Mama is a time-traveling word

Today’s selection is dedicated to my mother. I was once the five-year-old in this poem from Lhena Khalaf Tuffaha, an American poet of Palestinian, Jordanian, and Syrian heritage. I, too, wondered why my mom kept calling me “mom,” and felt mystified by language and everything encompassed in that magical word.

lena-2014

“Translation”

She asks: why do you say Mama
when you
call me?

Six o’clock and I am tired.
And making dinner right now.
An Arab with a five-year-old demanding
neat-and-tidy American answers.
I phone it in:
That’s just how Arabic works.

Translation is a complicated dance.
Mama is the word
that holds you in
even when you are walking around in the world
with your own name,
so that calling you to me
I discard the self and
respond to the name you gave me,
becoming the person you made me.

Mama is a time-traveling word,
a song to you and to my own mother,
so that whenever I reach out to you
she is there too.
And calling you I am once again
the daughter, tethered to her
just as I am
locked in this lifelong embrace
with you.

I call myself and my own mother and you
all three of us, in one breath.

from Water & Salt 

what planet in the widow’s hand?

Today I give you just one of the searing poems from The Silence that Remains by Palestinian poet, novelist, and journalist Ghassan Zaqtan (1954-), translated by Palestinian-American poet and physician Fady Joudah (1971-).

ghassanres

“That Life”

I’m going to see how they died
I’m going toward that wreckage
going to see them there
tranquil on the hill of engagement

Dear Wednesday’s narcissus, what time is it
what death is it
what planet in the widow’s hand
five or three?

Her dress was blooming
              we were
neglected flowers on her dress

Dear women’s thresholds, how much is a lifetime
what time is a river
how many daggers in the blood
of the whirling storm
five or three?

We let the city play
and rolled our widespread shrouds shut

I’m going to see how they died
I’m going toward that wreckage
going to see their death
hills of the north
wind-rise of the south
I’m going to call them by their names

I’m listening to the grass as it splits through my skin

Listen close to the aching but fierce heartbeat of acclaimed Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish (1978-) in the opening piece of his first collection to appear in English, Nothing More to Lose. The rest of his book, which was just published in 2014, is as layered and complex as the ruins of this tormented landscape; order a copy for your local library if you can.

“Nothing More to Lose”

Lay your head on my chest and listen
to the layers of ruins
behind the madrasah of Saladin
hear the houses sliced open
in the village of Lifta
hear the wrecked mill, the lessons and reading
on the mosque’s ground floor
hear the balcony lights
go out for the very last time
on the heights of Wadi Salib
hear the crowds drag their feet
and hear them returning
hear the bodies as they’re thrown, listen
to their breathing on the bed
of the Sea of Galilee
listen like a fish
in a lake guarded by an angel
hear the tales of the villagers, embroidered
like kaffiyehs in the poems
hear the singers growing old
hear their ageless voices
hear the women of Nazareth
as they cross the meadow
hear the camel driver
who never stops tormenting me
Hear it
and let us, together, remember
then let us, together forget
all that we have heard

Lay your head on my chest:
I’m listening to the dirt
I’m listening to the grass
as it splits through my skin . . .

We lost our heads in love
and have nothing more to lose

Translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid