Origin Story by Jess Rizkallah

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

i’m alive, and therefore enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Father’s Daughter by Kathy Shalhoub

My father once told me that women were all the same; they made promises they didn’t keep.

I was a freshman sitting cross-legged on my dorm bed holding the receiver to my ear.

“They’re full of bullshit,” he said. I couldn’t remember his face but his voice sounded so much older than his fifty-seven. It sounded like someone else’s and very far away.

“I really will come see you this summer,” I said again after his declaration. I was ready at last.

“Whatever. Happy Birthday. I love you,” he said.

I didn’t reply because I didn’t want to lie.

I am four years old and I’m a Princess. Dad is the King. In a house of six people I see only him. My brother and sister are invisible. My mother is at work and Teta, my grandmother, busy in the kitchen. We sit on the marble steps that connect upstairs with downstairs. He soothes my knee where I have fallen. A dark blue bruise is brewing beneath the skin. The tiles are cold. He picks me up and carries me up the stairs.

“Is my Princess okay?”

I am safe and warm in the throne of his arms so I smile and nod.

“You know, your Grandfather was a Count,” he says. His English is accented. “You have blue blood. Royal blood,” he says, his chest swelling and his eyes looking deep into mine. Teta passes by and rolls her eyes.

I lift my chin an inch higher. The blue knee makes sense now. Some months later, I am in the garden carrying a box of tools for my brother. It is too heavy and my hands are sweaty. It starts to slip and I can’t hold it. I drop it on my ring finger and the finger splits open. I bleed crimson.

I am five years old. I am bouncing on my dad’s leg and laughing. The TV is on and a blonde Miss Universe struts around the stage with her diamond crown. The perfume of tobacco on his fingers is warm and delicious.

“You will be Miss Universe one day,” he says, gripping his pipe between tea-stained teeth. Maybe, but I have yet to see a Miss Lebanon on the show.

But when he lifts me up and sits me in his lap I feel like Miss Universe. I am loved. That summer we are on the beach, me in my one-piece stripy bathing suit and blue floaters sucking at my arms, him in his Speedos. He is so tall and handsome. His hair is dirty blonde. The tips curl perfectly around his ears. Golden body hair sparkles on his bronze skin. He gives me change and lets me go buy a Merry-cream. I feel like a grown up.

I hurry back to share my ice-cream with him but he’s not on the slippery white benches that surround the pool. His blue towel is still damp with sweat. I look up and scan the tall hairy bodies all around. I see the back of a man in Speedos standing near the wall overlooking the crashing waves. The oil on his bronze skin glistens in the sun.

He is talking to Miss Universe in a tiny turquoise bikini. The chocolate and vanilla swirls melt onto my hand and drip down to the hot cement.

I am six years old and it’s been a long, sticky summer. The electricity is out again. This is normal in Lebanon. It is late afternoon and my sister and I have exhausted our list of games. Mom is still at work. Dad is awake and better today.

“Get changed,” he says. “Let’s go outside and take pictures.”

My sister doesn’t want to participate. I run to change out of my nightie and into my new ballet outfit. Outside in the dimming sun, hibiscus flower in my hair, I am the most beautiful girl that ever existed.

“My prima ballerina,” he says.

I preen.

That school year I begin ballet classes – a gift from Aunt Hoda. At home after class, I dance in front of the mirror, sing to myself, do a plier, a pirouette. My father wobbles in the doorway.

“You want to be ballerina?” His voice sounds strange.

“Yes!” I screech, and jump at him to pick me up. He squats down instead.

“Then you gonna be a poor starving artist all your life,” he says.

Dad likes taking photos but he is an engineer. We are poor anyway.

I am seven years old and we are in the red-tiled kitchen. My father is very angry with my brother for not eating his tomatoes. The number of tomatoes does not equal the amount of anger. My brother puts a slice of tomato in his mouth and gags immediately. It’s a texture thing. My father thinks he’s being difficult. He undoes his belt, and in one move whips the leather from his pants and across my brother’s back.

My brother flinches but says nothing. I run out of the kitchen and into the living room. My father comes to find me. I shrink into the corner of the couch. He sits next to me and drops an arm across my shoulders.

“Don’t be scared.” He knows I am because I’m crying. “I would never hurt you.”

I know he wouldn’t but I am sad for my brother, and relieved it’s not me.

A bottle of Smirnoff and a row of beer bottles later, my father staggers into the kitchen in his underwear and grey robe. It feels like he’s been away for a long time but there’s war and I know no one can travel these days. I hurry in after him wanting us to spend time together. I want to hug him but hang back in the doorway. He struggles to open the refrigerator, sways in its mist, still gripping the handle while he scans the inside.

He stoops and plucks the bottle of French’s mustard from the door, wobbles, spins a little then falls on his bum, legs spread out. Laughter bubbles over his lips.

I do not go closer. I do not look into his face. I do not hug him. I focus on the bottle of mustard he still holds. It is very yellow. The King begins to fade and his Princess does too.

I am 10 years old. The man standing next to me outside is my father. I am crying because there’s a dead kitten on the concrete underneath his car. Or maybe I’m crying because Teta died so recently. He pats my shoulder like a baby pats a dog. Stiff. Awkward. Pat, pat, pat. We both seem disconnected, an old toy put together with improvised pieces.

“It’s okay, I’ll take care of it,” he says. “Daddy will always be here for you.”

He hasn’t been anywhere else, but I still miss him. I have never called him Daddy either. I take his words and carefully wrap them up. I put them inside my heart where they still burn.

A few months later, Aunt Hoda is dropping me off at home after a day at her place. A Red Cross ambulance is parked outside our house, the siren is off but the orange lights are spinning. Something happened to Teta? No, Teta died months ago. I sprint inside. A man is lying facedown on the floor next to my parents’ bed.

Mom tells me he’s going to hospital to get better. After that I sometimes see his name embroidered into towels I help mom hang outside. Then one day the towels stay home. I don’t say goodbye and I don’t say I love you because I don’t see him again. He is back in his country, getting better.

My father told me once that women were all the same, they made promises they didn’t keep. I don’t know if he was talking about my mother or me but in either case, he was right.

I was an engineering freshman sitting cross-legged on my dorm bed holding the receiver to my ear. I couldn’t remember his face but his voice sounded so much older than his fifty-seven. I promised him I would visit that summer. Winter got there first.

 

 

 

to the four languages I speak: Arabic (pt. 1)

By Zoha B. Khan

When I was born, they poured Arabic into my ear,
jug-mouth to the bowl of my ear, thick and
rich and ornate, honey-sound,
the nurse-maiden with breasts heavy with Islam, my holy milk.
She is a poet’s tongue and though I am the lover
of another, I am duty-bound to admire her form, the languor
of her curves, to savor
the way her words land from fall, carpeted by their own whorls,
how they slip between my fingers, silk
stretched taut, Pashmina-ink through the rose-gold-ring of
my mouth, curling in my throat,
ballooning into sound as I breathe my voice into the alphabets,
that unfurl and coil their tails over the page,
their diamond-eyes watching, the regal swoop of the kajal,
their generous, matronly curves and open, laughing smiles, lazy discipline
in quiet control.
Sultry, the lascivious hijabi, rendered sensual by her very restraint, sinuous
within her confines,
I pull her into a dance.
She lets me twirl her around, both snake-watchful and panther-loose-limbed
sunned by my attention, spinning a maze around
my pen.
Arabic, a mystery to all who speak her, changing form from tongue
to tongue like a djinn;
Arabic, drunk under the niqab, champagne made dream made sound
made a poet’s fever dream.

Four poems by Momtaza Mehri

Barcodes

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.

The Test

By Craig Loomis

The government is planning to study a project that will identify homosexuality through a clinical test, which will be added to the list of medical tests one has to undergo to obtain a visa. If an individual is tested as a homosexual that person will have an unfit stamped on his medical report and will automatically be disqualified from the visa application.

“That’s it? We’ve done all the blood tests?”

“Afraid so.”

“An urine?”

“Same.”

“Feces? Don’t forget feces. Nobody wants to look at the feces.”

“Lah, lah, we’ve looked at everything. There’s nothing there.”

He drums his fingers on the tabletop, until, “There must be something we missed. All that drips or oozes, or . . .? Something, Sah?”

It is late, and except for a small desk lamp that pools a weak yellow light across the desk, leaking ever so softly onto their legs and arms, the rest is grayblack lab. It is a bedroom-size government lab with a gang of steely machines neatly arranged around them. A Bunsen burner bubbles over there, a gassy blue flame flickers here. The many computers are at rest, ghostly gray and eyeless. A twinkle of tiny blue lights means one of the machines is thinking. And although the signs are clear, no smoking, the one wearing three gold rings is smoking a cigarette, flicking ash into a paper coffee cup. They wear white lab coats with nametags: Dr. Mohammad and Dr. Abdullah. Reams of paper full of charts and graphs and long columns of numbers cover the table. And so, the one continues to smoke while the other drums his fingers along the tabletop.

“Now what?”

“Yes, indeed, now what?”

“They want something reliable, something accurate. A test that can be applied at the airport if need be, in some back room, something with instant results. Sah?”
The smoker nods to this. Somebody, somewhere is talking too loud. Both of them look around to see how that is possible if they are on the eighth floor and they are the only ones in the building, and it’s late, and . . .

“How about an X-ray?”

“X-ray?”

“Sure, of the pelvic region. That might turn up something.”

“X-ray?”

He picks up a chart, reads it, turns one, two pages before dropping it back on the table. The sound of someone, somewhere talking too loud grows weaker, then louder, then disappears. Blue lights twinkling.

“How about a lie detector test?”

“They’d lie.”

“Of course, but the test would catch them, Sah?”

“It would have to be a yes or no question. Lah, lah, we need something more solid, more medical, something like a pregnancy test. Something we can see, something that does not take a specialist, a doctor, a PhD, something that says red for positive, blue for negative. Something like that, like a pregnancy test, Sah? Either you are or you aren’t, there’s no in between. You see?”

He gently lifts the vial of blood from its gleaming steel holder, asking, “And when do they need this test?”

“It’s top priority. The director even used the words ‘national security priority’–just like the movies.”

He fingers the vial of blood, and there is a police siren and then another, and then, back to the hush of a late night lab.

“My grandmother swears that a person’s face tells all.”

“Face?”

“Tells all. Actually, it’s the eyes.”

“The eye color?”

“Lah, lah, of course not.” Taking a long puff from the cigarette, filling the lamplight with a newer, brighter fog. “The space between the eyes is what she’s talking about. She says the greater the space between a person’s eyes, the more, . . . the more suspect that person is. You see? She says everybody knows this.”

“The more suspect? Your grandmother says this?”

“Nam, 82 years old this month,” he says proudly.

“And you believe her?”

He shrugs, saying, “All we would need is a tape measure.”

He holds the vial of blood up to the lamp light, peering to get a better look. “Again, what did he say about this blood?”

“The director says it’s the real deal. Says this is a sample we can use. He says it’s genuine, authentic. Those are his very words, ‘authentic blood’ from, he said, a most reliable source.”

Turning the red vial this way and that, until the two of them are looking at it together, squinting into the soft light.

“Where did he say he got it?”

Done looking, he quickly slides the vial back into its metal holder. While the one lights another cigarette, making a new smoke, a new fog, the other begins to stack the many papers into one neat pile in the center of the table.

“I didn’t ask.”

Occlusions

By Eman Hassan

i- What we leave out.

I know something of that clank,
nickels and pennies in my mouth,
of times they rust at the back of my throat
making me think of rosebushes
along my back yard wall,
my urge to clip their unruly babel of leaves
down to their original stump
and I am lost
among the shrubbery of my own language,
held back by arbitrary branches.
At night I brush twigs from my bushy hair,
pull thorns from under the tip of my tongue.
Makes me think of my grandmother,
when she turned seven, seeing speech
as perception, announced
to her immigrant mother there will be no more Polish
spoken in the house again: only American.
She taught me how to swear in her maternal
tongue, often spoke of how Great Nana Julia
would scream
long strings of words
at her husband, in a language my grandmother
didn’t remember, those monosyllabic and compound
phrases, just recalled the cuss words
arbitrarily passed down.
My mother tells me this one night as she nods off, smiling
at an image of her grandfather Stanislaus, mumbling

as he stands up for dramatic pause, looks down
at his screechy wife, then flips his hearing aid off.

ii. Loose change

Sometimes people in the old Kuwaiti
market mistake me for American,
which I am, but also one of them,
unlike my British brother in-law,
who teaches Arabs to speak English
there at thirty-five dollars an hour,
his price half the cost
the institute he once worked at
charged for his cockney.
Even my brother in-law can hear
my own words as different, almost off-key,
like my sisters, softer on the gutturals
and heavier intonations. Yes,
I tell him, yes, I am lost between
the diphthongs of one language
and another, among three-pronged
Arabic, its roiling lyric, and Anglophone
Latin, who’s various roots twist
and branch plural versions,
British or American English, yes,
I am lost in my own lack
of singular linguistic socialization.

Who are we, peering out from a construct of sentences,
giving them jingle and form? Who can put a price our coins?

iii. What we take for granted

At the T-Mobile branch I single Elton out,
his unmistakable lilt: Elton is Chaldean,
from the land of Babel and Sumer.
Has never been, but once wanted to be
an interpreter in Iraq because the money,
he heard, was good. When his manager steps
back into the store Elton stops being
familiar, cuts the conversation, says loudly
he was born in Michigan,
explains how my new messaging service
will let me text Kuwait
at forty-five cents a pop.
Elton pronounces Kuwait
like the noun is made out of money:
his associated value with the word
reminds me how we both take for granted
the wealth of a multiple language.
Elton reminds me of my Kuwaiti father
who never took the name of the Lord in vain
but praised it, who often switched around
compound words in English, saying
towel paper or stew beef. He took for granted
I would be proficient in Arabic,
Often dismayed at my syntactic variations.
I took for granted our last conversation
mostly because of the shock,
as we watched the broadcast about Nick
a kidnapped US contractor on TV,
too stumped to speak.

What we leave out, or take for granted. What we take in vain.
The way they held a knife under Nick’s throat, ululating His Name.

TWO POETRY BOOK REVIEWS by Marwa Helal

SOMETHING SINISTER by Hayan Charara (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2016)
Reviewed by Marwa Helal

Literary heavyweight Hayan Charara returns with his first poetry collection in ten years: Something Sinister. The work is haunted by the voids of family life; the contradictions of a pious father:

Ta’ Ha’, Ya Sin, Sad, Qaf.
God of my father, listen:
He prayed, he prayed, five times a day,

and he was mean.

The loss of the speaker’s mother and his desire to reconnect with her in any way results in her spirit becoming a strong presence throughout this work:

My silence alone provoked her into

saying, “I wasn’t dreaming.”
And if she had doubts

about God or the afterlife or seeing
our mother again that night

she believed.
As for me, I was simply jealous.

I loved my mother and let her death
ruin my life, yet she

never showed up, no matter
how much I drank

or smoked or banged my head
against the walls.

Charara holds nothing back as he navigates the most interior locales of the personal: dreams, hallucinations, the space between his head and the wall, loss, aching, violence and anger. His is a new take on what it means for the personal to be political. The title poem deconstructs the ‘us and them’, the ‘hearts and minds’, the ‘you’re either with us, or against us’ of the post 9/11 era. More than that, it is about an individual who is of both the us and the them, (whatever that means) and all of its complex implications. That is the interiority of Charara’s work. Here the personal is personal and the political is merely an afterthought, a bystander. In fact, Charara seems to hold the fleeting above all:

What does a ten-year-old
do with relativity? Or
the concept of infinity,

or a theory of everything?
And if the Big Bang and every
instant since turned out

to be a single everlasting
moment under the sun—
so what?

The final poem: “Usage” is a book within this book; a dense eight-page single-spaced mini-opus on dismantling the very fabric of America through its primary language and the impact of its usage on our lives. This last poem (and the book as a whole) should be taught in every English-speaking classroom.

Charara’s other titles include The Alchemist’s Diary and The Sadness of Others.


FOUR CITIES by Hala Alyan (Black Lawrence Press, 2015)

Reviewed by Marwa Helal

Alyan establishes herself as a poet to keep an eye on with her second collection, Four Cities, traversing her expansive geography and vernacular through these poems. From Venice to Aleppo to Gaza and Detroit, this collection is a journey through lands, the terrain of emotion and the surprises any traveler knows you can never plan or prepare for.

Gaza. I’m sorry. Beirut. I still love you like an arsonist.

This is the poetry of the new world, where Oklahoma juxtaposes Paris. The immigrant’s child, the refugee’s child has traveled the world and returned with these words:

Baghdad. Twenty six years and you still make me cry. […] Istanbul. Marry me. Dallas. I pretended I was Aladdin turning the soil over and gasping. […] Gaza. I’ll tell you where I’ve been.

Alyan succinctly and surprisingly captures the interior lives of women in both hemispheres while giving us access to the dreamlike quality of being an outside observer among extended family back home. In one scene, “the same Turkish soap opera/ is on the television set,” and in another, “I can show you a city torching itself./ The sea eats the sea like firewood.”

A recurring theme in Alyan’s work is the body as paper. If that is the case, then this work is the body folding and unfolding into a world map made of the poet’s words, as every season in every city seems to be contained in this work.

From “Portrait of Love as a Series of Dreamscapes”:

There are butterfly trees in cities now,
flurried bodies

strung from branch tips.

Mammoth oaks shimmy
with the bristling of wings.

No one sweeps the carcasses when they fall.

Alyan’s surprising turns and musical, evocative language will leave you wanting for her next collection, HIJRA, forthcoming in August 2016.

Alyan’s other titles include ATRIUM and HIJRA (forthcoming 2016).

Four poems by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

Dhayaa

In my language
the word for loss is a wide open cry,
a gaping endless possibility.
In English loss sounds to me like one shuddering blow to the heart,
all sorrow and absence hemmed in,
falling into a neatly rounded hole,
such tidy finality.

In my language
the word for loss is a long vowel stretched
taut and anchored between behemoth consonants, reverberating—
a dervish word
whirling on itself
in infinite emptiness
the widening gyre,
the eternal motion of grief.

Eating the Earth

And to the flour
add water, only
a thin stream whispering gathered
rains of a reticent winter.

And to the flour add oil, only
a glistening thread snaking through
ridges and ravines of what
sifts through your fingers,
what sinks, moist and burdened
between your palms.

And in the kneading
hinge forward, let the weight
of what you carry on your shoulders,
the luster of your language, shade
of your story press into the dough.

And to the dough bring
the signature of your fingertips, stretch
the canvas before you, summer linen
of wheat and autumn velvet of olive oil,
smooth like a map
of silence and fragrance,
of invisible terrains of memory.

And on the dough let the green leaves
fall, drenched
sumac stars flickering among them
shards of onion in their midst.

Scatter them as the wind would
or gather them in the center of this earth
and fold them into the tender embrace
of the dough, cool and soft beneath their bodies.

And make a parcel of the dough,
filled with foraged souvenirs,
fold them in, and then again,
let their silhouettes gaze back at you.
Recall found treasures of hillside
wandering; flint, thorn
blossom and a hoopoe
feather carried home in your skirt.

And to the flames surrender
the bread, gift of your hands.
Grasp its tender edges and turn it
as the heat strafes and chars
this landscape you have caressed.
Some grandmothers sing as they bake,
others speak prayers.

And let the edges bristle to the color
of earth, let the skin of the bread scar.
The song of zaatar simmering
in its native oil rises up
and time evaporates. You are young
again, it is spring
in the greening valley.

*zaatar – wild thyme native to the Levant

Intifada Portrait
for Ramzi

I have a Palestinian friend
who drinks coffee with me once in a while
and tells me stories of the Intifada.

“Who can erase those days from the memory of time?
The land will never forget our footsteps
pounding against bullets and tear gas.
My skin remembers it.”

I grew up watching it on the news,
the nightly accounting of young broken bones,
the women in sensible skirts
and the boys in kuffiyehs
who all woke up one morning and had enough.

I have a Palestinian friend
who lived that rainy winter
stone to stone
who swayed over the hairpin edge of death
who shouldn’t even be here today
to talk about it.

I have a Palestinian friend
whose eyes are like two pools of olive
oil about to ignite.
They swarm with stars as he tells me
about his Intifada portrait.

“The Israeli soldiers showed it to me in jail.
They have cameras that can get a close up
of every pore in your skin!
Shit! Is that really me?
I was flying
above the black smoke
from the burning tires…”

He leans over his coffee cup,
“…a stone in my clenched fist,
ready to strike!”

His eyes narrow now,
his voice drops to a low rumble.
“Who is going to erase that
from their memory?”

Gone to Feed the Roses

“More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.” – Edna St. Vincent Millay

Unseasonably warm today, and green
pierces through January earth saturated,
earth that shifts like a lover, wrestling silent
nightmares deep into darkness.

Four years ago we embraced, sleep-
walking through the moonlit square,
four years ago our slogans were winter
coats and our throats were bonfires.
How our words dissolve in tear gas,
how the thorn of who our neighbors are
pierces without warning. What
happens next is only human.

Unseasonably light today, no clouds to obscure
glass eye of the sun staring at us
docile winter-worn wanting
for anything that tastes of spring —
we’ll sip poison if it’s served in pretty teacups.

What is that poem? Something about roses,
I can’t recall but I know a woman wrote it.
I know it as a mother
knows in her bone marrow
that a child who has gone missing from the street
hasn’t just turned the corner to chase after a stray ball
but has been taken,
knows in her bone marrow,
with the dirty fingernails grip of certainty,
that the child will
not return breathing.

I can’t remember the poem
about roses and witness,
the delirium of all that perfume
ornamental blades of thorns
petals like mouths writhing muted
for the fallen as they scatter,
trampled underfoot.

I know she was a woman,
that poet who wrote of roses,
just as a woman marched to the edge
of memory, four years after
a dream soured into nightmare
with a wreath of roses,
her words trickling out of her head
a rose-red poem spilling on the streets of her city.

in memory of poet Shaymaa Sabbagh, poet of Alexandria, killed on the 4th anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.

Book Review of Saleem Haddad’s Guapa

By Eman El Shaikh

Shame, Revolution, and Identity: a Review of Saleem Haddad’s Guapa

The story and the novel both begin with shame. Rasa, a twenty-something queer man living in an unnamed Arab country, awakens to the vague but uncomfortable awareness of a shameful encounter the night before, when his grandmother caught him and his lover, Taymour, in the middle of a furtive passionate encounter. Rasa, the narrator and protagonist, begins his narration wondering about shame, or eib, an idea which reverberates powerfully throughout the novel.

But eib is not quite so simply collapsed into notions of shame, and as the novel unfolds—its frenetic and potent energy taking place within the span of a single day—Rasa interrogates the idea of eib and its tyranny over his life. “Taymour’s name is embargoed under a cloak of eib,” Rasa thinks. “The closest word for eib in English is perhaps “shame.” But eib is so much more than that.”

Eib confines and nurtures Rasa, at once concealing him and revealing him, and throughout the novel, many distinct but overlapping tyrannies converge in Rasa’s life, begging overthrow. As the events progress, Rasa circles elliptically around questions of revolution, identity, shame, and narrative.

Saleem Haddad’s debut novel is a text which brilliantly complicates the many oppositions we have inherited, unsettling them and interrogating their salience: public versus private, east versus west, gay versus straight, revolution versus apathy. The various threads are split apart and reconstituted adeptly and seamlessly, converging into a rich and moving story of a young man confronting the numerous iterations of his own power and powerlessness.

Guapa the bar, like the novel, is a nexus of optimism and frustration, a place of trauma and healing, confinement and freedom, climax and anticlimax. It in this bar where Rasa first meets Taymour, where he watches his friends dance in drag in the basement, where he plans revolutions with his friends, and where they collectively lament its abortion. It is in this and through this that Haddad vividly inscribes a microcosm of our modern life and all of the promiscuous possibilities and oppositions that populate it.

We enter into Rasa’s whirling, precipitous subjectivity, which hurriedly flits between urgent political disasters and unfurling love affairs and long leisurely excursions into the reservoirs of his memory. Yet this narration is neither cloyingly well-arranged nor laboriously jumbled, and so Rasa’s reality comes alive effortlessly, revealing all of the traumas and joys which inhabit Rasa’s world. We fall floridly into the sweet and fragile intimacies between Taymour and Rasa and endure Rasa’s harrowing encounter with the police. The tenor of the narrative is at turns buoyed by the exuberance of an incipient revolution and dampened by its anticlimax.

Yet through the disorienting present, the turbulence of past events is also palpable. Through these jarring moments, Rasa relives his estrangements: from his secretive, domineering grandmother, who presides over his small, diminished family with tight lips and tight fists; from his late father, who had cautioned him against fighting for change; from his absent mother, who chopped an endless supply of onions at the kitchen table to subsume her tears and ultimately left him behind. Haddad weaves these instances together with skillful and sincere prose.

It is the specter of the failed revolution that haunts the story, and Rasa vacillates between resignation and anger. It is unclear whether the failed revolution belongs to Syria, Egypt, Tunisia or to another country—or perhaps to no country at all—and it is this lack of specificity that imbues the revolution—and the novel—with a plausible deniability. Is the revolution real or imagined? Was it on the right or wrong side of history? Without the tapestry of history as a backdrop, one does not know if the revolution warrants condemnation or mourning, which both frees the revolution from scrutiny and demands it be subjected to it.

The novel is permeated with urgent political questions, though they are not met with incontrovertible answers. Haddad smoothly floats these considerations in the air but provides no explicit resolution for them. Nevertheless, the reader is nudged along to certain conclusions which eventually collapse in on themselves, leaving the reader in a sustained state of precarity.

If the personal is political, in Guapa, the political often recedes into the personal, with tense and calamitous political situations often punctuated—and superseded—by Rasa’s personal turmoil: his obsession with his withdrawn lover, his worry about his grandmother’s perception of him, his latent anxieties about his absent parents. Rasa wonders if his private life is realer than his public one, since his public self elides so much about himself and the true nature of things. And yet he wonders if shame and lost love are ancillary bourgeois concerns, imagined prisons as opposed to non-metaphorical ones. Tied up in this are questions of narrative, and Rasa does not grapple with narrative inertly. Rather, he is strategic in the very way he translates (and mistranslates) between languages and worlds, misinterpreting and omitting as a way of relating a politics.

As these tensions animate Rasa’s world, he questions the various identities through which he experiences the world, the oppressive force they exert upon them, and how to adjudicate between then. Rasa feels his homosexuality marks him in his home country, trying out different idioms to encompass his queer identity, experimenting with the words gay, shaath, louti, and khawal. And though his queer identification is at the forefront of most of his life, he becomes primarily an Arab when he goes to America. It is there that he begins to understand that the social contract of eib, the decorum and collective sensitivity that it entails, could sometimes become a refuge from the lonely individualism and the sharp, discrete personal spaces of the western world.

It would be a mistake to see all of Rasa’s struggles separately—nor can they be extricated from one another. Indeed they all flow together and sublimate into one another in the way human tensions often do.

Haddad’s debut novel is more than a captivating coming of age novel. It is a story which could easily lapse into stereotypes and cliché, but Haddad does not lose his brisk, bright, and perceptive voice. Guapa submerges the reader in the complexities and tangles of a liminal queer Arab subjectivity and all of its undulating contingencies. It does so while being not just politically attuned but politically revelatory. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Haddad’s novel is its unique allegory; it is unique in that it is an allegory that demands the reader observe the world around them but is not didactic about what they should see.

The Melancholy Oud

By Sahar Mustafa

As I come through the garage door, I hear the melancholy strings of the oud and I guess it’s coming from the soundtrack of an Arabian soap opera my mother’s watching on satellite. Quick, rhythmic clapping and another instrument I don’t recognize lends its sound, and its melody seamlessly weaves into the thrumming of the oud.
“Allah, allah!” my mother croons, and I realize she’s the one clapping. “Ente a’yooni…”

She’s singing a ballad from Oum Kalthum—her favorite Egyptian artist. Every time my mother plays her CD she tells me that the entire world was present at Oum Kalthum’s funeral in the 1970’s, that she even surpassed Gamal Abdul Nasser—Egypt’s most beloved president—in attendance by dignitaries from all over the Arab world. I guess she was like the Elvis of her times, or something. To me, her songs all sound the same. The one my mother’s singing now is about a woman confessing her forbidden love. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an Arabic song that wasn’t about forbidden love, or unrequited love, or love that finally kills you.

From the kitchen, I see the back of a man’s head I don’t recognize sitting on a loveseat in our family room. His hair is slightly receding in the back so that the finely combed strands are visible lines like black thread against his pale scalp.

Khalo Ziyad is sitting opposite him on the big couch. His eyes are closed as he strums the oud. Seated beside him, my mother blissfully sings with her hand resting on her brother’s shoulder. She motions me over without halting and pats the cushion for me to sit down. She winks at me and I’m impressed that none of them has missed a beat with my intrusion.

I feel like I’ve stumbled onto a secret clan, chanting something mystical. They look hypnotized by the music they’re creating that lets them shut out the rest of the world. I suppose it’s like the way I feel when I listen to Black Veil Brides; everything around me just fades into the walls and seeps into the floor and I’m just, like, floating on a raft.

The stranger has a weird-looking instrument in the shape of a trapezoid propped across his thighs and two metal cases over his fingers that he uses to pluck the strings. It’s like a harp resting in his lap.

Almost five minutes pass, which feel like ten or more as I’m waiting for them to complete the ballad. After my mother belts out the final verse, they laugh and clap. Suddenly, they remember me and the stranger pounces with excitement.

“Mashallah, mashallah! Who’s this?” the man asks me, setting his instrument on the loveseat before standing up with hand extended. “Where did this lovely lady come from?” It’s that funny way of asking like I’m five years old.

I extend my hand and he grips it tight while talking to my mother and uncle. “She’s a pretty one, mashallah! You better keep your eye on her,” he says. This is worse than the condescending tone—referring to me in the third person like I can’t hear. “She looks like just like you, Amina, thirty years ago, mish ah?”

His unkempt beard is speckled with white hairs, and he’s got deep grooves on his forehead like bike trails. His eyes are blue and I suddenly remember that he’s the one from Khalo Ziyad’s story. The rest of his face is dull except for those blue eyes glittering with tiny diamonds. He’s much shorter than Khalo and, like, only about an inch taller than me. His palm feels rough like he’s spent years scraping it against asphalt.

I try to politely pry my hand from his grip but he’s now going crazy over how much I resemble my mother, but declaring how much taller I am and definitely skinnier than her. She pretends not to hear the part about me being skinnier and keeps smiling.
He finally addresses me. “How are you, dear? I am Waleed.” It is Khalo’s best friend. I wonder if they can still see in each other’s faces—past the disfigurement and deep grooves of worry—how much of the children they used to be scaling the mountains and trekking across narrow valleys.

“Elhamdulillah,” I say and tug again to get my hand back.

“Did you know that I grew up with your uncle and mother? We were neighbors. I could see their kitchen from my bedroom.” He laughs thunderously and turns to Khalo. “I’d see your father—Allah rest his soul—drinking yogurt right from the bottle.”
This prompts another story about my grandfather, and my mother and Waleed laugh so hard there are tears in their eyes. Khalo Ziyad just smiles and nods.

“What good times! Your uncle always led our expeditions, insisted he had a sharper eye for determining the horizon.” His head flits back and forth between Khalo Ziyad and me. “Did you tell her about the wadi?”

“Yes,” Khalo Ziyad says. I’m getting used to his monosyllabic responses. I wish I could get away with it when the idiots at school ask me questions, or when teachers demand I “elaborate, please” when I’ve already answered correctly.

“Are you hungry, habibti?” my mother asks. She never fails to ask me about food—with or without company present. Once again, I feel like a little kid.

“No, thanks. I ate at Panera,” I tell her.

“I didn’t know you played, Khalo,” I say, feeling ridiculous because I’ve only just met him so how would I know anything about him, really? His life is slowly unraveling like unwrapping a present in slow motion. Some parts are dull and expected, and other things are sort of cool surprises.

“Are you joking?” Waleed interjects. “The villagers made sure he was available to play at the wedding suhra before setting a date!” Waleed says. “Do you know what this is, dear?” He picks up his instrument and pulls me down to sit beside him. “We call this a qanoon,” he tells me. “It’s very del-ee-kate.”

I nod and then he slides the instrument, which is like an oversized board game, onto my lap. It has rows of strings attached to tuning pegs on one end. It’s actually pretty cool-looking, like an artifact from ancient Egyptian times. He places one of the metal clasps on my forefinger and urges me to pluck a string.

The sound is more twangy than the oud and softer. Waleed positions my finger on a particular string and he strums away on several at a time. We produce medium to high notes like a mother grieving over the loss of her child. It becomes too intense for me and I abruptly stop.

“That’s cool,” I say awkwardly and slide the qanoon back to Waleed.
My mother demands they play a song about Jerusalem and I can understand most of the words:

I passed through the streets
The streets of Old Jerusalem
In front of the shops
That remained of Palestine

My mother’s face is glistening with perspiration and she clutches a tissue paper and waves it in the air at certain intervals of the song. Waleed taps his shoe as he plays and his metal-protected fingers look like two miniature knights riding across a field.

I watch Khalo Ziyad as he strums his banjo-looking oud, and I’m impressed how effortlessly his fingers move over the strings. His face softens into a serene expression as though the tight fibers that make him smile or frown have gradually collapsed. His eyes are closed and the pulpy flesh temporarily disappears.

Towards the end of a verse, he opens his eyes in the middle of the song and catches me staring. He grins and winks like he’s just shared a secret he trusts I’ll always keep.