A poem by Omani poet Mohamed Al-Harthy

A Failed Mechanic at the Onset of the Seventies
(A memoir retrieved from a teenage autobiography)

first published in Banipal magazine www.banipal.co.uk

Mohamed al-Harthy 1962-2018

In my early teenage years, I busied myself with the innards of the Land Rovers of that time
(the 1967 models and the ones that followed) . . .
With their enigmatic innards under the bonnets, I busied myself
with the cacophony of their four-cylinder symphony, as well as mechanical defects
with the ones that did not end up in Muscat, Calcutta or Zanzibar
and on top of them a body speeding on four
so I could dream of inventing the patent for the childhood of the age that was about to shed its skin anyway:

In the future, I will become a mechanic in the valley of al-Jardaa1 fixing the defects of vehicles under the Muqaihfa acacia tree before reaching the mouth of Wadi al-‘Aqq2 which was rocky with the boulders of Imru` al-Qais and Abu Muslim al-Bahlani.

I started dreaming, after witnessing, in the midst of tiresome journeys in Bedford trucks, the mechanic Hassoon dismantling the innards of the vehicles of that time, piece by piece, with his simple tools in his improvised garage under that acacia tree. While he worked, he drank from a bottle in his dishdasha pocket, a liquid that he pretended was medicine for his chronic cough. He drank out of sight of the turbaned travelling sheikhs to whom he never paid much attention, with their calling for a decayed Imamate and the five prayers, which Hassoon did not pay much attention to, either, still busy repairing the innards of vehicles on those burning hot afternoons.

No, I did not become that mechanic, not in this garage of words,
nor in the midst of his memoir that I retrieved,
though once, on one of those journeys, I dared to ask:
“And what about the Land Rovers, Hassoon?
Are they more complicated than the Arabiyya trucks?”
(the local nickname for Bedford trucks back then)
His response was as it always was in the darkness of memory under the acacia of his improvised garage:

Oh, don’t bother yourself with it, my boy, don’t bother. The English beat Hitler and the Axis powers while we were still suckling our mother’s milk. So I think they can fix the defects of Bedford trucks and these Land Rovers. It is their craftsmanship, and we learned it from them, then mastered it in Baluchistan and in the garages of the Sultan’s Special Forces, which would not have won over the imams if it hadn’t been for those vehicles, despite their numerous defects.

This is something you might not comprehend, my boy, but I will tell you another secret
that only an expert mechanic would know,
a secret that that even the Shah and the canny English never knew.
If you know it, my boy, you will gain high status in our world.
Do you know what it is?
It is the German cars with their meticulous craftsmanship and luxurious velvet seats,
their sandalwood, and their golden metal which I bashed with this screwdriver in the Sixties,
the Mercedes of Bahraini and Kuwaiti Sheikhs . . .
This metal which, if you ever weighed it on the scales of a sheikh of mechanics, would, I’m sure, leave you dissatisfied with repairing Land Rovers; of course, this is if you’d want a noble job, my boy.

Memory is as treacherous in its straightness as enthusiasm is in the crookedness of the falajs3,
yet the boy, in the exuberance of that afternoon,
who had fortunately missed the siskin4 in the acacia with the pebble from his slingshot, said:

I will not become a mechanic like you, Hassoon, I will be a poet instead, singing like the siskin in the acacia tree . . .
A poet, whose memory might serve him to write a poem in his fifties about the magic of a golden screwdriver, rusty Land Rovers and your days as a lucky mechanic in Sixties’ Kuwait, buying seven sardines from your fishermen friends with your Indian rupees
(seven sardines, in which you wouldn’t find any of the pearls of the Omani poor)
so you could have a lentil dinner with your fellow workers in the yard of the Kuwaiti oil refinery

No, I wouldn’t become a mechanic like you, sheikh of mechanics,
because life might change in the blink of an eye.
I might stay home doing nothing, or travel around the world,
the siskin of the acacia accompanying me to more than one chosen exile
so that I could return to my bittersweet homeland with a flute nobody can hear . . .

I might sit on the patio entertaining myself
by rewashing my already ironed dishdashas
but I will not, like you, look for a pearl hidden in the sardines of my days
I will not be content, even with my geological knowledge of digging a well, with milking the oil’s tears

There is enough wasteland, master of mechanics

I will not become a mechanic like you
but I might willingly let go of rhymed verse
and willingly take the time to pen free verse

And who knows?
In the workshop of the future I might learn to make a bed for the “renaissance”
so that it can wake from its years of somnolence
in case it might want to clip a few wings of that crowd

And who knows?
I might eat fish not cooked with rice but steamed with what is there – seaweed,
just to follow the Japanese tradition.

And who knows?
I might finally like sushi sometimes and hate it at others
O Hassoon, you siskin of the sardines, dried with nostalgia for the 1960s.
I might be wrong if I ever tried to challenge their master poets with a haiku
or a Zen poem
but a poet follows the dusty road
following it to the end like a grammarian monkey towards the certainty of doubt . . .

A poet might not have, like al-Mutanabbi5, a luxurious Mercedes in his middle years
and he might not have the nation rise up for law and order
or have Sayf al-Dawla6, Hassoon,
but he might pretend and show off in a Volkswagen
Beetle, swanning off with a humming engine
to the deserts of mankind and djinn-kind
just so he can park it near the acacia tree,
this acacia tree and no other.

When the bulldozer swept away that last rock in Wadi al-‘Aqq,
in the 1970s they built a road for God’s worshippers,
for the children riding their little bikes and
picking the ripe and the bitter acacia fruit,
for the donkey’s master, ascending to his valley farms,
praying, as it ate grass, to remember its piety,
for the taxis, followed by other taxis,
for the Volvo, the BMW and the popular Corolla,
for the bus overcrowded at times with its human passengers
and at other times with some djinn passengers,
for brave soldiers waving at a reclining camel
in the truck of a cheerful Bedouin as it passed through the valley,
for the sun washing itself in what is left of light in the fort,
for the taxis arriving after three days from Jalan and Sur7,
for the Volkswagen dream
and for the fuel trucks being raced by speeding cars
I wonder:

“Did I tell him it was from that time?”

Translated by Ibtihaj Al-Harthi

 

Selected from the author’s latest collection
(Back to Writing with a Pencil),
Dar al-Intishar al-Arabi, Beirut, 2013

 

Notes:
1 A small desert village in the Sharqiya Region of Oman
2 A rocky valley in the Sharqiya Region on the way to Al Jardaa
3 A system of water channels that were the main source of irrigation in Oman
4 A species of finch. In Arabic, hassoon
5 Al-Mutanabbi (c. 915–65 CE) was a famous Arab poet
6 Sayf al-Dawla was a famous Hamdamid ruler of Aleppo who was the patron of al-Mutanabbi (948–957 CE)
7 Towns in the Sharqiya Region

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