Archive for January, 2014


Mogadishu - Pic cred: wiki

Mogadishu – Pic cred: wiki

 Following from my previous post on the admiration I have developed for Somalia and Somali literature, I have spent a couple of days reading and writing about the country. It is some sort of romance tempered by distance and the fact that we have never met. So I stay thinking about my new literary love and the product is poem after poem after poem. I have written three poems (finished two) about this country I long to visit and experience, all the poems bearing the same title, ‘I think about you, Mogadishu‘. I share here with you the second and will be grateful if you read that first article of longing for a country that tugs at the heart of an artist. It has had a difficult history  but one day we shall sit on the shores of Mogadishu, forget all that has been, and talk about poetry under moonlight accompanied by a little happy dance. We shall talk about love.

I think about you, Mogadishu

You star in my nightmares
You seduce in my temple
You challenge my sleep.

You keep me up till 11:30
Then you wake me at midnight
You should leave in the morning
You should leave in the afternoon
But by evening you’re still here
Strange damsel of my dreams
I think about you.

You hide many secrets in your hijab
I cannot unravel nor understand
Your smile is brighter, embarrasses the sun
You frown darker than night.
When you turn and walk away, I know you want me to follow
You tell me nothing; only in your eyes I see everything
Strange damsel of my dreams
I think about you.

You have been intimate with sorrow
Worn heartbreaks like a thousand wristbands
Each one for each day
Your arms are short or you will wear
One for each hour.
And even now there is no space for more.
Maybe underneath, you hide the scars of many lives
One life lived many times.
Because you have died. And resurrected.
And died again. And you’re here
Tattooed with eternity
Going in and out of my dreams, strange damsel
I think about you.

You have shores but they have no sands
Sand is flimsy; you have rocks.
Rocks for engraving the names of past loves
Love rocks.
You love rocks.
Your love rocks.
But the rocks are bare.
Your loves have left you, craving you, reaching
But unable.
How does it feel to be loved and left alone?

Strange damsel of my dreams
I have not seen you before
But not a day passes that I don’t think about you
One day
I shall look for you
Carrying my album of dreams and fantasies,
my only pictures of you.
Pursue you across museums of the brokenhearted
Are you black like I am?
There is no colour in a dream.

I think about you
Fair lady on the rim of the rising sun
Your love has taken me prisoner
And you don’t even know me.
I will show you the cuffs when I arrive
Where it burns a golden brown into my wrist
Night comes and my sleep is threatened
For you will stand again at the gate of my sleep,
Commanding new nightmares.
I think about you, Mogadishu.

Negm - Pic cred: debalie.nlI’m elated to be reviewing this next poem here because it is my first Arabic translation and as I promised, one of the priorities of the blog this year is to explore more Arabic poetry as I find translations. This poem was written by the Egyptian poet, Ahmed Fouad Negm who died last month before he could be awarded the Prince Claus Award. Thanks to Walaa Quisay for the translation and the permission to use it. (You can check out more Arab-conscious literature from Arablit).

Negm was one of Egypt’s foremost poets often referred to as a poet of the people. Al Fagoumy (as he was known) was a satirical poet who spent jail time under Egypt’s former Pharaohs for the criticism his works packed. He was adored by the commoner for speaking protest in sarcastic words they could identify with. His early life was rascally and before he was old he had spent jail time for forging documents, had lived in different orphanages and had become a part of the street.  

But Negm died as a national hero. His Prince Claus award tribute said he was to be:

“honoured for creating true poetry in vernacular Arabic that communicates deeply with people; for his independence, unwavering integrity, courage and rigorous commitment to the struggle for freedom and justice; for speaking truth to power, refusing to be silenced and inspiring more than three generations in the Arab-speaking world; for the aesthetic and political force of his work highlighting the basic need for culture and humour in harsh and difficult circumstances; and for his significant impact on Arabic poetry bringing recognition to the rich literary potential of the colloquial language.”

Commentators have said that he is most likely the single most influential revolutionary protest poet Egypt has ever known. During the Arab Spring, Cairo gathered in Tahrir Square and sang a song he wrote titled “The Brave Man is Brave”. You can see a Storify of images from his funeral here. On his death, CNN quoted him (you should read all of that article) to have once said – “The love for a woman exists in the body. It is temporary and passes. But the love for a cause lives in your mind and in your blood forever.” Egypt was the cause he lived for. The best article to give you an insight into the man was written by Michael Slackman for the New York Times back in 2006. I promised the review of this poem when he passed and so here we go:

What’s Wrong With Our President?

I never fret, and will always say
A word, for which, I am responsible
That the president is a compassionate man
Constantly, busy working for his people
Busy, gathering their money
Outside, in Switzerland, saving it for us
In secret bank accounts
Poor guy, looking out for our future
Can’t you see his kindly heart?
In faith and good conscience
He only starves you; so you’d lose the weight
O what a people! In need of a diet
O the ignorance! You talk of “unemployment”
And how conditions have become dysfunctional
The man just wants to see you rested
Since when was rest such a burden???
And this talk of the resorts
Why do they call them political prisons??
Why do you have to be so suspicious?
He just wants you to have some fun
With regards to “The Chair”
It is without a doubt
All our fault!!
Couldn’t we buy him a Teflon Chair?
I swear, you mistreated the poor man
He wasted his life away, and for what?
Even your food, he eats it for you!
Devouring all that’s in his way
After all this, what’s wrong with our president?


Is this the best poem you ever read? Sheer brilliance. The entire poem from beginning to end is sarcastic, making a mockery of a president who has taken his people for granted.

Two phrases in the first two lines define Negm’s life – ‘I never fret’ (line 1) and ‘I am responsible’ (line 2) emphasize the fact that he knew the gravity of his words and was ready to own them till the end. Nobody could intimidate him. He talks about how Egypt has been so inconsiderate for not appreciating the ‘compassionate man’ (line 3) they have as president. How this compassionate man has occupied himself ‘busy’ (lines 4 and 5) on his people’s behalf. But what has been the business? Negm says the compassionate president has been gathering Egyptian cash in accounts in Switzerland on behalf of the people. How can they complain? It’s almost laughable. The alarm though, is the fact that those accounts are ‘secret’ (line 7) and will never ever belong to Egyptians.

He goes on, lashing the president with a merciless torrent of words; how he has a kindly heart (line 9) and good conscience (line 10), with which he starves the people for their own benefit – they need to lose the weight (line 11). ‘O what a people! In need of a diet’ (line 12) should be my best line of all the poem. When they talk of unemployment, Negm says the president only wants them to stay at home and rest (line 15); when they talk about state prisons for suppressing the masses, Negm responds by calling those place ‘the resorts’ (line 17). There can’t be a better Arab poet as my first reviewed.

There is anger in the poem but it is suppressed and wrapped in comedy. He even chides Egypt for the seat of power, alluding to it as ‘The Chair’ (line 21), and remarking that a ‘Teflon Chair’ (line 24) would have been better, perhaps more comfortable, so the president can sit well and loot the state coffers. Hahaha…I can’t help laughing. What brilliance!

In closing, he says that the president, not wanting Egyptians to bother themselves, even took the courtesy to eat their food for them (line 27), devouring (line 28) it as though he was a locust swarm. He swears that Egyptians mistreated the poor man (line 25) whose only concern was to help them.

But his reflections turn around and face reality and ask the hard question: “What is Wrong With our President”! A brilliant title for a brilliant poem written by a most colourful poet who has left us too soon. Tell me you enjoyed this poem cos I totally enjoyed reviewing it.

Noemia de Sousa

Welcome to 2014. It’s a pleasure to start off the year sharing some splendid African poetry with you. I look forward to a memorable ride in the year.

I begin this year with poetry from Mozambique, written by one of the most popular Lusophone African poets you will read yet. Noémia de Sousa was born on 20th September 1926, in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo).  Even though she did not publish an anthology, her writing fame spread far and wide with her publication in newspapers, journals and literary papers. For the few poems of hers I’ve read, de Sousa was a protest poet, writing in defense of Africa against colonialism and general oppression. Her poem “Magaíça” (Migrant Laborer) is a good example that ends with the lines

“Youth and health,

the lost illusions

which will shine like stars

on some Lady’s neck in some City’s night.”

Her first poem I read was “Poema de João” (The Poem of João) and it also ends with the lines “who can take the multitude and lock it in a cage?” Due to the protestations of her writing, the colonial secret police monitored her to the extent that she fled Mozambique and took residence in Portugal. She later moved to France and continued to write under the name Vera Micaia. She died in 2002 in Portugal. I review below her poem titled:

If you want to know me

This is what I am

empty sockets despairing of possessing of life

a mouth torn open in an anguished wound…

a body tattooed with wounds seen and unseen

from the harsh whip-strokes of slavery

tortured and magnificent

proud and mysterious

Africa from head to foot

This is what I am



Just look at the beauty of that! Noemia de Sousa’s poem is short and is titled as though the poet doesn’t care if you know them or not. Or rather, she is apologizing for what you might discover when you get to know her. Therein lies the power of the poem. The ‘her’ is not even her.

The poem starts by giving respite from your wondering too long on the title. It seems to sit you down, look straight into your eyes and tell you ‘This is what I am’ (line 1). The images that follow give a picture of a bewildered listener, mouth agape, disbelieving. It looks like the poet is talking to someone who had different ideas who this speaker is. Let’s discover.

Noemia tells us of ‘empty sockets’ which have lost hope for life (line 2). The one prominent socket on the human body that can best contain this expression is the eye socket.  Keep this in mind that the body being described is blind; metaphorically blind and unable to see past her issues, her problems, her present life for which she now despairs. ‘A mouth torn open in an anguished wound…’(line 3); that is to say, a battered mouth with a wound extension where lips will not reach; ‘a body tattooed with wounds seen and unseen’ (line 4) – each tattoo a landmark of ownership by suffering, the seen and the hidden. Noemia is describing to us a tortured soul but she goes on, enlightening us that this body got all these scars from ‘harsh whip-strokes of slavery’ (line 5) which, sounding terrible, have awoken in her a magnificence (line 6). How does a tortured body become magnificent? Why not, it adorns itself in blisters and brokenness like a painting. It is broken but it is ‘proud’ for which reason we can only look on and marvel, mysteriously (line 7). But who is this her? Noemia tells us, this is Africa in completeness. If anybody is ready to know Africa, love Africa, this is Africa’s person. At the time when countries were still reeling under colonialism, this was a powerful way of opening the eyes of the world to an Africa that wanted liberation. Making this Africa a person dressed in scars. Beautifully marred. This was enough to merit Noemia getting tracked by the colonial Portuguese secret police.

This writing is so powerful, it brings to mind that post I wrote on why I am doing poetry reviews, which closed with the lines ‘If the government cared, they would have arrested me’. No oppressive government would want its people to rally around a poem like this. Noemia de Sousa has provided this contribution to an Africa that is ever-defining itself and also as a worthy start to 2014 on this blog for a bit of reflection on a common African past from which we can forge a common African future.

Expectations for 2014

Posted: January 1, 2014 in ANNOUNCEMENTs
Tags: , , ,

Pic Cred:

Happy New Year to you all. This year, I have only one agendum for this blog and that is to read and review a poet from a different African country every next time. Hopefully by so doing, I will review much of Africa. I say this in the hope that I can find some very good translations of Lusophone, French and African Arabic poetry. It should be worth the journey.

In this regard, I will be pleased if anyone has read any African poem from especially North Africa and would recommend it. I have been seeking out a couple of people doing translations of Arabic poetry and hopefully, they will give their permissions for me to use their translations.

Final thing, I promised myself I should go on a hunt for African anthologies. I haven’t updated my stock of African poetry in a while and this year, I hope to address the error. Also, I have been playing with the idea to include Caribbean poets in my definition of African poetry. I will decide soon.

So ride with me through 2014 and let’s explore this vast, fierce, unconquerable spirit of Africa.

To the language of the African soul.