Who Are You Without People?

April 12, 2021   •   By Fady Joudah, Munther Masri

In the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, in its carousel of loneliness, longing, and confusion that touches us all in equal and unequal measure, my friend, the writer Golan Haji, sent me this poem as solace. “People,” by the Syrian poet and artist Munther Masri, was collected in Masri’s The Echo that Made a Mistake (2011). People have always asked what poetry is. “People” is a poem that needs no historical occasion to illuminate an answer to this timeless, insatiable question. And yet, in these eventful days, the answer is a poem for the people, of the people, and by them, written in the past by a solitary poet who comes from the future.

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Scroll down for a recording of Fady Joudah reading his translation of Munther Masri’s poem “People.”


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People


 

“As for them, they curse, and as for you, you bless.”
Psalms


“Thank you, Lord, for creating me as you did other people.”
Muntheryus Masriyam


“People need people to dream of them.”
Munther


 

Don’t say such foolish things about people.
What are you
if not for people.
And these words I’m about to speak to you
are earrings you wear, no,
are a buzzing insect
in your middle ear:
you’re nothing
without people.


Thousands of years ago
they sharpened their spears and set up traps,
killed and sought refuge
in caves, kindled fire, anointed leaders, submitted to laws,
worshipped deities, made sacrificial offerings,
and each of their men threw himself
over a woman, all of it
so that you may come into this world.

They were the ones who pulled you out
of your mother’s hips,
who bathed you with warm water,
swaddled you,
when at the moment your head popped out
they could have drowned you
in cold water or choked you.

They, who taught you how with your tongue
and palate and lips
air exits your mouth
as letters and words,
who initiated you into names,
and ever since
you learned who you are.

Who sink to their knees in mud
to grow rice, who bear
the anguish of climbing
to the mountaintop
to plant apple orchards,
who bleed their hands picking cotton,
who braid thick ropes
and patiently, diligently
weave rugs,
who seek the corners of the earth
to trade in silk and spice,
who melt sand
and bug out their eyes as they blow glass
for whose sake?
for what?
so that you may have a drink
when your throat is dry
and a quick delectable bite
when hunger hurts your stomach,
and so that you may wear light
airy clothes in summer,
wool and leather in winter,
and who for the sake of your leaving
your house to wherever you choose,
forged shoes for you
and carved a path.

People
who swap anything,
even time,
which for you is worthless,
swap money
for merchandise, anything,
even time, and time
for them is gold,
those people
who accept buying you for free
but their profound faith
in your value
compels them to sell you for a price,
people who wring out their brains
to inform you
of what is good for you,
you the free,
people who forgive your sins
without knowing what they are,
people who can,
as you absentmindedly cross the street,
run you over
but prefer to honk their horns,
people who can pretend
they don’t see you as you stand on a rooftop,
and others who see you and pause
for a moment to determine your identity
on that ledge
and what’s possibly happening
inside your head
before they move on, perhaps
because they sense
that it will take you a long while
to figure out what you really want
as you hesitate to take the leap,
and they’re in a hurry, can’t be late
to work for more than a few minutes,
no matter the circumstance,
though some of them will wait
for you below, no matter what,
wouldn’t deprive you
of being unseen
as you jump, people
who can, if they want,
in restaurant or home,
poison your soup.
People who live
so that you may live,
and just imagine
if all people died
what might remain of you?
People who die so that you may live,
and just imagine if people didn’t die
what might remain
for you? People
who can easily lose you,
live without you
but for various reasons,
most of them trivial,
prefer to keep you alive
and share life with you.

So don’t say such vain things
about people,
don’t parrot what people say
about people,
who are you
if not for people,
if not for the one who greets you back
in the good morning
and adds “how are you?”
and you answer or answer not,
the one you care a lot about,
the one you care to be the first to welcome
but with a hundred excuses
avoid bidding them farewell,
and as you sit alone in your hole
they ring your phone
or knock on your door,
that person to whom you write letters
you later tear
then run to stand panting
facing them, a person you hate
all this hate
and simultaneously love
all this love,
who is your enemy
and object of your tricks
and deception,
and when you triumph over them
you feel sad
and let them triumph back
so that they feel happy, the one
you lose faith in
but revisit then pray to
and ask for their compassion.

Who would you pardon
and on whom
would you take revenge
without people?
Without someone to wait
and wait and wait for,
someone who won’t come,
and eventually comes to your house
to find you with another person,
so who are you without someone
to check on
as if one of your limbs or organs,
whose touch
is your serenity’s only source,
someone for whose sake
you pick the most beautiful pebbles
on the beach,
and they couldn’t care less,
you ask them for a glass of water
and they bring you one of milk,
a person who sings
in your awkward presence,
whose absence makes you cry,
a person for whom you buy flowers
then toss them in their face,
storm off then come back
and kneel to kiss
their hands and knees.
A person whose arm is your pillow
as you’re thinking of someone else,
a person you always see
when your eyes are closed
but when open
is invisible to you
even if in your face.

And this, this,
Al-Hallaj told me:
that when he died
God granted him Heaven
which he found unpeopled
so he said to himself
“And what do I do here all alone?”
before he jumped the fence
and escaped to Hell
which is full of people.

 

Listen to Fady Joudah read the poem:



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Munther Masri (b. 1949) is an iconic Syrian poet and visual artist. He has published numerous books and lives in Latakia.


Fady Joudah’s fifth and most recent poetry collection, Tethered to Stars, is from Milkweed Editions.


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Photograph by James Gordon.