Kareem James Abu-Zeid
Kareem James Abu-Zeid is an Egyptian-American translator of poets and novelists from across the Arab world. His most recent book-length translations include Najwan Darwish's Nothing More to Lose, Dunya Mikhail's The Iraqi Nights, and Rabee Jaber's Confessions, and The Mehlis Report. He has received PEN Center USA's 2017 translation prize, Poetry Magazine's 2014 translation prize, a Fulbright research fellowship, and translation residencies from the Lannan Foundation and the Banff International Center for the Arts, among other honors. In 2016, he completed his PhD in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley.
The NEA award is a shot in the arm for my creative work. I first read the Hanging Poems—the main collection of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, and a cornerstone of Arabic literature—while on a year-long language fellowship in Cairo back in 2006. At that time, I translated a few small excerpts into English for one of my professors, Farouk Shousha, who was a prominent Egyptian poet and secretary general of the Arabic Language Academy. “Why not translate the Hanging Poems into English?” he once asked me. I was still struggling through the thickets of the Arabic language back then, and did not have the linguistic skills or the confidence as a translator to begin the project. And years later, after I had gained the needed skills and a bit more confidence, I simply couldn’t find the time for such a massive undertaking. But now, over a decade later, the NEA award has made this translation possible—it has given me the time and space I need to tackle these foundational Arabic texts and bring them to a broader international audience. And more generally, the NEA award has given me the courage to be bold and ambitious with my creative projects, to no longer settle for what I’m familiar with and what comes easiest to me, but instead to take some creative risks and step outside of my comfort zone.
The Horse (from Imru Al-Qays’ Hanging Poem)
[translated from the Arabic]
Often I’ve risen at first light
—the birds still in their nests—
with my horse, his hair trim,
his massive body ready
to hunt the wild game.
How quickly he moves,
charging forward and drawing back
as in a single motion, poised
to rush down from on high
like a torrent of stones.
His hue: the dark of wine.
His back: so slick
the saddle-felt slips from it
like raindrops off rock.
He’s fierce, though lean,
and the sound he makes
when he sets off
is like a seething cauldron.
Quick and smooth
as flowing water, his hooves
barely touch the earth
while the other steeds stumble
and kick up dust.
The light young rider slips from his back;
the robes of the heavyset rider who hangs on hard
are flung to the wind—
he’s that quick,
like the spinning top
that children whirl with sturdy thread.
He’s got the lithesome flanks of a gazelle,
the forceful legs of an ostrich,
the wolf’s potent stride,
the sudden spring of a fleet-footed fox.
And when he leaves you in his wake,
you’ll see his flawless tail, so thick
it fills the space between his legs,
it almost touches earth.
And when he stands by the tent, his back
is as smooth as the pounding stone
for a bride’s perfume, and as strong
as the stone for pungent colocynth.
On his mane, the blood of the swiftest game
—the foremost of the herd—
looks like henna’s dark juice
on a head of clean white hair
A herd appears.
Like those virgin women with trailing robes
who circle the idol of Dawar,
the cows drag their tails behind them.
Turning to flee, they look
like the white shells and dark jewels
on the neck of a boy with noble kinsmen—
respected by the tribe.
My steed brings us swiftly to the leaders,
while far behind him
the straggling cattle, not scattering,
Bringing down both bull and cow
in a single movement,
he never breaks a sweat.
Soon the busy cooks will tend the meat:
they’ll roast some slowly, over open flames;
they’ll quickly boil the rest.
When we come back to the grateful tribe,
the people stare, awestruck by his beauty.
He spends the night with bit and saddle
still firmly on.
No willful roaming here:
loyal, disciplined, he never strays
too far from me.
About Hanging Poems: The Classic Works of Pre-Islamic Arabic Poetry
This collection of ten long poems is considered the foundation of all Arabic poetry and the beginning of Arabic literature as a whole, as important and as popular as Beowulf in English. The poets lived in or around the Arabian Peninsula in the 6th and 7th centuries C.E., during a time of tribal warfare and nomadic lifestyles. Amid the poems' vivid details of the harsh desert landscape are universal themes of love, death, war, hubris, and the impermanence of existence. Unlike much older translations of this work, this new translation will be more poetic and accessible. Each poem will be contextualized with a brief introduction.