London, United Kingdom – Sunday 16 February 2014, Muslim Institute – Editorial Board Meeting.London, United Kingdom – Sunday 16 February 2014, Muslim Institute – Editorial Board Meeting.

The Pure, Bright Experiment of Rain  

Written for Ilhan Çomak, Kurdish poet arrested by the Turkish government in 1994, charged with membership of the banned PKK. Though one of Turkey’s longest-serving political prisoners, he has published eight books of poetry from jail.  In 2018 he won the Sennur Sezer Poetry Prize for his collection Geldim Sana (I Came to You). Norwegian PEN is helping to translate and publish his poetry in English.

Alone in lockdown, I wake in the dark 

and place bare feet on the worn kelim by my bed. 

It used to lie at the bottom of my granny’s stair 

then later on her bathroom floor. 

I remember her lifting me out on it, 

wrapping a towel around me. Or maybe not – 

as you say, in the blazing seas of childhood 

we believe every story. 

Maybe she hefted me to a cork mat. I remember that too. 

Now I pad out in the dark to make coffee. 

I know there’s a mouse somewhere, 

one of secrets of this empty house, 

but it’s not going to run over my feet. 

In the silence, I wait for the water

in a one-cup vriki

to make that rushing sound before it boils. 

Against the still-black night

our plants on the window sill glow

as they never do in the day 

and I wish I could hand you this coffee 

walk with you up your stairway 

into the heights of life, and talk poetry together,

laugh and stare out, safely out, 

to what you call the pure bright experiment of rain.

The Gamble-Fish     

My floating face 

on which I have to click – 

how do you get back, what are the 

options in this mystical bedlam 

why does each step take me further away    

and why do these symbols on the keys 

this sunrise, mandala or broken honeycomb

mean what you say 

arbitrary as de-cluttering the house 

now the children have flown   

and finding a nest 

of my granny’s two-inch fish 

cut from the inner mantle 

of some marine creature’s home.

Wafers of white rainbow     

thin as an eyelash 

engraved with arabesques and doves.

And overleaf, the tiny faithful crescents of their scales.  

Tokens, she always said, 

for a Balinese betting game. 

She’d lived there in some mysterious past life

and kept them in a drawer 

where she kept mothballs, letters, chocolate. 

How did they turn up here? They chink 

in my hand like word and world

in the correspondence theory of truth.

I watch the circle of my face 

float off, a minnow 

through the black water of my screen.

What do I tap to reach the waiting-room? 

Where’s the right link?

What I am trying to bet on is hello

The Story-Teller, the Bedroom and the Sea 


A girl sits in a bedroom by a mirror.

Her hair falls through the air like water

her skin is lucent as a plum. 

You can see the veins fanning out 

like branches against gold sky.

Torchlight flickers 

on her dress of flame-coloured silk, 

the bed of ivory, the coverlet of white crepe de chine. 

There is no turning back. 

She’s out to save us all.

Her name means City of the Free

A girl, sitting by a mirror 

waiting for footsteps of the sultan.

Her mind climbs up like a snake-charmer’s flute

remembering stories of the City of Brass. 

A dervish, a caliph, a fisherman and a gold ring. 

Tiles on the walls behind

painted with black tulips and arabesques 

are tunnels into deep space 

where shadows gather, trembling in the lamplight

because these shadows have seen it all before

a thousand times – the beautiful girl, 

the bed of ivory and the mirror, hung with beads of lapis

which should keep off the Evil Eye, and don’t. 

Somewhere in the palace

a musician is singing a love song on a tambourine 

but the sheikh is fizzing with misogyny. 

If he goes on like this, the citizens whisper, 

we won’t have any daughters left. 

Curls of smoke rise 

from the bronze incense burner 

shaped like a lion

because LION is how the sultan sees himself, 

roaring his pain at all women.

Over here is his silver astrolabe

for measuring the heavens   

for this sultan is not an idiot

only a wounded narcissistic man. 

He has slept with and then beheaded 

a thousand girls 

who have waited here for him like this.

Eclipse of the moon, eclipse of the sun, 

a precipice where love should be

and a thousand frightened faces on the block at dawn.  


Her father tried to stop her. 

Let me go, she said. I have a plan, she said. 

But it’s a long shot. 

The harder you pull, the tighter the rope.

She has put her body in the sultan’s power

to reveal to him the riches of her mind. 

Her only weapon will be the art 

of invention, of what happens next.    

She is planning to open a window to the sea 

we all swim in without knowing, 

the sea which gives oxygen,

the Blue Ocean of stories.

Her hair falls through the air like water 

and she holds us all in the dark of her mind  

where her first story is opening 

like blossom in the last rays of sun. 

She is relying on her own Aladdin’s cave 

of echoes from the golden land

of enchantment. Battens of starlight 

lie across the floor

but she is seeing a flying horse, a city of magicians, 

Sinbad’s magical boat 

following a hoopoe, the messenger bird,

and a genie crossing the sea in a column of foam.


A girl sits in a bedroom

waiting for the door 

to open. She imagines the sultan 

in a gold belt with a buckle 

shaped like two dragons’ heads,

tongues touching. What she doesn’t know 

is what will happen in bed 

but she’ll go through with it – 

and afterwards, 

well, afterwards, she’ll ask 

to see her sister one last time

and hope the sultan will feel sorry for her and agree

so her sister can ask for a story. 

She imagines the rustle 

of him tiptoeing back 

to eavesdrop, to listen.


That girl in a bedroom blooming with shadows – 

let’s say she’s you. 

You with the blade of an axe on your neck, 

you sentenced to die in the morning

setting out on an ocean of stories 

to save your life, save all our lives, through art. 

Can you stand on the edge of a cliff 

and shout YES to the silver of the moon? 

Can you go deep within yourself 

to where the stories are, the bottom of your heart? 

After a night of despair, bruised to the bone, 

when you hear the tread of the sheikh, 

his hand rattling the door, 

put on your flame-coloured silk 

to tell your story. Don’t beat yourself up 

over what you have or haven’t done. 

Sultans are marching upstairs all the time

all over the world 

and if you set out to deal with him, you will have to go 

into the most unbearable 

feelings you will ever know. Be yourself. Lead 

the sultan, whatever shape 

he is taking in your life, 

to a window looking out to sea. 

Let the occurring world empower you 

and when you hear his footsteps, don’t even dream  

of trying to be careful. There are roads you didn’t travel 

because you chose this path, the path that brought you here. 

This is your journey now. Go into the bedchamber, 

do what has to be done, and make a story of it. 


So here is the bedroom, at night,

and two sisters, one telling a story to the other.

Whatever happened, has happened. Now 

a disturbed man, a man who has too much power,

more power than anyone ever should have,

is listening behind a screen of filigree and silk

to the voice of a girl 

who has no idea if she will be alive next day

but is steering her story 

as calmly as if playing the zither.

A girl whose name means ‘Free’

telling stories of quest – but also sorrow, 

because people have died, a thousand girls, 

who cannot be conjured back –  

to bring clarity to the sultan’s mind 

and justice to his kingdom. 

As for you, your stories will grow 

from what you are going through 

like oriental patterns on the couch of Sigmund Freud

or swirls on the body of a bouzouki,  

and each moment is a window 

opening on the sea 

where Sinbad’s boat still surges over the sparkling waves. 

Look, dolphins are following, laughing in the foam

because no one can take away 

your power to make a story from your own

unique adventure of being alive. 

Like a magic ring inside a copper flask

or a beating heart in the hand of a surgeon 

some enchanted object that was stolen or lost

will be found again, and pass 

into the darkroom of your soul.

Don’t worry if the story you are telling is true. 

What matters is being true to yourself

and that your story has power to enchant. 

If you have taken a few wrong turns 

in the City of Disappointment 

remember Scheherazade, 

remember that you are Scheherazade, 

and there will be a ship for you.  

A harbour, a way through. 

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