet passion, lauding the values of the nation and praising the accomplishments of its political leadership.  Heroism, courage, bravery, sacrifice, solidarity, equality, liberty are common themes of poetry read at national holiday celebrations in Yemen.  They also are the values upheld by the regime in Sanaa.

In March 2011, Dr. al-Maqaleh wrote a poem about a recent event known as “Bloody Friday” in Yemen.  This event took place near the entrance of Sanaa University’s new campus, which is located near a large mountain on the northwest edge of the capital.  During the preceding month, this site had been enthusiastically renamed “Change Square” by students inspired by the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. On March 18th, Yemen’s “Change Square” witnessed the brutal shooting deaths of more than fifty youth.  Snipers in plain clothes, but widely associated with the regime’s national security forces, stood atop four and five story commercial and residential buildings in the neighborhood, taking deadly aim at the heads and necks of unarmed demonstrators in the street below.  The firing line of these snipers was similar to the firing line of many men in Yemen’s gun culture, who practice their shooting skills while standing at the edge of the country’s many mountain canyons.

The street near Sanaa University’s new campus is one of the city’s main streets, and the buildings along it form an urban canyon.  Early on “Bloody Friday,” this canyon was filled with tens of thousands of demonstrators, holding banners and placards, dancing and singing.  In an instant, one sniper’s shot rang out, and others immediately joined in a reckless killing spree that reportedly continued for more than twenty minutes.  One minute there was joy in the hearts of young street protesters.  And in the next minute, many lay in the street dying from horrific wounds.  Others numbering in the hundreds were injured and bleeding profusely.  Friends and strangers raced in panic to rescue the fallen, carrying them to makeshift medical facilities in nearby mosques and other buildings.  Pools of blood formed on the streets and sidewalks, entrances and hallways of buildings, staining people’s hands and feet.

During the days after “Bloody Friday,” Abd al-Aziz al-Maqaleh wrote a poem describing his reaction to news of this nightmarish scene.  In this poem, which I have taken liberty to entitle “The Betrayal,” he reveals an important side of the political culture among Yemeni elites in Sanaa. Al-Maqaleh addresses his own sentiments more than the sentiments of the young dying and injured students in the streets.  Through the decades, this beloved national poet’s sentiments have been sculpted atop a pedestal created by the regime in Sanaa, mainly for the sake of public admiration for the regime’s nationalist and patriotic credentials.  As expressed in this poem, al-Maqaleh’s sentiments betray his own association with a regime that could hire snipers who carried out the “Bloody Friday” massacre — a massacre committed against a younger generation, a new set of heroic sons, who died with their dreams and ideals.

The poem embraces the same sense of patriotism which al-Maqaleh regularly expressed on national holidays at parade grounds in Sanaa.  But it also signals his awareness of the role he played in the betrayal of today’s younger generation, due to the failure of his own older generation to develop a just, fair, and free politics in Yemen.  Referring to “Ghaymaan and Aybaan,” al-Maqaleh hints at tragic history repeating itself because of the habitual corruption of Sanaa’s ruling class.  During the mid-20th century, the city and its surrounding mountainous territory were ruled by Zaydi imams.  Today these rulers are remembered as cruel figures who kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured in order to keep the general population uneducated and poor.  The imams are the villains in most Yemeni national poetry.  When Imam Ahmad, son of the more famous Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din, died in mid-September 1962, he was replaced by his son, Muhammad al-Badr.  This set in motion an armed rebellion by officers in the Imamate’s army, who fought to establish the modern republic that President Salih eventually came to rule in 1978.

In recent years, President Salih began indicating that he wanted his own son, Ahmad, to serve as the nation’s next leader.  In the late 1990s, Ahmad Salih became head of the national Republican Guard, a position that was considered a stepping stone for his ascension to the post of president.  For at least the past ten years, the political opposition in Yemen has been accusing President Salih (a man from a simple tribal background) of behaving like the Zaydi imams once did.  Not only was Salih perceived to accept the principle of inherited rule, but he used kidnapping, imprisonment and torture against his political opponents.  Similar to the accusations of illegitimacy made, during the last decade, against the elevated sons of other Arab republican leaders, like Gamal Mubarak in Egypt, Sayf al-Qadhafi in Libya, and Bashar al-Asad in Syria, Yemeni president Salih’s son Ahmed faced widespread public criticism, charging that he was unfit to replace his father as head of state.

Perceptions about the illegitimacy of inherited rule are one of the factors driving popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.  Yet recent events in Yemen, and the intent of al-Maqaleh’s poem, indicate that these uprisings are also driven by other perceived illegitimacies.  One example is the widely perceived failure of republican rule founded on popular revolutions five and six decades ago, which generally proved incapable of delivering broad social and economic justice.  The elites of these republican regimes continue to use the same rhetoric from the past, spouting stale words about national triumph and accomplishment, while enriching themselves in order to afford ever more palaces, jet planes, and luxury cars.  This reality goes unmentioned in al-Maqaleh’s poem, but it lies at the root of the betrayals mentioned in his poem.  Yemen’s new ruling son, Ahmad, and his many brothers and cousins, live like royalty.  They also control the nation’s elite military and security forces, some of which are suspected of firing at student demonstrators in “Change Square.”

Surrounding Sanaa on all sides, there are enormous mountains.  But the tallest sit directly to the east and west.  Each day, the sun rises and falls over these mountains.  Mornings and evenings in Sanaa are beautiful times, a fact readily acknowledged by anyone who visits this magical city set in a fertile mountain valley.  By tradition, the mountain in the west, nearest the new campus of Sanaa University is called “Aybaan.”  In the late 1960s, the royalist tribal forces of Imam Muhammad al-Badr Hamid al-Din stood atop this mountain to bombard the republican army in Sanaa, during the city’s famous “Seventy Day Siege.”  Tales of the heroic defense of Sanaa, in the late fall and early winter of 1967-1968, inform key elements of Yemen’s national memory.  Many patriots died, and far more were injured, during a bombardment that was supplied covertly by American, British, and Israeli sources, operating in coordination with the Saudi king to the north.  Each of these foreign countries sought to turn back Yemen’s revolutions in the 1960s.

By referencing “Ghaymaan and Aybaan” as natural elements rising above the city of Sanaa, al-Maqaleh intends to recall this earlier bloody sacrifice in the streets of Sanaa.  It goes unmentioned, a second time, that the snipers of “Bloody Friday,” who stood atop the urban canyon overlooking “Change Square” in the shadow of Aybaan in March 2011 had earlier been supplied and trained by American and other western countries, which hoped to keep young Ahmad Salih and his brothers and cousins in command positions of Yemeni security forces.  These unmentioned things remain outside the poem’s field of vision, but they undoubtedly inform the memories of friends and family of those students who fell on Yemen’s “Bloody Friday.”  What does get mentioned in al-Maqaleh’s poem, and is plainly intended by his metaphor about tragic history repeating itself, is the betrayal of it all.  Dr. al-Maqaleh remorses at the younger generation’s betrayal by an older generation of revolutionary republican elites, who could sadly behave as badly as the preceding villains of the Zaydi Imamate era.


William Marr (Chinese-American)

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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (American)