Jamal Mansour

HERE IS AL-SHAM—I SAY WHILE A DOVE NEAR ME WEEPS


Corpses are covered in dust,
The sky is covered with stars,
Birds are covered with feathers,
Sheikhs are covered with cotton caftans, and the thick odor of musk,
The thighs of my sweetheart are covered with tiny blonde hairs, like the fluff covering apricots,
And my Sham;
Is covered in dust,
And the ringing of the letter Qaf,
And locusts that have devoured all its greenery,
And years of fatigue,
And privation of beauty,
And mosques bereft of faith,
And men with no necks [cowards],
And women with no voices,
And children with no toys,
And chaotic graves,
And songs that flow forever, like waves with no shores…


My Sham once was…
My Sham once was an oasis, but has been transformed into the epicentre of vicious desert sands.
My Sham once was a confluence of seven rivers, but now pleads for a drop of water from the clouds that abandoned her skies.
My Sham once was a smile, but a concrete frown and now covers her defunct Qassioun and Barada.
My Sham once was a glowing star, but has now been reduced to nothing more than lamps that only light to half-capacity—if the power rationing allows them to, that is.
My Sham once was…


Between Sham and her inhabitants, there exists a puzzling relationship.
One is puzzled, as one enters her heart—and theirs—which of them was it that invented the other.
Was it her that entered them into her womb, creating them in her image;
Charlatans, like her, the deceiver of sultans and eons, who are gone with only her remaining??
Swindlers, like her, claiming to hold the remains of Cain and Abel, the honored footprint, and thousands of the Patriarchs and Prophets??
As twisted as Barada, which once slipped between her fingers??
As opulent as her Ghouta’s peaches??
As affluent as her lustrous jasmines??
As august as her Qassioun once was—before concrete blocks murdered its face and body??
Or was it them, who entered her core, transfiguring her into their own image—
As nervous and jittery, as a Minibus moments before the break of the Ramadan fast??
With a dirty heart and limbs, like the decrepit goatskin in a windswept tent??
As threadbare as an outdated peasant’s dress, and as crinkly as a stale stone-oven loaf??
As crude in her contradictions, as the socks of a nouveau-riche??
As bawdy in her din, like the squeaking sound of the Mijwez in Ali Al Deek’s Dabkeh songs??


—Much like any other captive, following the invasion of the locusts—
Bereft of water,
Of air,
Of sun,
And of stars;
Sham’s sparkling lights dance at Qassioun’s feet, peddling her last remaining charms with a flat chest, and a saggy bosom.
Yet, still a history of seductive allure manages to seep amid the penile structure of the Four Seasons’ building, which defiles her skies’ virginity like a lecherous bedouin dressed in a loud and oversized suit,
And the tawdry farce that the Umayyad Square has become,
And the travesty of buildings, like colorless
Odorless,
Tasteless abscesses on her face…
And it furtively slithers—a discreet stream—into the cacophony of scents, colors, and lights in the old city.
There, between the smoke of tuk-tuks, the wars of street-vendors, the mismatched colors of women’s hijabs, and the stink of children who haven’t bathed for centuries—there,
Tiny corners of beauty,
Of luster,
Of bliss,
Still remain;
Remnants of her erstwhile glories that the locusts have not devoured…
Not yet, at any rate.


Whomever visits Sham,
May see her as being no more than a dove in a cage.
Yet,
Once they return from their visit, they discover that she has slipped out of her cage,
To inhabit their veins.
And they wake up to realize that it is they,
Who are in her cage.


I am Sham’s adopted son.
She took me in as a refugee, offered me her protection as an itinerant, and pumped her sweet syrupy blood in my veins.
I love her, as I do my mother.
I hate her, as I do my mother.
I do not understand her, as I do not understand my mother.
I pity her, as I do my mother.
And like all of her ingrate children;
I lash at her,
And blow my smoke in her face,
And push her into a home for the elderly—then cry bitter tears over my foolishness, and heaven’s injustice towards me.
Yet, she always pardons my transgressions, and brings me back into her fold—like a black sheep guided by her mother’s smell.


And now, as thousands of leagues separate me from her,
I see her from a distance—without her pressing on my optic nerve.
And her lunatic contradictions,
And muted wrath,
And dizzying, vertiginous rhythm,
And the traces of falafel and banana milkshakes that I can see, and touch, and taste;
Have only caused a child-like love to flower inside me,
And nestle in my heart, my tongue, my nose, and my hands.

I love you, O, Sham,
You “crazy diamond.”


DAMASCUS—SEVEN ELEGIES, FOR SEVEN GATES


Damascene kittens,
They ask nothing of you…
They do not judge you,
They do not fear you,
They have no complexes—
They meow,
They coquette, at your feet,
They trick you, for some food, perhaps,
They thrust their heads between your palms, searching for some warmth,
Or for the trace of an old scent, that only they remember,
Then
Leave you—as you were, when it all started—
Alone…

[Damascene Kittens]


The first drop of my blood
Was, quite casually, and nonchalantly, spilled
By the look of a Damascene girl
As sharp as a dagger to the heart,
On a sidewalk, off Arnous Square—
But it most certainly
Was not to be the last…

[This Bleeding, It Will Never Stop]


It sold for only five pounds,
That topless picture of “Nabila Obeid”
For only five pounds,
You could buy yourself a tiny handful of dismembered teenage lust
In the very heart of all this futility,
Of this strident castration…

[A Tiny Rainbow, Near Victoria Bridge]


My nightmares are still haunted
By an avalanche of the Eternal President’s giant images/of His “timeless” sayings/of our puny school anthems
That resemble everything,
And anything,
But a country that we can call a homeland…

[A Monster, Of Our Own Making]


Everyone is silent,
Swarmed,
Splintered,
And wet to the bone—
Inside the minibus rolling towards the unknown
Like tiny crumbs of bread shred into the bottom of a Fatteh
But one without any butter,
Without any taste—except that of fear…
Of fear alone…

[February Rain—Fatteh]


Why??
Why do you want me to cry,
O, you city etched into the recesses of my scandalous accent,
Into the sinewy hoarseness in my voice, like a wooden box inlaid with mother of pearl,
Into my grimy, sunken, splintered features—as if they were a demolished house??
Why??
Why do I have to extend my arms into the void, like a fool, every evening
Into the great nothingness,
Hoping to touch your face riddled with injustice,
With bullets that are anything but stray,
With the trace of a charm that was, but no longer is??
Why??
Why,
When you, so nonchalantly, assassinate
All the rivers,
And the trees,
And the men who once adored you,
Why??
Leave me in peace,
Let me live whatever is left of this tired, weary existence—
Leave me in peace,
Without your poisoned umbilical cord, that keeps on pulling me
Towards your well-prepared death
Which you will then bury between your houses
Huddled against one another like decaying graves—
Why do you want me to cry?
Why??…

[Why Should I Cry For You??]


And, in the end,
Write down on my epitaph,
On my gravestone, in the Dahdah cemetery,
“From me, he came,
In me,
For me—he lived;
It was I whom he adored,
It was I whom he loathed,
But I held his soul in my grasp,
Right to his very last gasp…”

[EPITAPHIUM SCRIPTUM]



FIVE SIGHS OF DEATH—THE “DAHDAH” CEMETERY


(1)
As green as mint, it was,
The color of the grass that had grown on the heel my father’s grave;
Like mint,
Green, mellow—delightful, even—it was,
The day I visited the grave for the last time,
That last time, which I did not realize was to be the last time,
Before leaving Sham…
No,
I did not know, at all…

(2)
Everything was—as it always had been—in its place:
The dome of that Lilliputian mosque, overlooking the southern wall of the cemetery—my landmark;
The cemetery watchman with his alabaster/cold/engraved/pale face—as pale as that of the gravestones he looked after,
The cackling, echoless, ravens insanely crowing overhead, from time to time
The widow whose adolescent son’s grave was but ten headstones, to the right
The “Yasin” Sura engraved in barely legible lettering, on the stone that stood at the northern entrance
And the blasé myrtle vendor, with his blackened teapot, and his smudged cups that just would never be properly clean…
Everything was—as it always had been—in its place…

(3)
The walls were far too damp,
Time was far too indolent,
The chestnuts were roasting on the heater far too leisurely,
In the office at the eastern entrance,
The one that hardly contains anything at all—save for the desk, some not-so-randomly scattered papers,
The man with the almost toothless, pale smile,
In his slim decrepit black necktie, which looks as if from another era,
Amid this ocean of death, encompassing everything;
And then I realize—as I slowly tilt my head upwards—the presence of that little calligraphy painting on the wall, right above his desk:
“You were diverted by competition in worldly increase,
Until you visited the graveyards” [Quran, 102:1—2]
And I give out a muted,
Listless,
Helpless laugh—until I cry…

(4)
“It is not the dead who urinate!!”
The elderly widow ventured, quite uninvitedly,
As the breeze carried the overpowering stench of the midnight drug addicts’ urine,
Which slapped my face, staring like a giant question mark, as if gnawing at the vast void—almost…

(5)
No one had been alerted
—Not yet, at any rate—
To those words graffitied over the southern wall, next to the gate—the one that was rarely ever open, essentially,
Which slapped me in the face, as I turned before I left:
“Fuck this life—By God, death would be better… ”
Or perhaps no one even cares,
For what is usually graffitied by those living
Lives that are actually much closer to death—
Much closer…


AL ‘AFIF MOUNTAIN AVENUE—SEVEN DAMASCENE ICONS


The Light—oh, that light…
Flooding,
With the morning birds/the footsteps of these high-school girls, and their faintly prancing teenage breasts/the roar of the Muhajreen-Sikkeh line microbuses/with those peculiar, transcendent, Damascus clouds—
And I am overwhelmed,
Simply overcome with a fluffy sensation,
An ambiguous sensation—like that of an inappropriate or stolen kiss…
Oh—that light…

[The Light—Icon No. I]


Beneath the shade of these palm trees, retired, for many years now,
Beneath the shade of the exuberance, that once was, but no longer is,
Beneath the shade of the spacious balcony, overlooking the vastness of God’s dream,
I lay in hiding, for a while,
Me,
And another Damascus,
Lightyears removed from this one, at which the locusts are gnawing,
As well at us, too…

[The “Nuri Pasha” Palace/Locusts—Icon No. II]


To the high heavens,
We raised our bottles of ice-cold Baradas
In the sleek velvety early Damascus evening—
To the high heavens…
We clinked our bottles frivolously, lightly,
With empty, fruitless, gestures of our suntanned sinewy hands—
As empty as the tables/as the street/as the waiters’ listless faces/as empty as our wistful souls
That never once were filled,
With anything more than empty slogans,
And that protruding, hollow, fear of all that, which we did not know…
—And for a brief, coyly stolen, moment—
We savoured watching with delight those gaggling Damascene lady neighbors,
Whose prying eyes were watching our every empty laughter or gesture,
Cursing us—in secret—out of envy, perhaps,
From their half-opened/half-closed balconies…

[Al-Riwaq al-Arabi/Of Beer, and Balconies—Icon No. III]


It effuses the dense aroma of garlic paste,
Of fear/of machine guns with rusty-barrels/of the stench of death, rising from the Baath Party branch office building/of those mischievous, antediluvial, jasmines/of the minibuses’ exhaust fumes—
This street corner,
Leading to up the top of Mount Qassiun,
Up,
Up…

[Corner Shawarma Store—Icon No. IV]


Oh, how I used to envy them—
Those street-corner lovers,
Those wet, and slightly dark, building entrance lovers;
As they stole their hurried, frightened, insolent kisses,
As I would be passing by
Immersed in a cloud of my own sorrow,
Licking the sidewalk, with my distraught glances,
Amid the piles of rubbish, blithely thrown about the sidewalk,
And those chronic,
Scabied,
Indolent,
Street cats…

[Building Entrance Lovers—Icon No. V]


They resembled awkward, blushing, sheep—That was exactly how they looked—
Those veiled girls standing on the sidewalk of the French Embassy,
—Opposite the florist’s—
On the afternoon of Valentine’s Day,
Waiting for,
Longing for,
Craving for,
Some mysterious exhilarating Rendezvous,
Or a dashing knight in shining armour astride a white horse,
Or an oblivious rose, softly passed from palm-to-palm,
Or a minibus, to al-Thawra street,
Or nothing, in particular, perhaps—
Nothing at all…

[Valentine’s Day, 2001—Icon No. VI]


With exquisite silence,
With the masterful, illustrious caution, of which only Damascene women are capable,
With skillful care,
With the flamboyance of those balconies—overflowing with hibiscuses and begonias,
The morning coffee laced with cardamom is spilled,
Into gilded China cups/into intricately woven lives/into the veins of this tranquil, leisurely, Damascus morning,
This expansive,
Deceptive,
Slow,
Unhurried,
Indolent morning…

[Balcony Morning Café —Icon No. VII]


JAMAL MANSOUR

Former Palestinian refugee in Syria, and marketing exec; current Montrealer, and Political Science student at Concordia. Accidental poet, and quasi-professional nostalgia expert.

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