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Khamsin on the Hills


Khamsin on the Hills

Do you remember that
khamsin on the hills? The branches
full of thorns sent to us by
the thirsty wild plums? The
blazing rocks and the scent
of toasted pine needles?
The blush that rose on your cheeks, and the drops
of your gentle sweat? My soul
reached out to you then my love.
And I did not guess there that such
would be our lives: crowns of thorns,
and the heat of the khamsin, and the blush of
the sweat of love. And the sorrow that eats
at us from inside for the speed of elusive
time and the lightning vision of
painful memory, flying away.

translated from the Hebrew by Cindy Eisner

©Elisha Porat

Khamsin, khamseen, chamsin or hamsin (Egyptian Arabic: ????? khamsin, "fifty"), also known as khamaseen (Egyptian Arabic: ?????? khamasin, "fifties") refers to a dry, hot and dusty local wind blowing in North Africa and Arabian Peninsula. Similar winds in the area are sirocco and simoom.

Ana Bekoach - A Personal Liturgical Homily

After the Yom Kippur War my first book of poems, Hushniya, The Mosque, appeared. A few months earlier I had published my poem "Ana Bekoach" in the literary supplement of one of the newspapers. A curious and peculiar poem, whose words appeared before my eyes and were thrust upon me from an unknown source. And arranged themselves with great force. In those post-war days, I was completing a number of lamentations, whose origin was a hasty draft on military papers that I happened to have at hand, in the Syrian enclave and in the emplacements along the northern border. I believed in those poems, I believed in those lamentations. They restored hope to me for a short while, as if it were in our power to bring the thousands of dead back to life. I remember precisely the moment of birth of my poem "Ana Bekoach": in a bus full of soldiers, returning to Israel, on the way from Kuneitra, as outside the low skies grew gray, heralding the coming of snow. On the bus radio a cantor was singing a verse of the prayer "Ana Bekoach" - "Please, by the strength". He performed it sensitively and with fervor, and the juxtaposition of those words caught my attention immediately. A marvelous oxymoron, before which even the "King of Oxymorons" in modern Hebrew poetry, Natan Alterman, would have tipped his hat. From within the contradictory pairing of gentleness and violence emerged the harmony of the poem that so wanted to be born. The ingredients were repulsively familiar: a shell shocked and exhausted soldier, returning home for a short and limited period of time, the threat of returning to the front not yet lifted. His hunger for a woman, the absurd pairing of his fleshly lust with his impending death echo in the poem:

… now is not the time ask
by the strength of what, whither my pleas
for soon must I take my leave:
by lily light your body breathes

One of my friends took the trouble to tell me, rather surprisingly, that he had heard the poet Amir Gilboa read some recent war poems to his students. During that cursed winter of the war he gave guest lectures at the University of Tel Aviv, before whatever audience was not at the front. Poems by unknown poets, those produced by the war. And among the poems that he read were also poems of mine. My friend added that Amir Gilboa said in his lecture that you could actually smell the fire and smoke rising from the poems. I, new and hesitant poet that I was, who had written these short lines only to unburden myself from the deep despair that had gripped my heart during the months of fighting, was very excited by his story: see, I write not only for the trees and for the stones. It turns out that there is someone who reads and someone who feels, on the far side of the vast distances of the battered land. In the well-lit lecture halls of the campus in Tel Aviv, on the cozy lawns between the buildings, in the "backside" of the nation, deep in the "home front". I did not know the poet Amir Gilboa then, and I hardly ever met him afterwards. But I often read his poems. I became filled with gratitude, and I preserved the fact of his winter attention in my heart. A day will come, I knew, when I will be able to tell him a little of the things that filled my heart. And may I be able, may I only find myself in the right mood, because it was so difficult in those days for me to discuss my poetry with someone else. For there are no locks like those that make fast the hearts of poets. And afterwards, after the war, I went up to Jerusalem, and I immersed myself for several years in the deep and meaty Jewish texts. I had some kind of biting hunger, that had intensified during the war. And I threw myself into the Hebrew scriptures with enthusiasm, until I lost myself totally in them.

And thus I arrived again, with a sort of strange circularity, at the words of the prayer "Ana Bekoach". I learned about its various interpretations, and I also grew to know it with the eyes of a disappointed lover, because not all of it is the linguistic pearl that I had imagined. Only its opening is spectacular, and after that it falls immediately into tired and tiring language. And one day, in some library in Jerusalem, I innocently opened Amir Gilboa's Blues and Reds, and read to my surprise: "Ana Bekoach…". A poem that he had written, of the same title, based on the same prayer with the same wonderful oxymoron. I hesitated several days, just between me and myself, I was astounded by the discovery, and finally I gathered my courage and decided to write to him, to the Tel Aviv poet, and to point out to him the similarities between the poems. For such things had happened in the past: different people wrote from distant places and in different periods, about things that were astonishingly similar. I put off writing to him from week to week. Discomfort and a lack of real acquaintance, a feeling of invading his privacy, all of these weakened my anyway hesitant hand. Until I read in some old ultra-Orthodox newspaper, that I had found in the library, an emotional article on the death throes of the Rabbi A.I.H. Kook. I read with wonder but also with a feeling of déjà vu, how the streets of Jerusalem, around his small home, filled with people. And how his distraught disciples loudly recited at his deathbed the words of the prayer: "Ana Bekoach Gedulat Yemincha…". The wonderful account of the last moments of Rabbi Kook, written in the clumsy journalistic style of the thirties, a hodgepodge of words of great import, holy exaltations and inconsequential mundane details, flung me back to the Golan Heights' burning fields of basalt in that cursed war that began after Yom Kippur. I was carried again to my soldier, dead-alive, in whose imagination the burning passion for a woman is joined to the awareness of approaching death: … I come to you straight from the Golan…

And then I dared to write the letter to Amir Gilboa. I no longer recall exactly what I wrote in my flustered confused letter. I only remember that I was thrilled by the discovery of the amazing literary penetration of the phrase "Ana Bekoach". Through the prayer to the poetry of his scorched Jewish Europe, as he found it at the end of the World War, when he was a soldier in the British army. And from there to the poetry of my scorched Golan Heights, that I encountered in my war. I also told him the moving story of the death throes of Rabbi Kook, of the voice calling out "Ana Bekoach", carried above the small streets of Jerusalem. A voice in which the crowds gathering under his windows beg for the life of him that they so love, a love that they did not have time to express before he took his leave. A few days passed and I received his reply, written in his hand, of which I have never seen more beautiful. Of what did he speak to me in his letter? Of a single tongue that wakes multiple tongues, belonging to various far-flung poets. Of what joins them, and also what separates them, and which cannot be bridged. And he also expressed a certain wonder at the way in which I interpreted this ancient scripture. And he was immediately pleased by the singular fusion, compelling, between the fleshly lust, the sensation of impending death, and the great mystery that wraps them into a single coil. In those days I was also reading the harsh poems of outcry that Amir Gilboa had published in Moznaim. Poems of reaction, somewhat late, to the terror of the anxious days of the Yom Kippur War. And I understood then, that not only in the soul of Rabbi Kook did there lie a great anxiety for the fate of this people, and not only in the soul of N.A., to whom the poems were dedicated, did there nest a severe trepidation for our future here. The wonderful poet Amir Gilboa, as well, of blessed poetic memory, was deathly fearful for our lives here and for the life of the Hebrew language. All of this I wanted to write to him. To leap over the wall of artificial boundaries, and to converse with him about my confusion as well. But I missed my chance. The man died with many matters unresolved. And my matter, inconsequential, among them. Today I very much regret that I did say all of this to him. May the little that I have said here be a candle to his memory. And perhaps there is yet to be discovered some mysterious path, as written in the prayer "Ana Bekoach", to reach him and to say to his face a little of what I wanted to say. For that is the "strength of the right hand" of true poets. That even though they leave us, their spirit and their words, even those for which time ran out and that were not spoken at all, still live among us for many long years.

(On the twentieth anniversary of the death of Amir Gilboa.)

©Elisha Porat

translated from the Hebrew by Cindy Eisner

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