Kareem James Abu-Zeid


Half American and half Egyptian, Kareem James Abu-Zeid was born in Kuwait in 1981, and has lived an itinerant life across the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and the US. A prolific translator of poets and novels from across the Arab world, he has received numerous prizes and fellowships for his work, including Poetry magazine’s 2014 translation prize, as well as residencies from the Lannan Foundation and the Banff Center for the Arts. He has translated novels and books of poetry by Najwan Darwish (Palestine), Rabee Jaber (Lebanon), Dunya Mikhail (Iraq), and Tarek Eltayeb (Sudan) for New Directions, New York Review Books, and the American University in Cairo Press. His translations of Arabic poetry have also appeared in dozens of journals, anthologies, and newspapers around the world. Kareem also works as a freelance translator from French and German and as a freelance editor, and has taught college courses (literature, writing, philosophy, and language) in four different languages at UC Berkeley and at the Universities of Heidelberg and Mannheim in Germany. He earned his PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2016, with a dissertation on modern spiritual poetry, and received his Bachelors from Princeton summa cum laude in 2003, and his Masters from UC Berkeley in 2007. He practices various forms of Buddhist meditation, and generally spends several weeks each year on silent retreats. He is currently translating a second book by Najwan Darwish.

Ayahuasca, Tantra, Vipassana

The call I heard was clear:
“Lose self to find Self,
lose love to find Love.”

But how do you do it?
What’s your secret, friend,
to finding form within the void,
God within the form?

“Ayahuasca, tantra, vipassana:
methods for leaving method,
paths for ending path.”

But these are no secrets, friend,
and all their words and ways
keep falling into silence.

“Then listen, friend, just listen
deeply to the silence.”

Reaching (Dark Night 1)

The ways of spirit are strange
the ways of body too
This shell of mine
at times seems so inadequate
at others nothing less than perfect
I often ask myself what they mean
by “self care,” and whether
you’ve found an answer yet

Have you? Something is lacking:
You reach for a cigarette
and pause, pause—silence

Have I found an answer?
Someone is lacking: my self
reaches for another
and pauses, pauses—silence

Self care? Surrender? Words
that cut both ways

A hand reaching out, remember:
any less than whole

Ghost (or: Anatta 1)

You keep disappearing
then coming back again.
And your name, too, keeps
slipping, slipping: Spirit? Ghost?
They call you Sunyata
but the name means nothing, absolutely
nothing, and I do not understand.

“There’s a limit to mind,” you say,
“a limit to matter—go past it,
then you’ll see.”

But what goes past, my friend?
And who is it
who does the seeing then?

Strobe (or: Anatta 2)

“This world is strobing,
as is the body,
as is the mind:
always arising, always
passing away.”

You say that’s the way of things
—strobing, strobing—
and that death and birth
are always only
here and now.
But sight is dull
and all things
seem steady,
so firm so solid
I fear
I’ll break myself against them.

“So break, friend, break
and learn to see the way of things.”


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