The Desire of Life – Abu Al-Qassim Al-Shabbi (A New Translation)

My English translation was published in Modern Poetry in Translation, 3/2020

In November, Modern Poetry in Translation published my English version of The Desire of Life by Abu Al-Qassim Al-Shabbi. Please do check out the magazine and buy a copy – it’s a fantastic edition and I’m honoured to have been featured alongside such great lists and translators!

Here’s the introduction I wrote for MPT:

Speak to me, you, the darkness that consumes us,
can life return when the springtime of youth withers?

The question captures the personal and political anguish troubling Abulqassim Al-Shaabi when he penned The Desire of Life in 1933. Personal, because Al-Shaabi was just 24 and dying of a heart ailment. Political, because he was expressing the bottled rage and resentment of Tunisians under imperial French rule. This is the heartbreak of a young, ambitious artist, bitter in the knowledge of his own mortality and his country’s exploitation, channelled into his finest poem.

Abu Al-Qassim Al-Shabbi (1909-1934) is the national poet of Tunisia

I translated The Desire of Life with the aim of celebrating its thrilling, lyrical energy. The poem’s opening lines compel the reader to action and echoes in the slogan of the 2010-11 Tunisian Revolution – al-sha’ab yurid isqat al-nidham – The People Desire the Regime’s Downfall. This slogan was on the lips of millions of protesters, first in Tunisia then in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Libya, and has been heard chanted again in the streets of Beirut this summer. The Desire of Life heralded a decade of protest bookended by the Arab Uprisings and Black Lives Matter.

Keeping the “R” end-rhyme which runs through the original text was an exciting challenge. Desire trills through the verse, opening one line to the next, so that the entire poem itself is like the soft beat of a wing / its lift-off in reach.

Towards the end of the poem, the above question to the darkness is answered by the arrival of Spring, who kisses the lips of departed youth / with a passion that restores their colour. Today’s protests echoing Al-Shaabi’s poetry are like Spring’s kiss, restoring his memory to life, time and time again.


The Desire of Life – Abu Al-Qassim Al-Shabbi
translated by Ali Al-Jamri

One day, when the People act on Life’s desire,
they’ll force the hand of a higher power,
Night shall flee at the sound of Dawn’s choir
and the chain, the chain shall finally shatter.

For if the People do not thirst for life,
why, they’ll shrivel and expire —
those who scorn the struggle for life,
Death shall punch with the force of a boxer.

So said Earth through her creations
when our sorry state roused the forces of nature.
From mountains, through valleys,
beneath my trembling feet, the Wind blasted his anger:

When destiny calls, I seize the day,
warn me of danger and I’ll shriek with laughter —
I’ll always take the path less travelled
I’ll always run through the blazing fire —
if the view from the peak makes you tremble with fear,
then crawl in a grave and await your maker.

If all youth are like me, then their blood’s run cold
and their heart’s drummed to the beat of despair.
I slipped in the slop and the mud, assailed by rains,
attacked by winds, condemned by thunder.

Earth, you hold us in such contempt,
how dare you call yourself a mother?

I bless of your lot the children of ambition
who chase and snap at the heels of danger,
but I curse the louts who waste this gift,
who aspire to live the life of a boulder.
The Universe is alive! He loves the living, He scorns the dead.

Does the bee kiss the dead flower?
Does the horizon embrace the dead bird?
Does the maggot distinguish the great from the lesser?
Were it my way, my dear, I’d not allow for burials,
but my tender heart breaks for the weeping mourner.

Spread my warning to those who accept a life in fetters:
When their story ends, Death alone emerges the victor.

On an overcast night one autumn,
as I watched Earth’s displeased clouds gather,
I raised my cup to see off the stars
and sang ’til Sorrow joined my stupor.

Speak to me, you, the darkness that consumes us,
can life return when the springtime of youth withers?

But the Dark’s lips did not part,
nor did Dawn voice her bewitching murmurs.
It was the Forest who spoke, like a lilting harp,
so delicate, so loving, so tender:

Here comes Winter, the winter of fog
the winter of ice, the winter of downpours
to snuff the magic, the magic of branches,
the magic of flowers, the magic of nectar.
The beloved blossoms of youth and yearning
are thrust unceremoniously in the air,
whipped this way and that by the hostile Storm,
drowned by the Flood, they are torn asunder.
Like a dream illuminated by the soul
then blotted out, all, all expire.

But in the earth remains the Seed,
springtime’s forgotten, hidden treasure.
Memories of seasons, visions of life,
ghosts of a world, its base and its tenor —
the Seed embraces them all, beneath dead earth
and thick fog, a shield against Winter’s icy spectre.
It grips Life in all its thrumming joy
and bears the promise of Spring’s green wonders.
It dreams of birdsong in flight,
the juice of a fruit, the scent of a flower.

Time marches on, with it an oppressor,
and when this one falls, there shall come another.
Dreams rouse from troubled sleep
in a twilight that will not disappear.
They ask:

Where is the morning mist?
The evening’s spell? The moonlight’s shimmer?
Where is the singing bee and the passing cloud?
Where does the elegant butterfly flutter?
Where are all the Earth’s creatures?
Where is the light and the life I yearn for?
I thirst for the sunshine dappled through the leaves,
I thirst for the shade of a tall tree’s shelter!
I thirst for the brook between meadows
that tinkles and dances with the flowers!
I thirst for the bird’s croon, the breeze’s murmur,
and rain’s gentle patter patter.
I thirst for the Universe! And yet, the world
I wish to witness, I must yet wait for.
For He, the Universe, is dormant, His grand awakening
on the horizon. Is it on me to make Him stir?

This longing is like the soft beat of a wing,
its lift-off in reach. As it grows stronger,
the Seed breaks the earth and, peaking out,
beholds the world. No view delights it more.
Thus dawns Spring, the Melodious,
the Fragrant, the Inspirer of Dreamers,
He kisses the lips of departed youth
with a passion that restores their colour
and says to them:

You have been granted life,
and the Seed has been your protector.
Bask in the Light that guides you, the restless youth
of this fertile land, to bloom together.
Whoever worships the Light in their dreams,
the Light shall bless them wherever it appears—
For you is this space, so radiant, so pure,
for you is this chance to truly prosper,
for you is all this resilient world’s beauty,
so firm, so flourishing, so clear,
so spread as you wish across the fields
by your supple blossoms and sweet nectar.

And thus survives the breeze, survive the clouds
survives the moon, survive the stars,
thus survives this exalted existence and its allures
thus survives Life and its desires.

The Dark slips to reveal a deep beauty
which electrifies and inspires.
Across the Universe a strange magic spreads
willed by the wand of a master spell caster.
Incandescent stars radiate across the sky
and there spreads the scent of a fragrant flower.
A soul, strangely beautiful, flutters
on wings formed of the moonlight’s shimmer,
and the holy hymn of life resounds
in a temple, bewitching every dreamer.

Across the Universe it is declared:
Ambition is the soul’s triumph and Life’s blazing fire,
When the People speak their spirit’s ambition,
Destiny must bow to their desire!

About alialjamri

Young journalist, blogger, trying to make sense of the world we live in.
This entry was posted in Poetry and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s