Interview with Hedy Habra

By Rewa Zeinati

Publications, Paintings and the Multi-language of Art

Rewa Zeinati: Your collection of poetry Tea in Heliopolis was an Award-Winning Finalist for the 2014 International Book Award in Poetry. Your book Flying Carpets won the 2013 Arab American Book Award Honorable Mention in Fiction and was an Award-Winning Finalist for the 2014 Eric Hoffer Book Award in Short Fiction. You won an Excellence in Teaching Award 
at Western Michigan University in 2014. And your individual poems and short stories have been published widely and often. What drives you on?

Hedy Habra: I feel honored and grateful for these publications and awards. I have been studying, writing and also teaching Spanish language and literature for a very long time. I believe that these continued activities stem from an insatiable curiosity and a passion for learning combined with an urge to share and communicate my enthusiasm and love for languages and literature. With each project, I learn a bit more about the world, about others, but mostly about myself. Literature is the best way to transcend one’s reality with its unavoidable ups and downs. Immersing oneself in the virtual space created by fiction or poetry allows for a much richer and more intense life.

RZ: How has being multi-lingual and multi-cultural shaped your craft, if at all? And while growing up, who affected your writing the most, and how?

HH: I was born and raised in Heliopolis, a residential suburb of Cairo, Egypt, and was schooled in French, Arabic, and English. I was mainly influenced by French literature and read extensively. I have always loved Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Aragon and Paul Celan as well as most of the classics. I studied Pharmacy in Beirut’s French St. Joseph University, and lived there till the onset of the civil war.

After spending several years in Europe, I came to the United States where I pursued graduate studies in English and Spanish. Some of my favorite poets are T.S. Eliot, Theodore Roethke, Charles Simic, Tony Hoagland and Mark Doty, but my list would be endless. My favorite author is usually the one I am reading and enjoying at a specific moment. Each great author provides a unique experience. Some of my favorite Middle Eastern writers are Adonis for poetry, and Amin Malouf and Tahar Ben Jalloun for fiction.

When I first discovered Latin American literature, I knew that it was the sort of writing I would like to emulate. My favorite writers are Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez and Juan Rulfo, for fiction, and Octavio Paz, César Vallejo and Pablo Neruda, for poetry, to name only a few. But I admire lots of Spanish and international authors, so it is hard to tell which writers have left an imprint on my work. I am also a great admirer of the fiction of Italo Calvino, Alessandro Barrico and Dino Buzzati, and I try to read them in the original Italian.

RZ: What makes a good poem?

HH: For me, it is a desire to reread the poem over and over again. I am very sensitive to a poem’s music and to the way the language flows. I love poems with striking images that create unusual and unexpected connections but that still won’t reveal it all, letting the reader make the leap and use his (or her) imagination.

RZ: What makes good fiction?

HH: I guess that my preference goes to novels that are well crafted and require the reader’s participation like Mario Vargas Llosa’s fiction. I have read each of his novels several times, always with renewed delight and interest. I love stories that have a surreal or fantastic dimension, that’s why I regularly reread Buzzati, Calvino, Cortázar and Borges. Good fiction is a text that you want to keep returning to, always discovering something new in its pages.

RZ: Some writers dedicate a couple of hours in the morning to write. Some after a jog. Some wait for the evening hours to settle down. What is your process?

HH: I don’t have a specific routine or ritual. Sometimes working in the yard, gardening or walking helps me enter a meditative state that is propitious to writing. It does seem to me that I am constantly writing, with occasional interruptions. And because I also like to write criticism, paint and cook, it is necessary to juggle with time.

I have always kept a journal, and at times, I like to leaf through the pages and highlight some passages that strike me for different reasons and seem to lead me into writing. I always record thoughts, impressions, epiphanies, and have tons of drafts and material that serve as inspiration. Many of my poems are inspired by visual art.

I find myself writing in different languages in my journal. Oftentimes, I work on the same poem in three different languages because some lines would come automatically in a different language associated with new images that I then try to translate, and by doing so I find unexpected ways to express the same thought. This process enriches each version in a reciprocal movement like osmosis.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

HH: I have just finished revising my second book of poetry and sent it to my publisher. Most of the poems in this collection are inspired by paintings. I have a passion for visual art and I am also an artist. I have painted a watercolor to illustrate the cover of the forthcoming book, as I did for Tea in Heliopolis. I am also working on a collection of poetry that focuses on my personal connection with the Middle East. Some of the poems are responses to what is going on in the area in an attempt to convey the sense of helplessness that we feel when we see it all from afar.

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

HH: Print and online literary journals are very important. I subscribe to several journals, such as Poet Lore, Cutthroat, The Bitter Oleander, Nimrod, Rattle, Crab Orchard Review, and read them with great interest. They are a bridge that allows readers to discover a multiplicity of voices and genres, and enables to keep up-to-date with the evolving tendencies of contemporary literature.

RZ: Do you have any advice for emerging writers, or other writers of many native tongues?

HH: I would say that persistence and discipline are indispensable. I think we learn writing by reading. So the more we read, analyze and try to emulate the authors we admire, the better our own writing will become and we will eventually find our own voice. This works for painting as well. Visual artists first learn to copy the classics before developing a distinctive style. Regarding multilingual writers, I would recommend that they maintain their languages alive by reading constantly in the original. Writers should consider this ability as an advantage instead of a hindrance. In addition, every language brings along a wealth of original metaphors, which cross-pollinate and enrich one another.

Interview with Sam Hamod

By Rewa Zeinati

Language, Music, Prayer

Rewa Zeinati: A prolific poet, a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, a critical political writer, a healer, an editor, a professor, a blues musician and singer, a spiritual, multifaceted and interfaith religious Muslim leader who ran The Islamic Center in Washington, DC; founder of the internationally acclaimed, Third World News in Washington DC, Ph.D. from the famed Iowa Writers Workshop where you taught and studied—your teaching career also spanning over Princeton, Michigan, Wisconsin, Howard and more—and since the 1960s you’ve published ten books and have appeared in over 200 anthologies of literature worldwide. You are the founder of Contemporary World Poetry Journal- publishing distinct and diverse international voices in poetry. What drives you on?

Sam Hamod: Rainer Maria Rilke, the great German poet said, “You do not choose poetry, it chooses you.” In my case, I feel that he was correct, that and in the plans of Allah, I became a poet and continue to write; not all by my choosing. If you had asked me when I was young, or even in my early 20s if I’d like to be a poet, I would have said you were crazy.
I am driven by the desire to do the things I want to do, and to add positive things and matter to society. I also feel very blessed. As for my journals, I founded them, Third World News (a weekly and bi weekly newspaper in Washington, DC, which I founded in late 1980-81, I started that newspaper because I felt there were no media voices for the Arabs or Islam, but then I also found out that other third world people needed a voice, so I included those from South America, Asia, Africa and elsewhere); my websites, www.todaysalternativenews.com was a child of Third World News online, but I also used it to speak against the West’s wars against Islam and the Third World, especially the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I started the two literary sites, Contemporaryworldliterature and Contemporaryworldpoetry so that we could publish good quality writers in their own script from around the world. I want to be a “world poet,” and want to publish world-class writers, not just ethnic or weak writers who “lean” on their culture but do not write good poems within or about it.
Incidentally, I have a strong background in rhetorical theory and practice, and even published a paper many years ago, on Arab and Islamic Rhetorical Theory and Practice, A Brief Overview, in 1963.

RZ: Your poetry is rich in language, music, prayer, sound, smells, and scenes, from your country of origin, Lebanon, as well as the Middle East. How difficult/easy was the transition from Lebanon to the US, where you adopted a new culture, new music, new sounds, smells, scenes?

SH: Actually, I was born in Gary, Indiana, but in the house we were in Lebanon, but outside our door, we were in America; thus, in my life, I always lived in at least 2 worlds. I never saw them as a conflict, but as an asset, they complemented one another as far as my vision and understanding was concerned.
I grew up with poor parents, my father and mother ran a boarding house hotel; we lived there and shared it with 40 men from around the world. The men had come to work in the steel mills and railroads around Gary and Chicago. So, I got to hear all these foreign Slavic, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Indian, and other languages as a child, until I was 5 years old. Then my father opened a business in an African-American area, where I heard the blues, and learned different American dialects until I was a teenager when he left that business.
I’ve loved all the Arab sounds, smells, foods, music, culture since I was a kid; we used to go to a small mosque in Michigan City, Indiana many Sundays where we’d learn Arabic and hear discussions about the Qur’an and Islam My grandfather, Hajj Abbass Habhab, was the first émigré to America who went on the Hajj from America. Thus, I had a strong Islamic, Arab background. Later, in the 1960s, my father, Hajj Hussein Hamode Subh, aka Sam Hamod, built a mosque, Mosque El Amin in Gary, Indiana; it became the founding home for the MSA Muslim Students Association, and that later morphed into ISNA. In the 1980s, I became the Director of The Islamic Center in Washington, DC, when it was the focal point of Islam in North America.
I enjoyed it all, all aspects, the good and the bad, but I always trusted in Allah no matter what happened. I learned this from my mother, Zinab Habhab Hamod, though she was no Hajj, she was always a Hajj in her heart and had the strongest belief and appreciation of the gifts of Allah of anyone I’ve ever met, and I’ve met hundreds of thousands of Muslims and others, but her example and wisdom sustained me through the best and worst of times.

RZ: How has being uprooted from a home country shaped your craft?

SH: My poems come from my heart and experiences; I might see a line or a word, then suddenly a poem starts to come through me. All my life, I’ve always lived in the USA and in Leb’nan, though I wasn’t there in person all the time, I’ve always kept my heart there; thus, there has been no split in me, just double vision, and more. But, I do get upset when I see the fighting between groups in Lebanon; when I was young and went there, everyone was a “cousin” or “brother” to everyone else. Let us hope this fellowship and brotherhood returns, not only in Leb’nan but elsewhere in the Muslim and Arab world.
I am very influenced by what I felt were the great poems of Islamic Spain, Lorca, Darwish, Rumi, Neruda and those who write from their hearts of justice, love, passion and the beauty Allah has bestowed on mankind in the world.

RZ: You’ve said once, ‘At times, I want to speak only of poems, not of “ethnic poems.” But in truth our ethnicity helps shape the way we see and the way we write—so it is a part of what our poems are made of. But a poem cannot lean on its ethnicity in order to keep from falling—a poem must be a good poem on its own.’ What makes a good poem? What makes great poetry?

SH: Yes, I still hold with that statement; we should not “lean” on our ethnic background, but use it as a source, so that it informs who we are, and the emotion should come through in the passion of our poem, but we should not think that a poem is good just because it speaks of our ethnic background or concerns.
As to what a good or great poem is:
A good to great poem should give you an insight, but must be ineffable, that is, no matter how much you like to explain the poem, it will be more than your word, because of the way it moves with language, sound, smell, feeling and the way it makes you feel and realize something in a way that is deeper than you have felt or understood something before reading that poem. A poem may be great if it is only 2 or 3 lines long, or 30 pages long, length is not a determining factor;
Great poetry can be seen in the work of Lorca, Darwish, Qabbani, Adonis, Neruda, Hafiz, Rumi, Hikmet, Eluard, Borges, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and such American poets as the late James Wright, Ethridge Knight, Robert Hayden and such poets alive as Amiri Baraka (no longer with us, may he rest in peace) and Sonia Sanchez .

RZ: After attending Law School at The University of Chicago then returning to Gary to open The Broadway Lounge, where you hired blues giants such as B.B.King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Red Foxx, and others to perform, you must’ve been saturated in African American culture where jazz and blues took center stage. You play jazz and sing the blues professionally yourself. You were a poet who carried a 38, a 32 and a 25 calibre Browning. When did you decide you needed to shift gears and change paths? And why?

SH: I went into the bar business in order to keep my father from going back into that business. He had killed a man in self-defense, but I was afraid if he went back, someone might try to take revenge on him, even though he had not been at fault. I didn’t want to open the bar, but my father insisted, so I left law school to protect him and our family. I enjoyed the people, the musicians, and I enjoyed singing with them, because I’d grown up with blues music and jazz. But after 2 years of that I decided that I should leave and become a professor. We had an offer to sell the bar, but my father didn’t want to; he wanted to take it over, so I gave it to him and left, feeling I had done all I could do and felt that if I stayed, after time, someone would either shoot me or I might shoot someone because the economy was getting worse, and I felt myself getting “cold” inside, and I didn’t want that to happen. It was good, but like other things in my life, I decided it was time to move on, and I’m happy I did; it was for the best.

RZ: While growing up, who shaped and affected your writing the most?

SH: I think it was listening to the stories the men all told us at the hotel, my immigrants from South America, Mexico, Europe, Asia, friends of my father from the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, etc.), and the Americans, especially those who were “hillbillies,” from Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and Louisiana, as well as stories from my uncles who served in WWII, and the other immigrants I met while growing up. I think the sense of hearing stories, so that I was driven more from “hearing” and “speaking” the sense of “voice”, rather than reading literature that shaped my way of writing. Interestingly, I started college as a business major, but changed into Speech Communications in my junior year at Northwestern University; thus, I have always been more attuned to the oral tradition than the written tradition. But, if you look at the history of great literature, the best poetry always survived best when it would stand up through hearing it aloud (Whitman, Homer, Shakespeare, Keats, Darwish, Lorca, etc.).
Also, with the voice, you always listen for the emotion; then, as a poet, you want to get that emotion into your poems.
I think that music also influenced the way I write; there has to be a lot of rhythm and music through language in my poems. I say this because English is a flat language and you have to create the music in your work to make it come alive. The poems for Ella and Joe Williams, “Joe Williams at the Blue Note” show best what I’m talking about in terms of music; the poem, “Dying with the Wrong Name” best exemplifies my work within Arab/American/Islamic culture in terms of language, food, etc. as does “After the Funeral of Hamad Assam,” (originally published by Perishable Press, After the Funeral of Assam Hamady), where the Muslim prayer, Al Fati’ha’ is in the middle of the poem and necessary to the poem. I deal with the cultural matters in other poems such as “Lines to my Father.” etc.

RZ: You are a descendant of Muslim Lebanese parents, where your faith played a large part in your writing. You were also open to many religious experiences like the Moorish Science Temple and various Muslim sects. How important is it, as an artist, to be open to so many different faiths and cultures and belief systems?
SH: It was always in my nature to learn what I could about everything, whether it was someone else’s culture, religion, food, music, or how to change a washer in a faucet or how to build a house or fix a car. I’ve been taken always by the fact that so many of the world’s great religions, have all pointed to One God, as I’ve found most people are pretty good people; thus, I see the good, and the similarities among people and religions, not the differences.

RZ: What inspires you?

SH: Everything, especially being alive. Each day, each event, different people, different moments, different lines, different poems, stories, songs, sunsets, birds, trees, walking, making love, a beautiful smile, a child’s laughter—just all the things of life inspire me. The poems come from everywhere, but behind it all is Allah. Even doing this interview is inspiring in its own way, but it’s hard to choose poems to send you. You always want to send your very best, but you hope that you next poem will even be better, and at times, the poem that come next is.
Great love and great tragedy, and the possibilities of love and beauty are all inspiring all the time.

RZ: Why did you feel it necessary to establish the platform: Contemporary World Poetry Journal?

SH: As I said earlier, I wanted a truly international journal with excellent writing. [We] had a good response from all over the world with the platform and the other one, www.contemporaryworldliterature.com
No one else had done what we did, but I hope they do; the more good poetry and literature in the world, the better. We never compete with anyone else, only with ourselves to do the best we can, and hope that others add to the beauty and literature of the world, so that we all gain. It is my hope that your magazine will prosper and grow, and grow and grow.

RZ: What do you think of Arab writers who can only write in English? Do you think they owe their heritage the ability to express, and the insistence upon expressing, themselves in Arabic as well?

SH: No, I think a writer should write in the language he or she is most comfortable in. I’ve seen too many who want to write in both languages, but one or the other is stilted. Your first major language that you hear or speak or work with seems to work best. Even among translators I’ve known, they work best in one of their languages when they write poems or stories not in all. Of course, there are exceptions, but generally I’ve found this to be true.
And, because I prefer to be a world class poet, of Arab Muslim extraction, I don’t want to be limited to be just “an Arab or Muslim poet”; I feel Lorca, Darwish, Neruda exceeded their ethnic backgrounds to be great poets, not just Spanish, Palestinian or Chilean poets; we of a certain background, and we carry that within us and it “informs” who we are, but we are also of the larger world, and must live in the larger world, not be restricted to where we came from; as poets, we must travel poetically as Ibn Batuta and Marco Polo traveled in the world.

RZ: What are you working on now?

SH: It seems I’m trying to finish my memoirs, and have part of them done, and will send you part of it if you wish. The first part is called, “At the Broadway Lounge,” but other parts are underway.
But poems keep getting in the way, as does spring, the beauty of each day, just walking in the sun, or swimming or reading or just the daily matter of keeping up with bills, taxes and life. But I don’t want to miss any of this.
But my major focus now must be on finishing my memoirs otherwise certain things about Islam in America, Hon. Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Farrakkhan will never be known, or certain Islamic organizations that preceded the MSA and ISNA, etc. I have this obligation in my life, and inshallah I shall be able to finish it well.

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

SH: Journals are important if they are good; if they are mediocre, then they are a waste of trees and time, and they add to the distractions of life.

RZ: What advice would you offer emerging writers? (Or musicians for that matter!)

SH: Hope for Allah’s help in whatever you do, and always write or sing from your soul. To become a great writer or musician, you have to have something to say.
Thus, I’d say it is better to live a lot, not go from a B.A. to an MFA because you will rarely have had experiences deep or varied enough to become a good or great writer.
If you listen to B.B.King, Muddy Waters, Joe William, or hear or read Lorca, Darwish, Neruda, Baraka, you will know they’ve lived that life, they are telling you their life, their deep experiences, not some novelty or technique, but something from their soul.
The next best thing to do is to read good writers, great writers, and listen to good and great music, whether it be blues or Um Kulthm, or Fairouz, or listen to a mountain wedding music in Leb’nan or Morocco, or Turkey, an “atabee”, or “taksim” or whatever that will grab your heart and soul, then go on and live, and then write.

Interview with Etel Adnan

By Rewa Zeinati

“MORE THAN EVER, OUR ARAB WORLD IN PARTICULAR, NEEDS POETRY AND THE ARTS, NEEDS EVERY FORM OF THE AFFIRMATION OF LIFE”- Etel Adnan

Rewa Zeinati: Etel Adnan, you are a multidimensional writer and artist; an author, a novelist, a poet, and a cultural critic. You have written documentaries and operas, short stories and plays and you are a visual artist in different media. You were born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1925. You studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, U.C. Berkeley, and at Harvard. In 1972, you returned to Beirut and worked as cultural editor for two daily newspapers—first for Al Safa, then for L’Orient le Jour. Your novel Sitt Marie-Rose, published in Paris in 1977, won the France-Pays Arabes award and has been translated into ten languages. At least eighteen works have been published in English. They include The Arab Apocalypse (Post-Apollo Press, 1989); Sea and Fog (Nightboat Books, 2012), winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry and the California Book Award for Poetry. In 2011, you received Small Press Traffic’s Lifetime Achievement Award. And, in 2014, you were awarded one of France’s highest cultural honors: L’ordre de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres. What drives you on?

Etel Adnan: What drives me on? I really don’t know. Have never been asked such a question ever. I was a turbulent child and remained a restless person. When I enter a house I go immediately to the windows. And I remember when I was about 18 and I had a Russian friend in Beirut (there were many Russian refugees from WWI and their children) and I told her that we were living always projected into the future – a future with no idea or image attached to it – and she agreed with a great melancholy about her. My encounter with poetry came about the same time and age and I thought we were born for reading poetry. Nothing else mattered, of course there were the great French poets such as Rimbaud, Verlaine, Gerard de Nerval, Baudelaire; they really never left me.

What really drives me is the history of our area, the Arab World, and the Islamic World, and mainly because the trouble in them never stops. It’s contemporary History that writes my books.

There are two other major concerns of mine. One is love, the failure in love, due to so many things, and the fact that the first person we really loved haunts forever. There is also my love for Nature, my need for it. So all this can keep me going.

RZ: In solidarity with the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), you began to resist the political implications of writing in French and became a painter. In your own words, “painting became a new language and a solution to my dilemma: I didn’t need to write in French anymore; I was going to paint in Arabic.” Then, through your participation in the poets’ movement against the Vietnam War (1959-1975), you began to write poetry in English and became, “an American poet.” What does it mean for you to be self-labeled, or thought of, as an American poet?

EA:- I lived the Algerian war of independence while living in California. I was teaching philosophy, and following the news. It seemed to me then, and I think I was right, that the loss of Algeria was going to be a defeat like the loss of Palestine. Those were the Abdel Nasser years and the dream of Arab unity was a real goal. It remains that it has been a positive model for the Third World, an incredible achievement.

I felt great being an “American poet”, I had a home.

RZ: What makes good art/good writing?

EA: What makes good writing? Many, many things… you can’t tell, in a way. It’s also related to the times we live in. But The “Iliad” is still great writing! There is something that the reader recognizes, the soundness of a rhythm, something convincing, I don’t know. But there is no proof. You do what you can… but there will always be some people that will like it and some that won’t.

RZ: The sun is a central subject in your work. Is it your biggest inspiration? What inspires you?

EA: The sun was a powerful element of my childhood in Beirut. As I was an only child, the world surrounding me was of great importance. The sun particularly, as it is very present over there, and the city had low houses, three floors at most, and I was aware of shadows too… I remember trying to look straight at the sun very often, and my eyes [would] burn and blur, and also in the summer I don’t know how my mother found one of those colonial headgear, all painted white that I saw later in pictures of mostly British people in the colonies and I was then aware that the sun was a very dangerous being and I had to deal with it. So the sun is an omnipresent being in our countries, both beneficial and dangerous. No wonder our ancient gods were led by sun-gods, the pharaohs as well as the Babylonians had as a supreme god, a solar deity.

RZ: You have a way with writing that may appear, to the naïve mind, to be dizzyingly simplistic, yet, in fact, it is superbly full and brilliantly philosophical. I’m always struck by how your lines or sections end; you simply know when to stop writing and let the image or word resonate with the reader; always at the exact right moment, with the exact right word, not a moment too soon or too late. As simple as, “In the morning they all went to the small cages they call their offices. Some of them made telephone calls.” What is your secret?

EA: We are in a period of cut and dry poetry, of minimalism; it has become natural to avoid developement in our writings. It’s both new and very ancient. Look at the Greek pre-Socratics, their thinking is expressed as geometric equations, and it makes it very poetic.

RZ: Is there a difference between poetry and philosophy?

EA: Is there a difference between poetry and philosophy? Yes and no. There used to be a difference in western philosophy. Western philosophy was involved in the search of some truth, of some system explaining reality. From the English philosophers on, the possibility of reaching absolute statements, statements about the absolute, was dimming. But it’s Nietzsche [who] demonstrated, or discovered himself that philosophical works are constructions, personal constructions that cannot pretend to be any definitive view of reality. That neared philosophy to thinking, brought it closer to intuition, to sudden “revelation”. Heidegger followed that line and ended up asserting that the greatest form of philosophy is to be found in the great poets such as, for Germans, in Hölderlin and Rilke. I very strongly believe, I find that the great Islamic Sufis are theologians/philosophers/poets, the greatest poets of that world.

RZ: Is one born a political poet? Or is all poetry political? (Or should it be?)

EA: Poetry doesn’t need to be political in its subject matter. It’s not the subject matter that’s important, it’s the way you treat it. Of course if you manage to convey the importance of something that gets you, your passion for it, how existential is for example the political/historical situation of your country, or of a country that matters to you, then that text could be poetic. You speak of a rose, or of the situation of Palestine, you can write something that will be a poem. How? It’s up to you, and to the reader… But in a way, everything is political, in the sense that everything says something about you that goes beyond the subject matter, and also that whatever we do affects the world, in minute ways generally, invisible ways, but it becomes part of the becoming of everything that is. In that sense, washing your hands is also a cosmic event.

RZ: Is there room for poetry and art in a region bursting with absolute turmoil; where fundamentalism, religious figures and politicians have taken over home and street?

EA: More than ever, our Arab world in particular, needs poetry and the arts, needs every form of the affirmation of life. The forces of death are very active, due to the abysmal mediocrity of our politicians, and also due to outside interference. So all we have to counterbalance that evil is to be alive, and to sustain life. Poetry, art, is what will remain of these dark period … I am always comforted by the existence of the great deal of creativity in our countries; they are suffering, but they’re going ahead, they’re surviving, and much more… we will not go under.

RZ: You mentioned once in an interview that, “It’s possible that in the past, unconsciously, people paid less attention to women’s work. Things are changing; there are more and more women curators, and more women gallery owners. It doesn’t mean that they will automatically pay more attention to women’s work, but it’s changing. We can’t complain.” Are things changing fast enough, though, for women writers and artists?

EA: Our region is changing in good directions in spite of all our defeats and destruction. There is a civil society that’s emerging from the ashes of our patriarchal societies. It’s a good sign, even if that society is regularly repressed.

RZ: What advice would you give emerging writers and/or artists?

EA: Giving advice is usually a pompous affair. If I have to give one, it is “don’t be afraid, go ahead, pay the price it [will] entail, and you will certainly feel free, and probably creative too.

RZ: “Not seeing rivers is also another way of dying.” Do you remember where you were or what was happening around you when you wrote this magnificent line?

EA: River, oh rivers… I don’t know where and when I wrote the line you quote, but it is utterly true… without the sea, the ocean, or a river in my vicinity I am a dying plant.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

EA: Working on what these days? I am painting, mostly. For a whole year, I have a poem already written, NIGHT, following SEASONS and SEA & FOG and I don’t know why I keep it waiting… must reread it carefully and let it go…

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

EA: Literary magazines are dwindling, for money reasons… and indifference for literature – young people prefer dance, music, where physical goes, but they are indispensable… they keep the pulse of the thinking of a society… it takes courage nowadays to run a magazine or a publishing house for poetry and literature in general.

Newsworthy

By Lena K Tuffaha

I.

before you can see

we’ll need to adjust the lens

we find that natural light can be

unforgiving,

all those lines and jagged edges

glaring,

beads of sweat shimmering on the brow

scarlet of a fresh wound

unfurling across a body

might overwhelm

we’ll need to calibrate

 

before you react

before you assign any labels to what you see

(like injustice)

before you identify any emotions stirring in you

(like anger or shame)

we’ll need to fine-tune

It’s so complicated, this cycle

what appears so obvious

cannot be named

to maximize clarity

find a signature for the moment

we’ll need to select an image

layer the right sounds on top of it

we assemble a collage of now

so you can understand what’s at stake

so you can understand what you think you are seeing

the information that is

being sent from your eyeballs to your brain

is just raw data

and must be processed for you

 

This is called Context.

 

see for example the brown-skinned boy

slender limbs running across the street

a rock in his hand

focus on the rock

if you feel a bit unsettled by the chaos unfolding on his street

the smoke billowing from fires all around him

the tank pouring out armed soldiers

at the vanishing point where he aims

steady yourself with the thought

of the damage that the rock could conceivably do

and here it would be illuminating to note

that we have soldiers too

our boys sent across the globe

and don’t we love our boys?

and don’t we want them to come home safe?

see? A tank isn’t necessarily a bad thing            a semi-automatic

weapon aimed at a child maybe isn’t

what it appears to be

now hold these feelings in front of your eyes

as you look at that brown boy with the rock in his hand

 

This is called Nuance.

 

III.

now it gets trickier

you’ll need to remain vigilant

now that rock-throwing boy

wounds still fresh on his face

eyes half open to the sky

re-appears in the foreground swaddled in a flag            piled onto a stretcher

and beneath him a teeming sea of people

swells in what was the street                        they are lifting what’s left of him overhead

let us now turn up the volume for you

let’s pan out            resist the urge to look too long at

any one face

here a wide camera angle will do best

 

what are all these people saying?

 

focus on the totality of the sounds

why aren’t they softer? shouldn’t sorrow

be soft     modest     relatable?

 

focus on the Allahu akbar

who else says that?   what have you learned to feel about those words?

 

This is called Critical Thinking.

 

IV.

if you find yourself distracted

caught by the anguish on the mother’s

face in the crowd

focus instead on her veil

notice how many women in the crowd are veiled

how do you feel about that?

 

let the question fall slowly

between you and the mother

whose son’s limbs have been

collected for burial

if you find your stomach

tightening at the sight of her pain

if you find yourself measuring

the miniscule space her son’s

corpse takes up on the stretcher

if your eyes find others in the crowd

focus

focus again on the sound that floats up

the words you don’t speak

you do not know these people

 

why are they so angry?

 

tune into how their grief is loud

and disarrayed and confusing

and threatens to make you feel bad

stay with these feelings

now hold these feelings in front of your eyes

to filter the images you are seeing.

 

This is called Balance.

 

For more poems by Lena K Tuffaha read the full winter 2015 issue

The Tulip Tree

By Philip Metres

They wanted to tear down the tulip tree, our Jewish neighbors, last year. It throws a shadow over their vegetable patch, the only tree in our backyard. We said no. Now they’ve hired a hand to chainsaw an arm—the crux on our side of the fence—and my wife marches in tousled hair and morning sweats to stop the carnage, mid-limb. She recites her litany of no’s, turns home. Minutes later, the neighbors arrive. The worker fingers our unblinded window. I want to say, it’s not me, slide out of view behind a wall of cupboards, ominous breakfast table, steam of tea, our two young clueless daughters alone. I want no trouble. Must I fight for my wife’s desire for pink blooms when my neighbors’ cukes will stunt and blight in shadow? Always the same story: two people, a tree, not enough land or light or love. They want to let the sunlight bathe their garden—how can we refuse them? This is the only tree in our whole backyard—how can they insist? By rights they could cut every bit that begins on their side of the line. Like the baby brought to Solomon, it can’t be cut in two and survive. Someone must give. Dear neighbor, it’s not me. Bloom-shadowed, light deprived, they lower the chainsaw again.

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

Arsenal

By Elmaz Abinader

We don’t need thunder, might, or the conversion of galaxies to withstand —
if anything we are armed with fists, conscience, rocks, history, and backs like hemp

Warfare drives us into an insistent fog, cold and frequent, a churning in the belly–
drives us to link, chain a curtain, thatch a roof; braid vines into electrical cords

Our skirts are shredded into tourniquets; clog arteries resolute on lava, tidal wave–
Rocks crack like pumpkin seeds between our teeth, even in empty mouths.

It’s nothing for women who cradle little ones between curtains of incursion–
we have birthed more than one dead son, brother, hostage, girl, flower, stone.

Forts have been built of silk and cement, each hand laying brick upon brick.
The years pass, the beds sag aloneness; graves are hollowed right below the breastbone

We are our own weapons: waiting hardens the calves, teaches us how to move–
phrases are formed and we mouth ancient stories but nothing

as remarkable as this preservation of life when death lurks. The sergeant asking
questions through the crack in the door our bodies are pressed upon

These days are not remembered, no names are evoked; our shadows slide
down the wall unnoticed
We are seismic in our keening, this song, a story, told in whispers, starving ourselves of breath.

Interview with Zeina Hashem Beck

Lost to the News
Lost to the News By Nouf Semari, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 100 cm

By Rewa Zeinati

Cities of longing, memory, love and war

RZ: Your first poetry collection, To Live in Autumn, won the 2013 Backwaters Prize and will be published in August 2014 by the Backwaters Press, in Omaha, Nebraska. It was selected as a winning manuscript by notable poet Lola Haskins. You’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and your individual poems have been published widely and frequently in many distinguished journals across the US. You are on the editorial board of All Roads Will Lead You Home, a new online literary journal by VAC poetry. A mother of two, founder of PUNCH, a monthly open-mic poetry evening, and runner of poetry workshops for adults and children (in Dubai, UAE.) What drives you on?

ZHB: With both poetry and motherhood, one doesn’t know what the driving force is exactly. You just go with it, almost instinctively. The love, the passion, the intuition, and the obsession are there. But one doesn’t know why/how they are there to start with.

This isn’t to say, of course, that all is intuitive (and immediate) in poetry and motherhood. You also learn these things, because they are things you do, not just feel. So, you get up every day, you feed, bathe, and dress your children, and you talk to them, and you play with them, and you love them and hug them, and they drive you crazy, and you are exhausted, and you need a break, and you hope you don’t lose it by the end of the day. In poetry too, it’s about the day-to-day work on something you love: I try to read every day, and think about writing every day, and I revise, and sometimes I obsess, and the poems can drive me crazy as well.

I have to point out though, since I’ve started this simile, that motherhood and poetry aren’t similar in all aspects, and that they don’t always co-exist. Motherhood is something you do with your kids, whereas poetry is something you do alone. Sometimes I abandon my kids for my poems, and sometimes I abandon my poems for my kids. But now I’m digressing. Have I somehow answered the question? I guess I love them (my kids and poetry), and try to be there for them every day.

RZ: Your book To Live in Autumn is set in, and is about, Beirut. You being a Tripoli-native and childhood resident of Tripoli (Lebanon), why Beirut?

ZHB: When I left Beirut in 2006 after having lived there for six years, the poems just kept coming, out of nostalgia, I think. It was like I was summoning the city back to me in writing. After some time, I realized Beirut was a recurrent theme in my poetry, and I took the decision to write the book with the working title Re-membering Beirut. The process took years, during which I also wrote about other things/places (Tripoli among them), but those poems didn’t go into the book. I want to note that some poems in To Live in Autumn are a mixture of Beirut and Tripoli. “Nocturne,” for example, is one of them. “The Old Building” is heavily based on the building I lived in as a child in Tripoli, and the last poem of the book, “Spring,” brings Tripoli into the picture as well.

But why did Beirut keep coming to me in the first place? Probably because I spent my university years there, and those were formative and exciting years for me. Beirut is an inspiring city, and it was new and unfamiliar to me, the eighteen-year-old from Tripoli. It gave me poetry readings, theater, literature (that’s what I was studying), dance, streets, new friends, chaos, and of course, political unrest. So naturally, when I left the city that I had grown to love so much, I felt that longing for it, which I think triggered the writing. The poems in the book eventually moved beyond mere longing and nostalgia of course.

RZ: What do you think makes a good poem?

ZHB: I don’t think there’s an objective list of criteria for a good poem. I’ll tell you what would make me love a poem though: its ability to make the familiar unfamiliar (and vice-versa), its ability to move me (immediately!), and this urge I get of wanting to read it over and over again.

RZ: Do you think poetry and fiction are at all related?

ZHB: Aren’t all art forms somehow related? Good fiction and good poetry should both have the ability to amaze the reader. I don’t read much fiction, but when I do, I’ve noticed that the books I like are the ones with good details, surprising images, and condensed language, all of which are also necessary in poetry. On the other hand, poetry too, is fictional, in its reinvention of the world around us.

RZ: Can good writing be taught?

ZHB: I think you are either born a writer (among other things), or you aren’t. If you do have that innate ability (and better yet, an irresistible urge) to write, then you can definitely learn to write better. The best way to do that is by reading, reading, and reading good writing. And if you’re lucky enough to get feedback from fellow writers you trust, then that helps as well.
6- You’ve recently begun exploring writing in your native tongue, Arabic. How is that different from writing in English, apart from the obvious, of course.

I’ve only just started to flirt with Arabic. I haven’t been writing in Arabic long enough for me to be able to formulate similarities and differences. For now, the creative process feels the same to me in both languages.

RZ: What is your writing process? Are you a morning writer? An after-midnight poet?

ZHB: When I became a mother, I also became a write-whenever-you-can poet. So, when my kids are at school, I do most of my reading and writing in the morning. When they’re on vacation, I do that when they’re not killing each other. But nothing is that systematic of course, and a lot of poems come at unexpected times, as long as I’ve warmed up for them. The writing process you mention is, for me, about this warming up. It involves reading, getting some quiet time, and observing. If I do this every day, the poems will eventually come.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

ZHB: Toward my second collection, I hope.

RZ: The concept of literary journals for Arab writers writing in English is a foreign one. How did you first learn about it, considering that you have resided in the Arab region all your life.

ZHB: When I was a graduate assistant at AUB, a professor of mine gave me the CLMP directory to help him look for potential journals for his poetry. He showed me what to look for in a journal, and explained things like what simultaneous submissions and SASE mean. I ended up ordering my own copy of the directory, going online, and checking out the journals in there that appealed to me, the kind of poetry they publish, and their guidelines. Back then, many didn’t have online submission managers yet (I’m happy that one can now submit to almost any journal online). That same professor also directed me to pw.org, which was also a helpful resource.

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

ZHB: Literary journals are vital. They give contemporary writers the chance to showcase their work, and they are where all the good new writing is! I learn a lot about fellow poets from literary magazines, and when I like a poet’s work, I usually end up ordering his/her book.

RZ: What advice would you give promising writers?

ZHB: Read Bukowski’s poem, “so you wanna be a writer,” which starts this way:

“if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.”

Read that poem, then: read (read, read), write, revise, submit, learn to accept rejection, and repeat all previous steps, as long as it’s “bursting out of you.”

Intifada Love Story: 1988

By Susan Muaddi Darraj

When they came, they stayed on the rooftop for seven days. Nobody knew it would be that long, not at first. They came because of the demonstration in Ramallah, said Jamil’s father. He’d been the one to see them from the salon window, as they’d trudged up the walkway, their backs loaded with olive green duffel bags, their shoulders embraced by the leather straps of dusty AK47s. Four shebab killed in that protest, including one of the boys from Jamil’s history lecture class, and twenty arrested, they’d heard. All the villages were on lockdown.

The thumping of boots on the house’s flat cement roof could be heard most clearly in the kitchen, despite the insistent humming of the old refrigerator and the loud coughing of the pipes. On the first day they were there, the heavy thuds shook loose bits of plaster from around the light fixture to the floor, like a light coat of snow that Jamil’s mother sent him to sweep. Four, Jamil thought. There must be four of them up there. He counted their distinct footsteps and patterns of shuffling – one guy had a light, quick gait, while the another plodded like a giant with thick, flat feet – as he lazily swept the powdery plaster into a pile, then pushed the small hill into a dustpan. Since his last sister had gotten married, household chores had come down on his head. The usual bad luck of being the youngest, the last egg to be plucked from the coop.

He put the broom and the dustpan back in the pantry, then turned on the sink faucet to rinse his hands. The pipes groaned, then backfired sharply, and he smiled to realize that the footsteps above his head froze. He dropped the grin when his parents rushed into the kitchen.

“It’s just the pipes,” he calmed them. They knew that, of course; the pipes always made that horrible cracking. His father exhaled and sat down at the table.

“Go talk to them,” Jamil’s mother urged her husband, her hands picking on a hair of scratched wood on the table’s surface. With her thumbnail, she pushed the line out at the sides, until it tore a sliver of wood of and chipped a crescent out of her polished, pink nail.

“And say what?” Her husband seemed annoyed, like someone who thought himself clever but was easily beaten at a game of cards or tawla.

“I’ll go,” Jamil offered.

“No! God forbid,” his father replied, standing reluctantly, petulant at being pushed to the task. “This is my house.”

Up he went, trudging up the cement steps off the balcony to the flat roof, calling, “Salaam, salaam! Shalom, shalom!” as he neared the top. Jamil and his mother sat down at the table to wait, interpreting the noises – the stomps, the scrapes – above their heads. No shots fired, no yelling. That was good, at least.

When his father returned, Jamil could see the anger in his face, and the sweat that made his hairline slick. He sat down and croaked, “Water,” to his wife.

After he gulped down the small glass she filled for him, he told them, “Four or five days. They said it shouldn’t be longer.”

“Why our house?”

“It’s the biggest on this side of the hill. They can see everything from up there.”

Only later did he mention the rest of it. He admitted it nervously, like a confession wrenched from his guilty conscience by a priest. “They want us to stay inside.”

“We have to?” asked his wife sharply.

“And if we leave?” Jamil muttered. “What? Will they shoot us?”

His father slammed his hand down on the rickety table, catapulting the glass to the floor, where it shattered like a spray of ice pellets. His mother rolled her eyes at Jamil – that was the first glass from a new set, sent by her sister in Michigan, to break. “They shot four boys in Ramallah!” his father shouted.

After his father trudged out of the room, Jamil started to sweep up the glass shards from the floor, but his mother took the broom from him. “My turn,” she said. “And keep your mouth sealed. Let this glass be the only casualty this week.”

They played backgammon for the first night, sitting on the grape-colored, velvet-upholstered sofas in the formal salon, where they never sat casually. Tonight, though, his mother seemed not to care when Jamil’s father took out the J&B bottle, set a glass on the coffee table, settled on the largest sofa and opened the game board. Poor game board, Jamil thought, almost hysterically. Before tonight, its function had been to serve as a decoration in the room, its inlaid dark wood, in a geometric pattern, accenting the stuffy furniture. It had been set casually, like a movie prop, on the side table, to make it look like they played every day, to add to the aura of their perfect family: Father, a retired schoolteacher; Mother, a beauty in her day; and Son, a top student and soccer player – Tel al-Hilou’s model unit.

The phone buzzed steadily that first night. Their friends and neighbors, the Ghanems, called first. “I can see them from my bedroom window,” Mr. Ghanem reported. “Little kids with guns. These Israelis – what? Are they sending children to monitor us?” The old woman, Miss Salma, on the other side, could see them from her bathroom window: “Six rifles, but only four soldiers. They have a little stove, and they’re taking water from your roof tank with a metal pitcher.” She asked if she could bring them any food, but Jamil’s mother said no. It was better to wait and not cause problems. “They’re probably nervous, and a nervous boy with a gun is no good thing.”

“They don’t look nervous to me,” Miss Salma replied before she hung up. “But let me know if you need anything. I’m not afraid.”

***

For most of the morning of the second day, Jamil’s father fretted that Miss Salma was implying that he was. “I carried her brother’s body on my back when we buried him,” he said angrily to nobody in particular. “She had better not be calling me a coward.” Jamil’s father lived his life worried about gossip, and as much as he claimed to despise old women with free time, he also feared their storytelling.

His wife soothed him, saying she’d only meant that they wouldn’t bother an old woman. He reminded her of the girls who had been arrested in the demonstration three months ago, and the one who’d been released – pregnant – to her parents. “It’s like the French in Algeria,” he muttered. In his bedroom, Jamil listened, and while his annoyance with his father was blossoming, he was nevertheless sinking in the quicksand of his own worries. Being trapped in the house was upsetting his parents, who had to survive each other as well as the soldiers, but it threatened to suffocate a seventeen-year-old man.

The bedroom, large and square and white, had only become his when his last sister had gotten married. Years ago, he’d shared it with her and two other sisters: four children, crowded in one room, sharing the bathroom with their parents. When the house had been built eighty years ago, his father once told him, it didn’t even have a bathroom. The third bedroom had become the bathroom when Jamil’s parents had married. His mother – whose family had been the first to hold a wedding in the new hotel in Ramallah instead of in the church hall, like everyone else – had insisted. That left them with only two bedrooms, because she needed to keep a salon as well, to receive visitors properly.

Now it suddenly felt like the room, the whole house, didn’t belong to him anymore, like the soldiers on the rooftop could come in and take this too. As he lay on his bed, listening to his parents’ nervous chatter in the salon and the faint scrapes on the roof above his head, Jamil imagined that the soldiers would never leave. What if they stayed up there, nested, made the rooftop and the house their base, and Jamil stayed locked in this house forever? He’d never finish high school, never get married, never have children.

His thoughts spiraled like a hawk, seeking prey, until they centered and swooped down, as they inevitably did, on Muna, the Ghanems’ daughter. She would be home from school in a few hours and he could see into her living room from his bedroom window. He hoped she would signal him, even call, perhaps, pretend she wanted to give him the homework assignments he’d missed the day before, just so he could hear her voice. And if he could glimpse her sheet of black hair, her eyes from the window, it would end this terrible day happily.

In the other room, his parents had started up another game of backgammon. Jamil napped, not knowing what else to do until dinner, but his thoughts were filled with Muna: Muna next to him in algebra class, Muna secretly holding his hand under their white robes during their confirmation ceremony, Muna being attacked in a jail cell by a soldier wearing thick black boots, Muna collapsing in his arms after he’d broken in, kung-fu style, to rescue her. He awoke in a sweat, noticing that it was four o’clock, hurried to the window. But all the drapes in the Ghanem’s house were drawn. Of course they were. Jamil didn’t blame her father. They had three daughters too, just like his parents, but he felt like a castaway nonetheless. There would be no communication today.

Dinner that night was meatless, since his mother hadn’t been able to go to the butcher. Lentils and rice, a tomato-less salad since they couldn’t even go out to their own garden. “The last of my cucumbers,” his mother murmured like a mourner as they ate. “I suppose we can’t even go to the shed to get some pickled jars from our shelves?” His father didn’t reply, and she didn’t raise the subject again. They ate as usual, in the formal style she always insisted upon – quiet, cloth napkin in the lap, salad first. She baked a tray of haresia, since all she needed was the sugar and the tahine and the wheat, and they ate it as their dessert.

In the middle of the night, in his bedroom, he heard laughter above his head, two loud stomps, and a man’s explosive guffaw. He tried to fall back asleep, imagining his head so heavy that it sank into the thick pillow, but there was a pull, a tension in his neck that wouldn’t relax. He gave up, instead switching on his lamp and pulling Muna’s letters from his bedside drawer, where he kept them hidden under his old comic books. Every note she’d ever scribbled to him as they stood in line, had her younger sister discreetly palm to him – hastily written notes on napkins, plain notebook paper, on the pale blue sheets she’d used for half a year in tenth grade, all there in a bundle, organized from first to last from sixth grade, when their eyes first connected during Sunday mass, to two weeks ago, when she’d passed him a textbook in the library with a note tucked behind the table of contents. “All my love – mim.” Always signed with her initial, a simple circle – ﻢ – but the tail curliqued with a flourish, so secretly and lovingly. Whenever he saw a mim, in anything – a store sign, in the newspaper, in Mubarak’s and Shamir’s names, even – her face appeared, making the ugliness of it all more palatable. But her last letters were so insistent, and he hadn’t answered them. Girls, he’d thought. Always needing confirmation, something official, some way to prove how he felt. Why? Why couldn’t she accept the bare facts – she liked him, he liked her. Official things were in the distant future. He drifted off to sleep, wondering why Palestinians girls needed every little emotion clarified, every feeling uprooted.

He woke up in the morning, on the third day, startled, the letters under his chin, to the sound of yelling from the roof. An Israeli accent, speaking Arabic – “Shai. Bring shai. Four cups. Now.” The voice was so close, and then he realized it was in the house.

His mother scuttled by in the hallway, glancing in anxiously as she passed. He shoved the letters back in the drawer and hurried out, pulling his robe over his shoulders and licking the sleep off his teeth. His mother had put her small teapot on the stove and was digging in her canister for peppermint. His father walked in off the balcony, cursing.

“Sons of dogs, may their mothers burn at their fathers’ funerals – coming into my house! May the blackest plague swirl around them and kill them!” he fumed, his chest heaving even as he pulled four teacups from the pantry. “I should put some rat droppings in their shai, those bastards. Too bad you are too perfect of a homekeeper,” he muttered, consoling his wife, and even Jamal could see his father had now exploded sufficiently, released his anger, and could focus on calming his wife’s anxieties. That’s how it was in their home: the privilege of emotional outbursts always were awarded to his father before the others could share it.

“The roof is one thing, but to come into the house!” his mother said shakily, steeping the tea leaves in the pot, pushing them down with a fork she pulled from the sink. It seemed to Jamil, standing in the doorway, leaning on the wall, that the water boiled languidly, slowly, and their nerves bounced like the leaves in the simmering pot. “They just walked in like they own it!”

“Sons of dogs,” his father muttered again, pulling a tray from the rack. “Are we servants now, as well as prisoners?”

It was left to Jamal to carry the tray up to the roof. His mother had started to do it, only to be yelled at by her husband. “My wife is not a waitress for the Israeli army!”, but she wouldn’t let him ascend either, because his temper would get them all killed. “Send Jamil,” she finally said. And so up the cement steps he went.

He reached up above his head and knocked on the roof door, calling “Shalom!” as his father had instructed, listened for the mispronounced “Idfa’!” and walked through, pushing upwards, finally planting his feet on the cement roof and raising his eyes, to see a rifle pointed at his heart.

“You brought four cups?” asked a voice to the side, not owned by the curly-haired, rough-shaven teenager holding the rifle. The tray trembled in his hand and Jamil had the sense to steady it with the other.

“Yes,” he answered the Voice, his eyes focusing for some reason on the fingernails of the soldier – lines of black tucked deep in the nailbed, the knuckles below caked and peeling as the fingertips playfully drummed the trigger.

“Put it down,” instructed the Voice calmly. “Right at your feet.”

He did, and looked to the right. The Voice’s owner was younger than he thought, perhaps Jamil’s own age, his face and neck browned by the sun. Eyebrows like even rectangles, separated by a slit of brown skin. A chipped front tooth.

“Get the fuck out of here. And tell your mother to make us sandwiches for lunch.”

Jamil left, the gun still pointed at him, although he understood now that the initial splash of fear had dried off his body – they would laugh to themselves later, over and over, about his expression, imitate his reactions to pass the time.

His father roared, and his mother groaned, even as she began to pull the bread from the cabinet. When Jamil took it up to them, there was no gun now, only four pairs of eyes, four foreheads greasy and sweaty from the hot sun, four pairs of parched lips. They made Jamil nreak the corner off one sandwich and eat it, then the Voice took the small tray from him and they began devouring, not caring whether he’d descended or not, as they sat around the water tank.

Jamil stood awkwardly, feeling oddly like an intruder on their meal, despite the fact that they were gnawing on their hummus and pickle sandwiches while perching on his father’s – his grandfather’s – rooftop. He looked over the ledge, down into the courtyard, where the gate of the old chicken coop, long unused, swung lazily, unattached to the wall. Further up, he saw the metal doors of the old well, which they hardly used anymore.

The Voice licked his fingertips and picked up the fallen crumbs like a magnet attracting metal shavings, while the Gun paused, thumped his chest with a closed fist and burped. Jamil saw their guns leaning casually against the water tank, the large cylinder he’d helped his father install a few years ago. It caught the rainwater and stored it, a reserve right there on the roof, a modern development his father loved and was proud of, no longer depending on his well as many of their neighbors continued to do.

Across the street, in the window, a movement – small, quick – attracted his attention. A curtain pulled back at the Ghanem’s house, then dropped hastily. He waited, wondering if Muna had seen him, but the curtain stayed in its place. He looked back at the four soldiers only to find the Voice staring at him.

The Voice handed him the tray, cracking, “You have pretty neighbors,” in his rough Arabic. Jamil grabbed it as the others chuckled. He hurried down the steps, spent the rest of the day quietly reading and re-reading the three-day old newspaper, filled with turmoil that was meaningless in light of this moment. Riots in Jenin. A suicide in Lebanon, a girl jumped off her balcony. King Hussein is feeling better, the Queen says in an interview with the New York paper.

That night he dreamed of himself in black ninja pants, his hands slicing through the air, breaking noses and cracking collar bones, defending his love. He woke up, sweating hard, his hands searching for the comfort of the bundle of Muna’s letters.

***

On the fourth day, Jamil worried that he might scream at his mother, who was obsessively fretting over her inability to hang the laundry on the lines. Or at his father for his bluster, promising between TV viewing and snacking to slaughter the army with his bare hands. Jamil opted to be even more alone than he was: he spent most of the morning watching a crackly video tape of a king-fu movie. It was in Chinese, as far as he knew, dubbed into Russian, or Polish, or something, but he didn’t care. He could still follow the slow, angry glares, the face-offs, the jumps, kicks, and flip – the anger and its release. He knew every move by heart, had his favorite moments of the carefully choreographed fight scenes. But even that grew wearying, so he went into his room and spent the afternoon looking through his books. What were his classmates doing now? He lay on the floor in front of the low bookshelf. His sisters’ old textbooks filled half of it, and all the family’s other books – some inherited, some borrowed, the old Bible, some funeral memorial booklets of old people he didn’t know, a couple of photograph albums – sat dutifully, side by side, like victims condemned and waiting at the gallows. He pulled a battered, creased literature textbook, his eldest sister’s name scribbled in the front cover. Literature of the Globe. He opened it to the contents: “The Ancient World,” “The European Middle Ages,” “The Islamic Golden Era.” He turned to this section: he read Moses Maiomenedes, scanning the biography: a Jew. Nobody had ever told him that. Back to the contents: “India and the Subcontinent.” Tagore: he flipped to this section, and read “The Punishment,” about a wronged girl who stubbornly accepts her unjust sentence without a fight. Picked up the old newspaper again: some stories he missed… food riot in Thailand. George Bush elects his new cabinet. The girl in Lebanon again. Enough victimization. He felt confused, his world was not right. He skipped dinner and went to bed early.

***

On the fourth day, they ran out of bread. Jamil told the Voice, whose beard and mustache were thickening, that they were out of almost everything else too: milk, butter, eggs, vegetables.

“Tell one of your pretty neighbors to bring it,” he replied gruffly. “And we need more tea.”

“How long will you be staying?” Jamil asked boldly, but his only reply was a glare. Irritated by the casual reference to the Ghanems, Jamil repeated the question, regretting it instantly, feeling in that second that he had betrayed his father, his mother, his priest, Muna, including his own intelligence. The Voice rushed to his gun, reaching the tank in three strides, spun and pointed it at Jamil in one fluid motion, while one of his comrades watched casually. While the gun centered on him, Jamil still saw irrationally another soldier to the left, behind the Voice picking his teeth with his fingernail.

“What did you ask me, you filthy dog?”

Jamil felt surprised by how smoothly the Voice cursed in Arabic. How did he learn it? This question circulated persistently in his head as he stared, for the second time in his seventeen years, at a gun aimed at his heart.

“What did you ask me?” the Voice was shouting now, and when Jamil still did not reply – did he learn it in the prisons? – the Voice lifted the gun skyward, perpendicular to the flat roof, and with a casual contraction of his index finger, punctured the cloudless blue sky with a single bullet. He just deflowered the sky, Jamil thought, and wanted to burst out laughing at his own insanity.

A small silence, and then Jamil sensed several things at once – a curtain pulled back, two sets of panicked footsteps below, his own heart pausing in its beats, a desert in his throat.

He moved to the steps to block his parents, to show them he was fine. His mother dragged him down by the hems of his pantlegs, then by the shirtsleeves, to the kitchen, ran back and locked the balcony door, and, despite his protests, searched every inch of his face, arms, and chest. “Are you sure? Are you hurt?” she muttered over and over, not listening for his responses and reassurances.

The phone rang and his father, his face gray, his tongue quieted for once, answered softly. “We are fine, thank God,” he said robotically into the phone and hung up, but it rang again almost immediately. Six more phone calls followed.

That evening, Jamil sat on the couch, reading the newspaper yet again. The story of the girl in Lebanon startled him out of his reverie, as if he hadn’t already scanned it ten times. Suspected rape, an uncle, fourteen floors, cement courtyard. The church wouldn’t bury her because it was a suicide. Sadness flooded over his body again, and he stood abruptly, asked his father to play tawla out of sheer desperation to fill his mind.

After playing several rounds to soothe his father ad himself and after eating every seed, nut and pastry his mother placed before him, after they’d all gone to bed, to empty his own heart, Jamil wrote a long letter to Muna.

***

The next morning, the fifth day, shortly after dawn, old Miss Salma hobbled over to their front door. Jamil’s mother opened the door quickly and let her in. She carried two plastic sacks of her homemade bread, a jug of milk, and a block of cheese wrapped in cloth.

“God bless your hands, Miss Salma, and may God bless our lives with your presence for many more years,” Jamil’s mother said, accepting the sacks without the usual feigned reluctance and disappearing into her kitchen.

“Come here, Jamil,” Miss Salma said, sitting down heavily on the velvet sofa, her thick ankles ballooning out under the hem of her blue dress. Her diabetes was worsening, he could tell. Her legs were like heavy slabs of meat, pushed into her shoes so tightly that the front bulged out against the leather tongue. Her mottled blue calves and shins looked like a world map. “Are you alright, young man?”

“I’m fine. They didn’t touch me,” he replied, putting a small side table next to her as his mother called from the kitchen that she was boiling tea. He walked to the kitchen and took from his mother a small dish of watermelon seeds and a glass of ice water.

“Those bastards stared at me as soon as I came out of my front door,” she said, cracking the seeds expertly between her teeth and spitting out the shells into her palm. Jamil grabbed an ashtray and put it before her politely. “They leaned over the roof and watched me all the way until I got here and knocked on your door.”

“Sons of dogs,” Jamil’s father grumbled from where he sat on the other sofa, his arms folded across his chest. “That other boy in Ramallah died yesterday. They couldn’t find a kidney.”

“They had one, but they couldn’t get it in. And a new checkpoint around Ramallah, did you hear?” Miss Salma asked.

Jamil’s father shrugged. “All I hear, my dear lady, is this news from you and sometimes whatever I can get on the radio. Our newspaper is a week old. The only thing playing on the TV are soap operas. We could have a full-out war, but Abu Ammar would find it only suitable to play Egyptian soap operas for us!”

“Sugar in your tea?” asked Jamil’s mother, and Jamil wondered, ludicrous as it were, whether his polished mother would always fret over etiquette and appearances even in the midst of an apocalypse. While the world burned around them, she might spend precious minutes wiping down the silverware or folding napkins. Yet, while it irritated him, this image also soothed him; there would always be order, as long as his mother was around. Women, he felt, brought stability, like Miss Salma who’d arrived and solved their problems with her bags of bread and cheese, like Madame Amira, the former nun who lived on the other end of the village, who threw herself on top of boys so the army didn’t drag them away.

“Two spoons,” Miss Salma said. “You know, they’re closing the schools, no?”

“What?” Jamil asked, panicked into joining the adults’ conversation.

“Oh yes, all the schools in Ramallah will shut down, starting tomorrow. Seven o’clock curfew.”

“But not here in our village,” Jamil clarified.

“Well, be prepared,” she said, leaning forward conspiratorially. “Yesterday the principal of the middle school called and asked if they could use my cellar as a classroom if they need to. All the villages are making back-up plans.”

During the rest of her visit, Jamil barely spoke, feeling fretful and anxious. As she prepared herself to leave, he suddenly decided on a course of action. He rushed to his room, grabbed the letter, and then returned, insisting on helping the widow at the door. Sure his parents were not listening, he pushed the letter into her bag, asking her quietly to give this to Muna, Mr. Ghanem’s oldest daughter. Not Huda or Lena, but Muna.

“Miss Salma…” he stammered.

She smiled and whispered, “Trust me, young man. Nobody keeps secrets better than me.” And with a wink she was gone.

***

Jamil sat in his bedroom window that evening, having just delivered bread and cheese to the roof. His parents watched the new Egyptian soap opera on the television, but he knew they weren’t paying attention. His mother was knitting a sweater for him that he didn’t need and his father leafed through one of Jamil’s calculus textbooks, for lack of anything better. “If they need schoolteachers,” he’d told Miss Salma, “I’ll come out of retirement. They will need math teachers.”

He thought back to Muna’s last letter, which he’d memorized by heart – it seemed like she’d written it and slipped it into his satchel years ago and not just two weeks – and her insistence that something be made clear between them. She wanted an answer. Why had he interpreted it so badly? She was right – there was no time to be lost anymore.

It was nine o’clock, and he peered out the window. Across the alley, the curtain moved aside, although the room inside remained dark, as he’d instructed in his letter. A pause, then the curtain fell twice, and was still.

Yes.

“God bless you, Miss Salma!” he said to himself.

***

The soldiers left on Saturday night, the seventh day, while they were sleeping, slipping away in the dark, leaving crumpled napkins and dirty tea cups next to the water tank. Sunday morning, they woke up and realized they could attend Mass. He would see Muna, make plans. They could do a long engagement, marry when they’d finished college, lock it in now, rather than search for a bride later. Or maybe they’d just marry this summer, and attend classes together. Why waste time? There was no time anymore, and nothing was certain.

Jamil hurried into the bathroom to shave, scrubbing his face with a soapy rag. The water pipes creaked as the water flowed, and Jamil looked more closely at the water as it pooled in the white basin. A horrible thought came into his head at the same time that he heard his father cursing from the kitchen and footsteps stomping up to the roof.

His mother rushed into the bathroom, shrieking, “Don’t use the water, Jamil! I think they –“

“I know. I thought as much.” Jamil swabbed his face with rubbing alcohol, ignoring the sting and his watering eyes, then climbed up to the roof and stood over the water tank, staring down into it with his father. An empty bucket, which Jamil had never noticed before on the roof, lay on its side next to the tank. “They were using it,” his father kicked the bucket, “as their bathroom, and then dumped it into our tank before they left.”

Jamil stared down at the waste floating in their modern water tank, and suppressed the nausea creeping acidly up into his chest.

“Goddamn animals,” he screamed. There, the anger did it. The anger quenched the nausea. His father was right to always vent.

He knew what to do. This week had made him into a man, with a man’s problems and solutions. He walked down to the cellar and fetched a metal tin and a long rope, then strode down the courtyard steps to the well. He hadn’t visited it in a long time, but he knew his father always opened it before a big rain. He pulled back the old, metal door, and he let the rope slide down its stone-blocked sides, the tin clanging, echoing, as it clunked down. The well was deep, deep, deep in the earth, and not as vulnerable as an open tank on the roof. The well was old, but could not be contaminated.

As he carried the bucket of icy, clear water to the house, he calculated how much it would cost to empty the roof tank, to sanitize it, and then how long it would take for the rains to refill it. He’d look for a job soon, start earning some money. Before he stepped through the doorway of the house, he glanced over at the Ghanem’s window. He would see her today, no matter what, in church, would see, maybe touch, the black ribbon of her hair.

Slippage

By Lisa Suhair Majaj

I’m forgetting my name, and how it’s spelled,

that alphabet blurred by years of usage,

letters tilting like the time-warped script

in my mother’s worn-out phone book,

its cover encased in a layer of heat-warped plastic.

I’m forgetting the person I used to be

before I got lost in the dust-streaked pages

of brittle phone books with dead-end numbers.

I’ve forgotten how to dial phones that aren’t rotary,

that circular whirr and click

humming the cadences of people now dead.

I can retrieve the dead, their faces and stories,

but I’ve misplaced their voices. I can’t recall

the addresses inscribed in my mother’s cursive

page by page in the grimy volume

I threw in the trash when she died.

But I remember the spasm of regret that rippled through me

as I opened my hand and released that store of names,

noting how the body bears the current of memory

as if it were a phone line.

I recall my mother’s knuckled despair,

that legacy that haunted me with the lure

of forgetting, till I became so successful at amnesia

I could not recall the way back to myself.

I think of all the people who wrote me letters

of condolence after my mother’s death,

those tissue-thin pages that whispered

from a distant land. By now,

they won’t remember me. If I call,

they’ll rifle through their aging memories

as if through a card file, trying to place me,

We’ll stay on the line a long time,

breathing heavily into the slippage of silence,

unwilling to say goodbye.

For more poems by Lisa Suhair Majaj check full winter 2014 issue