Four poems by Momtaza Mehri


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

the accident of her birth.

The Night We All Watched Talal Maddah Die On Television

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

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

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

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

The new millennium takes another innocence from us.

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

enter: الاصيل سويعات

enter: suwaycaat alasiil

enter:suwa3at alaseel

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

التياع جمر على ضمأى همسة الوداع غير لي ليس واخيرا

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

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

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

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

ARE YOU SAFE? (or the occupation of love)

By Shebana Coelho






A pitch dark stage – as dark as you can make it –

slowly lightens into shadows. A dim blue

searchlight roves across the stage, and into the

audience, and in the arc of its turning, it

illuminates a table and two chairs. In one chair,

facing the audience is a GIRL, fair-skinned, in

her twenties with long black hair. Her hands are

clasped behind her back, as if they are tied

together. But they are not. Her head is lowered,

as if she is sleeping. But she is not. One side of

her face looks discolored, as if she’s wearing a

face mask, the kind you get in beauty salons. A

MAN, in his fifties, sits in the chair to her

left. When the spotlight reaches her again, her

head swings up and she opens her eyes.



Later, he tells me he knew my name all along.



Your middle name, to be exact.



All it takes is a Muslim in the middle.



Naseema, to be exact.




She slowly, sinuously leans towards the man and

blows. He blanches, startled. She keeps blowing

and slowly, with her breath, forces him to rise

and he rises and steps back, and further back till

her breath has forced him off stage.



Naseema. Wind.


She turns to the audience.



But earlier, first – the skin of my father gets me in.

If they saw the brown inside, the brown of my mother,

I’d be at the detention cell, at the airport with

everyone else who had brushed against brown in their

past or in their family or on the plane and the scent

lingers, did you know? That’s what the guards say. “We

know how to smell you.” They’re trained to

smell…roses. They’re trained to smell…attar. I hear

them whispering as if no one hears. But everyone hears.

Those smells carry.


The SOUND of low bells, the kind cattle wear

around their neck and a shepherd, NIDAL, about

sixteen, enters from the opposite side of the

stage. He wears a keffiyeh, a black and white

chequered scarf around his neck. He’s in a

reverie, as if following his cattle and not

noticing her at first.


I carry a new lamb. The sheep follow. We go to what is

left of grass. They eat what isn’t burnt. They eat what

is left of green. I swallow the sand. I love a girl who

I saw on a bus that went by very slowly so the people

inside, behind the glass, could take pictures. I stood

up straight when it passed. The minute you see anyone

shooting…a picture, you want to stand up straight. It

could be on the news. You have to think ahead. But that

girl, she put the camera down when she saw me, and the

sun hit her instead. It hit her through the glass as

she looked at me and then I saw her hair…


Now he notices the girl and they meet in the

center of the stage. Tenderly, he touches the

girl’s hair.



…hair like yours…



…like how..?



like this, soft and clean from a place that has water,

a place where you just ask for it and….


He takes a step back and a stream of water falls

on him, drenching him. Like a waterfall, it falls

as he stands there, arms akimbo and then he cups

the water in his hand. The girl reaches forward

and puts her hand in the falling water, cups the

water in her hands as well. The water fall stops.

In unison, they drink from their hands. The Girl

looks up at Nidal.



In the desert where I used to live, where I used to

love, the land is flat and the sky is so big you can

see for days ahead. You can see the weather forming.

You can see a storm coming. You can say (she points

into the audience) it is raining there, just in that

spot, and not there, in that other spot – like that.

Nidal shakes the water off him. He unloosens his

scarf, squeezes the water from it, and then sits

down slowly on his haunches, as if looking at a

horizon only he can see.



Here, we watch the bombs falling. You can see, (he

points into the audience ) there is someone dying, and

there is someone not dying, not yet. You can see this

bombed from clear across the ocean. You can see the

planes. You can see the righteousness with which the

bombs fall so we die righteous deaths. (laughs) Can’t

you see us all dying so that the rockets hidden under

us may live?


He ties the scarf back around his neck, humming

softly. It’s not a carefree sound – as if he’s

deliberately calming the cattle, while keeping an

eye out, being vigilant. Suddenly he YELLS, ducks

and goes flat on the ground.



Get down. Now.


The Girl gets down, lying on her belly. Together,

they look at the audience.



My father is an old man in a chair in a desert. A man

like thunder. A line of sheep behind him. A gaggle of

hens beside him. We live in a house with sheets of

aluminum for walls and sheets of plastic for roofs.

Bullet casings at our feet.



The sheep nuzzle the casings. The chicken nuzzle the




We dream of the well we can’t dig. The land we can’t



Not allowed.



Mamnou3…it says here right on the dotted line, in

between the dotted lines, see that signature, see the

shadow of that ink…



The water in the river…



…the water is not allowed, mamnou3. The water we

hear, running in pipes past us, the water that goes




…settlements, swimming pools, dates…



…stockpiles, guards, guns.



But still…



We know…


They slowly begin to rise so they are sitting on

their knees.



….that after a village is destroyed…



…what is needed is to build something even if it’s




…this high…



…that high…


…this tall…



…that short…



…building a wall…



…patting a wall into place…



…by moonlight, only by moonlight…



…just so…


They slowly rise to their feet



…just so something is left standing at dawn. Fajer.


He sits cross-legged on the stage.



At dawn, he was sitting outside…



…twenty feet from the mosque waiting for prayers to




At dawn, they took him. Later, they hit him. They

argued about hitting him more. Hitting him more, they

decided. His small body on its side.



How do you burn a body? They didn’t know. Burning my

body, they learned.


I dreamed him. Even as they found him, even then, I

dreamed him and it was the dream that brought me here.

I had never up and gone anywhere. I up and came here.




They exit in the dark.






Lights up. The girl returns to the chair and sits.

She places her hands flat on the table, closes her

eyes. Her head falls forward. You can see the mask

clearly now, green, covering one side of her face.

MANJU, an Indian woman, also in her twenties,

enters and sits on the other chair. She takes a

nail file from her pocket, picks up the girl’s

hand and starts buffing her nails. Sounds of

Bollywood SONGS slowly RISE on a radio we can’t

see. Manju hums as she buffs. The Girl slowly

opens her eyes and raises her head. She yawns.



Welcome back, Madam. Have a good doze, Madam?






Oh. I thought the mister that you came with made you







Miss, what beautiful nails you have. Bloody beautiful,

if I may say so.


The girl laughs, intrigued.


So sorry, Madam, I mean Miss. It is a bad word but I

love it.


She giggles-she has a distinctive voice.



Isn’t it good, my “bloody?” I practiced it watching

those Bond movies. Uska nam kya hai? (what’s his name)



James. His name is James.



Those only, Miss. I watch those only over and over

again. If you heard me with your eyes closed, you

wouldn’t even know I’m not a native. I mean, Miss,

would you…


The Girl already has her eyes closed.



Go ahead.



If I bloody well say so, then it bloody well is so.

Those bloody people. No bloody manners. Now open your

bloody eyes and look at me, I said…


The girl opens her eyes and smiles.



You’re bloody perfect.



(giggling) Thank you, thank you, Miss. The hundreds of

time I have practiced bloody, I can’t even tell you,

can’t even count…





Twenty times a day, every day for a week – that makes

twenty into five… No, wait… regular week is seven

days, so that is twenty into…


A GUNSHOT offstage followed by a recognizably

Palestinian SONG like “Wayn A Ramallah.” The Girl

and Manju listen.



You want me to change the channel, Miss? I can’t stand

these shouting-bouting movies.



That’s the news, Manju.



Same thing, Miss, all doom and gloom, kill this, win

that, shoot this, save that.


The Girl is silent.



Close your eyes, Miz. I’ll take off the mask now.


The Girl closes her eyes. Manju takes a cotton pad

from her pocket and scrapes the mask off the

girl’s face, in smooth, lulling strokes. The Girl’s

head drops and she snores for a few seconds, then

starts and opens her eyes.



(softly) Turn up the volume, Manju.





She stops cleaning the girl’s face.



I said, go make it louder.

Manju drops the cotton pad on the table, rises and

walks off stage. The SOUNDS of the SONG RISE

LOUDLY. The Girl picks up the cotton and finishes

cleaning her own face, till all traces of the mask

are completely gone. As if looking in the mirror,

she inspects her face. A harsh SPOTLIGHT finds

her, and illuminates her, blinding. She begins

coughing. The MAN enters.

The Melancholy Oud

By Sahar Mustafa

As I come through the garage door, I hear the melancholy strings of the oud and I guess it’s coming from the soundtrack of an Arabian soap opera my mother’s watching on satellite. Quick, rhythmic clapping and another instrument I don’t recognize lends its sound, and its melody seamlessly weaves into the thrumming of the oud.

Allah, allah!” my mother croons, and I realize she’s the one clapping. “Ente a’yooni…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I try to politely pry my hand from his grip but he’s now going crazy over how much I resemble my mother, but declaring how much taller I am and definitely skinnier than her. She pretends not to hear the part about me being skinnier and keeps smiling.

He finally addresses me. “How are you, dear? I am Waleed.” It is Khalo’s best friend. I wonder if they can still see in each other’s faces—past the disfigurement and deep grooves of worry—how much of the children they used to be scaling the mountains and trekking across narrow valleys.

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

“Did you know that I grew up with your uncle and mother? We were neighbors. I could see their kitchen from my bedroom.” He laughs thunderously and turns to Khalo. “I’d see your father—Allah rest his soul—drinking yogurt right from the bottle.”

This prompts another story about my grandfather, and my mother and Waleed laugh so hard there are tears in their eyes. Khalo Ziyad just smiles and nods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s cool,” I say awkwardly and slide the qanoon back to Waleed.

My mother demands they play a song about Jerusalem and I can understand most of the words:

I passed through the streets

The streets of Old Jerusalem

In front of the shops

That remained of Palestine


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

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

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



(an excerpt)

By Etel Adnan

Tides: yes, breathing, and love being a tide coming, and receding, a pendular insanity, as impatient in its regularity as this gaze the inbuilt instability of metals.

When unruly forms move too closely to laptops there occurs a transfer of transparencies. A passenger is boarding a ship with me. Let’s live before dying.

Vision is a rumor, some steam. The body produces thinking, behaves like movies. Moves and makes move.

At times, an appetite for death creates a withdrawal into the origin of heat, and turns the world into a blur.

A woman mourns her dead lover while everything buckles under her sorrow’s pressure. Her days are going to grow longer.

Nights are breathing. Divine will circulates around their edges. A precocious summer lies naked on a granite wall. The ocean is my land.

Disastrous are disasters. Paradise is such a lonely place that we are doomed, anyway. At the meeting point of its rivers the horizon is always enlarged, the imagination, unleashed.

In the courtyard, the sun is scribbling shadows on the fading roses. I’m spending hours waiting for the next hour.

Love is a sandstorm that loosens reality’s building stones. Its feverish energy takes us into the heart of confusion. Sometimes, a frozen moon illuminates frozen fields.

There’s so much life around me, and I will have to leave.

My breathing is a tide, love doesn’t die.

Interview with Etel Adnan

By Rewa Zeinati


Rewa Zeinati: Etel Adnan, you are a multidimensional writer and artist; an author, a novelist, a poet, and a cultural critic. You have written documentaries and operas, short stories and plays and you are a visual artist in different media. You were born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1925. You studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, U.C. Berkeley, and at Harvard. In 1972, you returned to Beirut and worked as cultural editor for two daily newspapers—first for Al Safa, then for L’Orient le Jour. Your novel Sitt Marie-Rose, published in Paris in 1977, won the France-Pays Arabes award and has been translated into ten languages. At least eighteen works have been published in English. They include The Arab Apocalypse (Post-Apollo Press, 1989); Sea and Fog (Nightboat Books, 2012), winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry and the California Book Award for Poetry. In 2011, you received Small Press Traffic’s Lifetime Achievement Award. And, in 2014, you were awarded one of France’s highest cultural honors: L’ordre de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres. What drives you on?

Etel Adnan: What drives me on? I really don’t know. Have never been asked such a question ever. I was a turbulent child and remained a restless person. When I enter a house I go immediately to the windows. And I remember when I was about 18 and I had a Russian friend in Beirut (there were many Russian refugees from WWI and their children) and I told her that we were living always projected into the future – a future with no idea or image attached to it – and she agreed with a great melancholy about her. My encounter with poetry came about the same time and age and I thought we were born for reading poetry. Nothing else mattered, of course there were the great French poets such as Rimbaud, Verlaine, Gerard de Nerval, Baudelaire; they really never left me.

What really drives me is the history of our area, the Arab World, and the Islamic World, and mainly because the trouble in them never stops. It’s contemporary History that writes my books.

There are two other major concerns of mine. One is love, the failure in love, due to so many things, and the fact that the first person we really loved haunts forever. There is also my love for Nature, my need for it. So all this can keep me going.

RZ: In solidarity with the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), you began to resist the political implications of writing in French and became a painter. In your own words, “painting became a new language and a solution to my dilemma: I didn’t need to write in French anymore; I was going to paint in Arabic.” Then, through your participation in the poets’ movement against the Vietnam War (1959-1975), you began to write poetry in English and became, “an American poet.” What does it mean for you to be self-labeled, or thought of, as an American poet?

EA:- I lived the Algerian war of independence while living in California. I was teaching philosophy, and following the news. It seemed to me then, and I think I was right, that the loss of Algeria was going to be a defeat like the loss of Palestine. Those were the Abdel Nasser years and the dream of Arab unity was a real goal. It remains that it has been a positive model for the Third World, an incredible achievement.

I felt great being an “American poet”, I had a home.

RZ: What makes good art/good writing?

EA: What makes good writing? Many, many things… you can’t tell, in a way. It’s also related to the times we live in. But The “Iliad” is still great writing! There is something that the reader recognizes, the soundness of a rhythm, something convincing, I don’t know. But there is no proof. You do what you can… but there will always be some people that will like it and some that won’t.

RZ: The sun is a central subject in your work. Is it your biggest inspiration? What inspires you?

EA: The sun was a powerful element of my childhood in Beirut. As I was an only child, the world surrounding me was of great importance. The sun particularly, as it is very present over there, and the city had low houses, three floors at most, and I was aware of shadows too… I remember trying to look straight at the sun very often, and my eyes [would] burn and blur, and also in the summer I don’t know how my mother found one of those colonial headgear, all painted white that I saw later in pictures of mostly British people in the colonies and I was then aware that the sun was a very dangerous being and I had to deal with it. So the sun is an omnipresent being in our countries, both beneficial and dangerous. No wonder our ancient gods were led by sun-gods, the pharaohs as well as the Babylonians had as a supreme god, a solar deity.

RZ: You have a way with writing that may appear, to the naïve mind, to be dizzyingly simplistic, yet, in fact, it is superbly full and brilliantly philosophical. I’m always struck by how your lines or sections end; you simply know when to stop writing and let the image or word resonate with the reader; always at the exact right moment, with the exact right word, not a moment too soon or too late. As simple as, “In the morning they all went to the small cages they call their offices. Some of them made telephone calls.” What is your secret?

EA: We are in a period of cut and dry poetry, of minimalism; it has become natural to avoid developement in our writings. It’s both new and very ancient. Look at the Greek pre-Socratics, their thinking is expressed as geometric equations, and it makes it very poetic.

RZ: Is there a difference between poetry and philosophy?

EA: Is there a difference between poetry and philosophy? Yes and no. There used to be a difference in western philosophy. Western philosophy was involved in the search of some truth, of some system explaining reality. From the English philosophers on, the possibility of reaching absolute statements, statements about the absolute, was dimming. But it’s Nietzsche [who] demonstrated, or discovered himself that philosophical works are constructions, personal constructions that cannot pretend to be any definitive view of reality. That neared philosophy to thinking, brought it closer to intuition, to sudden “revelation”. Heidegger followed that line and ended up asserting that the greatest form of philosophy is to be found in the great poets such as, for Germans, in Hölderlin and Rilke. I very strongly believe, I find that the great Islamic Sufis are theologians/philosophers/poets, the greatest poets of that world.

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

EA: Poetry doesn’t need to be political in its subject matter. It’s not the subject matter that’s important, it’s the way you treat it. Of course if you manage to convey the importance of something that gets you, your passion for it, how existential is for example the political/historical situation of your country, or of a country that matters to you, then that text could be poetic. You speak of a rose, or of the situation of Palestine, you can write something that will be a poem. How? It’s up to you, and to the reader… But in a way, everything is political, in the sense that everything says something about you that goes beyond the subject matter, and also that whatever we do affects the world, in minute ways generally, invisible ways, but it becomes part of the becoming of everything that is. In that sense, washing your hands is also a cosmic event.

RZ: Is there room for poetry and art in a region bursting with absolute turmoil; where fundamentalism, religious figures and politicians have taken over home and street?

EA: More than ever, our Arab world in particular, needs poetry and the arts, needs every form of the affirmation of life. The forces of death are very active, due to the abysmal mediocrity of our politicians, and also due to outside interference. So all we have to counterbalance that evil is to be alive, and to sustain life. Poetry, art, is what will remain of these dark period … I am always comforted by the existence of the great deal of creativity in our countries; they are suffering, but they’re going ahead, they’re surviving, and much more… we will not go under.

RZ: You mentioned once in an interview that, “It’s possible that in the past, unconsciously, people paid less attention to women’s work. Things are changing; there are more and more women curators, and more women gallery owners. It doesn’t mean that they will automatically pay more attention to women’s work, but it’s changing. We can’t complain.” Are things changing fast enough, though, for women writers and artists?

EA: Our region is changing in good directions in spite of all our defeats and destruction. There is a civil society that’s emerging from the ashes of our patriarchal societies. It’s a good sign, even if that society is regularly repressed.

RZ: What advice would you give emerging writers and/or artists?

EA: Giving advice is usually a pompous affair. If I have to give one, it is “don’t be afraid, go ahead, pay the price it [will] entail, and you will certainly feel free, and probably creative too.

RZ: “Not seeing rivers is also another way of dying.” Do you remember where you were or what was happening around you when you wrote this magnificent line?

EA: River, oh rivers… I don’t know where and when I wrote the line you quote, but it is utterly true… without the sea, the ocean, or a river in my vicinity I am a dying plant.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

EA: Working on what these days? I am painting, mostly. For a whole year, I have a poem already written, NIGHT, following SEASONS and SEA & FOG and I don’t know why I keep it waiting… must reread it carefully and let it go…

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

EA: Literary magazines are dwindling, for money reasons… and indifference for literature – young people prefer dance, music, where physical goes, but they are indispensable… they keep the pulse of the thinking of a society… it takes courage nowadays to run a magazine or a publishing house for poetry and literature in general.

Regret and other pleasures

By jennifer jazz

Dreamer - mixed media - 152x92 cm By Nouf Semari
Dreamer – mixed media – 152×92 cm By Nouf Semari


“So you want to learn Arabic.” Muna said while we sipped from paper cups. “Well, you know, it’s a classical language,” I said putting my foot, instead of more tea, in my mouth, because it would’ve been easier to just learn some of the laid back dialect she spoke when her phone rang. I was working again. My lessons were squeezed into lunch breaks. She wanted me to begin with writing the alphabet. My hands were too unsteady. Not that the notebook and pen on the table between us mattered once we started spilling our souls. She was no spring chicken. In Cairo, she had almost gotten married.

“This is him. He was a liar.” She said showing me his photo. She rented a room in Brooklyn from an old woman from her hometown who spied on her comings and goings. She traveled to random public places across the five boroughs, meeting students who had read her tutoring ad, most of them doing a few lessons and quitting or never showing up at all. I don’t know who sighed more as we’d occupy the table for two we’d gravitate towards, at a Starbucks with the seedy lighting of a pub.

“Why don’t you dye your gray hair?” She asked as if Prince Charming were only a few rinses away. As if I would make room on my twin mattress and single pillow for anyone but a dying millionaire with my name on his will. I’d give her the face palm. She’d swat my hand and insist, then before a full hour had passed, I’d grab my tote and pass her two twenties from my purse.

“I can’t charge you to just talk. I feel bad. Next time you must learn something” she’d say.

She had been working for a translation company that offered to sponsor her, but the friend filling in for her while her immigration papers were being processed was refusing to vacate her desk she told me when she showed up in a haunted kind of mood on one particular occasion.

“Human resources won’t intervene. I’m 36. I have no career, no husband. Nothing.” She said. So I called Mohammed who used to row the meat slicer at a market near my office. During a phase when I needed a voice to occupy the excess space of a house larger than I was used to, I’d vacuum and load clothes into my dryer with his voice in the receiver pressed to my ear. Quite the storyteller, he’d reminisce about growing up in Egypt under Sadat as well as the stunning Libyan widow he had tried to win over with expensive gifts until her family suddenly decided she should marry her deceased husband’s brother instead. The stress of courtship had left him resentful, but I had recently received email pics of him and his new bride cutting their wedding cake, and as soon as I asked him for advice on Muna, he brought up his middle-aged bachelor buddy Ahmed.

“I can tell by how Ahmed looks at me,” Muna said with a dopey smile. “It’s love.” By this time she had a stable full-time job and had given a housewarming party at her new apartment in Queens where she served kunefah that Zeinab, a jaded neighbor with a rug she rolled out and performed her prayers on while the rest of us talked in another room, said was overbaked.

Muna wasn’t only larger than life physically. Her exotic green eyes and glittery pinky ring hypnotized everyone around her into feeling better. Unfortunately, she couldn’t entirely cheer up Ahmed. He had overstayed a visa decades ago. Couldn’t fly to Egypt to meet her family because he would never get back into the United States if he left. The “M” word gave him cold feet. Her ultimatums triggered a series of suspenseful breakups. I was at her kitchen table, she was buzzing in another friend when a panic came over her as she told me her relationship with Ahmed was between us and asked me not to mention him.

I didn’t have fast enough reflexes to keep up with their action packed romance. I was selling electronic resources to librarians for a company where I had to close sales to make a living wage. Had to keep dialing and emailing or get on planes and fly to the states where buyers were based because sometimes this was really the best way to get them to write checks. There was also my mother’s older sister, Aunt M. 77 years old, recently wheelchair bound but all by herself. Life’s unpredictability would have had a field day with her if I didn’t cook, deliver and serve her meals. I would have found little relief in anything but sitting next to my son bathed in the rainbow of our TV if Muna’s number didn’t regularly light up my phone.

“You need help. Where does your aunt live? I can bring her food and clean for her sometimes inshallah.” She’d offer, though I knew she didn’t mean it.

“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the lord my soul to keep and if I die before I wake…” I’d say at bedtime when I was a kid. I was supposed to just ask God to bless my parents, siblings and relatives but would include stray animals, victims of crimes I’d seen on the news, etcetera because I was the same way.

It started with a call to prayer that bent skyward like the most unusual flower prying itself loose from vines. Being African-American and raised Catholic had always been awkward. But it was at a point where everything old echoed. I didn’t need the Goth architecture, handbags and matching shoes. Just a quiet frame I could share with others who believed in doing things the way you’re supposed to that I found in the storefronts and renovated office spaces of New York where Muslims pray. I was given a heavy gold embossed Quran in one. In another, a Senegalese woman with tribally stained toe nails showed me how to ritually cleanse, as I ran wet fingers over my face, an innocent portrait of me in my first communion veil appearing in the sink water that gathered.

But years had passed since then and I was a fledgling convert only occasionally fasting the Ramadan Muna called out of the blue. We made plans to meet at a masjid over a Turkish restaurant in Midtown East. She was a heaving mass of warmth and good memories. It was right after work. We lined up with other women with our palms lifted in midair, then crossed them against our chests. We leaned forward with our hands on our knees like runners catching their breath. I was seated on the floor mat, staring just past my lap — we were done when, “Nothing has changed.” Muna began as if she couldn’t keep it inside another second. “He won’t pick up the phone and speak to my parents. It’s time to follow through. He earns very little. I would have to pay for almost everything if we got married, but…” She paused and for that moment, her eyes lost their usual glow.

My son’s father had been a musician who had studied painting, had the vocabulary of an art critic and expected me to afford him all the comforts of a wife without any strings attached. Shoveling snow, hauling heavy bags of groceries and clothes back and forth from the laundromat all by myself, my fundamentalist interpretation of feminism prevented me from realizing I was single. Born in 1960, I had come of age during the most liberal era in America. Casual arrangements with men were normal for women of my generation. I would have been acting if I had pretended to find Muna’s relationship with Ahmed unheard of. She was thinking out loud. I was eavesdropping when the curtain that separated the men’s and women’s sections parted, and the imam entered with milk and a tray of food. A woman in a kaftan embroidered with a scribbly pattern helped herself first. Then, the imam left, and a tide of heavy voices briefly washed across the smooth gray matting where we began eating our first meal since dawn. Tearing a fig from my teeth, I recalled being lost in a mosque on 116th Street and mistakenly crossing the men’s section without any of them even noticing I was there.

“How is Ousmane?” Muna asked.

“It doesn’t matter.” I said, stunned to hear his name. He was a man I never got to know, had only brought up once.

“Why not? Why not?” she teased pounding her fist on my leg.

“I need to feel like I’m taking a risk when I fall in love.” I said. “He’s too safe.” She gave me the same clueless stare I probably gave her when she talked about Ahmed. A woman in a veil so long it hid her feet, sat between us. The three of us forming a semi-circle. It was late and I had a commute ahead of me. My bag was a history lesson. Plunging my hand in to make room for some dates wrapped in a napkin that I planned to eat during my bus ride home, I touched a vial of blood pressure pills, faded supermarket receipts, loose cough drops, even the spiral notebook I had used before I realized that all I wanted was another woman to share a heart to heart with from time to time, not Arabic lessons.


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, 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.”

Fear: a sequence

By Olivia Ayes

  1. huru    حر free

Wet blossoms litter the sidewalk. Birds are pecking

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

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

This morning, I awoke from a dream about walking,

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

a window from which I could see but not touch.

Last night you cried on the train, about loss,

about potential for more loss, about how you spent

the day crying and sleeping. Even painful stories

are beautiful—a purple Harlem sunset.


  1. Ijumaa    الجمعة Friday

We take the dusty side streets to Giza Necropolis—

during Ramadan, the guard we bribed turned his head

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

Prayers reverberated along the angled slopes, the stone blocks.

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

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

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

against this—the risen bread and dough dipped in honey

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

empires taken and re-taken.


iii. tafadhali    تفضل    please

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

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

The following week, three matrons in black abāyah and niqāb

floated through the school’s gravel driveway—she must

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

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

You will be ready.


  1. hatari    خطر danger

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

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

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

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

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

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

in bloom—reprehensible, the only purpose to withstand.


  1. mahali    محل place

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

Filipino movies opened his world—“How can this place

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

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

all the forgotten, the mothers unbroken, unwilling to give

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

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

music and laughter out of her mouth—revising the melancholy

into song, you can almost believe forgiveness.


  1. asubuhi    صبح morning

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

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

punching the trees, the rain pummeling horizontally across

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

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

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

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

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

that we do not belong to ourselves—


vii. furahi    فرح    happy

Freedom is not the same as escape—I already knew

that night—her mouth on mine—you, somewhere

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

a mountain whose mist still welcomed sunshine. Far—

and soon an ocean, a desert between us. Remember

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

build your walls? Is it safe there?


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

Intifada Love Story: 1988

By Susan Muaddi Darraj

When they came, they stayed on the rooftop for seven days. Nobody knew it would be that long, not at first. They came because of the demonstration in Ramallah, said Jamil’s father. He’d been the one to see them from the salon window, as they’d trudged up the walkway, their backs loaded with olive green duffel bags, their shoulders embraced by the leather straps of dusty AK47s. Four shebab killed in that protest, including one of the boys from Jamil’s history lecture class, and twenty arrested, they’d heard. All the villages were on lockdown.

The thumping of boots on the house’s flat cement roof could be heard most clearly in the kitchen, despite the insistent humming of the old refrigerator and the loud coughing of the pipes. On the first day they were there, the heavy thuds shook loose bits of plaster from around the light fixture to the floor, like a light coat of snow that Jamil’s mother sent him to sweep. Four, Jamil thought. There must be four of them up there. He counted their distinct footsteps and patterns of shuffling – one guy had a light, quick gait, while the another plodded like a giant with thick, flat feet – as he lazily swept the powdery plaster into a pile, then pushed the small hill into a dustpan. Since his last sister had gotten married, household chores had come down on his head. The usual bad luck of being the youngest, the last egg to be plucked from the coop.

He put the broom and the dustpan back in the pantry, then turned on the sink faucet to rinse his hands. The pipes groaned, then backfired sharply, and he smiled to realize that the footsteps above his head froze. He dropped the grin when his parents rushed into the kitchen.

“It’s just the pipes,” he calmed them. They knew that, of course; the pipes always made that horrible cracking. His father exhaled and sat down at the table.

“Go talk to them,” Jamil’s mother urged her husband, her hands picking on a hair of scratched wood on the table’s surface. With her thumbnail, she pushed the line out at the sides, until it tore a sliver of wood of and chipped a crescent out of her polished, pink nail.

“And say what?” Her husband seemed annoyed, like someone who thought himself clever but was easily beaten at a game of cards or tawla.

“I’ll go,” Jamil offered.

“No! God forbid,” his father replied, standing reluctantly, petulant at being pushed to the task. “This is my house.”

Up he went, trudging up the cement steps off the balcony to the flat roof, calling, “Salaam, salaam! Shalom, shalom!” as he neared the top. Jamil and his mother sat down at the table to wait, interpreting the noises – the stomps, the scrapes – above their heads. No shots fired, no yelling. That was good, at least.

When his father returned, Jamil could see the anger in his face, and the sweat that made his hairline slick. He sat down and croaked, “Water,” to his wife.

After he gulped down the small glass she filled for him, he told them, “Four or five days. They said it shouldn’t be longer.”

“Why our house?”

“It’s the biggest on this side of the hill. They can see everything from up there.”

Only later did he mention the rest of it. He admitted it nervously, like a confession wrenched from his guilty conscience by a priest. “They want us to stay inside.”

“We have to?” asked his wife sharply.

“And if we leave?” Jamil muttered. “What? Will they shoot us?”

His father slammed his hand down on the rickety table, catapulting the glass to the floor, where it shattered like a spray of ice pellets. His mother rolled her eyes at Jamil – that was the first glass from a new set, sent by her sister in Michigan, to break. “They shot four boys in Ramallah!” his father shouted.

After his father trudged out of the room, Jamil started to sweep up the glass shards from the floor, but his mother took the broom from him. “My turn,” she said. “And keep your mouth sealed. Let this glass be the only casualty this week.”

They played backgammon for the first night, sitting on the grape-colored, velvet-upholstered sofas in the formal salon, where they never sat casually. Tonight, though, his mother seemed not to care when Jamil’s father took out the J&B bottle, set a glass on the coffee table, settled on the largest sofa and opened the game board. Poor game board, Jamil thought, almost hysterically. Before tonight, its function had been to serve as a decoration in the room, its inlaid dark wood, in a geometric pattern, accenting the stuffy furniture. It had been set casually, like a movie prop, on the side table, to make it look like they played every day, to add to the aura of their perfect family: Father, a retired schoolteacher; Mother, a beauty in her day; and Son, a top student and soccer player – Tel al-Hilou’s model unit.

The phone buzzed steadily that first night. Their friends and neighbors, the Ghanems, called first. “I can see them from my bedroom window,” Mr. Ghanem reported. “Little kids with guns. These Israelis – what? Are they sending children to monitor us?” The old woman, Miss Salma, on the other side, could see them from her bathroom window: “Six rifles, but only four soldiers. They have a little stove, and they’re taking water from your roof tank with a metal pitcher.” She asked if she could bring them any food, but Jamil’s mother said no. It was better to wait and not cause problems. “They’re probably nervous, and a nervous boy with a gun is no good thing.”

“They don’t look nervous to me,” Miss Salma replied before she hung up. “But let me know if you need anything. I’m not afraid.”


For most of the morning of the second day, Jamil’s father fretted that Miss Salma was implying that he was. “I carried her brother’s body on my back when we buried him,” he said angrily to nobody in particular. “She had better not be calling me a coward.” Jamil’s father lived his life worried about gossip, and as much as he claimed to despise old women with free time, he also feared their storytelling.

His wife soothed him, saying she’d only meant that they wouldn’t bother an old woman. He reminded her of the girls who had been arrested in the demonstration three months ago, and the one who’d been released – pregnant – to her parents. “It’s like the French in Algeria,” he muttered. In his bedroom, Jamil listened, and while his annoyance with his father was blossoming, he was nevertheless sinking in the quicksand of his own worries. Being trapped in the house was upsetting his parents, who had to survive each other as well as the soldiers, but it threatened to suffocate a seventeen-year-old man.

The bedroom, large and square and white, had only become his when his last sister had gotten married. Years ago, he’d shared it with her and two other sisters: four children, crowded in one room, sharing the bathroom with their parents. When the house had been built eighty years ago, his father once told him, it didn’t even have a bathroom. The third bedroom had become the bathroom when Jamil’s parents had married. His mother – whose family had been the first to hold a wedding in the new hotel in Ramallah instead of in the church hall, like everyone else – had insisted. That left them with only two bedrooms, because she needed to keep a salon as well, to receive visitors properly.

Now it suddenly felt like the room, the whole house, didn’t belong to him anymore, like the soldiers on the rooftop could come in and take this too. As he lay on his bed, listening to his parents’ nervous chatter in the salon and the faint scrapes on the roof above his head, Jamil imagined that the soldiers would never leave. What if they stayed up there, nested, made the rooftop and the house their base, and Jamil stayed locked in this house forever? He’d never finish high school, never get married, never have children.

His thoughts spiraled like a hawk, seeking prey, until they centered and swooped down, as they inevitably did, on Muna, the Ghanems’ daughter. She would be home from school in a few hours and he could see into her living room from his bedroom window. He hoped she would signal him, even call, perhaps, pretend she wanted to give him the homework assignments he’d missed the day before, just so he could hear her voice. And if he could glimpse her sheet of black hair, her eyes from the window, it would end this terrible day happily.

In the other room, his parents had started up another game of backgammon. Jamil napped, not knowing what else to do until dinner, but his thoughts were filled with Muna: Muna next to him in algebra class, Muna secretly holding his hand under their white robes during their confirmation ceremony, Muna being attacked in a jail cell by a soldier wearing thick black boots, Muna collapsing in his arms after he’d broken in, kung-fu style, to rescue her. He awoke in a sweat, noticing that it was four o’clock, hurried to the window. But all the drapes in the Ghanem’s house were drawn. Of course they were. Jamil didn’t blame her father. They had three daughters too, just like his parents, but he felt like a castaway nonetheless. There would be no communication today.

Dinner that night was meatless, since his mother hadn’t been able to go to the butcher. Lentils and rice, a tomato-less salad since they couldn’t even go out to their own garden. “The last of my cucumbers,” his mother murmured like a mourner as they ate. “I suppose we can’t even go to the shed to get some pickled jars from our shelves?” His father didn’t reply, and she didn’t raise the subject again. They ate as usual, in the formal style she always insisted upon – quiet, cloth napkin in the lap, salad first. She baked a tray of haresia, since all she needed was the sugar and the tahine and the wheat, and they ate it as their dessert.

In the middle of the night, in his bedroom, he heard laughter above his head, two loud stomps, and a man’s explosive guffaw. He tried to fall back asleep, imagining his head so heavy that it sank into the thick pillow, but there was a pull, a tension in his neck that wouldn’t relax. He gave up, instead switching on his lamp and pulling Muna’s letters from his bedside drawer, where he kept them hidden under his old comic books. Every note she’d ever scribbled to him as they stood in line, had her younger sister discreetly palm to him – hastily written notes on napkins, plain notebook paper, on the pale blue sheets she’d used for half a year in tenth grade, all there in a bundle, organized from first to last from sixth grade, when their eyes first connected during Sunday mass, to two weeks ago, when she’d passed him a textbook in the library with a note tucked behind the table of contents. “All my love – mim.” Always signed with her initial, a simple circle – ﻢ – but the tail curliqued with a flourish, so secretly and lovingly. Whenever he saw a mim, in anything – a store sign, in the newspaper, in Mubarak’s and Shamir’s names, even – her face appeared, making the ugliness of it all more palatable. But her last letters were so insistent, and he hadn’t answered them. Girls, he’d thought. Always needing confirmation, something official, some way to prove how he felt. Why? Why couldn’t she accept the bare facts – she liked him, he liked her. Official things were in the distant future. He drifted off to sleep, wondering why Palestinians girls needed every little emotion clarified, every feeling uprooted.

He woke up in the morning, on the third day, startled, the letters under his chin, to the sound of yelling from the roof. An Israeli accent, speaking Arabic – “Shai. Bring shai. Four cups. Now.” The voice was so close, and then he realized it was in the house.

His mother scuttled by in the hallway, glancing in anxiously as she passed. He shoved the letters back in the drawer and hurried out, pulling his robe over his shoulders and licking the sleep off his teeth. His mother had put her small teapot on the stove and was digging in her canister for peppermint. His father walked in off the balcony, cursing.

“Sons of dogs, may their mothers burn at their fathers’ funerals – coming into my house! May the blackest plague swirl around them and kill them!” he fumed, his chest heaving even as he pulled four teacups from the pantry. “I should put some rat droppings in their shai, those bastards. Too bad you are too perfect of a homekeeper,” he muttered, consoling his wife, and even Jamal could see his father had now exploded sufficiently, released his anger, and could focus on calming his wife’s anxieties. That’s how it was in their home: the privilege of emotional outbursts always were awarded to his father before the others could share it.

“The roof is one thing, but to come into the house!” his mother said shakily, steeping the tea leaves in the pot, pushing them down with a fork she pulled from the sink. It seemed to Jamil, standing in the doorway, leaning on the wall, that the water boiled languidly, slowly, and their nerves bounced like the leaves in the simmering pot. “They just walked in like they own it!”

“Sons of dogs,” his father muttered again, pulling a tray from the rack. “Are we servants now, as well as prisoners?”

It was left to Jamal to carry the tray up to the roof. His mother had started to do it, only to be yelled at by her husband. “My wife is not a waitress for the Israeli army!”, but she wouldn’t let him ascend either, because his temper would get them all killed. “Send Jamil,” she finally said. And so up the cement steps he went.

He reached up above his head and knocked on the roof door, calling “Shalom!” as his father had instructed, listened for the mispronounced “Idfa’!” and walked through, pushing upwards, finally planting his feet on the cement roof and raising his eyes, to see a rifle pointed at his heart.

“You brought four cups?” asked a voice to the side, not owned by the curly-haired, rough-shaven teenager holding the rifle. The tray trembled in his hand and Jamil had the sense to steady it with the other.

“Yes,” he answered the Voice, his eyes focusing for some reason on the fingernails of the soldier – lines of black tucked deep in the nailbed, the knuckles below caked and peeling as the fingertips playfully drummed the trigger.

“Put it down,” instructed the Voice calmly. “Right at your feet.”

He did, and looked to the right. The Voice’s owner was younger than he thought, perhaps Jamil’s own age, his face and neck browned by the sun. Eyebrows like even rectangles, separated by a slit of brown skin. A chipped front tooth.

“Get the fuck out of here. And tell your mother to make us sandwiches for lunch.”

Jamil left, the gun still pointed at him, although he understood now that the initial splash of fear had dried off his body – they would laugh to themselves later, over and over, about his expression, imitate his reactions to pass the time.

His father roared, and his mother groaned, even as she began to pull the bread from the cabinet. When Jamil took it up to them, there was no gun now, only four pairs of eyes, four foreheads greasy and sweaty from the hot sun, four pairs of parched lips. They made Jamil nreak the corner off one sandwich and eat it, then the Voice took the small tray from him and they began devouring, not caring whether he’d descended or not, as they sat around the water tank.

Jamil stood awkwardly, feeling oddly like an intruder on their meal, despite the fact that they were gnawing on their hummus and pickle sandwiches while perching on his father’s – his grandfather’s – rooftop. He looked over the ledge, down into the courtyard, where the gate of the old chicken coop, long unused, swung lazily, unattached to the wall. Further up, he saw the metal doors of the old well, which they hardly used anymore.

The Voice licked his fingertips and picked up the fallen crumbs like a magnet attracting metal shavings, while the Gun paused, thumped his chest with a closed fist and burped. Jamil saw their guns leaning casually against the water tank, the large cylinder he’d helped his father install a few years ago. It caught the rainwater and stored it, a reserve right there on the roof, a modern development his father loved and was proud of, no longer depending on his well as many of their neighbors continued to do.

Across the street, in the window, a movement – small, quick – attracted his attention. A curtain pulled back at the Ghanem’s house, then dropped hastily. He waited, wondering if Muna had seen him, but the curtain stayed in its place. He looked back at the four soldiers only to find the Voice staring at him.

The Voice handed him the tray, cracking, “You have pretty neighbors,” in his rough Arabic. Jamil grabbed it as the others chuckled. He hurried down the steps, spent the rest of the day quietly reading and re-reading the three-day old newspaper, filled with turmoil that was meaningless in light of this moment. Riots in Jenin. A suicide in Lebanon, a girl jumped off her balcony. King Hussein is feeling better, the Queen says in an interview with the New York paper.

That night he dreamed of himself in black ninja pants, his hands slicing through the air, breaking noses and cracking collar bones, defending his love. He woke up, sweating hard, his hands searching for the comfort of the bundle of Muna’s letters.


On the fourth day, Jamil worried that he might scream at his mother, who was obsessively fretting over her inability to hang the laundry on the lines. Or at his father for his bluster, promising between TV viewing and snacking to slaughter the army with his bare hands. Jamil opted to be even more alone than he was: he spent most of the morning watching a crackly video tape of a king-fu movie. It was in Chinese, as far as he knew, dubbed into Russian, or Polish, or something, but he didn’t care. He could still follow the slow, angry glares, the face-offs, the jumps, kicks, and flip – the anger and its release. He knew every move by heart, had his favorite moments of the carefully choreographed fight scenes. But even that grew wearying, so he went into his room and spent the afternoon looking through his books. What were his classmates doing now? He lay on the floor in front of the low bookshelf. His sisters’ old textbooks filled half of it, and all the family’s other books – some inherited, some borrowed, the old Bible, some funeral memorial booklets of old people he didn’t know, a couple of photograph albums – sat dutifully, side by side, like victims condemned and waiting at the gallows. He pulled a battered, creased literature textbook, his eldest sister’s name scribbled in the front cover. Literature of the Globe. He opened it to the contents: “The Ancient World,” “The European Middle Ages,” “The Islamic Golden Era.” He turned to this section: he read Moses Maiomenedes, scanning the biography: a Jew. Nobody had ever told him that. Back to the contents: “India and the Subcontinent.” Tagore: he flipped to this section, and read “The Punishment,” about a wronged girl who stubbornly accepts her unjust sentence without a fight. Picked up the old newspaper again: some stories he missed… food riot in Thailand. George Bush elects his new cabinet. The girl in Lebanon again. Enough victimization. He felt confused, his world was not right. He skipped dinner and went to bed early.


On the fourth day, they ran out of bread. Jamil told the Voice, whose beard and mustache were thickening, that they were out of almost everything else too: milk, butter, eggs, vegetables.

“Tell one of your pretty neighbors to bring it,” he replied gruffly. “And we need more tea.”

“How long will you be staying?” Jamil asked boldly, but his only reply was a glare. Irritated by the casual reference to the Ghanems, Jamil repeated the question, regretting it instantly, feeling in that second that he had betrayed his father, his mother, his priest, Muna, including his own intelligence. The Voice rushed to his gun, reaching the tank in three strides, spun and pointed it at Jamil in one fluid motion, while one of his comrades watched casually. While the gun centered on him, Jamil still saw irrationally another soldier to the left, behind the Voice picking his teeth with his fingernail.

“What did you ask me, you filthy dog?”

Jamil felt surprised by how smoothly the Voice cursed in Arabic. How did he learn it? This question circulated persistently in his head as he stared, for the second time in his seventeen years, at a gun aimed at his heart.

“What did you ask me?” the Voice was shouting now, and when Jamil still did not reply – did he learn it in the prisons? – the Voice lifted the gun skyward, perpendicular to the flat roof, and with a casual contraction of his index finger, punctured the cloudless blue sky with a single bullet. He just deflowered the sky, Jamil thought, and wanted to burst out laughing at his own insanity.

A small silence, and then Jamil sensed several things at once – a curtain pulled back, two sets of panicked footsteps below, his own heart pausing in its beats, a desert in his throat.

He moved to the steps to block his parents, to show them he was fine. His mother dragged him down by the hems of his pantlegs, then by the shirtsleeves, to the kitchen, ran back and locked the balcony door, and, despite his protests, searched every inch of his face, arms, and chest. “Are you sure? Are you hurt?” she muttered over and over, not listening for his responses and reassurances.

The phone rang and his father, his face gray, his tongue quieted for once, answered softly. “We are fine, thank God,” he said robotically into the phone and hung up, but it rang again almost immediately. Six more phone calls followed.

That evening, Jamil sat on the couch, reading the newspaper yet again. The story of the girl in Lebanon startled him out of his reverie, as if he hadn’t already scanned it ten times. Suspected rape, an uncle, fourteen floors, cement courtyard. The church wouldn’t bury her because it was a suicide. Sadness flooded over his body again, and he stood abruptly, asked his father to play tawla out of sheer desperation to fill his mind.

After playing several rounds to soothe his father ad himself and after eating every seed, nut and pastry his mother placed before him, after they’d all gone to bed, to empty his own heart, Jamil wrote a long letter to Muna.


The next morning, the fifth day, shortly after dawn, old Miss Salma hobbled over to their front door. Jamil’s mother opened the door quickly and let her in. She carried two plastic sacks of her homemade bread, a jug of milk, and a block of cheese wrapped in cloth.

“God bless your hands, Miss Salma, and may God bless our lives with your presence for many more years,” Jamil’s mother said, accepting the sacks without the usual feigned reluctance and disappearing into her kitchen.

“Come here, Jamil,” Miss Salma said, sitting down heavily on the velvet sofa, her thick ankles ballooning out under the hem of her blue dress. Her diabetes was worsening, he could tell. Her legs were like heavy slabs of meat, pushed into her shoes so tightly that the front bulged out against the leather tongue. Her mottled blue calves and shins looked like a world map. “Are you alright, young man?”

“I’m fine. They didn’t touch me,” he replied, putting a small side table next to her as his mother called from the kitchen that she was boiling tea. He walked to the kitchen and took from his mother a small dish of watermelon seeds and a glass of ice water.

“Those bastards stared at me as soon as I came out of my front door,” she said, cracking the seeds expertly between her teeth and spitting out the shells into her palm. Jamil grabbed an ashtray and put it before her politely. “They leaned over the roof and watched me all the way until I got here and knocked on your door.”

“Sons of dogs,” Jamil’s father grumbled from where he sat on the other sofa, his arms folded across his chest. “That other boy in Ramallah died yesterday. They couldn’t find a kidney.”

“They had one, but they couldn’t get it in. And a new checkpoint around Ramallah, did you hear?” Miss Salma asked.

Jamil’s father shrugged. “All I hear, my dear lady, is this news from you and sometimes whatever I can get on the radio. Our newspaper is a week old. The only thing playing on the TV are soap operas. We could have a full-out war, but Abu Ammar would find it only suitable to play Egyptian soap operas for us!”

“Sugar in your tea?” asked Jamil’s mother, and Jamil wondered, ludicrous as it were, whether his polished mother would always fret over etiquette and appearances even in the midst of an apocalypse. While the world burned around them, she might spend precious minutes wiping down the silverware or folding napkins. Yet, while it irritated him, this image also soothed him; there would always be order, as long as his mother was around. Women, he felt, brought stability, like Miss Salma who’d arrived and solved their problems with her bags of bread and cheese, like Madame Amira, the former nun who lived on the other end of the village, who threw herself on top of boys so the army didn’t drag them away.

“Two spoons,” Miss Salma said. “You know, they’re closing the schools, no?”

“What?” Jamil asked, panicked into joining the adults’ conversation.

“Oh yes, all the schools in Ramallah will shut down, starting tomorrow. Seven o’clock curfew.”

“But not here in our village,” Jamil clarified.

“Well, be prepared,” she said, leaning forward conspiratorially. “Yesterday the principal of the middle school called and asked if they could use my cellar as a classroom if they need to. All the villages are making back-up plans.”

During the rest of her visit, Jamil barely spoke, feeling fretful and anxious. As she prepared herself to leave, he suddenly decided on a course of action. He rushed to his room, grabbed the letter, and then returned, insisting on helping the widow at the door. Sure his parents were not listening, he pushed the letter into her bag, asking her quietly to give this to Muna, Mr. Ghanem’s oldest daughter. Not Huda or Lena, but Muna.

“Miss Salma…” he stammered.

She smiled and whispered, “Trust me, young man. Nobody keeps secrets better than me.” And with a wink she was gone.


Jamil sat in his bedroom window that evening, having just delivered bread and cheese to the roof. His parents watched the new Egyptian soap opera on the television, but he knew they weren’t paying attention. His mother was knitting a sweater for him that he didn’t need and his father leafed through one of Jamil’s calculus textbooks, for lack of anything better. “If they need schoolteachers,” he’d told Miss Salma, “I’ll come out of retirement. They will need math teachers.”

He thought back to Muna’s last letter, which he’d memorized by heart – it seemed like she’d written it and slipped it into his satchel years ago and not just two weeks – and her insistence that something be made clear between them. She wanted an answer. Why had he interpreted it so badly? She was right – there was no time to be lost anymore.

It was nine o’clock, and he peered out the window. Across the alley, the curtain moved aside, although the room inside remained dark, as he’d instructed in his letter. A pause, then the curtain fell twice, and was still.


“God bless you, Miss Salma!” he said to himself.


The soldiers left on Saturday night, the seventh day, while they were sleeping, slipping away in the dark, leaving crumpled napkins and dirty tea cups next to the water tank. Sunday morning, they woke up and realized they could attend Mass. He would see Muna, make plans. They could do a long engagement, marry when they’d finished college, lock it in now, rather than search for a bride later. Or maybe they’d just marry this summer, and attend classes together. Why waste time? There was no time anymore, and nothing was certain.

Jamil hurried into the bathroom to shave, scrubbing his face with a soapy rag. The water pipes creaked as the water flowed, and Jamil looked more closely at the water as it pooled in the white basin. A horrible thought came into his head at the same time that he heard his father cursing from the kitchen and footsteps stomping up to the roof.

His mother rushed into the bathroom, shrieking, “Don’t use the water, Jamil! I think they –“

“I know. I thought as much.” Jamil swabbed his face with rubbing alcohol, ignoring the sting and his watering eyes, then climbed up to the roof and stood over the water tank, staring down into it with his father. An empty bucket, which Jamil had never noticed before on the roof, lay on its side next to the tank. “They were using it,” his father kicked the bucket, “as their bathroom, and then dumped it into our tank before they left.”

Jamil stared down at the waste floating in their modern water tank, and suppressed the nausea creeping acidly up into his chest.

“Goddamn animals,” he screamed. There, the anger did it. The anger quenched the nausea. His father was right to always vent.

He knew what to do. This week had made him into a man, with a man’s problems and solutions. He walked down to the cellar and fetched a metal tin and a long rope, then strode down the courtyard steps to the well. He hadn’t visited it in a long time, but he knew his father always opened it before a big rain. He pulled back the old, metal door, and he let the rope slide down its stone-blocked sides, the tin clanging, echoing, as it clunked down. The well was deep, deep, deep in the earth, and not as vulnerable as an open tank on the roof. The well was old, but could not be contaminated.

As he carried the bucket of icy, clear water to the house, he calculated how much it would cost to empty the roof tank, to sanitize it, and then how long it would take for the rains to refill it. He’d look for a job soon, start earning some money. Before he stepped through the doorway of the house, he glanced over at the Ghanem’s window. He would see her today, no matter what, in church, would see, maybe touch, the black ribbon of her hair.