The Best of Crises

We’re riding in a car back from the university to work. Me and a couple near-strangers that I agreed to teach a course with. We’re passing the Wisla river as a Coldplay song starts to play on the radio. A song I like, a song that somehow seems significant. Is it one of those songs that helped me move through some difficult shit at some point in the past? But I never really listened to Coldplay. Oh, I remember. I got a link to this song once in an e-mail from her.

It’s weird I only remember it after a while.

***

The notion of identity as something shared as opposed to personal is relatively new. In his 2016 BBC Reith Lectures, Kwame Anthony Appiah have the example of Rosamond in George Eliot’s Middlemarch “almost losing the sense of her identity” on discovering that the man she loves is devoted to someone else. Such identity is utterly personal, Appiah argues, while what we think of as identity today – nationality, race, religion, sexuality – is composed of characteristics shared with many others: it is social. [1]

I have a problem with this understanding of identity as social. Yes, I am a social being. I have a nationality written into my ID, I share what some people call ‘race’ with so many others; I share a lack of religion with some people, and a pattern of sexual attraction with others. Is this me, though? Does any of these things really describe my identity? Do all of them combined make me who I am?

I have a problem with this way of thinking because such identity doesn’t feel personal at all. The characteristics I listed are parts of my life, but I fail to be attached to them. I fail at the need to defend them. To be honest, some of them even feel accidental at times.

An identity, for me, is a personal sense of who you are. I need it to be personal to be able to get attached to it. To take pride in it, or to feel strongly about it in any other way.

I’m thinking about identity because I’ve found myself in a strange place in my life; a place of shifting identity. I’ve been shedding my old skin for a few years. Slowly letting go of my habitual depression, and of the longing for someone who would handle it on my behalf. Of some thoughts that made me miserable. Of things I thought I liked about myself that were actually things I thought others liked about me. I’ve been shedding this skin, and fidgeting uncomfortably at the thought, “but I’ll be naked once I’m done.”

I have this sort of fear that, once I let go of my old habits and my old state of mind, there’ll be nothing left of me. I’ll be a walking piece of meat. No spirit, no beliefs, no special characteristics.

It’s true, I’m late with growing a sense of my own identity. I’m terribly late.

But I need a sense of it. And on better days, I’m certain that I will be able to grow it. I’ve already told myself that I’m not my depression. I’m not a fear of being alone. I’m not just someone who makes me miserable. I’m not what somebody else may want me to be, and not what I think they want me to be. So… at least I know what I’m not.

The thing with growing a sense of identity, though, is that you cannot just get rid of everything that troubled you, everything that you disliked, and which made you feel unhappy. You need to outgrow these things, but at the same time replace them with something new. Something valuable. Something you want to be there. Something you want to be.

My fear of being left with no sense of personal identity goes quieter when I remind myself about that. Indeed, how could I stay skin-less if I already know the tissue needs replacement? I will be there once I’m done shedding the old skin, and I will help myself regrow it. The new one will be more comfortable, I’m sure.

I know this may all sound rather terrifying. But honestly? It’s the best crisis I’ve ever had. Even if it’s scary, it holds a promise of letting me become more of myself. More of the person I want to be. It feels like life in its very essence, the way Anton Czekhov put it: terrible and marvellous [2].

***

[1] Michael Amherst “Go The Way Your Blood Beats. On Truth, Bisexuality and Desire”

[2] Anton Czekhov “The Steppe. The Story of a Journey”

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Yalla!

Yet another piece from the collection Over Land, Over Sea that I translated as part of the Journeys in Translation project. This one, written by Trevor Wright, is actually my favourite one. What I like most about it is the powerful imagery that sticks in one’s mind long after one has finished reading. And the hope it brings, too.

***

Yalla

Shadowed by fissured rock,
fingers funnelling cooling sand,
the pull of the moon carving
the rhythm I need to pierce
the gloom, smell the horizon,
taste futures. I hunker down
to take soft hand to hand as
she quietly asks, who hears?
Who sees? Will land touch us?
Night folds in. Of course, I laugh.
The stars listen, the moon sees,
new land will find us. Yalla!

Yet another dawn,
chin to chest, rib to rib, my
last daughter curves in my lap,
exposed to a firmament fully
intent on pressing our shared
breath to the depths. I raise
my trailed palm, cool my brow,
wrinkled fingers stroke dreams,
residue all at odds with the tides.
Does anyone tune into the stars?
Who cares what the moon sees?
Will land reach out? Yalla. Yalla!

***

Yalla[1]

W cieniu spękanej skały
Palce przebierają stygnący piasek
A przyciąganie księżyca rzeźbi
Rytm, którego mi trzeba, by przebić
Mrok, poczuć zapach widnokręgu,
Smak możliwych przyszłości. Kucam,
By wziąć jej miękką dłoń w swoją,
Gdy cicho pyta, kto słyszy?
Kto widzi? Czy ląd nas dosięgnie?
Zapada noc. Śmieję się: oczywiście.
Gwiazdy słuchają, księżyc widzi,
Nowy ląd nas znajdzie. Yalla!

Kolejnego ranka,
Oparta brodą o moją pierś, ostatnia
Córka kuli się na moich kolanach,
Tuż pod sklepieniem, które usilnie
Chce zepchnąć nasz wspólny
Oddech w głębiny. Podnoszę
Rękę i schładzam czoło,
Pomarszczone palce głaszczą sny,
Osad, co powstał wbrew ruchowi fal.
Czy ktoś wsłuchuje się w gwiazdy?
Kogo obchodzi, co widzi księżyc?
Czy ląd poda nam dłoń? Yalla. Yalla!

[1] W języku arabskim wezwanie do pośpiechu: „prędzej”, „chodźmy”.

Waiting

A piece from the collection Over Land, Over Sea, written by Kathleen Bell, that I translated as part of the Journeys in Translation project (which is still open to contributors!):

***

In English:

Waiting

When morning came, she knew that the people outside were not ghosts. Cautious, she stood, walked to the window, and looked. There were more than she thought. Their silence had deceived her. They were careful too. Grown-up hands steered infants away from her flower-beds. Next year’s vegetable harvest was safe. A man looked up and the bundle close to his chest stirred. How unwise to bring a baby here. The man’s glance caught hers, and beneath his patience she perceived a dreadful urgency. They were not ghosts – not yet. She drew the curtain across, returned to her chair, and waited.

***

In Polish:

Czekanie

Kiedy nastał ranek, wiedziała, że ludzie na zewnątrz nie są duchami. Ostrożnie wstała, podeszła do okna i wyjrzała. Było ich więcej, niż myślała. Cisza za oknem ją zmyliła. Byli ostrożni tak jak ona. Dorosłe ręce zawracały dzieci z drogi, kiedy szły w stronę jej grządek. Przyszłoroczne plony były bezpieczne. Jeden z mężczyzn podniósł głowę i zawiniątko, które trzymał przy piersi, poruszyło się. Jak niemądrze wziąć tu ze sobą niemowlę. Spojrzenie mężczyzny schwyciło jej spojrzenie i pod pozorem cierpliwości dostrzegła przerażenie, i naglącą potrzebę. Nie są duchami – jeszcze nie. Zaciągnęła zasłony, usiadła z powrotem na krześle i czekała.

Stories from ‘The Jungle’

Here’s another poem I translated for the Journeys in Translation project. In this one, Emma Lee retells the stories of six people from the Calais camp and their families. It was a challenge to render the already long lines in Polish, a language that tends to stretch sentences even more, but I was determined to translate this one. “Stories from ‘The Jungle'”, each one very personal and moving, really stuck with me.

Oh, and I forgot to mention in my previous post: by buying the original collection of poems, you support the foundations Doctors Without Borders, Leicester City of Sanctuary and Nottingham Refugee Forum.

***

The poem in English:

Stories from ‘The Jungle’

Everything Abdel sees is smeared, despite his glasses.
With the sleeve of a dusty shirt, he pushes grime
From the middle to the edges of his lenses.
They’ve witnessed family fall victim to war crimes.
He could shower for a fortnight and never feel clean.
English is an official language in Sudan.
At sixteen he wants to join relatives already in england.

To dodge military conscription, Sayid, 20, fled from Syria.
Inspired by the story of one of his heroes, William Gibson,
Sayid got to Egypt, then packed on a small boat to Lampedusa,
Through Italy to France, from where he can only move on.
On a borrowed laptop he listens to Syrian pop music.
He’d love to cook. He still has to pay a trafficker
weekly for the right to chase lorries to his brother in England.

With a bandaged hand Abdul, 21, tells of imprisonment
And gestures to describe the electric shocks he received
After his arrest by the Sudanese government.
His tribe also harassed by rebel militia. He feels deceived
By traffickers. Despite his razor-wire injury,
he’ll try again. Sudan was an English colony.
He wants to stop looking over his shoulder.

When a tiger stalks, play dead. But it’s hard not to run.
When his friends were arrested in Eritrea, Hayat fled
and moved from Ethiopia to Libya and across the Mediterranean.
He became tiger, his prey an England-bound train. His hunt failed.
His broken arm cast, he hunkers in a makeshift, tented cave.
A tiger fails nine of ten hunts. He’s five down, four more to brave.
English is the only European language he speaks.

At Baath University in Homs, his English Literature studies
were interrupted by conscription. Firas drew and followed an isopleth.
Three family members were killed by Syrian government forces,
he couldn’t bear to see or be responsible for any more death.
Skin torn by razor-wire, he still dreams of Oxford spires.
Relatives live in several English towns, all with universities.
He wants to use the language he’s immersed himself in.

Ziad was a respected lawyer in Daara. Now he fidgets,
grubby and injured from climbing fences, dodging
security and avoiding dogs. The pack of cigarettes
crinkles as he weaves it in his fingers, emptying
a last curl of tobacco. He didn’t smoke them but can’t finish
with the packet. He translates legal arguments into English.
He wants to join relatives and practice law again.

These stories are based on newspaper reports. Names have been changed.

***

The poem in Polish:

Historie z „dżungli”

Przed oczami Abdela wszystko zamazane, mimo że ma okulary.
Rękawem brudnawej koszuli rozciera sadzę
Na szkłach – ze środka na brzegi.
Widzieli, jak cała rodzina pada ofiarą zbrodni wojennych.
Mógłby myć się co chwilę i ciągle czuć się brudny.
Angielski jest jednym z języków urzędowych Sudanu.
Szesnastoletni Abdel chce dołączyć do krewnych, który są już w Anglii.

Aby uniknąć poboru, dwudziestoletni Sayid uciekł z Syrii.
Zainspirowany historią jednego ze swych idoli, Williama Gibsona,
Sayid dostał się do Egiptu, wsiadł do łodzi w kierunku Lampeduzy,
Przez Włochy dotarł do Francji – stamtąd może tylko ruszyć dalej.
Na pożyczonym laptopie słucha syryjskiego popu.
Chciałby być kucharzem. Na razie co tydzień musi płacić przemytnikowi,
By gonić za ciężarówkami do Anglii, do swojego brata.

Dwudziestojednoletni Abdul opowiada o swoim uwięzieniu
I gestem – jedna dłoń w bandażu – pokazuje elektrowstrząsy,
Które dostał po aresztowaniu przez rząd Sudanu.
Rebelianci również nie dają spokoju jego plemieniu. Czuje się oszukany
Przez przemytników. Pomimo rany od drutu kolczastego
Spróbuje jeszcze raz. Sudan był kiedyś kolonią brytyjską.
Abdul chce przestać oglądać się za siebie.

Kiedy tygrys się skrada, stój w miejscu. Ale instynkt każe uciekać.
Gdy aresztowano jego przyjaciół w Erytrei, Hayat uciekł z kraju,
Przebył Etiopię i Libię, a potem Morze Śródziemne.
Stał się tygrysem, a celem – pociąg do Anglii. Polowanie się nie udało.
Z ręką w gipsie przykucnął w prowizorycznym namiocie-jaskini.
Tygrys wraca głodny dziewięć na dziesięć razy. Stawił czoło pięciu,
Zostało więc cztery. Angielski to jedyny europejski język, jaki Hayat zna.

Jego studia z literatury angielskiej na uniwersytecie Al-Baath w Homs
Przerwał pobór do wojska. Firas narysował na mapie linię i podążył za nią.
Troje z jego rodziny zostało zabitych przez wojsko rządu syryjskiego.
Czuł, że nie mógł być świadkiem lub sprawcą ani jednej śmierci więcej.
Ze skórą zszarpaną drutem wciąż marzy o studiach w Oksfordzie.
Jego krewni mieszkają w różnych miastach w Anglii, w każdym – uniwersytet.
Firas chce mówić językiem, który tak go zafascynował.

Ziad był w Darze uznanym prawnikiem. Teraz kręci się,
Brudny, pokaleczony od wchodzenia na siatki, ukrywając się
przed strażą i unikając psów. Paczka papierosów
Szemrze, kiedy skręca ją w palcach, wyciągając ostatni
Zwitek tytoniu. Wcześniej nie palił, ale teraz
Jedna paczka nie wystarcza. Tłumaczy teksty prawne na angielski.
Chce dołączyć do krewnych i znowu być prawnikiem.

Powyższe historie zostały oparte na wiadomościach prasowych. Imiona bohaterów zostały zmienione.

But One Country

Here’s a poem by Rod Duncan that I translated as part of the Journeys in Translation project, a project that calls upon translators around the world to translate poems from Over Land Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge from English into other languages. You can still take part! More information: Journeys in Translation

The poem in English:

but one country

our home
is but one country
truly, the whole earth
is there for them to settle
tell us if you can, where else
shall we go when they have come?
they do not belong in our homeland
you should blush when you say to us
we must turn our vision up-side down

 we must turn our vision up-side down
you should blush when you say to us
they do not belong in our homeland
shall we go when they have come?
tell us if you can, where else
is there for them to settle
truly, the whole earth
is but one country
our home

The poem in Polish:

Tylko jeden kraj

Nasz dom
— Jeden kraj
Na całym świecie
Jest dla nich dość miejsca
Mówcie, jeśli wiecie, gdzie
Mamy pójść, gdy się tu zjawią?
W tym kraju nie ma dla nich miejsca
Powinno wam być wstyd mówić nam, że
Czas wywrócić swój świat do góry nogami

Czas wywrócić swój świat do góry nogami
Powinno wam być wstyd mówić nam, że
W tym kraju nie ma dla nich miejsca
Mamy pójść, gdy się tu zjawią?
Mówcie, jeśli wiecie, gdzie
Jest dla nich dość miejsca
Na całym świecie
— Jeden kraj
Nasz dom

Protection. A Story

When I was a kid, I liked to watch as my father welded pieces of metal together. He’d wear that big dull grey mask that always seemed dusty and, when I tried to lift it, felt as heavy as the world. That was his protection. It saved him from going blind due to the overly bright light.
It worked – he never did go blind from welding. But as time passed, and my young eyes, accustomed to being wide open when I watched him at work, gained more focus, I began to notice a different blindness in his movements, opinions, and habits.
He’d go tired for days. I could see it in his movements: the fatigue of the muscles; of the mind, perhaps; the back pain that stooped him more and more every day. When he watched the news, he did it without the agitation he once showed at the mention of any one topic that stirred opinions. His own opinions froze. He stopped paying attention to what he ate. Lard sandwiches day in, day out – he didn’t care what it was doing to his heart.
I think he was blind to it. His heart, I mean. It sounds foolish but what else could make a man shut himself off from friends and family and go on like he was the only person in his own world? Not talking for days, not sharing any of his pain, physical or otherwise? It must have been blindness. A wise woman once told me people go blind due to bad experiences because they don’t want to look back at them.
It’s fall, and I’m remembering him again: his muffled voice when he explained to me about welding from under the mask, the prolonged periods he had of being alone with books, which later turned into days, weeks, months of not talking at all, the shaky gait and eyes that were forever avoiding us.
I wish I had that welding mask of his but I couldn’t find it even though I’ve tried to every November when I come to see our old home after visiting his grave. When fall comes in, I start to feel unsure. I spend evenings thinking of how, as a kid, I saw a man go blind and become a different person. I’m worried this could happen to me; to my future, which then would get as if erased; to my family, who’d probably be scared.
I need some sort of protection against it. At those times, I have this silly idea that the mask would help.
But it’s just a mask that a man mislaid somewhere and died. I must come up with something better.

The Terrifying Story of a Girl Who Wasn’t Excited About the New Star Wars Movie

Note: this isn’t entirely based on facts but it could be.

The story begins in the 90’s in a village in southern Poland. Get a blanket to cover your eyes with in fear because it’s terrifying.

The girl spent her young years doing stuff. Reading books, drawing, riding a bike, learning, playing football and computer games. But somehow, she didn’t once have the chance to watch any of the Star Wars movies.

It just didn’t happen. Some things have a way of not happening that doesn’t make them special but it’s still worth noting, or maybe it isn’t.

Then at some point in her life, the girl learned it was odd to never have watched the Star Wars.

“Oh, well,” she thought.

Time passed, and she continued to do stuff. Only it was slightly different stuff ’cause she was older. Not that it’s important, though.

Then at some later point in her life, she watched half of the Star Wars episodes with someone she loved.

“Oh, well,” she was thinking half of the time.

Then the fuss about the 7th Star Wars episode started to intensify all around her, and she could hear it everywhere that the premiere was a big deal, and everyone had to go see the movie, and how much excitement and money it generated.

It seemed sort of stupid to her that some people could earn so much on other people’s media-fueled excitement.

“Oh, fuck it,” she just thought and went about doing stuff.