(translation by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha)

This poem and the following translator’s note that are a preview from the Crossings translation feature in the upcoming Summer & Fall 2024 issue of Poetry Northwest.

I have eulogized the dead my entire life, and this has exhausted me.
When you spend a lifetime singing of the slain, you will be slain as well without knowing how.
You become a victim singing a victim, a dead man embalming a dead man and burying him.
From this day forward, I will not sing of the slain. I’ll sing of the killers.
I’ll sing their shiny daggers, and their hands that do not tremble.
I’ll sing their intuition that leads them to those who emerge from their mothers’ wombs as dead men.
The slain love their executions.
I ask you: how did the white heron turn into stone?
How did he sleep in the rock forever?
He kept on eating stones his whole life.
And I ask you: How did the dead man become a dead man?
For his entire life, he kept eating from the plate of death and searching for a killer to slay him.

غنيت القتلى طوال عمري. و قد أتعبني ذلك. فحين
تقضي عمرا و أنت تغني القتلى فستتحول أنت ذاتك
.الى قتيل من حيث لا تدري. ستصير قتيلا يغني قتيلا
.ميتا يلحد ميتا ويدفنه
و أنا من اليوم لن أغني القتلى, بل سأغني القتلة. سأغني
خناجرهم اللماعة, وأيديهم التي لا ترتجف. سأغني
.حدسهم الذي يدلهم على الذي ولد من رحم أمه قتيلا
.القتلى يحبون مقاتلهم
وأنا أسألك: كي صار طائر البلشون الأبيض
متحجرة؟ كيف غفا في الصخرة الى الأبد؟
.لأنه ظل يأكل الحجارة طوال عمره
وأسألك أيضا: كيف تحول القتيل الى قتيل؟
.لأنه ظل, طوال عمره, يأكل من طبق الموت ويبحث عن قاتل يقتله

Translator’s note by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

The poems in this selection are from the late work of poet Zakaria Mohammed, an era he identified himself and wrote about in an epilogue to his sixth book, Kushtban, published in Ramallah, Palestine, in 2014. In that essay, entitled “Poetry and Tomatoes,” Mohammed describes his early relationship with poetry as a difficult one. He says that two questions tormented him: what could he contribute to poetry, and what use might poetry be? I am enchanted by the notion that a giant of modern Palestinian poetry wrestled with the same questions that many of us do, and that it took five volumes of poetry for him to come to terms with his answers to them. Over time, Mohammed’s relationship to poetry changed, and a certain tenderness developed towards the form:

“The turbulence and tension of that time period came to an end, the relationship with poetry settled and the difficult questions were resolved. Poetry has a certain utility. It bears a small, sweet fruit. But it should not be made to carry more than it can handle. If we ask it to carry too much, we will break its back. It is as fragile as a delicate vase, and its strength lies in how delicate it is.”

The late work of Zakaria Mohammed comprises four volumes of poetry, Kushtban, Alanda, Zarawand, and A Date for the Crows. All the poems in these collections are untitled, marked only by the date on which they were written. Readers in Palestine and throughout the Arabic-speaking world who followed Mohammed on Facebook would often see early drafts of these poems posted on his page. He shared early versions of them, and often received comments and engaged in conversation about his work with everyone from fellow poets, students, and online and local friends. For a poet of his stature, his approach to writing in this era was a remarkably liberated and transparent one. He eschewed titles and ignored many of formalities of publishing, writing and rewriting in community. Speaking in 2022 at the launch event for what would become his final poetry collection, Mohammed noted that his poems were chasing a kind of longing, as mysterious to him as it may be to his readers. In the four volumes of this later period, Mohammed’s poems converse with the dead and the living, drawing on the Palestinian landscape, its plants, earth, and stones, for a vocabulary to house his longings. Over the last prolific decade of his life, Mohammed gave himself over to poetry, accepted it as the form that defined him, a relationship, he declared in the epilogue to Kushtban, “that only death could end.”

Zakaria Mohammed was born in Nablus, Palestine. He was a freelance journalist, novelist, editor, and poet. He was the author of nine volumes of poetry, including Kushtban (Dar Al-Nasher Press, 2014), Alanda (Dar Al-Nasher Press, 2016), Zarawand (Dar Al-Nasher 2020), and Tamret Al Ghurab (Dar Al-Nasher, 2022). In 1994, after twenty-five years in exile, he returned to his homeland and lived in Ramallah, where he passed away on August 2nd, 2023.

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, essayist, and translator. She is the author of three books of poetry, Water & Salt, winner of the 2018 Washington State Book Award, Kaan and Her Sisters (Trio House Press, 2023), and Something About Living, winner of the 2022 Akron Poetry Prize. (University of Akron Press, 2024). Tuffaha’s work has been published or is forthcoming in journals including Michigan Quarterly Review, The Nation, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. She was the 2022 curator of the translation series, Poems from Palestine at the Baffler magazine. She is currently curating a monthly feature on Palestinian writing at Words Without Borders entitled “Against Forgetting.”