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(Poem from a Prison Cell)

Qatari poet PEN American Center Honorary Member Mohammed al-Ajami is serving a 15-year sentence at Doha Central Prison for “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime” and “criticizing the Emir” in two of his poems. He was able to record and send out this Poem from a Prison Cell in May 2014. You can listen to him reading it (in Arabic) here.

Is it my mind or my heart that I’ve lost
to you, Arab lands, home of enemies?
If you held our minds with law and reason
if you respected our opinions
then you’d hold my heart as well
Who am I? Don’t ask the days about me—
I’m nothing but a prisoner
in an isolation cell
Here in my country, oppression
is what takes our rights away
Here, ignorance
determines our convictions
Here, the people
no longer have a voice, cannot
spell out the language of reproach
My country, if insight required an apology
I’d never stop apologizing
Tell your children, east and west
—and keep telling them, until
the birds sing it in the branches—
that a people without opinions
is nothing but a herd that’s thirsty
yet blind to the nearby oasis
Fight for your convictions: this is how
you ride your steeds and bear your arms
against a ruler who seeks to oppress
and who molds your silence
into a pretext for injustice
Tell them that I, stubborn, persistent
was unmatched in my victory
and my defeat
Time may have disgraced me
but I haven’t been easy for time to shackle
Lord of rabble, what of yours compares
to the thrones of Ibn Ad’s people
in Iram, the city of pillars
which God spoke of in His revelation?
You’ve been insincere, a false prophet on earth
though you, like Jesus, spoke in the crib
You’ve wounded truth, and my proud allegiance
is lifeless now, and clad in black
How can you expect obedience
when you call for injustice?
If we obeyed you, then what would become of our principles?
When we pray, who do we pray to?
To God, or to God’s servants?
There’s no room for virtue under oppression
there’s no room for vice on the road of justice
Whoever wrongs and deceives his people
will never be able to guide them
If history were objective, it would tell
how you’ve sought glory in my so-called enmity
Go ahead and be miserable, though you and I
are not enemies
I avoid enmity, and make enemies
only of those who are truly worthy
If you ask after my finest day
on an occasion when words of pride are called for
I’d call history to mind, and say:
It was when I was a prisoner in my own country
for when you shackled my wrists
history gave me strength
and confidence in victory
These disgraceful chains
are power in my hands, not power
for those who lord it over me
Doors and guards, wake me up gently
whenever I sleep too long
It is not desire
but fear
that makes me ask this, fear
that the enemies will see my weakness when I sleep…
though I no longer know
if my eyes are closed, or if
I’ve been awake all this time



 

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