Safia Elhillo is a Sudanese poet based in Washington, DC. She is one of the two winners of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize.

In just three years of being in existence, the £3000 prize has become a training ground of sorts for Africa’s poetry stars. The first winner of the prize, Warsan Shire, went on to serve as London’s Young Poet Laureate.

If her winner poem is anything to go by, Elhillo is set to be a major voice in African writing.

Her poem “Quarantine With Abdelhalim Hafez” is strikingly beautiful, but it also shows us that in contemporary African poetry, there is a culture of experimentation.

Congrats to Elhillo!


“Quarantine With Abdelhalim Hafez”

the lyrics do not              translate
arabic     is all verbs      for what stays
still          in other languages
تصبح         to morning       what the
translation      to awake      cannot
honor cannot contain its rhyme with
تسبح      to swim        t        to  make
the night a body               of water

i am here now & i cannot morning
i am twenty-three        & always
sick      small for my age & always
translating          i  cannot sleep
through the night

no language       has given me the
rhyme              between ocean &
wound         that i know to be true
sometimes          when the doctors
draw my useless blood          i feel
the word     at the tip of my tongue

halim sings     أعرق              araq
I am drowning      i am drowning
the single word    for all the water
in his throat       does not translate

halim sings    teach me to kill the
tear in its duct         halim sings
i have no experience      in love
nor have i a boat      & i know he
cannot rest               cannot swim
through the night

i am looking     for a  voice    with
a wound in it      a man who could
only have died           by a form of
drowning            let the song take
its  time            let the ocean close
back up

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I'm finishing up a phd at Duke University where I study African novels, which I believe are some of the loveliest things ever written. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

6 Responses to “The Quirky African Poem We Can’t Stop Reading | Quarantine With Abdelhalim Hafez | by Safia Elhillo” Subscribe

  1. Basit 2015/05/22 at 10:36 am #

    Awww…now this is pure beauty. Those words. Oh, those words. They are bigger than every compliment my head could think of.

  2. fred joiner 2015/05/27 at 7:48 am #

    This is the caliber of poetry i expect to see on this site. Safia has always been a gifted writer. Congrats to her and her hard work.

  3. Lucy 2015/05/28 at 1:48 pm #

    This beautiful poem sung by Abdel Haleem Hafiz was actually written by the great Syrian poet, Nizar Qabbani. His other work is amazing too. Haleem sung a few songs from it. Kazem el Saher has sung many of his best songs from Qabbani’s work, and Magda El Roumi has sung some of his work also.
    Love Elhillo’s poem, thanks for sharing!

  4. Hadiza Muhammad 2016/02/20 at 8:57 am #

    It is superb.


  1. “cannot swim through the night” | blue milk - 2015/05/28

    […] gorgeous poem from Safia Elhillo. a wound in it      a man who could only have died           by a form of […]

  2. The Kingdom of Gravity | The Poem That Made Nick Makoha Africa’s Award Winning Poet | Brittle Paper - 2015/06/16

    […] poem was recently posted here on Brittle Paper to the acclaim of our readers.  [Click HERE if you missed […]

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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