Besides being a medical doctor, Egyptian Ibrahim Naji (d. 1953) was a wonderful poet. His poem Al-Atlal (“The Ruins”) recounts the heart-wrenching story of unfulfilled love. An Arabic poet’s dream would be to have the beloved Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum (d. 1975, pictured here) immortalize his/her poetry in song. Naji was one of those fortunate poets, but his poetry would be as loved and memorized had Umm Kalthoum not put it to music.
Working in Iraq as an interpreter and cultural adviser for several years, I tried my hand at translating some Arabic poetry into English. Naji’s Al-Atlal is one work I dove into. I found a few who translate portions of it into English, but none tries to capture the rhythm and rhyme of the Arabic, leaving you feeling awkward and untouched. It’s pretty impossible to convey the feeling, but I hope some of the beauty of the original comes through my English rendition of most of Naji’s haunting lyrics. I have a few stanzas left to translate but seem never to have the time or motivation to finish. (Stanzas 1 and 6 are my favorite in the English.)