Exotic

By Humeirah Ougradar

They love everything about us, but us,
burning their skin the colour we’ve tried to scrub away
guzzling stomach ache-inducing imitations of our delicacies
shimmying in their cardboard way to eastern strains
garbed in gaudy reams of costume with the wrong shoes
appropriating the jewels, henna-handed
thinking it all quite jazzy
entrenched in our traditions
while their grass is greener than our deserts
they love everything about us, but us.

Boys’ Summer Nights

By Nadim El Choufi

Far from our houses
we made home of
hands intertwined

stomping the grounds of Lebanon
to hear the mountains moan
the echo of our love.

Too infinite to be contained
by the night skies above

we became gods on earth
to be seen only through
the reflection of our eyes.

And we danced in circles
more sacred than a dervish
whirling to find God.
We found each other
every shoulder blade
a wing winced
of love taught
down to us
by fathers and sons
like fruits and flies

pure until the touch
of their own skin

in the open
boy and boy
every touch
a shadow renounced
to become its own light
every dance
unlearning
the last step
we soared
we became men

Caesar

By Hazem Fahmy

Dante’s Purgatorio, Canto 6, Line 112: Come, see your Rome who, widowed and alone, weeps bitterly; both day and night, she moans: “My Caesar, why are you not at my side?”

1
In the Middle East we have our own term for dictatorship. We call it: “الدولة العميقة”, the “Deep Nation”.

Deep as in a rotting root stretched throughout the soil that feeds you.

Deep as in a cancerous spine holding your diseased body together.

Deep as in poetry, like an ode to Stockholm Syndrome, to a father who lullabies you to bed before reaching under the covers.

Americans ask me why Arabs love dictators and I say abusive relationships are hard to get over.
When Mubarak fell back in 2011, Cairo couldn’t help but cry, sent him a text message: اسفين يا ريس. Please come back.

Virtually every Arab country has been under a brutal regime since the fifties.

My country has only known men who express their love with boot heels and batons. You try and imagine the trauma of a nation black-eyed from its own fist, the self-hate that comes with seeing your own body eat itself.

Forgiveness on a national scale is no easy feat.

It is realizing that your body cannot be blamed for what has been done to it. It is realizing that dictatorship is an STD that can’t be passed consensually.

It grows and blisters on the testicles of men who see the world as their oyster, men who fuck the oyster senseless, hand it lemons for its sores, tell it to make lemonade and move on, says there is no place here for terrorists when it tries to move on.

2
In Connecticut, I turn on the television and see Wolfe Blitzer’s wide eyes gazing in wonder at me, see Megyn Kelly flick her lustrous hair and ask me what’s wrong with my country.
As if we asked for it, as if every Arab nation got down on one knee with ring and bouquet, smiled at the bruises, laughed at the cigarette burns. As if this wasn’t an arranged marriage decades in the making.

As if you weren’t a bored matchmaker who just wanted to see what would happen, a child playing with matches then gasping at the fire. Grows up to be a fireman. Has us pay to put out the flames. Marvels at how fast a brown body can burn, puts that shit on CNN. Tells you to look at how bad of an example these people are setting for their children.
Americans ask me why Arabs can’t just choose democracy and I tell them it is not as simple as a break up song.

Egypt will not wake up tomorrow and make a new Spotify playlist. Even if it does, you will not listen.

Even if you do, it will be in the background of a house party. You will drink your Miller High Life and toast to freedom, how intoxicating its taste is.

You will remind yourself that Muslims don’t drink alcohol. You will wonder why it is they shut themselves out of the world.

White Americans talk about democracy like it’s a bag of seeds you buy at Home Depot, sprinkle across your backyard before freedom grows fully bloomed from the soil, petals red and blue outstretched.

They talk like all soil is the same.

Like every seed comes with a 100% satisfaction sticker, guaranteed to give you a luscious plant.

They forget how one strain of unwanted plant can kill an entire farmland. They forget that some seeds give you strange fruit. They forget that we have been planting our own crops for over seven thousand years.

3
There’s a reason self-love is tied to revolution, it’s a two way street.

In the right context, the word radical can be applied to anything from an uprising to a selfie.

If nothing else, they both state: I am worth preserving.

Forgiveness is no easy feat.

The Middle East is still moaning. Cairo is still waiting for Caesar, still looking to the words of a dead white man for self-validation. But my people are still a body, which is to say, I am a white blood cell, which is to say, the virus has not yet won, which is to say: حلوة بلادى السمرة, بلادى الحرة. أنا على الربابة بغنى. مملكش غير إنى أغنى و أقول تعيشى يا مصر.

white dog

By Shadab Zeest Hashmi

reaches my chin and has a twin as white as my baby sister’s ash as white as that mirror lying flat on the funeral bed in the verandah for us to go around its glare as white as the sash the bribe the bonus the paper not signed for peace in one country then another and another so dog yes bite the ears that hear the endless lie resigned to mind becoming myth bite the eye that saw ruin for room in a house bent like whip-cracked spine bite the tongue no bird envied bite the voice under the weight of all your white

to the four languages I speak: Arabic (pt. 1)

By Zoha B. Khan

When I was born, they poured Arabic into my ear,
jug-mouth to the bowl of my ear, thick and
rich and ornate, honey-sound,
the nurse-maiden with breasts heavy with Islam, my holy milk.
She is a poet’s tongue and though I am the lover
of another, I am duty-bound to admire her form, the languor
of her curves, to savor
the way her words land from fall, carpeted by their own whorls,
how they slip between my fingers, silk
stretched taut, Pashmina-ink through the rose-gold-ring of
my mouth, curling in my throat,
ballooning into sound as I breathe my voice into the alphabets,
that unfurl and coil their tails over the page,
their diamond-eyes watching, the regal swoop of the kajal,
their generous, matronly curves and open, laughing smiles, lazy discipline
in quiet control.
Sultry, the lascivious hijabi, rendered sensual by her very restraint, sinuous
within her confines,
I pull her into a dance.
She lets me twirl her around, both snake-watchful and panther-loose-limbed
sunned by my attention, spinning a maze around
my pen.
Arabic, a mystery to all who speak her, changing form from tongue
to tongue like a djinn;
Arabic, drunk under the niqab, champagne made dream made sound
made a poet’s fever dream.

Iman Humaydan’s The Weight of Paradise, a story of memory, violence, and the elusiveness of homeland

“The homeland that killed us in its name”
Fiction Book Review
by Eman M.A. Elshaikh

Iman Humaydan’s latest novel The Weight of Paradise is a poignant evocation of the fight to defend and restore memory through the cyclical violence, exile, and suffering which seeks to annihilate it. Set mostly in Beirut in 1978 and 1994, the story lives “in the heart of the apocalypse” during the Lebanese Civil War and also emerges from its debris, struggling to piece itself together into an authentic whole. In this Beirut, even small distances are difficult to traverse, as the paths are encircled with violence or buried beneath its aftermath.

“Reconstructing, reconstruction,” laments Sabah, a central character who ties together and ruptures the narrative at different points. “Every day on radio and television they talk like this, too. Maybe they want to build and construct so that people will forget.”

Indeed, the novel feels like a rejection of forgetting, as the characters in their own ways are obsessed with retrieval. The novel interrogates memory and its antagonists masterfully. It probes the process of destruction and reconstruction and the ways in which they are irretrievably bound up in death, violence, and historical revisionism. In doing so, it is an unflinching portrayal of the violence that lives alongside the characters, who “had become skilled at managing their lives in its shadow.”

Humaydan intertwines the story of Maya, a recently widowed writer and mother who returns to Beirut from Paris in 1994 following her husband’s passing, with the stories Maya finds forgotten in a suitcase in an abandoned building. In the suitcase, Maya finds Noura, Kemal, and Sabah, and she instantly becomes obsessed with unpacking their history through their photographs, letters, and diaries.

She seeks out the eccentric but heart-breaking Sabah, an older woman living alone in the old Beirut neighbourhood of Khandaq al-Ghamiq, waiting for her disappeared husband to return and tending to her small garden, even through bombs and gunfire. Living virtually as a recluse, she initially meets Maya with hesitation, but ultimately tells Maya about Noura and Kemal’s lives as well as her own.

Sabah’s stories and recollections provide Maya with the connective tissue that brings Noura and Kemal’s story together. She learns about Noura’s self-imposed exile from Damascus after a tragedy in her family and how this exile becomes permanent once Noura starts writing the truth about what happened. She learns about the violence that follows such truths and will stop at nothing to silence them. She learns about Kemal, Noura’s lover in Istanbul, and the fragile life they try to build together. But these stories and their tellers are often treacherous, and Maya, like Noura, fights to save truth from oblivion.

Humaydan’s main achievement with this novel, which is full of despair and yet buoyed with a promise of love and hope, is in allowing the reader to “enter history through countless endless gates,” and in doing so, reread history. It imbues the narrative with a subtle promiscuity that disrupts even the reader’s own recollection. In doing so, it forces us to confront the silences and lacunas in our stories and how they can both ruin us and save us. It is also a meditation on the dangers of invented memory and the need to bear witness always. This force is present even in the sweet love story between Noura and Kemal. In her diary, Noura writes, “with him, my doubts about history books started to gain power and take on new meaning.”

Humaydan writes in a poignant and confessional voice, which shines most brightly in the pages of Noura’s diary and the letters from Kemal, where they write about loss, violence, and lost homelands. They trace their wounds together and look for origins and resting places. In their histories, one finds Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, and Turks and the lands that shift and subsume them under violent nations, lamenting “the homeland that killed us in its name” and yet finding fragments of homeland scattered everywhere.

Though these deliberations on homeland and its erasure are thoughtful, there is also a questionable sense that the violence and oppression of the Middle East are somehow primordial or inevitable. The various scenes, in Damascus, Beirut, and Istanbul, are seemingly always engulfed by death and violence. In these places, both the repressive state and its resistors, both communists and capitalists alike are irrationally cruel. A looming tyrannical government occludes all individuals, who are anonymous, interchangeable, and sublimated within classes or sects. It threatens to destroy indiscriminately and without reason. Government actors, like the ubiquitous and senseless “mukhabarat” are equally anonymous and robotic, incapable of poetry and truth. Though the novel is committed to history, these places seem to exist outside of it.

Perhaps this indictment of these societies as irretrievably violent is in fact an indictment of men, who in the novel are either absent or violent. Even the boys in the novel attain masculinity through violencing women, who in turn “retaliate against oppression by oppressing themselves.” In this novel, men push women out of their homelands, punishing them for their desires and their consciousness. “Oppression pushes women to emigrate, to flee,” Noura writes, “it’s the kind of oppression that often comes in the form of a man.” Indeed, Kemal, who was dressed as a girl in early childhood in order to avoid a curse against the family’s men, seems to be the only exception.

There is no denying the beauty of the intricate lives woven together by Humaydan in this touching novel. However, in The Weight of Paradise, some of these threads are too thin. The reader is riveted by the textured inner worlds of Noura and Kemal but is left craving more of characters like Sabah and Maya. Sabah’s fascinating story still craves excavation, as her inner life remains opaque. The reader gets glimpses of her effervescence and her desire to fly and senses the decay of that spirit over time. Through the moving stories of her two lives, her desire for freedom, and her will to be a witness, the reader does not truly get a sense of her pain, but merely its imminence. Maya’s voice is poetic yet truncated, and though the backdrop of her life is sketched, the reader gets only a hazy sense of its detail. Through the suitcase, Maya inherits a reservoir of memory and seems to exist primarily to dip into it. Because of this, the novel ends before its force can be fully explored and resolved. In other words, the problem with The Weight of Paradise is that it was too brief.

The Weight of Paradise is a powerful call to question our histories, and in doing so, it is a call to question the violence that lives at the heart of it and possibly at the heart of our natures. “But this is us: we feed the poor, we laugh at a passing joke, we love, we mourn, we dance, but we also kill our neighbours in civil wars. Since we are like that, how can we describe ourselves?

Sukoon interviews Arab-American poet and scholar Mohja Kahf

Immigration, Feminism, Revolution

“What is language for if it cannot function for us when we desperately need it?” – Mohja Kahf

Rewa Zeinati: Mohja Kahf, you are a professor of comparative literature and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arkansas. In addition to Hagar Poems, published last year by the University of Arkansas Press, you are the author of E-mails from Scheherazad, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, and Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque. You were born in Damascus, Syria, to parents who immigrated to the United States in 1971 when you were almost four years old, and you spent your childhood in the Midwest. Where is home to you? And does one ever stop asking this question?

Mohja Kahf: Never. I’ve moved I count seven major times in my life, one of them a life-changing immigration about which I was too young to have an opinion. Finally I thought I had settled where I am now. I’ve been here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. But when the Syrian Revolution started, for a minute I thought I would have a chance to reverse that immigration, to go “home again,” and I knew I was ready to take that chance. To leave everything again. But of course there is no “home again—” and for Syrians, that is now true in a particularly painful way. But the Syria-hope the Syria-chance shook me up from my illusory settledness and now I know I also am not home yet. I need still to find what I want and seek it and make it home as best I can.

RZ: Your poems explore themes of Arab identity, Muslim identity, and feminist politics. How important is religion to one’s sense of identity?

MK: Well, it varies depending on the person, of course. How important is it to mine has evolved over time. For the last sixteen years in the U.S., however, I’ve found that even though I’ve been ready to talk from another speaking position, something besides religious affiliation, the world keeps wanting to hear me speak as a “Muslim feminist” or “Muslim American.” There is work needing to be done there and I happen to be equipped with the tools for it and so I keep getting pulled back to shoulder some of that work, although I have other work going on to which I also devote energy and wish to see realized. So for example, will I ever be able to publish just a manuscript of love poems? Without bagging it as “Muslim woman love poems?” Hey, I have the manuscript—somebody find me a publisher please.

RZ: The poems you are sharing with us in the current edition of Sukoon are stylistically quite different from your previous poems. What compelled the change?

MK: Two things. I went to a poetry reading where a poet had “list poems,” and the experience sort of challenged me to write list poems. And secondly, Syria and silence. Meaning, I was at the end of my ability to speak about Syria. An impasse. No sentences were getting through. I was at the end of my belief in the efficacy of language, almost. I felt the end in sight of the vocation of writing, almost. What is language for if it cannot function for us when we desperately need it? need all three components: text, sender, recipient – need someone at the other end to hear what someone sends out into the world, to hear responsively. In Syria, by the regime for decades, language and narrative and expressive function has been so utterly abused and distorted. And then, regarding Syria in the world, the expressive function of language and writing, also so abused and distorted. So this “list poem encounter” seemed to come just then as a possible path out of my impasse. Cut through all that. Forget syntax. Forget grammar which has been manipulated to obscure truths. Let go and sink down to the level of words. Broken words. One word at a time, one phrase at most, like what would be the only units one could manage to get out if one were being strangled or bled out and lay gasping. Just one word, then another. Get it out. Articulate through inarticulateness. If you can do nothing else. Those are gasp poems. Gasp. Syria. Blood. Betrayal. Gasp. I’m too broken to do more than a one-word line. Take it. Gasp. Make sense of it. Carry it on to the next. Gasp. Run. Gasp.

RZ: Your latest book, Hagar Poems , is a collection written over the course of 20 years. Many of the pieces were written in the ‘90s, but some were written not too long before the date of publication. Tell us about your experience writing this book, and why it took so long to complete. When is a manuscript ever complete?

MK: You’re kind and attentive to have read it and paid attention to such detail as the dates. It’s not complete; it’s never complete. For starters, there are specifically two more good Hajar poems I wish I had not culled out of it. I had forgotten those two set aside and wish I’d put them back in time. There was a third put-aside poem that I managed to get back into the manuscript before publication. Then there are other poems I had pulled out that maybe were not as strong. I pruned and culled for years, decades, because I wanted it to get published; earlier versions of the manuscript were rejected for publication over the years. All the while, up to a certain point in time, I was also adding more Hajar poems (and then pruning and culling from those too).

I first encountered Hajar when my first baby got sick and had a febrile seizure—first time I had seen one, terrifying. Here’s this baby, this life, and you are responsible for keeping it alive, and it’s 3am and where did everyone go? I felt abandoned, tricked, like, this is the fine print of the family program that you signed, get married have a baby, but nobody mentioned you how poor you’re going to be and how alone even if married, with the nature of patriarchy and with immigration and today’s mobility and the global economic system and the lack of universal healthcare all stripping you of those people who might have been around to help in another kind of world. When I woke up from that, I thought, damn, we have glossed over Hajar’s story. There is no way it is as sugar-coated as we learn it in the tradition. We had to silence a whole lot of it to just fast-forward from her in the desert alone with her child and desperate to, bingo, whatever platitudes the traditional view gets out of it wrapped up in a bow. Let me unwrap this bow. I want to cut it to shreds. The bits of text about Hajar in the various scriptures are elliptical and cryptic enough to allow for imaginative spaces; you can cut in and interpolate in ways the traditional readings of the texts do not.

And once you start with Hajar, the same project is waiting to be done with so many other figures. Some other figures pulled me over the years and I spent some time on Maryam, on Asiya, on Balqis. But hey everyone, be my guest, there is an endless amount of reconfiguring that could happen with Hajar and her sisters, and with countless other matter of old, if it happens to grab you anew.

And as for the appropriateness of doing that (I guess it’s to the conservative readership I say this bit), well, if it is not there in order to grab us anew, what is it there for?

RZ: Tell us about your experience writing the sex column Ask Mohja, for the website Muslim Wake up! How did the idea come about?

MK: Well, those were a heady few minutes, hah. The column wasn’t called “Ask Mohja;” it was actually called “Sex and the Ummah,” and I was one of two columnists who were supposed to alternate, but it ended up being mostly me, and then some guest columnists I pulled in to try to still have alternating voices. I am delighted to say that it was the place where one of Randa Jarrar’s fabulous short stories was first published, as a guest column. It somehow got tagged in people’s minds as a “sex advice column,” but it was never that – it was a sexually themed fiction column, is all, mostly fiction pieces, although one time I did pull in a “sex advice” guest column by a gynecologist, a Palestinian American feminist. I had sent in “Little Mosque Poems” to the MuslimWakeUp!.com website editors to start with, in a spirit of feminist Muslim self-critique. An then they and I started conversing, and one of our conversations was about how there’s this Muslim belief that Islam is a sex-positive religion, and then there’s this modern stereotype of Islam as sexually repressive, and the truths are so much richer and more varying than those two positions, so what about exploring the gap between these ideas by delving into sexual experiences from a “Muslim angle” whatever that may mean.

Then there was Abu Ghraib, the exposure of sexual abuse there by U.S. soldiers, and that deflated my joy in doing the column.

What deflated it also was my sense that white readerships wanted to exploit the idea for the wrong reasons, Orientalist reasons. I started getting offers from agents who were interested for all the wrong, imperialist cultural politics, reasons. Well, I had received a death threat from an Islamic extremist reader, and so of course that attracted all the would-be makers of a new neo-con Muslim woman voice or something. And that was not a direction I wanted to go, ever. Man, I coulda been a star if I’d gone that direction, I coulda been rich! Haha.

The whole endeavor of the website was one of progressive Muslims self-critique and of Muslims critiquing conservative Muslim discourse, and that is a project I support. But a few of the writers started going in the direction where “progressive” meant “be a tool of imperialist cultural politics,” not progressive at all, not in solidarity with the struggles of oppressed people intersectionally. Just a tiny number, but they got a lot of press. It dampened my enthusiasm for being there with them under that “progressive” label.

RZ: What advice would you give emerging writers? Especially women writers of color?

MK: Give yourself time to take care of your Self. Give your Self space for creativity. Don’t fill your life with people who won’t nourish you. Remove soul-crushers from your daily life. Also, the people with whom you exchange energies most, their world view will try enter yours, so be careful what you let enter, where you work, where you live. In this white supremacist structure of our times, it is easy as a woman of color to be pushed to be what the structure needs, but is it what You need? What do You need and want? Seek that. This is all advice that I am constantly having to give my Self.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

Tremendously important. Without them we would just have those bigger journals that can get bigger money. We would have fewer and narrower channels where expression must be funneled. With them, we have multitudinous avenues for a multiplicity of voices and audiences. Without a reader goading it on, wanting it, a poem can wither and die. And with a reader who wants only certain kinds of poems, only certain kinds of poems will be written and see publication. The small literary journals find readers who are hungry for just that unexpected poetry but didn’t know what it was until they encountered it.


RZ: What are you working on right on?

MK: A volume of poetry about Syria, about the Syrian Revolution. For whoever will listen. For us, Syrians, if no one else.

Look, I’m sorry if the Syrian Revolution reads to the world’s progressives and leftist only as a conspiracy for rightist and imperialist agendas. It seems like I have to apologize for the existence of Syrians who do actually suffer the enormous human rights abuses of the Assad regime, to apologize for this to a world that does not want to hear this because it doesn’t fit current progressive agendas. The fact that Syrians are also getting abused by the Islamist extremists who are manipulating the grassroots protest movement for their own ends and in turn getting manipulated by regional and world powers only makes it more urgent that the original Syrian grassroots civilian uprising be recognized and respected. Just because the Syrian uprising doesn’t fit what progressives thought about the regime, doesn’t mean the human rights abuse doesn’t exist. Deal with that. Change your eye to adjust to the fact of our existence as Syrians. I say that, while doing internal critique of those Syrians who are selling out the Syrian Revolution to rightist agendas. My poetry on the Syrian Revolution is my own attempt to deal with the multiple silencing of Syrians, by the regime for five decades, by the right and left globally, by each other. Things grew to such a pass that a Syrian cannot find a space to speak amid so many different kinds of silencing. For a while I was so disheartened in so many ways internal and external that I stopped writing Syria altogether. It seemed so futile wherever one turned, like pounding on a thick beveled glass wall that was soundproof. What was the point of any writing at all? Fuck that; I’m back. Publish me.

Dust

By Lana Habash

Stone streets of an old city,
carts lined with rings of fresh bread,
seeded sesame, the scent
of coffee mixed with zalabieh,
where songs of prayer mark time–
here, the hand of God is pressed
in stone. Touch your hand there
palm to palm,
and time will pass
through your fingers,
more enduring than belief. Uniformed men
set against the sky, the dawn
ignores them. A young boy stands,
circled by men, guns
slung over shoulders
like shopping bags. The boy
leans back, delivers the blow,
runs. He knows where and how.
And like the Sea the merchants part,
then rushing back,
one current now, an old man slows
the push of his cart, a woman
slows too and smiles.

***

Stories We Tell

How Haja stood at the door,
hands raised to her son
Don’t come in
with those.

How he took
the grenades
from each pocket
as if they were lemons,
with a smile that said,
There’s no need for all that.
Or how the khuwana
stopped our men,
bent over the road,
the last pieces of home
on their backs,
how the men
lifted their heads
to ask Did you sell it
furnished?

Or how the checkpoint soldier
questioned the farmer
What do you
feed your chickens?

day after day,
then turned him back
for the wrong answer.
How finally the farmer
said with a shrug,
I give them money.
They decide for themselves.

Or the young boys loaded
on an army truck,
set free
by pleading hands,
women
who cry My son!
and tear their hair.
How the women took
the puzzled faces
to their own,
saying, Go to your own home now,
child.

How on the morning
of tawjihi,
the schoolboy
arrived early,
stopped at the designated
knot on the string,
threw down his books,
took off his shirt,
to demand
that the beating
be quick.

Or how the teacher,
now the line
that won’t
be crossed,
laughed
as she picked up the stone,

The land
knows
who loves it.

***

Stories We Don’t

Women who carry life
give birth to the dead
at the waiting points
on the open road.

An olive tree on its side,
gnarled fingers reach to the sky,

land is not place.

Of course there was the house
lost,
child loaded
onto a garbage truck,
eyes toward home,
eyes always toward home,
and of course there were those
not so lucky as that,
who died on the long walk,

and of course for the living
the attic came next,
the cold floor,
the seven bodies.
Yes, there were tents, walls, stone,
perhaps a house,
and the names our children bear:
Jaffa
Haifa
Beisan
Jenin,

what a people must swallow:
the hollows of a culture not ours,
the land wet with blood
of others like us
thrown into
the singular
strangeness
of exile,
the thirty years it took
to see their shadows
on every Washington and Main,
this land of ghosts,
the outlines of a brother here,
a sister there,
their eyes, accusing
their eyes, the future.

Maybe regret is passed on
to daughters.
We carry it with us,
pieces of home
on our backs,
one camp to another,
waiting.

And yes,
we remember, still see
her, sister, bearing life,
as she begged for maya
on the dusty road, see her stumble
on the stones,
push herself
up,
bearing life,
stumble again,
till finally
she lay still,
the dust
from the road
mixed with her hair
and dry lips
bearing life–

dust
means something different
to us.

Two poems by jess rizkallah

i haven’t forgotten

mar charbel is the scary one
resting a bloody hand on your
child’s shoulder when you
forget to keep a promise

clears his throat before you can
step out on your word

stays dressed in black

once ate his own smile but
never swallowed

i like him most.

he still hums
to the pulse
in my wrist.

i kept him with his contemporaries
all beads on a string, my own congregation.

the plastic confining him chipped at the corner, a reminder
of his ability to dart between pulse & phosphene
while i slept. the string loose, then broken

he stays compact,
like a syllable
even while religion fades
into muscle memory.

call this faith, finally. and the body, a prayer
to feel guilty about whispering into the night.

moonstones charging,
warm by the window.

still. i am everything
i’ve ever believed in even if
i don’t believe it anymore.

part of me always
chipped at the corner

give me the flute & sing
after fairuz & gibran

origin is an apple jam jarred to make wine,
put in the ground but always comes up vinegar
when picked at the skin of where the earth
spit you out before you were you
but after the flute started playing.

hands are the etymology of prayer
i turn mine slowly in the morning sunlight
through my window. i watch the rings hug
my fingers. my knuckles hairs grow back
slower now, but i still have this inheritance
from a man who sang to his fig trees
and raised his voice at a woman sprung
from the shadow of a tree full of switches

and all i can ever do is brew coffee for the
mild mannered and write stories
that don’t belong to me

i come from love that didn’t always know the right way.

a cracked seed aware of its cyanide. bruised fruit.
preserves or vinegar, depending on the light.

his body pushes up tomatoes
wherever her hands waver this too,
a type of apology i listen for
until that flute in me stops.

Left

By Lena Zaghmouri

What struck me most about Mom’s family was how their pictures looked so different from what Mom told me they were actually like. They looked so put together and all-American, untouched by any troubles. Just two white married parents and one cute kid that always stood in front of them in pictures with a big smile and her arms open, embracing the world and the photo that would capture that emotion forever.
In reality, though, Mom’s parents were divorced, and Mom said Grandma’s main concern was finding her next boyfriend or husband, Grandpa’s the new family he inherited from marrying his second wife, which was soon after he divorced Grandma.
Grandma looked sweet and virginal with blond hair and light brown eyes, but she had countless affairs since Mom could remember.

Grandpa looked kind with dark blue eyes, thin brown hair, a soft manly smile, but Mom told me he would become irritable and beat her for the smallest mistake when he was angry with Grandma. Mom had a collection of bruises on her arms and back that she showed me to prove it. He would let plenty of things slide if things were going well with her Grandma, but that was rare. He was easier to be around once her parents divorced during Mom’s early teens, but then he never wanted to be around her anymore either. Mom was part of his past life, the one he claimed was driven by anger. He needed to minimize contact with that as much as possible.
But Mom having a child out of wedlock with a Palestinian reawakened Grandpa’s latent anger. He called her a shameful slut and washed his hands of her and was unwilling to meet me, his olive-skinned granddaughter with a weird name like Isra, one he probably couldn’t even pronounce right.

♦♦
Grandma came to visit on rare occasions; the first time I remember was when I was five. She was upset that Mom had a child out of wedlock, but she was more forgiving. She was between marriages, and Mom had just kicked Baba out for good. Mom would complain about what a deadbeat Baba was to Grandma sometimes.
“Honestly, Carol, I’ve always told you if you just lost fifteen or twenty pounds, you could get yourself a decent man,” Grandma told Mom.
She visited once or twice a year, usually during the holidays; she would bring me a new Barbie or something as a Christmas gift. Grandma ignored me and vented her frustrations with the world and the men in her life to Mom.
But now, three years later, Mom had cancer, and Grandma went back and forth on whether or not she would take me after Mom passed away. Sometimes she said it would be nice to have someone to live with, someone to help out and spend time with her, but then Grandma would say the last thing she wanted to do was take in an eight-year-old at her age, especially one with a father like mine.
Mom didn’t trust her, though. “She’ll want you when she’s alone, and as soon as she gets a man, Grandma’ll find a way to get rid of you.”

♦♦

Mom told more positive stories about her family when she put together the photo album for me, her hands newly thin and lined with pale blue veins. She didn’t have energy to put it together before, and once in a while she said there was no point in it because what did all those pictures mean? Most of the people in them I had never met and probably never would.
Still, we sat in the full size bed we slept on at Baba’s place while she put it together. Mom explained who and what was in each picture before she pressed it down on the sticky surface. “Well, hopefully, Isra, your grandma will visit when you live only with Baba,” she said. “Maybe this will make her turn around.”

♦♦

Mom went into the hospice the next day, and Baba picked me up after school every day so we could go there and see Mom. Sometimes Baba would be in the room alone with her, but usually they kept me there to alleviate the tension between them. We had been living at Baba’s, but I was sure my parents weren’t together, and they wouldn’t have even spoken to each other if Mom wasn’t dying.

Every time Mom said she was tired and needed to rest in the hospice, I was sure that she was going to die then, and I would cry inconsolably, even though Mom assured me she wasn’t leaving yet. Baba would take me out of the room and try to comfort me for a little bit, but he would soon become angry and tell me to be strong. Plenty of people had gone through much worse back home in Palestine, so my pain now didn’t matter.

♦♦

Grandma came soon after Mom went into the hospice. She would take me to see Mom for the week or so that she was still awake and not drugged beyond comprehension.
And suddenly I wasn’t invisible to Grandma anymore.
Grandma now picked me to vent her frustrations about the man she was in the process of divorcing and Grandpa as well. “I talked to Carol’s father, and you know what he told me? He can’t get the time off work! Can you believe that?” She sighed and clenched her teeth together. “‘This is your child,’ I said to him. ‘Can you just pull your dick out of your wife’s pussy for two seconds and remember you have a daughter?’ You know those kids his wife has aren’t his. She had them with the guy before. I don’t see what’s so great about her. She’s as plain as wood.”

♦♦

Grandma took me out for ice cream once Mom slipped from consciousness, and she said she couldn’t stand to see her daughter suffering to death and that her granddaughter didn’t need to see it either, so Baba let her.
Though I loved ice cream, I wasn’t excited about getting some that day. Most of it melted on the back of my hand and dripped on the table, and Grandma had to take me to the bathroom to clean up. I could tell she was irritated I saw her roll her eyes in the mirror, and she told me that I had to eat like a civilized girl.
We went to the hotel she was staying in—she would spend the night at Mom’s apartment whenever she came before, but she hated Baba and his apartment—and she put cartoons on for me while she criticized all the men she had had in her life, reserving the worst for Grandpa. “I swear once I married that guy he became such a drag,” she said. “We were so young, and all he wanted to do was stay in and drink beer. Even convincing him to go out to the movies was like asking him to drink cyanide.” Grandma cringed at the thought of him. She moved on to her three other husbands: the second was too mean; the third had affairs; the fourth, the one she was in the middle of divorcing, was a drag like Grandpa, but it was more understandable because he was almost a senior citizen.
I didn’t say anything. My lack of response must have been made her sad; Mom always had some kind of commentary for Grandma, even if it was negative like telling her she should grow up or learn what monogamy was all about. “I’m not even sixty years old, and my daughter is dying. You’re not supposed to bury your child; it’s the other way around. Of course, it’s no picnic to lose your mother at your age.” She wiped a couple of tears that came from her overfilled brown eyes. “You know things are going to be different, right?”
Everyone used that phrase—“things are going to be different”—though they already were different. I hated spending time with Baba, having him prepare my food or ask him questions. He never knew the answers, and he would get irritated by them. “Don’t ask dumb questions,” he always said to me.
Baba was scary, too. Most nights I could hear him crying out in his sleep. When Mom was there she told that it was just because Baba had been through some terrible things since he was even younger than me, and he remembered them in his dreams, but I was sure that he was possessed. It was worse without having Mom there to tell me to go back to sleep.
I had to live without my mother.
At school everyone had a mother that I knew of. A few lived with their grandmothers or someone else, but they at least visited their mothers sometimes. And their grandmothers liked them a lot more than Grandma liked me. They didn’t talk about men all the time, and they didn’t tell their daughters that if they lost weight, they could find a decent man.
But I had a feeling that Grandma was feeling sorrier for herself. She was losing her daughter, the one she could turn to between men. She also started to put on a little bit of weight, especially in the middle. She probably would never be able to find another husband, at least not a decent one.

♦♦

Though it was almost my bedtime, Grandma had no plans to take me back to Baba’s or call him to ask if I could spend the night with her. “Who cares what he thinks?” she told me when I asked if I was allowed to stay. “He isn’t worth a shit anyway.” She took me to the store and bought me some pajamas and a night light, though I stopped using one over a year before. “What about a toy or something?”
“No, I don’t want to play.”
“You sure are a mellow child.”
After I took a bath and changed into the new pajamas, Grandma talked more about how the man she was currently divorcing was trying to hide his assets and get out of paying her as much alimony. “It’s not like I’ll be getting much. We were only married for a year and a half,” she said. “Couldn’t stand him any longer than that.”

♦♦

Baba pounded on the Grandma’s hotel door so hard I thought he must have bruised his knuckles, shouting at Grandma to open the door or he’d call the police.
Grandma didn’t hold out for long, but she wouldn’t let me go without letting Baba know that she thought he was a worthless Arab.
“You don’t deserve a say in the matter!” Grandma said. “You haven’t been there for most of her life, and all you’ll do is lock her in the house until she gets married!”
Baba told her at least I wouldn’t learn to be a whore like she was and charged past her and pulled me by the hand. “My daughter comes home with me!” he yelled as he brushed her aside to leave.
He left me in the pajamas Grandma got me, and he talked to me for over an hour, which he never did before. “She is a sharmoota, a slut. Do not act as she does, Isra. You do not want to live as her.” He told me that he couldn’t believe that a woman could act that way. His mother, my sitti, he said, would have never spoken to a son-in-law the way she had. Well, he wasn’t really a son-in-law. He never married Mom, but it should be the same thing to these Americans because they didn’t believe in marriage the way Palestinians did, so Grandma should think of him as her son-in-law. And Sitti definitely wouldn’t have carried on that way, marrying all kinds of men for money or whatever the hell she believed she would get.

♦♦

Baba woke me up in the middle of the night and told me to put my shoes on. Mom had died, and we were going to see her one last time before she went to the crematory. I was still tired, but my heart was thundering in my chest, so it was easy for me to stay awake.
Grandma was at the hospice before we were, her face red and streaked with tears. Mom lied on the bed, no oxygen tube connected to her, pale and gaunt, her hair a darker brown than what it was before, her lips still red. I cried, and my chest felt so light that I wondered if the center of my body was still there. For over a week now, Mom had been unconscious, and the only way I could tell she was still alive was that she sometimes made a soft grunt when she was in pain. Then a nurse came in and gave her some more drugs to keep her quiet and comfortable.
Baba picked me up and carried me out of the room. People hadn’t picked me up for years on a regular basis, and by then, I was only five or six inches shorter than him, but I guess he still thought I was four. He said we should go back home and let them take Mom away.

♦♦

Grandma held the memorial service at a small banquet hall. I spent most of the time sitting at one of the middle tables next to my father, chewing on one of the black cloth napkins, my dripping saliva warming the back of my hand. I watched my mother’s relatives, trying to see if I could remember them from the photos, and if I could recall their names or if Mom had ever spoken of them. But I couldn’t place most of them, and they were just as distant from me in real life as they were in the pictures. They seemed uncomfortable around me and my father and gave us short, awkward condolences. They spoke amongst themselves, telling their stories about Mom, what she was like as a child and a teenager.

That day they all had had a close relationship with her when she was alive.

I slipped out and sat under a tree in the picnic area, crushing some of the dried leaves, mildly enjoying the slight pricks in my palm. Grandma found me out there and kneeled down as far as she could to speak to me. She was reconciling with her husband. “I might as well,” she said, tearing up. She always wiped her tears daintily. “Who else will have me at my age? And I can’t live off alimony. I should just pack it in and face reality.” She wished me luck with my father, though she doubted he would be a good one. “I hope he doesn’t send you back to his country, but what can you do?”