Tag Archives: Middle East poets

Fady Joudah: Powerful Voice for Truth


The discovery of Palestinian-American poet Fady Joudah is something earth-shaking, huge, both indelible and too quickly passing, like the flight of a bird. A practicing physician who devoted significant time to Doctors Without Borders, a man who takes his causes and compassion seriously, he was selected by Louise Glück in 2007 for the Yale Younger Poet Series Prize for The Earth in the Attic. (Did anyone else notice Louise Glück has great taste?) His work as a doctor shows up in his poetry in startling ways. He has also translated two books of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, and was a finalist for the 2008 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. Among other awards and achievements. Recognition for work such as that below, where truth is shown as something that understands a bludgeon to the head cannot be understood or mitigated by a bludgeon to the head.

And for this month of Ramadan, this poem,

The Tea and Sage Poem

By Fady Joudah

At a desk made of glass,
In a glass walled-room
With red airport carpet,

An officer asked
My father for fingerprints,
And my father refused,

So another offered him tea
And he sipped it. The teacup
Template for fingerprints.

My father says, it was just
Hot water with a bag.
My father says, in his country,

Because the earth knows
The scent of history,
It gave the people sage.

I like my tea with sage
From my mother’s garden,
Next to the snapdragons

She calls fishmouths
Coming out for air. A remedy
For stomach pains she keeps

In the kitchen where
She always sings.
First, she is Hagar

Boiling water
Where tea is loosened.
Then she drops

In it a pinch of sage
And lets it sit a while.
She tells a story:

The groom arrives late
To his wedding
Wearing only one shoe.

The bride asks him
About the shoe. He tells her
He lost it while jumping

Over a house-wall.
Breaking away from soldiers.
She asks:

Tea with sage
Or tea with mint?

With sage, he says,
Sweet scent, bitter tongue.
She makes it, he drinks.

*******

And for this past month of re-awakened violence in a place called Gaza, where violence is never allowed to sleep, always blamed on those who are killed, or we might say, chopped down. This poem:

Sleeping Trees

By Fady Joudah

Between what should and what should not be
Everything is liable to explode. Many times
I was told who has no land has no sea. My father
Learned to fly in a dream. This is the story
Of a sycamore tree he used to climb
When he was young to watch the rain.

Sometimes it rained so hard it hurt. Like being
Beaten with sticks. Then the mud would run red.

My brother believed bad dreams could kill
A man in his sleep, he insisted
We wake my father from his muffled screams
On the night of the day he took us to see his village.
No longer his village he found his tree amputated.
Between one falling and the next

There’s a weightless state. There was a woman
Who loved me. Asked me how to say tree
In Arabic. I didn’t tell her. She was sad. I didn’t understand.
When she left. I saw a man in my sleep three times. A man I knew
Could turn anyone into one-half reptile.
I was immune. I thought I was. I was terrified of being

The only one left. When we woke my father
He was running away from soldiers. Now
He doesn’t remember that night. He laughs
About another sleep, he raised his arms to strike a king
And tried not to stop. He flew
But mother woke him and held him for an hour,

Or half an hour, or as long as it takes a migration inward.
Maybe if I had just said it.
Shejerah, she would’ve remembered me longer. Maybe
I don’t know much about dreams
But my mother taught me the law of omen. The dead
Know about the dying and sometimes
Catch them in sleep like the sycamore tree
My father used to climb

When he was young to watch the rain stream,
And he would gently swing.

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Filed under Human Rights, Middle East poetry, Poems and War, Poetry, Poets

Arrested for a Poem: Dareen Tatour, Poet of Resistance

The long-standing question “Does Poetry Matter?” has found a resounding answer in the affirmative in the arrest, trial, and conviction — and its aftermath — of Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour for a poem, the writing and publication of which was determined by an Israeli court on May 3, 2018 to constitute an act of terror and “incitement to violence.” This is almost 3 years after her arrest in October of 2015, during which time she had been in various forms of detention, starting with prison and then house arrest under severe restrictions in an apartment far from her home town, and, after an outcry from PEN, Israeli writers and artists, and other people and international organizations, finally a judge allowed house arrest in her home town with the same previously imposed ban on internet usage and electronic monitoring that restricted her movements. All this for a poem, or actually a small group of poems. Yes, the world says, poetry matters.

As Ms. Tatour said, “My trial ripped off the masks. The whole world will hear my story. The whole world will hear what Israel’s democracy is. A democracy for Jews only. Only Arabs go to jail. The court said I am convicted of terrorism. If that’s my terrorism, I give the world a terrorism of love.”

Further, “I cannot live without poetry,” Tatour told Haaretz. “They want me to stop writing. For me to be a poet without a pen and without feelings.”

Her attorney, Gaby Lasky, decried the “criminalization of poetry” in which translation and interpretation played a large part, asserting “When the state tries people for poetry, that derogates from the cultural richness of all society.”

Perhaps the best witness would be Tatour’s poetry itself.

Detaining a Poem

One day,
they stopped me,
shackled me,
tied up my body, my soul,
my everything…

Then they said: search her,
we’ll find a terrorist within her!
They turned my heart inside out—
my eyes as well,
rummaged through even my feelings.
From my eyes they drew a pulse of inspiration;
from my heart, the ability to sketch out meanings.
Then they said: beware!
She’s hiding weapons deep in her pockets.
Search her!
Root out the explosives.
And so they searched me…

Finally, they said, accusing me:
We found nothing
in her pockets except letters.
We found nothing except for a poem.

(Translated from the Arabic by Andrew Lever)

*********

I Will Not Leave

By Dareen Tatour

(Translated by Jonathan Wright)

They signed on my behalf
And turned me into
A file, forgotten
Like cigarette butts.
Homesickness tore me apart
And in my own country I ended up
An immigrant.

I abandoned those pens
To weep over the sorrows
Of the inkwells.
They abandoned my cause and my dream
At the cemetery gates
And that person who’s waiting
Laments his luck
As life passes.

Besiege me,
Kill me, blow me up,
Assassinate me, imprison me.
When it comes to my country,
There’s no backing down.

*******

Perhaps the best witness would be the poem for which she was convicted:

Resist, My People, Resist Them

Resist, my people, resist them.

In Jerusalem, I dressed my wounds and breathed my sorrows

And carried the soul in my palm

For an Arab Palestine.

I will not succumb to the “peaceful solution,”

Never lower my flags

Until I evict them from my land.

I cast them aside for a coming time.

Resist, my people, resist them.

Resist the settler’s robbery

And follow the caravan of martyrs.

Shred the disgraceful constitution

Which imposed degradation and humiliation

And deterred us from restoring justice.

They burned blameless children;

As for Hadil, they sniped her in public,

Killed her in broad daylight.

Resist, my people, resist them.

Resist the colonialist’s onslaught.

Pay no mind to his agents among us

Who chain us with the peaceful illusion.

Do not fear doubtful tongues;

The truth in your heart is stronger,

As long as you resist in a land

That has lived through raids and victory.

So Ali called from his grave:

Resist, my rebellious people.

Write me as prose on the agarwood;

My remains have you as a response.

Resist, my people, resist them.

Resist, my people, resist them.

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Faisal Mohyuddin: The “Gentle Ferocity” of His Must-Read Voice

If you haven’t read or discovered Faisal Mohyuddin, then this may be the moment to wake up to the unforgettable, even transformative experience of his poetry. Also an accomplished and unique visual artist, as well as a recognized innovator in the teaching profession, Mohyuddin’s poetry is not to be missed. His newest collection, The Displaced Children of Displaced Children, won the 2017 Sexton Prize in poetry judged by Kimiko Hahn. A “proud American Muslim” whose voice enlightens a path to multi-cultural coexistence and compassion, one cannot really categorize his work in the usual sense, because its boundaries are made dynamic by their heartfelt human core. Just a sample of his work below. (More on his website.)

Migration Narrative

What wilts becomes
the world for the weary.
They can’t help but

wonder at the lovely
shadow touch of another
war’s rubbled song.

If crossing freely into fire
can churn the blood’s
hollow music, then

surely the orphan can
ask at dusk for water
and get more than spit.

—————————-

The following poem, published in The Missouri Review, is one of the most amazing poetic expressions of faith, fatherhood, love, and defining sacredness, I’ve seen.

The Opening

It is You we worship; it is You we ask for help. Guide us
to the straight path: the path of those You have blessed,
those who incur no anger and who have not gone astray. —The Holy Quran, “Al-Fatiha,” verses 5-7

THE CHILD: Tell me, Father,
what new turbulence took hold
in your blood on the day of my birth,
and did your stomach sink
each time I cried out for the basket
of your arms?

THE FATHER: I held you too close
to feel anything but the wild
gallop of your tiny heart.

THE CHILD: Did you recite
the call to prayer in my ear, slip
your pinky, dipped in honey, in my mouth
to mark with song and sweetness
my entry into the ummah
of the Prophet Muhammad?

THE FATHER: All night, I nursed
a candle’s flame, leaning in and out
of its sphere of light, mumbling verses
of the Qur’an, mispronouncing
the Arabic, not understanding a word
beyond “Al-Fatiha,” but knowing,
nonetheless, I had fulfilled
this first obligation of fatherhood.

THE CHILD: What was it like
to look into my eyes for the first time?

THE FATHER: I felt as if my fingers
had combed the embryonic silt feathering
the deepest bottom of the ocean.
And when I resurfaced, holding the key
to fatherhood, I understood
the true worth of being a living thing.

THE CHILD: What did you say
to Mother when she could not find
the words to tell you about how
the breaking open of a body
propels one toward heaven, that God
promises the greatest share of Paradise
to mothers?

THE FATHER: After a long silence,
I said, “To every unutterable thing
buried in your heart, to every miraculous truth
teetering on the tip of your tongue,
yes, yes, ameen.”

THE CHILD: Did you spill the blood
of two goats, give their meat to the poor,
to bless my arrival, to mark
the transition of my soul
from the library of the eternal
into the living fire of a body too fragile to share?

THE FATHER: For twenty years,
I harvested the silhouette of my father’s voice
from the night sky, let its echo rock me
to sleep whenever I felt so crushed
by heartache that even God’s infinite love,
a rescue vessel sailing through a history
of bloodshed and loss, could not hold me
intact enough to believe in survival—
so if it was my hand or another’s
that guided the blade along two throats
I cannot recall, nor do I want to.

THE CHILD: What else
might you have done
had fatherhood not stolen you
from the life you knew?

THE FATHER: When a surgeon
saves your life by amputating a limb
housing a reservoir of poison,
you do not curse the violence
of his work, nor the pain of the procedure.
You bow down before God.
You thank the man. You learn to write
with the other hand, to walk
on one leg.

THE CHILD: One final question,
Father. What should I say
when my son, when I too become a father,
asks me about the hours
of your life that exist beyond
my knowing?

THE FATHER: Tell him more
about the hours of your life
so his hunger is not as desperate
nor as bottomless
as ours.

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Gabeba Baderoon: A Deeply Beautiful Poetic Voice from South Africa

In memory of Winnie Mandela, the brave freedom fighter against apartheid in South Africa who died this week (and if you have any doubts about her heroism, read this), I searched the work of South African poets to find a favorite to post here, and with great delight discovered the powerful, gifted voice of Gabeba Baderoon. The recipient of many awards and also the praise of well-established poets, a bio can be found here.

She is equally adept at addressing such public issues as war, oppression, and national tragedy, and the very small personal details of life, infusing a special magic and lightness of tone into whatever subject she chooses. Here, on war and social tragedy:

WAR TRIPTYCH: LOVE, SILENCE, GLORY

By Gabeba Baderoon

I. Always For The First Time

We tell our stories of war like stories
of love, innocent as eggs.

We will meet memory again at the wall around our city,
always for the first time.

II. Accounting

The mother asked to stay.
She looked at her silent child.

I was waiting for you.

The quiet of the girl’s face was a different quiet
Her hands lay untouched by death.

The washer of bodies cut
away her long black dress.

Blue prayer beads fell
to the floor in a slow accounting.

The washer of bodies began to sing
a prayer to mothers and daughters.

The mother said,
who will wait for me.

(on the aftermath of the bombings on a holy day in Najaf, Iraq)

III. Father Receives News His Son Died in the Intifada

When he heard the news, Mr Karim became silent.
He did not look at the cameras,
nor at the people who brought their grief.
He felt a hand slip from his hand,
a small unclasping,
and for that he refused the solace of glory.

And here, a more personal detail of no apparent significance takes on that magic we seek in poetry.

THE ART OF LEAVING

By Gabeba Baderoon

The warmth is leaving
your shirt, hanging
over the back of the chair. Slowly
it is giving back everything
it had of yours.

Here she gives love and relationships in a different context, allowing the physical and emotional elements their space, time, and an unexpected transcendence.

THE DREAM IN THE NEXT BODY

By Gabeba Baderoon

From the end of the bed, I pull
the sheets back into place.

An old man paints a large sun striped
by clouds of seven blues.
Across the yellow centre each
blue is precisely itself and yet,
at the point it meets another,
the eye cannot detect a change.
The air shifts, he says,
and the colours.

When you touched me in a dream,
your skin an hour ago did not end
where it joined mine. My body continued
the movement of yours. Something flowed
between us like birds in a flock.

In a solitude larger than our two bodies
the hardening light parted us again

But under the covering the impress
of our bodies is a single, warm hollow.

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“In Jerusalem” by Mahmoud Darwish in Memory of a Peace Process

Now that Donald Trump has closed the door on peace between the Palestinians and Israelis by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, Poet Mahmoud Darwish’s poem carries a certain urgency and at the same time, perhaps, both a warning and a sense of the hope that is being bulldozed by this political maneuver.

In Jerusalem

By Mahmoud Darwish

Translated By Fady Joudah

In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy … ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?
I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
then I become another. Transfigured. Words
sprout like grass from Isaiah’s messenger
mouth: “If you don’t believe you won’t be safe.”
I walk as if I were another. And my wound a white
biblical rose. And my hands like two doves
on the cross hovering and carrying the earth.
I don’t walk, I fly, I become another,
transfigured. No place and no time. So who am I?
I am no I in ascension’s presence. But I
think to myself: Alone, the prophet Muhammad
spoke classical Arabic. “And then what?”
Then what? A woman soldier shouted:
Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?
I said: You killed me … and I forgot, like you, to die.

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My Review of Lababidi’s Balancing Acts Published

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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.

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Zeina Hashem Beck: “Beirut Just Drips Off the Page”

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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.

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