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Vancouver, Washington, United States
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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Smile! a beautiful poem!

When was the last time a verse of poetry shook your very existence and caused your heart to miss a beat?  For me, it was just a few weeks ago at the end of a wonderful evening which I spent with some friends entertaining a guest (who later became a friend) from out of town.  After a wonderful dinner, some Hookah and lots of hilariously funny jokes, I got in the car with my coterie to be dropped off home.  As my friend was getting ready to start the engine, I heard him mutter a poem under his breath which I instantly recognized.  I studied it whilst in 5th grade, and don’t believe I heard it recited ever since.  The poem is simply called “smile”, and it was written by the migrant Lebanese poet Iliya Abu Madi.  The words were so beautiful I nearly cried, and found myself struggling to pull the verses from the deepest bottoms of my memory.  After I got home, I kept remembering the verses over and over again, and a few days later, I decided to search for it on the Internet.  Thanks to Google, I was able to find it, and when I read the whole poem, I came to see the beauty, the optimism and the majesty of it.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, a wave of migration took place from the Arab World to the United States and other countries in North, Central and South America.  This wave included a number of writers and poets who were so influential that they had a significant impact on Arabic literature, such that they later became masters of their own genre, the Genre known as “Adab Almahjar”, or the literature of the expatriates.  This genre, unlike its traditional counterparts, was simple but powerful, and incorporated elements of Western literature, dressing it in beautiful Arabic attire.  It spoke of love and longing, for the homeland, for the beautiful woman, the queen of the heart, for the loved ones far away and for happiness.  Such poets and writers included such renowned names as  Gibran Khalil Gibran, and of course the wonderful Iliya Abu Madi.

But back to the poem.  It takes place in the form of a dialogue between two friends, a pessimist and an optimist.  The pessimist was talking about all sorts of terrible things around him, things which are part and parcel of the life of an immigrant from the Middle East at that time, and the optimist was trying to convince him to smile!

Here is a vocal recitation of the poem in its native Arabic given by yours truly.  My apologies for those of you who speak Arabic for the mistakes I’m sure I made, and to those of you who do not, for failing to convey the full beauty of this poem in my attempt to translate it below.  Nevertheless, the poem, translated, goes like this:

He said “the sky is gloomy and full of sadness”,
I said “so smile, isn’t the sadness in the sky enough”?

He said “the days of youth are long gone”,
I said “So smile, do you think your sorrow will bring back those long gone days”?

He said “and she who brought heaven into my life with her love, has turned it with her love into a raging hell-fire.

She betrayed our vows after I gave her my heart, so how can I even bear to smile”!

I said “so smile and  sing, for if you had married her, you would have spent your whole life in pain and sorrow”.

He said “and business now a days is in such a struggle, just like the desert traveler who is almost being slain by thirst.

Or like a beautiful sick girl who is in need of so much blood, and yet each time she breathes she  exhales blood”.

I said “smile, for you’re not the cause of its sickness and its recovery, but if you smile, just maybe.

For its not your fault – it’s someone else’s, but yet you live in so much anxiety as if you are the guilty one”.

He said “and my adversaries’ voices have become so loud around me, how can I be please with my adversaries so close here in my safe refuge?”

I said “smile, for they wouldn’t have come after you for what you said if you weren’t higher and greater than they are.”

He said “and the signs of the holidays are slowly exposing themselves to me, with new clothes, with toys!

And I, as you know, have binding commitments of gifts for my loved ones, but my palm possesses not a Dirham (Dollar).”

I said “smile and think of how lucky you are to be alive, and how lucky you are to have those loved ones”.

He said “and the long nights have fed me so much bitterness,”
I said “smile, even if you had to scoff so much bitterness.

For if someone sees you hymning, they may put aside their sadness and chant with you.

I don’t see you earning a dirham (Dollar) with your misery, neither do I see you losing riches with a smile.

Oh my friend, there is no harm if your lips crack and your face chuckles.

So smile, for the meteor and the night both smile even when they have to face each other – and that’s why we love the sight of the stars!”

He said “oh, but cheerfulness can never bring happiness to someone who comes to this world and goes unwillingly.”

I said “oh but smile, as long as there is but a foot between you and death, smile, How come I don’t see you smiling yet!”



  1. Zuhair
    I always enjoy your insights. You always seem to visit when I need your insights the most. May Allah be with you. Come for Macluba anytime.

  2. only someone anonymous can make an invite for Macluba with such impunity:). But really, thanks, that means a great deal to me, even if I had to live on pizza.

  3. Zuhair I thought the invite for malculba would be a dead give away as well as keep the muslimah's identity a secret on such a public board. We would always make good on an offer for macluba. In addition I will just know when to make it you won't even have to wait for an invitation.

  4. Of course, I know that, because I know the identity of the one offering (the Macloba indeed gave it away), but you can agree it would make a good laugh for those who don't know:). Hope all is well.