Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Translation of Ibrahim al-Yaziji's 'Awaken and arise, O Arabs'

Ibrahim al-Yaziji (1847-1906), born in Beirut, was a leading figure of the period in Arab history known as the nahda (“awakening”), which was simultaneously an intellectual and cultural renaissance (that saw, for instance, the first Arabic-language novels and plays) and a political movement that combined secularism with a nascent pan-Arab brand of nationalism, asserting that reason and egalité rather than irrational religious chauvinism (with its inevitable divisiveness) were society’s best hopes for liberation – not only from foreign occupation but from injustice and ignorance in general.

Among al-Yaziji’s foremost individual contributions were his dictionary of synonyms, his pioneering work on Arabic fonts that made Arabic typewriting possible for the first time, and his translation into Arabic of the Bible.

His most famous poem, described by Fawwaz Trabulsi as “the rallying call for the early generations of Arab nationalists”1, is said to have been first recited (for it was too dangerous to write down) at an 1878 meeting of the Syrian Scientific Association. Two years later, it was surreptitiously plastered across the walls of Beirut and Damascus alongside posters calling for independence from the Ottoman Empire2. The resulting scandal led to the dismissal of the grand vizier of Damascus, and the driving of most independence-minded thinkers, including al-Yaziji himself, into exile.

Despite the obvious significance of the poem, I’ve been unable to find a single coherent English translation of it online. The below is an attempt to rectify this. In the interests of my own sanity I have made effort neither to preserve the monorhyme scheme (in the Arabic, every one of the 48 lines ends with the syllable “bu”) nor the rigid metre (known as al-baseet, comprising 14 syllables per hemistich). My aim was to prioritize accuracy over aesthetics: as a result, it isn’t necessarily the most mellifluous read. The language in the original is at times quite obscure and archaic – it’s entirely possible I’ve made errors in places.

Interestingly, not all of the poem has aged well. There are some unpardonably homophobic lines, for instance. Yet, at its best – its injunction to “free yourselves of tribalism” (also translatable as “fanaticism” or “sectarianism”); its appeal to a common and ancient literary heritage; and the stirring eloquence of its call for liberation from a humiliating tyranny – it still feels as radical and forward-thinking as anything written since, and it’s little surprise that homage has been paid to it by Arab Spring protestors, such as those in Syria, who on July 5, 2013, named their weekly nationwide demonstration “The Friday of ‘Awaken and arise, O brigades’”.

Awaken and arise, O Arabs
تَنَبَهوا وَاستَفيقوا أَيُّها العَرَب
For the crisis has overflown to knee height
فَقَد طَمى الخَطبُ حَتّى غاصَتِ الرُّكَبُ
Why the excuse-making with hopes that deceive you
فيمَ التَعلُّلُ بالآمالِ تَخدَعَكُم
While you are in the grip of decline, dispossessed?
وَأَنتُم بَينَ راحاتِ الفَنا سلُبُ
God is greatest, [so] what is this sleep?
اللَّهُ أَكبرُ ما هَذا المَنام فَقَد 
The bed has complained about you and the Lord has missed you
شَكاكُمُ المَهد وَاِشتاقَكُمُ الرَّبُّ
How oppressed you are, yet you don’t complain, and how
كَم تُظلمون وَلَستُم تَشتَكون وَكَم
Much you’re provoked and yet appear not angry
تُستَغضَبونَ فَلا يَبدو لَكُم غَضَبُ
You’ve grown accustomed to shame, till it’s become to you
ألِفتُم الهُون حَتّى صارَ عِندَكُمُ 
Natural and part of man’s innate nature
طَبعاً وَبَعضُ طِباعِ المَرءِ مُكتَسَبُ
Your pride, from the humiliation’s length, has fled you
وَفارَقَتْكُم لِطول الذُلِّ نَخوَتكُم
Such that neither abasement nor ruin pain you  
فَلَيسَ يُؤلِمُكُم خَسفٌ وَلا عَطبُ
By God, your endurance3! If only it were
لِلّهِ صَبركُمُ لَو أَنَّ صَبرَكُمُ 
Applied to the meeting of stirred horses [in battle]
في مُلتَقى الخَيلِ حينَ الخَيلُ تَضطَرِبُ
How great the gulf is between endurance that brings abjection
كَم بَينَ صَبرٍ غَدا لِلذُلِّ مُجتَلِباً 
And [the kind of] endurance used for milking glory
وَبَينَ صَبرٍ غَدا لِلعزِّ يَحتَلبُ
So get on with it, embark on the matter, and hasten
فَشَمِّروا وَاِنهَضوا لِلأَمرِ وَاِبتَدِروا 
Your era offers an opportunity the ages have long withheld
مِن دَهرِكم فُرصَةً ضَنَّت بِها الحِقَبُ
Don’t strive for a triumph [solely] for yourselves
لا تَبتَغوا بِالمُنى فَوزاً لِأَنفُسِكُم 
The triumph isn’t true if it doesn’t fulfil the demand
لا يُصدقُ الفَوزُ ما لَم يَصدُقِ الطَّلَبُ
Free yourselves of tribalism and stand up as one
خلُّوا التَّعَصُبَ عَنكُم وَاِستَووا عُصباً 
Congregate around unity and repelling injustice 
عَلى الوِئام وَدَفعِ الظُّلمِ تَعتَصِبُ
For you are the majority and how many small groups
لأَنتمُ الفِئةَ الكُثرى وَكُم فِئةٍ 
Attained victory when they were united4
قَليلةٍ تمّ إِذ ضَمَت لَها الغَلبُ
This is what has thrown weakness at your strength
هَذا الَّذي قَد رَمى بِالضَّعفِ قوَّتكم 
And unity has gone from you and [become] fragmented
وَغادرَ الشَّمل مِنكُم وَهُوَ مَنشَعبُ
Tyranny has been empowered in your provinces, so they vanished
وَسَلّطَ الجورَ في أَقطارِكُم فَغَدَت 
And land without its country provinces is ruined
وَارضها دونَ أَقطار المَلا خِرَبُ
The heathen governs you with his contempt
وَحُكَّم العِلجَ فيكُم مَع مَهانَتِهِ 
Leading you capriciously, however he pleases
يَقتادكُم لِهَواهُ حَيثُ يَنقَلبُ
From every low, wretched [person] of no lineage 
مِن كُلِّ وَغدٍ زَنيمٍ ما لَهُ نَسَبٌ 
Having neither religion nor breeding
يُدرى وَلَيسَ لَهُ دينٌ وَلا أَدبُ
And every effeminate [gay] man plunged in abomination
وَكُلُ ذي خَنثٍ في الفَحشِ مُنغَمِسٍ 
Increases, by the friction in his backside, the itch/scabies
يَزدادُ بِالحَكِّ في وَجَعائهِ الجَرَبُ
Their weapon in the faces of the adversary is their cunning
سِلاحَهُم في وُجوهِ الخَصمِ مَكرَهُمُ 
And the skill of their soldiers in deceit and lies
وَخَير جُندِهُم التَّدليسُ وَالكَذبُ
No treaty of theirs is made honestly
لا يَستَقيمُ لَهُم عَهدٌ إِذا عَقَدوا 
Nor is a promise kept if they [choose] 
وَلا يَصحُّ لَهُم وَعدٌ إِذا ضَرَبُوا
If you were to ask what desire motivates them
إِذا طَلَبتَ إِلى وُدٍّ لَهُم سَبباً 
[You would find] they have none but obscenity
فَما إِلى وُدِّهم غَير الخَنى سَببُ
Truth and falsehood on their scales are alike
وَالحَقُّ وَالبُطل في مِيزانِهم شرعٌ 
So [those scales] don’t tip except by gold’s doing
فَلا يَميلُ سِوى ما ميَّل الذَّهَبُ
Your necks for them are enslaved, and your money
أَعناقكُم لَهُمُ رِقٌّ وَماُلكم 
Is squandered on games and juice-drinking and backgammon
بَينَ الدُّمى وَالطِلا وَالنردُ مُنتَهبُ
The fat of ewes is held your arms
باتَت سِمانُ نِعاجٍ بَينَ أَذرُعِكُم 
While those other than you have become the milkers
وَباتَ غَيركُم لِلدُّرِّ يَحتَلِبُ
The landowner is one of you within his village
فَصاحِبُ الأَرضِ مِنكُم ضِمنَ ضَيعتِهِ 
Exploited, and the stepson of the house is estranged
مُستَخدَمٌ وَرَبيبُ الدَّارِ مُغتَربُ
Your blood is no more precious, if shed
وَما دِماؤُكُم أَغلى إِذا سُفِكتْ 
Than the water poured on their faces during indecency
مِن ماء وَجهٍ لَهُم في الفُحشِ يَنسَكِبُ
And your honours aren’t more precious, if violated
وَلَيسَ أَعراضُكُم أَغلى إِذا اِنتُهِكَت 
Than the honour of their slaves procured with pennies
مِن عِرضِ مَملوكِهِم بِالفلسِ يَجتَلِبُ
By God, O our people, embark upon your affair
بِاللَّهِ يا قَومَنا هُبُّوا لِشأنِكُمُ 
For how the poems and sermons cry out to you
فَكَم تُناديكُمُ الأَشعارُ وَالخطبُ
Are you not those who attacked the land and conquered
أَلَستُم من سَطوا في الأَرضِ وَاِفتَتَحوا 
East and West and were mighty wherever they went?
شَرقاً وَغَرباً وَعَزّوا أَينَما ذَهَبُوا
And who subjugated and shook the arrogant kings
ومَن أَذَلُّوا المُلوكِ الصِّيدَ فَاِرتَعَدَت 
[Such that their] fear quaked the earth in its foundations?
وَزلزلَ الأَرضَ مِما تَحتَها الرّهَبُ
And who built pillars for the structures of might
وَمن بَنَوا لِصروحِ العزِّ أَعمِدَةً 
That crippled lightning bolts when they struck?
تَهوي الصَّواعقُ عَنها وَهيَ تَنقَلِبُ
So what’s with you, woe unto you, you’ve gone to neglect
فَما لَكُم وَيحَكُم أَصبَحتُمُ هملاً
And the face of your might has been veiled in disgrace
وَوجهُ عزّكم بِالهُونِ مُنتَقِبُ
You have no state to support you
لا دَولةٌ لَكُمُ يَشتَدُّ أزرَكُمُ 
Nor is there a saviour assigned for the crisis
بِها وَلا ناصِرٌ لِلخَطبِ ينتَدِبُ
Neither is there reverence, nor mercy for you
وَلَيسَ مِن حُرمةٍ أَو رَحمةٍ لَكُمُ 
[To] feel compassion if misfortunes bite you
تَحنو عَلَيكُم إِذا عضتكمُ النُّوَبُ
Your fates in the eyes of the Turks are sinking
أَقدارُكُم في عُيونِ التُّركِ نازلَة 
And your rights between the Turks’ hands are raped
وَحَقَكُم بَينَ أَيدي التُّرك مُغتَصَبُ
Neither prestige nor honour are known to you
فَلَيسَ يُدرى لَكُم شَأنٌ وَلا شَرَفٌ 
Nor presence, nor a name, nor a title
وَلا وجودٌ وَلا اسمٌ وَلا لَقَبُ
O my people! Who are none other than Arabs
فَيا لِقَومي وَما قَومي سِوى عَرَبٌ 
And they shall never be stripped of that lineage
وَلَن يُضَيَّعَ فيهم ذَلِكَ النَسَبُ
Suppose there is none among you of status
هب أَنَّهُ لَيسَ فيكُم أَهلُ مَنزِلَةٍ 
To give out orders, or be given authority
يُقَلَّدُ الأَمرَ أَو تُعطى لَهُ الرُّتَبُ
And there is none among you of resolve and spirit
وَلَيسَ فيكُم أَخو حَزمٍ وَمَخبرةٍ 
Elected to govern effectively
لِلعَقدِ وَالحَلِّ في الأَحكامِ يُنتخَبُ
And none among you of [sufficient] learning [to handle]
وَلَيسَ فيكُم أَخو علمٍ يُحكَّمُ في 
Jurisprudence, [even though] the books came from you
فَصل القَضاءِ وَمِنكُم جاءَتِ الكُتُبُ
Is there not within you blood that haughtiness stirs
أَلَيسَ فيكُم دَمٌ يَهتاجُهُ أنفٌ 
Every day, repelling this disgrace when it leaps?
يَوماً فَيَدفَعُ هَذا العار إِذ يَثِبُ
Then let me hear me the clanging and sparks of swords
فَأَسمِعوني صَليلَ البَيضِ بارِقَةً 
In the dust I [shall] delight to their sound
في النَّقعِ إِني إِلى رَنَّاتِها طَرِبُ
And let me hear me the echo of the discharged rifle
وَأَسمَعوني صَدى البارودِ مُنطَلِقاً 
Reverberating over every plain when it roars
يَدوي بِهِ كُل قاعٍ حينَ يَصطَخِبُ
There’s no longer anything holding you back
لَم يَبقَ عِندَكُمُ شَيءٌ يَضنُّ بِهِ
Except [your] spirits over which abasement is draped
غَيرَ النُّفوسِ عَلَيها الذُّلُّ يَنسَحِبُ
So assail death, and dispense, through its relief
فَبادِروا المَوتَ وَاِستَغنوا براحَتِهِ 
With the life of one who died filled with fatigue
عَن عَيشِ مَن ماتَ مَوتاً مُلؤُهُ تَعبُ
With endurance, come on! [Against] the Turks who oppressed
صَبراً هَيا أُمَّةِ التُّركِ الَّتي ظَلَمت 
For an age, and shortly the veils will be raised
دَهراً فَعمَّا قَليلٍ تُرفَعُ الحُجُبُ
Let us make our demand with the sword’s edge
لنطلبنَّ بِحَدِّ السَّيفِ مأَرَبنا 
For no goal, with [the sword] at its side, shall fail
فَلَن يَخيبَ لَنا في جَنبِهِ أَرَبُ
And let us leave the heathen Turks to lament,
وَنَترُكَنَّ عُلوجَ التُّركِ تَندُبُ ما 
In tears, what their own hands have brought them
قَد قَدَّمَتهُ أَياديها وَتَنتَحبُ
And whoever lives shall see, in the events
وَمن يَعِشْ يَرَ وَالأَيام مُقبِلَةٌ 
Of the coming days, wonder shining for mankind
يَلوحُ للمَرءِ في أَحداثِها العَجبُ 

1 Fawwaz Trabulsi, A History of Modern Lebanon [2012 edition], p. 67
2 Samir Kassir, Beirut [2010 English edition], p. 236
3 Arabic sabr, more fully defined by the late Philip Hitti as “endurance in time of trouble”
4 A similar line is found in the Quran, Sura 2:249 - "كم مِن فئةٍ قليلةٍ غَلَبَتْ فئةً كثيرةً بإذن الله والله مع الصابرين" ("How many a small company has overcome a large company with God’s permission, and God is with the patient”)