Listen to the Poem in English
Zeina Hashem Beck — Original Text (2015, Lebanon). Dedicated to Syrian refugees.
Angels— we saw them on the railway, the street, covered in
dust. We licked our fingers and wrote
رحلنا on their wings. Wings— my daughter left
them on her bed, cried when she remembered. We found a dead seagull by the sea, before
we took the inflatable boat, so I plucked a feather for her. She smiles,
but still asks about our cat. Cats— all your life you’ve
loved them and but believed they brought you bad luck. Every
time we adopt one, we lose a vase, a soul, and now, a country.
Let’s sleep in that alley where the cats walk on the edge of refuge — scratch that — refuse bins. Country—
the trees will seem barren, will seem heavy with fruit, will make you cry, like onions.
Your eyes will be fine. Remember the name your parents gave you has plenty of shade.
Rest in it.
Onions — my kind of moon, the kind
you could cut through, the kind you could eat. Not that rubber globe in the sky, its
heart full of air. The heart— never learns keeps coming back to the same wars, the same
songs. War— hums, I will make love to you in a bed of
blood and faith, will show you her lips, hide her money-scented breath, the rust on her
tongue, the children underneath her fingernails.
they have burnt Aeham’s piano on his birthday.
He has left Yarmouk for Germany. Remember the vodka, back when we were students, drunk
in your car? Our youth is still in that back seat. The dust was so beautiful; I watched
it fall all afternoon, in the sun. The sun— does not need us, is not a blanket, films
us with its glare, do I look oh-so-dramatic more cinematic in this light, monsieur le photographe?
Do my eyes, my hands tell a story? Stories— I try to tell my boys we are backpacking through Europe.
My great grandmother, who had lost her mind to old age, used to talk about a
monster in the trees. Chops people off and cooks them. Like this, she’d say, moving
her fingers as if she were rolling a sandwich, and I’d become afraid. And hungry. Hunger—
the sea is a cemetery. That fish you grilled last night, did it laugh? Did it say, I have
been feeding on your children? It tasted good with olive oil and lemon and garlic. My mother
says everything, even the dead, tastes good with olive oil and lemon and garlic. Mother—
land, mother— tongue, mama told a journalist she would go back to the war if they allowed
me into Germany. No problem, just take her, let her pass, she said, as she combed my hair.
My hair— or is this sea weed? Grass? Grass— your father’s clothes will smell of him,
as if he’d just stepped out of them and went to lie underneath the grass. Leave them there.
They will grow too heavy in the rain. The rain— fuck, even the rain, this funeral song.
It, too, will go out to sea and bury us. Bury—
when I die, you will recognize me by my tattoo. I got it when I was twenty-three, it says,
و ما أطال النوم عمراً “Sleep has never lengthened a life,” and that
is why we are those who love watching the night, we call it سهر [sahar] and Leila comes over every
night for whiskey, laughs and repeats Ya Allah! Ya Allah! God— is sometimes a camera, sometimes
he has a nom de guerre, but mostly, mostly he’s that old drum beating at the heart of my mother,
language, giving me the urge to dance, or a broken hip. My hips— are heavy, are child-bearing,
child-killing, are lover, do not fit those train windows,
these fences, this escape, this Ra7eel— so much in my 3awada depends
on ra7eel on 3awadi—a5 ya baba. I have fallen in love
with Beckett, I stumble upon my Arabic inflections, confuse
subject and object, but I have promised Al-Mutanabbi I will come back. Promise— some people are
kind, they say Welcome, Bienvenu, أهلاً, here’s a toy, a blanket, a sandwich, here, away from the slaughter
but also from my bed, my balconies, my books. There is no space for me to make love to you here.
Here— Nina Simone still sings, Got my liver, got
my blood, so here, despite the children sleeping on the floor, and the tents, and the sea,
and much much more, kiss me,
for where else do we carry home now, habibi, if not on our lips?
Naming Things as presented by Zeina Hashem Beck
Naming Things is a poem dedicated to Syrian refugees in 2015 and is part of a larger series from the book, Louder than Hearts. Here Zeina describes human existence, family history, home, and exile. She articulates these experiences through imagery and sensation. Through her storytelling we are able to delve in time between youthful memory and the lingering scent of fear and death. This poem allows us to experience the innocence of human existence while at the same time never losing sight of the impact of war and its disruption. The importance of music and love in healing is also present in the poem with the closing lines inviting the feeling of hope for Awda, return.
Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her writing covers a variety of topics: home, estrangement, language, the body, love, motherhood, and faith. Her poetry often exists at the intersection of the personal & the political, the divine & the profane. Educated in Arabic, English, and French, Zeina has a BA and an MA in English Literature from the American University of Beirut.
Hashem Beck, Zeina. “Naming Things.” In Louder than Hearts, 50-56. Peterborough, NH: Bauhan Publishing, 2017.