Four poems by Momtaza Mehri

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اقرأ – the First Word. In His Name. The last book shut on us.
The lesson?
Angels speak in imperatives, could teach us a thing or two
about saying what we really mean.

subtext: a naar hung from the highest shelf/ of our ribcage/mark where a wetness dots space/between thumb and mouth/journey to & from/isra & mi’raaj/you left a teeth mark on the butter/of my wrist/

Four by four makes sixteen. ضرب to multiply is to beat. In my old tongue.
We are striking numerals together, hoping for a spark to feed one
of our mouths. Turn each uvula into a burning chandelier.

subtext: a dress of skin lost from an ankle/licked dry into a plate/watch me outwit this dunya/ with each finger snap

Five or twenty five. Both days spent on the big bed.
So BIG I wanna drown in it.
A bed is a country and your nape’s salt weight on a freshly changed pillow
a contradiction. I have named each checkpoint a ‘birthmark’ or something else permanent.

subtext: waiting for my father’s phlegmy cough/meaning yes/she is no longer a walking hazard sign known as daughter/ take her from me/ take my blessing and run with it

Seven. The seventh son died of treatable causes. An uncle still sees his face in the youngest.
Meanwhile, I am still auditioning for this country’s approval.

subtext: i am tired of counting/in a script that folds my lungs/draws a an exhale from the centre of ٥ mouth/ but mostly/i am just tired

عشرة remains the same in all languages. Imagine that kinda consistency
in a man/border of your choosing?

Dieuetmondroit

He, the cart-carrier, Kalahandar boy.
wrapped in sweat’s fine sheen, shalwaar rising and falling
like a raised flag (white)
or a collapsed lung (right?)
A Khaleeji sun to glue a man’s eyelids together.
Dubai hasn’t met an afternoon she couldn’t choke. Not yet.
Watch him weave though a human maze,
a mule load weight on his shoulders.

Take of me what you will,
but pay me. She understands this language. A life in fine print and remittances.

She, in a black abaaya trailing, a spray of folded jasmine,

and three shades darker still,
a sugar-free Coke lulling the back of her throat.
Watch breath frost a window’s glass. From the inside,
an aunt barters gold across a counter’s gloss.
Outside, a man glistens in all the worst ways.
Between them there is so much,
and so little, but mostly,
Her Majesty’s cardboard pulse, blushing
from the inside of her travel pouch.

In the back of a yellow cab marked ‘occupied’,
twin windscreen wipers part their thighs,
and she tastes

the accident of her birth.


The Night We All Watched Talal Maddah Die On Television

The stage of keys became a footnote. An underline
to a dashboard heavy with cassette tape wonder.
We go backwards to go forwards, a shared madness.

His last words a dream of palm trees and a grazing breeze.
The Scholar. The Throat.
Makkah’s Golden Boy turned into a knot of eyebrows, clawing at collar,
a fit of nerves. A crowd yelps,
checks his pulse, hears the whole of the Hijaz held
from a thread, and your sigh, softer still frosting the glass of a TV screen.

Later, the confirmation. They always come too late. A heart attack.
Newscaster slips out of the standardised into yarhamu hu’ llah
into may he rest in the highest gardens.

Your mother, too, conducts her own ritual
from the mourning bed of the plastic-wrapped settee,
all too familiar with the sight of a man’s body
crumpling into itself.

The new millennium takes another innocence from us.


The Second Time I watched Talal Maddah Die Onscreen (Replay)

enter: الاصيل سويعات

enter: suwaycaat alasiil

enter:suwa3at alaseel

You find the video on a web corner, nostalgia-pungent and dislocated.
One comment thumbed into a dozen likes tells its own story.
Gives a context you didn’t ask for. Hit replay and ignore. Try to.

التياع جمر على ضمأى همسة الوداع غير لي ليس واخيرا

This strum, this song, it can’t be true. You’ve read it twice now, lingering
under the description box. He wrote this one, your favourite, after his youngest son fell
from a window. Apparently.

الوداع قتو من اعنف لوعة البقاع كل في حلو يا اجد لم

Was it a high-rise? Before or after crude oil bubbled into living rooms?
Before this heart-split we named modernity?
You are never sure, will never be. Know better than to trust what lies beyond a screen.
Trust only in what you’ve caught sight of.

On glossed-out, Beirut-set talent shows, they sometimes sing that final song.
There is always something damp and bottomless to each verse.
The contestant always looks nervous. This you are sure of.

In Her Dream I Spoke Arabic: In a college composition class a few years ago, many worlds came together.

By Jesse Millner

A student from Palestine writes “theological” instead of “theoretical.” I help her understand the difference. She has no thesis. She arrived in America three years ago having learned to write essays that reference poems and the Koran. She loves her family, misses raising tomatoes outside of the village she grew up in. Her main point is the compassion with which she writes about the world, how the very first creature she wrote about was a rabbit, which she drew a picture of in the top right corner of the page in her notebook. Rabbit, she says, in Arabic, contains the first letter of that alphabet. So it’s logical to associate learning alphabets with drawing rabbits. She comes to see me in my office with her work and I tell her how good it is, how her voice is strong and beautiful, how she paints the world with strokes of kindness, how she’s almost making me believe in God again.

Is that the main point of teaching, of writing? To learn about others, to hear their voices, to see the wonder with which they still view our world? A student from Lebanon writes about living in an apartment building where, after the 1988 civil war, they had to use black garbage bags to replace whole sections of the outer walls of the building. During one attack after air raid sirens went off, her grandmother had to be left under a table in their apartment because she couldn’t walk and she was too heavy to carry to the shelter.

Sitting next to the woman from Lebanon is a former American soldier who had served in Iraq. His first essay is about beauty, and he says beauty for him is being allowed to leave his running shoes on the floor in the middle of his apartment, and to throw his clothes on his bed when he gets home. He writes, “For me, chaos is beauty.”

For me, my students are beauty. My writing classes are filled with a chorus of young voices straining against the walls of the five-paragraph essay. They are amazed that they are allowed to write in first person. They are astounded that they can write about issues that are important to them: My Palestinian student’s fifteen-year-old cousin was beaten by Israeli soldiers because he ran from them. His leg was broken. One soldier picked a fresh lemon from her grandfather’s orchard, cut it in half, and then rubbed the bitter fruit into her cousin’s eyes.

On her way to school each day, she had to pass three IDF checkpoints. She writes that the soldiers were young and afraid, that they asked her about her major in college, what she liked to do in her free time. She feels sorry for them. She wishes, as the young men do themselves, that they could go home.

Her name is Enas. My spellchecker underlines her name in bold red, and I think of the blood spilled in Palestine. Enas writes about the smell of her grandmother’s bread. Enas writes about the beautiful red cheeks of her ripe tomatoes. Enas writes about teaching second grade when she was in college because an Israeli curfew prevented the regular teachers from traveling.

Yesterday after class Enas showed me pictures of her friends and family in Palestine. They lived on a mountain covered with olive trees. Some of the photographs show children playing in snow. Enas tells me she has forty-five cousins. I’m drawn to a particular photograph that shows Enas with her family just before she moved to America. Enas, her aunt, and her mom are all wearing white hijabs. She flips the album and on the next page Enas is wearing a sombrero in Disneyland. I tell her I’m delighted by the juxtaposition. She types “juxtaposition” into her hand-held translating device and I watch the word I know flow into Arabic.

I ask my class to write down their dreams. I tell them not to have coffee or tea when they woke up. I said it was ok to go to the bathroom. Enas writes about a dream where I came to class drinking a beer. Since I’m a recovering alcoholic and haven’t had a drink in twenty-eight years, I was a little bit taken aback. Then she talks about how, in her dream, outside the classroom door she could see images of Palestine: a rope swing that her grandfather had hung from an olive tree branch for her when she was little, a car carrying a bride to her new husband’s home. She could also smell burning wood from an oven where her grandmother baked fresh bread. At the end of the piece she listened to me speaking Arabic. And when she read aloud my words in that other tongue, when I listened to myself speak through her, I heard myself in a different way.

It didn’t matter that I only said, “Enas, pay attention instead of looking out that door.” The words were magic and they still linger like foreign ghosts on my tongue.

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.

 

Fear: a sequence

By Olivia Ayes

  1. huru    حر free

Wet blossoms litter the sidewalk. Birds are pecking

at humus for a meal. The wind determined to move.

This city has not broken my heart. It never will.

This morning, I awoke from a dream about walking,

after I’d lost my shoes. There was the bluest ocean,

a window from which I could see but not touch.

Last night you cried on the train, about loss,

about potential for more loss, about how you spent

the day crying and sleeping. Even painful stories

are beautiful—a purple Harlem sunset.

 

  1. Ijumaa    الجمعة Friday

We take the dusty side streets to Giza Necropolis—

during Ramadan, the guard we bribed turned his head

as we rode our horses through—the money, tossed down.

Prayers reverberated along the angled slopes, the stone blocks.

There is only faith and waiting. Perhaps the calls are heard—

dusk at Tahrir Square, calmness six months after, vendor, flags—

Spongebob and The Scream masks, a KFC. We do not revolt

against this—the risen bread and dough dipped in honey

insufficient to feed our hunger. It is liberation we want—

empires taken and re-taken.

 

iii. tafadhali    تفضل    please

She cried for hours when she heard—forehead on the shoulder

of a friend. I do not want to leave—I’m happy. I want to keep learning.

The following week, three matrons in black abāyah and niqāb

floated through the school’s gravel driveway—she must

but she can stay until June. We will have the wedding in August.

Do not be afraid, child. He will take care of you. He will love you.

You will be ready.

 

  1. hatari    خطر danger

In 1962, John Wayne starred in a movie filmed in Tanganyika.

A rhino rams against the vehicle. A giraffe fails to escape.

The enemy we hunt for sport, not unlike the police officer

with his black baton, adding invisible bruises to a man’s ribs—

a drunk, perhaps, a thief—mwizi. The smell, a nauseating

mix of dirt, sweat, and blood. His face is open—a red flower

in bloom—reprehensible, the only purpose to withstand.

 

  1. mahali    محل place

“There are no slums in America like here,” he says.

Filipino movies opened his world—“How can this place

on the other side of the world have the same problems?”

Favelas, al sakan, gecekondu, ghetto, villas miseria, shanty—

all the forgotten, the mothers unbroken, unwilling to give

to death—no needles of heroin in their arms, no children

whose lives are now unguarded. On nights when you can hear

music and laughter out of her mouth—revising the melancholy

into song, you can almost believe forgiveness.

 

  1. asubuhi    صبح morning

Rage, dear. We understand. We lay our bodies against

the cold cement floor. We believe, as you do—the winds

punching the trees, the rain pummeling horizontally across

our faces, the shores rising to the height of hills. We cannot

prevent disaster—only wait. Tomorrow, the sun and sky

will return to touch us gently, apologizing with a poem.

We’ll thank the wet earth between our toes, the bodies

you’ve given back to us, absolved. We will remember

that we do not belong to ourselves—

 

vii. furahi    فرح    happy

Freedom is not the same as escape—I already knew

that night—her mouth on mine—you, somewhere

in another dream, the quiet of fir trees, her arms,

a mountain whose mist still welcomed sunshine. Far—

and soon an ocean, a desert between us. Remember

that you belong only to your wants—how else will you

build your walls? Is it safe there?

 

For more poems by Oliva Ayes check Sukoon‘s summer 2014 issue