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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sukoon interviews Arab-American poet and scholar Mohja Kahf

Immigration, Feminism, Revolution

“What is language for if it cannot function for us when we desperately need it?” – Mohja Kahf

Rewa Zeinati: Mohja Kahf, you are a professor of comparative literature and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arkansas. In addition to Hagar Poems, published last year by the University of Arkansas Press, you are the author of E-mails from Scheherazad, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, and Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque. You were born in Damascus, Syria, to parents who immigrated to the United States in 1971 when you were almost four years old, and you spent your childhood in the Midwest. Where is home to you? And does one ever stop asking this question?

Mohja Kahf: Never. I’ve moved I count seven major times in my life, one of them a life-changing immigration about which I was too young to have an opinion. Finally I thought I had settled where I am now. I’ve been here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. But when the Syrian Revolution started, for a minute I thought I would have a chance to reverse that immigration, to go “home again,” and I knew I was ready to take that chance. To leave everything again. But of course there is no “home again—” and for Syrians, that is now true in a particularly painful way. But the Syria-hope the Syria-chance shook me up from my illusory settledness and now I know I also am not home yet. I need still to find what I want and seek it and make it home as best I can.

RZ: Your poems explore themes of Arab identity, Muslim identity, and feminist politics. How important is religion to one’s sense of identity?

MK: Well, it varies depending on the person, of course. How important is it to mine has evolved over time. For the last sixteen years in the U.S., however, I’ve found that even though I’ve been ready to talk from another speaking position, something besides religious affiliation, the world keeps wanting to hear me speak as a “Muslim feminist” or “Muslim American.” There is work needing to be done there and I happen to be equipped with the tools for it and so I keep getting pulled back to shoulder some of that work, although I have other work going on to which I also devote energy and wish to see realized. So for example, will I ever be able to publish just a manuscript of love poems? Without bagging it as “Muslim woman love poems?” Hey, I have the manuscript—somebody find me a publisher please.

RZ: The poems you are sharing with us in the current edition of Sukoon are stylistically quite different from your previous poems. What compelled the change?

MK: Two things. I went to a poetry reading where a poet had “list poems,” and the experience sort of challenged me to write list poems. And secondly, Syria and silence. Meaning, I was at the end of my ability to speak about Syria. An impasse. No sentences were getting through. I was at the end of my belief in the efficacy of language, almost. I felt the end in sight of the vocation of writing, almost. What is language for if it cannot function for us when we desperately need it? need all three components: text, sender, recipient – need someone at the other end to hear what someone sends out into the world, to hear responsively. In Syria, by the regime for decades, language and narrative and expressive function has been so utterly abused and distorted. And then, regarding Syria in the world, the expressive function of language and writing, also so abused and distorted. So this “list poem encounter” seemed to come just then as a possible path out of my impasse. Cut through all that. Forget syntax. Forget grammar which has been manipulated to obscure truths. Let go and sink down to the level of words. Broken words. One word at a time, one phrase at most, like what would be the only units one could manage to get out if one were being strangled or bled out and lay gasping. Just one word, then another. Get it out. Articulate through inarticulateness. If you can do nothing else. Those are gasp poems. Gasp. Syria. Blood. Betrayal. Gasp. I’m too broken to do more than a one-word line. Take it. Gasp. Make sense of it. Carry it on to the next. Gasp. Run. Gasp.

RZ: Your latest book, Hagar Poems , is a collection written over the course of 20 years. Many of the pieces were written in the ‘90s, but some were written not too long before the date of publication. Tell us about your experience writing this book, and why it took so long to complete. When is a manuscript ever complete?

MK: You’re kind and attentive to have read it and paid attention to such detail as the dates. It’s not complete; it’s never complete. For starters, there are specifically two more good Hajar poems I wish I had not culled out of it. I had forgotten those two set aside and wish I’d put them back in time. There was a third put-aside poem that I managed to get back into the manuscript before publication. Then there are other poems I had pulled out that maybe were not as strong. I pruned and culled for years, decades, because I wanted it to get published; earlier versions of the manuscript were rejected for publication over the years. All the while, up to a certain point in time, I was also adding more Hajar poems (and then pruning and culling from those too).

I first encountered Hajar when my first baby got sick and had a febrile seizure—first time I had seen one, terrifying. Here’s this baby, this life, and you are responsible for keeping it alive, and it’s 3am and where did everyone go? I felt abandoned, tricked, like, this is the fine print of the family program that you signed, get married have a baby, but nobody mentioned you how poor you’re going to be and how alone even if married, with the nature of patriarchy and with immigration and today’s mobility and the global economic system and the lack of universal healthcare all stripping you of those people who might have been around to help in another kind of world. When I woke up from that, I thought, damn, we have glossed over Hajar’s story. There is no way it is as sugar-coated as we learn it in the tradition. We had to silence a whole lot of it to just fast-forward from her in the desert alone with her child and desperate to, bingo, whatever platitudes the traditional view gets out of it wrapped up in a bow. Let me unwrap this bow. I want to cut it to shreds. The bits of text about Hajar in the various scriptures are elliptical and cryptic enough to allow for imaginative spaces; you can cut in and interpolate in ways the traditional readings of the texts do not.

And once you start with Hajar, the same project is waiting to be done with so many other figures. Some other figures pulled me over the years and I spent some time on Maryam, on Asiya, on Balqis. But hey everyone, be my guest, there is an endless amount of reconfiguring that could happen with Hajar and her sisters, and with countless other matter of old, if it happens to grab you anew.

And as for the appropriateness of doing that (I guess it’s to the conservative readership I say this bit), well, if it is not there in order to grab us anew, what is it there for?

RZ: Tell us about your experience writing the sex column Ask Mohja, for the website Muslim Wake up! How did the idea come about?

MK: Well, those were a heady few minutes, hah. The column wasn’t called “Ask Mohja;” it was actually called “Sex and the Ummah,” and I was one of two columnists who were supposed to alternate, but it ended up being mostly me, and then some guest columnists I pulled in to try to still have alternating voices. I am delighted to say that it was the place where one of Randa Jarrar’s fabulous short stories was first published, as a guest column. It somehow got tagged in people’s minds as a “sex advice column,” but it was never that – it was a sexually themed fiction column, is all, mostly fiction pieces, although one time I did pull in a “sex advice” guest column by a gynecologist, a Palestinian American feminist. I had sent in “Little Mosque Poems” to the MuslimWakeUp!.com website editors to start with, in a spirit of feminist Muslim self-critique. An then they and I started conversing, and one of our conversations was about how there’s this Muslim belief that Islam is a sex-positive religion, and then there’s this modern stereotype of Islam as sexually repressive, and the truths are so much richer and more varying than those two positions, so what about exploring the gap between these ideas by delving into sexual experiences from a “Muslim angle” whatever that may mean.

Then there was Abu Ghraib, the exposure of sexual abuse there by U.S. soldiers, and that deflated my joy in doing the column.

What deflated it also was my sense that white readerships wanted to exploit the idea for the wrong reasons, Orientalist reasons. I started getting offers from agents who were interested for all the wrong, imperialist cultural politics, reasons. Well, I had received a death threat from an Islamic extremist reader, and so of course that attracted all the would-be makers of a new neo-con Muslim woman voice or something. And that was not a direction I wanted to go, ever. Man, I coulda been a star if I’d gone that direction, I coulda been rich! Haha.

The whole endeavor of the website was one of progressive Muslims self-critique and of Muslims critiquing conservative Muslim discourse, and that is a project I support. But a few of the writers started going in the direction where “progressive” meant “be a tool of imperialist cultural politics,” not progressive at all, not in solidarity with the struggles of oppressed people intersectionally. Just a tiny number, but they got a lot of press. It dampened my enthusiasm for being there with them under that “progressive” label.

RZ: What advice would you give emerging writers? Especially women writers of color?

MK: Give yourself time to take care of your Self. Give your Self space for creativity. Don’t fill your life with people who won’t nourish you. Remove soul-crushers from your daily life. Also, the people with whom you exchange energies most, their world view will try enter yours, so be careful what you let enter, where you work, where you live. In this white supremacist structure of our times, it is easy as a woman of color to be pushed to be what the structure needs, but is it what You need? What do You need and want? Seek that. This is all advice that I am constantly having to give my Self.

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

Tremendously important. Without them we would just have those bigger journals that can get bigger money. We would have fewer and narrower channels where expression must be funneled. With them, we have multitudinous avenues for a multiplicity of voices and audiences. Without a reader goading it on, wanting it, a poem can wither and die. And with a reader who wants only certain kinds of poems, only certain kinds of poems will be written and see publication. The small literary journals find readers who are hungry for just that unexpected poetry but didn’t know what it was until they encountered it.


RZ: What are you working on right on?

MK: A volume of poetry about Syria, about the Syrian Revolution. For whoever will listen. For us, Syrians, if no one else.

Look, I’m sorry if the Syrian Revolution reads to the world’s progressives and leftist only as a conspiracy for rightist and imperialist agendas. It seems like I have to apologize for the existence of Syrians who do actually suffer the enormous human rights abuses of the Assad regime, to apologize for this to a world that does not want to hear this because it doesn’t fit current progressive agendas. The fact that Syrians are also getting abused by the Islamist extremists who are manipulating the grassroots protest movement for their own ends and in turn getting manipulated by regional and world powers only makes it more urgent that the original Syrian grassroots civilian uprising be recognized and respected. Just because the Syrian uprising doesn’t fit what progressives thought about the regime, doesn’t mean the human rights abuse doesn’t exist. Deal with that. Change your eye to adjust to the fact of our existence as Syrians. I say that, while doing internal critique of those Syrians who are selling out the Syrian Revolution to rightist agendas. My poetry on the Syrian Revolution is my own attempt to deal with the multiple silencing of Syrians, by the regime for five decades, by the right and left globally, by each other. Things grew to such a pass that a Syrian cannot find a space to speak amid so many different kinds of silencing. For a while I was so disheartened in so many ways internal and external that I stopped writing Syria altogether. It seemed so futile wherever one turned, like pounding on a thick beveled glass wall that was soundproof. What was the point of any writing at all? Fuck that; I’m back. Publish me.

Two poems by jess rizkallah

i haven’t forgotten

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

clears his throat before you can
step out on your word

stays dressed in black

once ate his own smile but
never swallowed

i like him most.

he still hums
to the pulse
in my wrist.

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

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

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

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

moonstones charging,
warm by the window.

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

part of me always
chipped at the corner

give me the flute & sing
after fairuz & gibran

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

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

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

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

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

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

Left

By Lena Zaghmouri

What struck me most about Mom’s family was how their pictures looked so different from what Mom told me they were actually like. They looked so put together and all-American, untouched by any troubles. Just two white married parents and one cute kid that always stood in front of them in pictures with a big smile and her arms open, embracing the world and the photo that would capture that emotion forever.
In reality, though, Mom’s parents were divorced, and Mom said Grandma’s main concern was finding her next boyfriend or husband, Grandpa’s the new family he inherited from marrying his second wife, which was soon after he divorced Grandma.
Grandma looked sweet and virginal with blond hair and light brown eyes, but she had countless affairs since Mom could remember.

Grandpa looked kind with dark blue eyes, thin brown hair, a soft manly smile, but Mom told me he would become irritable and beat her for the smallest mistake when he was angry with Grandma. Mom had a collection of bruises on her arms and back that she showed me to prove it. He would let plenty of things slide if things were going well with her Grandma, but that was rare. He was easier to be around once her parents divorced during Mom’s early teens, but then he never wanted to be around her anymore either. Mom was part of his past life, the one he claimed was driven by anger. He needed to minimize contact with that as much as possible.
But Mom having a child out of wedlock with a Palestinian reawakened Grandpa’s latent anger. He called her a shameful slut and washed his hands of her and was unwilling to meet me, his olive-skinned granddaughter with a weird name like Isra, one he probably couldn’t even pronounce right.

♦♦
Grandma came to visit on rare occasions; the first time I remember was when I was five. She was upset that Mom had a child out of wedlock, but she was more forgiving. She was between marriages, and Mom had just kicked Baba out for good. Mom would complain about what a deadbeat Baba was to Grandma sometimes.
“Honestly, Carol, I’ve always told you if you just lost fifteen or twenty pounds, you could get yourself a decent man,” Grandma told Mom.
She visited once or twice a year, usually during the holidays; she would bring me a new Barbie or something as a Christmas gift. Grandma ignored me and vented her frustrations with the world and the men in her life to Mom.
But now, three years later, Mom had cancer, and Grandma went back and forth on whether or not she would take me after Mom passed away. Sometimes she said it would be nice to have someone to live with, someone to help out and spend time with her, but then Grandma would say the last thing she wanted to do was take in an eight-year-old at her age, especially one with a father like mine.
Mom didn’t trust her, though. “She’ll want you when she’s alone, and as soon as she gets a man, Grandma’ll find a way to get rid of you.”

♦♦

Mom told more positive stories about her family when she put together the photo album for me, her hands newly thin and lined with pale blue veins. She didn’t have energy to put it together before, and once in a while she said there was no point in it because what did all those pictures mean? Most of the people in them I had never met and probably never would.
Still, we sat in the full size bed we slept on at Baba’s place while she put it together. Mom explained who and what was in each picture before she pressed it down on the sticky surface. “Well, hopefully, Isra, your grandma will visit when you live only with Baba,” she said. “Maybe this will make her turn around.”

♦♦

Mom went into the hospice the next day, and Baba picked me up after school every day so we could go there and see Mom. Sometimes Baba would be in the room alone with her, but usually they kept me there to alleviate the tension between them. We had been living at Baba’s, but I was sure my parents weren’t together, and they wouldn’t have even spoken to each other if Mom wasn’t dying.

Every time Mom said she was tired and needed to rest in the hospice, I was sure that she was going to die then, and I would cry inconsolably, even though Mom assured me she wasn’t leaving yet. Baba would take me out of the room and try to comfort me for a little bit, but he would soon become angry and tell me to be strong. Plenty of people had gone through much worse back home in Palestine, so my pain now didn’t matter.

♦♦

Grandma came soon after Mom went into the hospice. She would take me to see Mom for the week or so that she was still awake and not drugged beyond comprehension.
And suddenly I wasn’t invisible to Grandma anymore.
Grandma now picked me to vent her frustrations about the man she was in the process of divorcing and Grandpa as well. “I talked to Carol’s father, and you know what he told me? He can’t get the time off work! Can you believe that?” She sighed and clenched her teeth together. “‘This is your child,’ I said to him. ‘Can you just pull your dick out of your wife’s pussy for two seconds and remember you have a daughter?’ You know those kids his wife has aren’t his. She had them with the guy before. I don’t see what’s so great about her. She’s as plain as wood.”

♦♦

Grandma took me out for ice cream once Mom slipped from consciousness, and she said she couldn’t stand to see her daughter suffering to death and that her granddaughter didn’t need to see it either, so Baba let her.
Though I loved ice cream, I wasn’t excited about getting some that day. Most of it melted on the back of my hand and dripped on the table, and Grandma had to take me to the bathroom to clean up. I could tell she was irritated I saw her roll her eyes in the mirror, and she told me that I had to eat like a civilized girl.
We went to the hotel she was staying in—she would spend the night at Mom’s apartment whenever she came before, but she hated Baba and his apartment—and she put cartoons on for me while she criticized all the men she had had in her life, reserving the worst for Grandpa. “I swear once I married that guy he became such a drag,” she said. “We were so young, and all he wanted to do was stay in and drink beer. Even convincing him to go out to the movies was like asking him to drink cyanide.” Grandma cringed at the thought of him. She moved on to her three other husbands: the second was too mean; the third had affairs; the fourth, the one she was in the middle of divorcing, was a drag like Grandpa, but it was more understandable because he was almost a senior citizen.
I didn’t say anything. My lack of response must have been made her sad; Mom always had some kind of commentary for Grandma, even if it was negative like telling her she should grow up or learn what monogamy was all about. “I’m not even sixty years old, and my daughter is dying. You’re not supposed to bury your child; it’s the other way around. Of course, it’s no picnic to lose your mother at your age.” She wiped a couple of tears that came from her overfilled brown eyes. “You know things are going to be different, right?”
Everyone used that phrase—“things are going to be different”—though they already were different. I hated spending time with Baba, having him prepare my food or ask him questions. He never knew the answers, and he would get irritated by them. “Don’t ask dumb questions,” he always said to me.
Baba was scary, too. Most nights I could hear him crying out in his sleep. When Mom was there she told that it was just because Baba had been through some terrible things since he was even younger than me, and he remembered them in his dreams, but I was sure that he was possessed. It was worse without having Mom there to tell me to go back to sleep.
I had to live without my mother.
At school everyone had a mother that I knew of. A few lived with their grandmothers or someone else, but they at least visited their mothers sometimes. And their grandmothers liked them a lot more than Grandma liked me. They didn’t talk about men all the time, and they didn’t tell their daughters that if they lost weight, they could find a decent man.
But I had a feeling that Grandma was feeling sorrier for herself. She was losing her daughter, the one she could turn to between men. She also started to put on a little bit of weight, especially in the middle. She probably would never be able to find another husband, at least not a decent one.

♦♦

Though it was almost my bedtime, Grandma had no plans to take me back to Baba’s or call him to ask if I could spend the night with her. “Who cares what he thinks?” she told me when I asked if I was allowed to stay. “He isn’t worth a shit anyway.” She took me to the store and bought me some pajamas and a night light, though I stopped using one over a year before. “What about a toy or something?”
“No, I don’t want to play.”
“You sure are a mellow child.”
After I took a bath and changed into the new pajamas, Grandma talked more about how the man she was currently divorcing was trying to hide his assets and get out of paying her as much alimony. “It’s not like I’ll be getting much. We were only married for a year and a half,” she said. “Couldn’t stand him any longer than that.”

♦♦

Baba pounded on the Grandma’s hotel door so hard I thought he must have bruised his knuckles, shouting at Grandma to open the door or he’d call the police.
Grandma didn’t hold out for long, but she wouldn’t let me go without letting Baba know that she thought he was a worthless Arab.
“You don’t deserve a say in the matter!” Grandma said. “You haven’t been there for most of her life, and all you’ll do is lock her in the house until she gets married!”
Baba told her at least I wouldn’t learn to be a whore like she was and charged past her and pulled me by the hand. “My daughter comes home with me!” he yelled as he brushed her aside to leave.
He left me in the pajamas Grandma got me, and he talked to me for over an hour, which he never did before. “She is a sharmoota, a slut. Do not act as she does, Isra. You do not want to live as her.” He told me that he couldn’t believe that a woman could act that way. His mother, my sitti, he said, would have never spoken to a son-in-law the way she had. Well, he wasn’t really a son-in-law. He never married Mom, but it should be the same thing to these Americans because they didn’t believe in marriage the way Palestinians did, so Grandma should think of him as her son-in-law. And Sitti definitely wouldn’t have carried on that way, marrying all kinds of men for money or whatever the hell she believed she would get.

♦♦

Baba woke me up in the middle of the night and told me to put my shoes on. Mom had died, and we were going to see her one last time before she went to the crematory. I was still tired, but my heart was thundering in my chest, so it was easy for me to stay awake.
Grandma was at the hospice before we were, her face red and streaked with tears. Mom lied on the bed, no oxygen tube connected to her, pale and gaunt, her hair a darker brown than what it was before, her lips still red. I cried, and my chest felt so light that I wondered if the center of my body was still there. For over a week now, Mom had been unconscious, and the only way I could tell she was still alive was that she sometimes made a soft grunt when she was in pain. Then a nurse came in and gave her some more drugs to keep her quiet and comfortable.
Baba picked me up and carried me out of the room. People hadn’t picked me up for years on a regular basis, and by then, I was only five or six inches shorter than him, but I guess he still thought I was four. He said we should go back home and let them take Mom away.

♦♦

Grandma held the memorial service at a small banquet hall. I spent most of the time sitting at one of the middle tables next to my father, chewing on one of the black cloth napkins, my dripping saliva warming the back of my hand. I watched my mother’s relatives, trying to see if I could remember them from the photos, and if I could recall their names or if Mom had ever spoken of them. But I couldn’t place most of them, and they were just as distant from me in real life as they were in the pictures. They seemed uncomfortable around me and my father and gave us short, awkward condolences. They spoke amongst themselves, telling their stories about Mom, what she was like as a child and a teenager.

That day they all had had a close relationship with her when she was alive.

I slipped out and sat under a tree in the picnic area, crushing some of the dried leaves, mildly enjoying the slight pricks in my palm. Grandma found me out there and kneeled down as far as she could to speak to me. She was reconciling with her husband. “I might as well,” she said, tearing up. She always wiped her tears daintily. “Who else will have me at my age? And I can’t live off alimony. I should just pack it in and face reality.” She wished me luck with my father, though she doubted he would be a good one. “I hope he doesn’t send you back to his country, but what can you do?”

On Becoming a Part of Leslie Jamison’s Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain

By Dana Dawud

I dreamed that I wanted to write about my life with my brother, that he hit me and instead of feeling pain I exclaimed “Ah, I need to write about this!” and my sister told me that I should stop exploiting other people’s stories for my own writing. But it’s my story and mine alone, and it’s my writing, my reading of my story. Does that mean that the story has been already “written” and I’m simply reading it? does that mean that I am after all, exploiting the stories of “others”? I’ve actually dreamed that my brother fell from his room’s window and that I saw him sitting on the window sill with his face towards mine, he closed his eyes and then dropped back. I couldn’t save him, I went to the window and he was down, I told him to move his legs and he did. I realized I was still dreaming, nothing really happened. In my dream I exclaimed “Ah, I need to write about this!” and my sister told me that I should stop exploiting other people’s stories for my own writing. But I need to tell this story and I don’t care about it’s origin. I’ve always thought that writing about (my) life and (my) pain would entail exploiting the people I live with and around, and that it would turn me into someone who keeps dwelling over her own suffering, that it would turn me into a show. But pain is not mine alone, I feel it because I am a part of a large mesh of criss-crossing pain, and because I can give my pain over to others, like a gift, even if they can’t “see” it.
Yesterday, I’ve written for the first time in Arabic. Arabic is my (mother) tongue, this is how “native language” is translated to in Arabic. They have told me that I have a mother tongue and I’ve laughed in their faces, a menacing laugh and walked away. I had no idea that going back to it, getting closer to it, would be so painful. The distance language entails is painful, and I gasp for words, The reader would sense the heaviness that drenched every word I tried to conjure up. It was hard but I had to feel pain in order to write.

I fell in love for the first time when I was fifteen years old, he broke my heart. I stopped eating, I cried for weeks and I remember telling the story of this breakup to everyone I’ve talked to. Over and over again, I repeated how much hurt I feel and how much pain he had caused me. I think I’ve done that not as a mechanism of healing, but more to tell people that I am a person with deep feelings who has the ability to suffer, I did it to feel better about who I am. I had no idea back then that this repetitive showcasing of pain, might have repulsed everyone around me, that it had been a cliche. I just knew, and still think that I had a right to my pain and that everyone should listen to me, LISTEN TO ME. My pain is grand and it’s real and it deserves the attention of the world.

I happen to ruthlessly defend the poetry of Sylvia Plath, and every time I do that I feel that I’m doing something as rebellious as starting a revolution. The other day, a friend of mine posted that Sylvia Plath is a “Tragedy of a woman who committed suicide, nothing more.” I was so enraged and I honestly felt like crying. He hadn’t even read her. “Would Sylvia Plath be as famous today if she hadn’t committed suicide?” Sylvia Plath’s suicide has taken the status of being almost a part of her oeuvre. She has indeed written many poems on and about her suicide attempts, she has written Ariel shortly before her death. We can’t reduce anyone to their suicide, but why view her suicide as a reduction? It is a “tragedy” in one sense, but in another it’s a culmination point of pain. It’s a protest of a writer who has been locked inside a repetitive day-to-day routine: between writing poetry, taking care of her kids and doing her chores. Her suicide is a part of her ongoing story, it’s not her reduction point, it’s a point opening to infinity. “I have done it again/ One year in every ten/ I manage it–” One year in every ten.

In Ariel, she had already turned her I into grains of wheat, an infinite landscape. “And now I/ Foam to wheat” The devotedness with which Van Gogh had repeatedly kept painting fields of wheat, populating them with dream worlds, reapers, sunflowers with the “unheard of power of the sunflower seeds” as Deleuze describes the becomings in Van Gogh paintings, houses, a rising moon, and crows. He painted from the Asylum window, framing these wheat fields when he was losing his ability to utter “I.” “And now I/ Foam to wheat” Deleuze had written that “A sunflower seed lost in a wall is capable of shattering that wall.” Van Gogh broke the walls of the asylum with his wheat fields. In Ariel Sylvia writes “The child’s cry/Melts in the wall/ And I/ Am the arrow” Her “I” is an arrow which goes beyond the wall, beyond, and reaches the red of the sun. Pain ad infinitum, pain as liberation.

photographs not taken*

after Marwa Helal and Safia Elhillo
By George Abraham

the scalpel that removed a country
from my teta’s chest, rusting in the hands
of a surgeon who was, perhaps, a zionist;
my mother’s face crossing the finish line
of a marathon for breast cancer research, her
cousin’s name scrawled across the damp running bib;
Palestinian Olympic swimmer takes gold,
rewriting the ocean of her history; the ghosts
of refugee children making a choir of his weeping;

***

family portrait in post-racial society with
filter equating my olive skin to
my brother’s smoldering earth;
my cousin shouting allahou akbar out of irony
after passing through TSA without
being quarantined for the first time;
my father, before the toupee settled on his
head, mid-laugh & the country escaping
from the gap in his front teeth;

***

my head, freshly shaven, for a melanoma
biopsy catching the Florida sunset:
swim practice;
the benign sunspot they removed
from my scalp – brown flesh patch
floating in saline;
screenshot of Google Maps before the West Bank
& Gaza were 2 patches of nameless
flesh outlined in black dots;

***

my Teta, age 2, after being
baptized in the Dead Sea, holds a
seashell to her ear: a history lesson;
my great aunt’s obituary reading “place of birth:
Jerusalem” & the israeli flag waving
over her open casket;
family portrait in Ramallah,
full-toothed smiles at sunset:
past or present;
an olive tree & magnolia tree, planted
side-by-side, overlooking a cemetery,
mixing displaced soils;
the Haifa skyline every time
so where’s home for you?
falls out of a stranger’s mouth;

***

a lifeguard pulls my 4-year not-corpse from
the pool floor at my first swim lesson:
second baptism;
white man turns his back to drowning
daughter at my community pool: a brief
history of Israel/Palestine;
a cell frozen, mid-mitosis, houses conflicting
entities in a single membrane:
two state solution paradox;
my zionist biology teacher lectures
on respiration
& i drown –

*the poem was selected as a runner up for Emerge Literary Journal’s Civil Disobedience Poetry Contest, and will be published by Emerge Literary Journal

Four poems by Momtaza Mehri

Barcodes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dieuetmondroit

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

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

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

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

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

the accident of her birth.


The Night We All Watched Talal Maddah Die On Television

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

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

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

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

The new millennium takes another innocence from us.


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

enter: الاصيل سويعات

enter: suwaycaat alasiil

enter:suwa3at alaseel

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

التياع جمر على ضمأى همسة الوداع غير لي ليس واخيرا

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

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

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

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

ARE YOU SAFE? (or the occupation of love)

By Shebana Coelho

 

ACT I

 

SCENE 1

 

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.

 

GIRL

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

 

MAN

Your middle name, to be exact.

 

GIRL

All it takes is a Muslim in the middle.

 

MAN

Naseema, to be exact.

 

GIRL

Naseema.

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.

 

GIRL

Naseema. Wind.

 

She turns to the audience.

 

GIRL

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.

NIDAL

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.

 

NIDAL

…hair like yours…

 

GIRL

…like how..?

 

NIDAL

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.

 

GIRL

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.

 

NIDAL

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.

 

NIDAL

Get down. Now.

 

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

they look at the audience.

 

NIDAL

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.

 

GIRL

The sheep nuzzle the casings. The chicken nuzzle the

feet.

 

NIDAL

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

farm.

GIRL

Not allowed.

 

NIDAL

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

between the dotted lines, see that signature, see the

shadow of that ink…

 

GIRL

The water in the river…

 

NIDAL

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

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

there…

 

GIRL

…settlements, swimming pools, dates…

 

NIDAL

…stockpiles, guards, guns.

 

GIRL

But still…

 

NIDAL

We know…

 

They slowly begin to rise so they are sitting on

their knees.

 

GIRL

….that after a village is destroyed…

 

NIDAL

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

only…

 

GIRL

…this high…

 

NIDAL

…that high…

GIRL

…this tall…

 

NIDAL

…that short…

 

GIRL

…building a wall…

 

NIDAL

…patting a wall into place…

 

GIRL

…by moonlight, only by moonlight…

 

NIDAL

…just so…

 

They slowly rise to their feet

 

NIDAL

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

 

He sits cross-legged on the stage.

 

GIRL

At dawn, he was sitting outside…

 

NIDAL

…twenty feet from the mosque waiting for prayers to

start.

 

GIRL

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.

 

NIDAL

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

body, they learned.

GIRL

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.

 

BLACKOUT

 

They exit in the dark.

 

 

 

SCENE 2

 

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.

 

MANJU

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

 

GIRL

Ms.

 

MANJU

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

madam.

 

GIRL

No.

 

MANJU

Miss, what beautiful nails you have. Bloody beautiful,

if I may say so.

 

The girl laughs, intrigued.

MANJU

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

love it.

 

She giggles-she has a distinctive voice.

 

MANJU

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

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

 

GIRL

James. His name is James.

 

MANJU

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.

 

GIRL

Go ahead.

 

MANJU

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.

 

GIRL

You’re bloody perfect.

 

MANJU

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

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

can’t even count…

 

GIRL

Try.

MANJU

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.

 

MANJU

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

these shouting-bouting movies.

 

GIRL

That’s the news, Manju.

 

MANJU

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

that, shoot this, save that.

 

The Girl is silent.

 

MANJU

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.

 

GIRL

(softly) Turn up the volume, Manju.

 

MANJU

What?

 

She stops cleaning the girl’s face.

 

GIRL

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.

 

NIGHT

(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.