Origin Story by Jess Rizkallah

i was born to refugees,
i was named a miracle still,                    they wait
for something greater than
what i know how to be.

i’m alive, and therefore enough.

i have space for an extra organ
that never came home
and every year the sea levels rise.

or                           i have a twin that never followed me out of the womb,
is still stuck where a shrieking echo
comes down on a mountain village          and the telepathy between us
is a gold thread so warm, it hums.

i’ll never know its language                         older than the polaroids
falling out of my mothers mouth               older than the lute
in my father’s whistle

or                          mama gave birth to me & i came out a hyphen
i was born the big hand on a clock

or                           i was born an arm                with a hand at both ends
taking both lands back at once, like they’re mine

or                           i was born an arm with a hand at both ends
holding a knife                                                    maybe i am a knife,
always spinning                          slicing
at roots and fruits i graft into the hollow
where the ancient humming organ
never made its home.

maybe i am building this organ myself.
maybe this organ will be my country,
where i’m from. no
where i’m really from

where every language is light
pouring out of me. everything it touches
is greater than what i know how to be
& everyone i love
is safe here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Terrorism by Gabrielle Spear

“isn’t all of this ugly though?” i say to the young israeli vet || i know he has risked nearly everything to break silences || but i’m skeptical he will ever stop occupying || he speaks of settlers as if he not one himself || of the military as if they have not been carving green lines through palestinians all along || we are looking down upon the nets over the marketplace in hebron || where jewish settlers throw trash and rocks and their own shit || onto the heads of palestinians || and besides the voice of our tour guide || the only noise to be heard across the village || are jewish cars moving down shuhada street || the only bodies free || are stray dogs

words i must tell you || do not have the same meanings here || al-khalil is hebron || shubbaak is a prison || sayyaara is a vehicle for apartheid || kalb is an animal with more freedom than palestinians || shaari’ is a walk of shame || souk is a dump for your enemy’s shit || and out the mouth of a palestinian with a thick accent || the english word “tourist” || sounds like the word “terrorist” || and “terrorist” like the word || “tourist”

“don’t the settlers want to live in a beautiful place? || why live here at all || if it’s not beautiful?” i ask || i can see our tour guide is confused || my questions come out stupid, obvious || “the security makes the settlers feel protected,” he says || maybe for the tenth time || and gestures to the windows that palestinians || must live inside to make their colonizers || feel comfortable on a car ride down shuhada street || but —that’s not what i’m asking

i want to understand how can you can live so incubated || you don’t even see the walls || and barbed wire || and shit in your line of vision || at what point do the walls fold back || melt into your landscape || your own geography || that your body itself || becomes a wall too

 

at the end of the tour || the former soldiers take us to meet issa amro || how gracious and kind of them || finally letting a palestinian speak for himself || issa shows us the only weapon he has ever owned || language || i have already told you || words are different here || from the ears of a settler || issa’s weapon is more violent than a bomb || he believes in a different world || and when this one passes || as he assures us it eventually will || words will be restored to their rightful meanings:

al-khalil will be a thriving city that once survived the worst of apartheid

         shubbaak will be a portal to palestine

                        sayyaara will take its owner on road trips through freedom

                                     kalb will be a dog, just a dog, and not a name for an arab

                                             shaari’ will breathe the memories of martyrs long gone

                                                           souk will smell like home again

we board the tour bus out of hebron || and i leave feeling self-righteous || my weapon of choice is poetry after all || i will never search for words through the barrel of a gun

yet || how quickly i forget that || on this land || poetry makes a terrorist out of me too

 

3 poems by Fady Joudah

Chamber Music

You say thalamos, I say thalamus
and hypostasis, I fancy, is invention
as the mother of need. For everything a body
and in our version of Willie Pete
few babies make it out of nativity complete.

To seduce you, reduce you to myself, corrode
myself at the anode for you, tremors
for holy water, Hagar’s hands and feet,
I pant and plead “Gather,
gather,” in a dead language.

The dead split in two: one camp
house-warm their graves with the living’s
carnation and chrysanthemum while in the other
children hide and seek in ice cream coolers
of vendors turned morticians.

To wait out burial
the body rusts the neighboring soul.
Or sits in the needle’s eye,
not chasm but chiasm that holds off
incoming thread and helps another through.

I’m staying right here. You go
look for horses that bait the initiate
who neglects the peace
forged between beasts. I’m staying right here
with all I have on loan

as tone flickers
its penultimate oxygen pair. You go
be the beginning.
It was already the beginning
when love was one of its traits.

Echo

One right move
no place to go

we goat through tombs
eviscerated of their residents

It was lovely
to see you defeated after dinner

with splanchnic blood
shunted from your brain’s hollering terrain

lovely the wet ashes
of your voice the evagination

of palm-sized cantaloupe
our conversation

of a year ago has changed
the body has changed

our guest
that hosts us


Maqam of Palm Trees
for Rahim El hajj

His amphibian torso
to leg ratio a frog’s

or imitation (fiddler) crab
soluble salty rubber of two waters

at the confluence of steady eddy synapse
in a museum’s dark room

his triceps’ fat pressed to hers
she in her movement

he in his stillness
what the moving know about stillness

the still don’t know…She asks
Are you a Sufi?

Is all my longing
born equal to your ears

the devil’s a devoted angel
with personality disorder

or what will we do tonight? He says
I’ll make us coffee and tea

we’ll play chutes and ladders
and in the morning

we’ll feed a bale of turtles
and a bevy of swans

our bagels on a deck
settled in lake-drought mud

where I was born…She says
Then maybe a heron will join

and leave us a calamus
so big it can wound

5 poems by Noor Ibn Najam

black girl freest girl on earth

she throw arms to sky
grow wings. her ascension

stronger than chains.
stronger than rage & this magic

carry her to god. & god shine
through her as she rise. & the spirit

consume everything else,
& cleanse as sage do.
it is always you, sista, who raises me

from the dead. praise your music, your poultice and ointment. this. this is black girl magic. that a sista’s song could bring back what i mistook for crucified. that a sista’s touch could resurrect hope from the grave it made of my body. your voice a harmony with every scream i swallowed last night, humming in my throat until my voice box loses what was stiff & dances.

i’m at a gathering of sisters – they look like me. frankincense and lavender curling out our ears. the glory of heaven through our teeth. our scalps dripping with sweat, rosemary; eyes full of tears. & this the only place

i deem holy today. black girls sing out the ancestors’ names like a prayer for rain. libations crash down to earth from a bottle. we let the first tears fall in these months of blood. we drench ourselves, we let ourselves be glory. we become the heaven we pray to. we become a mercy, a split in the sky & the earth

does not drink our blood today. only our fresh water. only joy that is deeper than us. only gospel like a small river cutting itself into the ground after a storm. i let myself feel everything that we are today. & i feel no fear when i look into my eyes & see

rain.

scar // story

my scars are an invisibility cloak. no one will look

at a ghost’s flesh // no one wants to see flesh’s ghost
my scars are skin-memories // textured melodies
passed down // child to woman
hide the child inside the woman // hide the story inside the scar

and no one will ask about them

 

ode to mouth

the plump cupid’s bow pink and brown
black hair above
bathing in the light of a glowing lotus
ring hanging from my septum.
the sloping upper lip uneven, its asymmetrical
spread as i smile. the big beige teeth,
peekaboo-shy. the smile, mouth
closed when it wants to be pretty.
the pursed lips that come natural
when it’s kissing or impatient or tense.
the lips easily parted. the involuntary
pout. the lines of the skin, how they bathe
themselves in rouge for a night out.

 

iftar when she kisses you

rise as a crescent moon. bite her lip
as you would a date. break your fast
on her brown honey

The Women in my Family Cook

            don’t cook while you’re upset. you’ll poison the food with your anger
– my mother

A woman dark as silence cooks her well-earned rage
down like collards. An off-white woman, pumice-skinned, simmers
resentment in a pressure cooker – tender lambflesh, made ready to eat
by bitter steam, water of cloves, of allspice,
of salt agitated into the air. When the nightmares slunk
between my sheets, I roughened
as my hair, silk scarf torn
from my head by the thrashing, pillows of cotton
scratching at my follicles. I tossed and turned
like water, agitated. I told my mother
that my sleep was haunted. She said, perhaps not.
A ghost is just another mirror
pointed into your mouth. What had you eaten for dinner?

 

 

Favorite SWANA Poetry Books of 2017 by George Abraham – Poetry Book Reviews

As 2017 comes to a close, I cannot help but reflect upon the words of Kaveh Akbar: “we are living in a Golden Age of poetry.” The poetry world is alive & thriving, but I think there’s further dimensionality to this statement outside of today’s exciting breakthroughs in poetic craft. We are living in a day and age where poetry is becoming increasingly diverse, with poets of color subverting euro-centric norms and traditions; a day and age where my children will grow up actually being able to see themselves in English Literature.

In comprising this list, I have chosen to use the word SWANA, i.e. Southwest Asian/North African, as an identifier to not legitimize the term “Middle East” for its white colonial undertones. I also chose this term because, while there may be some linguistic & cultural threads among SWANA narratives, this term allows space for this unification simultaneous to the complexity of individual narratives, as we are not a monolithic entity. That said, I am proud to present my favorite SWANA poetry books of 2017!

  1. Louder than Hearts by Zeina Hashem Beck (Bauhan Publishing LLC)

Louder than Hearts, for many reasons, is the perfect starting point for this list. Being an Arab-American reader, I felt like I could both live & die with these poems; the relatability of poems like “Ode To My Non-Arabic Lover,” is very different from that in “3Amto.” In the former, Beck writes, “how will I ever translate my Arab anger, my alliterations, those rough sounds that scratch their way out of my throat, which you will merely find sexy?” and gives voice to an annoyingly familiar fetishization. The latter is a portrait of an elder family member with cancer, and is written in a voice that is eerily familiar, interspersing of Arabic and English throughout phases of sickness & dialogue with different family members. While both pieces left me feeling simultaneously breathless & rebuilt all at once, Beck’s poetry shines in its ability to encompass a versatile array of emotions, which paint a portrait of her experiences which is not only visceral, but human. The urgent drive of this work is felt from the very first poem, “Broken Ghazal: Speaking Arabic,” and the book never loses momentum thereafter. Even through the manuscript’s conclusion, Beck’s imagery never ceases to surprise and captivate; for instance, Beck writes, “for a moment, it seemed the bird was choking, the fish diving upward for air. By this I mean do you see us dance?” at the ending of her piece, “Piano,” which was arguably my favorite in the book. With Louder than Hearts, Zeina Hashem Beck has produced one of the most exciting, dynamic poetry collections I have read in a long, long time.

  1. The January Children by Safia Elhillo (University of Nebraska Press)

“verily everything that is lost will be // given a name & will not come back // but will live forever.” So begins Safia Elhillo’s The January Children – a book I have not been able to stop thinking about since the beginning of the year. Elhillo’s lyrics are haunting in a manner that is both fluid & immortal, weaving across time, and language. From portraits with famous singer Abdelhalim Hafez, to erasures from interviews with members of the Sudanese diaspora, Elhillo gives a multiplicity of languages to diasporic wounds, in a way which questions her very relationship to the English and Arabic languages themselves. Elhillo writes, “the lyrics do not translate// arabic is all verbs for what// stays still in other languages,” and “no language has given me // the rhyme between ocean & // wound that i know to be true,” hence turning questions about giving language to displacement & trauma into questions of language itself. This collection simultaneously develops a lyrical reclamation of self & body, of praise, despite; Elhillo writes “our mouths open & a song falls out   thick// with a saxophone’s syrup” and finds a music amidst the sorrow. In perhaps my favorite work in the book, Elhillo writes “& what is a country but the drawing of a line       i draw thick black lines around my // eyes & they are a country     & thick red lines around my lips & they are a country” & so a reclamation of the body becomes a reclamation of everything the body was born into. The January Children is the type of book that transcends time & space; the type of book that will still be taught in classrooms decades from now; the type of book I will pass onto my children & their children & their children to come.

  1. the magic my body becomes by Jess Rizkallah (University of Arkansas Press)

In a similar spirit to Elhillo’s book, Jess Rizkallah’s the magic my body becomes does the work of building countries. Rizkallah writes, “i was born an arm   with a hand at both ends// holding a knife     maybe i am a knife,// always spinning slicing// … // where the ancient humming organ// never made its home.// maybe i am this organ myself.// maybe this organ will be my country,// & everyone i love// is safe here.” The urgency and velocity of Rizkallah’s imagery is not lost at the expense of tender, intimate moments; in one poem of a larger sequence of poems in the voice of her mother, Rizkallah writes, “never forget that softness is strength, unflinching// against the knife     and it is also the knife,” and creates a space in which softness can be a revolution. Softness carries the weight of inherited trauma from the Lebanese Civil War in the family portraits throughout Rizkallah’s manuscript; in “when they ask me who i pray to,” she writes, “saint of the lemon tree his father put there… saint of the blue peaks by the ocean where we began// saint of the way we say what again,” and paints the softness of her family in a light that is nothing less than divinity. But at the core of this manuscript’s heart is the body, in all its imperfection, in all its holy: “Ghada says, the spine is a river the rest of you will always return to.”

  1. I Am Made To Leave I Am Made To Return by Marwa Helal (No Dear/Small Anchor Press)

Marwa Helal’s debut chapbook, I Am Made To Leave I Am Made To Return, was such an immaculate success that it sold out within days of releasing. Helal is not afraid to take risks with form, from “)[[:”.’.,:]]( REMIXED,” written after Phil Metres’ abu gharib arias, to “if this was a different kind of story i’d tell you about the sea,” a poem which repeats that phrase for its entirety with different emphasis, and even “poem to be read from right to left,” written in the Arabic – a poetic form Helal invented. Helal’s work not only subverts expectation, but actively resists & decolonizes both the space it takes up and the space it cannot occupy. For instance, in the poem “photographs not taken,” Helal writes “the light the day i left; mezo’s big toe// before i left; all the dawns i slept through// before I left; my own face// looking back at his// before i left,” and constructs a portrait of an inaccessible past; a space which is definable but not constructible in some sense. A similar use of negative space is seen in “the middle east is missing,” which uses the Oulipian beautiful outlaw form to bring an extra dimensionality to the physically missing “the middle east” in this work. Helal’s I Am Made To Leave I Am Made To Return proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Helal is one of the most brilliant, and necessary voices in American Literature. If you missed your chance to buy this chapbook, stay tuned for her first full-length collection, Invasive species, forthcoming with Nightboat Books.

  1. Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar (Alice James Books)

“I’ve given this coldness many names   thinking if it had a name it// would have a solution   thinking if I called a wolf a wolf I might dull its fangs,” writes Akbar in the titling poem of his manuscript, “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient).” This manuscript is divided into 3 sections: Terminal, Hunger, and Irons. The first (Terminal) throws us into the world of the speaker, taking us from an intimate portrait of praying with his father wherein Akbar writes, “I knew only that I wanted// to be like him,// that twilit stripe of father// mesmerizing as the bluewhite Iznik tile// hanging in our kitchen, worshipped// as the long faultless tongue of God,” to moments of rage and confusion: “it felt larger than it was, the knife// that pushed through my cheek,” begins Akbar in “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Home Invader and Housefly.” Akbar’s voice shines not only in these personal, intimate moments, but even in writing outside the self. His poem, “Heritage,” written for Reyhaneh Jabbari, an Iranian woman who was hanged for killing a man attempting to rape her, gives voice to an erased history: “there is no solace in history   this is a gift// we are given at birth   a pocket we fold into at death   goodbye now you mountain// you armada of flowers… despite all our endlessly rehearsed rituals of mercy     it was you we sent on.” Akbar’s work interacts with spirituality, as it intersects with not only his family and culture, but with addiction as well; his poem “Thirstiness is not Equal Division” begins with the lines, “I swear to God     I swear at God   I won’t// mention what He does to me.” Poems like this and many others in section II (Hunger) are haunting, intimate portraits of addiction & its cyclical, resurgent nature; Akbar writes, “at twenty-four my liver was// already covered in fatty// rot my mother filled a tiny// coffin with picture frames,” and there is never a moment when this urgency is lost on us as readers. As the book draws to a close, Akbar reminds us that sometimes healing is the hardest route of all: “I won’t lie this plague of gratitude// is hard to bear   I was comfortable// in my native pessimism… I had to learn to love people one at a time,” writes Akbar. I am left with no words upon finishing Calling a Wolf a Wolf; it is rare that a single book can haunt, live, and breathe with me as much as this book does. Kaveh himself once said that we were living in a golden age of poetry, and to that I say, “yes, Kaveh Akbar is the golden age of poetry.”

  1. Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing by Charif Shanahan (Southern Illinois University Press)

The word stanza is derived from the Italian word for room; I’d like to think of Charif Shanahan’s book as a collection of rooms, brought under one unified house, wherein the rooms themselves travel fluidly through space, time, and history. Each room is decorated and structured in its own manner; some rooms are even left empty, such as part III of “Homosexuality,” a suite of poems where each is a small vignette of the speaker’s experience in a different city. Some rooms are brief but haunting & beckoning return; for instance, in “Little Saviors,” Shanahan writes, “So many men playing god. // Father left a wounded child// Cavorting in the public bathroom.// So many holes being filled” and creates an entire universe, a specific smallness, in just four lines of text. Shanahan is aware of shifts in perception & landscape as he invites us into each room. In “Self-portrait in Black and White,” he writes, “If I said I did not want to live anymore,// Would you understand that I meant like this?… I see in colors because they are always so much// A part of the problem,” and the entire perceptual universe of this poem is given a new meaning. Many of Shanahan’s poems deal with the intersection of blackness and queerness within the context of SWANA culture. In “Asmar,” a poem written for Safia Elhillo, Shanahan discusses some of the difficulties with internalized colorism: “Our mothers tell us we are not like them: les Africains sont la bas!// Our mothers defend what oppresses them…// Our mothers defend an idea of a self that is not their own.” Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing transcends space in a manner that is both timely and timeless; every time I re-enter this collection, I come out with new meanings and insight. Shanahan’s book is absolutely required reading for everyone reading this list.

  1. Water & Salt by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha (Red Hen Press)

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s Water & Salt is also a manuscript that fluidly travels through space & time, from Palestine where the speaker would “coax fruit from the trees, press it into liquid gold,” to Damascus wherein a poem about a dowry chest, she writes, “paradise, carved meticulously, mother-of-pearl inset into a landscape of wounds,” to Jordan where Tuffaha writes “every day we are picture-perfect in Amman,” and beyond. Tuffaha also travels backwards into history, saying “we travel back so that you can become who you are.” Tuffaha resurrects historical wounds in poems like “Intifada Portrait,” which is about her conversations with a Palestinian friend over coffee; Tuffaha writes, “who can erase those days from the memory of time? The land will never forget our footsteps, pounding against bullets and tear gas. My skin remembers it,” and gives the readers access to memory of an erased history, a history the land will remember even when the body cannot, even when the oppressor writes it into nonexistent. Tuffaha also meditates on the generational distance between these historical wounds in “My Mother Returns to her Childhood Home,” which ends with the lines, “we are not from here anymore. We too will die on foreign shores.” But amidst the memories of diaspora, Tuffaha finds nostalgia, light, and comfort despite the traumas; images of war and displacement are given weight and presence simultaneous to the familiar nostalgia in the smell of zaatar, the grinding of coffee, and the harvest of an olive tree. In one of my favorite poems of the collection, Tuffaha writes, “I love to tell you where I am from. I look forward to the moment when the nine letters I utter evoke a contortionist’s masterpiece on the faces of polite company.” There is power in naming our narratives, in naming history, in giving these things the name they earned, which is not always the name they are given. Tuffaha’s collection is the language diasporic readers, especially of Palestine and Syria, need, today and every day.

  1. My Arab World & Other Poems of the Body by A. T. Halaby (jubilat)

Halaby’s chapbook, My Arab World & Other Poems of the Body, also contemplates the weight and distance of diaspora. Halaby writes, “Lebanon// I can hear your love// I came for your gifts// Take this fury from inside me// I want to be filled with you.” And while there is a longing and desire to belong & to know the separated homeland, Halaby approaches this topic with newfound excitement and wonder; she writes “a beauty I haven’t met// but I’m curious about your form// a ghazal, whirling like a leaf…// a ghazal told me// ghazals are all around me// like a wind storm,” and brings to life a poetic wonder amidst the inaccessibility of home’s sounds. Halaby does the work of making every question about home a question about the body itself; “what does a home do for the body,” Halaby questions. In the opening poem, which is one of my favorites of the entire collection, Halaby writes “these hands// want// Arabic, its body// its everything,” and later continues to say, “I don’t// know// how// to put// Arab// in a // familiar// space.” One of the qualities I love most about Halaby’s chapbook is its ability to make space for softness within the context of diasporic bodies; “Degrees of The Delicate and Body” opens with an image of “the space between// your // lips// as they stop// after my name.// This measurement// of your body// is what I feel// I will// become.” The short line-breaks and fragmentation, in this poem & throughout, force the reader to pause & slow down to take in the narrative in its most authentic form. My Arab World & Other Poems of the Body were part of a limited edition print run of 50. If you missed your chance to get these immaculate poems, stay tuned for Halaby’s forthcoming work; she is most definitely one of the voices within Arab diaspora whom I am most excited about!

  1. Bone Light by Yasmin Belkhyr (Akashic Books/the New-Generation of African Poets Series)

As is usually the case with SWANA people, this too is something to end in light. Bone Light, a chapbook of prose poems from the New-Generation of African Poets Box Set, undeniably positions Yasmin Belkhyr as one of the most urgent, and necessary voices of our diaspora and generation. In one of the most memorable and intense opening poems I’ve read in a while, “Surah Al-Fatiha,” Belkhyr draws us into the world of Bone Light through a portrait of her earliest memory of seeing a goat slaughtered in her house. Like many artists on this list, Belkhyr interacts with distance and diasporic wounds; she writes, “I was sick every visit… I would cry and everyone else would tsk, murmer American. Once, I kissed someone and I’m afraid it ruined the world. I’ve learned that it’s not what you do with the knife – it’s how you hold it after,” and the question of diasporic distance becomes a question of the body. In “Eid Al-Adha,” Belkhyr writes “When I speak of bodies, I mean: there is too much inside of me. I mean, burn the car and all its histories.” The body, within the context of cultural & gendered violences, comes into question through various means, including that of myths and retelling of religious stories; the haunting ending lines of “& the song of the crow shrieks” read, “In myth, they called the dead girl River and she bled and bled and bled.” Belkhyr shines best in her ability to hone in on single moments, albeit wounds or praise, and expand them into an entire universe of complexity. Every word and lack thereof is precise, and not a bit of momentum is lost anywhere throughout this spectacular manuscript. In the final poem, Belkhyr writes, “the story begins and ends here, a mouth unopen, the girl buried as she is born,” and gives voice to historical, ancestral, and ever-present erasure. Belkhyr’s voice is doing the work of country-building, and carrying an ancestral weight despite an active erasure. I will never stop thinking about these poems.

    1. The Future

As this list draws to a close, I want to mention some of the SWANA books I am most looking forward to, rounding out 2017 and entering 2018, are Ruth Awad’s Set to Music a Wildfire (Southern Indiana Review Press), Noor Hindi’s Diary of a Filthy Woman (Porkbelly Press, 2018), Hazem Fahmy’s Red//Jild//Prayer (Diode Editions, 2018), and 2 chapbooks forthcoming from Leila Chatti: Tunisya-Amrikiya (Bull City Press, 2018), and Ebb (New-Generation African Poets Series, 2018). We are living in a truly exciting era of poetry, and I know there are people reading this list who needed these books as much as I have. Bless every SWANA poet for existing & writing in spite of colonization & everything this language has taken from us. Bless every word, every page fragment, every unsung lullaby that refused to burn.

 

bounty by K. Eltinaé

I don’t want to hear you confuse
‘protecting’ with ‘stealing’.
The pharaohs you made away with
did not sleep while you bombed and
buried families who weighed
much more than gold.

I don’t remember what it felt like
before that shot in the arm ate my soul up.
I’m admired for how well I preserve
because your bounty saved me.

Your children count sheep
that disappear into the sky
I count the lives lost to ebola
someone believed deserved to die.

 

 

 

4 poems by Tara Ballard

Women

We sit in an upstairs room
where the air conditioner wheezes

a lackluster attempt
at cool. It barely rustles our seven

floor-length cloaks of black
hanging near the closed door.

Arabic coffee steams. Our thimble-like cups
half-full with golden-yellow, stirred

saffron, perfume of cloves. Cardamom
making thick

the heat-damp air
that Septembers us by the sea.

Again

Dressed in black, a circle
of women sip from cups

of bitter coffee. No one
speaks as evening takes

shape in what is now
empty. I tilt the porcelain,

and grounds drift from
thumb to index finger.

I mourn with the other wives,
back turned to my husband

who drinks of a different kettle,
remembers the same man.

5:09 AM

The Adhan releases us
from sleep, remembers
us to place.

Cool under
bedroom fan and duvet
blue as above
will surely come, we
curl against one another
without clothing like
we are once more near
the beginning:

our legs and arms
nautilus. My husband, his hands
he travels across my skin
as I am mud and he
river. We shape
in the room’s dark.                        

Grains of sand
fold at the window sill,
cling to pulled security shutters
as we again immerse
in ritual waking.

Today one
hundred and thirty
mortars will fall south
of here. Fifteen missiles will break
the border. Evacuation
will continue.

 

Haboob

You will smell the sand before it arrives.
It will wake you from sleep, tugging at window panes
like an orange blanket over the sky.

Your breath will catch. You might find yourself
thirsty, but the water bottle on the nightstand won’t quench.
You will smell the sand before it arrives,

and even though all windows are closed,
grains will filter through and on and in
like an orange blanket over the sky.

The front door begins to rattle and shake, heavy
frame of wood accosted by desert. Wind grumbles.
You can smell the sand before it arrives,

but all you can do is sit up in bed, stare
as the tide washes across your world
like an orange blanket over the sky,

and you think of pharaoh and the ninth plague
as you breathe in this different breed of darkness.
You can smell the sand before it arrives
like an orange blanket over the sky.

Exotic

By Humeirah Ougradar

They love everything about us, but us,
burning their skin the colour we’ve tried to scrub away
guzzling stomach ache-inducing imitations of our delicacies
shimmying in their cardboard way to eastern strains
garbed in gaudy reams of costume with the wrong shoes
appropriating the jewels, henna-handed
thinking it all quite jazzy
entrenched in our traditions
while their grass is greener than our deserts
they love everything about us, but us.

Boys’ Summer Nights

By Nadim El Choufi

Far from our houses
we made home of
hands intertwined

stomping the grounds of Lebanon
to hear the mountains moan
the echo of our love.

Too infinite to be contained
by the night skies above

we became gods on earth
to be seen only through
the reflection of our eyes.

And we danced in circles
more sacred than a dervish
whirling to find God.
We found each other
every shoulder blade
a wing winced
of love taught
down to us
by fathers and sons
like fruits and flies

pure until the touch
of their own skin

in the open
boy and boy
every touch
a shadow renounced
to become its own light
every dance
unlearning
the last step
we soared
we became men

Caesar

By Hazem Fahmy

Dante’s Purgatorio, Canto 6, Line 112: Come, see your Rome who, widowed and alone, weeps bitterly; both day and night, she moans: “My Caesar, why are you not at my side?”

1
In the Middle East we have our own term for dictatorship. We call it: “الدولة العميقة”, the “Deep Nation”.

Deep as in a rotting root stretched throughout the soil that feeds you.

Deep as in a cancerous spine holding your diseased body together.

Deep as in poetry, like an ode to Stockholm Syndrome, to a father who lullabies you to bed before reaching under the covers.

Americans ask me why Arabs love dictators and I say abusive relationships are hard to get over.
When Mubarak fell back in 2011, Cairo couldn’t help but cry, sent him a text message: اسفين يا ريس. Please come back.

Virtually every Arab country has been under a brutal regime since the fifties.

My country has only known men who express their love with boot heels and batons. You try and imagine the trauma of a nation black-eyed from its own fist, the self-hate that comes with seeing your own body eat itself.

Forgiveness on a national scale is no easy feat.

It is realizing that your body cannot be blamed for what has been done to it. It is realizing that dictatorship is an STD that can’t be passed consensually.

It grows and blisters on the testicles of men who see the world as their oyster, men who fuck the oyster senseless, hand it lemons for its sores, tell it to make lemonade and move on, says there is no place here for terrorists when it tries to move on.

2
In Connecticut, I turn on the television and see Wolfe Blitzer’s wide eyes gazing in wonder at me, see Megyn Kelly flick her lustrous hair and ask me what’s wrong with my country.
As if we asked for it, as if every Arab nation got down on one knee with ring and bouquet, smiled at the bruises, laughed at the cigarette burns. As if this wasn’t an arranged marriage decades in the making.

As if you weren’t a bored matchmaker who just wanted to see what would happen, a child playing with matches then gasping at the fire. Grows up to be a fireman. Has us pay to put out the flames. Marvels at how fast a brown body can burn, puts that shit on CNN. Tells you to look at how bad of an example these people are setting for their children.
Americans ask me why Arabs can’t just choose democracy and I tell them it is not as simple as a break up song.

Egypt will not wake up tomorrow and make a new Spotify playlist. Even if it does, you will not listen.

Even if you do, it will be in the background of a house party. You will drink your Miller High Life and toast to freedom, how intoxicating its taste is.

You will remind yourself that Muslims don’t drink alcohol. You will wonder why it is they shut themselves out of the world.

White Americans talk about democracy like it’s a bag of seeds you buy at Home Depot, sprinkle across your backyard before freedom grows fully bloomed from the soil, petals red and blue outstretched.

They talk like all soil is the same.

Like every seed comes with a 100% satisfaction sticker, guaranteed to give you a luscious plant.

They forget how one strain of unwanted plant can kill an entire farmland. They forget that some seeds give you strange fruit. They forget that we have been planting our own crops for over seven thousand years.

3
There’s a reason self-love is tied to revolution, it’s a two way street.

In the right context, the word radical can be applied to anything from an uprising to a selfie.

If nothing else, they both state: I am worth preserving.

Forgiveness is no easy feat.

The Middle East is still moaning. Cairo is still waiting for Caesar, still looking to the words of a dead white man for self-validation. But my people are still a body, which is to say, I am a white blood cell, which is to say, the virus has not yet won, which is to say: حلوة بلادى السمرة, بلادى الحرة. أنا على الربابة بغنى. مملكش غير إنى أغنى و أقول تعيشى يا مصر.