Sudden Mesopotamian Downpours: Translating the Poetry of Maitham Radhi

Iraqi -born New Zealander architect Ali Shakir discovers a new appreciation for poetry through the work of artist and poet Maitham Radhi:

By Ali Shakir

It all started at a chamber music concert. No sooner had the pianist played the first notes of a quartet written by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks than my eyes widened and my ears perked up. I knew the feeling all too well; I was trapped again. Good storytelling is a bait I never cease to swallow — be it in music, architecture, visual arts, or literature, including my least favorite genre: poetry.

Maitham Radhi

Just a few hours before the concert, whilst scrolling down through my timeline on Twitter, I stumbled on a short free-verse poem in Arabic by a name hitherto unknown to me: Maitham Radhi. In only a few lines the poem drew a cynical picture of death, a daily occurrence in Iraq, our country of origin. The subtlety of the portrayal caught me off guard and threatened to shake my long-standing lack of affection for poets, many of whom happen to be obsessed with embellishments and would go about verses with such condescending authority fit only for Greek gods. This time, the lines felt uncharacteristically friendly; they whispered rather than screamed, suggested rather than dictated. … I walked back home that night pondering the impact of Radhi’s and Vasks’ artwork on me, and woke up the next morning determined to look them up on Google.

“In my music, I speak Latvian,” Vasks said in one of the search results. His Piano Quartet played through my laptop speakers as I explored more of Radhi’s poems. Although written in literary Arabic, the pieces resonated with the laments and dreams of the Iraqi people. I noticed that several of them began with simple anecdotes that felt like bedtime stories, but would then take unexpected surreal twists, urging readers to ponder their own endings and what to make of them.

The freshness of the pattern intrigued me; I embedded one of the pieces into a text message along with a link to Vasks’ quartet and sent them to my Arab friends. The feedback was exceptionally favorable, and I thought I should share the work with my Western friends as well. Sadly, I couldn’t find any English translations.

One of the good things about being Iraqi — or bad, depending on how a person chooses to look at it — is the ease with which nearly any compatriot can be reached. … Thanks to an old university friend, Radhi’s contacts popped up on my phone only hours after requesting them. I asked for permission to translate a selection of his poems to attach to my review, and he couldn’t have been more welcoming. That’s how this project was born.

An old trick

My grandfather had a habit of drying the happy years,
so he could use them when they’re out of season.

A sudden downpour

At the baby boy’s funeral,
we asked: what’s all that feather?
The father raised his head and put a hand in the air,
he caught one, and cried out: it’s the word Dove he’d learned to say two days ago
We forgot to take it away.

Bombed

The little soul friskily asked her accompanying angel: but how could God tell I was from Iraq without even asking me?
The angel gently wiped the soul’s cheek with his hand,
he then put his finger in front of her eyes, and said: By the soot my little one … the soot.

The suture

Back when the streets were open wounds,
lovers on the opposite sides would cross to meet one another … like stitches.

An empty mailbox

The furniture too corresponds with the wood,
the way distant sons write to their mothers
Only the tree whose child they’ve carved into a coffin,
does not receive any mail.

Born in 1974 in the city of Imara in southeast Iraq, poet and cartoonist Maitham Radhi is also a practicing electrical engineer. A collection of his prose poems, titled Kalimat Radi’a (Distorted Words) was published in 2015 by Almutawassit Books, Italy. Many of his moving cartoons can be found online.

Ali Shakir is an Iraqi-born, New Zealander architect and author of A Muslim on the Bridge (Signal 8 Press, 2013) and Café Fayrouz (ASP Inc. 2015)

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