Photo: ‘Tripoli Clock Tower’ by Natheer Halawani www.natheerhalawani.com
By then the doctors had removed the tubes
that came out of your lung; by then your fever
had dropped and you were eating again; by then
the cafeteria chef would recognize my voice
on the phone, ask if you were having your usual,
rice with laban; by then the woman next door had
died, her family had prayed; by then the old man at the end
of the hall had stopped shouting, I’m blind! I’m blind!
all night; by then you were sitting in your hospital bed
smiling, offering me coffee from a pink plastic cup;
by then the nurses knew the name of the two-year-old
with severe pneumonia, and knew her mother,
the one who’d slept with her in the ICU, the one who ran
down the corridor as the nurse tried to find her daughter’s
vein again; by then we had filled your room
with toys, books, crayons, because parents want
to make their children feel like children
everywhere—in hospitals, in refugee tents, in shelters;
by then we were already preparing for that ride back
home, when you pointed, Mom! Dad! Look!
A beautiful tree! and so were the cars, the street,
the traffic lights and the sky, which was finally vaster
than a window frame for the first time in six weeks.
Khadijah always burnt the onions, arrived late,
blamed it on the faraway village, the buses.
My mother yelled at her so loud
the entire street heard:
You do this on purpose.
Her neck muscles tightened.
Don’t come back on Thursday.
Her veins bulged.
Why do I pay you?
Her face turned red.
There are many others
in the city. My husband is in love
with himself, and so is my father.
Then she lit a cigarette and Khadijah got the oil,
pressed her fingers into Mom’s shoulders, tried
to loosen the lumps. My mother burped.
Khadijah told again the story of the almonds
her husband brought the day he asked for
her hand in marriage. How he gave her his coat
to hang by the door, screamed at her
for not searching its pockets for her gift,
shook his head, called her stupid.
When I ask what her husband does,
she says, Tarek? Oh he’s a—what do you call it—
pilot. The women laugh and laugh and laugh.
Khadijah folds a paper into a fan
to cool my mother. When I ask her
about the scarf on her head,
she says, This? Just a way to keep
the hair out of my eyes, get on with the work.
The night before I left, you wrote me recipes,
said, God help us, you don’t even know
how to cook rice, then smiled and added,
Good for you. All night you wrote
about lentils, eggplants, yogurt, peas,
included notes like, Don’t daydream,
remember the fire / Watch out
for the steam as you lift the lid /
Don’t burn your eyelashes when you look
into the oven. An airplane and a few weeks
later, I went through your notes and found
a little prayer. I hope,
it read, I hope you’ll forgive
the mistakes I’ve made. I knew
what you meant—those afternoons
you pulled at your hair, lay crying
on the bed, told me, Even Allah
can’t stand you right now. How you chased me
around the house, waved your slipper, flung it
like a boomerang. That time you slapped me
across the face, then walked barefoot
down the building stairs. The days you said,
I don’t want to hear you say the word
mama anymore. Ever.
So I called you, said things like
hi like the weather like my hips
are getting wider by the second.
I told you I had managed to cook
your moujaddara; you laughed,
said you had no doubt. Then I asked
if you remembered the times
I kept jumping from the top of the closet
unto the bed; how I was convinced I flew, if only
for a few seconds, and how you believed,
said Yes said Good job said I see you.
Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her first collection, To Live in Autumn, won the 2013 Backwaters Prize. Her second collection, Louder than Hearts, has won the 2016 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize and is forthcoming in April 2017. She’s also the author of two chapbooks: 3arabi Song, winner of the 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize, and There Was and How Much There Was, a 2016 smith|doorstop Laureate’s Choice, selected by Carol Ann Duffy. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the Forward Prize, and has appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry Northwest, and The Rialto, among others. She has participated in literary festivals in the Middle East, the United Kingdom, and the United States.