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.
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.”
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).
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.