Mourid Barghouti's "Without Mercy"

Updated on September 22, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Mouri Barghouti

Source

Introduction and Text of "Without Mercy"

Mourid Barghouti's "Without Mercy" (translated from Arabic to English by Radwa Ashour) dramatizes the speaker's imagination of what it might be like to be a soldier fighting a long war. Contained in three versagraphs, the drama yields some insightful phrasings while at times falling victim to the pathetic fallacy.

Without Mercy

There is a sweet music,
but its sweetness fails to console you.
This is what the days have taught you:
in every long war
there is a soldier, with a distracted face and ordinary teeth,
who sits outside his tent
holding his bright-sounding harmonica
which he has carefully protected from the dust and blood,
and like a bird
uninvolved in the conflict,
he sings to himself
a love song
that does not lie.

For a moment,
he feels embarrassed at what the moonlight might think:
what's the use of a harmonica in hell?

A shadow approaches,
then more shadows.
His fellow soldiers, one after the other,
join him in his song.
The singer takes the whole regiment with him
to Romeo's balcony,
and from there,
without thinking,
without mercy,
without doubt,
they will resume the killing!

Commentary

The speaker in Barghouti's "Without Mercy" is fashioning a drama focusing on values and the evanescence of time.

First Versagraph: Passing the Time with Music

There is a sweet music,
but its sweetness fails to console you.
This is what the days have taught you:
in every long war
there is a soldier, with a distracted face and ordinary teeth,
who sits outside his tent
holding his bright-sounding harmonica
which he has carefully protected from the dust and blood,
and like a bird
uninvolved in the conflict,
he sings to himself
a love song
that does not lie.

The speaker reveals himself to be a literary imaginationist who is speculating about what a long-time warrior might do in a certain situation. The speaker begins his thought experiment by heralding "sweet music," but this particular music, despite its sweetness, fails to "console you." In the first three lines, the speaker addresses himself, but then quickly shifts to a war theater, wherein a soldier "with a distracted face and ordinary teeth" "sits outside his tent." The speaker quite appropriately describes the soldier's face as "distracted" and his teeth as "ordinary." The long war has caused many thoughts to occupy the long-time fighter, and his face has begun to reflect bewilderment and lassitude even while he is engaged in a moment of rest and relaxation.

The soldier's "ordinary teeth" signal his usual equanimity; while time and pressure alter the dental manifestation, this soldier's evenmindedness has kept his dental features intact. The soldier takes out his "bright-sounding harmonica" to pass the time enjoying the "sweet music" that was offered in the opening lines. He has protected his harmonica from "dust and blood." Playing and singing "to himself," the soldier performs a "love song / that does not lie." The brutality of the soldier's current duty has not diminished his appreciation for aesthetic gentility. The soldier has been able to guard an inner sanctuary "like a bird / uninvolved in the conflict."

Second Versagraph: Bridging the Images

For a moment,
he feels embarrassed at what the moonlight might think:
what's the use of a harmonica in hell?

This three-line versagraph functions as a bridge between the movements of the first and third versagraphs. The insubstantial first line, "For a moment," reveals a flaw that perhaps may be the result of imperfect translation but then, unfortunately, is coupled with the pathetic fallacy, "what the moonlight might think," in the second line. But the reader will rewire and ignore those minor flaws upon experiencing the strong final line, "what's the use of a harmonica in hell?" The soldier's conflation of the joy of beautiful music and the damnable circumstances of war explode in the hair- raising question of purpose. Instead of embarrassment at "what the moonlight might think," the soldier is embarrassed at his own seemingly willful disorientation as he engages in such a peaceful activity in the midst of violence and loss.

Third Versagraph: A Fellow Shadow

A shadow approaches,
then more shadows.
His fellow soldiers, one after the other,
join him in his song.
The singer takes the whole regiment with him
to Romeo's balcony,
and from there,
without thinking,
without mercy,
without doubt,
they will resume the killing!

The speaker announces, "a shadow approaches," but that shadow turns out to be a fellow soldier, and then more soldiers gather around him, and they all begin to sing. The speaker imagines that the assemblage of soldiers sings its way to "Romeo's balcony." And it is from that Shakespearean, literary balcony that the soldiers will reengage their service and "will resume the killing!" And they will do so "without thinking, / without mercy, / without doubt." The speaker's imaginationist experiment ends on a supercilious note, with the speaker safe in his literary cocoon, protected from the sting that he is free to inflict upon the hapless soldier and his fellows.

Barghouti Speaking About the nature of Art

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