A Secret Sky
Translated from the Arabic by Anne Fairbairn
When I first studied Wadih Sa'adeh's poetry I enjoyed his work so much I decided I would like to compile a volume of his poems. For many years I have been endeavouring to build a bridge of understanding between Arab countries and Australia and between the Arabic-speaking community in Australia and English speakers. My serious interest in Arabic poetry began in 1980 when I met Dr. Hussam Al Khatibe, Palestinian Professor of Arabic Studies at the university of Damascus. He told me that Arabs are passionate about their language and are by nature poets. He explained that although poets still write classical poetry, using the same forms, metre, rhymes and images that have been used by poets for more than a thousand years, many poets of this century are finding new forms to express more adequately how they feel about the immense changes taking place around them. He recited poems by Syrian poets Nizzar Qabbani and Adonis (Ali Ahmad Sa'id), Iraqi poet Nazik al-Mala'ika, Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan and Lebanese poets Khalil Hawi and Unsi al-Haj, leaders of the free verse movement.
As a result of expanding contact with the West, a growing sense of the significance of the individual emerged in the work of Arab poets. This was reinforced by the poetry of the Mahjar (migrant) school which consisted of poets who migrated to the Americas. The most influential, of these was Gibran Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) who founded a literary society, Al-Rabitah Al Qalamiyah (The Pen Club) in New York in 1920.
After World War II, encounter with western poets, especially T.S. Eliot, had a profound effect on Arabic poetry, both technically, with greater freedom in form and metre and also in content. Poets began to express feelings of loss and even despair as they observed how the West, by championing the tyranny of money, creates an inner wasteland. These feelings were compounded by the gradual erosion of traditional values in the Arab world.
Many Lebanese poets, including Said Aql and Salah Labaki, influenced by the French symbolists, found freedom by turning inwards for expression, often using private (some times incomprehensible) symbols.
Lebanese poet Yusaf al-Khal, returned home after seven years in the United States, to found Majallat Shi'r (Poetry Review) in Beirut in 1957. This became the most influential forum for innovative poetry. Poets published in this journal continued to use symbols; many also experimented with avantgarde forms by blending classical techniques with dada, surrealist forms and existentialist ideas.
This journal encouraged the concept of poetry as a unique expression of personal vision by publishing the radically innovative work of Arab poets, as well as the work of Yeats, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, Edith Sitwell, T.S. Eliot and French poets such as Mallarme, Jaques Prevert and Paul Eluard, who continued to influence change.
The extraordinary richness of the Arabic language provides a medium for developing unlimited innovation and flexibility of form while maintaining a unique poignancy and vividness of imagery; poets can choose from an immense vocabulary for metaphors, allusions and symbols, to give precisely the nuance of meaning required, often so elusive in other languages.
Wadih Sa'adeh's poetry conveys the essence of Lebanon's tragic wars. Each poem is as fresh as a water-colour, as though the poet is creating, with a soft brush, images of a half real world, each line a painful wound, each word a splash of blood. The poet's agony is made more intense by his gentleness of expression. The history of the development of poetry in Lebanon has helped to shape Wadih's work, but I believe his poems demonstrate a unique vision drawn from the simplicity and the spiritual harmony he enjoyed in his village and surrounding fields during his childhood, an innocent vision he holds in his heart to this day. In his poetry this vision is poignantly juxtaposed with his painful memories of Lebanon's brutal wars and the suffering of his fellow Lebanese.
I was born in a peaceful village called Shabtin, in northern Lebanon. It was a place were the people, fields, trees, rocks, birds and animals were one family. Nature was part of our being. The soil and the people were one.
I grew up among farmers who were gentle and dour. I grew up among opposites - the sterility of rocks, the fertility of fields. The fields and rocks sometimes seemed to me to be the secret faces of the people I lived among in that village.
I was about twelve years old when I moved to Beirut. Everything was different, and I was filled with a profound feeling of desolation. It was at this time I began to experiment with poetry, perhaps to escape from this feeling. Whatever the reason, poetry became my companion.
Does this mean that through poetry one is seeking once more a bond with nature? Lost innocence? Freedom?
After travelling to many countries - England, France, Cyprus, Greece, searching for my place in this world, I emigrated to Australia with my family in November, 1988. The war in Lebanon was not the only reason for this. We were seeking social justice, a regard for human rights and freedom. Even so, that lost place remains firmly in my heart, for it is the place of my childhood. I know it is a paradise to which I can never return. When I write poetry, it is to keep this paradise alive in my mind. Poetry is not just an expression of the past, it is an act of creation, a dream of renewal, the only way for me to recreate myself as I would wish to be.
In A Secret Sky, I try to give life to those people who have died in a terrible war in Lebanon, or those people who were forced to leave a country which is now only a memory, a people and a place which no longer exist for me.
In my book I try to give readers a glimpse of the tragedy of my former homeland. Places like my village do not exist separately from those who lived there; they are a part of our very being, part of ourselves. Wherever I live today, my friends from the past - the fields, the hills, the rocks, the birds, the animals - are all part of me, part of my soul.
They glided down towards the sea,
drifting from their mountains like soft shadows,
in case they woke the grass.
Passing over fields,
some shadows whispered farewell and slept;
others clung to rocks and stretched,
dragging the people back.
As they moved, exhausted,
towards the sea,
the sun above them was
searching for a needle
to stitch them once more, to their shadows.
Leaving their eyes behind while walking,
they rely upon past glances.
Silence is lying over their bodies,
with soft winds of the dead
and the spirit of devastated places.
If clouds drift into their minds,
it rains in
When they are weary,
they lay down their glances and sleep.
Death does not only dance in village squares,
it dances near cockscomb, snapdragon and basil.
It is stalking near the well
In village squares the dead melt into asphalt.
Those who stoop to gather flowers
are hurled upwards by bullets
to become lilies.
The Dead Are Sleeping
They were innocent people.
They would caress their children's hair in the dusk,
dropping off to sleep.
They were innocent, simple people,
sweating during the day and smiling.
On their way home they would pause before shop windows,
measuring with their eyes the size of children's clothes,
then walk on.
They would take one step
in the early breath of dawn
to touch the tree trunks.
During January frosts,
while they were watching,
some branches would bear fruit.
Their scythes yearned for the fields,
the air in the village was waiting for their cries.
Suddenly, their wheat became ribs,
the breeze and grass, rooted
in their bodies.
They were innocent, simple people.
Each evening the sun slid its silky mantle
over their souls.
They open their doors before sunrise.
They open the two shutters of their windows
so the sunlight can enter.
With the breath of dawn
life is enjoyed.
a beam of sunlight
shining through a crack in the door
lies across closed eyelids.
They were telling their children about
the guardian angel of plants;
about a nightingale that had flown there at dawn
to sing in the mulberry tree above their window.
They were telling them about the grapes
they would sell to buy new clothes.
About the special surprise the children
would find under their pillows at bedtime.
But some soldiers arrived,
stopped their stories,
leaving red splashes on the walls
as they departed.
Before killing each other,
they trained for many years
to be partridge hunters;
to toss pebbles in the air,
marking them with bullets.
They trained to pluck the wings of birds
to make brooms from the feathers.
They tried to grow feathers on their hands,
so they would become birds.
Then they died,
like hunted birds.
He was dead
but he could feel their fingers on his forehead.
They laid his body in the centre of the house
on a bed they had hired,
like the one he should have bought.
They dressed him
in clothes like those he had seen in city shops.
When they carried him out to be buried,
he left something strange on the threshold.
After that, whenever they entered the house
they shivered without knowing why.
They carried him in silence,
leaving him in an open place
of crosses and gravestones,
in a vast, open space
with his sleeping friends.
He had said, 'I'll be back,
the key is under a flowerpot.'
A leaf from the flower
was still in
They found him.
His outstretched hand was blue and flat
like space beneath a swallow's wing.
His mouth was slightly open
as though he wished
He was lying,
with half his body under the ceiling,
half under the sky.
He was surrounded by people
when he returned today.
They carried him, covered with blood and dust
and laid him on the balcony
From a cloud, drops of rain
were falling on his feet.
under an oak tree in an open square,
only two stone seats were unoccupied.
These seats were silent,
gazing at each other,
He took two steps forward to touch
a tree he had planted the day before.
Blood flowed from his palm into the sap.
Leaves in his mind appeared on the branches.
When he tried to step backwards,
he remained where he was standing.
His feet had become roots.
Words he had spoken
were on the chairs, beds, near cupboards and walls.
A maid was brought in to tidy the house,
to clean the furniture, dishes and walls.
They brought paint
and new voices.
But they still could hear his words.
The last thing he saw
was the cat, seeing him off at the door.
He had locked the door but he returned
and unlocked it,
so neighbours, could enter as always,
if they wished to do so.
flows down from a faraway village.
Perhaps he is thinking of a tree trunk
or a river fisherman
trying to check his crazy outpourings to a wild love,
today as always.
Outpourings from afar.
He looks upon his life
as a fire which suddenly erupts as he walks.
Still, his shadow flows down,
stirring a gentle breath of hilltop air,
it flows down
into a completely unknown village,
which is strange even to those living there.
While they were sweeping away the rubble of his home,
he could not remove his limbs or memories
from that rubble; it was his life
into that day's sweepings,
again and again.
They were sweeping away his life as though it was snow.
People and fields, melted into his
on the furniture, the axes, the oil vat,
on the water jar he had filled that morning,
from which he would pour water for them to drink.
He sat on the
touch the fingers of the wind
When the wind
moved a flower
he would say
it was a hand.
lightning flashed across the sky
he would say
it was a glance,
a smile that
to come and
rest with him.
He sat on the balcony
trying to touch the fingers of the wind
playing with his hair.
When the wind moved a flower
he would say it was a hand.
When lightning flashed across the sky
he would say it was a glance,
a smile that might have
to come and rest with him.
He sat on the balcony
trying to think of some people
to fill the empty seats around him.
He said they were alike,
the basil plant and his mother.
People could never tell the difference between them.
If they said `good morning' to his mother
the basil answered.
If they greeted the basil
his mother answered.
He explained that some veins on her hands
were roots of her plants,
her palms were two leaves,
her eyes were two flowers.
Whenever she walked in a neighbourhood,
the fragrance of fields emanated from her garments.
He said his father and the tree were twins.
If he embraced it,
he was embraced by the tree.
When looking at him, the tree became green.
It turned Yellow if he was ill.
If it was shaken by the wind
he would shiver.
He explained this as he walked
to the door,
rolling a cigarette.
Then he left.
He only went outside on sunny days, so that he had
a companion - his shadow.
He would look at it over his shoulder to talk
to it and smile.
He would quickly turn his face towards it on the steps,
in case it slipped into a house.
He would repeat some spicy gossip to prevent it from growing
bored and slipping away.
At breakfast he would pour two cups of milk; at lunch
two plates of food.
He would return home at sunset, sit on a stone
and weep until sunrise.
he sketched a vase.
He drew a flower in the vase.
Perfume rose from the paper.
He drew a jug.
Having sipped a little water,
he poured some over the flower.
He drew a room
with a bed,
then he slept.
When he awoke
he drew an ocean,
a fathomless ocean,
which swept him away.
He sketched his own face and saw
that it looked like someone else.
He added lines and shading,
He ripped it to pieces
Names of the Dead
He opened his hand and counted on his fingers
the names of the dead.
He used the fingers of both hands.
He added to the list
the colours around him,
the branches of the tree in front of his house,
the trees along the road
and the leaves of the shrubs.
Before he went to bed
he added his own name.
The Conscience of One Who Is Absent
After he had said goodbye and left,
his shadow, faintly cast by the lamp,
moved ahead of him.
When he went through the gate, they switched off the lamp.
He lost his way.
In the morning
when the maid opened the window,
she saw a shadow sleeping
alone on the asphalt.
He raised his hand
as though he wanted
behind in the square dew from their villages,
Leaving behind in the square dew from their villages,
they disappeared beyond the mountain.
They left lettuce leaves, drops of oil, hens' feathers
and the slow breathing
of their own shadows.
They carried produce from beyond the mountains,
dumping them on the asphalt
They returned home
and the feathers they had left there
flew away to join them.
The Place of Roses
At dusk we arrived
and carried our belongings to a door
near the front of the house.
In front of the memory of stone
We carried our belongings
where we could smell the place of roses,
then we dropped off to sleep.
She poured the last drops of water from her
bucket on the basil.
She slept close by.
The moon went down and the sun rose.
She still slept.
Those who used to hear her voice every morning
and drink coffee with her,
missed hearing her voice.
They called her name from their balconies and gardens.
They missed hearing her voice.
When they came to find her,
they watched a drop of water
fall slowly from her hand on to the basil.
Before his face became like a forest,
he had cared for thousands of trees.
He seemed like the paths
he would gaze upon when perched on his ladder.
He seemed like the rocks of his house
which appeared to be leaning.
He was gentle and meek like the grass.
He was like the migrating hawks.
He said nothing before his face
became like a forest.
Some trees turned white
like snow thawing on the mountain.
Some trees spread their roots
and bushes emerged from his soil.
The clothes-line followed us towards the sea
with our washing still hanging on it.
Our friends were dying
between the fig trees.
Dying between thresholds, doors or beneath shelves.
We walked, leaving behind
on the clothes-line, some washing.
On the walls were chunks of our flesh.
When we stepped into the sea,
fish-scales appeared on our bodies.
Some of us stuck to rocks
and turned into shells.
The Exhausted People
The exhausted people were sitting in the square
listening to the soft winds which may have been peddlers
or loiterers who had lost their way.
The exhausted people had their own open square
where the paving stones had taken on human qualities;
if one of the people were missing,
they cried out for him.
The exhausted people were in the open square
and their faces grew more brittle each day,
their hair, softer
in the evening's faint light.
When they glanced at one another, their eyes were brittle
until they thought of themselves as glass
When they left they did not lock their doors;
they left water in the basin for the nightingale
and the stray dog that used to visit them.
On the dining table, they left bread, a pitcher of water
and a tin of sardines.
They said nothing before they left, but their silence
was like a covenant
with the door, the pitcher and the bread on the table.
The road, the only thing to feel their footsteps,
could not see them afterwards,
however it did eventually.
But one day it became numbed by the wheat carried
along it from dawn till dusk
and from doors it had seen leaving their place in the walls.
The sea recalled that some sardines had flopped into it,
swimming on to unknown places.
Those who remained in the village
said that a stray dog would come each evening
and howl in front of their house.
We didn't disturb the drowsy winds,
we just walked away
accompanied by the salty dawn
and the howling of dogs.
We had left untouched islands there,
angels' coal in the vaults, God's broken trunks
and a bereaved eternity.
Oil spots on our clothes, walked with us,
and the fat of dreams.
Some of us carried in our hearts, broken carts,
and dead livestock.
The howling of the dogs stayed with us
until we disappeared
Under our feet, on the road,
we heard a strange
I have already arrived
like an unusual, exotic fruit.
Give me a cigarette.
I have amazing tales to tell
about kings, battles and urns;
about people found by chance by the wind,
and souls of fish
on the sands.
These are tales only for you.
Give me a cigarette.
I carry with me many hills I want to sell,
hills overlooking oceans
where whales are dancing
around those who have drowned;
overlooking bays were resorts could be built
for other enchanted lives.
pay whatever you like
and take everything.
We didn't awaken those who were sleeping
nor did we utter a word.
We only heard the last words of the doors
which were squeaking as we walked in or out.
We left pictures on the walls,
a scent of olives in the corner,
loads of tales spread out on tobacco racks
and your head, oh Riyadh,
aflame with falling stars.
We arrive incomplete on crutches,
in the streets.
Wherever we go
we leave a part of us behind.
Our eyes and feet remain there.
Thus, when we walk, the roads will not feel us.
If it rains, eyes will shed tears
Give me a cigarette.
From the smoke, God will appear
with wealth, heaven, and splendour.
Shawki is my friend
but he will soon become a railway track.
Before this happens I would like
to smoke a cigarette with him.
All Sydney's lines pass through his head
and he is about to burst out – 'give me a cigarette.'
Khodr, who threw away his gun in the mountains,
has become like a letter with no address.
He could be posted from one post office to another
but never reach his destination.
Out of smoke, the road appears and houses
with their owners.
Out of smoke', God is born.
Give me a cigarette.
When I return, I'll send you loads of tobacco from
our spreading racks,
and baskets of fruit and eggs
from hens we have fattened from the grains of our dreams;
they lay wealth, which I'll send you.
One day we invented veins for silence,
we would walk ahead, threading them into the path.
We walked in the harsh air, buckling the road
and we could see breasts trembling.
We could see beneath the bridge, the offal from
and chunks of eyes search for their vision.
Listen ! We have seen life shivering beneath a tree
and we took off our shirts
to cover it.
We walked on with bare chests
and the air as our companion,
bringing us flowers
and playing with our hair.
It brought us a stare
lost by somebody
while watching daylight fade.
With us - bracelets. With us - streets. With us - shadows.
With us - air and reeds.
In our bags is the rustle of photographs, the
bandages of longing
and the sound of crutches stumping from mountain to
We walked on.
In front of our door there was leaf from an almond tree.
We looked at it but kept on walking.
Anise, his eyes like two clouds over a grove
of orange trees,
the veins of his fingers
like dry pencils,
with grains of dreams
being pecked from his lips by a bird.
Ghassan played his lute all the way
until the streets became its notes.
We have nothing except
the smell of tobacco and olives
that we'd carried with us.
We walked ahead lightly
so we didn't disturb the dew.
We didn't bend a branch
nor waken the breeze.
We didn't say goodbye to our friend, we didn't
utter a word,