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The Barbarians

by Keki N. Daruwalla

We are your barbarians, Constantine,
the ones your roving spyglass,
curving across the Alexandrian skyline
like a lighthouse beam,
looked out for.

You scoured the past—
Nero, Ptolemy, the Ionian gods.
But your beam lit upon
only our absence:
the tide that never came in,
the cavalry whose horse hooves
had been stolen.

In the end your senators
found we weren’t coming.
Under the arcades, in the thickets of time
you lost us. While the West waited,
we sailed eastwards to Gujarat.

It’s not your fault
that you call us barbarians,
for you got the word as a hand-me-down
from your ancestors.

We see the point—you needed
a dark hemisphere against
your hemisphere of light, as you saw it.
The dark was what you didn’t understand;
and it vanished like a continent
that has broken away.

We talked of the ongoing war
between good and evil
and we rooted for the good.
We sent the tribes back
from the waters of Babylon
to white-stoned Jerusalem.
We adored fire and believed in one God
(not that belief in one
is necessarily superior
to a belief in many).
Our dispensation was fair
between man and woman
tribe and tribe, people and people.

It is not that the barbarians won’t be coming.
The point, Cavafy, is
there never were any barbarians.