how to say

in the divorce i separate to two piles                 books: english      love songs: arabic
my angers   my schooling    my long repeating name       english    english     arabic

i am someone’s daughter but i am american born        it shows in my short memory
my ahistoric glamour     my clumsy tongue when i forget the word for [   ] in arabic

i sleep         unbroken dark hours on airplanes home           & dream i’ve missed my
connecting flight      i dream a new & fluent mouth full of gauzy swathes of arabic

i dream my alternate selves               each with a face borrowed from photographs of
the girl who became my grandmother   brows & body rounded & cursive like arabic

but wake to the usual borderlands     i crowd shining slivers of english to my mouth
iris    crocus   inlet   heron         how dare i love a word without knowing it in arabic

& what even is translation       is immigration        without irony         safia
means pure           all my life it’s been true           even in my clouded arabic

 

1000

my roommate one year in college
would say of my smallness 
that any man who found me attractive
had a trace of the pedophilic  


& i would shrink                    newly girled
twenty-one with my eyebrows
plucked to grownup arches             sprouting
back every three weeks  
in sharp little shoots             already men         
have tried to steal me


in their taxis   corral me into alleyways
of the new city            already
the demand  for my name              though
no one ever asks how old i am


though no one ever did      i feel creaking
& ancient in the repetition
of it all   i feel my girlhood gone for
generations    my entire
line of blood crowded with exhausted
women            their unlined faces 


frozen in time            with only a thickness
about the waist          a small shoot
of gray to belie the years


i make up names to hand
to strangers at parties  
i trim years from my age & share without
being asked    that i am
fifteen              seventeen      & no one blinks  
no one             stops wanting       


i am disappeared      like all the girls
before me    around me 
all the girls to come             


everyone thinks
i am a little girl & still
they hunt me               still they show their teeth        
i am so tired i am
one thousand  years old          one thousand
years older when touched

Transport

sour heat of the taxicab                   my thighs stuck by sweat to the leather
in the aperture of the sunless hours                         i sit scarved in the quiet
that i think will protect me                    i’ve spent days inside & untouched
by human noise                            & i forget the lesson in the old hurts
that mark my kneaded body                   & sometimes i do not even register
the hands that steer the vehicle                       the man from which they protrude

until his eyes in the mirror hook the light     & i see his want thrusting
into the backseat                   a leer scraping like a fingernail along my skin
dumb prey shut in the cage with its wolf                    while his looking catalogs
my edible parts             gleaming in stripes by the streetlights & hushed
in brief sanctuary by the dark                    & the silence i’ve gathered will throb
when he asks is this where you live & i work to keep my face unchanged

& maybe sometime in the dimming past                       i was still unmarked
my girlhood body unoccupied by warning      its curiosity still free to extend
to a strange or recognized hand                       engineering an unfamiliar ache
before my shame became my native tongue        became the sovereign of my flesh
i had my milkteeth    smiled green as a seedling in photographs      in their silence
i was pure & cloistered      & i did not yet need to take inventory

for my body to feel like mine       the driver’s eyes displace me & leave behind a list
of ways i can be hurt            of all the places i am a door                 its use unaltered
by my yes or no     outside the streetlights change to a bridge’s trusses & i say nothing
the car points into a borough not my own                while i watch the distance swell
between my watching   & the slab of girl fastened to the backseat     useless little carcass
so faraway in her smallness    & already going missing   already bored by pain

& sometimes even those whose touch i choose      who mean me only tenderness
will with their smell or voice or a trick of the light      or the faintest touch of an index
finger    trip the latch that lets me out to the space      above my peeled & emptied rind
when i return i tell this to my lover       who braids himself to me & makes me new
who takes into his mouth my broken name       & in an exhale of smoke it emerges
weathered but complete & still mine             until i remake myself from stillness

& drape myself in the life of a different girl      rupture smoothed over like the noiseless
surface of a lake             & in the taxi i look out to the evening’s copper bruising
i give directions                   i push away his looking & feel my body reinflate
i dial my lover’s voice     the car points homeward & my old panic melts back into its archive
when he fills the backseat with sound                   & maybe i can be reborn
as a girl who does not go missing     a girl someone will look for    no longer the decorative husk

men make me with their want               the quiet shrinks & i come unstuck from the leather
i come unstuck from my hurts           pay my fare & debark the car untouched
my home protrudes like a lighthouse from the night        i settle the body      mine to register

Ode to Sudanese-Americans

basma & rudy were first         each holding
            a mirror in her arms    where i could see
my face as their faces             & we pierced

our noses & wore gamar boba
            in our ears & everyone at the party
thought them hoop earrings   & in the new york years

i crowd smoky bars alongside ladin
            & shadin & majid & linda & nedal   
atheel & amir & elkhair     & mo & mohammed & mo

& we are forever removing our shoes in each other’s
            apartments     ashing cigarettes
into the incense burner           making tea

with the good dried mint our mothers taught us
            to keep in the freezer              next to the chili
powder from home     making songs & dinner

& jokes in our parents’ accents     & i am funniest
            when i have two languages to cocktail            
when i can say remember & everyone was there             

the rented room at the middle school on sundays
            where our parents volunteered to teach us arabic 
to watch us bleat         alef baa taa thaa        & text

our american boyfriends that we were bored               
            & at restaurants everyone asks if we are related
& we say yes  we do not date because we are probably

cousins            we throw rent parties & project the video
            where albabil sing gitar alshoug & i am not
the only one crying     not the only one made & remade

by longing       the mutation that arabic makes of my english     
            metallic noises the english makes in my arabic 
we ululate at each other’s weddings   we ululate at the club          

& sarah & hana make the mulah vegan          & in english safia
            spells her name like mine but pronounces it
like purified    sews a patch of garmasees

to the back of my denim jacket          we wash our underwear
            in the sink & make group texts on whatsapp        
we go home & take pictures of the pyramids              

we go home & take pictures of the nile          we move
            to other cities & feel doubly diasporic            
& your cousin’s coworker’s little sister emails me

a list of bigalas in oakland      brings me crates
            of canned fava beans from her own parents’
basement         & i say sudanese-american & mean also

british sudanese          & canadian & australian & raised
            in the gulf        azza & yousra & amani & yassmin 
& it’s true that my people are everywhere    

the uncles driving taxis at the end of our nights               
            the pharmacist who fills my prescription
who is named for the mole denoting beauty  

adorning her left cheek           guardian spirits of my every
            hookah bar        of my every untagged photograph     
of crop tops & short shorts    & pierced cartilage & tattoos

of henna & headscarves & undercuts & shaved heads
            my tapestries               embroidered with hundreds
of little mirrors            glinting like sequins in the changing light

Related Poems

Arabic

The man with laughing eyes stopped smiling
to say, “Until you speak Arabic,
you will not understand pain.”

Something to do with the back of the head, 
an Arab carries sorrow in the back of the head,
that only language cracks, the thrum of stones

weeping, grating hinge on an old metal gate. 
“Once you know,” he whispered, “you can
     enter the room
whenever you need to. Music you heard
     from a distance,

the slapped drum of a stranger’s wedding,
well up inside your skin, inside rain, a thousand
pulsing tongues. You are changed.”

Outside, the snow has finally stopped. 
In a land where snow rarely falls,
we had felt our days grow white and still. 

I thought pain had no tongue. Or every tongue
at once, supreme translator, sieve. I admit my
shame. To live on the brink of Arabic, tugging

its rich threads without understanding 
how to weave the rug…I have no gift. 
The sound, but not the sense. 

I kept looking over his shoulder for someone else
to talk to, recalling my dying friend
     who only scrawled 
I can’t write. What good would any grammar
     have been

to her then? I touched his arm, held it hard,
which sometimes you don’t do in the Middle East,
and said, I’ll work on it, feeling sad

for his good strict heart, but later in the slick street
hailed a taxi by shouting Pain! and it stopped
in every language and opened its doors.