More Sahrawi Poetry

When I was putting together Poems for the Millennium 4 (North African Literature), I asked the excellent Spanish-language translator Joseph Mulligan to help with bringing over some of the work of the Sahrawi poets from the ex-Spanish colony of the Western Sahara. Joe  did a superb job — & has continued his interest & involvement with Sahrawi poetry, so that he now has a near complete anthology of Sahrawi poetry. Here a few excerpts from this work in progress (& an note by Mulligan at the end, setting the context.)

New Translations of Sahrawi poets Ebnu, Lehsan, & Awah

By Joseph Mulligan


I don’t believe in you
thousand-headed snake
who slithers down these roads
tracking our footsteps.
I don’t believe in you
general without any glory
who sends us into nameless secessions
to reopen the wounds of the dead.
I don’t believe in you
queen of rotted bloodlines
much less your curses
or antiquated ills.
Snake generals
Ghost queens
Ignorant fools.
I believe more
in the saddened stoic
millennial stones
I sometimes use
to wipe my ass.

By Mohamed Salem Abdelfatah Ebnu, in Voz de fuego (Universidad de Las Palmas, 2004).



There are days when
time’s lead feet do damage,
when the sea resembles
the tear of a melancholic god,
the desert a scab
on the ribs of the land,
& the sun a shower of coals.
Days when hope
crosses her arms.

But there are days
when time is just a grin
that flies away,
days when I crave
to mix the rainbow’s every color
on a pallet,
fashion a brush from a feathered cloud
to paint a world without an axis but with several poles
& throw dice with the cardinal corners.

By Luali Lehsan, in Bubisher: Poesía saharaui contemporánea, ed. María Jesús Alvarado (Puentepalo, 2003).



I keep receiving the love letters
your write
from Qalb El Haulia,
letters that tell me life
resumes after recent rain.

Today, in lekhrif so green,
under the blazing sun of Tiris,
I read that the fitful hands
of unchained winds
stroke your cheeks,
siroccos, storms, haze
& that you’ve caught
my scent as it wafted in
from the West.

Oh, my bedouin love,
Oh, my virgin nude,
oh, my beautiful dune.

You ask me what others
call Qalb El Haulia,
so let me say poets
of the West call it
“Heart of the virgin gazelle.”

Just like that,
your eyes wide open
so big & black & joyful,
where love can hatch,
the path I follow back
to quench my thirst between
your lips dark with nila.

I love you as qalb or heart,
it doesn’t matter which,
I love you as long as your name
is Qalb El Haulia
heart of the virgin gazelle.

I love you as long as I seek
you with my tired eyes
& find you like the promised land.
Tiris, dear heart, I love you.
I love you like qalb
& virgin gazelle unite.

By Bahia Awah, in Versos refugiados (Fundación Universidad Alcalá de Henares, 2007).


These selections are drawn from a work in progress provisionally titled, From the Shade of a Thorn Tree: A Range of Sahrawi Poetics, a collection of poems & essays translated from the Castilian, which showcases contemporary poets of the Generación de amistad saharaui & locates their work in relation to their nomadic predecessors who composed oral poetry in Hassaniya Arabic on el-badia of Western Sahara prior to the Moroccan occupation. Ebnu, Lehsan, & Awah represent major figures of this generation & their work, largely unknown in the Americas, is a fresh reminder that mestizaje is not an exclusively Latin American occurrence. The Hassaniya vocabulary that often surfaces in Sahrawi poetry—in this case, in Awah’s poem: lekhrif (the Western Saharan Spring), qalb (heart, mountain), nila (indigo)—is not the tenet of a literary project, but a natural expression of languaged miscegenation that has eschewed the pretense of castizo discourse. Sahrawi poetry must be read & we must read it in a Sahrawi context, without trying to contrast it to its Francophone neighbors, without assimilating it to its Hispanic relatives, and especially without proclaiming its appearance an ex nihilo phenomenon. Sahrawi poetics represent the perpetuation of an age-old North African tradition that has been marginalized within the Maghreb itself and that, until only recently in the West, we have largely ignored.

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2 Responses

  1. Excelente trabajo queridos amigos hispanos, Joseph Mulligan y Pierre Joris, hispanos con los que compartimos este patrimonio lingüístico que nos une desde las antípodas del continente africano al americano.
    Gracias por tenernos en cuenta y hablar de nosotros como parte de la gran familia del mestizaje cultural afrohispano.

    Desde la Republica Saharaui, un cordial saludo de amistad y hermanandad.

    Bahia M.H Awah

  2. Rochelle Owens says:

    Mulligan’s wonderful translations of Sahrawi poetry—cold pure water for the soul!

    Rochelle Owens

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