Ghayath Almadhoun, trans. Catherine Cobham

Black Milk


You emerge from behind the scenes, I emerge from behind the nightmares, smiling as if the war hasn’t eaten my brother, and in those days, when my Syrian friends were dying under torture, my European friends were gently withdrawing from my wound which scratched their white lives and didn’t conform in any way to accepted Western criteria of what constitutes pain.


In those days I used to whisper in your ear the things that a man whispers to a woman when he’s eating her, and in the same space-time where you were sleeping calmly like a lake in the north of Sweden, the war was sitting on the edge of my bed as if it was my wife and the verses of the Quran that I was forced to learn by heart when the primary school teacher beat me were the only thing that helped me sleep. Oh God, the wolf has eaten a piece of my heart and the barrel bombs have destroyed my notebook. Oh God, the wolf has eaten me for real, not metaphorically, and the Mediterranean has drowned my water. I’m the one who used to ‘walk on this earth joyfully’, as it says in the Quran, but they stole my friends and suicided1 them in Damascus and the glass of water that used to moisten my thirst was smashed. Poets have inherited my fingers, my friends have become memories, highwaymen on highways already blocked off, I mean on highways between cities besieged by hunger and adrenaline, and in the same space-time where I enjoy a life of luxury in the far north of Europe in a country containing 97,500 lakes of sweet water, my mother tells me that she is thirsty and I remember the novel The Outsider… and try not to remember Albert Camus.


Smiling as if the war hasn’t eaten my brother
I climb Mount Carmel like a vine trellis
To appear beside you in the family photo
And you stand beside me bitter as truth
And warm as a bullet
And long like Sunday.
A woman with a memory riddled with holes
Through which my heart leaks out in the shape of a butterfly
Whenever I think legal thoughts about her
My heart refuses to submit to Islamic law
And poetry refuses to obey me by repeating the outworn metaphors of classical poets
The bank refuses to give me a loan so that I can buy a horse
Warlords refuse to become peacelords
Children refuse to play with me as I walk through the neighbourhood
Because their parents have warned them against strangers
I shan’t teach my children to fear strangers
For I am one of them
I won’t say to them don’t talk to the strange man
For that man is me
I am the stranger who lost his hand in the war
The widower whose wife is not dead
The migrant who didn’t drown in the Mediterranean
The believer who kissed you by the mosque wall
So the shaykh trembled in his prayers fearing the wrath of God
The refugee they searched
And whose memories they found hidden among cunning answers
I’m the one who loved you savagely
And kissed you without knowing the difference between your face and silence
Around your house I howl like a wounded wolf
And in your pitch-black night I light faint purple like a cigarette’s glow in the dark
Whenever I say your name my heart stutters
As if I’m being born once again from my mother’s womb
As if I’m touching your waist with my missing hand
Whenever I pass my tongue over your skin my poem stumbles
But I touch your wellspring to moisten my heart that is cracked with dryness
But I drink your voice that is moistened with water so that thirst does not kill me


My fingerprints that they found on your skin, your blood that wetted my right hand, the wolves that snap at my waist when I smell your voice, the green that trickles from your hand wounded by the rose, my tongue that pronounces your name in classical Aramaic, my crosswords inside you. How I would do my ablutions in wine before touching you, how the watchman caught me gathering the hornets’ honey dripping from your nipples, how my heart that was accustomed to eating women’s fingers became vegetarian in your presence. You are the Surah of the Poets, the essence of the women of the Middle East and North Africa. For your sake I re-write the rules of Arabic grammar making them conform to the measurements of your waist and I kill the dead metaphor once again.


I look in the mirror and see your face
The poem slips out of my hand
I hear the scent of a woman eating my fingers
The Mediterranean Sea drowns in the immigration department
The water grows thirsty
I remove your features from my face in order to recognise myself
And my notebook loses its memory
The official in the immigration department asks:
Where are you from?
I answer:
I don’t know for I’m not yet married
And he refuses my asylum application
And the United Nations refuses the colour of my skin
And the international community refuses to look directly at my wound
At that moment when time becomes dark as Rembrandt’s paintings
And feeling becomes cold as the corpses of my friends
You emerge from behind the scenes
Just like that
Without introductions
Or explanations
Or a logical interpretation
And grant me asylum for sentimental reasons


How do you know the road to Damascus when you’ve never been down it?
How do you kill geography when the distance between us is made of metal
That expands with the heat
And shrinks when I kill my suitcase.


This world is falling from the seventh floor
And sparrows commit suicide so that time doesn’t precede them
Time that sits like a dull guest between us
And looks at you
Me and you and time make four
A man and a woman have never met except when time was the fourth person in the room.


In those days we knew that he was going to kill us all, but we didn’t know that the world would stand by in silence.


In those days I stuck to you like a postage stamp and you were afraid because my heart was so hot, and people confused us with one another since my features got mixed up with your way of walking, and we were confused by people, since the city became unfit for death after it had turned into a huge repository for my stereotyped metaphors about you.


In those days, when I used to whisper to you that you were the Surah of the Women and the most fertile woman in the Tropic of Cancer, terrorism was striking at the heart of Europe, and my heart that could bear five barbaric wars stutters when it says your name and my European friends withdraw from me quietly, and I remember how the Europeans withdrew from their Jewish friends seventy years ago, and I remember the black milk.

And I try not to remember Paul Celan.


In those days when I loved you gently, terrorism struck violently, and my heart that could look at a fresh wound directly without flinching became smooth as a snake and the Twin Towers collapsed time after time after time in my European friends’ fantasies, and the French Revolution was only a victory in history books and a defeat in geography books, and I remember the black milk.


In those days
When I loved you gently
The great migrations crossed Europe violently
And Paul Celan emerged from the River Seine
And with his wet hand tapped me on the shoulder
And in a trembling voice whispered in my ear
Don’t drink the black milk
Don’t drink … the black… milk
Don’t drink
And disappeared among the groups of Syrians marching northwards.


In those days I was still trying not to remember Paul Celan and the Dead Sea was alive and live broadcasts were dead.

1 The poet has coined ‘suicide’ as a transitive verb in Arabic, although, like in English, it doesn’t exist in this form. He wishes to preserve it in translation as its incongruity represents the large section of the Syrian opposition killed by the regime, which then claims they have committed suicide.

الحليب الأسود

تخرجينَ من وراءِ الكواليس، أخرجُ من وراءِ الكوابيس، مبتسمًا كأنَّ الحربَ لم تأكلْ أخي، وفي تلك الأيّام، حين كان أصدقائي السوريّون يموتون تحت التعذيب، كان أصدقائي الأوروبيّون ينسحبون بهدوءٍ من جرحي الذي يخدشُ حياتهم البيضاءَ، ولا يتناسبُ في أيِّ حالٍ من الأحوال مع المعايير الغربية المتعارف عليها عن شكل الألم.

في تلك الأيّام، كنتُ أهمسُ في أُذنكِ بما يهمسُ به رجلٌ لامرأةٍ حين يأكلها، وفي نفس الزمكان الذي كنتِ تنامين فيه بهدوءٍ مثل بحيرةٍ في شمال السويد، كانتِ الحربُ تجلسُ على حافة سريري كأنّها زوجتي، وكانت آيات القرآن التي ضربَني معلّم الابتدائية، كي أحفظها هي الشيءُ الوحيدُ الذي يساعدني على النوم، يا الله، لقد أكلَ الذئبُ قطعةً من قلبي، ودمّرتِ البراميلُ دفتري. يا الله، لقد أكلني الذئبُ حقيقةً لا مجازًا، وأغرقَ المتوسّطُ مائي. أنا الذي كنتُ أمشي في الأرض مَرَحًا، لكنهم سرقوا أصدقائي و"انتحروهم" في دمشق، فانكسرَ كأسُ الماء البارد الذي كان يبلّلُ عَطَشي، وورثَ الشعراءُ أصابعي، أصدقائي أصبحوا ذكرياتٍ، قُطَّاع طُرُقٍ مقطوعةٍ أصلًا، أقصدُ قُطَّاع أوتوستراداتٍ بين مُدُنٍ محاصرةٍ بالجوع والأدرينالين، وفي نفس الزمكان الذي أتمتّعُ فيه بالرفاهية في أقصى شمال أوروبا، في بلدٍ يحوي سبعًا وتسعين ألفًا وخمسمئة بحيرةٍ من الماء العذب، تخبرني أمّي أنّها عطشانة، فأتذكّر رواية الغريب...
وأحاول ألا أتذكّرُ ألبير كامو.

بصماتُ أصابعي التي وجدوها على جلدكِ، دَمُكِ الذي بلَّلَ يدي اليمنى، الذئابُ التي تنهشُ خاصرتي حين أشمُّ صوتَكِ، الأخضرُ الذي ينزُّ من يدكِ التي جرحتْها الوردةُ، لساني الذي يلفظ اسمَكِ بالآرامية الفصحى، كلماتي المتقاطعة فيكِ، كيف كنتُ أتوضّأُ بالنبيذِ قبلَ أنْ أَمُسَّكِ، كيف أمسكني الناطورُ أقطفُ عسلَ الدبابيرِ الذي ينقطُ من حلمتَيكِ، كيف قلبي الذي اعتادَ أنْ يأكلَ أصابعَ النساءِ يصبحُ نباتيًا أمامكِ، أنتِ سورةُ الشعراء، خلاصةُ نساء الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا، لأجلكِ، أُعيدُ كتابة قواعدِ اللغةِ العربيةِ، بما يتناسبُ مع مقاسِ خصرِكِ، وأقتلُ المجازَ الميتَ مرَّةً أُخرى.


كيف تعرفين طريقَ دمشقَ دون أنْ تمرِّي بها؟!
كيف تقتلينَ الجغرافيا والمسافةُ بيننا معدنيةٌ؟!
تتمدَّدُ بالحرارة،
وتتقلَّصُ حين أقتلُ حقيبةَ السفر.

هذا العالم يسقطُ من الطابق السابعِ،
والعصافير تنتحرُ، كيلا يسبقها الوقتُ،
الوقتُ الذي يجلسُ مثل ضيفٍ ثقيلٍ بيننا
وينظرُ إليكِ،
أنا وأنتِ والوقتُ رابعنا،
ما اجتمعَ رجلٌ وامرأةٌ إلا وكان الوقتُ رابعهم.

وفي تلك الأيّام، كنّا نعلمُ أنَّه سيقتلنا جميعًا، لكننا لم نكن نعلمُ أنَّ العالمَ سيقفُ صامتًا.

وفي تلك الأيّام، كنتُ ألتصقُ بكِ، كما لو أنَّني طابعُ بريدٍ، فتخافين من سخونةِ قلبي، وكان الناس يحتارون بيننا مذ اختلطتْ ملامحي مع مشيتِكِ، وكنّا نحن نحتارُ بالناس، مذ أصبحتِ المدينة غيرَ صالحةٍ للموتِ بعد أن تحوّلت إلى مستودعٍ كبيرٍ لاستعاراتي المَكنية عنكِ.

وفي تلك الأيّام، حين كنتُ أهمسُ لكِ أنكِ أنتِ سورة النساء، وأخصبُ امرأةٍ في مدار السرطان، كان الإرهابُ يضربُ وسطَ أوروبا، وكان قلبي الذي يستطيع أنْ يتحمّلَ خمسةَ حروبٍ همجية، يُتأتئ حين يلفظُ اسمكِ، وكان أصدقائي الأوروبيّون ينسحبون منّي بهدوء، فأتذكّرُ كيف انسحبَ الأوروبيّون من أصدقائهم اليهود قبل سبعين عامًا، وأتذكّرُ الحليب الأسود...
وأحاول ألا أتذكّرَ بول سيلان.

وفي تلك الأيّام، حين كنتُ أحبّكِ بلطف، كان الإرهاب يضرب بعُنف، وكان قلبي الذي يستطيع أنْ ينظر إلى جرحٍ ساخنٍ مباشرةً دون أنْ يرتجف، يصبح ناعمًا كالأفعى، فينهار برج التجارة العالميّ مرّةً بعد مرّةٍ بعد مرّةٍ في خيالاتِ أصدقائي الأوروبيّين، وتنتصر الثورة الفرنسية في كُتُب التاريخ فقط، وتنهزم في كُتُب الجغرافيا، وأنا أتذكّر الحليب الأسود...

وفي تلك الأيّام،
حين كنتُ أحبّكِ بلطف،
كانت الهجراتُ العُظمى تقطعُ وسط أوروبا بعُنف،
وكان بول سيلان يخرجُ من نهر السين،
وبيدهِ المبلّلةِ يُرَبِّتُ على كتفي،
وبصوتهِ المرتجف يهمسُ في أذني:
لا تشربوا الحليب الأسود...
لا تشربوا... الحليب... الأسود
لا تشربوا...
ويختفي بين جموعِ السوريّين السائرين إلى الشمال.

وفي تلك الأيّام، كنتُ لا أزال أحاولُ ألا أتذكّر بول سيلان، فيحيا البحر الميت، ويموت البثّ الحي.



Ghayath Almadhoun (b. 1979) is a Palestinian poet who was born and raised in a refugee camp in Damascus. In 2006 he co-founded Bayt al-Qasid, “The House of Poetry," together with Syrian poet Lukman Derky in Damascus. He has published four books in Arabic, and it has been translated into many other languages. In 2014, his collaboration with Marie Silkeberg, Till Damaskus, was published in Sweden. In 2017, a selection of his work, Adrenalin, was published in the U.S.

Catherine Cobham is head of Department of Arabic and Persian at the University of St. Andrews and has translated the works of many Arab writers, inluding Naguib Mahfouz, Mahmoud Darwish, Fuad al-Takarli, Yusuf Idris, and Hanan al-Shaykh.