This piece, which is a re-posting from The Oxonion Review, continues our focus on literary translation and displacement. It is the fourth instalment of our Translation, Poetry and Displacement Series: you can read the other instalments by following the link at the bottom of this page. 

In this piece, Refugee Hosts Writer in Residence Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, in collaboration with the Oxford Student PEN group, translates the poetry of Lebanese writer Iskandar Habash. The poem is one of five works of translation from Arabic and French into English. It is the culmination of ‘poetic solidarity’ developed through a translation workshop held in 2014. Such works offer a guide for our research project, which will co-convene a series of translation workshops in the UK with our project partners English-PEN (including PEN Student Groups), PEN-International, and Stories in Transit. For more on the roles that creative writing, performance and poetry can play in refugee-related research, visit our blog.

Nothing stays on the table except the trace of your hand…

By Yousif M. Qasmiyeh and the Oxford Student PEN Group, University of Oxford


Your sleepy voice this morning reshapes the life that flows through my fingers…Open the door, and draw a threshold, distant mountains and a blue sky. Draw a house…There, a man is waking from his darkness…


After a normal afternoon. Nothing happened. A table with a drawer full of dead songs with none to sing. Four legs, two of them have the urge to be hands in another life.


One of these mornings, you will realise that you stood by the door dreaming, and that you were waiting for things which never existed. You ruined your hands making a bed, a table, a drawer to house what remains. Then you will start to fear the night, for you no longer await a friend’s visit and discover that your glass of wine was tainted. At that moment, you start to fear time, the kisses you never sent, the ones you never received. You will ask, one of these mornings, what was the point of these incomplete footsteps, and why the departed have departed. That morning, you will realise, amidst the boredom of this life, that you gain nothing from being alive.


Nothing stays on the table except the trace of your hand. The hand that held bread and wine, one day, the hand that touched a woman’s body, the hand that did not know what to write, except a night that surrounded you from all directions.

Iskandar Habash


Poetic Solidarity: Translations from Arabic and French

When Arabic was raised as a source-language for a potential Oxford PEN translation workshop in 2014, we faced a series of difficult decisions given the events and processes shaping the region: revolutions (and/or wars) which have brought hope, chaos, death as well as life to so many. Before selecting a number of potential poems (or poets), we decided to take some time to observe the scene and to choose accordingly. Ultimately, we have selected poems by Iskandar Habash (Lebanon), Tammam Al-Tillawi (Syria), Rasha Omran (Syria), and Firas Sulaiman (Syria), which have respectively been published in the following newspapers: As-Safir, An-Nahar, Al-Mustaqbal and Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

In spite of this trepidation, our selection is, of course, in no way intended to be representative of the poet or the poet’s poetry, but rather offers a small sample which sheds light on the complexity of choice and the ways in which different poets register and interact with the daily and the panoramic in the midst of such events.

With the aim of forging a degree of “poetic” solidarity between these and other poets, political activists and detainees outside of the Middle East, amongst other things, in order to draw attention to the human suffering as well as to the value of poetry therein, PEN organised an additional translation workshop which focused primarily on the poetry of Enoh Meyomesse, the imprisoned Francophone Cameroonian poet, activist, founding member of the Cameroonian Writers’ Association and winner of the 2013 Oxfam Novib / PEN Freedom of Expression Award. The international community of PEN centres has been campaigning on Meyomesse’s behalf since his imprisonment in 2011. To raise the profile of Meyomesse’s case, English PEN launched a crowd-sourced translation of Meyomesse’s Poème Carcéral: poème du pénitencier de Kondengui (2012), which was published as a print-on-demand e-book, Jail Verse: Poems from Kondengui Prison in 2014 and which Meyomesse himself received in prison in April 2014. Translations of his second collection, Prison Poetry, are currently underway.

We hope that these poems all reflect the powerful bonds of communication between poets, readers and translators, enacting what Seamus Heaney found most creditable in poetry which, he said, can “touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic reality of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed”.

The Arabic-English workshop was co-run by Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, Kate McLoughlin and Kevin Brazil, with the French-English workshop being co-run by Helena Taylor, Rosie Lavan and Yousif M. Qasmiyeh.

Participants of both workshops were: Stacie Allan, Jason Allen, Florence Beland; Spyridon Chairetis; Dominic Davies; Annie Demosthenous; Katie Ebner-Landy; Sarah Ekdawi, Benedict Gardner; Lewis Greaves; Sarah A. Halim; Nico Hobhouse; Emily Holman; Charles Jarvis; Ellen Jones; Dyedra Just; Meredith Morrison; Rebekah Murrell; Natasha Ryan; Edward Still; Anna Tankel; and Lucie Taylor. We are grateful for their very pertinent and insightful comments, additions and critiques vis-à-vis the translations, as processes and outputs alike.


The other poems translated alongside ‘Nothing stays on the table except the trace of your hand…’ can be found here:

Featured Image: Scenes of everyday life in Baddawi camp. (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Dec. 2016


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