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.
She asks: why do you say Mama
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
I call myself and my own mother and you
all three of us, in one breath.
from Water & Salt
I hope that after reading this poem you will understand why I’ve recently been captivated by the work of Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi (1969-), who was forced into exile in 2012 and now lives in London. He is often described as one of today’s leading African poets writing in Arabic; if you’d like to read more of these beautiful translations, check out the collection where this poem lives, A Monkey at the Window.
The body of a bird in your mouth
Raw light spills from your eyes,
You must breach the horizon, once,
in order to wake up.
You must open window after window.
You must support the walls.
I let alphabets cling to me
as I climb the thread of language
between myself and the world.
I muster crowds in my mouth:
suspended between language and the world,
between the world and the alphabets.
I let my head
listen to the myth,
to all sides praising each other.
And I shout at the winds from the top of a mountain.
Why does my tongue tell me to climb this far?
What is the distance between my voice and my longing?
What is there?
A body transcending my body.
A body exiled by desire.
A body sheltered by the wind.
Translated by Sarah Maguire and Atef Alshaer