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.

photographs not taken*

after Marwa Helal and Safia Elhillo
By George Abraham

the scalpel that removed a country
from my teta’s chest, rusting in the hands
of a surgeon who was, perhaps, a zionist;
my mother’s face crossing the finish line
of a marathon for breast cancer research, her
cousin’s name scrawled across the damp running bib;
Palestinian Olympic swimmer takes gold,
rewriting the ocean of her history; the ghosts
of refugee children making a choir of his weeping;

***

family portrait in post-racial society with
filter equating my olive skin to
my brother’s smoldering earth;
my cousin shouting allahou akbar out of irony
after passing through TSA without
being quarantined for the first time;
my father, before the toupee settled on his
head, mid-laugh & the country escaping
from the gap in his front teeth;

***

my head, freshly shaven, for a melanoma
biopsy catching the Florida sunset:
swim practice;
the benign sunspot they removed
from my scalp – brown flesh patch
floating in saline;
screenshot of Google Maps before the West Bank
& Gaza were 2 patches of nameless
flesh outlined in black dots;

***

my Teta, age 2, after being
baptized in the Dead Sea, holds a
seashell to her ear: a history lesson;
my great aunt’s obituary reading “place of birth:
Jerusalem” & the israeli flag waving
over her open casket;
family portrait in Ramallah,
full-toothed smiles at sunset:
past or present;
an olive tree & magnolia tree, planted
side-by-side, overlooking a cemetery,
mixing displaced soils;
the Haifa skyline every time
so where’s home for you?
falls out of a stranger’s mouth;

***

a lifeguard pulls my 4-year not-corpse from
the pool floor at my first swim lesson:
second baptism;
white man turns his back to drowning
daughter at my community pool: a brief
history of Israel/Palestine;
a cell frozen, mid-mitosis, houses conflicting
entities in a single membrane:
two state solution paradox;
my zionist biology teacher lectures
on respiration
& i drown –

*the poem was selected as a runner up for Emerge Literary Journal’s Civil Disobedience Poetry Contest, and will be published by Emerge Literary Journal

Renga for Ahmed

By Marwa Helal and Kim Jensen

“Cool Clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.” –President Obama

New twist on an old
crime: cops have now stolen time
from this child, maker

of clocks, the wizard of clocks
was handcuffed at school. Tick, tick

tock. Invisible
hands move across a white face
blind side, slow minds. They

made the phone call in the time
it would take to stop watch. Why

this race to caste blame?
Why the rush to post, hash, and
tag? So who’s it? But

#coolclock, Ahmed. It takes a
licking and keeps on ticking

while war-torn families
land—dead, pulseless in the sand.
It keeps on ticking

in bunkers beneath black sites
in island prisons. Below

the rubble of homes
beneath drones dropping high-tech
loads, a new fangled

weather for a new kind of
war, sold from the White House

to us. And for what?
The circuit’s closed. And if there’s
a hoax—it’s on us.

Interview with Philip Metres

Poems of exile and war, and poems in translation

Interview with award-winning American poet, translator, scholar, and activist Philip Metres

By Rewa Zeinati

Rewa Zeinati: What does it mean to be an Arab American writer/poet? Or would it be more accurate to be ‘labeled’, simply, a writer/poet?

Philip Metres: Ever since I was young, I was marked as Lebanese or Arab because of my looks, and because everyone in my father’s family or in our Arab Christian Church immediately welcomed me as one of their own. I’ve been told, ever since I was young, that some of my ancestors came from Bsharri, the same village as Kahlil Gibran, and that he visited them in Brooklyn. (We have the letter to prove it! The family also believes that he wrote The Prophet while staying with them at 290 Hicks Street, but I have seen no actual evidence of that beyond a mythic wish.) But what it means for me to be Arab American continues to evolve. It’s never meant just one static thing. Often that’s what happens to immigrants—the Old Country becomes an ossified image of a lost home, even when that home is constantly changing in their absence. For me, being Arab American means I don’t forget that my people come from the Middle East, and that I carry their memories inside my memories, both remembered in the mind and carried in the bone. That I keep in touch with what is happening there, and that I constantly remind people that humanity has no national border. I’m always pleased when I hear Arab or Muslim names in the American public sphere—as artists, journalists, academics, writers, etc. It makes me feel like the United States is changing.

I’ve always felt a kinship with people of color, and particularly with recent arrivals to the U.S. Our experiences are all different, but I feel the Old Countries in the way they hold themselves, the way they move in the world. Being Arab American for me also means that I’m part of a great migration, that my ancestors were intrepid travelers. People, in the end, are not just a nationality. Nations are a temporary political fiction—albeit a highly-militarized and deeply ideological one. So many of us come from many directions, like the four winds. According to my genetic test, some Italian appears to be swimming in my Middle Eastern genes. I wonder who this Italian was. And also, there is some North African in me, some Maghrebi. And some sub-Saharan African. And I haven’t even mentioned my mother’s Irish and German roots. So I am a person of many migrations and journeys, all these ancestors traveling toward and within my breathing, my heart beating, my voice speaking, my hands writing.

RZ: Tell us a little about your experience translating Russian poetry into English. How did it all begin? How did (does) it influence your own writing?

PM: I’m still trying to answer this question for myself. The Russians would call it my fate. This past fall, I spent my sabbatical writing a 90,000 word memoir recalling the year I spent living in Russia during the period of economic transition (1992-1993), trying to retrace my steps into that decision. I’d gotten a Watson fellowship for a year-long independent study project called “Contemporary Russian Poetry and Its Relationship to Historical Change,” which enabled me to live in Russia, translate Russian poetry, and meet and interview contemporary Russian poets.

One secret reason I went to Russia was that poets were powerful there, that poetry mattered to people there. To say poetry mattered to me is to understate the case by half. Reading and writing poetry had altered my life, had become my life, my secret life, the one that was mine that no one could see. Reading Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” simply confirmed what I already knew—that we were broken, and that headless sculptures admonished us to change our lives. Poetry had given me a way to clarify and transform my inner chaos, and the turbulence around me, into something almost beautiful. It mattered so much to me, and so little in this country, I’d wondered if I’d been born in the wrong nation. I’d been learning how the Tsar acted as Alexander Pushkin’s personal censor, after Pushkin got involved with the Decembrists; how Stalin sent Osip Mandelstam to his death in Siberia for writing a poem that made fun of him, and how Osip’s wife Nadezhda committed his entire oeuvre to memory, to ensure that his words would not be forgotten; how Anna Akhmatova’s heroic witness in poetry outlasted even Stalin; and how Russian poets in the Sixties—Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Voznesensky, and Bella Akhmadulina—declaimed their poems to stadium crowds; how Joseph Brodsky was subject to a “show trial” because he was a real poet and the State could not stand that fact. Poets in Russia seemed to be prophets and rock stars, revolutionaries and dissidents. I wanted to find out why. The truth was more complex than I could have imagined.

But it’s true that translating and meeting those poets completely transformed my idea of poetry and its relationship to the political sphere—I became less interested in poetry as a political weapon and more interested in its alternate way of being, both part of but also beyond politics, or rather, beneath all politics. The primal ground of being. Translating poets like Gandlevsky and Rubinstein and Tarkovsky became an education in poetry’s possibilities. I know the poets I’ve translated better than any other poets because I’ve lived inside those sonic language architectures longer than in any other poem.

My new book, Pictures at an Exhibition: A Petersburg Album, was occasioned by my return to Russia ten years after I’d lived there. I was flooded by memories as I walked around St. Petersburg, and I needed a way to write about returning to a place where I lived but never felt quite at home. There’s something in me drawn to that feeling of being unhoused, exiled, wayfaring, lost. I can’t explain it.

RZ: You’ve mentioned once that you hope that your 2015 poetry collection, Sand Opera, “can help be the start to a new conversation about the state of poetry, American life, and the role of Arab American literature in our ongoing cultural and political debate about U.S. foreign and domestic policy regarding the Arab world.” Tell us a little more about that.

PM: The difficulty with poetry is that poetry readers typically resist politically-challenging work, and people interested in politics tend not to read poetry. (In a particularly dark moment, I lamented to a friend that I wrote a book of poems too political for poets and too poetic for political activists.) At the same time, every couple weeks, I get another email from someone who’s just read Sand Opera and wanted to thank me. So I’m very grateful for the fact that it exists.

One thing I’m doing now is I’ve begun a Lenten observance. Every day I’ve been posting a poem from Sand Opera at www.behindthelinespoetry.blogspot.com alongside Scriptural readings and dialogue pieces by other poets, writers, artists, and activists. This dialogic, choral project has been a way for me to return to poems that I’ve always felt were only partly mine. Since so many of the poems were themselves documentary in nature, composed of found language, the voices of so many touched by war, it’s almost as if the poems wrote me as much as I wrote the poems. One of the gifts of the Lenten observance has been that it occasioned my getting in touch with some Iraqi friends that I hadn’t spoken to in years, to ask for their contribution. And they have graciously agreed to participate.

But it hasn’t been without poignancy. One Iraqi scholar who has worked in the States for many years asked me about the project, and I mentioned some other Iraqi writers and artists who were participating, as a way to entice his participation. He said, well, that’s good, but Iraqis and Arabs already know the situation. I assured him that there would be a number of Americans who also would be part of it. But to hear him say that, his voice cracking with the weight of sorrow he’s carried for so many years, was heartbreaking. I heard in his voice the weight of a weary exile, unable to lay down his burden. Still trying to convince Americans of the humanity of his people, of himself.

Though I’ve felt self-conscious asking other writers to dialogue with my work, I’m touched by the robust response—as if people were almost waiting to be asked, wanting to add their voice.

RZ: “Art should remain subservient to politics.” What are your thoughts about this statement?

PM: It’s preposterous, but only slightly more preposterous than the American version of this statement, that art must remain free of all politics. Art is not art if it is subservient. Yet clearly art for its own sake is also a dead end.

RZ: In your opinion, what makes a good poem?

PM: Difficult question, because there’s no arguing taste. But for me, if you cornered me, I’d say that it’s a poem that retains some obdurate mystery, something unexplainable that makes me want to return to it, and is never quite exhausted by my re-reading.

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

PM: I found it funny and sad that a fellow poet told me that he felt as if he should write more political poetry; as if it were somehow an obligation, a necessary evil to be part of the family of poets. That’s the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, for whom politics is something is necessary but dirties one’s hands. That distance is also a fiction of privilege.

A truly memorable political poem is alive because its politics so inhere in the fabric of the poem that it is inseparable from the fact of its being a poem. It’s damned hard to write real poetry of any sort, and doubly hard when it attempts to be political. There is a well-known Arab American poet who writes passionate verse for a righteous cause, and when his book came out, I hoped that it would be brilliant. Although I agreed with him politically, I found only one line in his entire book that I felt was truly alive. One line.

RZ: Is there room for poetry and art in a region that burns with absolute turmoil; where fundamentalism, religious figures and politicians have taken over home and street (i.e. the Arab region)?

PM: Of course there is room for poetry. Now more than ever.

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

PM: They are the ongoing conversation that writers and writing are having with each other. Reading them is to sit at the table of that conversation.

RZ: What advice would you give emerging writers/poets?

PM: The same boring thing everyone else says, probably. Read contemporary poetry and writing, but also the classics (that which is ancient is most new). Read more than you think you need to, because one isn’t original without knowing what has been done before. Don’t be afraid to “cover” (or imitate or argue with) other poems and poets. Write every day if you can. Write as if your ancestors were listening. Write as if the unborn are leaning in to learn the future. Write only because you must, and then write with the joy of this impossible gift of sentience.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

Every day, I’m doing this Lenten observance, which has returned me to scripture, to Sand Opera, and to the work of friends. But in terms of book projects, I’ve got a few that are simmering, that I hope will come to something: “The Flaming Hair of Fate” (the Russia memoir), “Shrapnel Maps” (poems on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), a book of translations, and a book of interviews with Russian poets.