New Poetry in Translation: ‘On the Bursh After Dinner’

This Monday, a new poem from Mohsen Mohamed’s debut collection, published in 2020:
Translated and introduced by Sherine Elbanhawy

Photo of the author in prison, courtesy Mohsen Mohamed
Photo of the author in prison, courtesy Mohsen Mohamed

All the poems in Mohsen Mohamed’s debut collection No One Is Answering are lyrical, rhythmic, and moving. They are deeply human reflections on the intricacies of prison life in Egypt.

The language of life in Egyptian prisons is embedded in the title of “On the bursh after dinner.” “Bursh” is the Arabic word for the prison-sanctioned-bedding rolled out on the floor like mats which are given to inmates. The poem’s mention of the inherited colonial “Mixed Courts” is another element specific to Egypt.

Every added detail immerses the reader further in the relationships formed between the inmates. But inside the sadness of separation, there is laughter, affection, and hope.

On the Bursh After Dinner

By Mohsen Mohamed
Translated by Sherine ElBanhawy


Farewell to the prison bars and walls

Farewell to friends and our nighttime talks

when you divvied up the moonlight amongst us.

The moon in the sky met you all by chance

bewildered, lonely, shivering

so you kept him company, and warmed his light with your coat.

Farewell to the wire-mesh windows that curtail hands from passing through—

while morning dew seeps in to seek your smile

Farewell to a stranger whom you will long for

Farewell to one you loved and missed—even before you left.

When you’re out, living in the sun, look up

to see how many stars are missing from prison’s night

Farewell to your friends, and remember that if you’re outside—

there are people here, who never forget the ones who’ve left.

Your fellow inmates still gather on the bursh after dinner—and talk

They bring you up in conversation

and your absent image enlivens the talk—

Even before we start

your name is still the same, in your handwriting,

on a wall opposite the door

next to our names

We still go in sequence from one ward to another—

with every door that opens, and every absence—

of the afternoon’s recreation sun

We collect and distribute books, with monthly rations of medicine.

Still, we steal moments of happiness from them—as if we were overgrown children

as if we were playing hide-and-seek with the cops—

when one passes, we hide behind a bedsheet

we take a risk and try

the last mobile phone during visitation wrapped up and smuggled in

caught at the last minute, during inspection—

the last cop—by coincidence put his hand

somewhere by mistake.

Farewell to mobiles caught during lights-out,

and those caught through stupidity.

Farewell to the Mixed Courts*—

where we were together—companions

We glanced at each other as we were brought out in court

and died laughing at the judge

and the lawyers.

Farewell to the prison walls and cells

Still, the end of your ordeal is in motion

its role unfinished

still, the empty handcuffs await the hands of someone who hasn’t come

still, the washing line is the inmate’s drawn curtain—

your empty place next to me unfilled

the things you left and didn’t take

and memories, if you remember them, like fingerprints

on the walls: greetings to those who left.

Still, your fellow prisoners gather together

on the bursh after dinner and talk—

so don’t forget us.

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