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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sukoon Interviews Jess Rizkallah – by Rewa Zeinati

Rewa Zeinati: Congratulations on winning the 2016 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize! Tell us a little about your collection, and how you came up with the title.

Jess Rizkallah: Thank you so much. The collection is made up of poems I wrote during and after a lot of firsts in my life: first time living away from my family, first loves, first heartbreaks, first loss of someone close to me, and all of that interacting with the inherited stuff that manifested in very new ways for me when held under the stress of entering adulthood. The timing of the acceptance was perfect, too. Right at the end of a lot of things in my life, and right before I moved to a new city and started at a new school. I’m so happy it worked out that way. I’m not used to closure I don’t have to make up myself! I’m very thankful I get to look up to Fady and Hayan after working with them. They helped me come up with the title the magic my body becomes, after a line in one of the poems in the book. At first I was resistant to this title because that’s what it is to be a woman sometimes, feeling sheepish about owning the power of your experience in a world that doesn’t take you seriously when you’re speaking your body and complexities with your own mouth. I thought “is this too feminine of a title?” but then I thought “who cares if it is? if the title turns someone away, they weren’t going to listen to anything I’m saying anyway. it’s not for them anyway.”

RZ:  You posted once on Facebook not too long ago that you didn’t want anyone to ask you what you’ll be doing after you graduate. So… what will you be doing after you graduate?

JR: Betrayal! Just kidding. I don’t know. I’ve been doing publishing and editorial work for eight years now, so hopefully something there. I really hope I’ll make a good teacher. I visited my family recently. While the water simmered on the stove, my Teta went outside and under the full pisces moon, picked rosemary for our tea. I remember thinking “why the fuck do I live so far away from my family?” The scarier the world gets, the more frequent that thought is.

 RZ:  You mention that your poetry has appeared, among other places, on your mother’s fridge. Tell us a little about your family’s response to your creative path/growth. This question comes from my personal Lebanese experience of the cliché that most every Lebanese parent dreams of seeing their child grow into a doctor, lawyer or engineer.

JR: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the (upheld binary) difference between Lebanese sons and Lebanese daughters, and my being one of two daughters in a son-less nuclear family is impossible to divorce from my answer because I’ve found it tied to every expectation someone has had for me. Gender is always a shadow trailing behind my name: it’s a pretty traditional Lebanese thing to think that this is just a cute thing I’m doing to pass the time until a doctor or whatever wants to marry me. I’m lucky enough that I can recognize this and laugh in its face, instead of letting it hinder me. This is because my mother supports me and countered every sexist lesson the world tried to teach me. In turn the rest of my family has become supportive, too. (for which I’m grateful and full of love.) Busting your ass to prove yourself feels like an Arab kid rite of passage. To answer your question more directly: I do think my parents held a small hope that writing would just be a hobby, but I literally have no other skills, so writing was always going to be it whether anyone liked it or not. There were definitely a lot of “or not” periods growing up but overall and overwhelmingly, I always felt supported by the only people it really mattered to be supported by. I also feel really lucky that my family lets me share their stories inside my own. This was a hard answer to phrase, I don’t want to make anyone mad, but I feel it is important to be honest, and I know you must know what I mean.

RZ: Lebanon or USA?

JR: Both.

RZ: What are you reading right now and why?

JR: Right now I’m reading The Whale by Philip Hoare because whales are the most fascinating creatures on the planet, I’m convinced they’re aliens. They feel too cosmic to grace us with their presence on Earth, yet here they are and I want to get a closer look.

RZ:  Who are your biggest literary and artistic influences?

JR: Sandra Cisneros, Kevin Devine, Lady Lamb, Lynda Barry, Frank O’Hara, Sylvia Plath, Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Safia Elhillo, Tiffany Mallery, Ada Limón, Mckendy Fils-Aimé, Franny Choi, so many friends, so many witchy creative femmes on the internet.

RZ:  Crayons or ink?

JR: Ink

RZ: How important are literary journals in your opinion and/or experience?

They’re so important. I want to know what everyone is saying and feeling at all times because otherwise I don’t know how I would get out of bed and face the world we’re all trying to fight for. I’ve made so many friends in the poetry community through the network of literary magazines we all read and contribute to.

RZ:  Why Pizza Pi Press?

JR: I can’t sit still, I always need to be making things and I always need to be collaborating with other people. I wrote Pizza Pi Press on the back of a messy zine I made in college, kind of as a joke. Like “ha! it looks like this silly thing came out on a press!” but then I kept getting more ambitious and my friends wanted to join in and now it’s my favorite thing to be part of and I hope we continue to grow and remain a platform that amplifies those who feel silenced elsewhere. Also, I really love pizza.

RZ:  What advice/insight would you be compelled to offer other young writers?

JR: Read as much as you write, maybe even more. Read people of color. Don’t be mean to yourself. Write even when people around you make you feel like you’re wasting your time. Keep a journal with you at all times and don’t beat yourself up if you’re not always writing pages and pages of work. Even just a thought a day is an entire world you’ve recorded and that’s so cool if you think about all the possibilities waiting to shoot off into a million synapses as you turn that thought over in your head before going back to the page. Think of your journal as an archive and every word an artifact of substantial magnitude. Don’t stress out about getting published – social media makes imposter syndrome feel more urgent than it used to be, but social media doesn’t show us all the nights where even our favorite writers feel stuck or defeated or sad or on their seventeenth straight episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Flaming Hot Cheeto Dust stuck to their face.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

JR: I just threw all of the contents of my closet and desk into the middle of the room and I’m not leaving my apartment until it is once again habitable and just as ready for this new season as I am. Thank you so much for making room for me at Sukoon.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Iman Humaydan’s The Weight of Paradise, a story of memory, violence, and the elusiveness of homeland

“The homeland that killed us in its name”
Fiction Book Review
by Eman M.A. Elshaikh

Iman Humaydan’s latest novel The Weight of Paradise is a poignant evocation of the fight to defend and restore memory through the cyclical violence, exile, and suffering which seeks to annihilate it. Set mostly in Beirut in 1978 and 1994, the story lives “in the heart of the apocalypse” during the Lebanese Civil War and also emerges from its debris, struggling to piece itself together into an authentic whole. In this Beirut, even small distances are difficult to traverse, as the paths are encircled with violence or buried beneath its aftermath.

“Reconstructing, reconstruction,” laments Sabah, a central character who ties together and ruptures the narrative at different points. “Every day on radio and television they talk like this, too. Maybe they want to build and construct so that people will forget.”

Indeed, the novel feels like a rejection of forgetting, as the characters in their own ways are obsessed with retrieval. The novel interrogates memory and its antagonists masterfully. It probes the process of destruction and reconstruction and the ways in which they are irretrievably bound up in death, violence, and historical revisionism. In doing so, it is an unflinching portrayal of the violence that lives alongside the characters, who “had become skilled at managing their lives in its shadow.”

Humaydan intertwines the story of Maya, a recently widowed writer and mother who returns to Beirut from Paris in 1994 following her husband’s passing, with the stories Maya finds forgotten in a suitcase in an abandoned building. In the suitcase, Maya finds Noura, Kemal, and Sabah, and she instantly becomes obsessed with unpacking their history through their photographs, letters, and diaries.

She seeks out the eccentric but heart-breaking Sabah, an older woman living alone in the old Beirut neighbourhood of Khandaq al-Ghamiq, waiting for her disappeared husband to return and tending to her small garden, even through bombs and gunfire. Living virtually as a recluse, she initially meets Maya with hesitation, but ultimately tells Maya about Noura and Kemal’s lives as well as her own.

Sabah’s stories and recollections provide Maya with the connective tissue that brings Noura and Kemal’s story together. She learns about Noura’s self-imposed exile from Damascus after a tragedy in her family and how this exile becomes permanent once Noura starts writing the truth about what happened. She learns about the violence that follows such truths and will stop at nothing to silence them. She learns about Kemal, Noura’s lover in Istanbul, and the fragile life they try to build together. But these stories and their tellers are often treacherous, and Maya, like Noura, fights to save truth from oblivion.

Humaydan’s main achievement with this novel, which is full of despair and yet buoyed with a promise of love and hope, is in allowing the reader to “enter history through countless endless gates,” and in doing so, reread history. It imbues the narrative with a subtle promiscuity that disrupts even the reader’s own recollection. In doing so, it forces us to confront the silences and lacunas in our stories and how they can both ruin us and save us. It is also a meditation on the dangers of invented memory and the need to bear witness always. This force is present even in the sweet love story between Noura and Kemal. In her diary, Noura writes, “with him, my doubts about history books started to gain power and take on new meaning.”

Humaydan writes in a poignant and confessional voice, which shines most brightly in the pages of Noura’s diary and the letters from Kemal, where they write about loss, violence, and lost homelands. They trace their wounds together and look for origins and resting places. In their histories, one finds Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, and Turks and the lands that shift and subsume them under violent nations, lamenting “the homeland that killed us in its name” and yet finding fragments of homeland scattered everywhere.

Though these deliberations on homeland and its erasure are thoughtful, there is also a questionable sense that the violence and oppression of the Middle East are somehow primordial or inevitable. The various scenes, in Damascus, Beirut, and Istanbul, are seemingly always engulfed by death and violence. In these places, both the repressive state and its resistors, both communists and capitalists alike are irrationally cruel. A looming tyrannical government occludes all individuals, who are anonymous, interchangeable, and sublimated within classes or sects. It threatens to destroy indiscriminately and without reason. Government actors, like the ubiquitous and senseless “mukhabarat” are equally anonymous and robotic, incapable of poetry and truth. Though the novel is committed to history, these places seem to exist outside of it.

Perhaps this indictment of these societies as irretrievably violent is in fact an indictment of men, who in the novel are either absent or violent. Even the boys in the novel attain masculinity through violencing women, who in turn “retaliate against oppression by oppressing themselves.” In this novel, men push women out of their homelands, punishing them for their desires and their consciousness. “Oppression pushes women to emigrate, to flee,” Noura writes, “it’s the kind of oppression that often comes in the form of a man.” Indeed, Kemal, who was dressed as a girl in early childhood in order to avoid a curse against the family’s men, seems to be the only exception.

There is no denying the beauty of the intricate lives woven together by Humaydan in this touching novel. However, in The Weight of Paradise, some of these threads are too thin. The reader is riveted by the textured inner worlds of Noura and Kemal but is left craving more of characters like Sabah and Maya. Sabah’s fascinating story still craves excavation, as her inner life remains opaque. The reader gets glimpses of her effervescence and her desire to fly and senses the decay of that spirit over time. Through the moving stories of her two lives, her desire for freedom, and her will to be a witness, the reader does not truly get a sense of her pain, but merely its imminence. Maya’s voice is poetic yet truncated, and though the backdrop of her life is sketched, the reader gets only a hazy sense of its detail. Through the suitcase, Maya inherits a reservoir of memory and seems to exist primarily to dip into it. Because of this, the novel ends before its force can be fully explored and resolved. In other words, the problem with The Weight of Paradise is that it was too brief.

The Weight of Paradise is a powerful call to question our histories, and in doing so, it is a call to question the violence that lives at the heart of it and possibly at the heart of our natures. “But this is us: we feed the poor, we laugh at a passing joke, we love, we mourn, we dance, but we also kill our neighbours in civil wars. Since we are like that, how can we describe ourselves?

Two poems by jess rizkallah

i haven’t forgotten

mar charbel is the scary one
resting a bloody hand on your
child’s shoulder when you
forget to keep a promise

clears his throat before you can
step out on your word

stays dressed in black

once ate his own smile but
never swallowed

i like him most.

he still hums
to the pulse
in my wrist.

i kept him with his contemporaries
all beads on a string, my own congregation.

the plastic confining him chipped at the corner, a reminder
of his ability to dart between pulse & phosphene
while i slept. the string loose, then broken

he stays compact,
like a syllable
even while religion fades
into muscle memory.

call this faith, finally. and the body, a prayer
to feel guilty about whispering into the night.

moonstones charging,
warm by the window.

still. i am everything
i’ve ever believed in even if
i don’t believe it anymore.

part of me always
chipped at the corner

give me the flute & sing
after fairuz & gibran

origin is an apple jam jarred to make wine,
put in the ground but always comes up vinegar
when picked at the skin of where the earth
spit you out before you were you
but after the flute started playing.

hands are the etymology of prayer
i turn mine slowly in the morning sunlight
through my window. i watch the rings hug
my fingers. my knuckles hairs grow back
slower now, but i still have this inheritance
from a man who sang to his fig trees
and raised his voice at a woman sprung
from the shadow of a tree full of switches

and all i can ever do is brew coffee for the
mild mannered and write stories
that don’t belong to me

i come from love that didn’t always know the right way.

a cracked seed aware of its cyanide. bruised fruit.
preserves or vinegar, depending on the light.

his body pushes up tomatoes
wherever her hands waver this too,
a type of apology i listen for
until that flute in me stops.

Interview with Philip Metres

Poems of exile and war, and poems in translation

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

By Rewa Zeinati

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RZ: What are you working on right now?

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

The Orphanage

By Daniel Drennan

In Beirut, in the area of Achrafiyeh, in the neighborhood of Sioufi stands the orphanage, the Crèche, known as Azariyeh for the woods that are no longer there, and for the children who are no longer there; these no-longer woods of Azariyeh harbor fairy tale-era connotations of dis­honor, and sin, and illegitimacy; ’uwlaad bi-Azariyeh, les enfants d’Azariyeh; the bastard children of Azariyeh. And if you visit the Crèche you will find rooms unchanged since forever, empty now, quiet now, still now; you will ring, and you will enter, and there is the staircase up, and there is the hallway, and there are votives and statues and icons. And there as you pause is the room full of blue cribs, and white cribs, cribs made of wood, unchanged, practically unmoved for decades, here, a crib I lay in long ago, lonely toys and stuffed animals now filling the space formerly occupied by me, by other children, hundreds of children, hundreds and hundreds of us; there is another room just the same. There is a room with white metal cribs, slightly bigger, lined up back and forth; there is another room with toilets that line three of its walls, toilets so small as to verge on absurdity; there is another room just the same. There is a room with desks and chairs and a bigger desk for a teacher; there is another room just the same. There is a room for play, for running, for games; and another room, just the same. And there is a room with a small table and a small desk and on this desk sits a set of steel drawers that contain the blank paper forms on which were written the names, on which were noted the information, on which were spelled out in details belying their fabrication out of gossamer nothingness whole lives, spun stories of lives’ beginnings, opening narratives stillborn in their creation, for all of the children who once filled the cribs, the beds, the rooms in this place, this orphanage, now barren, now deserted: papers marked with fictitious names, papers that pretend to show disparate events of varied locations yet all in the same handwriting—the dead giveaway, the false start. And here is the Italian version, and here is the English version, and here is the French; and here are the birth certificates, and here are the baptismal decrees, and here are the ecclesiasti­cal edicts, and here are the approved name-bestowing documents, and here are the testimonies of foundling status, and here are the official adoption papers, one, two, three, four, five, six pieces of paper come from drawers arranged one over the other in efficient precision: and thus an adoption. On the other side of the same room stands a row of file cabinets, and within are arranged the procedured by-products, the dossiers of children now departed, their folders crammed with letters in airmail envelopes and pediatrician’s notes and vaccination dates and wishes and blessings; files stuffed with missives and thank-you offerings and pictures showing countenances rid of smiles, posed out of context among estranging groups and beaming faces; these Children of Lebanon now far flung and distant, these pictures sent by proud parents and fabricated families full of hope and promise and new beginnings filling up steel file cabinets arranging the myriad lives of those given Egress, a Conveyance, an Exodus. And these gray metal cabinets elsewhere hold other stories, other dossiers, children who came back, sent back, perhaps too sick, or perhaps not wanted after all, returned, and here written in red, “deceased soon thereafter”, and here, “child succumbed to illness”—an insufferable double rejection, an abjectly suicided reaction. And here, more yet still—the children refused treatment at nearby hospitals during the war, doctors seeing “no point”. And there is yet another room, and in its corner stands an inconspicuous steel desk with four small drawers half-full of worn index cards of faded pink and blue and green, and in ink the cards are noted with the names of children given over to the Crèche during a few scant years a few scarce decades ago, and here is the information about the original parents, and here are their names, and phone numbers, and addresses, and there, at the bottom of each card, is a blank area to note the reasons, stated plain, for the child’s arrival. And if you are not careful you will start reading them, these cards, one by one, mesmerized; at first shying away, yet coming back and forcing yourself to look, to read, in the same way you forced yourself to walk down New York avenues to look at poster faces and read about the lives lost in those Towers now long gone; and you will look and you will read, and like those smiling faces that plastered the walls of Lexington Avenue you will again find a unifying element that brings an otherwise disconnected, disparate group of people together—a devastating event, a tragic happen­stance, an infinitely sad vagary of destiny, a culmination of willed derivations pinpointed in one monstrous manifestation referred to as “adoption”—and you will look, and you will read, and you will hold your breath as you read: Child abandoned by parents, child has spina bifida. Child abandoned by the mother at the hospital in Zahorta. Child orphaned on the father’s side, the mother has already placed the eldest in the orphanage’s care. Child abandoned by the mother at the Orthodox Hospital which contacted us. Illegitimate child raised by a woman who has departed for America, and who has left said child, now 11 years old, with her godmother, who hereby abandons her. Child abandoned at the hospital Nôtre Dame du Liban in Jounieh. Child found in Furn Esh-Shebbak in front of the door of Mrs. X. Child orphaned on the mother’s side, the father has four other children; cannot care for the fifth. Child orphaned on the father’s side. Child born two months after marriage of parents who hereby abandon him. Mongoloid child abandoned due to his infirmity….Child abandoned, child abandoned, child abandoned, child abandoned. And you will stop, and you will feel a certain unease as you barely dare read more, you will sense a creeping disquiet as you deny each card its due, as you feel each card’s presence in space marking just another of five hundred odd and sundry ways of abandoning a child. And for some useless reason you will try to maintain the order of these filings, for some strange reason you will try to keep a sense of reverence holding these cards, these lives, in your hands; and for some reason you will carefully replace them, and you will quietly close the drawers, hands shaking. And for some reason you will stand there utterly dumbstruck, your voicelessness loudly proclaiming how these nonchalant cardboards are, in their weight, crushing; in their banal bureaucracy, eviscerating; how in their fragile and forgot­ten state, these lives, annotated on silent pieces of discolored paper, approach something border­ing brain-numbing apoplexy. And there is but this vast emptiness. And no ghosts dare haunt these halls.

Nothing But Alexandria

By Marina Chamma

Ten minutes were left for the express train to make its final stop into Alexandria’s Misr Station. For most of the two-and-a-half hour ride from Cairo, Rania’s head rested on her spotless, single-paned first class seat window. While she didn’t care for the luxuries of cleanliness and comfort on this trip, she had not been given much of a choice.
“A lovely lady like you travelling second class? Impossible!” the jovial middle-aged ticketing clerk at Cairo’s Ramses Station had told her the day before, as she tried to buy a regular one-way ticket to Alexandria.
“Thank you, that’s very kind of you,” she smiled, trying to keep her cool, “but I don’t want first class.” The clerk reached out for the booklet of first class tickets regardless.
“This is a first class ticket that will get you there in less than three hours!” he proudly exclaimed, as if the standard travel time to Alexandria couldn’t even escape Egypt’s obsession with haggling. Rania frowned, unconvinced.
“Besides, second class is only for Egyptians,” he triumphantly noted, ending the need for any further discussion. All the Egyptian movies Rania had watched as a teenager in Beirut had not been enough to keep even a short conversation going in the Egyptian dialect. Her colloquial Lebanese crept in soon enough, making it impossible to fool the natives. But being Egyptian or not wasn’t only about language. Luckily for the ticketing clerk, however, Rania had neither the time nor patience to argue about the definitions of a foreigner and whether she could even be considered one.
Rania had looked aimlessly out of the window throughout the ride. She took in as much of the hustle and bustle, the slums and crowds of the Cairo suburbs as her eyes could handle. Once out of the city, the vastness of the Egyptian hinterland was much simpler for her eyes to absorb. But the landscape was anything but monotonous, both arid and dusty, fertile and green, depending on how close the fields were to the bounties of the Nile.
Only after the train made its second to last stop at Tanta Station on the Upper Nile Delta, halfway through the trip, did the vast panoramas suddenly disappear. Rania could see nothing but Alexandria in front of her, without even closing her eyes. Its wide boulevards, chaotic narrow side streets and corniche – whose view into the city was blocked by endless rows of shiny new buildings, suffocating the remaining arabesque-styled villas that had yet to be brought to the ground. The way she saw Alexandria was drawn from the history books she read, the random documentaries she had watched and occasional dreams that were frighteningly lucid. No matter how different the city turned out to be from that of her imagination, she knew that once she arrived to Misr Station for the very first time, took a taxi heading northeast towards Al Ibrahimiyyah district and walked up Qena Street, she would find her grandmother’s house, just as it had been left and just as she had imagined it, waiting for her to bring it back to life.
As the train left Tanta Station, Rania suddenly felt a frantic urge to go through the neatly stacked contents of her brown leather messenger bag, most of which had been gathered during the past month. Handwritten notes scribbled around an improvised family tree going back to the 1860s. A list of family friends of her maternal grandmother with Levantine, Greek and Italian-sounding surnames with what would have once been their phone numbers and addresses in Alexandria. Rania knew she would be lucky if any of their descendants still lived there, let alone if anybody in the neighborhood recognized their names. The names of friends and relatives of her maternal grandparents who once lived in Cairo, whose numbers and addresses were also decades old. It was impossible that everyone had left without a trace and she would knock on their doors on her way back if she had to. Copies of the obituaries of her grandparents taken from three local newspapers, with nothing more than dates and standardized shallow epitaphs with post-mortem reverence for the dead. Photocopies of land deeds and a random collection of black and white passport pictures and colored family pictures delicately arranged in a rice paper notebook, every picture on a separate page. Delicately folded and placed at the front of the stack was a copy of the letter that had made the trip inevitable.

Barely one month had gone by since she had found the letter. Wandering at home on a lazy Monday evening, Rania stumbled upon a cardboard box everybody has in that ubiquitous dusty little corner of their attic. Mom must have thought it was filled with my faded teenage mementos and sent it here with the movers, she thought. The box was bursting at the seams and most of its contents came tumbling down as Rania removed the lid. There was everything from her baby pictures, souvenirs from family vacations, birthday cards from aunts and uncles, cassettes sent by her cousins as recorded letters and a small plastic box with two of her intact milk teeth. She found one of her favorite pictures of her mother as a fashionable, single 20 something year old, posing on a balcony overlooking an endless sparkling harbor she didn’t recognize. As she kept going through the box, five pages of elegant cursive handwriting suddenly fell into her lap from an envelope that was placed upside down. It was a letter to her mother and aunt Mona from her grandmother, written shortly before she had died. Coincidentally, Mona, the keeper of the family history and only one who would help her decipher what she had just found, would be visiting her in Beirut in a couple of days. Rania didn’t believe in signs, but if she did, she knew this is exactly what one would look like. It was a sign that she was ready to get her answers, to start uncovering the truth.

Rania’s maternal grandmother Rose and grandfather Hani were third generation Lebanese living in Egypt, their own grandparents having escaped Mount Lebanon’s simmering sectarian warfare of the mid-1800s in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire. They formed part of the community of Levantines, Greeks, Italians and other Mediterraneans, who settled primarily in Cairo and Alexandria, and made these metropoles so cosmopolitan. Each of these communities preserved some of the features of their countries of origin and never let go of their attachment to it. Together they forged a unique identity, a blend of Egyptian and the best and worst of their own cultures brought together in Egypt, their ultimate home.
Rose was born and raised in Alexandria and Hani in Cairo. They had met in Beirut, both back in the motherland for a month-long summer vacation with their respective families in the late 1950s. Hani couldn’t take his eyes off the charming brunette who had walked past him in one of downtown Beirut’s most popular confectionaries, while Rose was immediately captivated by the young man’s mischievous smile and captivating stare, more than compensating for his unassuming physique. The fact that they were both from Egypt and their families knew of each other only facilitated their relationship. After a six-month courtship, involving crowded afternoon gatherings in Beirut, lunches in Cairo and long strolls on Alexandria’s harbor, they got married and Rose moved to Cairo. Their two daughters were born and raised in Cairo, Rania’s mom married early and moved to Beirut, while Mona stayed until her father died.
Rania was ten years old when her grandfather passed away in 1982. How she and her mother had hastily flown into Cairo from Beirut on a stormy winter night, and rushed to see Hani for the very last time, was one of those memories that remained intact in her mind. For the next two days, Rania was confined to her grandparents’ apartment in Cairo’s Heliopolis district, left under the supervision of relatives she had never met. She realized something was wrong when strangers started flocking to the house, all dressed in black, paying their respects in an eerie silence and heading out the door quickly thereafter. Only hours after the condolences were over, Rania and her mother took the first plane back to Beirut and Mona was sent to Boston under the care of a distant relative. Rose sold the family’s Cairo apartment and moved back to her native Alexandria into her parent’s house with an unmarried sister and cousin. Mona had begged Rose to settle in the safety of America instead, but she had adamantly refused. It appeared as if Rose couldn’t stay in Cairo after her husband’s death nor could she live too far away from it either.
For Rania and her mother to go to Alexandria to visit Rose was never an option. They would go to Athens, Paris or Limassol to meet instead, or Rose would come to Beirut whenever a lull in the always precarious security situation allowed for it. The bond between grandmother and granddaughter was kept alive and strong through phone calls and letters, sometimes accompanied by pictures other times with checks, a grandmother’s gift to her one and only niece at the time. Back then, Rania was too young to ask why couldn’t her grandmother send less checks and let her go visit her in Alexandria instead. Even if someone was willing to explain, Rania wouldn’t have understood the answers anyway.
During one of many visits she had taken to visit Mona and her family in Boston throughout the years, Rose died of a sudden heart failure days before going back to Alexandria. Her wishes were granted and her body laid to rest in Alexandria, far from her daughters but as close as she could to her husband in Cairo. Rania had just turned 20 and had been two weeks since she last talked to her grandmother. Rose’s unexpected death was a blow to Rania that took years for her to recover from. The fact that she couldn’t lay a flower on her grandmother’s grave in Alexandria to bring some closure made the healing process longer and as an adult, made the mystery of her grandmother’s life, and subsequently that of her grandfather’s, even more intriguing. With nobody willing to answer her questions, Rania sometimes resigned herself to the idea of never knowing and living with her self-adapted version of the truth instead.
But it wasn’t always easy. The physical similarities she and Rose shared, her mother’s occasional slip of tongues of “you look so much like your grandmother” or “Rose would’ve said the same thing” only increased her frustration about not knowing. Her desire for the truth was intensified by what she felt was a conscious attempt to keep the truth away from her. “I don’t know” or “ask Mona,” Rania’s mom always used to say to avoid her questions. Rania knew there was more to her grandmother than her never-ending pool of family anecdotes, and more to her grandfather than her austere memories of when she last saw him. As she grew older, Rania also realized that this thirst for the truth was becoming a quest for something very personal, for discovering part of her own roots, to better define who she really was. While most Lebanese, especially those whose families had emigrated to faraway lands, went back to Lebanon to uncover their roots and with it some of their identity, Rania knew she had to take the opposite route and walk out of that little nation to get what she wanted.
Suddenly, the letter appeared. It was a treasure buried right beneath Rania’s eyes, one she had never in her wildest dreams believed even existed. The letter read like an abridged family history and will of sorts, as if Rose knew that whatever took her far from her home and late husband, even a trip to see her daughters and grandchildren, would one day suck life right out of her. Attached to the main envelope was an unmarked envelope filled with black and white and colored pictures, individual and group pictures of what looked like better and happier times. Based on the date handwritten on the back of them, the last one taken was a colored picture of Rose before her last trip to America. Her allure exuded a faded yet pure and simple elegance, but not enough to erase the melancholy radiating from her stare. Yet she stood tall and proud, resting on an ornate black iron railing of a balcony, overlooking a harbor that Rania also didn’t recognize.

Rania was absorbed in her thoughts, but could have sworn to have heard the first of several bilingual announcements that their final stop into Alexandria’s Misr Station was approaching. She pushed her mental rewind button one last time, wanting to make sure everything was intact in her mind before getting off the train.

Barely ten hours after landing in Beirut and Mona was already resting on Rania’s cough, getting ready to be interrogated. She knew this was bound to happen one day but just as Rania, didn’t quite know where to start. Before opening their first bottle of white wine, Rania had already put their second to chill in the fridge. It was going to be a long night.
“I told you I found the letter,” Rania announced, “the one nobody ever told me about and pretended didn’t exist.” Rania untangled her feet and walked up to a small drawer at the far end of the living room. Mona watched as Rania brought back two envelopes attached to each other. She was surprised they had remained almost intact, with their clear blue tint, bright red and navy diagonal borders and “Air Mail” and “Par Avion” emblazoned on the bottom left corner in bold.
Mona closed her eyes for a moment. She clearly remembered how she had hand delivered the letter to Rania’s mother two months after their mother passed away. They had opened the letter together and spent the rest of the day laughing and crying, wondering how things went so wrong and how their lives would have been if they hadn’t.
“We don’t pretend it doesn’t exist,” Mona said calmly, “but what do you expect your mom and I to do with it after all these years?” Rania stared at Mona in silence. “The letter is what’s left of our history. Look at it as you would any other history book, you read it, learn from it and try to never forget it.”
“But what about justice or at least telling people the truth? Why did I have to know by mistake? Don’t I have the right to know too?” Rania said, frustrated that she had to even justify her right to know.
“Well, now you do,” Mona drily replied.
“Oh goddammit Mona, they’re my grandparents too. I never really knew how grandpa died, nor why we could never go to Cairo, nor why Rose had to move to Alexandria. She died and it was all completely over, as if they only existed as your parents and my grandparents, not as human beings on the face of the earth in their own right.”
Mona nodded in silent approval.
“So there’s nothing left in Cairo, right?” Rania asked.
“Yes” Mona replied, trying hard to stay calm. “Mom sold the house right after Dad died. Hani had no siblings, so nothing is left.” Rania knew Mona didn’t like to talk neither about Cairo nor her father too much, they were two wounds that had still not healed after all these years. It was because of how Hani died so unexpectedly, and the way she was snatched out of college in Cairo and siphoned off to Boston without with no choice but to comply. The wound remained so deep, exacerbated by stories of how much Cairo had changed since she left, that Mona had refused to go back since.
“What about Alexandria?” Rania continued, “is there anybody left there, a relative or neighbor of Rose, do we know if there is a house or at least know where it was?”
“Addresses and names of relatives and friends are in the letter,” Mona said, “but they haven’t been verified in decades. Everything else I know Rose told me during the last years of her life.”
Rania stared at Mona with her eyes wide open. She was waiting for Mona to corroborate in her own words what she had read about in the letter. Mona took a deep breath and went on.
“I think about it more often that you think, so does your mom, but then we forget. The same happens after the questions I get from my own kids or from your mother, because of your own questions. Sometimes it hits me, the need to know the truth, for someone to account and to bring closure to us all. But then I think it much better for time to heal and take care of it for us.”
It was hard for Rania to fully comprehend her mother and aunt’s ability to remain so passive in the face of their father’s death and Rose’s struggle to live a relatively normal life afterwards.
“But what about Cairo? It’s part of who we are as a family. Don’t you feel like you want to go back? Don’t you feel part of you belongs there?” Rania asked, voicing her own questions on her identity and belonging more than a concern for those of her aunt’s.
“When it comes to the bond with the place we grew up in,” Mona explained, “you do suddenly discover this desperate need for a sense of belonging. The need to belong not only to a place, but to a certain space, culture and time, no matter how far that place is or how detached that culture may be from the one you now consider your own. Still, it has to exist and be protected in a safe place in your mind. Without it, there’s a part of your soul that is missing and constantly restless, wondering around with no place to feel at ease. I may never go back nor see it again but know that the Egypt to which I belong remains in a safe place in my mind and that’s all that matter to me now.”
Rania already knew the answer to her next question, but decided to ask anyway.
“Would you come with me if I went?” Mona looked away, her nostalgic stare quickly turning into something bordering on anger. Without looking back at her niece, Mona’s initial answer was simply silence.
“Shou?” what, Rania asked, “What do you say?”
“Rania, do you think this is a game? There is nothing to see there,” Mona’s tone clearly irritated, turning back toward Rania, looking intensely into her eyes, hoping to make herself clear. “I know I will barely recognize Cairo if I ever go back, let alone Alexandria.” Mona reached out for her glass of wine, took a slip and went on.
“You asked if there was anybody left, a relative, a neighbor or a house. I don’t really know and I’m not sure I want to find out. Relatives would have surely passed and their sons and daughters probably don’t care about the past. Old neighbors may have already forgotten or still saddened to even think about it. If Rose’s house it still standing in Alexandria, it probably no longer belongs to us, just another lovely old house, like they don’t build them anymore, with a breathtaking view of the Alexandria harbor. So it’s probably best to keep things as your grandmother left them, in that letter and in our minds.”
“But what if…”
“What if what!” Mona shouted, starting to regret having allowed the conversation to go this far. “Neither Alexandria nor Cairo are anything like the romanticized image you must have of them,” Mona continued, angrily. “I’ve come to terms with that and with fate itself, that my dad is gone, however that happened, and the way that mom dealt with it, no matter how much I agree or disagree with it. I’ve kept the family memories instead, the happy and sad ones and will leave my kids with those same memories and nothing else.”
“I want to go,” Rania whispered, partly to avoid another furious reaction from Mona and also because she wasn’t quite sure what she would do there herself. But there was something she felt she had to see or try to find. A road she had to walk up, someone recognizable she would bump into and talk to, who would tell her stories that belonged to her family that were still missing from that history book Mona mentioned. She believed and somehow knew that her grandmother had left the letter for a reason. It wasn’t for them to reclaim any material goods, but to start uncovering the truth and part of her own past with it.
Her aunt looked at her, then turned away so that Rania couldn’t see her and smiled. Mona knew that no matter what she said, she wouldn’t be able to change Rania’s mind. Her stubbornness is truly like Rose’s, Mona thought, and maybe that letter was meant for nobody else but her.

My Beloved Girls,
Something tells me I should write this letter once and for all before it’s too late. I’ve always felt that every day that passes since the day your father left is a luxury I have done nothing to deserve. You and your families are the only thing that has kept me going, but that will all come to an end soon. I hope it will.
There are things I was able to tell you and others I was never able to gather the strength to say. I hope this will be the first step for you to get to the truth, to fight the system that caused us so much misery, but without fighting the country or its people that we are also a part of. By the time you are ready for this, Egypt would have changed so much from the one we knew, that you would need to have to come to terms with that too.
They killed him, I know they did. The results of the autopsy became a state secret only a handful of officials knew the details of. Ghassan told me Hani was killed and I believe him. I never dared called him again to ask for details, after the last time I saw him at the hospital, for fear of putting him in greater danger than he already was in. Your father wasn’t alone. They all had something big planned, as big as the damage and corruption they saw unfolding in front of their eyes every single day they went to their public offices for the past ten years. Hani seemed to be the weakest link and so he was eliminated. They had set their eyes on us too, in case we got anywhere near wherever they buried him or if we tried to make some noise about what happened. Part of me died the day he did, the rest slowly melted away at my powerlessness to bring him justice or from knowing that I wouldn’t be able to lay next to him the day I died. The safest would have been for me to leave Egypt, you both had already been taken care of, but Alexandria was the farthest I could stay from him, even if it meant that they could come after me and silence me one day. I am sorry for not having done more to keep his memory alive or for not letting his death go in vain. I hope you will, I guess it’s never too late.
Know that everything you ever wanted to have, know, read and see is at home in Alexandria, 59 Qena Street. You’ll know where to find it if you ever decide to go back, to open the wounds of the past, even after all these years, to bring justice, closure or whatever you believe is right, you are his daughters after all. And if you’re asking whether it’s safe, I would say that by the time you see this letter again and are ready to go back, so much time would have passed that it would be more than safe to go back. Go back for him. Even if it means you will not recognize your country nor your city, not find the spirit that made us who we are, or its soul, part of which meant it was the entire world in one place…just go to see me, to go to find him, go back for him…

Rania could no longer remember how many times she had read the letter. All she knew was that it had only taken these four paragraphs to convince her that she was going “back for him” and Rose, no matter what it took.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we will be soon arriving to Alexandria’s Misr Station. Please make sure to take all your belongings…”
Rania’s nerves began to take hold of her senses and she couldn’t stand still. She stood up to get her carry-on luggage from the overheard compartment and didn’t sit back down. She opened her messenger bag one last time, making sure she had not left anything on board. She doubled-checked on her unbound notes neatly stacked in her bag’s outer compartment. Mona had finally agreed to cooperate and gave her everything she either had on paper or could unearth from memory. She was staying at a small bed and breakfast, close to where her grandmother’s house once was, initially booked for a week, though she already felt she would need more than that.
Rania slipped her hand into a smaller compartment of her bag and without looking took out a medium-sized black and white picture. It was the earliest picture she had of Rose, wearing a dark v-neck dress slightly above the knee, sculpted by a wide leather belt and brightened by an imposing pearl necklace. She looked straight into the camera, with a look of refreshing beauty and witty charm. Standing next to her was a shorter and darker man, with the most mischievous of smiles and captivating of stares, soon to be her husband. There were no guarantees that anybody would recognize the couple in the picture, but there was no way Rania would ever go to Alexandria without it, without them.
Before the train took a sharp turn left, as it prepared to make its final stop, Rania got a fleeting glimpse of the sea. It was a different kind of Mediterranean to which she was accustomed to see in Beirut, but it was somehow familiar. She was already hit by a feeling of deja-vu, of having been to or at least seen this wide stretch of Alexandria’s harbor somewhere before.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Alexandria, Misr Station.”

Man of the Orchard by Zahra Hankir

I first met jeddo (grandpa) in August 1987. I was just three years old, but I have this distinct memory of him hurriedly running down the driveway of his humble orchard-home in Zahrani, barefoot, in the pouring rain, to embrace my mother. He hadn’t seen her since just before the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon in 1982; they’d barely communicated in the interim. Tears were streaming down his face as he held her.

Osman “Abu Nasser” Antar was born to Zahra and Mahmoud in Sidon in 1929. He was the fifth of eight other siblings — one sister, and seven brothers. His father was a trader and a landowner who worked between Palestine and South Lebanon; he managed his finances poorly.

When jeddo was barely 11, my great-grandfather unexpectedly passed away, leaving the family of ten with very little to survive on. My grandpa was consequently forced to leave school to provide for himself, his younger siblings, and his mother.

When I think of jeddo, it’s almost always of him sitting on the ground, in front of a pile of ripe oranges that he’d picked from the bustan (orchard) he tended to, with a kuffiyeh wrapped around his head, dressed in his khaki work clothes.

He’d often have Fairouz, Umm Kulthoum or Mohammad Abdul Wahab playing from a little radio in the background as he carefully arranged the oranges into crates to be taken to the market.

Sometimes, when he was in a particularly good mood, he’d have classical Arabic ballads blasting from my uncle’s parked car as he worked, or he’d hum their tunes whilst feeding the chickens in the coop.

Jeddo was, to my mind, a man of the land. To him, the land of the orchard was life, and he was rarely away from it.

Jeddo started picking fruit and crops as a young boy. When it was blossoming season, he’d wake up at the crack of dawn to head to the orchards with his brothers, where they’d stay for days until they finished their jobs, before returning to the city. For hours on end, they’d toil away at the land, guarding the crops and irrigating and picking the oranges and lemons.

When jeddo’s father passed away, working at the orchards to the south of Sidon would become his primary source of income, and ultimately, his profession. He quickly took on a reputation of being one of the finest men of the orchards in his area. He upheld that reputation for more than six decades, working the land with a sense of pride and ownership that left almost everyone he came into contact with in awe.

Jeddo would eventually join the city’s trade union, hosting meetings for the tens of men of Sidon who, like himself, worked in the orchards. Once a week, grandpa would line up the chairs in the garden of the orchard he tended to and along the private road that led to it. The workers would congregate to discuss the affairs of the union.

Grandpa would eventually become treasurer of the union, a role which would see him travel between Sidon and Damascus and which would earn him a mention in a historical book on the southern port city. Those meetings at his boss’s bustan and the crowd they attracted became so notorious, that political figures from Maarouf Saad to Nazih Bizri would compete for jeddo’s support; the meetings often involved political discussions that would translate into votes.

My mother’s childhood home in the south of Lebanon was simple. In the middle of a beautiful, modest-sized orchard, it seemed cut off from the rest of the world. The walls were worn and cracked, and the beds, which I’d share with my aunts, were stiff. In the summers, it was unbearably hot, and in the winter, unbearably cold.

But in between trips to Lebanon from the U.K., I thought of that small home as a vast palace full of treasures, and of my grandfather, as the king of that palace.

Every Sunday after we moved back to Lebanon in the mid-nineties, we’d congregate at the bustan in Zahrani for extended family lunches. They almost always consisted of kousa mehshi (stuffed zucchini) — my grandparents’ favourite — or dishes that my brothers and I would request, such as grandma’s homemade pizza or wara’ 3enab (stuffed vine leaves). Grapes dangling from the vine leaves that jeddo had grown himself were picked for dessert.

Before and after my rebellious years at college (sorry mama), I cherished those Sundays. Specifically the moments following lunch, when my grandparents would move to the living room to watch the news on a tiny black-and-white TV set. Teta (grandma) would lie down, weary after cooking a feast for at least 10 people, and jeddo would sit upright in his chair, with his rosary beads in one hand.

On his other palm, he’d almost always rest his head before dozing off, drifting in and out of sleep. Sometimes he’d briefly wake up to smack a mosquito on his arm or leg. It always made us laugh, how he’d fall back to sleep instantaneously.

Like clockwork, Jeddo would then head back to the bustan, where he’d work until the sun went down. Before we’d leave to Sidon, he would load up the trunk of the car with oranges, lemons, bananas and assorted vegetables that he’d grown and picked himself. The scent of orange blossoms at the bustan was so dense, it stayed with us for hours after leaving.

Growing up, we’d heard multiple legendary stories about jeddo. Some of them, he told us with a chuckle. Others, we heard from teta or mama or our uncles. We learned to suspend rational judgment on the veracity of the stories.

A donkey once kicked jeddo in the face, breaking his nose instantaneously, he told us. Despite the pain it caused him, he almost immediately repositioned his nose, straightening the broken bone, he said. It’s a story he’d share repeatedly over the years, explaining to my brothers that they should be abadayat (good and strong men).

Jeddo’s surname, Antar (the name of a legendary Arab poet and warrior), sometimes seemed poetic, like he’d strived, throughout his long life, to live up to it.

In another one of those stories, jeddo had apparently killed a poisonous snake with a shotgun — despite being paralysed with fear — at the age of 13.

The snake’s skin was so tough, the bullet wouldn’t go through it with the first shot. He was said to have killed the snake with the second and last bullet: by shooting it straight into its mouth.

Jeddo was notoriously handsome, even as an elderly man. As a teenager, he was acutely aware of this, constantly using his looks and charm to flirt with girls.

But grandpa was also a poor man, who spent most of his days working for very little. In his downtime, he’d loiter the streets with his older brother and best friend, Saleh, who worked in the orchards with him. Realising they couldn’t capture the attention of girls in their shabby work clothes, they once decided to save up some money to buy a nice shirt, to impress them. They’d take turns wearing it.

One of those ladies was Souad Yemen, my grandma. Jeddo first caught a glimpse of her in town, while he was still in his khaki work clothes. She was taking a stroll with grandpa’s aunts — the wives of her uncles — and her great beauty struck him, he’d tell us. Instead of saying hello right away, though, he ran home, showered, put on the smart shirt and trousers, and hurried back to town to join them. This was a lady jeddo wanted to impress.

A proud woman, teta ignored him all evening.

Teta was extremely rigid with jeddo at first. She did not like men who flirted so ostentatiously with her, and she would never, ever flirt back. My grandma was, my mother says, “brought up like a princess,” having been extremely spoiled by her father. But jeddo wouldn’t give up on her. He befriended her father, despite the fact that he was scared of him, and eventually secured a job at his bustan.

Teta would warm up to jeddo eventually. One summer’s afternoon, when the akadinia (loquats) were in season, she invited her friends over for lunch.

Jeddo, at the time, was working in the bustan — picking the loquats — when teta’s friend brought a tray over to him, with a message from Souad: she wanted some of the fruit. He arranged them for her in an intricate pyramid, before sending the tray back. They married shortly afterwards.

Teta’s mother, dismayed by the match, said her daughter would spend the rest of her life washing grandpa’s work clothes.

Years earlier — when my grandmother was still a teenager and my grandfather a lad — teta and her girlfriends would frequently meet up to catch up and gossip. During one of those meet-ups, grandma’s friend said in passing that if a girl recited a certain prayer, she’d see her future husband in her dreams.

Shortly after their discussion, teta did indeed dream of jeddo, whom she had hardly noticed at the time. In the dream, he was leading a donkey with saddles on both of its sides. One of the two saddles was heavier than the other, and jeddo spent the entire journey trying to balance the two. A fitting premonition, if there ever was one.

Jeddo and teta had a wonderfully complex relationship that continually teetered on the edge of complete collapse. Despite living humbly, they struggled financially during the first fifteen years or so of their marriage. Having already left school against my great-grandma’s wishes, teta provoked the ire of her mother when she married jeddo.

But in between the stresses that weighed them down — they had two very ill daughters — they also shared some private, playful moments, away from their six children. They had a secret little cupboard at their orchard home that they’d constantly replenish with treats, including the finest nuts, snacks and drinks.

When my mother, Mariam, was born, she contracted typhoid fever. Frantic, grandpa took his ill child to the only doctor in the city, quickly burning through the little money he had. He needed 5 liras, the doctor told him, to purchase medicine urgently needed to treat my mother.

At first, jeddo sought an advance from his employer, but the man refused. He’d loaned his brother money to buy a cow, and requested repayment, but he said he was unable to hand over the funds.

Off jeddo went to a café in the old city, where he ordered tea, and sat in stubborn, sombre silence for hours. The owner of the café approached grandpa, asking him what was wrong, and jeddo — proud man that he was — couldn’t bring himself to speak the entire truth.

“I’ve forgotten my money in another pair of trousers at home,” he told the shop owner. “I need 5 liras to buy medicine for my sick daughter.”

The shopkeeper, who knew of jeddo’s plight, handed over his day’s earnings, which added up to 17 liras — all the money he had in his apron. When grandpa refused to accept the money, claiming it was far more than he needed, the man insisted he take it all.

My mother maintains, till today, that it’s the combination of the shop keeper’s kindness and jeddo’s determination that saved her life.

As the problems mounted, teta and jeddo decided it would be best to go their separate ways. Though the divorce wouldn’t last for long, it was something of a small disaster for the family, the effects of which would linger for years.

Grandpa, stubborn as he was, would claim he was saamed (steadfast) when people would say he should take teta back, as they were clearly still in love with one another.

Teta would eventually return from Damascus, where she stayed with her family during the divorce, and jeddo couldn’t help but soften up.

The divorce lasted less than a year, but it’s a period of time that jeddo would look back on with great regret and remorse, until the day he died.

During the Israeli invasion of 1982, the IDF would infiltrate the South, eventually reaching Zahrani, where my grandpa and his family lived. Stories circulated that the army was patrolling the surrounding areas, so jeddo had instructed the family on how to behave should the inevitable happen, to ensure their safety: He would act cordially, and the children and teta would remain quiet, indoors.

An Israeli army contingent did indeed reach the bustan, as they neared Sidon. Upon encountering jeddo, who was terrified but composed, they asked for water. The senior officer, who knew Arabic, got to talking to my grandpa about his family, and jeddo told them that he had a daughter who was married and who lived with her husband in Ireland.

Jeddo continued conversing, attempting to conceal his fear, unsure what else he could do. He said he hadn’t been in touch with my mother for months, and that she’d surely be worried about the family’s safety. The Israeli officer asked for a contact number, and promised he would soon call my parents to convey to them that jeddo and the family were indeed safe.

Weeks later, my father, then a doctor at a hospital in the U.K., was told, while he was at work, that he had received an international phone call. A man claiming to be an Israeli officer told my dad that his wife’s family was safe. Shocked, my father reasoned that it was a prank call, and hung up on the man.

It wasn’t until 1987, when my mother first saw jeddo on a trip back to Lebanon after the invasion, that she and my father came to realise it was indeed a true, and somewhat remarkable story.

Among jeddo’s most endearing qualities was his sense of humour. When I was about 15 or 16, and still a tomboy, he told me I should “wear high heels every now and then,” because I’d started looking “more like my four brothers” than a young lady.

In his final years of life, he’d occasionally ask someone to bring him a pocket mirror. He’d then peer into it seriously, before saying, “TOZZZ” (fart), and handing it back over with a chuckle. He’d do the same when he’d see photos of himself as a younger, handsome man.

But jeddo’s most captivating quality was his sensitivity. I’d seen him cry multiple times. While he did indeed live up to his surname, he found no shame in exposing his weaknesses.

Every time I’d leave Lebanon after visiting, when I’d say goodbye to him, he would break down into tears, saying he was frightened it would be the last time he would see me.

Each time, he would ask me to take care of my mama once he’d pass, because he could see mama in me, and mama was special.

After my teta passed away in 2010, jeddo would constantly speak of her, how they met, and the love they’d shared, tearing up each time. Occasionally, he would say, endearingly and with a chuckle, that being with her was a lot like the “taming of the shrew.”

When jeddo was bedridden, toward the end, he had a picture of teta taped up next to where he rested his head, on the wall. We’d often catch him looking at it with a sense of guilt and longing.

Osman Abu Nasser Antar passed away at the age of 87, on February 4, the same date as teta’s birthday.

Vola

By Louay Khraish

I wonder
If you still take a spoon of honey
At sunrise
Before you light
Your first cigarette
And if you still put cold yogurt
On your face
Every morning
Sitting against the open kitchen window
Picking the stones from the lentils
On a tray
In your lap
Letting the new sun
Dry your face

I wonder
If you still stand
Facing the clock
With your two fingers
On your left wrist
Counting
While you cook the best stuffed stomach
Or chew on your home-grown alfalfa sprouts
Or your left-over macaroni with no sauce

I wonder
If you still have your hair
Neatly pulled back
And the gold cross
Hanging around your neck
And the Heart of Christ
Pinned inside your warm bra
And if you still gently beat
Your chest
As you pray your rosary
Lighting a candle
For Mar Charbel
And one for Mar Elias
Pleading
For cures
Safety
And money

I wonder
If you still get scared
Every time
A door is slammed
Or one of us kids cry
Thinking of bombs
Jumping on your feet
Calling Jesus
Mary
And never forgetting Saint Joseph

I wonder
If you still sneak to the closet
To take a sip
Before you make a wish
On the deck of cards
In your rough hands

I wonder
If you still sleep
With the radio on
Next to your ear
Listening to the news
And Sainte Rita
Under your pillow

And I wonder
If you ever knew
You would be the first to leave
If you ever knew
You were leaving
And if you really wanted
To burn
All the saints
Before
You died