Translation of Wadih Sa’adeh’s ‘Dead Moments’

By and | 1 August 2021

A central figure in development of the Arabic prose poem, Wadih Sa’adeh’s work treats and springs from interrogations of exile and displacement, the constant tension between the present and memory, and the place of the poet between them. In his own words, he is, ‘a poet of summoning presence.’ Sa’adeh has published twelve collections of poetry to date. His first, The evening has no siblings, was first distributed by hand in Beirut in 1973. The poem translated below is from his 1992 collection Because of a cloud, most probably. The unrelenting, quiet discontent of its recapitulation of small details stirs up memory and doubt, breaking the surface stillness; the process of writing pushing forward against the inertia of despair over its utility. It is possible to see this poem as embodying a process in his writing that he has described as follows

I had intended my poetry to be a kind of salvation for me in my confrontation with the onslaught of a perpetually antagonistic world. When this confrontation failed, I tried convincing myself that surrendering to the world – being a scrap of paper floating downriver – was the only salvation available to me. But this proved impossible, too.

Read the poem in its original language.

Dead Moments


Suddenly the sunbeam disappears. I believe a cloud is passing over the house. Sunbeams disappear for only two reasons: clouds hide them or it’s night. It is morning now: most probably a cloud is passing.

Maybe soon it will rain and I will be able to watch the rain from the window. Life is beautiful, so beautiful that you are able to watch it rain, circumstances permitting. Mine is a water sign and I assume that every now and then some planet up in space melts and flows down here, in front of me. Happy notion. I carry it over to the window. I open the window and I look at the cars, the hot asphalt, the weary labourers. Why do these labourers get tired? I used to get tired myself sometimes and I would sweat, but then I regretted it, and I rested. For years. Sweat of the brow? It is hateful; shameful, in fact. Repulsive: rising from sleep to make yourself sweat. A car going by leaves a light cloud of dust. A cat asleep at the corner opens then shuts its eyes. I close the window and slowly make my way back.

Today, too, I shall rest. I can experience all things in all their glory from the couch or pacing the tiled floor and staring at the walls. Four or five hours of life a day will do. Then I might go out, wander through the city, run into friends, buy a bottle of arak, return.

Anything might happen without warning. A stranger’s visit, the death of a friend, a man walking in the street and his skin, suddenly, crawling. Just like that: purely arbitrary. Then nothing changes. I might go out onto the balcony, glance at the flowers in their box, then back inside. I might smile, perhaps; perhaps not a muscle will move in my face. My face is round and motionless, like something that has taken its final form; my nose a touch sharp, like a bird’s hooked beak. My eyes are black. When I open my mouth out comes panting breath and perhaps a few words, too. Few and faint, so that sometimes I can’t hear them myself. In truth I never have anything to say.
Yet frequently I find myself forced to speak. Why this expectation of words whenever they sit with me, I do not know. And then I become ill. I picture life as a silent friend; whenever it speaks someone comes down with cancer. I had a friend who died like this.

Is this the cause of life’s sickness? Because of voices? It falls sick and dies because men speak?

Between the bedroom and the sitting room my hand lifts to smooth my hair. No distance at all, but I picture speeding trucks and strange sounds crossing it. Reach a chair at any cost. I pass my hand over my hair; the hand that holds nothing can easily lift to it. My hair is long and like anyone who sleeps it banks and tangles in the night. But always I pass my hand over it, so that it remains my friend. The world is more beautiful that way, when hair is a friend. With a friendly body the world keeps close to your heart. When your limbs love you the number of your enemies declines. Even your nails, dust-gatherers, are gathering something dear.

I advance two paces and reach the window. Still the labourers, the asphalt, and the cars; the cat asleep at the corner. Sounds reach me through the pane and I feel them to be beautiful. Even people look delicate at a distance.

What shall I do today? I have no intention of doing anything and I do not have to do anything. I could probably make friends, from behind the glass, with these people in the street. The day is still young and a few minutes of friendship would be enough. Then I must go out onto the balcony and water the flowers. I must, maybe, take a short walk through the city and bring back a bottle of arak.

The window is shut and I am a short man, 165 centimetres tall, making friends with the long street. From time to time he passes his hand over his hair, slowly taking whatever falls out and throwing it in the bin. A quiet man who, even between the bedroom and the kitchen, frequently pauses in reverie or to rest. Who rolls his cigarette slowly, picking the excess tobacco from each end; a quick glance at the lighter, then he ducks his head and lights. The building before me has reached the seventh floor. An Indian labourer overhead is like an angel. The people, too, resemble angels from a distance, the migrants in particular. I do not know why I can’t picture immigrants without seeing angels. The labourers in particular. Those who pick up their baggage and walk. Who, halting sometimes just paces from the door, roll a cigarette and turn back homewards.

I pass my finger across the vapour on the windowpane from my mouth and I take a pace back. I look at the couch to my right. As it was. The friends who visited me would sit there. Today I am alone and I might be its only audience. There is an old friendship between us: from the moment I saw it in the corner of the showroom and told the salesman, I can’t afford more, and he carefully picked it up and brought it to me. Still here, in place. Perhaps a little out of place from when friends slumped down and shifted it, but more or less in the same place still, this friend of mine, with these labourers, with this vague line my hand has traced through the vapour on the windowpane. I approach and draw another line. Another line, another friend. I look at it and I slump into the chair.

From Because of a cloud, most probably, 1992

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