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Sonnets from Zawia (AZZAWIYA)

Sunday, 27 Feb 2011

Venus at Sabratha

Here are some sonnets that I wrote when working on Azzawiya Oil Refinery from 1980 to 1982. They were published in my fourth collection "In the Country of Birds" published by Carcanet in 2003. I drove through Zawia during a business trip in 2006 and the town was bigger although essentially the same. I thought given the current revolution in Libya visitors to my website might be interested in the flavour of Libya thirty years ago. It might be of ironic interest that the Boney M song "by the Rivers of Babylon" was immensely popular in Libya at this time. The image is from the Roman site at Sabratha twenty-five kilometres from Zawia.




The newcomers and their families wait

For the Zawia bus. It’s their first chance

To do a little more than appreciate

This place of wind and abundance

Where spray from irrigation water swirls

And grit is driven hard enough to bruise

The scrubbed faces of British wives, still girls

So young they talk excitedly of shoes.

How long before their husbands worry

That many of us are single men

As we mention shortages and hurry

To advise on where to school a daughter

And how to hasten the plucking of a hen

By putting it in boiling water?


Some hens struggle under a seat.

Their wings thud against the leather

Rhythmically like a hanged man’s feet.

Minutes ago they crowded together

Tied with a green flex which hobbled

Their legs so only their heads could blink

From side to side as they gobbled

Imagined grain. Too tired to think

We carry to the coach the best

Cuts of meat, loves and potatoes.

Our driver rises from his rest

Next to a well in which he throws

His cigarette while sunlight clings

To stone blurring the form of things.


Now the light relinquishes its grip

On architecture and the glazed, lopped heads

Of bullocks piled along the butcher’s strip

Where we bargained for glossy sweetbreads.

Our driver has a gentle villainy

Jolting us home through date palms which ripen

To a sticky brown. We think of money

Or argue how to cook a Libyan hen.

Could we be called down to earth? We are less

Than the dusk is with its lack of light,

Reduced more than we’d care to confess

To these newcomers waving us goodnight

As we wither away from them while they stand

Dangling a live bird in each free hand.


In front of me hawks squeal and must swoop

Around the water tower. They aren’t clear forms

But lines of flight inscribed above a loop

Of sea tinted by the first winter storms

Which quiver soundlessly miles away.

Close to me the tamarisk branches seem

Flaws in the dusk’s raw silk or else they sway

From an ageing Japanese artist’s dream

Of touch made visible. But nightfall

Takes that royal luminous idea

Leaving me only able to recall

From the minute republic of the ear

As tomcats squabble on the garden wall

And cockroaches whistle in the hall.


The body politic shakes within a change

Of mood. What he was promised now becomes

A might-have-been. But he preferred the strange

And left home. The strange was strange. So he thumbs

His way back to original design.

His mother’s words come to flood him with excess

Like hormones accelerating a decline.

Will he be reborn and achieve success?

Perhaps. The sea is ageing and impure.

In media terra her glad blue eye

Wrinkles in its orbit to ensure

His handsome middle age where he can lie

Upon a beach between her infected calms

And a fly-blown future under palms.


Clouds must have built up since no glints show

As I stroll outside after listening

To a relative on the radio

Confess his treachery of years ago.

At the newcomers’ flat a chicken screams

Strangled behind jalousies glistening

With drizzle. It’s a night when dreams

Will turn hints dropped in childhood to themes

For fairy tales where a wicked uncle

Makes a lost father seem magical

Though the broadcast should not mean much to me,

Noticed rather as if an animal

Had whimpered above the whisper of the sea

Which is unconcerned, random, free.


The calligraphy of cloud above me

Embroiders the Arabic word for rain

While a hoopoe casts an economy

Of shadow swaying, like a weathervane,

On power lines. My worst pupil passes

With a hawk upon his wrist. He makes me look

At the bird and his new pair of glasses.

For eighteen months he has read “black” as“book.”

“Now reading good,” he claims and indicates

His cataract and the hawk’s uncovered

Chilling eyes. He stoops to sniff a pinion

As water’s alphabet evaporates

Over that valley where he discovered

More than thirty species of scorpion.


A scorpion crawls beneath my mattress.

Its tail flickers like a gas jet

When I brush it into a plastic bin.

It gives me something to gossip about

As clouds lower and earth and sea compress

Ramadan to hours in which I sweat

Unused, yet paid for all of it. I grin

Like a monetarist “toughing it out”

Since I know the sea breeze will lift the press

Of slick air, upturn my mosquito net,

Creak shutters against their hooks and begin

To challenge a hush so complete I’d doubt

Anything moved if it weren’t for the sound

Of the scorpion scuttling round and round.


Like awkward deer, tentatively greedy

For sugar, girls sidle close then run

Giggling to their mothers while we make fun

Of our friend, the policeman Al Hamidi,

Gesturing to a mountain shattered by heat,

Swept bare by flashflood, a ruined face

Staring at this green, Gaddafi’s perfect place

Where no family picnic is complete

Without a father crouching to cut stocks

Of fodder for his sheep as stereos play,

Shining like tiny silver tower blocks,

And where each group, as far as the eye can see,

Has a son or daughter who stands up to sway

To a song from Radio Tripoli:

“By the rivers of

There we sat down,

Yea, we wept,

When we remembered

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