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.

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.