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.