In the painting on the wall

By Chaun Ballard

Handala,
the young refugee boy, stands
at the broken wall
and concentrates his gaze
in the direction of Jerusalem,
and he knows he will pass through
this stone that has opened—
and when he does,
he will venture to the other side
alone.
Though he knows
when he departs this land
he might never return,
he does not turn around. He never waves
farewell to the people gathered.
He knows his pause is enough.

Handala,
the young refugee boy, stands
gazing from the broken wall—
fathers, mothers, children,
and liberators have come
to wave flags, some wave hands,
and they know
he must cross into this freedom
alone. For they know his will—
they have all seen his face.

For more poems by Chaun Ballard, check the full issue: Vol. 4, Issue 1

Two poems by Layla Ghoushey

Refuge

Soon after my uncle’s family knocked on the
door of America, he stood on his new home’s
porch with a television in his arms. They were
migrating from the transitory flat to the house,
where Siti would enter paradise years later.
But that time had not yet arrived and, when
he knocked,

no one came.

Perhaps the women were swabbing the floor of the
kitchen, or rinsing the bathtub with bleach. Maybe his
children were disrespecting him. They knew that he
would never find a steady business in this country.

He would get a job at a grocery, but
throw down his apron when asked
to bag at the checkout line like a
half grown kid, not like a man with a
wife, three kids, and a mother
at home.

Perhaps he already knew my
aunt would be the breadwinner
and that he would lose himself
in Palestinian tragedies
broadcast to his living room as
he sipped his mother’s tea.

He threw the idiot box onto the porch, and
the screen shattered into a million pieces.
My aunt opened the door and found him,
lost in America: broken, scattered,
sheltered-in- place.

Public Bath

Bright, white light on Independence Day.
Hot July 4th at the pool. Solitude in a
crowd. Water drips. Fountains burst and
bubble from a hole in the ground, and I
remember Aya Baradiya, a Palestinian
woman, buried by her uncle to cover her
shame.

I dodge the selfie-sticks of adolescent Roman
conquerors. Their DNA bequeathed from
middle-aged Dads via Paul’s journey to Rome.
Their little chromosomes once voyaged
between Rome and Jerusalem along the Way
of the Soul.

In the drowning Mediterranean,
little refugee boats are baby-filled
with desperation, while in Saint Louis,
a woman in a burqini floats
with her kids at the pool.

Brown bodies, white bodies
meander on the lazy river. Pudgy
curves and love handles spill out
of bikinis.

Sun-starved skin and varicose veins are revealed.
Hats: white, green, blue, with wide brims, conceal
a child’s urine in the pool.

I emerge from the depths, and a breeze
evaporates water from my skin.

A cooling liberty repels the sun’s tyrannical heat.
I am cleansed with the Enlightenment, with
individualism, with secularism, with female
brazen dignity.

I glide on supple little waves.
It is my independence day.

I wash the shame from my skin,
but the filth of privilege remains.

Three poems by Frank Dullaghan

A Liberation

“This shell, it turned out, landed smack in the middle of the Jabaliya cemetery”
Josh Glancy reporting on Gaza in The Sunday Times, (UK) 27.07.14

I don’t suppose it was any trouble
to them, leaping into the air like that,
smithereened, baring their bits
to the blasted air. Of course, they came

crashing back to earth, scattered, mixed-
up, not knowing who was who.
But for that while, they were high.
It must have felt like the End of Days,

the Assentation, come upon them,
dancing together, all tooth and grin,
their bones blown towards heaven,
the first to be liberated from Gaza.

But just as quickly as they were lifted,
they were let down – isn’t that
how it always is? – their internment
heaped upon them again.


The Children Are Silent

The children have learned to be silent.
They look through you,
their eyes older than their faces.
They carry their small bodies like suitcases
that they can pick up or put down.

They think their mothers are great engines
that can go on and on,
mile after mile, as if each day
is just another road, as if insanity
can be out-walked.

Their fathers follow like blown sand,
collars flapped up against history,
their cupped hands reddening
as they pull the small hope
of cigarette smoke into their lungs.

The children may never speak again.
They have gone beyond words,
grown beyond hope. They know that
all the leaders just sit at the same dark tables
and look at each other.

Hamdan Street

You will find him in one of the small alleys
behind Hamdan Street, a narrow shop,
the pavement broken outside.
Inside it is bare, a blank counter, a door
into the back. His day starts at 6am.
There is nothing electric
about his iron. It is traditional,
heavy, charcoal filled. Another man
wouldn’t last an hour. But he drives it
all day, nosing it down the pleat
of a dishdash, smoothing the wrinkled age
out of a sheet. He lives in the heat
and the steam. At 8pm he stops, eats
rice and vegetables, sometimes goat.
He sleeps under the counter. He is proud.
He is the Iron Man of Abu Dhabi.

Man of the Orchard by Zahra Hankir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A proud woman, teta ignored him all evening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Her Dream I Spoke Arabic: In a college composition class a few years ago, many worlds came together.

By Jesse Millner

A student from Palestine writes “theological” instead of “theoretical.” I help her understand the difference. She has no thesis. She arrived in America three years ago having learned to write essays that reference poems and the Koran. She loves her family, misses raising tomatoes outside of the village she grew up in. Her main point is the compassion with which she writes about the world, how the very first creature she wrote about was a rabbit, which she drew a picture of in the top right corner of the page in her notebook. Rabbit, she says, in Arabic, contains the first letter of that alphabet. So it’s logical to associate learning alphabets with drawing rabbits. She comes to see me in my office with her work and I tell her how good it is, how her voice is strong and beautiful, how she paints the world with strokes of kindness, how she’s almost making me believe in God again.

Is that the main point of teaching, of writing? To learn about others, to hear their voices, to see the wonder with which they still view our world? A student from Lebanon writes about living in an apartment building where, after the 1988 civil war, they had to use black garbage bags to replace whole sections of the outer walls of the building. During one attack after air raid sirens went off, her grandmother had to be left under a table in their apartment because she couldn’t walk and she was too heavy to carry to the shelter.

Sitting next to the woman from Lebanon is a former American soldier who had served in Iraq. His first essay is about beauty, and he says beauty for him is being allowed to leave his running shoes on the floor in the middle of his apartment, and to throw his clothes on his bed when he gets home. He writes, “For me, chaos is beauty.”

For me, my students are beauty. My writing classes are filled with a chorus of young voices straining against the walls of the five-paragraph essay. They are amazed that they are allowed to write in first person. They are astounded that they can write about issues that are important to them: My Palestinian student’s fifteen-year-old cousin was beaten by Israeli soldiers because he ran from them. His leg was broken. One soldier picked a fresh lemon from her grandfather’s orchard, cut it in half, and then rubbed the bitter fruit into her cousin’s eyes.

On her way to school each day, she had to pass three IDF checkpoints. She writes that the soldiers were young and afraid, that they asked her about her major in college, what she liked to do in her free time. She feels sorry for them. She wishes, as the young men do themselves, that they could go home.

Her name is Enas. My spellchecker underlines her name in bold red, and I think of the blood spilled in Palestine. Enas writes about the smell of her grandmother’s bread. Enas writes about the beautiful red cheeks of her ripe tomatoes. Enas writes about teaching second grade when she was in college because an Israeli curfew prevented the regular teachers from traveling.

Yesterday after class Enas showed me pictures of her friends and family in Palestine. They lived on a mountain covered with olive trees. Some of the photographs show children playing in snow. Enas tells me she has forty-five cousins. I’m drawn to a particular photograph that shows Enas with her family just before she moved to America. Enas, her aunt, and her mom are all wearing white hijabs. She flips the album and on the next page Enas is wearing a sombrero in Disneyland. I tell her I’m delighted by the juxtaposition. She types “juxtaposition” into her hand-held translating device and I watch the word I know flow into Arabic.

I ask my class to write down their dreams. I tell them not to have coffee or tea when they woke up. I said it was ok to go to the bathroom. Enas writes about a dream where I came to class drinking a beer. Since I’m a recovering alcoholic and haven’t had a drink in twenty-eight years, I was a little bit taken aback. Then she talks about how, in her dream, outside the classroom door she could see images of Palestine: a rope swing that her grandfather had hung from an olive tree branch for her when she was little, a car carrying a bride to her new husband’s home. She could also smell burning wood from an oven where her grandmother baked fresh bread. At the end of the piece she listened to me speaking Arabic. And when she read aloud my words in that other tongue, when I listened to myself speak through her, I heard myself in a different way.

It didn’t matter that I only said, “Enas, pay attention instead of looking out that door.” The words were magic and they still linger like foreign ghosts on my tongue.

Ali Shawwa

Ali Shawwa is a Palestinian-Kuwaiti artist who’s lived in the Middle East, Europe and the US. Using a range of mediums from pencil to acrylic, Ali relates his experiences, memories, culture, and emotions through his artwork. His art is one of his most cherished creative outlets and after years spent observing, experimenting and evolving, Ali has developed his own unique style that led to a series of widely successful paintings. His latest series, Œiconic, focuses mainly on pop culture. With a degree in Environmental Design, he is currently the creative director for a niche book publishing company, Rimal Publications. Ali’s artwork has been acquired internationally by art enthusiasts in sixteen different cities. He lives and works in Dubai.

Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye

“Poetry flourishes in the margins”
Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye
BY REWA ZEINATI

In the world of poetry and writing, the name needs no introduction. In the world of art and photography, Nye has been an active participant, offering image after image, using the tools she uses best: words. Currently a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she is author or editor of 33 books, including Transfer,A Maze Me, Honeybee, Different Ways to Pray, Yellow Glove, and 19 Varieties of Gazelle, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Born to a Palestinian father and an American mother, she regards herself as a “wandering poet,” which is probably the very best kind a poet, an artist, could hope to be.

RZ: In one of your earlier poems you’ve said, “Love means you breathe in two countries.” How does your background affect who you are as an artist?

Naomi Shihab Nye: It seems it would be impossible for most artists and poets to separate from background. Background is always the soil, the nourishing, complicated earth, we spring out of. What we do with it? Blossoms have many shapes and colors. Our eyes learn to see, through what they have already seen, what they are given to see. And if we are lucky, we never stop looking for more. Truly, I think love means we breathe in EVERY country. Somehow.

RZ: We find a longing in your poetry, a strong sense of exile. Your first experience with your roots was when you were 14 years old, where you lived in Jerusalem for a year and met, for the first time, your grandmother, who had a huge impact on your writing. How did going back (or forward!) shape your craft?

NSN: Well, that’s not quite accurate. My first experience with my roots was when I began to know my father, so, from the very beginning. To live with a restless person, a beautiful, humble, funny, magnificent person who is always longing for his homeland, for justice for his people, marks someone. You can’t pretend it isn’t there, even if you haven’t been there yourself yet.

RZ: How necessary are words? How necessary is art in a fast moving, zero-attention-span, consumerist existence?

NSN: Words are extremely helpful. Art is immensely necessary. A way to slow down, to hold, to connect, to contain – we are never bored and we don’t need anything we don’t already have. Hardly an advertising tool, but a way to live, for sure…

RZ: What do you think about Arabs adopting languages other than their own, mostly by choice, for their writing?

NSN: They are smarter than I am. I think it’s fine.

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

NSN: Extremely important. They have given us so many ways to find one another.

RZ: Ironically enough (considering the history of Arab poets!) in the Arab region, poetry is considered at most, a hobby, a pass time. Not a lot of people take poets seriously. (Who makes a living out of poetry they think!) Especially poems by Arabs written in English. How do you recommend this perception be changed?

NSN: I don’t think you have to make a living out of something for it to be crucial. No one makes a living out of staring at the sky, but what would life be like, if we couldn’t do that? A lot of people make a living out of making war, making and selling weapons, and how great is that? I have never been bothered by the sidelining of poetry – poetry flourishes in the margins. Reading Walt Whitman – will restore all the hope anyone has lost.

RZ: Unfortunately, we live in increasingly hostile times, politically speaking. As writers or artists with Arab roots, and those who’ve lived in the Arab world, but have been influenced by the West, there is a cultural dichotomy, a mass schizophrenia almost. If we adopt anything from the West, be it cultural/social/educational, everyone freaks out that we are “losing our culture.” As a writer how do you think we can remedy this dichotomy?

NSN: I think we need to keep sharing our indelible, beautiful habits, customs, graces, details, foods, music, spirits, and nothing does it better than art. Art has a lot to balance out in our world. We should focus on the positive as much as possible – focusing on the negative only erodes our energy.

RZ: As a prolific writer of poetry, essays and novels, what advice would you give to emerging writers/artists in the Arab region, and/or in general?

NSN: Write more! Write on! Read as much as you can, write regularly, find a way to share your work. Wishing you the best! We need your voices!

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.

Newsworthy

By Lena K Tuffaha

I.

before you can see

we’ll need to adjust the lens

we find that natural light can be

unforgiving,

all those lines and jagged edges

glaring,

beads of sweat shimmering on the brow

scarlet of a fresh wound

unfurling across a body

might overwhelm

we’ll need to calibrate

 

before you react

before you assign any labels to what you see

(like injustice)

before you identify any emotions stirring in you

(like anger or shame)

we’ll need to fine-tune

It’s so complicated, this cycle

what appears so obvious

cannot be named

to maximize clarity

find a signature for the moment

we’ll need to select an image

layer the right sounds on top of it

we assemble a collage of now

so you can understand what’s at stake

so you can understand what you think you are seeing

the information that is

being sent from your eyeballs to your brain

is just raw data

and must be processed for you

 

This is called Context.

 

see for example the brown-skinned boy

slender limbs running across the street

a rock in his hand

focus on the rock

if you feel a bit unsettled by the chaos unfolding on his street

the smoke billowing from fires all around him

the tank pouring out armed soldiers

at the vanishing point where he aims

steady yourself with the thought

of the damage that the rock could conceivably do

and here it would be illuminating to note

that we have soldiers too

our boys sent across the globe

and don’t we love our boys?

and don’t we want them to come home safe?

see? A tank isn’t necessarily a bad thing            a semi-automatic

weapon aimed at a child maybe isn’t

what it appears to be

now hold these feelings in front of your eyes

as you look at that brown boy with the rock in his hand

 

This is called Nuance.

 

III.

now it gets trickier

you’ll need to remain vigilant

now that rock-throwing boy

wounds still fresh on his face

eyes half open to the sky

re-appears in the foreground swaddled in a flag            piled onto a stretcher

and beneath him a teeming sea of people

swells in what was the street                        they are lifting what’s left of him overhead

let us now turn up the volume for you

let’s pan out            resist the urge to look too long at

any one face

here a wide camera angle will do best

 

what are all these people saying?

 

focus on the totality of the sounds

why aren’t they softer? shouldn’t sorrow

be soft     modest     relatable?

 

focus on the Allahu akbar

who else says that?   what have you learned to feel about those words?

 

This is called Critical Thinking.

 

IV.

if you find yourself distracted

caught by the anguish on the mother’s

face in the crowd

focus instead on her veil

notice how many women in the crowd are veiled

how do you feel about that?

 

let the question fall slowly

between you and the mother

whose son’s limbs have been

collected for burial

if you find your stomach

tightening at the sight of her pain

if you find yourself measuring

the miniscule space her son’s

corpse takes up on the stretcher

if your eyes find others in the crowd

focus

focus again on the sound that floats up

the words you don’t speak

you do not know these people

 

why are they so angry?

 

tune into how their grief is loud

and disarrayed and confusing

and threatens to make you feel bad

stay with these feelings

now hold these feelings in front of your eyes

to filter the images you are seeing.

 

This is called Balance.

 

For more poems by Lena K Tuffaha read the full winter 2015 issue

The Tulip Tree

By Philip Metres

They wanted to tear down the tulip tree, our Jewish neighbors, last year. It throws a shadow over their vegetable patch, the only tree in our backyard. We said no. Now they’ve hired a hand to chainsaw an arm—the crux on our side of the fence—and my wife marches in tousled hair and morning sweats to stop the carnage, mid-limb. She recites her litany of no’s, turns home. Minutes later, the neighbors arrive. The worker fingers our unblinded window. I want to say, it’s not me, slide out of view behind a wall of cupboards, ominous breakfast table, steam of tea, our two young clueless daughters alone. I want no trouble. Must I fight for my wife’s desire for pink blooms when my neighbors’ cukes will stunt and blight in shadow? Always the same story: two people, a tree, not enough land or light or love. They want to let the sunlight bathe their garden—how can we refuse them? This is the only tree in our whole backyard—how can they insist? By rights they could cut every bit that begins on their side of the line. Like the baby brought to Solomon, it can’t be cut in two and survive. Someone must give. Dear neighbor, it’s not me. Bloom-shadowed, light deprived, they lower the chainsaw again.