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

 

 

 

Interview with Hedy Habra

By Rewa Zeinati

Publications, Paintings and the Multi-language of Art

Rewa Zeinati: Your collection of poetry Tea in Heliopolis was an Award-Winning Finalist for the 2014 International Book Award in Poetry. Your book Flying Carpets won the 2013 Arab American Book Award Honorable Mention in Fiction and was an Award-Winning Finalist for the 2014 Eric Hoffer Book Award in Short Fiction. You won an Excellence in Teaching Award 
at Western Michigan University in 2014. And your individual poems and short stories have been published widely and often. What drives you on?

Hedy Habra: I feel honored and grateful for these publications and awards. I have been studying, writing and also teaching Spanish language and literature for a very long time. I believe that these continued activities stem from an insatiable curiosity and a passion for learning combined with an urge to share and communicate my enthusiasm and love for languages and literature. With each project, I learn a bit more about the world, about others, but mostly about myself. Literature is the best way to transcend one’s reality with its unavoidable ups and downs. Immersing oneself in the virtual space created by fiction or poetry allows for a much richer and more intense life.

RZ: How has being multi-lingual and multi-cultural shaped your craft, if at all? And while growing up, who affected your writing the most, and how?

HH: I was born and raised in Heliopolis, a residential suburb of Cairo, Egypt, and was schooled in French, Arabic, and English. I was mainly influenced by French literature and read extensively. I have always loved Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Aragon and Paul Celan as well as most of the classics. I studied Pharmacy in Beirut’s French St. Joseph University, and lived there till the onset of the civil war.

After spending several years in Europe, I came to the United States where I pursued graduate studies in English and Spanish. Some of my favorite poets are T.S. Eliot, Theodore Roethke, Charles Simic, Tony Hoagland and Mark Doty, but my list would be endless. My favorite author is usually the one I am reading and enjoying at a specific moment. Each great author provides a unique experience. Some of my favorite Middle Eastern writers are Adonis for poetry, and Amin Malouf and Tahar Ben Jalloun for fiction.

When I first discovered Latin American literature, I knew that it was the sort of writing I would like to emulate. My favorite writers are Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez and Juan Rulfo, for fiction, and Octavio Paz, César Vallejo and Pablo Neruda, for poetry, to name only a few. But I admire lots of Spanish and international authors, so it is hard to tell which writers have left an imprint on my work. I am also a great admirer of the fiction of Italo Calvino, Alessandro Barrico and Dino Buzzati, and I try to read them in the original Italian.

RZ: What makes a good poem?

HH: For me, it is a desire to reread the poem over and over again. I am very sensitive to a poem’s music and to the way the language flows. I love poems with striking images that create unusual and unexpected connections but that still won’t reveal it all, letting the reader make the leap and use his (or her) imagination.

RZ: What makes good fiction?

HH: I guess that my preference goes to novels that are well crafted and require the reader’s participation like Mario Vargas Llosa’s fiction. I have read each of his novels several times, always with renewed delight and interest. I love stories that have a surreal or fantastic dimension, that’s why I regularly reread Buzzati, Calvino, Cortázar and Borges. Good fiction is a text that you want to keep returning to, always discovering something new in its pages.

RZ: Some writers dedicate a couple of hours in the morning to write. Some after a jog. Some wait for the evening hours to settle down. What is your process?

HH: I don’t have a specific routine or ritual. Sometimes working in the yard, gardening or walking helps me enter a meditative state that is propitious to writing. It does seem to me that I am constantly writing, with occasional interruptions. And because I also like to write criticism, paint and cook, it is necessary to juggle with time.

I have always kept a journal, and at times, I like to leaf through the pages and highlight some passages that strike me for different reasons and seem to lead me into writing. I always record thoughts, impressions, epiphanies, and have tons of drafts and material that serve as inspiration. Many of my poems are inspired by visual art.

I find myself writing in different languages in my journal. Oftentimes, I work on the same poem in three different languages because some lines would come automatically in a different language associated with new images that I then try to translate, and by doing so I find unexpected ways to express the same thought. This process enriches each version in a reciprocal movement like osmosis.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

HH: I have just finished revising my second book of poetry and sent it to my publisher. Most of the poems in this collection are inspired by paintings. I have a passion for visual art and I am also an artist. I have painted a watercolor to illustrate the cover of the forthcoming book, as I did for Tea in Heliopolis. I am also working on a collection of poetry that focuses on my personal connection with the Middle East. Some of the poems are responses to what is going on in the area in an attempt to convey the sense of helplessness that we feel when we see it all from afar.

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

HH: Print and online literary journals are very important. I subscribe to several journals, such as Poet Lore, Cutthroat, The Bitter Oleander, Nimrod, Rattle, Crab Orchard Review, and read them with great interest. They are a bridge that allows readers to discover a multiplicity of voices and genres, and enables to keep up-to-date with the evolving tendencies of contemporary literature.

RZ: Do you have any advice for emerging writers, or other writers of many native tongues?

HH: I would say that persistence and discipline are indispensable. I think we learn writing by reading. So the more we read, analyze and try to emulate the authors we admire, the better our own writing will become and we will eventually find our own voice. This works for painting as well. Visual artists first learn to copy the classics before developing a distinctive style. Regarding multilingual writers, I would recommend that they maintain their languages alive by reading constantly in the original. Writers should consider this ability as an advantage instead of a hindrance. In addition, every language brings along a wealth of original metaphors, which cross-pollinate and enrich one another.

Interview with Sam Hamod

By Rewa Zeinati

Language, Music, Prayer

Rewa Zeinati: A prolific poet, a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, a critical political writer, a healer, an editor, a professor, a blues musician and singer, a spiritual, multifaceted and interfaith religious Muslim leader who ran The Islamic Center in Washington, DC; founder of the internationally acclaimed, Third World News in Washington DC, Ph.D. from the famed Iowa Writers Workshop where you taught and studied—your teaching career also spanning over Princeton, Michigan, Wisconsin, Howard and more—and since the 1960s you’ve published ten books and have appeared in over 200 anthologies of literature worldwide. You are the founder of Contemporary World Poetry Journal- publishing distinct and diverse international voices in poetry. What drives you on?

Sam Hamod: Rainer Maria Rilke, the great German poet said, “You do not choose poetry, it chooses you.” In my case, I feel that he was correct, that and in the plans of Allah, I became a poet and continue to write; not all by my choosing. If you had asked me when I was young, or even in my early 20s if I’d like to be a poet, I would have said you were crazy.
I am driven by the desire to do the things I want to do, and to add positive things and matter to society. I also feel very blessed. As for my journals, I founded them, Third World News (a weekly and bi weekly newspaper in Washington, DC, which I founded in late 1980-81, I started that newspaper because I felt there were no media voices for the Arabs or Islam, but then I also found out that other third world people needed a voice, so I included those from South America, Asia, Africa and elsewhere); my websites, www.todaysalternativenews.com was a child of Third World News online, but I also used it to speak against the West’s wars against Islam and the Third World, especially the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I started the two literary sites, Contemporaryworldliterature and Contemporaryworldpoetry so that we could publish good quality writers in their own script from around the world. I want to be a “world poet,” and want to publish world-class writers, not just ethnic or weak writers who “lean” on their culture but do not write good poems within or about it.
Incidentally, I have a strong background in rhetorical theory and practice, and even published a paper many years ago, on Arab and Islamic Rhetorical Theory and Practice, A Brief Overview, in 1963.

RZ: Your poetry is rich in language, music, prayer, sound, smells, and scenes, from your country of origin, Lebanon, as well as the Middle East. How difficult/easy was the transition from Lebanon to the US, where you adopted a new culture, new music, new sounds, smells, scenes?

SH: Actually, I was born in Gary, Indiana, but in the house we were in Lebanon, but outside our door, we were in America; thus, in my life, I always lived in at least 2 worlds. I never saw them as a conflict, but as an asset, they complemented one another as far as my vision and understanding was concerned.
I grew up with poor parents, my father and mother ran a boarding house hotel; we lived there and shared it with 40 men from around the world. The men had come to work in the steel mills and railroads around Gary and Chicago. So, I got to hear all these foreign Slavic, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Indian, and other languages as a child, until I was 5 years old. Then my father opened a business in an African-American area, where I heard the blues, and learned different American dialects until I was a teenager when he left that business.
I’ve loved all the Arab sounds, smells, foods, music, culture since I was a kid; we used to go to a small mosque in Michigan City, Indiana many Sundays where we’d learn Arabic and hear discussions about the Qur’an and Islam My grandfather, Hajj Abbass Habhab, was the first émigré to America who went on the Hajj from America. Thus, I had a strong Islamic, Arab background. Later, in the 1960s, my father, Hajj Hussein Hamode Subh, aka Sam Hamod, built a mosque, Mosque El Amin in Gary, Indiana; it became the founding home for the MSA Muslim Students Association, and that later morphed into ISNA. In the 1980s, I became the Director of The Islamic Center in Washington, DC, when it was the focal point of Islam in North America.
I enjoyed it all, all aspects, the good and the bad, but I always trusted in Allah no matter what happened. I learned this from my mother, Zinab Habhab Hamod, though she was no Hajj, she was always a Hajj in her heart and had the strongest belief and appreciation of the gifts of Allah of anyone I’ve ever met, and I’ve met hundreds of thousands of Muslims and others, but her example and wisdom sustained me through the best and worst of times.

RZ: How has being uprooted from a home country shaped your craft?

SH: My poems come from my heart and experiences; I might see a line or a word, then suddenly a poem starts to come through me. All my life, I’ve always lived in the USA and in Leb’nan, though I wasn’t there in person all the time, I’ve always kept my heart there; thus, there has been no split in me, just double vision, and more. But, I do get upset when I see the fighting between groups in Lebanon; when I was young and went there, everyone was a “cousin” or “brother” to everyone else. Let us hope this fellowship and brotherhood returns, not only in Leb’nan but elsewhere in the Muslim and Arab world.
I am very influenced by what I felt were the great poems of Islamic Spain, Lorca, Darwish, Rumi, Neruda and those who write from their hearts of justice, love, passion and the beauty Allah has bestowed on mankind in the world.

RZ: You’ve said once, ‘At times, I want to speak only of poems, not of “ethnic poems.” But in truth our ethnicity helps shape the way we see and the way we write—so it is a part of what our poems are made of. But a poem cannot lean on its ethnicity in order to keep from falling—a poem must be a good poem on its own.’ What makes a good poem? What makes great poetry?

SH: Yes, I still hold with that statement; we should not “lean” on our ethnic background, but use it as a source, so that it informs who we are, and the emotion should come through in the passion of our poem, but we should not think that a poem is good just because it speaks of our ethnic background or concerns.
As to what a good or great poem is:
A good to great poem should give you an insight, but must be ineffable, that is, no matter how much you like to explain the poem, it will be more than your word, because of the way it moves with language, sound, smell, feeling and the way it makes you feel and realize something in a way that is deeper than you have felt or understood something before reading that poem. A poem may be great if it is only 2 or 3 lines long, or 30 pages long, length is not a determining factor;
Great poetry can be seen in the work of Lorca, Darwish, Qabbani, Adonis, Neruda, Hafiz, Rumi, Hikmet, Eluard, Borges, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and such American poets as the late James Wright, Ethridge Knight, Robert Hayden and such poets alive as Amiri Baraka (no longer with us, may he rest in peace) and Sonia Sanchez .

RZ: After attending Law School at The University of Chicago then returning to Gary to open The Broadway Lounge, where you hired blues giants such as B.B.King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Red Foxx, and others to perform, you must’ve been saturated in African American culture where jazz and blues took center stage. You play jazz and sing the blues professionally yourself. You were a poet who carried a 38, a 32 and a 25 calibre Browning. When did you decide you needed to shift gears and change paths? And why?

SH: I went into the bar business in order to keep my father from going back into that business. He had killed a man in self-defense, but I was afraid if he went back, someone might try to take revenge on him, even though he had not been at fault. I didn’t want to open the bar, but my father insisted, so I left law school to protect him and our family. I enjoyed the people, the musicians, and I enjoyed singing with them, because I’d grown up with blues music and jazz. But after 2 years of that I decided that I should leave and become a professor. We had an offer to sell the bar, but my father didn’t want to; he wanted to take it over, so I gave it to him and left, feeling I had done all I could do and felt that if I stayed, after time, someone would either shoot me or I might shoot someone because the economy was getting worse, and I felt myself getting “cold” inside, and I didn’t want that to happen. It was good, but like other things in my life, I decided it was time to move on, and I’m happy I did; it was for the best.

RZ: While growing up, who shaped and affected your writing the most?

SH: I think it was listening to the stories the men all told us at the hotel, my immigrants from South America, Mexico, Europe, Asia, friends of my father from the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, etc.), and the Americans, especially those who were “hillbillies,” from Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and Louisiana, as well as stories from my uncles who served in WWII, and the other immigrants I met while growing up. I think the sense of hearing stories, so that I was driven more from “hearing” and “speaking” the sense of “voice”, rather than reading literature that shaped my way of writing. Interestingly, I started college as a business major, but changed into Speech Communications in my junior year at Northwestern University; thus, I have always been more attuned to the oral tradition than the written tradition. But, if you look at the history of great literature, the best poetry always survived best when it would stand up through hearing it aloud (Whitman, Homer, Shakespeare, Keats, Darwish, Lorca, etc.).
Also, with the voice, you always listen for the emotion; then, as a poet, you want to get that emotion into your poems.
I think that music also influenced the way I write; there has to be a lot of rhythm and music through language in my poems. I say this because English is a flat language and you have to create the music in your work to make it come alive. The poems for Ella and Joe Williams, “Joe Williams at the Blue Note” show best what I’m talking about in terms of music; the poem, “Dying with the Wrong Name” best exemplifies my work within Arab/American/Islamic culture in terms of language, food, etc. as does “After the Funeral of Hamad Assam,” (originally published by Perishable Press, After the Funeral of Assam Hamady), where the Muslim prayer, Al Fati’ha’ is in the middle of the poem and necessary to the poem. I deal with the cultural matters in other poems such as “Lines to my Father.” etc.

RZ: You are a descendant of Muslim Lebanese parents, where your faith played a large part in your writing. You were also open to many religious experiences like the Moorish Science Temple and various Muslim sects. How important is it, as an artist, to be open to so many different faiths and cultures and belief systems?
SH: It was always in my nature to learn what I could about everything, whether it was someone else’s culture, religion, food, music, or how to change a washer in a faucet or how to build a house or fix a car. I’ve been taken always by the fact that so many of the world’s great religions, have all pointed to One God, as I’ve found most people are pretty good people; thus, I see the good, and the similarities among people and religions, not the differences.

RZ: What inspires you?

SH: Everything, especially being alive. Each day, each event, different people, different moments, different lines, different poems, stories, songs, sunsets, birds, trees, walking, making love, a beautiful smile, a child’s laughter—just all the things of life inspire me. The poems come from everywhere, but behind it all is Allah. Even doing this interview is inspiring in its own way, but it’s hard to choose poems to send you. You always want to send your very best, but you hope that you next poem will even be better, and at times, the poem that come next is.
Great love and great tragedy, and the possibilities of love and beauty are all inspiring all the time.

RZ: Why did you feel it necessary to establish the platform: Contemporary World Poetry Journal?

SH: As I said earlier, I wanted a truly international journal with excellent writing. [We] had a good response from all over the world with the platform and the other one, www.contemporaryworldliterature.com
No one else had done what we did, but I hope they do; the more good poetry and literature in the world, the better. We never compete with anyone else, only with ourselves to do the best we can, and hope that others add to the beauty and literature of the world, so that we all gain. It is my hope that your magazine will prosper and grow, and grow and grow.

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

SH: No, I think a writer should write in the language he or she is most comfortable in. I’ve seen too many who want to write in both languages, but one or the other is stilted. Your first major language that you hear or speak or work with seems to work best. Even among translators I’ve known, they work best in one of their languages when they write poems or stories not in all. Of course, there are exceptions, but generally I’ve found this to be true.
And, because I prefer to be a world class poet, of Arab Muslim extraction, I don’t want to be limited to be just “an Arab or Muslim poet”; I feel Lorca, Darwish, Neruda exceeded their ethnic backgrounds to be great poets, not just Spanish, Palestinian or Chilean poets; we of a certain background, and we carry that within us and it “informs” who we are, but we are also of the larger world, and must live in the larger world, not be restricted to where we came from; as poets, we must travel poetically as Ibn Batuta and Marco Polo traveled in the world.

RZ: What are you working on now?

SH: It seems I’m trying to finish my memoirs, and have part of them done, and will send you part of it if you wish. The first part is called, “At the Broadway Lounge,” but other parts are underway.
But poems keep getting in the way, as does spring, the beauty of each day, just walking in the sun, or swimming or reading or just the daily matter of keeping up with bills, taxes and life. But I don’t want to miss any of this.
But my major focus now must be on finishing my memoirs otherwise certain things about Islam in America, Hon. Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Farrakkhan will never be known, or certain Islamic organizations that preceded the MSA and ISNA, etc. I have this obligation in my life, and inshallah I shall be able to finish it well.

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

SH: Journals are important if they are good; if they are mediocre, then they are a waste of trees and time, and they add to the distractions of life.

RZ: What advice would you offer emerging writers? (Or musicians for that matter!)

SH: Hope for Allah’s help in whatever you do, and always write or sing from your soul. To become a great writer or musician, you have to have something to say.
Thus, I’d say it is better to live a lot, not go from a B.A. to an MFA because you will rarely have had experiences deep or varied enough to become a good or great writer.
If you listen to B.B.King, Muddy Waters, Joe William, or hear or read Lorca, Darwish, Neruda, Baraka, you will know they’ve lived that life, they are telling you their life, their deep experiences, not some novelty or technique, but something from their soul.
The next best thing to do is to read good writers, great writers, and listen to good and great music, whether it be blues or Um Kulthm, or Fairouz, or listen to a mountain wedding music in Leb’nan or Morocco, or Turkey, an “atabee”, or “taksim” or whatever that will grab your heart and soul, then go on and live, and then write.

Goodbye, Thea Stavroula

By Lisa Suhair Majaj

She died at 94. There are worse ages at which to leave this earth, but that doesn’t dispel the sadness. How many changes did she see in her life? How many wars? When she was a girl, the quickest way from Limassol to Paphos was by boat. People stayed in their villages, grew their own food. Now there are highways, and cars, and smart phones, and all sorts of other things she probably never dreamed of—though some things, like wars and their after-effects, don’t seem to change much.

She lived in Episkopi, a mixed village, populated by both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots until the invasion that split the country. She raised three sons, losing a daughter at the age of four. My husband tells me she always wore the Hand of Fatima, at the time considered a distinctively Muslim symbol, next to the cross around her neck. That doesn’t surprise me. From the first time I met her, as I struggled to find enough Greek to thank her for her coffee, her smiling hospitality, it was clear that she had a large, embracing spirit. Whenever we visited there were always stray cats she was feeding, children in the garden, a bowl of sweets for passers by.

And everyone passed by. Her house was at the heart of the village, right across from the church, down the street from the archeological museum. Neighbors, relatives, outsiders—all were welcome. She taught the young archeologists staying at the museum how to embroider, unperturbed by the lack of a common language. There was no better place for coffee than perched on one of the chunks of ancient Roman columns scattered outside her gate, breathing in the stunning vista of the coastline spread out below, the sense of timelessness.

But time never stops.

The day Thea Stavroula died, a massive sandstorm struck, blanketing the island for days in a cloud of dust so thick it was impossible to take a deep breath. Temperatures soared as the sky pressed down, gritty and clotted. Even the sweat rivulets rolling down my skin felt muddy.

On the day of the funeral, we braved the brownish haze to drive from Nicosia to Episkopi. We parked outside of her small, familiar house, the usual coastal vista shrouded in dust, and crossed the street to the church. Family and neighbors were already gathering in the oppressively hot stone-paved yard, their black clothing a reminder of why we were there.

Inside, the church was dim and slightly cooler. I slipped some coins into the donation box and lit three candles: one for Stavroula, one for my parents, who died decades ago, and one for those still engaged in this battle called life. Then the chanting of the Orthodox service began, the musicality of the priest’s voice carrying me out of my thoughts as the candles flickered.

Soon enough the service was over—how quickly we mark passage from this earth!—and mourners gathered again in the churchyard, waiting for the coffin to be carried out. At the gate of the yard I noticed two tiny, ancient women clutching each other’s hands for support. One, I saw with a thrum of sadness, wore mismatched slippers on her feet. Later my sister-in-law told me that after the 1974 Turkish invasion, when refugees took shelter in Episkopi, Thea Stravroula had been the first to help these two women, giving them olives, that staple of village sustenance. Decades later, they had come to say goodbye.

We proceeded to the cemetery, where the open coffin required confrontation. I hardly recognized Stavroula in the body that lay face up to the sky. Age and illness had replaced her calm, robust demeanor with a startlingly gaunt profile; her eyes were no longer smiling, but closed.

This was my son’s first funeral. He watched carefully as they lowered the open coffin into the grave with ropes, poured oil on the body, scattered earth, and rinsed the shovel off with water over the coffin, mixing earth’s elements with her human remains. Then the coffin was closed and buckets of soil were tipped on top, attendants shoveling in more to finish the job. Dust clouds rose to join the dust that hung in the heat-struck, lowering sky. Her body went into the earth, earth was shoveled on top of her, and the sky rained earth on all of us: a dusty kind of tears.

At bedtime that night, my son asked me, “What is it like when someone passes away? What do they feel? What do they see? Where do they go? What do they become?” I had no clear answers to offer. Instead I kissed him and stroked his hair till his breathing settled.

But Stravroula didn’t settle. She lingered in the air around me, rich and full, her life too real to close a coffin lid on. I thought of an afternoon decades earlier, as we sat in the cool of her garden after hours at the beach—her laughter filling the air, the coffee she had brewed with careful hands waiting to be drunk, the future full in the unturned cup.

In my kitchen grows a plant started from a cutting taken from a tree in her yard, nestled in a simple clay pot. Like her, it is rooted in earth, arching toward the sun.

Ali

By Zeina Hashem Beck

He wasn’t a beggar,
just someone who asked
for a smoke and talked to himself.
His right hand traced sentences
into broken circles
near his tilted head,
his eyes had seen
beyond language, couldn’t find
their way back. His cigarette,

 

always hanging at a certain
angle between his lips,
almost parallel to his nose,
was his only anchor to the real world.

 

The people at West House
would sometimes give him a free haircut.
No one knew where he slept.
I think we believed he didn’t,
that he just ceased to exist
beyond the corner.

 

We never saw him seated,
just a familiar pedestrian
who roamed the same
side of the street every day,
as if the distance
between Abu Naji and Universal were
the whole Mediterranean sea.
He walked and walked yet stayed
in place. Or maybe he didn’t.

 

One day he pointed to a car,
said it was a Russian tank, named
the year it was manufactured.
Sometimes he gave random lectures
about communism.
We said hello or we didn’t,
he replied or he didn’t.

 

There were rumors
he was a professor gone mad,
that his whole family was killed
before him during the war,
but no one really knew anything
for sure about him, except that he was
as much a part of Bliss Street
as the students, the sidewalk, the fast food,
that he was one of the possible
definitions of the city.

 

Interview with Zeina Hashem Beck

Lost to the News
Lost to the News By Nouf Semari, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 100 cm

By Rewa Zeinati

Cities of longing, memory, love and war

RZ: Your first poetry collection, To Live in Autumn, won the 2013 Backwaters Prize and will be published in August 2014 by the Backwaters Press, in Omaha, Nebraska. It was selected as a winning manuscript by notable poet Lola Haskins. You’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and your individual poems have been published widely and frequently in many distinguished journals across the US. You are on the editorial board of All Roads Will Lead You Home, a new online literary journal by VAC poetry. A mother of two, founder of PUNCH, a monthly open-mic poetry evening, and runner of poetry workshops for adults and children (in Dubai, UAE.) What drives you on?

ZHB: With both poetry and motherhood, one doesn’t know what the driving force is exactly. You just go with it, almost instinctively. The love, the passion, the intuition, and the obsession are there. But one doesn’t know why/how they are there to start with.

This isn’t to say, of course, that all is intuitive (and immediate) in poetry and motherhood. You also learn these things, because they are things you do, not just feel. So, you get up every day, you feed, bathe, and dress your children, and you talk to them, and you play with them, and you love them and hug them, and they drive you crazy, and you are exhausted, and you need a break, and you hope you don’t lose it by the end of the day. In poetry too, it’s about the day-to-day work on something you love: I try to read every day, and think about writing every day, and I revise, and sometimes I obsess, and the poems can drive me crazy as well.

I have to point out though, since I’ve started this simile, that motherhood and poetry aren’t similar in all aspects, and that they don’t always co-exist. Motherhood is something you do with your kids, whereas poetry is something you do alone. Sometimes I abandon my kids for my poems, and sometimes I abandon my poems for my kids. But now I’m digressing. Have I somehow answered the question? I guess I love them (my kids and poetry), and try to be there for them every day.

RZ: Your book To Live in Autumn is set in, and is about, Beirut. You being a Tripoli-native and childhood resident of Tripoli (Lebanon), why Beirut?

ZHB: When I left Beirut in 2006 after having lived there for six years, the poems just kept coming, out of nostalgia, I think. It was like I was summoning the city back to me in writing. After some time, I realized Beirut was a recurrent theme in my poetry, and I took the decision to write the book with the working title Re-membering Beirut. The process took years, during which I also wrote about other things/places (Tripoli among them), but those poems didn’t go into the book. I want to note that some poems in To Live in Autumn are a mixture of Beirut and Tripoli. “Nocturne,” for example, is one of them. “The Old Building” is heavily based on the building I lived in as a child in Tripoli, and the last poem of the book, “Spring,” brings Tripoli into the picture as well.

But why did Beirut keep coming to me in the first place? Probably because I spent my university years there, and those were formative and exciting years for me. Beirut is an inspiring city, and it was new and unfamiliar to me, the eighteen-year-old from Tripoli. It gave me poetry readings, theater, literature (that’s what I was studying), dance, streets, new friends, chaos, and of course, political unrest. So naturally, when I left the city that I had grown to love so much, I felt that longing for it, which I think triggered the writing. The poems in the book eventually moved beyond mere longing and nostalgia of course.

RZ: What do you think makes a good poem?

ZHB: I don’t think there’s an objective list of criteria for a good poem. I’ll tell you what would make me love a poem though: its ability to make the familiar unfamiliar (and vice-versa), its ability to move me (immediately!), and this urge I get of wanting to read it over and over again.

RZ: Do you think poetry and fiction are at all related?

ZHB: Aren’t all art forms somehow related? Good fiction and good poetry should both have the ability to amaze the reader. I don’t read much fiction, but when I do, I’ve noticed that the books I like are the ones with good details, surprising images, and condensed language, all of which are also necessary in poetry. On the other hand, poetry too, is fictional, in its reinvention of the world around us.

RZ: Can good writing be taught?

ZHB: I think you are either born a writer (among other things), or you aren’t. If you do have that innate ability (and better yet, an irresistible urge) to write, then you can definitely learn to write better. The best way to do that is by reading, reading, and reading good writing. And if you’re lucky enough to get feedback from fellow writers you trust, then that helps as well.
6- You’ve recently begun exploring writing in your native tongue, Arabic. How is that different from writing in English, apart from the obvious, of course.

I’ve only just started to flirt with Arabic. I haven’t been writing in Arabic long enough for me to be able to formulate similarities and differences. For now, the creative process feels the same to me in both languages.

RZ: What is your writing process? Are you a morning writer? An after-midnight poet?

ZHB: When I became a mother, I also became a write-whenever-you-can poet. So, when my kids are at school, I do most of my reading and writing in the morning. When they’re on vacation, I do that when they’re not killing each other. But nothing is that systematic of course, and a lot of poems come at unexpected times, as long as I’ve warmed up for them. The writing process you mention is, for me, about this warming up. It involves reading, getting some quiet time, and observing. If I do this every day, the poems will eventually come.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

ZHB: Toward my second collection, I hope.

RZ: The concept of literary journals for Arab writers writing in English is a foreign one. How did you first learn about it, considering that you have resided in the Arab region all your life.

ZHB: When I was a graduate assistant at AUB, a professor of mine gave me the CLMP directory to help him look for potential journals for his poetry. He showed me what to look for in a journal, and explained things like what simultaneous submissions and SASE mean. I ended up ordering my own copy of the directory, going online, and checking out the journals in there that appealed to me, the kind of poetry they publish, and their guidelines. Back then, many didn’t have online submission managers yet (I’m happy that one can now submit to almost any journal online). That same professor also directed me to pw.org, which was also a helpful resource.

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

ZHB: Literary journals are vital. They give contemporary writers the chance to showcase their work, and they are where all the good new writing is! I learn a lot about fellow poets from literary magazines, and when I like a poet’s work, I usually end up ordering his/her book.

RZ: What advice would you give promising writers?

ZHB: Read Bukowski’s poem, “so you wanna be a writer,” which starts this way:

“if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.”

Read that poem, then: read (read, read), write, revise, submit, learn to accept rejection, and repeat all previous steps, as long as it’s “bursting out of you.”