Selections from “Louder than Hearts”, poetry by Zeina Hashem Beck

Zeina Hashem Beck (credit: Hind Shoufani) Zeina Hashem Beck (credit: Hind Shoufani)

I feel the idea of displacement is central to Louder than Hearts—displacement from the land, from home, from memory, and from one’s mother language. The book is dedicated “To our broken languages & our broken cities,” but I wanted to find song and celebration too, inside the brokenness.

Louder Than Hearts: Poems Zeina Hashem Beck (Bauhan, April 2017)
Louder Than Hearts: Poems
Zeina Hashem Beck (Bauhan, April 2017)

I wanted poems rooted in the very specific experience of an Arab woman living and witnessing in the Arab world today, poems that exist between English and Arabic, poems that resist both the othering of orientalism and oppressive ideas of a “universality” that might erase the personal, the particular, and the real.
—Zeina Hashem Beck

The three poems below appear in Zeina Hashem Beck’s second full-length collection, Louder than Hearts, winner of the 2016 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize.



Broken Ghazal: Speak Arabic


I write in English the way I roam foreign cities—full of light

& betrayal, until I find a coffee shop that speaks Arabic.


If we were born in the cities we long for, Love—Paris, Prague, New York—

what languages would they have taught us to speak? Arabic


says the best singers are the peddlers. & the Qur’an,

would it still lift us if it didn’t speak Arabic?


Sure, there is always Lennon, but I wonder if we would have found

Sheikh Imam, who reminds us the wound is awake & love speaks Arabic,


who reminds us no one can colonize a river, & the tyrant

is always afraid of the poet, especially if she speaks Arabic.


They say people who grow up in two languages have stronger

memories, & they can hear the birds on the balconies speak Arabic,


& they know a mountain of orange life jackets looks like

spring, though it won’t revive the dead, who speak Arabic


but no longer need a visa, or translation. & you, Zeina, what else

can you do but whisper to these broken lines, Speak. Speak Arabic.



Excerpt from Khandaq mon amour


I dream of the whale every night.

I have seen it when we sailed the Mediterranean.

One refugee told me he only sees the dead now

when he looks at the sea. I dream of the whale.

I have seen it dip and emerge—

silent island, wing-tail, wing-fins.

And a mouth that swallows everything.


I love how you keep smoking.

Do all Arab women smoke like that?

I love that you call me habibi.


Arab women call everyone habibi.

Will you ever look at my body, not see

a map of your own longing?

I could get used to those light eyes of yours,

habibi, but your skin is too pale.

What a pretty little boy. Where were you born?

Paris? London? New York? It doesn’t matter.

I’ve never been to any of them.

I will other you anyway, conquer you, and tomorrow

I will say, “Somewhere West. Too cute, too pale.

I don’t remember his name.”


Tell me

your name.

Show me

your legs.


your mouth.

What is it that Fairuz is singing?


Ahwak bila amali

I love you without hope.


Dance for me.


Stop asking me to dance

to Fairuz. I have done it last night,

I have been doing it forever. My wrists,

my arms are tired of her voice.

I prefer Umm Kulthum—

no one has ever screamed

about freedom the way she did,

except, perhaps, for Piaf (who has hands

the size of continents, eyebrows

like distant bird wings), and Dalida

(who has killed herself).


Hold me.

Why is there always the sound of cars

on this street below us, in this empty city?

What are these holes along your shoulder blades?


Note: Khandaq is Arabic for “trench.”



Umm Kulthum Speaks


I was a little boy with the voice of a God

once. How else could my father set this spell of mine

free? So I dressed my voice, first with boy’s clothing,

then with the Qur’an, then with poems, then with Egypt,

but all these were merely pretexts

for the magic that rose out of my throat.

Don’t you see how the streets are empty

on my radio Thursdays? Do you know what tarab

means? To repeat, to carry everyone back

to their hurt. I bent the sentences I sang

into portals, and what else could you have screamed

but Allah Allah Allah for hours?

Then came the scarf in my left hand,

the black diamond-studded cat-eye sunglasses,

but these were things I carried because

they had names. One has to dress

for this earth. You still haven’t seen my wings.

I haven’t been called a planet for nothing. My voice soars

around the theater, the sun, and comes back to this street

at midnight, more than half a century later, asking,

Has love ever seen such drunkenness?

Everything about me orbits. Even my coffin

has sailed the streets of Cairo for hours.


Notes: Umm Kulthum was an Egyptian singer, ones of the most famous divas in the Arab world. When she was young, her father used to take her singing dressed as a boy. Tarab is a kind of Arabic music. The word is also used to describe the emotional effect of this kind of music on the listener, who is almost in a state of trance.

Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet who lives in Dubai. Her most recent collection, Louder than Hearts, won the 2016 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize. Her chapbook, There Was and How Much There Was, is a 2016 Laureate’s Choice, selected by Carol Ann Duffy. Her work has also appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Ambit, and The Rialto, among others.

Zeina Hashem Beck will be appearing at