The old book’s cloth cover had turned gray. A friend, who knows my passion for Eastern poetry, had just given it to me as a present.  I was thrilled, as I unfolded the deep green wrapping paper. When I opened the divan in English translation, the binding gave a faint creaking sound. Obviously no one had looked into it in very many years. I leafed through, read a few poems by Ghalib, Mir and Insha. My heart was in my mouth.

I then moved on to the end of the book. I had not been aware of all those pages covered with delicate pen writing.  Even before I went any further, I felt as if the person who wrote in blue ink with such elegance was standing in front of me. Handwriting comes from the very depths of our bodies.  I have long regarded it as the trace of our flesh on paper. 

I was submerged as I discovered the dozens of poems translated from Urdu, Persian, Bengali and Hindi, patiently copied out by someone I will never meet.  And yet I could so well imagine the long hours spent transcribing what he gathered from other books probably lost in some faraway libraries across the world. For some reason difficult to explain, I was convinced he was a man. I thought I already knew the beauty of those eyes eager to read beyond the borders of languages. Zahir, Princess Mirabai, Hafiz… I was sharing the secret loves of a person whose name will forever remain unknown to me.  

Towards the end, the part entitled “Persian” reveals a hurried hand, as if time was running short.  These pages stop in June 1929 with “Fireflies” by Rabindranath Tagore, copied in the same neatly controlled style of the beginning.  Fireflies do light up the darkness of night but ever so briefly. Hard as I tried, I would never know why he had given up copying poems and translations. What could interrupt probably a lifelong relationship with poetry? Was it some bereavement? Maybe sickness? There were plenty more pages he could have filled in with more poetry, Eastern classics or even some of his own.  Why not? Maybe he wrote poetry too.

I leafed through the book over and over again, at a loss for a clue that might tell me more about the almost silent figure now standing by my side. I only knew my hands on the cover of the book must have met the shadows of his, just as I could guess some of his moods through his writing: excitement, speechless wonder, peacefulness at other times. Why was there neither family nor even a single friend to keep and treasure the remains of endless nights spent in study and delight?  This looked like downright neglect and I found it so sad.

The manuscript came to me inside a book.  Life was leaving it in my care, like a being I should look after. Or was it more like memories both close and far that I should keep alive, a sort of heart forever beating through curves of ink? I was introduced to a real person, beyond time, through the sheer presence of written words. Strangely these poems in slightly fading blue ink have eclipsed the rest of the book.  They carry a message, which has a voice of its own. A friend unwittingly picked it out for me, with a book he took from the shelves of a second-hand book dealer.  It was so like a bottle that had been tossed into the sea to be rescued in the end.

The trembling lines of the blue letters have proved stronger than what is in print. And often, as I go to sleep I can still hear them whispering hopes, desires and emotions buried in years of silence. They delicately mingle with the words of the famous poets the man translated or copied.  Poems are lights carried through the darkness by anonymous hands.


Photo by Sergiu Vălenaș on Unsplash

CategoriesFlash Fiction
Cécile Oumhani

Cécile Oumhani is a poet and a novelist. Among her books of poems: "Marcher loin sous les nuages" (2018) and "Mémoires inconnues" (2019), nominated for the Mallarmé Prize. Among her novels: "L’atelier des Strésor" (2012), Special Mention of the Franco-Indian Gitanjali Prize (2012), and "Tunisian Yankee" (2016), winner of the Maghreb ADELF Prize, nominated for the Joseph Kessel Prize. She was awarded the 2014 Virgil Prize for her work as a whole. Her books have been translated in several languages. A German translation of "Tunisian Yankee" was published in 2018. She collaborates with French journals Siècle 21 and Apulée. She has been guest editor for the American journal Words Without Borders. Three of her poems written in English have been published in "The Statesman" in India. "Survivors", one of her short fictions written in English appeared in "The Punch Magazine" in June 2019. She participates in readings and literary festivals in France and abroad, like the 2017 International Poetry Festival in Trois-Rivières in Quebec. She is a member of the Francophone Women Writers’ Parliament.