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



Copyright © 2017 by Safia Elhillo. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 13, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“This poem is the first time I’ve put down in writing the scary thought that I may no longer be fluent in Arabic, my first language and mother tongue. And while it is a space to mourn, it is a space to also take ownership of my hyphens, of the hybrid worlds and languages I live in. I chose the ghazal as its form for its ancientness and lineage, a reminder that I came from somewhere as I strike out into new worlds.”
—Safia Elhillo