At the Bektashi Monastery        

 

Go past the Mosque of Sultan Hassan,

Whose walls were Memphis once,

Now louring like a peer of Spain;

Go past the Citadel, complex

Contrivance for the passing power,

As witness heaps of rubbish whence

Issues this yellow dog that licks

The naked child, who, starving, plays

In dust - dust of the Mameluke Beys.

 

Their tumbled tombs like beggars crouch

Along the desolation -

The ruin they and all the conquerors

Made, since Rome called back the legions.

Ignore the wailing women, each

Veiled in rags and proffering patiently

Her baby’s flower-face, bright with Asian

Illness. Who knows? Such dolls of death

May have been trained to hold their breath.

 

Ah, swiftly, like the Cairene night,

Yet softly, imperceptibly -

This chilled indifference to the poor,

Whose pains are jokes, or lies, or slight,

Whose wounded eyes just masquerade

A grief, whose hands, outstretched, would lure

Your alms, lost fingers falsified.

No. Only you are suffering. These

Mock sensitive have failed to please.

 

Have you not heard their stories at

Gezira, by the swimming pool?

How this one lamed her child at birth,

How that one paints those spots with khol.

And you believed? Well, yes, almost -

Faint as a wan belief in God.

You’d drown in this Nilotic flood

Of hunger, nakedness, and dirt,

Outside the house-boat of your art.

 

You, Poet, see this for a picture

Arranged as background to regret:

‘Surely, these rich we know could do

Much better- some redeeming act.’

And always it is others who

Are blamed. All powerful, you’d set

All ruined rulers’ tombs aright,

For fear your own might draw

The same self-pitying lack of awe.

 

So is your latent love for these

Deformed and desperate people real?

That wizened face, it looks like yours.

This twisted finger wears

Your signet ring. And all the rare

Stigmata of text-book disease

Flower across yourself. Perhaps

Five torn piastres buy you back

The child’s security you lack.

 

You cannot judge yourself. You know

Too little. Nor can you judge

The ignorant and fearful others

Whose money may be all they have.

The Mamelukes, despoiled, were brothers

To the beggars whom they used to throw

A thaler to: and in this surge

Of misery imploring love

Might not ascendent Mamelukes move?

 

The rich, the poor: you cannot solve

Their mystery. Can you solve your own?

Go past them. Let their following cries,

Commingled, trouble God, in whom

Your faith, more feeble than a dying

Child, must seek an alms. These shelves

Of crumbling saffron stone

Lead up. The terraced caves are there,

As is the scarlet sunset air.

 

The beggars stay below. You meet

Tourists in satin, probing round

The tombs - like children’s bedsteads - in

The twilit underground,

Where mystic Moslem monks who danced

Now quietly are. You leave this great

Question place. And old calm

Dervish, with a rosary, takes your alms

And stores it in between his prayers.