Fatemeh Madani Sarbarani translates Ahmad Shamloo and Mehdi Akhavan Sales

I Am Still Thinking of That Raven by Ahmad Shamloo

I am thinking of that raven in the Yoush valleys:
With its black scissors 
over the blazed yellow of the grain field
intensely hissing
cutting a diagonal arc
from the opaque papery sky
And with its dry crackle 
                         saying something
to the near by mountains 
that the exhausted mountains
                         under the extreme sun 
in their stone heads
for a long time. 

Sometimes I ask myself:
                                                   a raven
with its heavy endless presence 
at the noon prayer time,
with its insistent sorrowful color 
flies over the blazed yellow of the grain field 
and passes over some poplars,
with that furious sound 
                         what does it have to say
to the old mountains
that these sleepy tired worshipers
in the summer noontime


In This Dead End by Ahmad Shamloo

They smell your mouth
To see if you have told anybody “I love you.”
They smell your heart
                              Such a strange world it is, Nazanin.

And love 
is whipped 
near the road barrier. 

                              We must hide love in the closet.

In this cold meandering dead end
                           with poetry and songs.
Don’t dare a thought.
                              Such a strange world it is, Nazanin.
Whoever knocks on the door in the night
wants to kill the light.
                              We must hide the light in the closet.

Then there are butchers
on the way
with bloody logs and whittles
                              Such a strange world it is, Nazanin.
And they suture a smile on the lips
and a song on the mouth.

                              We must hide passions in the closet.

Grilled canary 
on the Jasmine and Lily fire
                              Such a strange world it is, Nazanin.
The victorious devil
is celebrating our mourning
                              We must hide God in the closet!


Call For The Voyage by Mehdi Akhavan Sales

Like travelers in old tales
with shoulder-bags,
cane in their hands,
sometimes talking, sometimes mute,
walking that legendary foggy road—
we start our journey.

There are three roads. 
A different story is written above each gate.
The first is the way to comfort and happiness,
too scandalous, but leads to a town with gardens.
The second— half fame, half infamy,
sometimes noisy, sometimes silent.
The third one, no return, endless.

I am so gloomy here
and all the musical instruments sound harsh.
Let’s get ready.
Embark upon the road of no return.
See if the sky is the same color everywhere.

You know this journey is not to the sky,
to Mars, cruel murderer,
to Venus, joyful widow whore
who toasted Hafiz and Khayam
and danced cheerfully
and today toasts MacNiece and Nima
and tomorrow will toast someone other than us:
someone who doesn’t belong to this group or that,
someone who belongs to the godless plain where
thousands of stars die and fall on the ground
with each beat of my heart

Let this pure heaven
be the place for good people like Jesus and the like:
bad people like me 
never knew who their fathers were
and what was it they came for.
Let’s get ready,
and walk the road.

To the lands where
blood runs in my veins
like fire, alive,
not like this blood—old, dead, dark and sick
like a worm with no head or tail
inching along like a drunk 
into my infected withered veins
toward my heart, with chambers in dark curtains,
and asks with a weak voice:

Anybody home?

Hey, I’m talking to you. Anybody there?
Did anybody bring a message for me? a glance? Perhaps a smile?
A warm handshake? 
But there is no voice, no familiar light,
              not even a deadly look.
                           There is no voice but the crying of a dying candle
which is desperate, close to dawn and death.
Then he moves on to another chamber
hoping to inhale fresh air
but there is hashish and opium from a dervish 
who sings, “This world is old and ruined, shame on this Farhad murderer.”

And then he gets out, heading toward the shore.
After a boring exertion,
he goes back to the dark chambers and asks,
“Is anybody here?”
And he sees the same candle and the same whisper.
who asks you to stay here?
And you ask like that sick old man
“Oh, God in this dark night, where should I hang my ragged cloak?”

Let’s get ready,
and walk the road.
Where? Anywhere we can get to.
To the place where people say our sunset
paints the curtain of their dawn.
A golden flag in one hand, it says: it’s early.
A torch falling from the other hand, it says: it’s late. 

Where? Anywhere that we can get to.
To the place where people say
a bright city is born like flowers from the sea
and there are springs
where crystal flowers of poetry grow
and a man drinks from that saying,
“Why should we bother watering a garden 
that grows rosettes?”

To the place where people say there was a girl
              whose death (like Taras Bulba’s death, 
not like yours or mine) was another pure death.
Where? Everywhere that is not here. 
Here, I fear a caress as I fear torture,
I fear the slapper as I fear the slapped. 
I fear the image on the wall
that shows the Enemy,
with the monstrous whip of king Xerxes,
lashing madly, not the sea,
but my shoulders, my withered veins,
your living, my dead.

Let’s go 
to the meadow where nobody has sown or reaped, 
to the place where everything is virginal, untouched,
and has been like this from the beginning of time,
such a clean and pure place. 

Toward the happy sun of the desert
that doesn’t leave a patch not drenched with its hot blood.
And we sail our boats on the endless green and velvet sea
like almond shells
and we teach the white seagulls of the sail 
to embrace the wind
And we run fast sometimes, sometimes slow.

Come my sorrowful friend! You like me, sad and hopeless!
I am so gloomy here.
Let’s get ready, 
and walk the endless road.


Translator’s Note:

Ahmad Shamloo and Mehdi Akhavan Sales are the most influential poets of Persian modern poetry known as Nimayi. Their styles and languages are complex. Shamloo uses the traditional imagery that reminds us of the works of Persian poets like Hafiz and Omar Khayyám. Akhavan’s poetry maintains elements of rhyme and rhythm and explores new ways of utilizing them. His writing style combines the liberal approach of Nima Yushij, with the epic language of Ferdowsi. Sales’s Winter, is a good example for understanding the depth of his conviction. Both poets focus on the theme and employ beautiful images, similes, metaphors and symbols. 

Shamloo in the In This Dead End, uses themes like freedom and love to imply the dark repressive social and political situations of the society. He writes, 

They smell your mouth
To see if you have told anybody “I love you.”
They smell your heart
                             Such a strange world it is, Nazanin.

He reminds us that in this cruel world, love is the only remedy and a gate to freedom. For Shamloo, love will lead us to truth and enlightenment. Love means salvation, means life. Hence, this love is forbidden in this “strange world” and we must “hide it in the closet.” Nazanin in this poem means darling. It is also a name for girls in Iran. Here, the poet calls us Nazanin that shows his love and respect for us—the readers. 

Shamloo in his other poem, I Am Still Thinking of That Raven, brings modern poets in contrast to traditional poets through metaphors and symbols. Classical poets resist against the modern free verse. In this poem, Shamloo says that narrow-minded and prejudiced writers are “sleepy tired worshipers” that repeat their prayers in the summer noontime that even a raven’s croak does not wake them up. Raven symbolizes wisdom and knowledge; new ideas that to the classical poets sounds hoarse and unpleasant. “Still” in the poems implies the continuity of this confrontation in history.  

Akhavan is known for his epic poems and symbolism. He writes about social and political issues, his life in prison and the past. In Call For The Voyage, disappointed poet is inviting us to take a journey with him and walk the endless, unreturned road. This road doesn’t lead us to fame or comfort; It is a road to utopia. 

Where? Anywhere that we can get to.
To the place where people say
a bright city is born like flowers from the sea
and there are springs
where crystal flowers of poetry grow.

In this specific poem, he refers to the mythological and historical characters—Venus, Mars and Farhad—and famous poets and writers such as Hafiz, Khayyam, Fredrick MacNiece, Nikolai Gogol and Nima Yushij. 


Ahmad Shamloo (1925-2000), also known as A. Bamdad, was a Persian poet, writer, translator, and journalist. He was one of the most influential poets of Persian modern poetry known as Nimayi. His thirteen-volume Ketab-e Koucheh (The Book of Alley) is a major contribution to Iranian poetry. This volumes help us understand the Iranian folklore beliefs and language. He translated from French into Persian and his poems have been translated into a number of languages. He is also called “poet of liberty.”

Mehdi Akhavan Sales (1926 to 1991) was born in Mashhad, Iran. He studied engineering but worked as a teacher in Tehran, where he became involved in politics and was sent to prison in 1951. He mixed Persian classic with Nimayi free verse style. Although Akhavan Sales’s poetic career began as early as 1942, he did not acquire the degree of recognition until he published his third volume of poetry in 1956, called Zemestan (Winter). This volume placed him among the top Persian poets. A Call For The Voyage is from this volume. 

Fatemeh Madani Sarbarani is an Iranian translator, playwright, and dramaturge. She holds a Ph.D. in Theatre and Performance of the Americas from Arizona States University. She translates dramatic texts from Persian into English and Middle Eastern, Latin American and English plays into Persians. She is also a translator of Persian fiction and poetry. Fatemeh received a literary translation certificate from ASU’s School of International Letters and Cultures in 2017.

She translated into Persian two Argentinian plays The Walls and Antigona Furiosa by Geiselda Gambaro, an Iraqi play Baghdad Bathhouse by Jawad Al-Asadi, and I Am Yusuf and This Is My Brother by Amir Nizar Zuabi into Persian. Moreover, she translated an Iranian play, Tomb Dwellers, by Hossein Kiyani into English as a part of her PhD dissertation which was published by The Mercurian: A Theatrical Translation Review.




David Brunson translates Miguel Ortiz Rodríguez

The word city

The word city


an animal dust


A city is always



A city is born         shits        eats


            knows itself as fleshless bone

and tomb of all of the dead


In the word city

            there’s no real sign


The word city

            is always an extinct map

an outline of what it should be


The word city erects itself

            as a vertebral monument

            born of the same blood as the living

            a city like an immense jungle

            a house

            like a nest

            like a honeycomb

            about to be burned


La palabra ciudad

La palabra ciudad

esconde un polvo

inherente a lo animal


Una ciudad es siempre



Una ciudad nace       caga      come


           se sabe hueso pulcro

y sepulcro de todos los muertos


La palabra ciudad

           adolece de un signo real


La palabra ciudad

           es siempre un mapa extinto

un calco de lo que debía ser


La palabra ciudad se erige

           como un monumento vertebrado

           nacido de la propia sangre de lo vivo

           una ciudad como una inmensa selva

           una casa

           como un nido

           como un panal

           a punto de ser quemado


I already recognize myself

I already recognize myself

in the streets of Santiago

in the overwhelmingly contradictory nature

            of its blood,

certainly in its rebellion

           and its graffitied walls,

in the unforgivable speed

           of its busses,

in its ransacked

           or burned-down corners,

in its icy mornings

           and merkén.

I believe in Santiago

like I believe in myself,

            beast born

of indignity. I believe

in its thrushes, in

the tiuque’s caw

            resounding of summer,

in the canyon’s dawn

           with the river to wake us.  


Ya me reconozco

Ya me reconozco

en las calles de Santiago

en lo abrumadoramente contradictorio

           de su sangre,

por supuesto en la insurgencia,

           en sus paredes rayadas,

en la velocidad imperdonable

           de las micros

en sus esquinas ruinosas

            o incendiadas,

en las madrugadas heladas

            y el merkén.

Creo en Santiago

como en mí mismo,

            bestia nacida

de la afrenta. Creo

en sus zorzales, en

los graznidos del tiuque

             resonantes de verano,

en la amanecida en el cajón

             con el río para despertarnos.


Venezuela is currently facing the world’s second largest migratory crisis—over six million people have left the country over the past decade, pushed out by hyperinflation, violence, corruption, and democratic backsliding since Hugo Chavez first came to power. Many of those people have made their new home in Chile, with Miguel Ortiz Rodríguez among them. Of course, adapting to a new life in a new country can be difficult. Challenges arise from lack of documentation, xenophobia, trouble finding work, and differences related to language and culture. In Chile, these issues have been further compounded by the 2019 estallido social, when Chileans, protesting the economic and social legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship, took to the streets to demand a more dignified existence. However, these protests, alongside the pandemic, have led to economic instability. For many Venezuelans in Chile, the estallido social was reminiscent of political violence in Venezuela, characterized by a brutal police response and an uncertain economic future.   

These poems by Miguel Ortiz Rodríguez explore life in both Caracas and Santiago, putting the ideas of these cities—and the people that occupy them—into conversation. As an immigrant adapting to life in a new country, the poet is able to drift between an insider’s and an outsider’s perspective to explore the limits of the language that we use in our political and social discourses. He writes “The word city / is always an extinct map / an outline of what it should be.” The Platonic ideal of the language we use to describe the world rarely rises to the task of accurately depicting material reality. By referring to this gap in meaning, Ortiz’s work draws attention to the instability of both of the poet’s homes, of the promises made, but never realized by the leaders of both countries. In Venezuela, the promise of economic equality and Latin American independence fell to corruption and state-sponsored violence; in Chile, the post-dictatorship promise of democracy and opportunity has been undermined by an overly-privatized society that treats citizens as resources rather than people, thus widening the gap between the rich and poor.     

When systems—whether political or linguistic—fail, people rise up to fill the void. This can be seen in the popular protest movements of both Chile and Venezuela. Ortiz writes that “I already recognize myself / in the streets of Santiago / … / certainly in [the city’s] rebellion.” As migrants carve out lives between these spaces, Miguel recognizes that these spaces are, in fact, alive, that “The word city erects itself / as a vertebral monument,” that “is born     shits” and “eats.” The city, wherever it may be, is a living, pluralistic space that must include everyone, including those fighting for better lives. In Ortiz’s writing, at least, this hope has come to fruition: “I believe in Santiago / like I believe in myself / … . I believe /in its thrushes, in /the tiuque’s caw / resounding of summer, / in the canyon’s dawn / with the river to wake us.”


Miguel Ortiz Rodríguez (Caracas, 1993) holds a degree in Literature from the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello and has lived in Santiago, Chile since 2017. He is the author of the chapbook Lengua de ángel/Angeltongue (above/ground press, 2017, Canada). His poetry has appeared in various anthologies, such as Una cicatriz donde se escriben despedidas (Libros del Amanecer, 2021, Chile) and Amanecimos bajo la palabra (Team Poetero, 2017, Venezuela). His poems have also been published in literary magazines such as Furman 217 and Revista Grifo, among others. In 2017, he was named a finalist in Duende’s literary translation contest.

David M. Brunson has an MFA in Poetry and Literary Translation from the University of Arkansas. His poems and translations have appeared in or are forthcoming from Mānoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing, Booth, Waxwing, DIAGRAM, On the Seawall, Split Rock Review, The Bitter Oleander, Nashville Review, Asymptote, Copper Nickel, Washington Square Review, and elsewhere. He is the editor and translator of A Scar Where Goodbyes Are Written: The Poetry of Venezuelan Migrants in Chile, forthcoming from LSU Press.




Kate Webster translates Ilona Wiśniewska

from Ice People (Lud. Z grenlandzkiej wyspy)

The journey to Uummannaq takes thirty-three hours and twelve minutes. The plane from Copenhagen flies to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland’s biggest airport, which is both a hub for arrivals and a waiting area for those travelling farther afield. In Kangerlussuaq, a windless -28ºC greets you with a slap on the cheeks, and the icy sun stamps them red.

Greenland, or Kalaallit Nunaat (‘land of the Greenlanders’ – kalaaleq means Greenlander), is politically part of Europe, but geographically part of North America. The world’s largest island, eighty percent covered in ice and inhabited by just over 56,000 people, is divided into five municipalities: Sermersooq (‘place of much ice’), Qeqqata (‘the Centre’), Kujalleq (‘the South’), Qeqertalik (‘the one with islands’), and Avannaata (‘the North’), where Uummannaq is located. Avannaata has an area of over 520,000 square kilometres and a population big enough – at just over 10,000 – that most of the benches in the waiting room and outside the small airport are occupied. By the entrance there’s a sign showing how long it takes to reach various places. Ten hours to Tokyo, five hours forty minutes to Rome, just three and a quarter hours to the North Pole. Given that the shape of Greenland is said to resemble a polar bear, from the thighbone in Kangerlussuaq to the front right paw in Uummannaq it’s only four hundred kilometres in a straight line, even though the trip takes twenty hours.

The helicopter to Uummannaq accounts for the last twelve minutes.

In the queue to board I meet Ann, the director of the children’s home, who suggests we stick together. A few hours later I’m picking up scattered children’s shoes, and at nightfall the moon is the only thing I recognise in the landscape outside the window.


No one here has been waiting for you and they probably won’t miss you either.

You’re just one of the many people they encounter for short periods of time, so they don’t get too attached.

Don’t you get attached either, because you’ll hurt both them and yourself.

Sit down to eat when the others sit down.

Get up when everyone’s finished eating.

We’re hiring you because we’ll be able to send the children on holiday with the money we save.

Don’t forget, you can’t be on your own with them.

And write, but not about our children. 

End of health and safety briefing.


Following the snowstorm that cut Uummannaq off from the rest of Greenland for two days, Karin, a Danish teacher, arrives on the island. It’s the day of the funeral for a teenager who killed himself a few days before. Karin was his caseworker for two years at the children’s home in Tasiilaq, eastern Greenland, where the boy had been sent from Uummannaq due to concerns about his mother.

Everyone knew him here, so the children’s home hosts the kaffemik, the traditional gathering for any occasion, attended by everyone in the town. The tables are laden with Greenlandic food – most importantly, mattak, raw whale skin as hard as cartilage, cut into cubes or sliced directly from the carcass. Mattak is rich in vitamin C, which is why there’s no history of scurvy in this part of the world. Dried whale and seal meat and all kinds of fish are also served, everything sprinkled copiously with salty Knorr flavouring and washed down with Coca-Cola or Faxe Kondi, the Danish equivalent of Sprite. Alongside the meats, a variety of cakes and sweets are laid out. The most important thing is that there’s a lavish spread, enough for everyone. The door is open, no need to knock or announce your arrival. The kaffemik lasts long enough for everyone to show their face. You can stay as long as you want. Some come for a few hours, others have barely touched the food before they’re saying goodbye. There’s no obligation to talk to the person sitting next to you. They say it’s impolite to impose yourself on your neighbour, even if all you’re doing is introducing yourself. To make it easier to find the right address (the buildings in Uummannaq are numbered not according to their position on the street, but the order in which they were built), flags are hoisted outside the house hosting the gathering. White and red with a circle of inverse colours in the middle, symbolising the sun – white and absent in the winter, red and ever-present in the summer. Greenlanders have only had their own flag since 1985, but its colours still reference the many years of Danish rule. The flagpoles are taller than the trees here.

During the kaffemik in sky-blue house number 1451, Karin listens to the musical performance with her head buried in her arms. A little while later, she’s perched in the bedding storage room, where we can talk in peace. She’s thirty years old. She talks in a whisper, but not so that no one can hear her. It’s more of a habit that everyone picks up after being in this part of the world for a long time.


“Lots of my patients end their lives by suicide. In psychiatry there’s a difference between those who threaten to kill themselves and those who just do it. People who are suicidal don’t ask for help. We get the most cases on Fridays and Saturdays,” says Henrik, one of two doctors in the local hospital, which has seventeen beds.

According to Greenland’s main newspaper ‘Sermitsiaq’, forty-seven people took their own lives in Greenland in 2016, ten more than in 2015 (in 1987, there were a record sixty-nine suicides). Thirty-five were male and twelve were female. The fact that increasing numbers of young people, especially men and boys, are killing themselves is a cause for concern. Half the people who died by suicide in Greenland in 2016 were between the ages of ten and thirty. It is said that the longstanding division of gender roles requires men to be indomitable and brave, and not to show their feelings, so many choose a solution that gets the attention of their loved ones, at least momentarily. “Men are like puppies that have slept on the ice since birth,” I hear as soon as I arrive. “If they survive, they stand a chance in life.” Henrik and I met at the kaffemik on the day of the funeral. He was on duty when the boy shot himself. In his free time, the doctor is a musician, so he played the accordion at the wake.

In mid-March, the night begins to move south, and in the late evening the sun projects silent films on the icebergs. The birds are already flying north, but it’ll be at least another two weeks before they arrive here. Beyond Henrik’s windows the white sea stretches to the horizon; a taxi drives along it in one direction, two scooters in the other. The doctor remembers a time when only dog sleds traversed the ice.

“Growing up in Uummannaq was the most important thing that’s happened in my life. I graduated in medicine for the sole purpose of returning here,” he tells me. “My father was a doctor too, that’s why we were living here. It was 1962. I was eight years old.”

Henrik is now a well-groomed sixty-three. We speak in Norwegian.

“At school we were split into Danish-speaking and Greenlandic-speaking classes. Our class had six pupils, theirs had twice as many. At home we had a Greenlandic kiffaq, a maid who looked after me and my siblings. We made friends with Greenlanders, we wore Greenlandic fur clothing, we spoke Greenlandic, but even when we were young, we could already see big differences between us. We lived practically the same as people in Denmark, in big houses with running water, while our friends were crammed into small houses, which were certainly warmer than ours because of the coal stoves in the middle, but you couldn’t live like that for long.”

Henrik is sitting on the sofa in a rented house, two blocks from the children’s home. There are no particular comforts here – the furniture is worn, the walls grey, the linoleum slippery. It’s clear he’s made himself at home here over the past year, because neither the dust nor the dirty windows bother him.

“Why did your homes have fences?” I ask. 

“It was protection from the dogs. They’d sometimes kill children who fell over, so our parents were terrified for us, especially since a neighbour’s child had actually been torn to pieces. We respected the dogs out of fear. Whenever we went somewhere new, we’d carry a stone with us. We’d throw it if they came too close.”

Henrik’s stories are accompanied by long, drawn-out howls. Just a few decades ago, every family in Uummannaq had dogs. Nowadays, for the 1,300 people there are around 1,500 dogs, and that number is falling. Greenland is a modern country; yet it’s clear when you look out the window that the island is far from the established centre of the world, so transport has to pick up pace too. The relationship between the size of your sled dog team and your social status still holds in the far north. A thousand kilometres south things are different, even though the children still learn to mush from a young age, and it’s common to see youngsters running around the streets of Uummannaq swishing sealskin whips.

Even more common are the brown circles in the snow, trampled down at chain’s length. On the periphery of each circle several layers of frozen dog poo have accumulated, the contents of their guts on display. The smaller piles closer, the larger ones further from the dog’s nose. The excreted dry food, the urine and the dogs’ fur are all the same shade of rotten hay. The dogs gnaw away at these remnants methodically, though it’s unclear what system they’re implementing – fresh first, or frozen. 

Nothing is wasted here.

The dogs have kennels on the land. The ones that pull sleds spend a few months a year out on the ice. They establish a hierarchy amongst themselves by force, but they submit to the humans. That’s how it is here. Greenlanders only give names to selected dogs. Dog sledding is the traditional way of travelling off-road, because the animals alert people to polar bears, are resistant to cold and hunger, and if necessary, they can be used as food themselves. From the beginning of my time in Uummannaq, I’m told that these close relatives of the wolf are work tools, not friends. Nobody lives an easy life here; nature is stripped of all sentimental attachment, towards both animals and people.

And everything is done for a reason.

The fact that aggressive puppies are killed because they won’t run well in the sled dog team. Just like any team, no one – including the humans – can be scared of the other members.

The fact that the hierarchy between man and dog is established by force. But if a kick needs to be dealt, it’s aimed at the ribs rather than the flesh, because the dog has to be healthy and in good shape.

The fact that the dogs are driven using a whip. It’s cracked on one side to turn the sled in the opposite direction.

The fact that there are no kennels on the ice, so the dogs will grow good quality fur and survive the winter. And the fact that when they die, their fur is used to make trousers or gloves.

And also the fact that dead dogs are either burned or dumped in the rubbish.

The dogs’ whines, the only sound on an island frozen in a silent sea, bore into my head and cause physical pain. It gets to me the most at night, after waking suddenly, or just before falling asleep. In the howls I can hear the crying of old people or untuned instruments. After yet another night spent with my ears pricked, an idea comes to mind: the fishing blowholes that riddle the sea. Diameter too small for a person, but a dog would fit.

“The barking is the sound of my childhood. The dogs don’t howl out of hunger anymore,” explains Henrik. “Back then they were always hungry, and they ate each other. If you had a puppy, you had to keep it in a pen, because if you forgot to close your gate the adult dogs would get in straight away and kill it. We had dogs as well. Everyone did. My father would drive the dog sled to patients in the neighbouring villages. I remember the moment we had to leave. I can barely talk about it, even today. I’d rather have died than return to Denmark,” he recalls.

After the family’s return, they settled in an upscale district on the outskirts of Copenhagen. Henrik remembers overhearing adults’ conversations in which Greenlanders were referred to as primitive, lazy and intellectually disabled.

“To make matters worse, I ended up in a Danish school with a thousand children. It was all control and discipline – three minutes for this, two for that. We had to walk in pairs, hand-in-hand on the flat pavement, and watch out for cars. I was a bit too perverse for my peers,” he admits with a laugh. “In Denmark everything was stuffy, but in Greenland you grew up around sex. My best friend and I always used to lie down together, studying our penises, and that seemed completely natural to me. The Greenlander way of thinking was simple, the same as it is today. Here, sex is like food, it’s spoken about with no unnecessary tension, it’s practised openly. My friends didn’t understand who I was, and I didn’t understand their way of thinking. At school they were always talking about football or TV programmes, but in Uummannaq there was no TV and we didn’t play football.”


“The essence of our life is chaos,” says Ann the next day. “If you want to adapt, be patient and treat the constant changes as an attempt to live the Greenlandic way. Nobody grows attached to places here, people have always been ready to move on.” She hands me the keys to the house I’ll be living in. It’s the third this week. “Oh, and the fridge is full.”

Since the session with Lars, the Danish alternative therapy expert who helped me untangle some of my behaviour patterns and shed some light on my childhood diagnosis, she keeps checking to make sure I’m not hungry. She has diabetes too, she knows what to watch out for. The key ring says number eleven. It must be one of the old houses in the centre. When we get there, I discover it’s the one with two doors. The key fits the Greenlander entrance, but after clearing the snow, it turns out the door is unlocked.

The yellow house with green shutters is both elegant and neglected. The owner travels often, so when he’s away he rents it out to those in need of somewhere to stay, most of whom won’t return here. They leave the toilet blocked and mould in the fridge. The fence surrounding the building is tall; you can’t see the interior of the property, nor the plastic bags strewn in front of the entrance, ignored by the rubbish collectors. The decorations on the rafters evoke a ship that was due to sail further north but got stuck in the ice. From the stern you enter the kitchen and defunct laundry room, and from the bow you reach a living room the size of two Greenlandic dugouts. The upstairs corridor is lined with musty carpet, a row of colourless furniture against the wall. The wardrobes are empty, there’s no clean bedding, only slept-in sheets smelling of greasy hair and insomnia. The corridor leads to two bedrooms. In the first, the floorboards creak in the corners, there’s a scattering of withered dead flies, and a sturdy hook hangs above the bed. In the second, there’s a door to a bathroom with a bathtub, where insects awoken by the sun are beating against the window with a view over the chains and dogs in the distance.

Time probably stopped in this house just as the Danish doctor’s son was developing the restlessness that would last him a lifetime. Downstairs I find boxes filled with furniture, quotes about happiness and a flat screen TV.

I watch the Sunday summary of the week’s news on KNR, in Greenlandic with Danish subtitles.

Politics: The local government election campaign is underway; after the main news there will be a debate between representatives of the major parties.

Environment: The polar bears have arrived. Three have been killed in the last week.

Culture: Greenlandic artist Julie Hardenberg has presented two new pieces – a Greenlandic flag covered in fair hair and a Danish flag covered in black hair – which have provoked a lively discussion about relations between the two nations.

Society: According to the latest report, there has been no improvement in youth welfare. Parents are still abusing alcohol and hashish. The Minister for Children spent a month in Kujalleq district and has expressed concern. She is recommending the equal treatment of youngsters from urban and rural backgrounds.

Health service: An increasing number of complaints are being made by patients regarding the lack of specialists and unsuitable medicines available in the hospitals.

Weather: Warmest in the south (-7ºC), coldest in the north (-28ºC).

Adverts: Fashionable glasses, eyelash extensions, a helpline for victims of domestic violence (‘Violence doesn’t solve problems. Violence creates problems. We’ll help you solve them. Give us a call’), and a springtime campaign for Air Greenland with a competition entitled Takuss, meaning ‘see you’.

In the evening, when the red rays of the sun are still illuminating the heart-shaped mountain, the lights come on in town. Through the kitchen window I can see boys playing football in the car park in front of Pilersuisoq grocery store. The pitch is white and slippery, the ball green, the players are wearing trainers and no gloves and shooting into a makeshift Euro Pallet goal. The thermometer on the window shows -22ºC. Every now and then, a car cuts across the pitch from the petrol station towards the two fuel pumps, or some men appear offside carrying canisters for scooter fuel. In the morning they’ll open up the shop, where only three buttons work on the produce weighing scales: white and red onions and potatoes. Within a few weeks, even those vegetables will run out.

I wonder what former tenants saw from here. Maybe building number one, which is nowhere to be found, was where the shop is now? Was my predecessor only warm from the knees up too? Based on what Henrik said, homes were heated with coal and there wasn’t enough heat for the whole building. As I watch a hazelnut rolling across the floor, I wonder if the house was uneven from the start or grew contorted because of the permafrost and irregular occupancy. Who has spent more time here, Greenlanders or Danes? What’s the purpose of the window in the wall that looks like a post hole, and what used to hang on the hook upstairs? My train of thought is interrupted by the football thudding against the wall. I run outside to give it back, the boys return to their game without a word, and I return to heating water, because the hot water from the tap was only enough to cover the bottom of the bathtub. Five saucepans later, lying in the tub, I can hear the ball bouncing off the walls repeatedly, but I’ve left the gate open.


Translator’s Note:

In the spring of 2017, Ilona Wiśniewska, a Polish writer, reporter and photographer, spent three months living in Uummannaq, a small town on the central-western coast of Greenland. Ice People is a work of literary reportage based on her time there, a riveting account of the people she met and what they taught her about Greenland, and about herself. 

The basis for Wiśniewska’s trip is a volunteer placement at a children’s home in Uummannaq. With a population of around 1,300 people, Uummannaq is situated on a small, rocky island just off the coast of the mainland, separated by a strip of sea that freezes over during the winter. The scene is set with a description of the two springs that residents recognise annually – the first spring, when the temperature rises to -20ºC, is when the sun returns. The second spring is when the ice melts and the sea returns. 

In a poetic and reflective manner, Wiśniewska recounts snippets of day-to-day life, exploring both the common and individual viewpoints and beliefs of the islanders, as well as broader topics, such as the importance of nature and the various socio-political challenges of life in the region, including the repercussions of Greenland’s colonisation by Denmark beginning in the 18th century. 

The poignancy of the stories reported in this book is enhanced by the introspective nature of the author, which comes through in her descriptions of others, and of herself. Several times throughout the book, Wiśniewska jumps to a point in the future, usually to describe an occasion when she meets one of her friends from Uummannaq again after she’s left. She uses this ‘time travelling’ technique to reflect on the most salient aspects and lessons she took from her time in Greenland. Near the end of her stay, as the temperature warms, she contemplates the fact that the thinner the ice gets, the more notes she has for her book, and yet the less she is able to write.

Translating this excerpt of Wiśniewska’s book was a real joy, a creative tightrope walk of grappling with the author’s sparse, succinct language while seeking out suitable formulations to faithfully represent her poetic descriptions. The Polish text is peppered with Kalaallisut words and phrases that embellish the images and scenarios she recounts, and it felt only right to retain these terms in the English translation.

Few literary reportage books are written about Greenland, and the majority of those that are focus on the ice, the wilderness, climate change and other ‘bleak’ aspects of this region. Without overlooking these topics, Wiśniewska’s account very much highlights the warmth, community-mindedness and positive outlooks of the people she meets. Her subtle descriptions of the experiences and conversations she shares with co-workers, locals and other foreigners living in the town offer the reader a way into the mindset, values and traditions of people in this part of the world and a fascinating glimpse of life in a society and climate that for many people will be both unfamiliar and unimaginable.

This translation has been made possible by funding from the Polish Book Institute’s Sample Translations Programme.


Ilona Wiśniewska is an author, reporter, and photographer. She was born in southern Poland and currently lives in northern Norway. Ice People is her third reportage book set in Northern Europe. It was nominated for the prestigious Ryszard Kapuściński Award for Literary Reportage in 2018 and awarded the Mayor of Lublin’s Crystal Card for Polish Reportage in 2019.


Kate Webster is a translator of literature from Polish to English. Her translations include For Life by Marta Kisiel (in The Big Book of Modern Fantasy, 2019) and The Map by Barbara Sadurska (forthcoming, 2022). She is based in London.