These poems were not, as their elegiac, melancholic tone seems to imply, written by a 60-something exile remembering his childhood, but by a small Syrian boy with a grubby collar and a large football, named Mohamed Assaf. He is not an easy child: he does poetry with me every week, partly in the hope of improving his behavior. So these poems are also not composed in an elegant study, but at the backs of crowded classrooms. The central three poems in this sequence were scribbled on a piece of lined A4 in 20 minutes as Mohamed listened to Azfa Awad, a Somali poet, give a workshop in Swahili, seemingly stimulated by the rhythms of her speech and by her own refugee poems written on the board in English.
Nor has my translation process been elegant. Mohamed types his poems into Google translate and extraordinary suggestions—“national incubator,” “brotherhood of foreignness”—turn up on the tiny screen. I write bits down, I gesture, we enlist the help of passing academics when we can and other Arabic-speaking children in the school when we cannot. I explain to Mohamed that English is poor, and that to address the gaps in the rhymes and half-rhymes, I have to use repetition and play with stanza breaks. Mostly he seems to understand. Sometimes he takes a break and stands on his football for a while.
I get tired too, but mostly I am thrilled because Mohamed seems to me a poet in that his images and thoughts coincide and circle on each other. The poem about raising his hand to answer the question and to spell the name of his country, for example—one of the poems we translated by gesture, pushing our hands up in the air and across the paper as well as on paper—is a poem because of those overlapping images of hands. I used “gloved” in English after putting on a glove to check that was right.
Only a child raises their hand to answer a question, and it is the combination of the child and the grand Arabic voice that has made Mohamed a “Twitter star.” His tiny poem “I have divided my heart” was retweeted more than three thousand times, including by Muslim footballers, French Algerian beauticians, and British poets, among others. It is not just his “cute” photo: it is because inside the elegant Arabic shadows and flowers we see a small child turning the globe and wondering what has been done to him.
Five Poems by Mohamed Assaf
When my teacher asked me
So said the child refugee
Where are my unnumbered days?