25th October 1994 – Modena, translated by Maddie Stoll

My mother is in labour – she is having contractions,
there is no one with her to hold her hand,
no one to translate for her the concepts of a language that feels strange,
that doesn’t resemble any idea of family and never has.

The doctor doesn’t understand her. He gets heated.
The atmosphere is thick with doughy incomprehension
and so begins the story of the alienation
of a foreign woman in this, this very nation.

“Oh you’ll see –
you’ll like Europe” my father had assured,
but you can’t prove him right, cooped up in some bedsit on the outskirts of the city,
having to process all the loneliness, the nostalgia and the humidity.

“You arrived like a promise”,
she told me years later
but she seemed to be speaking to herself.
“I expected so much but had so little, and then,
then you arrived, and, like a wave of the sea,
you washed away my agony.”

Today she cries too often
and I try with everything in me
not to see her ageing,

grieving for a world that no longer knows how to love.

And clearly, indelibly, is etched on her skin
the sacrifice made in my name and that of my sisters.
Someone shouts
"Shitty Arabs, return to your tents”,
and in me grows an incontrollable anger
whilst my mum seems by now numbed.

And so it begins: resigning yourself
to having no say in the telling of your story,
to letting it be other, letting it define us,
letting another’s ignorance wound us.

And in the midst of a global pandemic,
I think back to my individual reality
and through that I see no differences –
we can all be rendered equal by desperation,
can become companions on a journey,
hoping for an opportunity
that surpasses the language
with which we speak,
with which we love,
with which we support ourselves,
and with which we, also, destroy ourselves.

I’ll give you that opportunity, mum.


I started learning Italian three years ago quite by chance, and since then have loved the sonority of the language and the way it plays with allegory. I happened to discover a rich culture of Italian spoken word poetry on YouTube, and was struck in particular by Fatima Bouhtouch’s message and also her expressive use of rhetoric and rhyme. The first challenge, therefore, was creating an accurate transcription of her performance. In spoken Italian, vowels and shorter words often tend to blend, impacting on possible meaning. For example, “vada” couple with “al di là” means surpasses, exceeds or goes beyond, yet “aldilà” itself is the afterlife, or another world. The primary challenge for this translation was that the text was designed for performance. Bouhtouch’s delivery of the text used pauses, changed speed at times, and used inflection to emphasise specific words. Everything Bouhtouch was able to convey with her voice – emotion and passion – had to be replicated with punctuation, and where possible, syllable count. Though English and Italian share many similarities at a grammatical level, one key difference that was brought home to me through this process was a tendency in Italian towards metaphor. For example, Bouhtouch uses the word “impastata”, literally meaning kneaded, to convey an uncomfortable, stifling atmosphere. It was difficult to find an English equivalent for this beautifully condensed description. “Fare i conti” was another phrase whose connotations were hard to communicate. A literal translation would be to do maths, to calculate a bill or to face something. This expression at once suggests something mathematical or calculated and something emotional. The act of translation has added depth to my understanding and appreciation of Bouhtouch’s performance, which grows more powerful each time I experience it. I’m humbled to be able to share her message.

25 ottobre 1994 – provincia di Modena.

Mia madre è in travaglio ha le contrazioni,
non c’è nessun parente a tenerle la mano,
nessuno a tradurre per lei le nozioni di una lingua che le fa strano,
che non somiglia, a nessuna idea di famiglia e non ancora.

Il medico non la capisce, è un po’ – si innervosisce.
L’aria impastata di incomprensione e comincia così
la storia di alienazione
di una donna straniera in questa nazione.

“Ah vedrai –
L’Europa ti piacerà” l’aveva assicurato papà,
ma non riesci a dargli ragione rinchiusa nel monolocale fuori città,
le tocca fare i conti con solitudine, nostalgia e umidità.

“Tu sei arrivata come una promessa”
mi ha raccontato anni dopo,
ma pareva lo dicesse a se stessa.
“Mi aspettavo tanto ma ho avuto così poco
poi sei arrivata tu e come un’onda di mare
hai tirato via il mio male.”

Oggi piange troppo spesso,
e con uno sforzo immenso
cerco di non guardarla invecchiare,
intristita da un mondo che non sa più amare.

E noto inciso sulla sua pelle,
il sacrificio in nome mio e delle mie sorelle.
Qualcuno ci gridava,
“Arabe di merda, tornatevene nella vostra tenda”
e a me saliva la rabbia incontrollata
mentre mia madre sembrava ormai abituata.

Ed è così che comincia la rassegnazione
a non avere voce nella propria narrazione,
a lasciare che sia l’altro, a definirci,
a usare la propria ignoranza per ferirci.

E nel mentre di una pandemia globale
ripenso alla mia realtà individuale,
e mi accorgo che è per questo che io non trovo differenza,
sicché siamo tutti eguali nella disperazione,
compagni di viaggio,
devoti alla speranza di meritare un’opportunità
che vada al di là della lingua
con cui parliamo,
con cui ci amiamo,
con cui ci sosteniamo,
e ci distruggiamo.

Ti regalerò un’opportunità mamma.


Original poem by Fatima Bouhtouch. Reproduced by kind permission of the poet.