I have been listening to Ahmed Matar‘s poetry since childhood, when no long car ride was undertaken without the cassette tape of the Iraqi poet reciting poems, giving us lines which were a blend of humor and despair, ironic in  their tone, lacerating in their self-criticism, bringing us face to face with a shared Arab reality. And it was shared not only by those listening now but those listening then; as Matar recited live, the audience would interact with him, punctuate the best lines with laughter or requests for him to repeat a certain part, or with their exclamations at points of particular eloquence or wit.

During those car rides, we listened to Ahmed Matar alongside  a tape of satire on Gaddafi which used only Gaddafi’s own speeches interspersed with canned laughter from Egyptian comedy plays. So Gaddafi would expound on his theory of Shakespeare being derived from Sheik Zubeir, while distant audiences laughed, the soundtrack probably taken from Adel Imam and The School of the Mischievous (Madrast Al-Moshagebeen (1973) or a similar Egyptian play.

This was of course a time before the term “Gaddafi Umbrella” was on urban dictionary. We were alone with our mad ruler, as those not from Libya gave a shrug as they passed over the country on the map: “Who knows what goes on there”. Or as Juan Cole put it in trying to dismantle the myth of a monolithic “Muslim world” that is an enemy back in Dec 2009, “no one can understand what that man is saying.” But we were not alone, because Ahmed Matar gave us a language for the mad reality we lived, which made us all repeat the Arab saying شر البلية ما يضحك (“The worst disaster drives you to laughter”), the inevitable reaction to listening to what Gaddafi, and other less obviously mad but no more benign rulers were saying. Matar presented us with a familiar world seen not so much with a jaundiced eye but with wry black humor.

This is a long-winded way of saying, I’m a fan. So I cannot understand how there are no (as far as I can tell) translations of Ahmed Matar’s works. A search in English brings up very few hits, and I’ve tried transliterating Matar’s name in a variety of ways. There’s a handful of links about a particular poem on Obama from Qifa Nabki, and a translation of that poem,  and here again on the same poem, and there is a promise by a blogger to begin translating his works, but that seems to be the last entry. A few short translations can be found at this great blog, What is Lost in Translation: There’s the two-line poem Insult Match and The Right Man.

Meanwhile in Arabic,   you can find an archive on Adab if you google أحمد مطر. There’s also a few fan pages, some Facebook pages, and some YouTube clips, of varying quality. So not very much online. But there are books. Here are a few:

عناصر الإبداع الفنى فى شعر أحمد مطر (Dissertation from 1998 by Kamal Ahmad Ghunaym entitled Elements of Creativity in Ahmed Matar’s Poetry)
مختارات أحمد مطر (Selections of Ahmed Matar’s poetry)
ملك الشعراء أحمد مطر (King of Poets, Ahmed Matar by Yusuf Shanob Zubeidi)
أحمد مطر شاعر المنفى (Ahmed Matar, Poet of Exile)
أجمل أشعار أحمد مطر ونبذة عن حياته (Best of Ahmed Matar and a Short Biography)

Again, not very much. And it’s a shame.

So here’s my rough translation of some poems from the tape I remember:

Our Leader’s Esteemed Dog

كلب والينا المعظم
Our leader’s esteemed dog
عضني اليوم ومات
Bit me today and died
فدعاني حارس الأمن لأعدم
So the head of security called me to my execution
عندما اثبت تقرير الوفاة
When the autopsy proved
أن كلب السيد الوالي تسمم
That the great leader’s dog had been poisoned.

Audio clip of Abbas’ Story, followed by translation:

Abbas’ Story

عباس وراء المتراس
Abbas behind the barricades
يقظ منتبه حساس
Alert, awake, attentive
منذ سنين الفتح يلمع سيفه
Since the years of the Islamic conquests he has been polishing his sword
ويلمع شاربه أيضا، منتظرا محتضنا دبه
And his mustache also, waiting clutching his teddybear
بلع السارق ضفة
A thief swallowed one part of the country
قلب عباس القرطاس
Abbas was at a loss
ضرب الأخماس بأسداس
Abbas was at sixes and sevens
(بقيت ضفة)
(The other part of the country remained)
لملم عباس ذخيرته والمتراس
Abbas gathered his ammunition and his barricade
ومضى يصقل سيفه
And went on polishing his sword
عبر اللص إليه، وحل ببيته
The thief crossed over to him and entered his home
(أصبح ضيفه)
(Now he was his guest)
قدم عباس له القهوة، ومضى يصقل سيفه
Abbas served him coffee, and went on polishing his sword
صرخت زوجة عباس: “أبناؤك قتلى، عباس
Abbas’ wife cried: “Your children are dead, Abbas
ضيفك راودني، عباس
Your guest is harassing me, Abbas
قم أنقذني يا عباس”
Come and save me, Abbas.”
عباس ــ اليقظ الحساس ــ منتبه لم يسمع شيئا ،
Abbas – the awake, the attentive – alertly heard nothing
(زوجته تغتاب الناس)
(His wife is a gossip).
صرخت زوجته : “عباس، الضيف سيسرق نعجتنا” ،
His wife cried: “Abbas, the guest is stealing our sheep.”
قلب عباس القرطاس ، ضرب الأخماس بأسداس ،
Abbas was at a loss, Abbas was at sixes and sevens,
أرسل برقية تهديد
He sent a threatening letter
فلمن تصقل سيفك يا عباس” ؟”
“So why polish your sword, Abbas?”
( لوقت الشدة)
(For times of need)
إذا ، اصقل سيفك يا عباس
Then go on polishing your sword, Abbas.

Emir of the Informants
(Play on the Islamic title Emir of the Faithful)

تهتُ عن بيت صديقي
I was lost on the way to a friend’s house
فسألتُ العابرين
So I asked the passers-by
قيل لي: إِمشِ يساراً
I was told: go left,
سترى خلفك بعض المُخبرين
You will see some informants behind you
حُدْ لدى أولهم سوف تلاقي مخبراً يعمل في نصبِ كمين
Turn at the first informant, you will find an informant working on an ambush
اتجِه للمخبر البادي أمام المخبر الكامن واهتِف سبعة
Head towards the informant in front of the ambushing informant and count to seven
ثم توقّف
Then stop
تجد البيت وراء المخبر الثامن في أقصى اليمين
You will find the house behind the eighth informant to the far right
حفظ الله أمير المخبرين
God keep the emir of informants
فلقد أتخم بالأمن بلاد المسلمين
For he has thronged the land of the Muslims with security
أيها الناس اطمئنوا
People, be comforted
هذه أبوابكم محروسة في كل حين
Your doors are guarded at every moment
فادخلوها بسلام آمنين..
So enter them, in peace and security (quote from the Quran)

Audio clip from the tape of To Whom Should We Complain? on YouTube, followed by a translation:

To Whom Should We Complain?

لمن نشكوا مآسينا ؟
To whom should we complain?
ومن يُصغي لشكوانا ويُجدينا ؟
And who listens to our complaints?

أنشكو موتنا ذلاً لوالينا ؟
Should we complain of our death by humiliation to our lord and master?
وهل موتٌ سيحيينا ؟!
And will death bring us back to life?
قطيعٌ نحنُ .. والجزار راعينا
We are a herd of sheep and the butcher is our shepherd
ومنفيون …… نمشي في أراضينا
And we are exiles…walking in our own lands
ونحملُ نعشنا قسرًا … بأيدينا
We carry our coffin for a castle
ونُعربُ عن تعازينا …… لنا .. فينا
And express our condolences…from ourselves…to ourselves
فوالينا ..
Because our lord and master
ــ أدام الله والينا ــ
– May he live for ever –
رآنا أمةً وسطًا
Saw us as a “middle nation” (Islamic concept of moderation)
فما أبقى لنا دنيا ….. ولا أبقى لنا دينا
So left us without a dunya (world) and without a deen (religion)
ولاةَ الأمر .. ما خنتم .. ولا هِنْتمْ
Rulers, no, you have not betrayed us
ولا أبديتم اللينا
You have not shown yourselves as weak
جزاكم ربنا خيرًا
May our lord reward you
كفيتم أرضنا بلوى أعادينا
You have turned our lands into our a nightmare for our enemies
وحققتم أمانينا
You have granted our wishes
وهذي القدس تشكركم
And here is Al Aqsa thanking you
ففي تنديدكم حينا
For in your condemnations, at times
وفي تهديدكم حينا
and in your threats, at other times
سحقتم أنف أمريكا
You have broken American’s nose
فلم تنقل سفارتها
So she did not move her embassy
ولو نُقِلتْ
And if she did, God forbid
.. لضيعنا فلسطينا
We would have lost Palestine
ولاة الأمر
هذا النصر يكفيكم ويكفينا
This victory is enough for you and enough for us
…. تهانينا
Our congratulations.

The whole tape can be found on YouTube:

8 thoughts on “Ahmed Matar’s Black Humor

  1. Salam/Hi,
    So glad I have found your blog only when I started believing that finding new translations of Matar’s poems is impossible. I also came across the same blogs/websites you mentioned in your post in my previous searches over the past year. I am a big fan of Matar’s black humor and his skill at portraying our plight; he is truly gifted and has a way with words. I was introduced to his poetry as a kid back in early 90s. I even memorized some lines as my brother (a h-u-g-e fan of Matar) repeatedly chanted them!! Anyway, thanks for the post, it’s made my day 🙂


  2. Thank you so much for this post 🙂 I’m Italian, looking for English translation of Matar’s poems, because Arabic to me is impossible ^_^
    I’m searching any information about him, because in a blog I’ve read someone lamenting for his death, but nowhere I can find anything about.
    Congratulations for your work!


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