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.

The Orphanage

By Daniel Drennan

In Beirut, in the area of Achrafiyeh, in the neighborhood of Sioufi stands the orphanage, the Crèche, known as Azariyeh for the woods that are no longer there, and for the children who are no longer there; these no-longer woods of Azariyeh harbor fairy tale-era connotations of dis­honor, and sin, and illegitimacy; ’uwlaad bi-Azariyeh, les enfants d’Azariyeh; the bastard children of Azariyeh. And if you visit the Crèche you will find rooms unchanged since forever, empty now, quiet now, still now; you will ring, and you will enter, and there is the staircase up, and there is the hallway, and there are votives and statues and icons. And there as you pause is the room full of blue cribs, and white cribs, cribs made of wood, unchanged, practically unmoved for decades, here, a crib I lay in long ago, lonely toys and stuffed animals now filling the space formerly occupied by me, by other children, hundreds of children, hundreds and hundreds of us; there is another room just the same. There is a room with white metal cribs, slightly bigger, lined up back and forth; there is another room with toilets that line three of its walls, toilets so small as to verge on absurdity; there is another room just the same. There is a room with desks and chairs and a bigger desk for a teacher; there is another room just the same. There is a room for play, for running, for games; and another room, just the same. And there is a room with a small table and a small desk and on this desk sits a set of steel drawers that contain the blank paper forms on which were written the names, on which were noted the information, on which were spelled out in details belying their fabrication out of gossamer nothingness whole lives, spun stories of lives’ beginnings, opening narratives stillborn in their creation, for all of the children who once filled the cribs, the beds, the rooms in this place, this orphanage, now barren, now deserted: papers marked with fictitious names, papers that pretend to show disparate events of varied locations yet all in the same handwriting—the dead giveaway, the false start. And here is the Italian version, and here is the English version, and here is the French; and here are the birth certificates, and here are the baptismal decrees, and here are the ecclesiasti­cal edicts, and here are the approved name-bestowing documents, and here are the testimonies of foundling status, and here are the official adoption papers, one, two, three, four, five, six pieces of paper come from drawers arranged one over the other in efficient precision: and thus an adoption. On the other side of the same room stands a row of file cabinets, and within are arranged the procedured by-products, the dossiers of children now departed, their folders crammed with letters in airmail envelopes and pediatrician’s notes and vaccination dates and wishes and blessings; files stuffed with missives and thank-you offerings and pictures showing countenances rid of smiles, posed out of context among estranging groups and beaming faces; these Children of Lebanon now far flung and distant, these pictures sent by proud parents and fabricated families full of hope and promise and new beginnings filling up steel file cabinets arranging the myriad lives of those given Egress, a Conveyance, an Exodus. And these gray metal cabinets elsewhere hold other stories, other dossiers, children who came back, sent back, perhaps too sick, or perhaps not wanted after all, returned, and here written in red, “deceased soon thereafter”, and here, “child succumbed to illness”—an insufferable double rejection, an abjectly suicided reaction. And here, more yet still—the children refused treatment at nearby hospitals during the war, doctors seeing “no point”. And there is yet another room, and in its corner stands an inconspicuous steel desk with four small drawers half-full of worn index cards of faded pink and blue and green, and in ink the cards are noted with the names of children given over to the Crèche during a few scant years a few scarce decades ago, and here is the information about the original parents, and here are their names, and phone numbers, and addresses, and there, at the bottom of each card, is a blank area to note the reasons, stated plain, for the child’s arrival. And if you are not careful you will start reading them, these cards, one by one, mesmerized; at first shying away, yet coming back and forcing yourself to look, to read, in the same way you forced yourself to walk down New York avenues to look at poster faces and read about the lives lost in those Towers now long gone; and you will look and you will read, and like those smiling faces that plastered the walls of Lexington Avenue you will again find a unifying element that brings an otherwise disconnected, disparate group of people together—a devastating event, a tragic happen­stance, an infinitely sad vagary of destiny, a culmination of willed derivations pinpointed in one monstrous manifestation referred to as “adoption”—and you will look, and you will read, and you will hold your breath as you read: Child abandoned by parents, child has spina bifida. Child abandoned by the mother at the hospital in Zahorta. Child orphaned on the father’s side, the mother has already placed the eldest in the orphanage’s care. Child abandoned by the mother at the Orthodox Hospital which contacted us. Illegitimate child raised by a woman who has departed for America, and who has left said child, now 11 years old, with her godmother, who hereby abandons her. Child abandoned at the hospital Nôtre Dame du Liban in Jounieh. Child found in Furn Esh-Shebbak in front of the door of Mrs. X. Child orphaned on the mother’s side, the father has four other children; cannot care for the fifth. Child orphaned on the father’s side. Child born two months after marriage of parents who hereby abandon him. Mongoloid child abandoned due to his infirmity….Child abandoned, child abandoned, child abandoned, child abandoned. And you will stop, and you will feel a certain unease as you barely dare read more, you will sense a creeping disquiet as you deny each card its due, as you feel each card’s presence in space marking just another of five hundred odd and sundry ways of abandoning a child. And for some useless reason you will try to maintain the order of these filings, for some strange reason you will try to keep a sense of reverence holding these cards, these lives, in your hands; and for some reason you will carefully replace them, and you will quietly close the drawers, hands shaking. And for some reason you will stand there utterly dumbstruck, your voicelessness loudly proclaiming how these nonchalant cardboards are, in their weight, crushing; in their banal bureaucracy, eviscerating; how in their fragile and forgot­ten state, these lives, annotated on silent pieces of discolored paper, approach something border­ing brain-numbing apoplexy. And there is but this vast emptiness. And no ghosts dare haunt these halls.

Man of the Orchard by Zahra Hankir

I first met jeddo (grandpa) in August 1987. I was just three years old, but I have this distinct memory of him hurriedly running down the driveway of his humble orchard-home in Zahrani, barefoot, in the pouring rain, to embrace my mother. He hadn’t seen her since just before the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon in 1982; they’d barely communicated in the interim. Tears were streaming down his face as he held her.

Osman “Abu Nasser” Antar was born to Zahra and Mahmoud in Sidon in 1929. He was the fifth of eight other siblings — one sister, and seven brothers. His father was a trader and a landowner who worked between Palestine and South Lebanon; he managed his finances poorly.

When jeddo was barely 11, my great-grandfather unexpectedly passed away, leaving the family of ten with very little to survive on. My grandpa was consequently forced to leave school to provide for himself, his younger siblings, and his mother.

When I think of jeddo, it’s almost always of him sitting on the ground, in front of a pile of ripe oranges that he’d picked from the bustan (orchard) he tended to, with a kuffiyeh wrapped around his head, dressed in his khaki work clothes.

He’d often have Fairouz, Umm Kulthoum or Mohammad Abdul Wahab playing from a little radio in the background as he carefully arranged the oranges into crates to be taken to the market.

Sometimes, when he was in a particularly good mood, he’d have classical Arabic ballads blasting from my uncle’s parked car as he worked, or he’d hum their tunes whilst feeding the chickens in the coop.

Jeddo was, to my mind, a man of the land. To him, the land of the orchard was life, and he was rarely away from it.

Jeddo started picking fruit and crops as a young boy. When it was blossoming season, he’d wake up at the crack of dawn to head to the orchards with his brothers, where they’d stay for days until they finished their jobs, before returning to the city. For hours on end, they’d toil away at the land, guarding the crops and irrigating and picking the oranges and lemons.

When jeddo’s father passed away, working at the orchards to the south of Sidon would become his primary source of income, and ultimately, his profession. He quickly took on a reputation of being one of the finest men of the orchards in his area. He upheld that reputation for more than six decades, working the land with a sense of pride and ownership that left almost everyone he came into contact with in awe.

Jeddo would eventually join the city’s trade union, hosting meetings for the tens of men of Sidon who, like himself, worked in the orchards. Once a week, grandpa would line up the chairs in the garden of the orchard he tended to and along the private road that led to it. The workers would congregate to discuss the affairs of the union.

Grandpa would eventually become treasurer of the union, a role which would see him travel between Sidon and Damascus and which would earn him a mention in a historical book on the southern port city. Those meetings at his boss’s bustan and the crowd they attracted became so notorious, that political figures from Maarouf Saad to Nazih Bizri would compete for jeddo’s support; the meetings often involved political discussions that would translate into votes.

My mother’s childhood home in the south of Lebanon was simple. In the middle of a beautiful, modest-sized orchard, it seemed cut off from the rest of the world. The walls were worn and cracked, and the beds, which I’d share with my aunts, were stiff. In the summers, it was unbearably hot, and in the winter, unbearably cold.

But in between trips to Lebanon from the U.K., I thought of that small home as a vast palace full of treasures, and of my grandfather, as the king of that palace.

Every Sunday after we moved back to Lebanon in the mid-nineties, we’d congregate at the bustan in Zahrani for extended family lunches. They almost always consisted of kousa mehshi (stuffed zucchini) — my grandparents’ favourite — or dishes that my brothers and I would request, such as grandma’s homemade pizza or wara’ 3enab (stuffed vine leaves). Grapes dangling from the vine leaves that jeddo had grown himself were picked for dessert.

Before and after my rebellious years at college (sorry mama), I cherished those Sundays. Specifically the moments following lunch, when my grandparents would move to the living room to watch the news on a tiny black-and-white TV set. Teta (grandma) would lie down, weary after cooking a feast for at least 10 people, and jeddo would sit upright in his chair, with his rosary beads in one hand.

On his other palm, he’d almost always rest his head before dozing off, drifting in and out of sleep. Sometimes he’d briefly wake up to smack a mosquito on his arm or leg. It always made us laugh, how he’d fall back to sleep instantaneously.

Like clockwork, Jeddo would then head back to the bustan, where he’d work until the sun went down. Before we’d leave to Sidon, he would load up the trunk of the car with oranges, lemons, bananas and assorted vegetables that he’d grown and picked himself. The scent of orange blossoms at the bustan was so dense, it stayed with us for hours after leaving.

Growing up, we’d heard multiple legendary stories about jeddo. Some of them, he told us with a chuckle. Others, we heard from teta or mama or our uncles. We learned to suspend rational judgment on the veracity of the stories.

A donkey once kicked jeddo in the face, breaking his nose instantaneously, he told us. Despite the pain it caused him, he almost immediately repositioned his nose, straightening the broken bone, he said. It’s a story he’d share repeatedly over the years, explaining to my brothers that they should be abadayat (good and strong men).

Jeddo’s surname, Antar (the name of a legendary Arab poet and warrior), sometimes seemed poetic, like he’d strived, throughout his long life, to live up to it.

In another one of those stories, jeddo had apparently killed a poisonous snake with a shotgun — despite being paralysed with fear — at the age of 13.

The snake’s skin was so tough, the bullet wouldn’t go through it with the first shot. He was said to have killed the snake with the second and last bullet: by shooting it straight into its mouth.

Jeddo was notoriously handsome, even as an elderly man. As a teenager, he was acutely aware of this, constantly using his looks and charm to flirt with girls.

But grandpa was also a poor man, who spent most of his days working for very little. In his downtime, he’d loiter the streets with his older brother and best friend, Saleh, who worked in the orchards with him. Realising they couldn’t capture the attention of girls in their shabby work clothes, they once decided to save up some money to buy a nice shirt, to impress them. They’d take turns wearing it.

One of those ladies was Souad Yemen, my grandma. Jeddo first caught a glimpse of her in town, while he was still in his khaki work clothes. She was taking a stroll with grandpa’s aunts — the wives of her uncles — and her great beauty struck him, he’d tell us. Instead of saying hello right away, though, he ran home, showered, put on the smart shirt and trousers, and hurried back to town to join them. This was a lady jeddo wanted to impress.

A proud woman, teta ignored him all evening.

Teta was extremely rigid with jeddo at first. She did not like men who flirted so ostentatiously with her, and she would never, ever flirt back. My grandma was, my mother says, “brought up like a princess,” having been extremely spoiled by her father. But jeddo wouldn’t give up on her. He befriended her father, despite the fact that he was scared of him, and eventually secured a job at his bustan.

Teta would warm up to jeddo eventually. One summer’s afternoon, when the akadinia (loquats) were in season, she invited her friends over for lunch.

Jeddo, at the time, was working in the bustan — picking the loquats — when teta’s friend brought a tray over to him, with a message from Souad: she wanted some of the fruit. He arranged them for her in an intricate pyramid, before sending the tray back. They married shortly afterwards.

Teta’s mother, dismayed by the match, said her daughter would spend the rest of her life washing grandpa’s work clothes.

Years earlier — when my grandmother was still a teenager and my grandfather a lad — teta and her girlfriends would frequently meet up to catch up and gossip. During one of those meet-ups, grandma’s friend said in passing that if a girl recited a certain prayer, she’d see her future husband in her dreams.

Shortly after their discussion, teta did indeed dream of jeddo, whom she had hardly noticed at the time. In the dream, he was leading a donkey with saddles on both of its sides. One of the two saddles was heavier than the other, and jeddo spent the entire journey trying to balance the two. A fitting premonition, if there ever was one.

Jeddo and teta had a wonderfully complex relationship that continually teetered on the edge of complete collapse. Despite living humbly, they struggled financially during the first fifteen years or so of their marriage. Having already left school against my great-grandma’s wishes, teta provoked the ire of her mother when she married jeddo.

But in between the stresses that weighed them down — they had two very ill daughters — they also shared some private, playful moments, away from their six children. They had a secret little cupboard at their orchard home that they’d constantly replenish with treats, including the finest nuts, snacks and drinks.

When my mother, Mariam, was born, she contracted typhoid fever. Frantic, grandpa took his ill child to the only doctor in the city, quickly burning through the little money he had. He needed 5 liras, the doctor told him, to purchase medicine urgently needed to treat my mother.

At first, jeddo sought an advance from his employer, but the man refused. He’d loaned his brother money to buy a cow, and requested repayment, but he said he was unable to hand over the funds.

Off jeddo went to a café in the old city, where he ordered tea, and sat in stubborn, sombre silence for hours. The owner of the café approached grandpa, asking him what was wrong, and jeddo — proud man that he was — couldn’t bring himself to speak the entire truth.

“I’ve forgotten my money in another pair of trousers at home,” he told the shop owner. “I need 5 liras to buy medicine for my sick daughter.”

The shopkeeper, who knew of jeddo’s plight, handed over his day’s earnings, which added up to 17 liras — all the money he had in his apron. When grandpa refused to accept the money, claiming it was far more than he needed, the man insisted he take it all.

My mother maintains, till today, that it’s the combination of the shop keeper’s kindness and jeddo’s determination that saved her life.

As the problems mounted, teta and jeddo decided it would be best to go their separate ways. Though the divorce wouldn’t last for long, it was something of a small disaster for the family, the effects of which would linger for years.

Grandpa, stubborn as he was, would claim he was saamed (steadfast) when people would say he should take teta back, as they were clearly still in love with one another.

Teta would eventually return from Damascus, where she stayed with her family during the divorce, and jeddo couldn’t help but soften up.

The divorce lasted less than a year, but it’s a period of time that jeddo would look back on with great regret and remorse, until the day he died.

During the Israeli invasion of 1982, the IDF would infiltrate the South, eventually reaching Zahrani, where my grandpa and his family lived. Stories circulated that the army was patrolling the surrounding areas, so jeddo had instructed the family on how to behave should the inevitable happen, to ensure their safety: He would act cordially, and the children and teta would remain quiet, indoors.

An Israeli army contingent did indeed reach the bustan, as they neared Sidon. Upon encountering jeddo, who was terrified but composed, they asked for water. The senior officer, who knew Arabic, got to talking to my grandpa about his family, and jeddo told them that he had a daughter who was married and who lived with her husband in Ireland.

Jeddo continued conversing, attempting to conceal his fear, unsure what else he could do. He said he hadn’t been in touch with my mother for months, and that she’d surely be worried about the family’s safety. The Israeli officer asked for a contact number, and promised he would soon call my parents to convey to them that jeddo and the family were indeed safe.

Weeks later, my father, then a doctor at a hospital in the U.K., was told, while he was at work, that he had received an international phone call. A man claiming to be an Israeli officer told my dad that his wife’s family was safe. Shocked, my father reasoned that it was a prank call, and hung up on the man.

It wasn’t until 1987, when my mother first saw jeddo on a trip back to Lebanon after the invasion, that she and my father came to realise it was indeed a true, and somewhat remarkable story.

Among jeddo’s most endearing qualities was his sense of humour. When I was about 15 or 16, and still a tomboy, he told me I should “wear high heels every now and then,” because I’d started looking “more like my four brothers” than a young lady.

In his final years of life, he’d occasionally ask someone to bring him a pocket mirror. He’d then peer into it seriously, before saying, “TOZZZ” (fart), and handing it back over with a chuckle. He’d do the same when he’d see photos of himself as a younger, handsome man.

But jeddo’s most captivating quality was his sensitivity. I’d seen him cry multiple times. While he did indeed live up to his surname, he found no shame in exposing his weaknesses.

Every time I’d leave Lebanon after visiting, when I’d say goodbye to him, he would break down into tears, saying he was frightened it would be the last time he would see me.

Each time, he would ask me to take care of my mama once he’d pass, because he could see mama in me, and mama was special.

After my teta passed away in 2010, jeddo would constantly speak of her, how they met, and the love they’d shared, tearing up each time. Occasionally, he would say, endearingly and with a chuckle, that being with her was a lot like the “taming of the shrew.”

When jeddo was bedridden, toward the end, he had a picture of teta taped up next to where he rested his head, on the wall. We’d often catch him looking at it with a sense of guilt and longing.

Osman Abu Nasser Antar passed away at the age of 87, on February 4, the same date as teta’s birthday.

In Her Dream I Spoke Arabic: In a college composition class a few years ago, many worlds came together.

By Jesse Millner

A student from Palestine writes “theological” instead of “theoretical.” I help her understand the difference. She has no thesis. She arrived in America three years ago having learned to write essays that reference poems and the Koran. She loves her family, misses raising tomatoes outside of the village she grew up in. Her main point is the compassion with which she writes about the world, how the very first creature she wrote about was a rabbit, which she drew a picture of in the top right corner of the page in her notebook. Rabbit, she says, in Arabic, contains the first letter of that alphabet. So it’s logical to associate learning alphabets with drawing rabbits. She comes to see me in my office with her work and I tell her how good it is, how her voice is strong and beautiful, how she paints the world with strokes of kindness, how she’s almost making me believe in God again.

Is that the main point of teaching, of writing? To learn about others, to hear their voices, to see the wonder with which they still view our world? A student from Lebanon writes about living in an apartment building where, after the 1988 civil war, they had to use black garbage bags to replace whole sections of the outer walls of the building. During one attack after air raid sirens went off, her grandmother had to be left under a table in their apartment because she couldn’t walk and she was too heavy to carry to the shelter.

Sitting next to the woman from Lebanon is a former American soldier who had served in Iraq. His first essay is about beauty, and he says beauty for him is being allowed to leave his running shoes on the floor in the middle of his apartment, and to throw his clothes on his bed when he gets home. He writes, “For me, chaos is beauty.”

For me, my students are beauty. My writing classes are filled with a chorus of young voices straining against the walls of the five-paragraph essay. They are amazed that they are allowed to write in first person. They are astounded that they can write about issues that are important to them: My Palestinian student’s fifteen-year-old cousin was beaten by Israeli soldiers because he ran from them. His leg was broken. One soldier picked a fresh lemon from her grandfather’s orchard, cut it in half, and then rubbed the bitter fruit into her cousin’s eyes.

On her way to school each day, she had to pass three IDF checkpoints. She writes that the soldiers were young and afraid, that they asked her about her major in college, what she liked to do in her free time. She feels sorry for them. She wishes, as the young men do themselves, that they could go home.

Her name is Enas. My spellchecker underlines her name in bold red, and I think of the blood spilled in Palestine. Enas writes about the smell of her grandmother’s bread. Enas writes about the beautiful red cheeks of her ripe tomatoes. Enas writes about teaching second grade when she was in college because an Israeli curfew prevented the regular teachers from traveling.

Yesterday after class Enas showed me pictures of her friends and family in Palestine. They lived on a mountain covered with olive trees. Some of the photographs show children playing in snow. Enas tells me she has forty-five cousins. I’m drawn to a particular photograph that shows Enas with her family just before she moved to America. Enas, her aunt, and her mom are all wearing white hijabs. She flips the album and on the next page Enas is wearing a sombrero in Disneyland. I tell her I’m delighted by the juxtaposition. She types “juxtaposition” into her hand-held translating device and I watch the word I know flow into Arabic.

I ask my class to write down their dreams. I tell them not to have coffee or tea when they woke up. I said it was ok to go to the bathroom. Enas writes about a dream where I came to class drinking a beer. Since I’m a recovering alcoholic and haven’t had a drink in twenty-eight years, I was a little bit taken aback. Then she talks about how, in her dream, outside the classroom door she could see images of Palestine: a rope swing that her grandfather had hung from an olive tree branch for her when she was little, a car carrying a bride to her new husband’s home. She could also smell burning wood from an oven where her grandmother baked fresh bread. At the end of the piece she listened to me speaking Arabic. And when she read aloud my words in that other tongue, when I listened to myself speak through her, I heard myself in a different way.

It didn’t matter that I only said, “Enas, pay attention instead of looking out that door.” The words were magic and they still linger like foreign ghosts on my tongue.

Goodbye, Thea Stavroula

By Lisa Suhair Majaj

She died at 94. There are worse ages at which to leave this earth, but that doesn’t dispel the sadness. How many changes did she see in her life? How many wars? When she was a girl, the quickest way from Limassol to Paphos was by boat. People stayed in their villages, grew their own food. Now there are highways, and cars, and smart phones, and all sorts of other things she probably never dreamed of—though some things, like wars and their after-effects, don’t seem to change much.

She lived in Episkopi, a mixed village, populated by both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots until the invasion that split the country. She raised three sons, losing a daughter at the age of four. My husband tells me she always wore the Hand of Fatima, at the time considered a distinctively Muslim symbol, next to the cross around her neck. That doesn’t surprise me. From the first time I met her, as I struggled to find enough Greek to thank her for her coffee, her smiling hospitality, it was clear that she had a large, embracing spirit. Whenever we visited there were always stray cats she was feeding, children in the garden, a bowl of sweets for passers by.

And everyone passed by. Her house was at the heart of the village, right across from the church, down the street from the archeological museum. Neighbors, relatives, outsiders—all were welcome. She taught the young archeologists staying at the museum how to embroider, unperturbed by the lack of a common language. There was no better place for coffee than perched on one of the chunks of ancient Roman columns scattered outside her gate, breathing in the stunning vista of the coastline spread out below, the sense of timelessness.

But time never stops.

The day Thea Stavroula died, a massive sandstorm struck, blanketing the island for days in a cloud of dust so thick it was impossible to take a deep breath. Temperatures soared as the sky pressed down, gritty and clotted. Even the sweat rivulets rolling down my skin felt muddy.

On the day of the funeral, we braved the brownish haze to drive from Nicosia to Episkopi. We parked outside of her small, familiar house, the usual coastal vista shrouded in dust, and crossed the street to the church. Family and neighbors were already gathering in the oppressively hot stone-paved yard, their black clothing a reminder of why we were there.

Inside, the church was dim and slightly cooler. I slipped some coins into the donation box and lit three candles: one for Stavroula, one for my parents, who died decades ago, and one for those still engaged in this battle called life. Then the chanting of the Orthodox service began, the musicality of the priest’s voice carrying me out of my thoughts as the candles flickered.

Soon enough the service was over—how quickly we mark passage from this earth!—and mourners gathered again in the churchyard, waiting for the coffin to be carried out. At the gate of the yard I noticed two tiny, ancient women clutching each other’s hands for support. One, I saw with a thrum of sadness, wore mismatched slippers on her feet. Later my sister-in-law told me that after the 1974 Turkish invasion, when refugees took shelter in Episkopi, Thea Stravroula had been the first to help these two women, giving them olives, that staple of village sustenance. Decades later, they had come to say goodbye.

We proceeded to the cemetery, where the open coffin required confrontation. I hardly recognized Stavroula in the body that lay face up to the sky. Age and illness had replaced her calm, robust demeanor with a startlingly gaunt profile; her eyes were no longer smiling, but closed.

This was my son’s first funeral. He watched carefully as they lowered the open coffin into the grave with ropes, poured oil on the body, scattered earth, and rinsed the shovel off with water over the coffin, mixing earth’s elements with her human remains. Then the coffin was closed and buckets of soil were tipped on top, attendants shoveling in more to finish the job. Dust clouds rose to join the dust that hung in the heat-struck, lowering sky. Her body went into the earth, earth was shoveled on top of her, and the sky rained earth on all of us: a dusty kind of tears.

At bedtime that night, my son asked me, “What is it like when someone passes away? What do they feel? What do they see? Where do they go? What do they become?” I had no clear answers to offer. Instead I kissed him and stroked his hair till his breathing settled.

But Stravroula didn’t settle. She lingered in the air around me, rich and full, her life too real to close a coffin lid on. I thought of an afternoon decades earlier, as we sat in the cool of her garden after hours at the beach—her laughter filling the air, the coffee she had brewed with careful hands waiting to be drunk, the future full in the unturned cup.

In my kitchen grows a plant started from a cutting taken from a tree in her yard, nestled in a simple clay pot. Like her, it is rooted in earth, arching toward the sun.

these bombs called my back— a journal entry from my first night in filasteen when the invasion into gaza began this summer

By Aziza Quzeiz

“to be arab is to be simultaneously emphasized and ignored,
invisibilized but hypervisibilized in times of crisis”
–joanna kadi in food for our grandmothers

TAK, TAK, BOOM

the sound of a firework that probably wasn’t a firework woke me up and i cried for the next few hours because today was the first time ive ever felt connected to being arab, stopped denying it, and started to let myself feel the pain ive been holding back my entire life

SMA3I SHWEY

i grew up saying, “listen to me” instead of sorry. i was armed with mouthfuls of justifications because my existence as an arab woman was already an apology. sorry for taking up so much space. sorry we are so oppressive and fucked up. sorry we are power hungry and that a few of us represent the whole.

in other communities of color in the u.s. we are resented for internalizing “model minority complexes.” we are not real to the census or governmental institutions. we are told we fade into whiteness but receive none of its benefits. if an arab immigrant mother has to be rushed to the hospital in the u.s. she cannot receive translation services because she is “white,” so we are voiceless even when we speak. we are represented in literary discourse as light-skinned, upper-middle class, wanting-white. no one wants to listen, even for a little bit—shhhh—sma3i shwey, we are undocumented, we are Black, we are Brown, we are dark-skinned and poor too, we are not all muslim, we are queer and our sexualities are expansive and complicated, we are threats, we are problems, we are refugees and the bags they carry, we are borders, we are the sound of bombs dropping during rainstorms, the confusion in the streets, the act of discerning which sounds are real and which are imagined

AYEEEEEEEHAA

i dreamt of teta ululating to the sky, to the sound of this desperate explosion, something like thunder or a celebration of death, of our unpeopling. she howled with her head tilted back and in her calls i heard the earth split open to make space for our pain. i heard the gaps in generational memory between how hard we had it and how things Were Back Then. i realized that our realities are too painful to process so they require the extravagance of fiction, poetic ruminations about life before occupation and oppression. we need active imaginations in order to survive.

AAAAAAUIIIIIIII

how do we express this pain? if we do not discursively exist then are we granted spaces to feel? my baby cousins exchange graphic images of entangled bodies like they are cartoons. they change their profile pictures to martyrs we know. i think of the splinters we used to get in our feet from climbing into fruit trees at jiddo’s house, the jubilee in our captain majid heroic AUUUI’s, an ouch-but-yes, a mix between baba playing umm kulthum and his answer to her voice with “aakkh, aakh”s—those soft recordings of his diasporic pain, and the ecstasy in being chosen to pick the fruits, EHH, YES, AYYY. because if we feel pain, if we feel splinters in our toes than, EH, YES, AUI, AKH, AUUUUIEHHHA, at least it means we are living.

ARABNESS, 3RAB, 3AAAAA, YA RUB

it is something like a denial of pain leads us to project it onto others. this pain gets stored in our bodies and passed on to new generations who don’t know what they are carrying until the sound of an explosion or someone asking “where do you hide your weapons” floods it all back. where do i keep my weapons? i wanted to ask the israeli authorities the question back to themselves. they kept asking, “why are you carrying so few bags? arabs usually carry more bags. show us in your bags where you keep your weapons.” listen, a little bit, search in the place between my neck and my shoulders, the spot where i hide my sadness. find them in our wrinkled eyes, teta’s back, her split discs that are revolutionary weapons planted by generations of pain, my mother too tired to walk, measure the geographies of our spines and the way our displacement makes us so lonely, our bags are our bodies are our bombs are our backs carrying the weight of our revolutions and resistance inside of us, so volatile, so vengeful, so awake, still, somehow, alive.

homegirls, hashish, mishmish, and the moon[1]

I was rifling through the contents of my bag while receiving eidiahs and decided to dump out the treasures I was about to discard in the trash. I realized how much the contents reflect my restlessness, because I carry this bag with me everywhere I go:

Torn tunisian and jordanian dinars, euro coins and crumpled dollar bills, a ripped visa to the illegal state of israel, a tube of rose water a priest gave me in Beitla7im before calling me beautiful, hijab pins, a passport, a german chocolate wrapper, my vile of white misk that reminds me of my 3mto and how she puts it on her neck before putting on her hijab to go out, a list of Spanish phrases I might need, eyeliner, a condom in the innermost pocket.

I am everything a product and reaction to colonial modernity, everything before it and around it. Everything that flirted with it just to reject it. Everything that wants it but mocks it in the same breath.

The night Eid started I stayed up until Fajr having an hours long conversation with my brilliant cousin who is doing her masters in Arabic linguistic histories. She is trying to prove that we need new dictionaries for our slang and that all dialects are legitimate and rooted in thousand year old traditions. Our Gehs are just as legitimate as our Kehs as our Ehs as our cadences colored by colonial encounter, the subjugation of others, our experiences with regimes, structures of violence, sexual abuse, internalized cycles of rejection and pain, even as these linguistic patterns change because of the internet and text speech. I thought of learning darija in Tunis from an anarcho-feminist who told me to listen to the rhythms of Imazighen goddesses in the words, the way Tinafigh blended the ends of words together and echoed itself in Tunisian Arabic. He told me, before you learn a language you need to get the beat down. I went with him to watch Sufi performances in the mountains of Kef, dances that people memorized from over four centuries ago, songs that chronicled when the Arab invaders came. Under blue and green stage lights, Sufi dancers chanted, their white robes glowing while mac computers dj’ed a sweet funky bassline in the background. I was always annoyed with myself for being so jealous after watching these performances. What dances do I know? What clothing do I have? Where are my cultural genealogies and generational chronicles? What rhythms do I know to carry on the words and vibrations of my ancestors? I only know how to dance to southern r&b and I never really learned to “bellydance,” because the most “ancestral” music I know dates back to 1960 Syrian children’s songs.

I thought of my mother who didn’t want to wear a white dress to her wedding because it was too colonial and western. But when she asked her elders what they wore before white, no one had the words to tell her, no one knew what we did before, back then. The erasure of that memory was made less violent by the strange finality in accepting that maybe there was no “pure” pre-colonial past but one full of difficult fusion…one where the memory of white wedding dresses was so new (or old? or ours? or theirs?) that it became a part of us.

My cousin said, linguists forget about the new dialects and the new words that emerge from displacement. Her nieces speak a fusion of Syrian and Egyptian dialects not recorded yet, processing new words with new contexts with old roots with old stories. I thought of the other day when my sister was cleaning the kitchen with our aunt and asked her to hand her a Khu’ra. My aunt looked at her and laughed. “What did you say? Do you mean a Fouta? We haven’t used that word since Ottoman times.” We must have picked up the word from our mother, who was displaced from Syria in the 60’s, who heard it from her mother and carried it on in a strange vacuum of sounds untouched by time because of our distance and displacement. Other words, like kharata instead of tanoora, sha7a instead of leika, fetitt hummus instead of tis’iyeh, variance in my family’s regional dialects amplified by the oceans that pushed us apart from one another.

There is something called phylogenetic trees that trace how dialects and words become sisters to one another. We begin to develop different strands of similar languages that then morph into parallel but different spatiotemporal directions. Like our subjectivities, language evolves into vastly fragmented, complex strands of meaning and belonging.

I think about the splits in our community and family tree, how we are scattered into different worlds with naïve hopes of returning to our homeland, our roots, once “this” is all over (the regime violence, the revolution, the refugeehood.) I think about how I am named after a tree I have never seen. I am named after a dream I have never lived. I live my life in hopes of returning to a homeland that has never known me.

And when I speak in this tongue that is somehow a part of this mess, my Arabic hiccups and wavers into whispers, manifests into hesitancy and a fear of messing up the intricacies of our fela7ified grammar. I am laughed at for my awkward Americanisms that don’t make sense in translation—my siblings and I speak in 3rabeezy, slinging around our mish-mash of Arabish, soupy slurs of ma3lish inno can you 3atini al jacket taba3i aw nah?

I am so blessed to come from a family of migrating revolutionaries, to come from a people who sacrificed everything for their words. Who were criminalized and terrorized and violently displaced because they chose to write and speak their realities.

But no matter where we go, we cannot rid of these accents. And I can’t rid of my restlessness, my inability to focus on one thing without thinking about what my parallel-self, my “over-there” subjectivity is thinking or doing or writing.

I recently facilitated a healing group for Muslim women who were yearning to talk about the splits in our identities, how we feel so fragmented and fused and forgotten.

I wrote down the common themes on a tiny receipt I found in the bottom of my bag:

where is home – where do i feel home – why does home not feel safe – why do i not feel safe in my own body – why doesnt my body feel like home to me – why does my family / community seem to create expectations i do not fit in to-  why am i living in doubles/ triples / a million fractured pieces – when will i be whole – when can i learn to love my splits – when will i bridge this world with that – where can i go to be loved – where can i go to be heard – will you hear me – will you hold me – can we love each other wholly –

(I think of Qwo-Lo Driskill, in Double Weaving Two Spirit Critiques: “How does our storyteller construct her survival from the threat of losing family love, especially in a context where familial ties hold so much material and emotional security?”)

Can we speak our truths and know that we will still be loved, across these multiple worlds?

I find home in my homegirls, in a few drags of hashish, preferably under the moon and with music playing. I find home in bowls of mish mish and ma’mounia, mashed into a delicious brew. I feel home embrace me somewhere at the tip of my tongue. My mind needs to be in motion to make sense of these things, my mouth laps up quiet soups of clunky morphemes and finds pleasure in the phonetic fusions. I find home in my hybridity. I feel comforted by Gloria Anzaldua when she said, “I am a turtle, wherever I go, I carry home on my back.” But me, I am an Arab woman, wherever I go, I carry home in my bag.

Letter to Um Yusuf

“Legbara, your daughter still need plenty healing yet,” said Osain with her mouth. “Body get better, but spirit still bust-up, I think.”

“Is okay, Papa Osain, thank you,” Ti-Jeanne told him, a little surprised at her own audacity. “I think you start the healing good already. I could do the rest myself.

–from Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

 

Leila told me that they took you while you were sleeping. She said you blamed god and yourself and that you didn’t understand what you had done. I always took you for granted, as the auntie immutably fixed in the living room, chopping bamya in the shadows. Your right eye would wander and every time I looked up I would find it resting on me. I remember your voice sounded like eggplant roasting in cumin and bharat under high flames—scratchy, layered, deep. When they told me you had been raped in regime prisons, you had just passed away and I could not dislodge the letter from me to you from the back of my throat. I could not even send your daughter a condolence text because our pain was too similar.

I know you are long mornings made of warm bread and Quranic verses, centuries of erosion. You are not a metaphor for our motherland or for the earth or the state but you are inside them all, working to untangle their crusty layers of toxic waste. I will find you in breathless la howa wa la qowa illah bilahs, I will find you when I am stripped to my bed rock trying to remember. I will hear you speak to me when I vomit for hours thinking I am pregnant and you will remind me there is a cocktail of toxicity trying to find its way out of your body and mine. Sometimes I feel the violence of the empire coursing in our veins. I never know about the survivors in our family until they have passed.

I know your real body is made of stars and the rest of you is diffused into different realms of possibility, somewhere between jinn worlds, angel light, our fucked up human shit made from mud and clay. I know your body will remember this pain, your palms will become permanently inscribed into rocks and I will find your imprint everywhere. I felt your pain and it is terrifying, underwater avalanche meets planetary explosion. Your shoulders were never meant to be boulders and none of this was ever your fault, but now that you are here you will find pieces of yourself you thought you lost and when you do,

it will be a beautiful,

seismic,

cosmic,

reunion

and for that

and for you

i am so thankful.

[1] title is a failed fusion between nizar qabbani bread hashish and moon and sonia sanchez’ homegirls and handgrenades

Take me with you, to Tel Aviv

By Firas Khoury
Translated from the Arabic by Thoraya El-Rayyes

My Occupier and I ride the train together. “Excuse me” I say, smiling, asking if I can sit in the empty seat next to him. My Occupier lets me through graciously, smiling.

I get off the train. My Occupier serves me coffee and lunch at a restaurant. “Do you need anything else?” my Occupier asks.

“No” I tell him, smiling. My Occupier smiles and backs away, so as not to disturb me by hovering over the table for even another second.

My phone rings. My Occupier speaks to me through the phone, “Can I offer you some of our products?”

“Sorry, I don’t have time.”

“Have a good day,” he smiles.

“You too,” I smile.

I leave the restaurant and head to the bank next door. I get stopped by my Occupier’s car, he asks how he can get to the Occupied street named after a leader of the Occupation. I think, I choose my words in the language of the Occupation and I give him directions. My Occupier thanks me and smiles. I smile.

I go into the bank. Next to me, my Occupier is reading the newspaper of the Occupation. Our eyes happen to meet so he smiles to avoid that pointless awkwardness. I smile back, and wait for the screen to announce my turn. My Occupier processes a cheque for me, a cheque I received from my Occupier after he deducted a percentage for the Occupation army. The money goes into my account (my Occupier’s account). I thank him and I smile, so he smiles.

I enter my Occupier’s university to pay off a debt that is a few years old. It is the first day of the academic year and my Occupier is joyous: my Occupier frolics, dances, sings, jumps. My Occupier is flying high!

“Me and my Occupier are in a garden, under a canopy of roses”

***

I call my Occupier, I want to meet. My Occupier is a dulcet beauty with lips like Golan cherries moist with dew. Nothing can turn my gaze from her breasts except the curve of her hips, my Occupier’s hips. We meet in my Occupier’s bedroom. My Occupier kisses me, I shag my Occupier. She comes, so I come. Me and my Occupier have just come (together).

***

In his taxi, on my way to a party, my Occupier asks me “Shall I turn on the meter?”

“Yes,” I reply, smiling.

“Thirty shekels. OK?” he asks, not smiling.

I say “OK.” I imitate him, and do not smile.

My Occupier has thirty shekels. My Occupier has no meter. My Occupier hates keeping count. My Occupier hates history.

Here we are now…

My Occupier and I are celebrating in the same place. My Occupier raises his glass high towards me as he drunkenly passes me in the queue for the toilet:

“Happy New Year” he says in a voice that pierces through the loud music. “Happy New Year,” I reply, smiling.

My Occupier has a drink and a holiday. My Occupier has no meter. My Occupier hates keeping count. My Occupier hates history.

***

My Occupier hunts me down before dawn between the folds of the last drink in the final bar. He wants to talk to me about politics. My Occupier is a “Leftist”- his hatred of me is gentle and my hatred of him is banal. My Occupier is my Master and feels guilty about his status, so he tries to endear himself to me in the tackiest ways, and smiles. What else can I do? Eternally bored, I smile.

He tells me about his earnest love for the superficialities of my culture and his commitment to the two-state solution. My Occupier has chewed up Yaffa and spit on Haifa, urinated on Akka and swept away the Galilee, cast Safad into darkness, wiped away Al-Lid and Ramlah and combed the coast. He has choked Al-Nasra and swallowed Al-Quds but he would like to take Tubas from the hands of my Occupier and liberate it for me.

My Occupier is a Leftist. My Occupier is a Leftist.

Whether I like it or not, he has publicly declared himself to be a Leftist.

My Occupier is the same as my Occupier.

***

As the first rays emerged from behind the deceitful cement buildings, he began to get comfortable in my company (in his own company) and so he asked me for the only thing I have left, my right to be “Occupied”. He wasn’t content with what I offered because according to him, he is not my Occupier.

My Occupier thinks he is “not” my Occupier, but I think that is the only thing he is. That is how he started out and that is how he insists on continuing. To me, nothing remains of him except this “not.”

My Occupier has no meter and I don’t have anything left to pay him with, so I pay for the glass of whiskey and get up. I do not see him anymore, I do not see my Occupier. I see beyond my Occupier, and I smile.

 

This story first appeared in Arabic on Qadita.net

Translator’s notes

“Me and my darling are in a garden, under a canopy of roses” is a line from a song by the iconic Arabic singer Sabah Fakhry.

Yaffa, Akka, Al-Lid, Al-Nasra and Al-Quds are the Arabic names for Jaffa, Acre, Lydda, Nazareth and Jerusalem. The English spelling for the other cities mentioned in the story reflects the Arabic pronunciation.

Context

Firas Khoury is a Palestinian citizen of Israel living in Haifa. He is one of over 1.5 million citizens of Israel whose cultural, linguistic and ethnic heritage is Palestinian. They are the descendants of indigenous peoples who did not flee to neighboring Arab countries during the 1948 war that led to the establishment of Israel.

Although they were granted citizenship, Palestinian citizens of Israel were subject to martial law until 1966 and continue to face institutionalized racial discrimination today. Several prominent Israeli politicians have even gone as far as to call for the revocation of their citizenship, or for their collective transfer to a future Palestinian state.

Take me with you, to Tel Aviv is a bold expression of this community’s unique experience of exile within their own homeland. It is a defiant expression of a collective identity that is still considered subversive in Israeli political culture, written in a strikingly detached voice that mirrors the alienation of the protagonist.