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Mohamed Abd-Alhai

Mohamed Abd-Alhai (1944 -1989)

Abd-Alhai, Sudan's famous poet, studied English Literature at the University of Khartoum in 1967. He earned a masters from Leeds and a doctorate from Oxford University. He was Associate professor at the University of Khartoum and director-general at the Department of Culture, Sudan. He published about five anthologies of poetry and contributed seminal work in the field of literary criticism on comparative literature including "Tribal Masks" on African literature, and "Vision and Words', a treatise on poetry. He died in 1989.

The Return to Sinnar consists of five songs, two of which are presented here in a translation from the original Arabic by Sudanese scholar and translator, Mustafa Adam. This translation is published for the first time.


 The Return to Sinnar
.                              .

"The essential thing, as I see myself, is that I'm a poet who does not belong to a certain literary school. I speak my own singular voice. I nurture and deepen that voice in a way that merges, eventually, the Private with the Public, the latter is but the recurrent human spiritual experience, which transcends time; it does not change, in essence, rather, it assumes new forms and shapes with the changing times
Mohamed Abd-Alhai


The First Song:

The Sea

I beheld how the first of birds soared,
Twice, it circled around before it vanished
Into the luminous dimness of the twilight’s orchard. * (1)
The sun was mixed perturbed desires,
Of phosphor and blaze,
plummeting into the bosom of the waters’ western line;
An orchard of chimerical fruition
Whose demonic splendours,
Of dates and pomegranates and of apples
Begotten, at the spur of the moment, out of nothing,
Shimmer fleetingly and disappear into blazing flames. *(2)

But then, we were bequeathed with the first of offerings;
The silhouette of an unsubstantiated existence,
Snarls of sea-lichen on salty waters,
And yarns of the remains of dead trees,
Where the busy sea creatures,
In their blindfolded mirthful revelling,
Oblivious to the images of day
Erased by those of night,
Engrave the primal shapes of life,
Deep in this world of sea leeches.*(3)

And then the smell of land surged,
Carried by the gentle breeze
Brought the shades of a hue,
Alien to the greenness of this abyss,
And the mutterings of a language of sultry reverberations.
In the darkness,
From within the hiatus of silence,
Plunging deep into the circles of utterance;* (4)
On the darkened hilltops,
Above the trees,
The lantern lights of villages rose,
floating nearer, then drowning
In the haze of mist and vapour.

They drop, like over- ripened fruits,
Into the impenetrable silence
At the edging borders
Between dreary dreams
And the birth of longing.

And out of the shadows of land,
Soared the birds of fire.
Here and now, behold
The brimming trunks of living trees,
The flesh of earth
Behold the blooms.

Tonight, my people will receive me;
Horses prancing within the circle of fire;
Dancing, embellished with resounding bells and silk brocade;
A damsel, invitingly, opens the river’s gate,
She summons
The custodians of the word, of the blue sultanate.

Out of their silent mountain,
Out of the thickets, they sprout;
Here is one, vainly strutting,
In a leopard’s skin;
There behold others, in water shirts, glisten.

Tonight, my people will receive me.
My ancestors’ spirits transpire,
Emanating, unwrapped, out of the river’s silver dreams
And the dimly shining night of shimmering signs,
Incarnated in children’s bodies,
Enthuse a chanter of a religious hymn
And enliven a drummer’s forearm.

Tonight, my people will receive me.
With gifts, they received me:
The teeth of the dead strung into a rosary;
A skull for a prayers’ ewer
And a prayer mat of oxen hide;
A sign glitteringly vacillating between the palm dates
And the ebony tree;
A language emerging like a spearhead,
Out of the earth’s womb
And across, unto the unbounded expanse of the wound.

Tonight, my people will receive me.
The forest and the desert
Were but a sleeping naked dame,
On a bed of lightening
Awaiting the visitation of her divine bull,
Who calls in the dark.
The face and the mask
Are but one in form,
Blossoming in innocence‘s kingdom
And the mire of primordial beginnings
At the boundary between light and darkness,
Between wakefulness and slumberous repose.


The Second Song:

The City

Today, I’ll return, oh Sinnar,
Where the dream, like trees, sprouts
Under the canopy of night water,
Disrobed, in my fall and winter,
Then, shaky, by the land’s fire;
Strewn, a jade–feathered blaze,
To ripen in the night of my blood veins,
Into cherry fruit in my summer;
Mirrors of a body
Whose dreams rise
Unto the silence,
Like stars in my sky.

Today, I’ll return home, Sinnar;
Where the sign is a thread
Of black radiance, vacillating
Between the echo and the sound;
The forest and the desert;
Between the fruit, ripened,
And the ancient root. (5)
You are my tongue, my rivulet
Sheltering my stars,
The gold seams shimmering within my black rock
And the fire wherein I ventured
Into the great love.
So, unlock, custodians of Sinnar, tonight
Unlock the gates of the city for the returnee,
Unlock, for the returnee, the gates of the city tonight
Unlock the gates of the city, tonight.

“Are you a Bedouin?”
“From the land of the Negros?”
“I’m one of you. A wanderer,
Singing in one tongue, praying in another,
Returning home from distant seas,
Where the dreams of havens were not lit,
In their green silence;
A heathen, lost for years on end
On borrowed tongue and eyes,
Have lingered in the chambers of the sea
Looking for the weird water fairy,
Yielding to the wind,
In the hollowed inside of the horrific sea cranium
Dreaming of a land bestowed to the alien-
Fading under sunlight, to be reborn out of night’s fire-
Of sea-girls, copulating with the god of sea, in a bed of foam
(As to whatever poets intone.)

And thereupon, the planet of horror glimmered,
I fell face down;
I saw what was there to be seen:
Black rain falling
Off a sky of copper, red haze,
Mulberry and apples growing, in white trees
There, neither water nor earth
Except for what was attenuated,
By the acid, of frothy vapours.

And I’ve heard what was there to be heard:
Laughter of the human skeleton;
Human flesh, in a sea of phosphor, molten,
Writhing under the gripping agony of the word.

And I beheld what was to be beheld:
How rattling serpents beset,
When waves of frothy smoke, emit
A green corpse, in the dark, alight,
On a bed of burning sand.

Speak out, oh friend: what do you behold
Amidst the reefs of the archipelago?
The land of Deek Al-Jin or the slain Queis? (6)
The land of Oedipus or Lear;
Or the labyrinths of Othello?
The land of Senghor, smudged
In stagnant molten sea copper?
Or sea vapour concocting,
Phantom cities? Visions of unattainable glamour? (7)

When the sea monster stirred its thighs:
Would it come around from shelly slumber?
Or would it spit out an intimate mesh of fire and torrid water?

And I wept for what was to be yearned for:
Who would ever lend me wings
To my homeland’s splendour?
Through the salt’s sun and impotent storm,
A language, with ancient love, luminous?

Then, when the sea, as a mirror,
With boundless fish of the sky was filled,
On the vividly radiant water
The drowsy chime, awakened,
I begged for what was to be invoked:
Would I ever return home?
Cloaked in my dream-like awakening,
Bearing my dream, a foreboding,
In the murky primordial memory, and tribal longing,
Among my dead, and the spectre of childhood fables.

I am one of you; your wound is mine;
Your bow is my weapon;
A pagan, worshiping his homeland
And a blind mystic, exalting his vision
And the divine fires of God.
So, open up, custodians of Sinnar,
Open the gate of primal blood,
Let the ancient tongue celebrate its roots,
Where the crystals of presence are but a blue flare
In the waters;
Where flocks of birds
Emanate out the body of fire,
To chant on the crowns on foreheads.
So, unlock, custodians of Sinnar,
Unlock for the returnee, tonight, the gates of the city,
Unlock, the gates of the city, tonight
Unlock the gates of the city, tonight…
“We will open the city’s gates for the knocker,
If you’re one of us we would know
We would spot our own visage in you,
Welcome back home anew.
And if, then, you are a stranger to us;
We welcome our guests,
With whatever it takes:
Our lives as well as wealth; …so,
Come in, then
We’ve unlocked the gates for you, oh knocker
We’ve unlocked…”
I entered,
Barefooted, taciturn,
Naked, disguised in a ragged garment.
I crossed, in the dark,
Withdrawn; in the shadowy recesses of utterance.
And I slept,
As water’s child sleeps in the wetted pebbles;
Birds in their nests;
Fruits in their branches

And stars in the placenta of the skies.


Translator's Notes

1. The following lines are from the first edition of the poem published in 1973. The main translated text is of the revised edition of the poem published in 1985 by KUP Khartoum.
*(Yester morn, the first of birds flew over,
Twice they circled around,
before vanishing away.)

2. (Each mirror,
was a phosphorous paradise
on the waters.
Ye gardens of mirrors and phosphor.
Oh sun, that has glistered and rotted,
Within the body of absence,
Dissolve thyself, one last time and then
Forever, be eclipsed.

3. (Yesterday, we upheld the first of offerings:
Lichen braids;
Yarns tangled in blazing salty waters,
Of what was left of dead trees,
And the silent primordial beginnings of life,
Between sea algae
Within the hollow world,
Where the tiny sea creatures, engaged
In their blind mirthful revelling,
Roam through the caves of fibre and seaweed,
Of the night, sliding away into light.)

4. (In the hiatus of silence which plunges deep
Into the very centre of the lacuna of utterance,)

5.The lines from the first edition are different . Here is an attempt at rendering these lines:
(Of black glint vacillating between the crest and the foot ,
The forest and the desert.)

6. Both are classical Arab poets

7. The line in the first edition reads:
Or sea bed caves quivering into forms and shades

The translator will like to extend his gratitude to Hafiz Khair, a Sudanese translator/ poet/filmmaker, for his insightful contribution to the final version published here, and to Al-Hassan Bakri, a Sudanese novelist, for his support and his perceptive comments on the translated version and the interpretation of the original poem.

Mustafa Adam

Mustafa Adam
is a Sudanese lecturer in UAE, he read an MA, English Literature  at Khartoum University and an MA Linguistics at Manchester Uni. His interests include Pinter and Soyinka. He is a literary translator and has published English and Arabic translations of Sudanese poetry and short stories. He contributes to the editing of Ihtram (an electronic journal on issues of human rights and cultural diversity in Sudan)

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