Vacant City

By Mahmud al-Buraykan
Translated from Arabic by Salih J. Altoma

On one of my journeys
I entered it: a silent city
with no trace of inhabitants
its doors are closed
and its squares are a stage for the winds.
But the lights of its windows
shine all night
who turned them on ?
I saw flowers
bowing down in their gardens
and the children's playgrounds demolished.
I knocked at doors
and cried out—
Have they all died? departed?
Have they turned into invisible beings? With what magic?
I saw suddenly the shadow of a woman
twitching on a marble platform
slowly fidgeting
trying to rise up from her sleep
I said: O Eve
Do you know who am I?
But she did not understand the language.


Mahmud al-Buraykan (also known as Mahmoud al-Buraikan) was born 1934 in al-Zubayr near Basrah, Iraq and died in Basrah, March 2, 2002. He was apparently killed by thieves who had broken into his house. A most original poet and highly respected for “his versatile themes and distinctly different tone, outlook, and approach”, al-Buraykan preferred not to publish his poems perhaps for political or ideolgical reasons. This poem “Madinah khaliyah” (=Vacant/Empty City) was published in Cairo 1998 as part of an anthology of embargoed or besieged poems from Iraq. For more information, see Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology , edited by Salma Jayyusi. New York: Columbia UP, 1987: 188-193.

Salih J. Altoma (translator) - Professor Emeritus of Arabic and Comparative Literatue, has been affiliated with Indiana University since 1964. He has served as director of Middle Eastern Studies (1986-1991) and chair of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures department (1985-1991). Altoma published a number of works in both Arabic and English on modern Arabic literature, and Arabic-American/Westem literary relations and edited recently the 2000 volume of The Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, volume 48(2000) which was dedicated to Arabic-Western Literary Relations.