Poem of the Week / Fading Faces in the Rain

Of ink and identity: The late Samih al-Qasim on the ephemeral nature of the printed word as it encounters the elements.

Vivian Eden

Rain on the Kiosk

By Samih al-Qasim

Sudden rain comes down
across the morning papers.
rain –
and the ink flows
from one language into another.
The mannequin’s face fades from the cover,
the proud athlete with his first trophy.
mascara runs from the actress’s eyes;
the deep crimson oozes; wounds open
on the op-ed page.
The small kiosk closes its door.
Rain
on the late edition.

Translated from Arabic by Nazih Kassis in Samih al-Qasim, “Sadder than Water, New and Selected Poems,” Ibis Editions, 2006. Reprinted by permission of the publisher

This year, the first rains fell between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, not waiting for the prayers for precipitation to be recited on Shemini Atzeret, which comes the day after the week-long Sukkot festival (which begins on Wednesday evening).
Rain, like blood, air and human rights, doesn’t pertain only to Jews, but rather is universal. In Jonathan Swift’s detailed “Description of a City Shower,” rain is a great leveler (“Triumphant Tories and desponding Whigs / Forget their feuds, and join to save their wigs”) everywhere in the metropolis.

The late Druze poet Samih al-Qasim, writing in Arabic, focuses on a single kiosk (newsstand) where aspirations, gossip, information and opinions are for sale. Here, too, rain is an impartial equalizer, blurring identities. On wet newsprint, a model’s glamor, an athlete’s trophy and an actress’s cosmetics distort and converge in rivulets. The oozing crimson lipstick becomes blood as “wounds open / on the op-ed page.”

Lines 4 and 5 are the key to this poem: “and the ink flows / from one language into another.” At one level, of course, the languages are Arabic and Hebrew, but at a deeper level the image captures both the lack of fixed borders here and the flux of the poet’s identity.

Samih al-Qasim: 'They called you Palestine’s guitar'.Illustration by Ronny Someck

In her introduction to the volume of Qasim’s poems in English translation, Adina Hoffman observes of Qasim, “He is at once Palestinian, Israeli, Arab, Druze; he has been an Arab nationalist, a Palestinian folk hero, an internationally minded Communist, an articulate spokesman for Arab-Jewish coexistence. His vision is both strictly local and broadly universal.”

Born in 1939, Qasim died on August 19, 2014, and was buried in his home village of Rameh in the Galilee. His funeral was attended by thousands of mourners, including a large contingent of Druze from the Golan Heights.

Writing in Haaretz, Eldad Pardo noted that he was among the most eminent Palestinian poets of his generation in Israel. Indeed, some of his poems became anthems in the Palestinian struggle and were read and sung during the fighting this year in the Gaza Strip.

This poem shows that Qasim was also a master of a quieter, more lyrical but nonetheless political mode.

*Bonus: Listen to Qasim’s "Wa-ana Amshi: (“As I Walk”) sung by throngs of Tunisians and Lebanese composer and performer Marcel Khalife.