Published: April 12, 2021

Professor Levi Thompson offers a translation of the poem Weapons and Children.

Weapons and Children (1954)
by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab

The Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (d. 1964) published this poem in a chapbook in 1954 after originally composing it in 1953. 1953 was a tumultuous year in Sayyab’s life, as he was on the run from the authorities after participating in an uprising against the Iraqi monarchy. He eventually ended up in the Iranian capital, Tehran, where he witnessed first-hand the 1953 royalist coup that the US and UK spy agencies organized against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh (d. 1967) to bring the Shah back to power. This poem treats the hopes decolonizing nations had for independence during the early 1950s, many of which were never realized. Sayyab’s poetic persona here makes a call for peace across the world in the face of imperial violence and unbridled capitalism, symbolized in the poem by the merchant’s call for old iron and bullets.

A musical interpretation of the poem by Ghazi Mikdashi is available here:

“Weapons and Children”

Birds? Or children laughing,
A glint of tomorrow sparkling at them?
Their bare feet
Are seashells clinking on a water wheel.
The hems of their robes are the north wind,
Blowing over a field of wheat,
The hiss of bread baking on a holiday,
Or a mother gurgling her newborn’s name
Sweetly whispering to him on his first day.
It is as if I hear the sails flapping
As Sindbad storms out to sea.
He saw a vast treasure between his ribs,
Chose no other treasure, and returned!
An echo crossing over the ages: 
From the cave, the forest, and the temple
A warm brook filled with the sweat of stones,
And the chisel of their overworked stonemason
Sings of his untamable yearning
For the lofty summit…
To subdue death with life.
Life’s coming generations shall meet death
Upon a rock carried in its hands
Greeting him with a smile on the lips,
With eyes whose streaming tears
Have hardened into stone.
An echo tiny hands return,
Clapping in a bright street
Like the flapping of butterflies, the day passes
By them with its blue lamp.
How many fathers return home
At night after leaving early,
Eyes full of worry
Enveloped by curdled blood?
A lost child meets him at the door
Bursting with pure laughter
Then kindness pours out to fill existence,
Planting stars on his dark
Horizons, making him forget the weight of the chains.

On long winter nights, children are 
A spring of warmth and good health,
From which the elderly collect roses
Glancing once again on childhood
Dancing among the hills
And rocking in a cradle of imagination
With a virgin on a moonlit night
In the shadow of an apple blossom
Where birds sleep.
In the morning, they 
Are the sound of steps on the ladder
Hands on sleepy faces
Playfully tickling them awake.
They are one of those songs of the road,
One of those old tunes
One of those rushing voices.
They are a mother by your side when she wakes up,
When the fire is lit on the hearth
Like a line you can see tomorrow begin on.


Birds? Or children laughing
Or water, ripened by stone,
So the grass becomes moist and the flowers dewy
Flowers and light
A lark singing,
And an apple blossom.
The flap of bird wings has
An echo of a mother’s kiss on her baby’s cheek
“Wilt thou be gone? That was not the lark!
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale,
Yon light is not daylight.”
Are those the ships that lost course
On the way to a harbor lamented by the winds?
Soldiers’ hands beckoning there
To a thousand Juliets on the dock,
“Goodbye, goodbye to those who don’t return.”
For a mother, all alone during fall
Behind the darkness, a tree stripped of her leaves
Whose songbirds have fled!

Birds? Or children laughing
Or water, ripened by stone,
Running over a bloodied corpse?
And a lark singing
For a dilapidated ruin?
No, children singing,
Their lives in a tyrant’s hands,
And rising over their sweet, pure songs
A far-off call,
“Old iron
And like the shadow of a hawk in open country—
When he strikes, like a passing blade,
Birds will sing out over the hills—
Thrown at the feet of innocent children,
A call in which I smell blood,
“Old iron
    Old iron!
Bullets.” As if the air
Were bullets, and as if the road
Were old iron.
Scattered about, like pickaxes,
The terrifying sound of the merchant’s steps.
Woe unto him! What does he want?
“Old iron
Woe unto you ill-omened merchant,
Who plunges into a stream of blood,
Who has no idea that what he’s buying
To stave off hunger and want from his own children
Are the very graves they’ll be buried in!
“Old iron
Old iron for a new death!


Who is all this iron for?
For a chain twisting around a wrist
A blade held to breast or vein
A key to the prison door for those that are not slaves
A noria that scoops blood.
Who are all these bullets for?
For miserable Korean children
Hungry workers in Marseille 
The people of Baghdad and the rest
Whoever wants to be saved
    I hear the merchant
And the laughing children,
And like the blade before the victim notices,
Like lightning scattered in my mind
Like a screen, like a wound gushing blood—
I see craters rumbling—
Filling the horizon—flames, and blood
Pouring down like rain showers, filling the expanse
Bullets and fire. The face of the sky
Scowls whenever iron shakes it
Iron and fire, fire and iron…
Then the impact, then the bomb!
Thunder everywhere,
Lifeless body parts, and the rubble of a home.
Old iron for a new battle
Iron… to level this waterless desert,
Where children drew in the sand
And where older folks thought it was safe.
As if the spark in the letters 
Is covered over by the darkness of caves,
With the hopes of the first man.
What picture did he inscribe on the stones,
Spurred on by death: is it a victory,
A longing for the best of worlds?
        Old Iron
Bullets…” To rid this road
Of pure tears of laughter,
Footsteps, and merry chants.
Who then, at sundown, will fill the house
With noontime warmth and wet clods of dirt?
The field blazes in the eyes of the tyrant.
The sunbaked ground of its remaining breaths
Circles the house at sundown
And its decrepit ruins.
“Old iron
    Old copper”
And the whistling sounds of fire.


“Iron, iron”
A mother sells the old bed,
She sells the iron upon which, only yesterday,
Lay a place where lovers met
And the sound of life’s origin rang out,
Arm in arm, so they would not tremble!
Alas, when tomorrow comes
Shrapnel sounds, and at the edge of the distance,
One arm surrenders the other
As the bed falls to pieces and the sparks go out

Was it there that lips met
Out of love, harmonizing with the thread of life,
Where Death weaves his black song
With blood and smoke? Does Death weave
A window of fire around houses
When boys and girls must die?
He turns even the iron bed frame,
Into a sin with jealous intentions,
And the hoarse voices of bullets
Are packed up in the
Tired and mercurial eyes of dolls.


“Iron, old, iron, iron”
Their bare feet
Are seashells clinking on a water wheel.
My mind has gotten used to—like far off thunder—
The din of footsteps, the crash of stones,
And the flicker of lamps in the mine,
What oozes out of naked backs,
And tasting blood in a cough!
Our tongues are filled with iron dust,
Silence rings out where church-bells did…
Far off car horns that
Children, playing bells at dawn,
Rush out to on a holiday
In the water there are shadows of a new bridge,
The norias whisper, and the farmers too.
In every field—like life beating on—
Plows swing to and fro in the heart of the soil.
The villages build
Villages—their mud made from the tyrant’s rotted corpse—
They make mortar from the tiniest pebbles,
And even the desert wastes give rise to
A city,
Another, and another, on and on!
“Iron… iron!”
Their bare feet,
And the flicker of lamps in the mine,
Its depths ribboned in black,
Like Death’s shadow—a gaping mouth
Like a well overflowing in darkness,
From which a thousand graves will be drawn
Blindness tumbles out of its darkness over 
Every light following a mighty jolt,
Over the light coming from the door of a lit-up hut,
From small windows in shepherds’ tents,
And from a balcony shaded by jasmine.
“I tell you, it was the nightingale,
Who doesn’t sing at dawn.”
Darkness tumbles over the light coming from the hearth of those staying up late talking,
Light from a path cleared by our tongues,
Over every light, winds sprinkle 
Shadows of tyrants in the mine,
Like a noria that scoops blood
The wind, the wind, the wind sprinkles them over
Cradles in the darkened playroom,
Flickers of lamps and the stars.
The din of footsteps and small hands,
The flap of butterflies, which the day passes by
With its obscured lamp.
Who then, at sundown, will fill the house
With noontime warmth and wet clods of dirt?
Bullets, iron, bullets, iron
Sighs of bereaved mothers, and a child with no home!
Who will make the land understand that the young
Are getting crowded in this cold pit?
If they ask it to let go and end up far from home
Then who will follow the straying cloud,
Amuse himself collecting seashells,
Make battle upon the riverbank,
And pounce on nests and birds?
Who will work at spelling—all throughout the day—
And who will lisp his “r’s” at his desk?
Who will fling himself on Father’s chest
When he returns from a hard day of work?
Who will chat with Mother? In every house,
A painful sorrow because the young are dying.
A sorrow from which I tasted streams of tears,
Burning hot and frothing in my mouth.
I sensed the blood flaring up
Into my eyes from the hemorrhaging of ribs.
Wailing from the far-off village,
And an old man calling out for a drowned boy,
On this path, on that one,
He finally reaches the empty bank,
Asking the waters about him
And he screams at the river… he calls out for a boy.
His dim lamp
Sings out in vain, its oil all dried up.
“Did you see that?”
He bends over the blackened page,
Staring into an unending sadness.
His eyes find nothing 
But his own sullen, saddened face.
Something ripples in the water,
Muttering, “No, there’s nothing to see.”


“Old iron and a new terror!
            For the tyrants
Want life to be cut 
Short, and for the slaves to never know
That the bread they eat
Is the bitterest of fruits
Or that the drink they wash it down with
Burns with the taste of blood
Or that life, life is in self-liberation.
They want them to deny what their eyes see:
For there is no threshing ground on the plains of Iraq,
No children playing at noontime,
No hum of a faraway mill.
The postman never knocks
With good news. No house
From which a lonely light brightens the darkness
Generous, like how a brook makes you laugh,
No lullabies, no bells
Ringing on a newborn’s leg
Or in the hills around goats’ necks
No hissing teapot on the fire
And no story to pass winter nights,
For the tyrants do not hear 
The birds sing at sundown—
Like gamblers clinking their chips together—
No procession of golden wheat.
For tyrants only carry 
Wares and stocks,
Tyrants hear
nothing but the clink of pennies and dirhams
Tyrants consider
The far-off shores of Asia
To be but a market for selling iron
Where wind and fire die down.
Favors abound for its conquerors.


We swear an oath by
Our children’s bare feet, by bread and health,
If we do not sprinkle the foreheads of tyrants
On these naked legs
Or melt the attack’s bullets
Into letters, guiding stars
(In every house, there is a book
That calls out: “Stop, and let the lances rust!”)
If we do not light up the dark villages,
Silence angry mouths,
And drive the aggressors out of Asia…
Our memory will be sullied
Or we shall damn the coming generations!

Peace to the whole wide world
To field, house, and office
To doll and textile factories
To nest, bird, and down,
To the berry, so sweet when plucked
At dusk oars row
Over a flower on a bride’s cushion
Over boys waiting for Father
Over a poet heating up suns
With his eyes while listening to a grasshopper.
Peace to the whole wide world
Peace to the Ganges, overflowing with blessings
Birdsongs ring out on its banks
The hospitality of one who squeezed out
The light from giant grapes there.
Peace to China, the farmers,
And tanned fishermen,
The blood of revolutionaries planted in the ground,
And what shines forth from the red flag
To boys in far off villages
In the shadow of their shining apple
And what maidens’ robes, on harvest nights, 
Dragged across the threshing floor.
Peace, for Spring
Passes through our valleys each year,
And the arc of clouds remains
Only with the gold they collected in Spring,
Do they stay lit up without day.
Millions hunger at its sides
As the harvest decreases every day. There is 
Blood on it coming from jugular veins, or mere flecks
Like specks of dust.
When mothers rock cradles 
By the abyss of shadowy graves,
Soldiers’ wives shed no tears
In sea or desert,
And the gray-haired farmer
Lifts no trembling hand to wipe his eyes.
He stares into the darkness of the storm,
Listening, he fears the bombs.
The father does not cry for the victims, his sons,
Out of worry he might bereave others of theirs
Nightmares of dead eyes
Do not scare off lovers’ sleep.
The wailing of a whistle cries out and
“Boom!” They regain consciousness under starless night,
No flash of light can be seen
Just the clank of weapons
And the raging wind.
No naive child left to ask his mother
If there are places without sky.
The rocket launchers of destiny do not change,
And shrapnel cannot fill up outer space.
Refugees are not favored over cockroaches, 
And eyes looked upon the blessings of Jaffa,
Which was taken by the usurpers
Urged on by thirsty spears,
What they rented from lying eyewitnesses,
And fortresses they clad in death.
Peace to the whole wide world
To east and west alike,
Peace to Avon, which filled the veins
Of Shakespeare, the flowers, and the waterwheel.
Wake up the poet of light, for sunrise
Is threatened by a darkening cloud
Under which Macbeth tried to hide,
For he does murder sleep,
The innocent sleep.
Peace to the Paris of Robespierre,
Éluard and the surreal,
Its lovers on the last night
Scattered by a dark power,
Like a vortex of hellfire.
To Tunisia, where a shadow surrounds its burning flame,
And around bloodied Rabat, there is a roar.
In the neighborhood of China
A defeat befalls its rough but ferocious herds,
Glory is yours, O Asia!
Peace to Venice and the Carnival
And its colorful, bright lights. 
Lovers whisper among the shadows
In the warmth of its moonlight.


Birds? Or children laughing,
Or water, ripened by stone?
Their bare feet
Are lights shimmering in the darkness
We rip apart the tyrant’s bunker with them,
And the useless caves of pitch-black night.
It’s up to us to do it, for this is all there is
Every holiday, the waterwheels 
Are spurred on by the wind… and my spirits lift up!
We overcome the dark ages,
Arriving at a world bathed in light
(Bullets, bullets, bullets, bullets
Old iron)…
For a new existence!

-translated from Arabic by Levi Thompson

Here is a link to the poem in the original Arabic.