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.

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.

Two poems by Mohja Kahf

Flora Fauna Syria
By Mohja Kahf

plum trees
Syria
cherry trees
Syria
janeric trees
Syria
like me, like you
Syrian LGBTQ
police brutality
Razan Ghazzawi
free press
student protest
city protest
water hoses
electrocuting billyclubs
live fire
laurel trees
laurel soap she handmade
mama, what he brought me
crates of grapes
and underneath the grapes,
my love packed the apple crates
starvation sieges
Yarmouk, Khaled
Ferguson, Michael
Daraya, Ghiyath
water bottles
Standing Rock
drought
water-sharing
food-sharing
truckbed of eggplants
sarin
transparency
tanks
Tianenmen Square
Tahrir Square
Daraa al-Balad
Clock Tower Square
Bayda village
I am a free woman, daughter of a free woman
local bodies
local council
power-sharing
solar panels
power-hoarding
president-for-life
Adra Women’s Prison
conscience
unconscious
electrocution
torture tire
Razan Zeitouneh
cats of Douma
olive tree
orchard
mountain
holy sea
rape farms
field clinics
field morgues
torched crops
scorched lungs
kheerota
azadi
roommate
mate tea
teacher
Cain
grain
wheat fields
Abel
enable
bread-oven
blood-oven
I am a human being
almond trees
quince trees
walnut trees
laurel trees
laurel soap she handmade
and underneath the crate of grapes
my love packed the apple crates

Aleppo the Necklace Broke All the Words Fell Apart
By Mohja Kahf

oud
my spine
Aleppo
Aleppo
pine nuts
pistachio
provisions
pizmonim
they have taken the one I love
cluster
melody
embroidery
woolens
pillow
swollen
Aleppo
sworn to me
evil eye
turquoise
tiny blue buttons
earlobe soft flesh
thin gold hoop
blood river
maqam
adhan
seeron ahkchig
a dream in quarter tones
lowered lashes
bone juts wound pus
gouged gagged
terrified
Aleppo love
answer me
alarm
tocsin
siren
music
words
use-
less
amulet
madstone
lodestone
amaun, amaun
Halab Halab
Halabi

Dark Music

By Eman Elshaikh

they have been singing for so long,
with the resonance of truth and justice, sonorous,
that i didn’t really hear them beat the war drum,
in their own ways.
i missed the discordant notes.
but weren’t the stories always living
in that dissonance?

they sing, booming, stentorian.
but other things always have a way of rising, louder
and revealing the true consonance
beneath the noise
(if only for those who offer their hearing)
and for all their ballads,
their elegies for lost truth,
it is this truth to which they are truly averse.

the violence
of this view from nowhere
this sound without a chamber
ringing without ideology
goes unsung, without hymns to decry it.
perhaps our own propaganda was always harmonious
or, perhaps heard only
at undetectable frequencies.

empires always have the best orchestras
which can make art of cacophony,
insulate silences

give them their own register.

Song Rising From the Depth of Sorrow!

A pantoum for hope
By Hedy Habra

Seeds of hope are written in invisible ink
Underlying despair they fold seasons at will
Stop tears of blood and bodies from falling
Keep rubbing with pumice stone and read!

Underlying despair they fold seasons at will
You can turn moon into sun and sun into moon
Keep rubbing with pumice stone and read
The pool of blood grows larger than the shadow!

You can turn moon into sun and sun into moon
Bring to the surface secret and repressed longings
The pool of blood grows larger than the shadow
Look at the glittering pattern of underground veins!

Bring to the surface secret and repressed longings
Curl into the moment preceding the bird’s song
Look at the glittering pattern of underground veins
Listen to the song rising from the depth of sorrow!