On Becoming a Part of Leslie Jamison’s Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain

By Dana Dawud

I dreamed that I wanted to write about my life with my brother, that he hit me and instead of feeling pain I exclaimed “Ah, I need to write about this!” and my sister told me that I should stop exploiting other people’s stories for my own writing. But it’s my story and mine alone, and it’s my writing, my reading of my story. Does that mean that the story has been already “written” and I’m simply reading it? does that mean that I am after all, exploiting the stories of “others”? I’ve actually dreamed that my brother fell from his room’s window and that I saw him sitting on the window sill with his face towards mine, he closed his eyes and then dropped back. I couldn’t save him, I went to the window and he was down, I told him to move his legs and he did. I realized I was still dreaming, nothing really happened. In my dream I exclaimed “Ah, I need to write about this!” and my sister told me that I should stop exploiting other people’s stories for my own writing. But I need to tell this story and I don’t care about it’s origin. I’ve always thought that writing about (my) life and (my) pain would entail exploiting the people I live with and around, and that it would turn me into someone who keeps dwelling over her own suffering, that it would turn me into a show. But pain is not mine alone, I feel it because I am a part of a large mesh of criss-crossing pain, and because I can give my pain over to others, like a gift, even if they can’t “see” it.
Yesterday, I’ve written for the first time in Arabic. Arabic is my (mother) tongue, this is how “native language” is translated to in Arabic. They have told me that I have a mother tongue and I’ve laughed in their faces, a menacing laugh and walked away. I had no idea that going back to it, getting closer to it, would be so painful. The distance language entails is painful, and I gasp for words, The reader would sense the heaviness that drenched every word I tried to conjure up. It was hard but I had to feel pain in order to write.

I fell in love for the first time when I was fifteen years old, he broke my heart. I stopped eating, I cried for weeks and I remember telling the story of this breakup to everyone I’ve talked to. Over and over again, I repeated how much hurt I feel and how much pain he had caused me. I think I’ve done that not as a mechanism of healing, but more to tell people that I am a person with deep feelings who has the ability to suffer, I did it to feel better about who I am. I had no idea back then that this repetitive showcasing of pain, might have repulsed everyone around me, that it had been a cliche. I just knew, and still think that I had a right to my pain and that everyone should listen to me, LISTEN TO ME. My pain is grand and it’s real and it deserves the attention of the world.

I happen to ruthlessly defend the poetry of Sylvia Plath, and every time I do that I feel that I’m doing something as rebellious as starting a revolution. The other day, a friend of mine posted that Sylvia Plath is a “Tragedy of a woman who committed suicide, nothing more.” I was so enraged and I honestly felt like crying. He hadn’t even read her. “Would Sylvia Plath be as famous today if she hadn’t committed suicide?” Sylvia Plath’s suicide has taken the status of being almost a part of her oeuvre. She has indeed written many poems on and about her suicide attempts, she has written Ariel shortly before her death. We can’t reduce anyone to their suicide, but why view her suicide as a reduction? It is a “tragedy” in one sense, but in another it’s a culmination point of pain. It’s a protest of a writer who has been locked inside a repetitive day-to-day routine: between writing poetry, taking care of her kids and doing her chores. Her suicide is a part of her ongoing story, it’s not her reduction point, it’s a point opening to infinity. “I have done it again/ One year in every ten/ I manage it–” One year in every ten.

In Ariel, she had already turned her I into grains of wheat, an infinite landscape. “And now I/ Foam to wheat” The devotedness with which Van Gogh had repeatedly kept painting fields of wheat, populating them with dream worlds, reapers, sunflowers with the “unheard of power of the sunflower seeds” as Deleuze describes the becomings in Van Gogh paintings, houses, a rising moon, and crows. He painted from the Asylum window, framing these wheat fields when he was losing his ability to utter “I.” “And now I/ Foam to wheat” Deleuze had written that “A sunflower seed lost in a wall is capable of shattering that wall.” Van Gogh broke the walls of the asylum with his wheat fields. In Ariel Sylvia writes “The child’s cry/Melts in the wall/ And I/ Am the arrow” Her “I” is an arrow which goes beyond the wall, beyond, and reaches the red of the sun. Pain ad infinitum, pain as liberation.

ARE YOU SAFE? (or the occupation of love)

By Shebana Coelho

 

ACT I

 

SCENE 1

 

A pitch dark stage – as dark as you can make it –

slowly lightens into shadows. A dim blue

searchlight roves across the stage, and into the

audience, and in the arc of its turning, it

illuminates a table and two chairs. In one chair,

facing the audience is a GIRL, fair-skinned, in

her twenties with long black hair. Her hands are

clasped behind her back, as if they are tied

together. But they are not. Her head is lowered,

as if she is sleeping. But she is not. One side of

her face looks discolored, as if she’s wearing a

face mask, the kind you get in beauty salons. A

MAN, in his fifties, sits in the chair to her

left. When the spotlight reaches her again, her

head swings up and she opens her eyes.

 

GIRL

Later, he tells me he knew my name all along.

 

MAN

Your middle name, to be exact.

 

GIRL

All it takes is a Muslim in the middle.

 

MAN

Naseema, to be exact.

 

GIRL

Naseema.

She slowly, sinuously leans towards the man and

blows. He blanches, startled. She keeps blowing

and slowly, with her breath, forces him to rise

and he rises and steps back, and further back till

her breath has forced him off stage.

 

GIRL

Naseema. Wind.

 

She turns to the audience.

 

GIRL

But earlier, first – the skin of my father gets me in.

If they saw the brown inside, the brown of my mother,

I’d be at the detention cell, at the airport with

everyone else who had brushed against brown in their

past or in their family or on the plane and the scent

lingers, did you know? That’s what the guards say. “We

know how to smell you.” They’re trained to

smell…roses. They’re trained to smell…attar. I hear

them whispering as if no one hears. But everyone hears.

Those smells carry.

 

The SOUND of low bells, the kind cattle wear

around their neck and a shepherd, NIDAL, about

sixteen, enters from the opposite side of the

stage. He wears a keffiyeh, a black and white

chequered scarf around his neck. He’s in a

reverie, as if following his cattle and not

noticing her at first.

NIDAL

I carry a new lamb. The sheep follow. We go to what is

left of grass. They eat what isn’t burnt. They eat what

is left of green. I swallow the sand. I love a girl who

I saw on a bus that went by very slowly so the people

inside, behind the glass, could take pictures. I stood

up straight when it passed. The minute you see anyone

shooting…a picture, you want to stand up straight. It

could be on the news. You have to think ahead. But that

girl, she put the camera down when she saw me, and the

sun hit her instead. It hit her through the glass as

she looked at me and then I saw her hair…

 

Now he notices the girl and they meet in the

center of the stage. Tenderly, he touches the

girl’s hair.

 

NIDAL

…hair like yours…

 

GIRL

…like how..?

 

NIDAL

like this, soft and clean from a place that has water,

a place where you just ask for it and….

 

He takes a step back and a stream of water falls

on him, drenching him. Like a waterfall, it falls

as he stands there, arms akimbo and then he cups

the water in his hand. The girl reaches forward

and puts her hand in the falling water, cups the

water in her hands as well. The water fall stops.

In unison, they drink from their hands. The Girl

looks up at Nidal.

 

GIRL

In the desert where I used to live, where I used to

love, the land is flat and the sky is so big you can

see for days ahead. You can see the weather forming.

You can see a storm coming. You can say (she points

into the audience) it is raining there, just in that

spot, and not there, in that other spot – like that.

Nidal shakes the water off him. He unloosens his

scarf, squeezes the water from it, and then sits

down slowly on his haunches, as if looking at a

horizon only he can see.

 

NIDAL

Here, we watch the bombs falling. You can see, (he

points into the audience ) there is someone dying, and

there is someone not dying, not yet. You can see this

bombed from clear across the ocean. You can see the

planes. You can see the righteousness with which the

bombs fall so we die righteous deaths. (laughs) Can’t

you see us all dying so that the rockets hidden under

us may live?

 

He ties the scarf back around his neck, humming

softly. It’s not a carefree sound – as if he’s

deliberately calming the cattle, while keeping an

eye out, being vigilant. Suddenly he YELLS, ducks

and goes flat on the ground.

 

NIDAL

Get down. Now.

 

The Girl gets down, lying on her belly. Together,

they look at the audience.

 

NIDAL

My father is an old man in a chair in a desert. A man

like thunder. A line of sheep behind him. A gaggle of

hens beside him. We live in a house with sheets of

aluminum for walls and sheets of plastic for roofs.

Bullet casings at our feet.

 

GIRL

The sheep nuzzle the casings. The chicken nuzzle the

feet.

 

NIDAL

We dream of the well we can’t dig. The land we can’t

farm.

GIRL

Not allowed.

 

NIDAL

Mamnou3…it says here right on the dotted line, in

between the dotted lines, see that signature, see the

shadow of that ink…

 

GIRL

The water in the river…

 

NIDAL

…the water is not allowed, mamnou3. The water we

hear, running in pipes past us, the water that goes

there…

 

GIRL

…settlements, swimming pools, dates…

 

NIDAL

…stockpiles, guards, guns.

 

GIRL

But still…

 

NIDAL

We know…

 

They slowly begin to rise so they are sitting on

their knees.

 

GIRL

….that after a village is destroyed…

 

NIDAL

…what is needed is to build something even if it’s

only…

 

GIRL

…this high…

 

NIDAL

…that high…

GIRL

…this tall…

 

NIDAL

…that short…

 

GIRL

…building a wall…

 

NIDAL

…patting a wall into place…

 

GIRL

…by moonlight, only by moonlight…

 

NIDAL

…just so…

 

They slowly rise to their feet

 

NIDAL

…just so something is left standing at dawn. Fajer.

 

He sits cross-legged on the stage.

 

GIRL

At dawn, he was sitting outside…

 

NIDAL

…twenty feet from the mosque waiting for prayers to

start.

 

GIRL

At dawn, they took him. Later, they hit him. They

argued about hitting him more. Hitting him more, they

decided. His small body on its side.

 

NIDAL

How do you burn a body? They didn’t know. Burning my

body, they learned.

GIRL

I dreamed him. Even as they found him, even then, I

dreamed him and it was the dream that brought me here.

I had never up and gone anywhere. I up and came here.

 

BLACKOUT

 

They exit in the dark.

 

 

 

SCENE 2

 

Lights up. The girl returns to the chair and sits.

She places her hands flat on the table, closes her

eyes. Her head falls forward. You can see the mask

clearly now, green, covering one side of her face.

MANJU, an Indian woman, also in her twenties,

enters and sits on the other chair. She takes a

nail file from her pocket, picks up the girl’s

hand and starts buffing her nails. Sounds of

Bollywood SONGS slowly RISE on a radio we can’t

see. Manju hums as she buffs. The Girl slowly

opens her eyes and raises her head. She yawns.

 

MANJU

Welcome back, Madam. Have a good doze, Madam?

 

GIRL

Ms.

 

MANJU

Oh. I thought the mister that you came with made you

madam.

 

GIRL

No.

 

MANJU

Miss, what beautiful nails you have. Bloody beautiful,

if I may say so.

 

The girl laughs, intrigued.

MANJU

So sorry, Madam, I mean Miss. It is a bad word but I

love it.

 

She giggles-she has a distinctive voice.

 

MANJU

Isn’t it good, my “bloody?” I practiced it watching

those Bond movies. Uska nam kya hai? (what’s his name)

 

GIRL

James. His name is James.

 

MANJU

Those only, Miss. I watch those only over and over

again. If you heard me with your eyes closed, you

wouldn’t even know I’m not a native. I mean, Miss,

would you…

 

The Girl already has her eyes closed.

 

GIRL

Go ahead.

 

MANJU

If I bloody well say so, then it bloody well is so.

Those bloody people. No bloody manners. Now open your

bloody eyes and look at me, I said…

 

The girl opens her eyes and smiles.

 

GIRL

You’re bloody perfect.

 

MANJU

(giggling) Thank you, thank you, Miss. The hundreds of

time I have practiced bloody, I can’t even tell you,

can’t even count…

 

GIRL

Try.

MANJU

Twenty times a day, every day for a week – that makes

twenty into five… No, wait… regular week is seven

days, so that is twenty into…

 

A GUNSHOT offstage followed by a recognizably

Palestinian SONG like “Wayn A Ramallah.” The Girl

and Manju listen.

 

MANJU

You want me to change the channel, Miss? I can’t stand

these shouting-bouting movies.

 

GIRL

That’s the news, Manju.

 

MANJU

Same thing, Miss, all doom and gloom, kill this, win

that, shoot this, save that.

 

The Girl is silent.

 

MANJU

Close your eyes, Miz. I’ll take off the mask now.

 

The Girl closes her eyes. Manju takes a cotton pad

from her pocket and scrapes the mask off the

girl’s face, in smooth, lulling strokes. The Girl’s

head drops and she snores for a few seconds, then

starts and opens her eyes.

 

GIRL

(softly) Turn up the volume, Manju.

 

MANJU

What?

 

She stops cleaning the girl’s face.

 

GIRL

I said, go make it louder.

Manju drops the cotton pad on the table, rises and

walks off stage. The SOUNDS of the SONG RISE

LOUDLY. The Girl picks up the cotton and finishes

cleaning her own face, till all traces of the mask

are completely gone. As if looking in the mirror,

she inspects her face. A harsh SPOTLIGHT finds

her, and illuminates her, blinding. She begins

coughing. The MAN enters.

PALMYRA

By Marguerite G. Bouvard

the cradle of ancient civilizations
where monuments inspired by
Greco-Romans and Persians
hold up the sky, and time

stands still, when my hands can’t
reach out or encircle the children
who were unable to flee
or to rebuild the walls of bombed out

houses, are unable to light
candles of hope when night and day
are reversed, and a woman who was a wife
and mother lies on the cobbled street

her blood leaving its marks,
while the blind-hearted man
who destroyed so many names
and faces turns away with his rifle

cocked, believes that he is cleansing
Syria in a holy war, cloaked
in ideology, exchanging
a slogan for his soul.

Interview with Etel Adnan

By Rewa Zeinati

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RZ: What makes good art/good writing?

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

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

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

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

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

RZ: Is there a difference between poetry and philosophy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RZ: What are you working on right now?

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

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

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

Newsworthy

By Lena K Tuffaha

I.

before you can see

we’ll need to adjust the lens

we find that natural light can be

unforgiving,

all those lines and jagged edges

glaring,

beads of sweat shimmering on the brow

scarlet of a fresh wound

unfurling across a body

might overwhelm

we’ll need to calibrate

 

before you react

before you assign any labels to what you see

(like injustice)

before you identify any emotions stirring in you

(like anger or shame)

we’ll need to fine-tune

It’s so complicated, this cycle

what appears so obvious

cannot be named

to maximize clarity

find a signature for the moment

we’ll need to select an image

layer the right sounds on top of it

we assemble a collage of now

so you can understand what’s at stake

so you can understand what you think you are seeing

the information that is

being sent from your eyeballs to your brain

is just raw data

and must be processed for you

 

This is called Context.

 

see for example the brown-skinned boy

slender limbs running across the street

a rock in his hand

focus on the rock

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

the smoke billowing from fires all around him

the tank pouring out armed soldiers

at the vanishing point where he aims

steady yourself with the thought

of the damage that the rock could conceivably do

and here it would be illuminating to note

that we have soldiers too

our boys sent across the globe

and don’t we love our boys?

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

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

weapon aimed at a child maybe isn’t

what it appears to be

now hold these feelings in front of your eyes

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

 

This is called Nuance.

 

III.

now it gets trickier

you’ll need to remain vigilant

now that rock-throwing boy

wounds still fresh on his face

eyes half open to the sky

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

and beneath him a teeming sea of people

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

let us now turn up the volume for you

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

any one face

here a wide camera angle will do best

 

what are all these people saying?

 

focus on the totality of the sounds

why aren’t they softer? shouldn’t sorrow

be soft     modest     relatable?

 

focus on the Allahu akbar

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

 

This is called Critical Thinking.

 

IV.

if you find yourself distracted

caught by the anguish on the mother’s

face in the crowd

focus instead on her veil

notice how many women in the crowd are veiled

how do you feel about that?

 

let the question fall slowly

between you and the mother

whose son’s limbs have been

collected for burial

if you find your stomach

tightening at the sight of her pain

if you find yourself measuring

the miniscule space her son’s

corpse takes up on the stretcher

if your eyes find others in the crowd

focus

focus again on the sound that floats up

the words you don’t speak

you do not know these people

 

why are they so angry?

 

tune into how their grief is loud

and disarrayed and confusing

and threatens to make you feel bad

stay with these feelings

now hold these feelings in front of your eyes

to filter the images you are seeing.

 

This is called Balance.

 

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

Regret and other pleasures

By jennifer jazz

Dreamer - mixed media - 152x92 cm By Nouf Semari
Dreamer – mixed media – 152×92 cm By Nouf Semari

 

“So you want to learn Arabic.” Muna said while we sipped from paper cups. “Well, you know, it’s a classical language,” I said putting my foot, instead of more tea, in my mouth, because it would’ve been easier to just learn some of the laid back dialect she spoke when her phone rang. I was working again. My lessons were squeezed into lunch breaks. She wanted me to begin with writing the alphabet. My hands were too unsteady. Not that the notebook and pen on the table between us mattered once we started spilling our souls. She was no spring chicken. In Cairo, she had almost gotten married.

“This is him. He was a liar.” She said showing me his photo. She rented a room in Brooklyn from an old woman from her hometown who spied on her comings and goings. She traveled to random public places across the five boroughs, meeting students who had read her tutoring ad, most of them doing a few lessons and quitting or never showing up at all. I don’t know who sighed more as we’d occupy the table for two we’d gravitate towards, at a Starbucks with the seedy lighting of a pub.

“Why don’t you dye your gray hair?” She asked as if Prince Charming were only a few rinses away. As if I would make room on my twin mattress and single pillow for anyone but a dying millionaire with my name on his will. I’d give her the face palm. She’d swat my hand and insist, then before a full hour had passed, I’d grab my tote and pass her two twenties from my purse.

“I can’t charge you to just talk. I feel bad. Next time you must learn something” she’d say.

She had been working for a translation company that offered to sponsor her, but the friend filling in for her while her immigration papers were being processed was refusing to vacate her desk she told me when she showed up in a haunted kind of mood on one particular occasion.

“Human resources won’t intervene. I’m 36. I have no career, no husband. Nothing.” She said. So I called Mohammed who used to row the meat slicer at a market near my office. During a phase when I needed a voice to occupy the excess space of a house larger than I was used to, I’d vacuum and load clothes into my dryer with his voice in the receiver pressed to my ear. Quite the storyteller, he’d reminisce about growing up in Egypt under Sadat as well as the stunning Libyan widow he had tried to win over with expensive gifts until her family suddenly decided she should marry her deceased husband’s brother instead. The stress of courtship had left him resentful, but I had recently received email pics of him and his new bride cutting their wedding cake, and as soon as I asked him for advice on Muna, he brought up his middle-aged bachelor buddy Ahmed.

“I can tell by how Ahmed looks at me,” Muna said with a dopey smile. “It’s love.” By this time she had a stable full-time job and had given a housewarming party at her new apartment in Queens where she served kunefah that Zeinab, a jaded neighbor with a rug she rolled out and performed her prayers on while the rest of us talked in another room, said was overbaked.

Muna wasn’t only larger than life physically. Her exotic green eyes and glittery pinky ring hypnotized everyone around her into feeling better. Unfortunately, she couldn’t entirely cheer up Ahmed. He had overstayed a visa decades ago. Couldn’t fly to Egypt to meet her family because he would never get back into the United States if he left. The “M” word gave him cold feet. Her ultimatums triggered a series of suspenseful breakups. I was at her kitchen table, she was buzzing in another friend when a panic came over her as she told me her relationship with Ahmed was between us and asked me not to mention him.

I didn’t have fast enough reflexes to keep up with their action packed romance. I was selling electronic resources to librarians for a company where I had to close sales to make a living wage. Had to keep dialing and emailing or get on planes and fly to the states where buyers were based because sometimes this was really the best way to get them to write checks. There was also my mother’s older sister, Aunt M. 77 years old, recently wheelchair bound but all by herself. Life’s unpredictability would have had a field day with her if I didn’t cook, deliver and serve her meals. I would have found little relief in anything but sitting next to my son bathed in the rainbow of our TV if Muna’s number didn’t regularly light up my phone.

“You need help. Where does your aunt live? I can bring her food and clean for her sometimes inshallah.” She’d offer, though I knew she didn’t mean it.

“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the lord my soul to keep and if I die before I wake…” I’d say at bedtime when I was a kid. I was supposed to just ask God to bless my parents, siblings and relatives but would include stray animals, victims of crimes I’d seen on the news, etcetera because I was the same way.

It started with a call to prayer that bent skyward like the most unusual flower prying itself loose from vines. Being African-American and raised Catholic had always been awkward. But it was at a point where everything old echoed. I didn’t need the Goth architecture, handbags and matching shoes. Just a quiet frame I could share with others who believed in doing things the way you’re supposed to that I found in the storefronts and renovated office spaces of New York where Muslims pray. I was given a heavy gold embossed Quran in one. In another, a Senegalese woman with tribally stained toe nails showed me how to ritually cleanse, as I ran wet fingers over my face, an innocent portrait of me in my first communion veil appearing in the sink water that gathered.

But years had passed since then and I was a fledgling convert only occasionally fasting the Ramadan Muna called out of the blue. We made plans to meet at a masjid over a Turkish restaurant in Midtown East. She was a heaving mass of warmth and good memories. It was right after work. We lined up with other women with our palms lifted in midair, then crossed them against our chests. We leaned forward with our hands on our knees like runners catching their breath. I was seated on the floor mat, staring just past my lap — we were done when, “Nothing has changed.” Muna began as if she couldn’t keep it inside another second. “He won’t pick up the phone and speak to my parents. It’s time to follow through. He earns very little. I would have to pay for almost everything if we got married, but…” She paused and for that moment, her eyes lost their usual glow.

My son’s father had been a musician who had studied painting, had the vocabulary of an art critic and expected me to afford him all the comforts of a wife without any strings attached. Shoveling snow, hauling heavy bags of groceries and clothes back and forth from the laundromat all by myself, my fundamentalist interpretation of feminism prevented me from realizing I was single. Born in 1960, I had come of age during the most liberal era in America. Casual arrangements with men were normal for women of my generation. I would have been acting if I had pretended to find Muna’s relationship with Ahmed unheard of. She was thinking out loud. I was eavesdropping when the curtain that separated the men’s and women’s sections parted, and the imam entered with milk and a tray of food. A woman in a kaftan embroidered with a scribbly pattern helped herself first. Then, the imam left, and a tide of heavy voices briefly washed across the smooth gray matting where we began eating our first meal since dawn. Tearing a fig from my teeth, I recalled being lost in a mosque on 116th Street and mistakenly crossing the men’s section without any of them even noticing I was there.

“How is Ousmane?” Muna asked.

“It doesn’t matter.” I said, stunned to hear his name. He was a man I never got to know, had only brought up once.

“Why not? Why not?” she teased pounding her fist on my leg.

“I need to feel like I’m taking a risk when I fall in love.” I said. “He’s too safe.” She gave me the same clueless stare I probably gave her when she talked about Ahmed. A woman in a veil so long it hid her feet, sat between us. The three of us forming a semi-circle. It was late and I had a commute ahead of me. My bag was a history lesson. Plunging my hand in to make room for some dates wrapped in a napkin that I planned to eat during my bus ride home, I touched a vial of blood pressure pills, faded supermarket receipts, loose cough drops, even the spiral notebook I had used before I realized that all I wanted was another woman to share a heart to heart with from time to time, not Arabic lessons.

 

Interview with Nathalie Handal

By REWA ZEINATI

Exploring convivencia

“Although, we did not have solutions for what was going on nor could we explain or define the East so rigidly, we felt a deep need to respond in any way we could. So we went to our natural prayer, poetry. We went to the human voices that have enchanted us and that have changed our lives and spirits,” says Nathalie Handal, award-winning poet, playwright, and editor. In this interview, Handal talks honestly about her craft, her role as a woman writer, and what she discovers to be “home.”

RZ:  In your new collection, Poet in Andalucía, you re-create Federico García Lorca’s journey, Poet in New York, but in reverse. What inspired this collection?

NH: Poet in New York is one of the most important books written about the city. Lorca is a poet who continues to call us to question what makes us human. Andalucía has always been the place where racial, ethnic, and religious forces converge and contend, where Islamic, Judaic, and Christian traditions remain a mirror of a past that is terrible and beautiful. Eighty years after Lorca’s sojourn in America, and myself a poet in New York of Middle Eastern roots—and this being a crucial moment in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—I wanted to explore convivencia which in Spanish means “coexistence.” The Spanish convivencia describes the time when Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in relative harmony in Islamic Spain. There are numerous debates surrounding notions of tolerance in al-Andalus during the Middle Ages. However, one cannot deny the rich and prosperous cultural and artistic life that existed during that period—a life that these communities created together. Mahmoud Darwish’s words kept echoing: “Andalus… might be here or there, or anywhere… a meeting place of strangers in the project of building human culture…. It is not only that there was a Jewish-Muslim coexistence, but that the fates of the two people were similar…. Al-Andalus for me is the realization of the dream of the poem.” So recreating Lorca’s journey in reverse became increasingly important to me.

RZ: What was the most challenging part of writing this collection?

NH: Coming to the understanding that although peace is possible if we desire—because what people want most is to live—we stand far away from that reality. It was challenging to weave hope into the poems, staying true to my vision while also understanding the fundamental forces that continue to lead us into conflict states instead of conciliatory ones.

RZ: How is this new collection, Poet in Andalucía, different than anything you’ve written before?

NH: I had a blueprint, a map of the book before I started it.

RZ: You were listed as one of the “100 Most Powerful Arab Women in 2011” and one of the “Power 500/The World’s Most Influential Arabs” in 2012 and 2013. Where has your inner strength and powerful voice sprung from? And how do you cultivate it?

NH: Staying faithful to my vision and understanding that every challenge is an opportunity for transformation, and a deeper more fundamental power.

RZ: How are women, writers or not, in your opinion, empowered? How do they get that fierce fearlessness, do you think?

NH: From what they have endured, from those who inspire them, from other women, from love, from that luminous-kickass-energy-force-inside.

RZ: Where is ‘home’ for you?

NH: I suppose I’ve given versions of the same response over the years. Today, I will simply say that home is where you can see the most profound side of yourself.

RZ: You have promoted international literature through translation, research, and the editing of the groundbreaking The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology, an Academy of American Poets bestseller and winner of the Pen Oakland Josephine Miles Book Award and the W.W. Norton landmark anthology, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond. How important is it to promote international literature, and why did you feel these anthologies were necessary?

NH: It’s vital—one of the most fundamental ways to understand other worlds; their history, culture, traditions. Coming for the Middle East but also having a global identity, I almost didn’t have an option. Thank goodness I enjoy editing and translating. It’s a tough job.
The Poetry of Arab Women was prepared to eradicate invisibility: to provide an introduction to Arab women poets, to make visible the works of a great number of Arab women poets who are virtually unknown to the West, to make visible many Arab-American women poets who are marginalized within the American literary and ethnic scenes, and to demonstrate the wide diversity of Arab women’s poetry, which extends to other languages besides Arabic and English.
Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond was conceived following the events of September 11th, 2001. Tina Chang, Ravi Shankar and I started this journey together because we felt troubled by the negative views showcased in the media about the East. Although, we did not have solutions for what was going on nor could we explain or define the East so rigidly, we felt a deep need to respond in any way we could. So we went to our natural prayer, poetry. We went to the human voices that have enchanted us and that have changed our lives and spirits. We hope this adds to the ongoing dialogue between East and West. This anthology celebrates the artistic and cultural forces flourishing today from the East, bringing together the works of South Asian, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian poets as well as poets living in the Diaspora. The collection includes 400 voices from 55 different countries writing in 40 different languages. The work included is diverse in style and aesthetic from political, to apolitical, erotic to experimental.

We are currently planning the 5th year anniversary celebration of the publication of our anthology in Hong Kong this summer. Simultaneously, we are launching the Language for a New Century website intended to reach educators and to assist them in adopting and teaching the contents of the book. Beyond this, the LNC site will be an energetic space where teachers, professors, students, readers, poets, and anyone interested in this anthology and the amazing voices from the East can go to for more information.

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

NH: We don’t owe our heritage as much as we owe ourselves—whatever it is we feel or need. We can’t force connections and alliances. We have our personal circumstances and histories, and shouldn’t be judged by those realities nor assigned expectations. After all, a person might speak Arabic and not feel connected to the Arab world and culture. And another might not speak the language and feel very linked to his/her heritage.

RZ: You’ve mentioned once in an interview that what makes us human is our ability to answer thoughtfully, and change our minds later. That resonates with many people, surely, many of whom are probably afraid to perhaps voice this resonance. What is it about changing our minds that terrifies us so much? And is this confirmation an integral part of what makes us creative? What makes writers, writers?

NH: It doesn’t terrify all of us. I find it rather reassuring, comforting. As for what makes writers, writers. I can’t speak for all of them, I can only tell you, as a writer, I’m a romantic of sorts in search of an impossible perfect.

RZ: You have been asked this question countless times before, but I will ask you again, forgive me; how do you define yourself in terms of identity?

NH: A Bethlehemite—who is also French and American—with Latin American, African and Asian influences. A Mediterranean who is also very much a city person.

RZ: You’ve mentioned once that, “homeland is one thing and home is another.” How so? And do you find yourself constantly in search of one or the other in your writing?

NH: Not any more. They appear and disappear but I’m very clear on what each means to me. Home is the place I have chosen to exist in, my cities, Paris and New York. Homeland is where I am originally from, Bethlehem.

RZ: You’ve lived in Europe, the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Arab world. You are of Palestinian descent and write in English. Does the Arab in you feel empowered?

NH: I only write in English but my poems include French, Spanish and Arabic words because they are an integral part of my English or maybe I should say, the way I communicate. These languages coexist inside of me harmoniously. Speaking various languages has expanded my interior and exterior world in a multitude of fascinating ways.

RZ: In an increasingly globalized present, where the world seems to be shrinking faster than a new phone app is created, (or maybe not!) and the distinctive, discerning features of each Arab culture seems to be vanishing, how can art reconcile us with the idea that we may become increasingly obsolete? (or maybe not?)

NH: Arab or any other culture will not become obsolete. It’s our fundamental pulse, and we instinctively preserve our cultures. We re-imagine them but will not let them disappear. I don’t see the distinctive features of each Arab culture vanishing. I can recognize certain unifying spaces especially when it comes to social media but every Arab country is graced with its unique and ancient histories, cultures, traditions, art and literature. We continue to cherish, nourish, and add new twists to them. Even if every generation complains that certain elements of their culture have been lost, the essence remains very much alive.

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

They are an important meeting field of ideas, minds and creative talent,
where we communicate, challenge, change, learn, and are exposed to a
constellation of voices.

NH: What advice would you offer emerging writers?

Read as diversely as possible, and don’t be in a hurry to publish. If you
persist and are dedicated, you’ll find the bus that will take you to the
terminal where you’re meant to begin your writing life.