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.
SONNETS FROM ZAWIA
ON COOKING CHICKENS
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.
THE FIFTH MAN
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.
MONTH OF FASTING
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.
SPRING IN THE DESERT
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 Babylon
There we sat down,
Yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion.”