The Silence that Remains

Ghassan Zaqtan is one of the most original and compelling Palestinian poets of his generation. A novelist, editor, playwright and filmmaker, he has written ten books of poetry, including Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, awarded the Griffin International Poetry Prize in 2013. The Silence that Remains introduces readers in the UK for the first time to Zaqtan’s early work, including his debut collection destroyed during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Writing about personal memory as a form of political and social activism, while avoiding the mythology of exile and displacement, Ghassan creates an aesthetic of fragments, an imaginative archaeology of fragile human subjects. It’s a book about the silence of the tongue and the silence of the heart, the silence of resistance and the resistance of silence.

Front cover: Mona Hatoum, Remains of the Day (detail) 2017, wire mesh and wood.

Installation view at Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art. © Mona Hatoum. Courtesy Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art (Photo: Ken Kusakari)

Sample Poems


Where do you go
when houses when roads
put their lights out

when I walk
like a gesture from the past
alone in the whispering at forty

Where do I go
when I exit memory’s icon
when summoned
in a land of jinn

or wandering like a sound
or a blind man
creeping about the place

Follow That Smell

Follow that smell, hyena
follow that smell
alone and spotted and roving
as if you didn’t know

and laugh in rugged valleys
whose rocks are sallow then black

Follow it, hyena
follow your murderers to their low windows
and with your two lanterns pass through their sleep,
exchange their bodies with your scent

With their placid trickery push them toward the night
dizzy and stumbling in their slumber

Follow that smell, hyena
you laughing
    of ours
        in the valleys

Karameh 1965

The ripple that kept rising since childhood
from the direction of the river

where the hills come down to the water when we sleep
where the fields get up at night after dinner
and climb to the convent

the ripple I used to hear, mysterious, as it climbed
toward Karameh and Salt
where the dogs barked to no avail

the ripple that used to stroll those corners
and crawl under planks, houses, and hay

is following me again...

We are now in Tunis
and horses
are galloping toward the rock

of forty years
while in the remotest memory
those stubborn dogs bark in the courtyard

Damascus 1986

The key’s clang
the sun I called from the windowsill
the brief time of fondness
none of it was mine

This cramped morning
sprinkled over the neighbour’s garden
from the edge of the pillow
isn’t mine

It wasn’t mine
that laugh of the girl who gleamed behind the vase
in air

There had to be a hand picking jasmine nearby

If only our neighbour would turn off the radio
I could hear
how water breaks over her hands as she washes . . .

I would have opened the window
I would have turned off the lights

Tunis 1992

Here is the house
a glass front
and a reed door

A darkness in the corridor
a lemon that has just blossomed
two days ago

Almond trees on both sides
a waterless hookah will spot us
as soon as the three of us enter

The garden’s shadow walks
behind me and the jasmine scent

I’ll sit where I used to sit
the garden’s shadow over the mat
the jasmine smell on a dress

A summer dress
early summer
the dress of the girl I didn’t love

Birzeit 1998

A crying boy
that boy of our Christian neighbour’s
he’d break the hoopoe’s branch on a pine tree
then cry

Hay needles
fly after him and sting him
feathers and birds and bees

are after him
as he runs under the window

a crooked pine tree
follows him

and the boy is running
toward the street
and crying
surrounds him
and propels him

and the crying boy is running
toward the junkyards

while the junkyard snake, the rattling kind,
hearkens, alert
to all of this
in Birzeit

A Scream over the Woods

In the dark there’s room
for a black hand
with five fingers
and an arm

In the dark a house is consumed
with the chores of its dead
who are consumed
with transferring their intentions
to the arch

In the dark ruined voices, screams
that remained on rocks
and in nettle fences
and in the courtyard’s water

Like rough bark
a scream appears over the woods

In the dark
where the past roams around the ladder
folded like a cold shirt
the hearts of the dead stumble

and the rustle
of their stroll in the hallway
is like a blind plant
or a pair of consenting eyes

The ladder goes on
leaning alone toward a whiteness
the arches diminish

and no time is enough for them
no time
and let down
they hold their intentions white

their solitude
within them...

Did we cross someone’s mind
before we rose in the dark
stung with our image
white from sleep’s effect

while arches branched out of us haggard
and grew faint in the hallways?

Who thought of us?
we the forgotten who
boarded vehicles to exile and returned

without vehicles

Vehicles in the Dark

The night traveller won’t see a hand
that points to a low south in the shadow
or a road of white shrouds and blue mats

Dad, wake your children up and leave
your slanted shoulders by the window,
your gait on the flanks of summer
has a rustle of awesome sorrow

Wake your children up, Dad, dream
will sway with them, a tambourine
will tap down the slope
at exactly ten o’clock

And a pack of wolves
will ascend its far dark edge


‘Extraordinary… captures the very essence of what it means to be human. The poems compel you, outrage and upset you, but also fill you with wonder.’

Jackie Kay

‘To be alive at home, it’s already a victory. To be alive and write poetry from Ramallah, it’s a victory for all the Palestinians. To write poetry and spread it around the world, it’s a victory for the entire humanity.’

Los Angeles Review of Books