Origin Story by Jess Rizkallah

i was born to refugees,
i was named a miracle still,                    they wait
for something greater than
what i know how to be.

i’m alive, and therefore enough.

i have space for an extra organ
that never came home
and every year the sea levels rise.

or                           i have a twin that never followed me out of the womb,
is still stuck where a shrieking echo
comes down on a mountain village          and the telepathy between us
is a gold thread so warm, it hums.

i’ll never know its language                         older than the polaroids
falling out of my mothers mouth               older than the lute
in my father’s whistle

or                          mama gave birth to me & i came out a hyphen
i was born the big hand on a clock

or                           i was born an arm                with a hand at both ends
taking both lands back at once, like they’re mine

or                           i was born an arm with a hand at both ends
holding a knife                                                    maybe i am a knife,
always spinning                          slicing
at roots and fruits i graft into the hollow
where the ancient humming organ
never made its home.

maybe i am building this organ myself.
maybe this organ will be my country,
where i’m from. no
where i’m really from

where every language is light
pouring out of me. everything it touches
is greater than what i know how to be
& everyone i love
is safe here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 poems by Fady Joudah

Chamber Music

You say thalamos, I say thalamus
and hypostasis, I fancy, is invention
as the mother of need. For everything a body
and in our version of Willie Pete
few babies make it out of nativity complete.

To seduce you, reduce you to myself, corrode
myself at the anode for you, tremors
for holy water, Hagar’s hands and feet,
I pant and plead “Gather,
gather,” in a dead language.

The dead split in two: one camp
house-warm their graves with the living’s
carnation and chrysanthemum while in the other
children hide and seek in ice cream coolers
of vendors turned morticians.

To wait out burial
the body rusts the neighboring soul.
Or sits in the needle’s eye,
not chasm but chiasm that holds off
incoming thread and helps another through.

I’m staying right here. You go
look for horses that bait the initiate
who neglects the peace
forged between beasts. I’m staying right here
with all I have on loan

as tone flickers
its penultimate oxygen pair. You go
be the beginning.
It was already the beginning
when love was one of its traits.

Echo

One right move
no place to go

we goat through tombs
eviscerated of their residents

It was lovely
to see you defeated after dinner

with splanchnic blood
shunted from your brain’s hollering terrain

lovely the wet ashes
of your voice the evagination

of palm-sized cantaloupe
our conversation

of a year ago has changed
the body has changed

our guest
that hosts us


Maqam of Palm Trees
for Rahim El hajj

His amphibian torso
to leg ratio a frog’s

or imitation (fiddler) crab
soluble salty rubber of two waters

at the confluence of steady eddy synapse
in a museum’s dark room

his triceps’ fat pressed to hers
she in her movement

he in his stillness
what the moving know about stillness

the still don’t know…She asks
Are you a Sufi?

Is all my longing
born equal to your ears

the devil’s a devoted angel
with personality disorder

or what will we do tonight? He says
I’ll make us coffee and tea

we’ll play chutes and ladders
and in the morning

we’ll feed a bale of turtles
and a bevy of swans

our bagels on a deck
settled in lake-drought mud

where I was born…She says
Then maybe a heron will join

and leave us a calamus
so big it can wound

Sukoon Interviews Jess Rizkallah – by Rewa Zeinati

Rewa Zeinati: Congratulations on winning the 2016 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize! Tell us a little about your collection, and how you came up with the title.

Jess Rizkallah: Thank you so much. The collection is made up of poems I wrote during and after a lot of firsts in my life: first time living away from my family, first loves, first heartbreaks, first loss of someone close to me, and all of that interacting with the inherited stuff that manifested in very new ways for me when held under the stress of entering adulthood. The timing of the acceptance was perfect, too. Right at the end of a lot of things in my life, and right before I moved to a new city and started at a new school. I’m so happy it worked out that way. I’m not used to closure I don’t have to make up myself! I’m very thankful I get to look up to Fady and Hayan after working with them. They helped me come up with the title the magic my body becomes, after a line in one of the poems in the book. At first I was resistant to this title because that’s what it is to be a woman sometimes, feeling sheepish about owning the power of your experience in a world that doesn’t take you seriously when you’re speaking your body and complexities with your own mouth. I thought “is this too feminine of a title?” but then I thought “who cares if it is? if the title turns someone away, they weren’t going to listen to anything I’m saying anyway. it’s not for them anyway.”

RZ:  You posted once on Facebook not too long ago that you didn’t want anyone to ask you what you’ll be doing after you graduate. So… what will you be doing after you graduate?

JR: Betrayal! Just kidding. I don’t know. I’ve been doing publishing and editorial work for eight years now, so hopefully something there. I really hope I’ll make a good teacher. I visited my family recently. While the water simmered on the stove, my Teta went outside and under the full pisces moon, picked rosemary for our tea. I remember thinking “why the fuck do I live so far away from my family?” The scarier the world gets, the more frequent that thought is.

 RZ:  You mention that your poetry has appeared, among other places, on your mother’s fridge. Tell us a little about your family’s response to your creative path/growth. This question comes from my personal Lebanese experience of the cliché that most every Lebanese parent dreams of seeing their child grow into a doctor, lawyer or engineer.

JR: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the (upheld binary) difference between Lebanese sons and Lebanese daughters, and my being one of two daughters in a son-less nuclear family is impossible to divorce from my answer because I’ve found it tied to every expectation someone has had for me. Gender is always a shadow trailing behind my name: it’s a pretty traditional Lebanese thing to think that this is just a cute thing I’m doing to pass the time until a doctor or whatever wants to marry me. I’m lucky enough that I can recognize this and laugh in its face, instead of letting it hinder me. This is because my mother supports me and countered every sexist lesson the world tried to teach me. In turn the rest of my family has become supportive, too. (for which I’m grateful and full of love.) Busting your ass to prove yourself feels like an Arab kid rite of passage. To answer your question more directly: I do think my parents held a small hope that writing would just be a hobby, but I literally have no other skills, so writing was always going to be it whether anyone liked it or not. There were definitely a lot of “or not” periods growing up but overall and overwhelmingly, I always felt supported by the only people it really mattered to be supported by. I also feel really lucky that my family lets me share their stories inside my own. This was a hard answer to phrase, I don’t want to make anyone mad, but I feel it is important to be honest, and I know you must know what I mean.

RZ: Lebanon or USA?

JR: Both.

RZ: What are you reading right now and why?

JR: Right now I’m reading The Whale by Philip Hoare because whales are the most fascinating creatures on the planet, I’m convinced they’re aliens. They feel too cosmic to grace us with their presence on Earth, yet here they are and I want to get a closer look.

RZ:  Who are your biggest literary and artistic influences?

JR: Sandra Cisneros, Kevin Devine, Lady Lamb, Lynda Barry, Frank O’Hara, Sylvia Plath, Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Safia Elhillo, Tiffany Mallery, Ada Limón, Mckendy Fils-Aimé, Franny Choi, so many friends, so many witchy creative femmes on the internet.

RZ:  Crayons or ink?

JR: Ink

RZ: How important are literary journals in your opinion and/or experience?

They’re so important. I want to know what everyone is saying and feeling at all times because otherwise I don’t know how I would get out of bed and face the world we’re all trying to fight for. I’ve made so many friends in the poetry community through the network of literary magazines we all read and contribute to.

RZ:  Why Pizza Pi Press?

JR: I can’t sit still, I always need to be making things and I always need to be collaborating with other people. I wrote Pizza Pi Press on the back of a messy zine I made in college, kind of as a joke. Like “ha! it looks like this silly thing came out on a press!” but then I kept getting more ambitious and my friends wanted to join in and now it’s my favorite thing to be part of and I hope we continue to grow and remain a platform that amplifies those who feel silenced elsewhere. Also, I really love pizza.

RZ:  What advice/insight would you be compelled to offer other young writers?

JR: Read as much as you write, maybe even more. Read people of color. Don’t be mean to yourself. Write even when people around you make you feel like you’re wasting your time. Keep a journal with you at all times and don’t beat yourself up if you’re not always writing pages and pages of work. Even just a thought a day is an entire world you’ve recorded and that’s so cool if you think about all the possibilities waiting to shoot off into a million synapses as you turn that thought over in your head before going back to the page. Think of your journal as an archive and every word an artifact of substantial magnitude. Don’t stress out about getting published – social media makes imposter syndrome feel more urgent than it used to be, but social media doesn’t show us all the nights where even our favorite writers feel stuck or defeated or sad or on their seventeenth straight episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Flaming Hot Cheeto Dust stuck to their face.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

JR: I just threw all of the contents of my closet and desk into the middle of the room and I’m not leaving my apartment until it is once again habitable and just as ready for this new season as I am. Thank you so much for making room for me at Sukoon.

 

 

 

 

 

Sukoon interviews Arab-American poet and scholar Mohja Kahf

Immigration, Feminism, Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


RZ: What are you working on right on?

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

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

Two poems by jess rizkallah

i haven’t forgotten

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

clears his throat before you can
step out on your word

stays dressed in black

once ate his own smile but
never swallowed

i like him most.

he still hums
to the pulse
in my wrist.

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

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

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

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

moonstones charging,
warm by the window.

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

part of me always
chipped at the corner

give me the flute & sing
after fairuz & gibran

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two poems by Mohja Kahf

Flora Fauna Syria
By Mohja Kahf

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

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

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

An excerpt from “Mona, a Camera, and Me”

By Christine Stoddard

The trolls thought I stopped modeling because I finally realized I am not “conventionally attractive.” I have the hips of an Amazon, the breasts of Peter Pan, and a face that is strange but charming. They wanted me to hate myself, to hang myself like my grandmother did when her husband left her for a woman shaped like an old-fashioned Coke bottle. But when I look in the mirror, the only thing I loathe is the hoard of trolls clacking away at their computers.

Kate Moss is no conventional beauty, either. She’s short with a broken nose and crooked teeth. Yet in those early Instagram days, I never saw Moss as my defense, only my inspiration. I never had this epiphany that I wasn’t Pretty Princess pretty. I always knew. I was beautifully odd and oddly beautiful and I had a talent for seeing into the soul of any camera. My loyal followers saw that. Mona, my only true friend and photographer, saw that.

I was one of two daughters born to two medical school professors originally from Egypt. They relocated to Richmond when my sister, Mayada, was three and shortly before I was born at the mammoth Medical College of Virginia downtown. There, my parents lectured amongst the buzz of waspish politicians and state government worker bees.

We lived in Jackson Ward, a historically black neighborhood within walking distance of the hospital and medical school. It was an imperfect fit, but where else were we supposed to live? Richmond had no ideal zip code for people like us because we had no place in the Capital of the Confederacy’s narrative of black and white. Yet as Arab atheists with olive complexions, we had to make our own home in the Bible Belt somehow. That was how we ended up in the nicest house on the block in a less-than-nice neighborhood. At least it seemed that way to uptight white suburbanites. But I can’t say the neighborhood made me any more nervous than I felt anywhere else. I had a female body and, even as a little girl, I knew that made me vulnerable no matter where I went.

We were gentrifies who lived in a renovated row house among abandoned buildings, dilapidated apartments that saw constant turnover, and once pristine addresses destroyed by partying college students. Though my family and I saw our share of small-time street corner drug deals, we never witnessed any violence. Since we had a car, we didn’t mind that the grocery store was in the next neighborhood over, either. We said hello to our neighbors and never told them to change a thing. We didn’t see why an upscale coffee shop or yoga studio should replace the barbershop or soul food café. There were enough people in town doing that already.

My parents did take issue with one aspect of where we lived, however, and that was the local public school system. Horrified by accounts of textbook shortages and gaping holes in hallway ceilings, my parents sent Mayada and me to the all-girls’ Catholic school across town. From kindergarten onward, it was a nightmare. Mayada and I were magnets for insults, invasive questions, and culturally clueless remarks. It only worsened as we got older. “I thought Egyptians worshipped cats like Cleopatra. What are you doing at a Catholic school? Are you trying to convert so you don’t burn in hell?”/“Aren’t your parents doctors? Why do you live in the ghetto?”/“Your English is really good. Do you still speak Egyptian at home?”

If you think a fifteen-year-old girl with a pleated skirt and ribbons in her hair can’t be intimidating or offensive, you are wrong. So very wrong. College prep only made everyone hungrier and more aggressive than teenage hormones alone ever could. On top of grappling with typical puberty woes, we had to grapple with the college admissions race. All but the most religiously observant girls fought for thick acceptance packets from Tier 1 colleges their senior year. That’s why our high school counselors funneled us into as many honors and Advanced Placement courses as we could handle. Most of the girls we knew considered bulldozing a few classmates’ self-esteem levels part of the process. They weren’t interested in becoming nuns or missionaries. They lusted after Smith College and Harvard Law.

That was the motivation for stunts like this one:

My freshman year, I found the word “Muslim” scrawled on my locker in glittery blood red nail polish. It did not matter that I wasn’t actually Muslim. It was the intent. I whipped out my phone and took a photo to text my sister, whose locker was on the other side of the building. She texted me a nearly identical photo of her similarly defaced property. We agreed to meet at the principal’s office in five minutes.

“How can I help you girls?” asked Mrs. Parkhurst, the principal’s secretary, as we stepped up to her desk.

“We’d like to report a hate crime,” said Mayada, without hesitation. I nodded, grateful to have such a confident older sister in moments like these.

Mrs. Parkhurst was a petite middle-aged woman with thin, naked lips and mousy brown hair. Her cardigan sweaters were all black or beige and she always wore flat, circular Mother of Pearl earrings with a matching Mother of Pearl cross necklace. Her Spartan desk contained her computer, a black Moleskine notebook, and a Virgin Mary statue that was about six inches tall. Mrs. Parkhurst’s fashion sense and desk had not changed since I was five years old. Even her pen—a gold ballpoint with the engraving “John 3:16”—was the same. She liked consistency and order and that was that.

So I should not have been surprised when Mrs. Parkhurst pursed her wormy little lips, cleared her throat, and said, “That’s not possible.” But I was.

“You haven’t even heard our story,” I snapped.

Mayada glared at me and apologized on my behalf. “You’ll have to excuse my sister, Mrs. Parkhurst. She’s upset. We’re both upset, and we need to talk to Sister Branch for that reason. Could we please see her now?”

“She is busy with the bishop,” said Mrs. Parkhurst after she cleared her throat again.

Mayada and I glanced at Sister Branch’s closed door. Before Mayada could issue her next diplomatic phase, I darted for the office and opened the door. Sister Branch was seated with the Catholic newspaper and a bowl of oatmeal.

“Good morning, Abra,” she said, raising an eyebrow for a beat before returning to her paper.

Mayada and Mrs. Parkhurst were behind me in the next split second, but neither one said anything. All of three of us stared at Sister Branch, who looked up again.

“Well, come in.”

“I tried to stop them, Sister Branch, but—”

“It’s fine. I wasn’t busy.”

Had I not been in a rush to tell Sister Branch what happened, I might’ve sneered at Mrs. Parkhurst. Instead, I took out my phone to pull up the photo as Mayada and I talked over each other.

“Oh, this is not good,” said Sister Branch.

My sister and I shook our heads.

“I’m very sorry this happened, girls. Could you email the photos to me? We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

That was the last we heard on the matter. The janitor scrubbed our lockers clean by the end of the day. When Mayada and I followed up in a week, Sister Branch said the school administration had not found a culprit.

“Besides,” said Sister Branch over her usual bowl of oatmeal, “the vandal did not employ a slur. It’s simply a descriptor.”

“Yes, but we aren’t Muslim,” said Mayada. “We’re Egyptian, but not all Egyptians are Muslim.”

“I see,” said Sister Branch. “What then is your family’s religion? Your parents did not identify as Catholic when they enrolled you.”

My normally articulate sister was at a loss.

“We’re in the process of converting,” I piped up. “Our hearts have been touched by Christ.”

Mayada looked down at her Mary Janes.

Sister Branch beamed. “I’m so pleased to hear that. You’ll have to let me know when your confirmation takes place.”

“Of course!” I said, a little too enthusiastically.

“Your parents are converting, too?”

“Yep!”

My sister remained silent even as we walked down the hallway back to our classrooms. I knew she was reeling, so I didn’t bother further provoking her with my questions. When we got home later that day, all she could muster was, “I can’t believe you did that. Now Sister Branch will care even less about finding out who wrote on our lockers.”

I shrugged and opened up my English textbook. I read for a minute or two and then complained about having to diagram sentences in an honors class. Mayada simply left the room.

Our frazzled parents didn’t have time to take action about the vandalism. Nor did they seem too concerned.

“It’s just a word, Abra,” my mother said one morning two weeks after the incident. I had complained about it again while she packed her briefcase. “It’s not even the right word,” she muttered. “Ignore those brats and focus on your studies.”

Whichever “brat” had done it was trying to distract Mayada and me from our studies. I was in the top ten in my class and Mayada was tied for valedictorian in hers. We had to turn the other cheek if we were going to keep our rank. We weren’t vying for spots at the Ivies, but we still sought a certain level of comfort and prestige. Or, should I say, our parents did.

Our parents expected us to go to Virginia Commonwealth University, which housed the medical school where they taught. To them, an American university was an American university. The nationality alone afforded prestige. They didn’t care that apart from a select number of programs, VCU’s undergraduate admissions were not particularly competitive. All the better, they reasoned. Mayada and I would be that much more likely to earn full-rides. Naturally, we would live at home while studying pre-med and steer clear of dating. During those four years, we would earn every fellowship and research grant possible. Then we would get accepted into the far more competitive Medical College of Virginia, also with scholarships. Once we completed our residencies, we would return to Egypt to marry accomplished Egyptian men—most likely fellow doctors. Religiously, we were not Muslim, but culturally, certain things were just ingrained. That included obtaining both higher degrees and parent-approved husbands.

Though my report cards matched my parents’ expectations, my own dreams did not. Hence the living within my mind. I daydreamed and doodled and wrote stories. Too often, I filled up my sketchbook while bored in class. In this way, I figured I could avoid as much of the snake-tongued gossip that tried to constrict my adolescence as possible. Muslim or not, I would not let my vicious classmates win. They could deface my locker however they wanted. I would continue drawing caricatures of them and writing poems about the merits of Egyptian coffee versus Starbucks.

Shortly after the locker incident occurred, I began modeling with Mona.

Mona was many things, including one of the most faithful Catholics I have ever met, but most people only ever saw her hemifacial microsomia. The syndrome is second only to cleft lips and palates in terms of common congenital deformities. Her face was warped, with a small, bent jaw and asymmetrical ears. I didn’t care. Mona was loyal and kind and a truly gifted photographer. Despite being friends since second grade, I wouldn’t discover that last bit until high school.

The modeling started freshman year when took our first elective. I chose Arabic because I thought it would be an easy A for me. Although, it turns out that occasionally speaking a language with your mom and dad doesn’t necessarily make you ace at conjugations or writing a whole other alphabet. Mona chose darkroom photography. She liked that it was an art form that was on its way out. “I better learn it before it goes extinct,” she said as we filled out our course forms during the last week of eighth grade. “Plus, missionary organizations are always looking for photographers.” When Mona grinned, she bared her snaggletooth, a feature that had endeared me for as long as I could remember.

Days before Mona was shipped off to summer camp in North Carolina, we submitted our forms to Mrs. Parkhurst, who pinned them under her Virgin Mary statue. Then we waited. I went to a day camp at the Science Museum of Virginia and wrote letters to Mona in the evening. In five consecutive letters, I mentioned my fear of getting placed in a second period of gym. Mona’s fear was getting placed in home economics. (“I’m pretty sure I don’t have to be Martha Stewart to live at a convent,” she wrote.) In the last week of July, we received our course schedules, which confirmed that our choices had been approved. I came home to the letter after spending all day dissecting owl pellets and reconstructing tiny rodents on cardboard. Mona, who had just returned from North Carolina, was able to read the letter herself.

“I’m so happy I won’t spend two semesters baking muffins,” she said when we met up for ice cream.

“Don’t worry—I’m pretty sure another nun at your convent will know how to do that.”

“Exactly. We’ll pool our God-given talents together. Mine will not involve cooking appliances.”

We took a break from talking to finish our ice cream cones.

“Do you think high school will be different?” I asked as the last of my chocolate ice cream dribbled down my chin.

Mona shook her head. “No, I mean, it’s the same school, the same girls,” she said. “We’ll probably get five new girls, ten at most. Otherwise, same gang.”

“I guess I just hoped they’d be nicer this year.”

“They won’t be. If anything, they’ll be meaner. Our class rank means a lot more now.”

“It doesn’t matter where I go to college. As long as I graduate with decent grades, a convent will want me. My faith counts for far more.”

“I still have to stay in the top ten if I want that scholarship.”

“You’ll do it. You’re very smart, Abra.”

“Thanks,” I said and wiped my chin with a napkin.

When Mona smiled at me, I felt her warmth envelop me. It was her spell and I didn’t mind falling under it.

Song Rising From the Depth of Sorrow!

A pantoum for hope
By Hedy Habra

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

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

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

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

From Palestine to Ferguson

By Layla A. Goushey

Rumi’s broken mirror.
Shards of truth flying into throats.

Is it police militarization or only the media?
Is it racism or self-defense?
Is it death or only a segment before a commercial break?
Does immaturity deserve the death penalty?

Facebook bubble of privilege.
Unfollow reality and follow Grumpy Cat.
Pledge allegiance to the blissful bubble.

Black child bullied out of the White elementary school.
Palestinian store owner killed on a North City street.
Transnational allegiance to blood on street and sand.

From Ferguson to Palestine,
the anvil was poverty and the hammer was privilege.
Social justice education in a White liberal enclave
with espresso macchiatos and critical theory PhDs.
Doing the hard work
to organize divergent activists
toward converging realities.

Come to the rogue committee now
with charter-school plans for an
Afro-Arab-centric curriculum.
The brother said,
Birth, Poverty, Disease, Death
in JeffVanderLou – St. Louis.
Birth, Poverty, Disease, Death
in Gaza – Palestine.
Birth, Poverty, Disease, Death
From Palestine to Ferguson.

Mind the tear gas.

A Different Kind of Hajj

By Eman Hassan

i.
I have traveled so long,
walked the map of 99 names
chiseled along my palms,
traced backs of sand dunes
and followed its calligraphy

I have come all this way
from the past and future I

sprang from the fertile crescent
to the house of Abraham,
have traveled so long
to find you.

You have led me
as you led Abraham
through the desert
to build my own house.

ii.
Beyond
the Illuminated City,
a pebbled moon
reveals itself
in wedges,

as do you
come forth and are
interpreted:

different anthems
for those listening,
each like granite

with one hand
over the heart.

iii.
Once, I went
to the Louvre’s third wing,
saw statues of basalt
and marble, others
in gold leaf,

some with hands
over the heart:

echoes along the annals
of the many.

iv.
I am
in Afghanistan
standing before two Buddha
carved into a sandstone cliff,
faces of the great spirit
imprinted in rock and

mote.

v.
I have come, again,
come from the Seine
and Mississippi, Tigris
and Euphrates
I have journeyed
down the Nile
to Mecca and el-Ka’aba,
the world’s navel,
to witness 360
manifestations
within it.

I have come
from Diana and Isis

I am
a mirror to the galaxy.

vi.
I Name Them:

Hubal, was father,
Manat, Uzza, Al-Lat,
son and daughters.

Moon God Amm:

I am

the crescent
on the minaret.

vii.
What is the Holy
Why circumambulation
When were the Days of Ignorance

Who are the moistened stones?

viii.
I have come all this way
with my own elixir,
traveled so long
as my own meteor,

past the Kuf’far
and the Believers

to kiss your black stone.

ix.
Allah,

Giver

of rain, we pray
for the blessing

of rain.