return of the friend :: mohja kahf

I had not expected love but it surprised,
like the slip of arm around my waist
I had expected chiding, but your eyes
spoke only kindness, like your face

Tulips by the road, the burst of red—
I drew my breath as your bus rounded the bend
Pink rose in lime green tissue, then your tread,
and the slip of arm around my waist

Years dissolve between us in this place,
and I exhale. I had expected questions,
quizzing, an exchange, a taxing gaze,
not acceptance freely given, your embrace
I had not expected love

the fallen protester’s song :: mohja kahf

These last few days were the most beautiful
I ever lived, my friends. For the first time
in our lives spent under martial law,
we took the secret freedom we’d been eating
out of the hidden cupboard, and ate it openly.
Then we took it right outside like melting ice cream
and started giving it away. To anyone.
After that, we were free.
I don’t know how to explain to those who haven’t tasted it.
Imagine an entire country with a calcium deficiency,
long-term, and everybody shrinks, but no one notices.
People smelled the free on us, like win on a horse, and loved us,
gave us secret bits of their food wrapped in warm bread,
beginning to free themselves, so that one day
the inside and the outside of people
will no longer be split bloody trembling down the middle,
like I was by the bullet spray of soldiers sent to shoot us,
then by the state’s torture-doctors. They cut my insides out,
trying to find the freedom and extract it surgically.
That’s what they do, those who have lost half
their humanity, they try to make half-humans out of everyone.
My friends, you are heaving a giant iron shelf,
off the limbs of people whose bones it crushes.
Soon it will yield to the weight of all your shoulders.
Remember me when that happens.
We worked for it together.
You were as ready to die for it as I was,
but it happened to be me. So when you write a word
on a wall for all to see
and it doesn’t have to be in code,
and no one breaks the hand that drew it,
when freedom is no longer treated like a narcotic,
dosed in hidden little baggies only for the few,
but becomes like photosynthesis in plants,
processing light in every leaf,
when everyone can be openly free,
when freedom falls like a deliverance rain,
then, my friends, remember me.

the marvelous women :: mohja kahf

All women speak two languages:
the language of men
and the language of silent suffering.
Some women speak a third,
the language of queens.
They are marvelous
and they are my friends.

My friends give me poetry.
If it were not for them
I’d be a seamstress out of work.
They send me their dresses
and I sew together poems,
enormous sails for ocean journeys.

My marvelous friends, these women
who are elegant and fix engines,
who teach gynecology and literacy,
and work in jails and sing and sculpt
and paint the ninety-nine names,
who keep each other’s secrets
and pass on each other’s spirits
like small packets of leavening,

it is from you I fashion poetry.
I scoop up, in handfuls, glittering
sequins that fall from your bodies
as you fall in love, marry, divorce,
get custody, get cats, enter
supreme courts of justice,
argue with God.

You rescuers on galloping steeds
of the weak and the wounded–
Creatures of beauty and passion,
powerful workers in love–
you are the poems.
I am only your stenographer.
I am the hungry transcriber
of the conjuring recipes you hoard
in the chests of your great-grandmothers.

My marvelous friends–the women
of brilliance in my life,
who levitate my daughters,
you are a coat of many colors
in silk tie-dye so gossamer
it can be crumpled in one hand.
You houris, you mermaids, swimmers
in dangerous waters, defiers of sharks–

My marvelous friends,
thirsty Hagars and laughing Sarahs,
you eloquent radio Aishas,
Marys drinking the secret
milkshakes of heaven,
slinky Zuleikas of desire,
gay Walladas, Harriets
parting the sea, Esthers in the palace,
Penelopes of patient scheming,

you are the last hope of the shrinking women.
You are the last hand to the fallen knights
You are the only epics left in the world

Come with me, come with poetry
Jump on this wild chariot, hurry–

my grandmother washes her feet in the sink of the bathroom at sears :: mohja kahf

My grandmother puts her feet in the sink
         of the bathroom at Sears
to wash them in the ritual washing for prayer,
wudu,
because she has to pray in the store or miss
the mandatory prayer time for Muslims
She does it with great poise, balancing
herself with one plump matronly arm
against the automated hot-air hand dryer,
after having removed her support knee-highs
and laid them aside, folded in thirds,
and given me her purse and her packages to hold
so she can accomplish this august ritual
and get back to the ritual of shopping for housewares

Respectable Sears matrons shake their heads and frown
as they notice what my grandmother is doing,
an affront to American porcelain,
a contamination of American Standards
by something foreign and unhygienic
requiring civic action and possible use of disinfectant spray
They fluster about and flutter their hands and I can see
a clash of civilizations brewing in the Sears bathroom

My grandmother, though she speaks no English,
catches their meaning and her look in the mirror says,
I have washed my feet over Iznik tile in Istanbul
with water from the world’s ancient irrigation systems
I have washed my feet in the bathhouses of Damascus
over painted bowls imported from China
among the best families of Aleppo
And if you Americans knew anything
about civilization and cleanliness,
you’d make wider washbins, anyway

My grandmother knows one culture—the right one,

as do these matrons of the Middle West. For them,
my grandmother might as well have been squatting
in the mud over a rusty tin in vaguely tropical squalor,
Mexican or Middle Eastern, it doesn’t matter which,
when she lifts her well-groomed foot and puts it over the edge.
“You can’t do that,” one of the women protests,
turning to me, “Tell her she can’t do that.”
“We wash our feet five times a day,”
my grandmother declares hotly in Arabic.
“My feet are cleaner than their sink.
Worried about their sink, are they? I
should worry about my feet!”
My grandmother nudges me, “Go on, tell them.”

Standing between the door and the mirror, I can see
at multiple angles, my grandmother and the other shoppers,
all of them decent and goodhearted women, diligent
in cleanliness, grooming, and decorum
Even now my grandmother, not to be rushed,
is delicately drying her pumps with tissues from her purse
For my grandmother always wears well-turned pumps
that match her purse, I think in case someone
from one of the best families of Aleppo
should run into her—here, in front of the Kenmore display

I smile at the midwestern women
as if my grandmother has just said something lovely about them
and shrug at my grandmother as if they
had just apologized through me
No one is fooled, but I

hold the door open for everyone
and we all emerge on the sales floor
and lose ourselves in the great common ground
of housewares on markdown.