Category Archives: Middle East poetry
Two outstanding publications which have published work of mine, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily and Sukoon Magazine, have each nominated a poem of mine for Best of the Net. I’m completely overwhelmed and honored by this, both wonderful venues I regularly read for their fantastic work.
Autumn Sky, a must-read for me every morning, nominated “The Year of the Dragon,” a ghazal, for which I am so grateful to editor Christine Klocek-Lim. Sukoon, an Arab-themed magazine with high-quality, moving work including such luminaries as Naomi Shihab Nye and Zeina Hashem-Beck, nominated “The Word for Dawn.” From Cloud 9, my huge gratitude to editor Rewa Zeinati. Thrilled and grateful, yes!! Cheers to all the winners from both venues: what an honor to be among them.
The newest issue of Sukoon Magazine, an Arab-themed online journal, is out with two of my poems!! One of them, “Out of Egypt,” is a Sestina. The magazine has poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and art, and has an impressive lineup of contributors, including Philip Metres and Susan Rich: well worth checking out.
Today is the first day of Ramadan, and so I’m posting a poem from Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (no claims on the translation) , but first this eloquent quote from Seyyed Hossein Nasr on the subject of this month of fasting:
A person who fasts with complete faith becomes aware very rapidly that he is a pilgrim in this world and that he is a creature destined for a goal beyond this material existence. The world about him loses some of its materiality and gains an aspect of “vacuity” and transparence which in the case of the contemplative Muslim leads directly to a contemplation of God in His creation.
The ethereal and “empty” nature of things is, moreover, compensated by the appearance of those very things as Divine gifts. Food and drink which are taken for granted throughout the year reveal themselves during the period of fasting more than ever as gifts of heaven (ni’mah) and gain a spiritual significance of a sacramental nature.
Rumi Poem for Ramadan
O moon-faced Beloved,
the month of Ramadan has arrived.
Cover the table
and open the path of praise.
O fickle busybody,
it’s time to change your ways.
Can you see the one who’s selling the halvah—
how long will it be the halvah you desire?
Just a glimpse of the halvah-maker
has made you so sweet even honey says,
“I’ll put myself beneath your feet, like soil;
I’ll worship at your shrine.”
Your chick frets within the egg
with all your eating and choking.
Break out of your shell that your wings may grow.
Let yourself fly.
The lips of the Master are parched
from calling the Beloved.
The sound of your call resounds
through the horn of your empty belly.
Let nothing be inside of you.
Be empty: give your lips to the lips of the reed.
When like a reed you fill with His breath,
then you’ll taste sweetness.
Sweetness is hidden in the Breath
that fills the reed.
Be like Mary – by that sweet breath
a child grew within her.
Thethepoetry, a fine site for all things poetry, including reviews, essays and interviews, has published my review of the inimitable Yahia Lababidi’s new book, a “collected poems” with an intro by H.L. Hix (says something right there) that will simply blow you away (the book, of course). Who says poetry can’t be enlightening? Check it out.
A dazzling poet whose work puts you right in the middle of the Middle East, Zeina Hashem Beck is definitely someone you don’t want to miss. Her poetry has been described by Alexander McNabb, co-host of the Dubai Eye radio show “Talking of Books” as so vivid, “Beirut just drips off the page.” And if Beirut never interested you before, you may have to reconsider. In her new book, To Live in Autumn, she describes the heart of a war-torn, politicized, exotic, heartbroken, and fascinating place that is also very personal and as any war-ravaged place, grief-stricken. Beyond this description, we enter her city through the richness of imagination and deftly chosen words. Much of her poetry can be found through her website, which will give you links, and on which is printed this poem. To avoid copyright issues, I will only print here the poem from her website. But I also highly recommend checking out this poem in Poetry Northwest, “We Who Have Decided to Live in Autumn.” Breathtaking.
After the Explosions (published in Mslexia)
For Tripoli, Lebanon, August 2013
After the explosions, I’ve been having ash-dreams;
everything’s grey, even the children’s pencil cases.
September with its play of light and possibilities
burst in unnoticed. My dead cousin
comes to me smiling, tries to pinch me, laughs.
Two days after the explosions, the pharmacy parrot
who wouldn’t keep quiet was found alive;
he doesn’t speak, but meows from time to time.
The owner jokes, “This country will have him
barking soon.” The trees seem to remember
the human parts in their branches.
Some elevators have sprung out of their places
like frightened hearts. I try not to think
about the three children who died holding
each other in a van, after a day at the beach.
I take my mind past the broken balconies,
into my friend’s shattered house, stare at the frame
still hanging on the cracked wall: a fishing boat, a calm
sea. The volunteers are sweeping the street, the kid
who sells chewing gum is helping. The survivor
with an eye patch says it sounded like glass rain.
My aunt sings goodbye to her son from the window,
the red tarboosh on his coffin in the distance,
her white handkerchief taking flight.
Here’s a poem by the wonderful Naomi Shihab Nye, which I think continues my theme of poems relating to Ramadan.
Different Ways to Pray
BY Naomi Shihab Nye
There was the method of kneeling,
a fine method, if you lived in a country
where stones were smooth.
The women dreamed wistfully of bleached courtyards,
hidden corners where knee fit rock.
Their prayers were weathered rib bones,
small calcium words uttered in sequence,
as if this shedding of syllables could somehow
fuse them to the sky.
There were the men who had been shepherds so long
they walked like sheep.
Under the olive trees, they raised their arms—
Hear us! We have pain on earth!
We have so much pain there is no place to store it!
But the olives bobbed peacefully
in fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.
At night the men ate heartily, flat bread and white cheese,
and were happy in spite of the pain,
because there was also happiness.
Some prized the pilgrimage,
wrapping themselves in new white linen
to ride buses across miles of vacant sand.
When they arrived at Mecca
they would circle the holy places,
on foot, many times,
they would bend to kiss the earth
and return, their lean faces housing mystery.
While for certain cousins and grandmothers
the pilgrimage occurred daily,
lugging water from the spring
or balancing the baskets of grapes.
These were the ones present at births,
humming quietly to perspiring mothers.
The ones stitching intricate needlework into children’s dresses,
forgetting how easily children soil clothes.
There were those who didn’t care about praying.
The young ones. The ones who had been to America.
They told the old ones, you are wasting your time.
Time?—The old ones prayed for the young ones.
They prayed for Allah to mend their brains,
for the twig, the round moon,
to speak suddenly in a commanding tone.
And occasionally there would be one
who did none of this,
the old man Fowzi, for example, Fowzi the fool,
who beat everyone at dominoes,
insisted he spoke with God as he spoke with goats,
and was famous for his laugh.
Naomi Shihab Nye, “Different Ways to Pray” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Portland, Oregon: Far Corner Books, 1995). Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye.
Another poem for Ramadan, entitled “Ramadan,” by Kazem Ali. This one plays with the concept of “the Night of Power,” or Laylat al-Qadr, the night in Ramadan where the heavens are opened for prayers to be answered, a night filled with angels, inhospitable to djinn or other evil influences. This night is not named directly, but the fact that one never knows exactly which night it will be is clear in the poem.
By Kazim Ali
You wanted to be so hungry, you would break into branches,
and have to choose between the starving month’s
nineteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-third evenings.
The liturgy begins to echo itself and why does it matter?
If the ground-water is too scarce one can stretch nets
into the air and harvest the fog.
Hunger opens you to illiteracy,
thirst makes clear the starving pattern,
the thick night is so quiet, the spinning spider pauses,
the angel stops whispering for a moment—
The secret night could already be over,
you will have to listen very carefully—
You are never going to know which night’s mouth is sacredly reciting
and which night’s recitation is secretly mere wind—
The Ghazal Page, the place to find top-notch poems in the ghazal form, both traditional and experimental, is now live with a brand new issue, one I’m especially honored to have ghazals included in, among a stellar array of poets. Two of my ghazals, both fairly traditional, coincidentally about the Middle East (!) are in it: “Honor,” a new ghazal based on the true story of a relative (uncle by marriage) and the horrific case of “honor killings;” and “In Egypt,” about a part of my life lived there.
You shouldn’t miss the other ghazals, some with must-read titles, and the rest doesn’t disappoint. It’s an inspiring form, one I seem to gravitate toward. The site itself is gorgeous, thanks to editor Holly Jensen, who has worked hard to keep the “Page” alive (though it’s much more than a “page”) after the death of its dedicate founder, Gene Doty. Enjoy!!
For this month of Ramadan, I will post a few poems on the subject of Ramadan, or something related, starting with this poem by Khaled Mattawa:
BY Khaled Mattawa
My mother forgets to feed her animals
because it’s only fair.
She rushes to them when
she hears hoarse roosters crowing
and billy goats butting
over a last straw.
This month the moon becomes a princess.
The stars fan her,
Jupiter pours cups of wine,
Mars sings melancholy mawals.
Bearded men holding prayer beads
and yellow booklets stare at her
and point aching fingers at her waist.
In our house we break a fast
with dates from Huun
and glasses of buttermilk.
Then on to bowls of lamb soup
flavored with mint, trays
of stuffed grape leaves,
spiced fava beans drenched
in olive oil and lemon juice.
And that is only the beginning.
The spirits of Johnny Walker and gin
hide in the trunks of white Peugeots.
In the nightclubs of my city, waiters
serve only non-alcoholic beer
and belly dancers cover themselves.
Father of sixteen children, our neighbor
visits bringing two kilos of baklava.
He washes them down with a dozen
demitasses of sweet sage tea.
Before dawn he runs to one
of his two wives, both named Salma,
and loves her hurriedly,
his hands barely touching a breast.
NOTES: A Mawal is an unaccompanied improvisarional vocal solo regularly performed by singers of traditional Arabic music to show their poetic as well as singing prowess.