Naming Things

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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

رحلنا


رحلنا, or "rahalna," means "we have 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.

Tongue—

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

Ra7eel


Ra7eel, or "raheel," means "departure."

3awda


3awda, or "awda," means "returning."

on ra7eel on 3awadi—a5 ya baba. I have fallen in love

a5 ya baba


a5 ya baba, pronounced "akh ya baba," means "Oh my father."

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

أهلاً


أهلاً, or "ahalan," means "welcome."

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?

Habibi


Habibi means "my love."

 

Naming Things as presented by Zeina Hashem Beck

Notes

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.

Author Notes

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.  

Sources

Hashem Beck, Zeina. “Naming Things.” In Louder than Hearts, 50-56. Peterborough, NH: Bauhan Publishing, 2017.

Located near the Tang capital city of Chang’an, site of the modern city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province, in central China.
Soldiers of that time commonly wore a white head cloth, similar to what is still worn by some peasants in China today.  The implication is that the conscripts were so young that they didn’t know how to wrap their head cloths, and needed help from elders.
Before China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. there were several competing smaller kingdoms.  Han and Qin were two of these kingdoms. Han was located east of famous mountain passes that separated that area from the power base of the Qin dynasty, with its capital in Chang’an. The Qin dynasty itself only lasted about 15 years after unification due to its draconian rule, but soldiers under Qin rule retained a reputation as strong fighters.
The area of Guanxi, meaning “west of the passes”, refers to the area around the capital city of Chang’an.
This is an alternative name for a province in western China, now known as Qinghai, which literally means “blue sea”.  Kokonor Lake, located in Qinghai, is the largest saline lake in China.  
Before China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. there were several competing smaller kingdoms.  Han and Qin were two of these kingdoms. Han was located east of famous mountain passes that separated that area from the power base of the Qin dynasty, with its capital in Chang’an. The Qin dynasty itself only lasted about 15 years after unification due to its draconian rule, but soldiers under Qin rule retained a reputation as strong fighters.
Oulart Hollow was the site of a famous victory of the Irish rebels over British troops, which took place on May 27, 1798. The rebels killed nearly all the British attackers in this battle. (Source: Maxwell, W. H. History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798. H. H. Bohn, London 1854, pp 92-93, at archive.org)
The phrase "United Men" is elaborated upon in the Notes section below.

Ghetto


An Italian word meaning “foundry.” It originally referred to a part of the city of Venice where the Jews of that city were forced to live; the area was called “the ghetto” because there was a foundry nearby. The term eventually came to refer to any part of a city in which a minority group is forced to live as a result of social, legal, or economic pressure. Because of the restrictions placed upon them, ghetto residents are often impoverished.

"You’re five nine, I am do-uble two"


A reference to the year 1959 and the year 2020.

"The Currency"


Meaning US dollars - this is drawing attention to the fact that Cuba is effectively dollarized.

"Sixty years with the dom-ino stuck"


This sentence is a reference to the Cold War notion that countries would turn Communist one after the other - like dominos. Cuba was the first domino, but it got stuck - no one else followed through into communism.

golpe


Treece translates "golpe" as "beating", which is correct, however misses the secondary meaning of the word: "coup".

Carlos


The “Carlos” referred to in the poem is most likely Carlos Bolsonaro, a politician from Rio de Janeiro and the second son of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current president. His and his father’s involvement in Marielle’s murder has been questioned and investigated.