From my files: When Clothes Were Small by Tamer Fathy

~~This translation of “When Clothes Were Small” by the Egyptian poet Tamer Fathy appeared in the January 2006 issues Words Without Borders, which was devoted to new writing from Egypt.

The poem is from a debut collection published in 2005, Yesterday I Lost A Button. All of the poems in the book revolve around clothes–their personalities, their memories, and their desires. A promising new name in Egyptian poetry, Fathy was only 24 years old at the time of the book’s well-received publication.~~

When Clothes Were Small


Tamer Fathy
(translated from Arabic by Taline Voskeritchian and Christopher Millis)

Neither thread had a desire to couple
but they were forced
and out of that union
fabrics were born to a traditional, arranged marriage

the cutting blade’s coldness
gives me my body
(often we are offered our bodies to know pain)

so let this be your face
and this your name
and these your arms
and the tag on the back
has your size
and washing instructions

the darkness lit up a match
and closed in on my face
to see
which colors become me
but instead it selected
the color of solitude . . .

The needles’ sting
offers me life
with all its minor details
and a cast of animated characters
(later this cast will read Marquez, Lorca,
Sa’adi Yousef
and Sonallah Ibrahim)

as it sews my body
and embroiders my sorrow
and makes me sharpen my scream.

The smell of winter
was what I knew first
when I took my first breath of air.

This is how the good tailor fashioned us
to become proper clothes
and carefully folded.

But the white shirt
chose its lisp
its stuttering words
its murmur which gives things their names

perhaps the shirt hates
the taste of tomatoes
and the taste of milk
and the request to buy bread in the morning

school uniforms startle
at the whiteness of chalk
the innocence of questions
they sob under the teacher’s cane
intimates of the gray school bag
which hides dreams in small pockets
and swallows up text books

the trousers that ran in hide-and-seek
did not realize the time will come
when they would be changed to a pair of tiny shorts
or a piece of cloth
with which a mother would bandage the finger of her child

but they continued running
as if hope waited on the other side.

Marvelous are things in their fleeting vision.

(You are running, may you always run)
this is what the good tailor said


About Taline Voskeritchian

Writing teacher at Boston University; translator (from Arabic and Armenian); prose writer; occasional editor; incurable wanderer.
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