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Amal Dunqul: Spartacus' Last Words

[Amal Dunqul (1940-1983). Image from Wikipedia] [Amal Dunqul (1940-1983). Image from Wikipedia]

[Amal Dunqul (1940-1983) was part of what is known as the "sixties generation" of Egyptian poets and one of the most significant (political) poets of modern Arabic literature who remains largely untranslated. Dunqul was born in Upper Egypt, and like many writers, migrated to Cairo from the countryside. He wrote six collections of poetry, apart from dispersed poems which were collected in his Complete Works after he tragically died early due to complications of cancer. He was most well-known for his political poems that drew upon ancient stories whether from pre-Islamic lore, or biblical legends from the old and new testaments to speak about the contemporary reality that he lived in. The most famous of these is La Tusalih [Do Not Make Peace] written just before the Camp David peace treaty, in intuitive anticipation of Sadat’s compromising settlement with Israel. 
Spartacus' Last Words, another of his most well-known poems, is from his first collection, al-Buka’ Bayna Yaday Zarqa’ al-Yamama [Weeping Before Zarqa’ al-Yamama (a legendary woman soothsayer in pre-Islamic Arabic lore)], published in 1969, although the poem was composed earlier around 1962. The poem is divided into four parts that Dunqul titles amzaj (sing. mazj) which are closest to "movements" in the musical sense of the word, giving us the sense of a carefully crafted symphony or operetta of which Spartacus is the narrator. The poet speaks in the voice of the Roman slave Spartacus, who led a failed rebellion against the Roman empire around 70 BC, as he is about to be hanged.
I would like to thank Sinan Antoon and Gaelle Raphael for their invaluable help to me in translating this intricate yet immensely rewarding poem.


Spartacus’ Last Words

Amal Dunqul


First Movement

Glory to Satan, god of the winds

Who said no to the face of those who said “yes”

who taught Man to tear apart nothingness

He who said no, thus did not die

And remained a soul eternally in pain


Second Movement

I hang from the morning’s gallows

My forehead lowered by death

Because alive, I did not lower it!


O My brothers who are crossing the plaza

Heads hung in silence

Descending at evening’s end

Towards Alexander the Great Street:

Do not be ashamed…Raise your eyes to me

Because you are hanging alongside me

On Caesar’s gallows

So raise your eyes to me

Perhaps…if your eyes met with death in mine

The void inside me would smile…because just once,

you raised your head

Sisyphus no longer has the rock on his shoulders

Those born in the slaves’ quarters are carrying it

The sea, like the desert, does not quench thirst

For he who says “no” drinks his fill only of tears

So raise your eyes to the hung revolutionary

Tomorrow you will end up like him


Kiss your wives here,

In the middle of the open road

For tomorrow you will end up right here,

It is bitter to bow down

And the spider spins its web of death over men’s necks


Kiss your wives then…I left my wife without saying goodbye

Should you see my child, whom I left on my wife’s arms

Without an armTeach him to bow down

Teach him to bow down


Did not forgive Satan’s transgression

When he said no


The meek and good-natured

Shall inherit the earth

When all is said and done

They shall inherit the earth

Because they

Are not hung!


So teach him, then, to bow down

For there is no escape

Dream not of a happy world

For behind every dying Caesar

There is a new one

And behind every dying revolutionary

There are futile sorrows

and a tear in vain


Third Movement

O Great Caesar! I have indeed transgressed

I do admit it

Here on my gallows, let me kiss your hand

I kiss the rope

wrapped around my neck

For it is your hand, and your glory

Which compels us to worship you

Let me atone for my transgression

Let me grant you

After my death

My skull

Which you can mould into a cup for your strong wine

And if you do as I wish

Should they ever ask you

about my martyred blood

whether you granted me life just to snatch it away from me?

tell them  he was not resentful towards me when he died

and this cup

made from the bones of his skull

is my absolution


My killer!

I have pardoned you

The moment after you were relieved of me

I was relieved of you!

Still if you wish to hang everyone

take my advice:

have mercy on the trees!

Do not cut their trunks

and erect them as gallows

perhaps the spring may come

this year of hunger

you will not smell the fragrance of fruit

on branches

Perhaps the dangerous summer

may pass through our land

You will cross the desert

In search of shades

You will see only the searing afternoon heat and sands

and the fiery thirst between your ribs

O Lord of white tombstones in the twilight

O Caesar of frost!


Fourth Movement

My brothers who cross through the square

Bowed down

Descending at evening’s end

Dream not of a happy world

For behind every dying Caesar

There is a new one

And if on the way

you see Hannibal

tell him that I waited for him

at Rome’s rundown gates

While - beneath the Victory Arch

Rome’s patricians awaited

the conqueror of heroes

and the women of Rome

between the gaudy decorations

stayed awaiting the arrival

of the Atlas-headed soldiers crinkled hair

But Hannibal’s soldiers never came

Tell him, then -

I waited for him…

But he did not come!

I waited for him

until I ended up in death’s noose


And in the distance

Carthage is in flames

Carthage was the sun’s conscience

and has learned what it means to kneel

the spider is on top of men’s necks

and words are choking


My brothers: Carthage the Virgin is in flames

Kiss your wives then…I left my wife without saying goodbye

And should you see my child, whom I left on my wife’s arms

Without an arm

Teach him to bow down

Teach him to bow down

Teach him to bow down

* * *

[Translated from the Arabic by Suneela Mubayi

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