Notes from a Translated Life
At a writing residency last year, during a discussion about what is now known as “these difficult times,” one of my writing mentors, the poet and essayist Lia Purpura, reframed our discussion with a challenge that she has given herself. “I want to live more like a poem asks me to live,” she told us. This has become an invitation that fascinates me. Instead of poetry as an island of escape or solace, let me welcome it, the practices it demands, and try to imagine the kind of life it requires. Each of the essays I’ll share in this space are my response to Lia’s invitation.
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In July 2014, when the most recent war on Gaza reached its horrific zenith, and by this I mean when the Israeli military’s bombings which decimated the Shejaعiyeh neighborhood were in full swing, I wrote a poem entitled “Running Orders.” The poem went on to lead a life that I could not have imagined from where I stood, drafting it longhand at my kitchen counter in Redmond, writing out of utter desperation. I’ve received videos of people in London and Philadelphia and Toronto reciting it at protests or reading it in prayer circles. I’ve read translations of it into Spanish in a Bolivian newspaper and into Hebrew for a resistance Seder. I’ve received a copy of it set to music by a woman who wrote: “I want you to know that I am Jewish. I don’t know what to do but at least I can do this.”
Unfathomable and deeply humbling as this poem’s journey has been, it’s not an outcome I strive for in writing any poem. Especially with “Running Orders,” I wrote it first and foremost for myself. The weeks of that war, I lived the privilege of safety provided me by my American citizenship. It is unnatural and must remain unnatural for a besieged population to be subjected to the indiscriminate force of a military occupation. It is unnatural to begin each morning by logging on to social media websites to look for postings by people you know for evidence that they are still alive. It is unnatural to know that people are suffering, to watch them suffer, and to know intimately the meaning of their cries and to be incapable of alleviating any of their suffering. But these were the conditions of the summer of 2014 and “Running Orders” was the outcome of that extreme duress.
I do not wish to speak about the bulldozer and the
not quite covering all of the arms and legs
Nor do I wish to speak about the nightlong screams
the observation posts where soldiers lounged about
begins June Jordan’s majestic poem “Moving towards Home.” It would be so much easier to look away. I, too, do not want to revisit that grainy newsreel, the sound of Robert Fisk’s voice, his hand pointing to what I first thought was a mound of earth and then, as the camera zoomed in, I realized was a pile of corpses. The bodies of Palestinians massacred. It would be so much easier to look away. And I did not wish to speak of the rubble to which Shejaعiyeh was reduced, nor to speak again, of the bodies of Palestinians, this time on the shore of Gaza. Our task as poets is not simply to record events. There were journalists documenting both in Shatila and in Gaza. There are most often journalists documenting the savagery to which human beings subject one another. There were Israeli settlers, dragging sofas out onto a hillside like drunken frat boys and watching, cheering as the bombs fell and Palestinians died. The CNN reporter who could not hide her disgust with the spectacle of their delight was reprimanded for her lack of what is so quaintly called “objectivity.” This is to say, there was no shortage, never is a shortage, of documentation.
Nor is the task of poetry to invite an artistic voyeurism—an enumeration of atrocities that stands in for art. What compels the poem is something more than a descriptive act. What compelled Jordan to write about the massacre at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps was her own need to live, to hold on to and make room for life.
because I need to speak about home
I need to speak about living room
where the land is not bullied and beaten to
I need to speak about living room
where the talk will take place in my language
And poetry is my language. Poetry is that ancient cry, that truth of the body, our breath made word. And what if our bodies are hunted? What if that is not a metaphor but an actual experience of daily living? Can there be a less metaphorical hunting than the picking off of protestors, marching without weapons toward a border fence, military snipers waiting for them on a hilltop aiming at hearts and kneecaps? Can there be clearer evidence of a body hunted than the video of a black man in his own grandmother’s backyard, shot in the back by police eight times for holding his cell phone up to his ear? These are our homes, the bodies we live in and where we are hunted. How do we make living room for these bodies? What, in these eternally infernal times, are the features of our language?
Last December, on a visit to Palestine, I toured Banksy’s Walled Off Museum inside the hotel across from the apartheid wall in Bethlehem. I went with trepidation, weary of the artist’s spectacle, the “hotel” that invites tourists to experience life behind the wall—that suffering and dehumanization can be something the privileged can dip into to feel, to empathize, and then return to the spaces of comfort and privilege made possible quite literally at the expense of other human lives. The museum was worth the visit: interactive exhibits, short videos, and harrowing artifacts. A lopsided Lord Balfour greets you as you enter, an automated dummy with a shock of white hair and fountain pen in his hand. You press a button and he signs the miserable document that inaugurates the next one hundred years of Palestinian suffering. There is no question that British colonialism is the first and most enabling villain in the narrative here.
Toward the end of the tour, I reached the Gaza room. Among the maps and images, there was a glass case with a pink backpack, its edges shredded, and a pair of little sandals salvaged from one of the bombings of the 2014 war. And then a faint ringing from the wall beside me. A telephone mounted there, beside a leaflet, framed under plexiglass. The leaflet is one of those dropped on the residents of Gaza telling them to evacuate in order to save their lives. To evacuate a besieged land they have no permission to exit. And the phone, whose receiver I put to my ear, played the message that Gaza’s citizens received from Israeli generals, the messages that inspired “Running Orders.”
I need to talk about living room
where I can sit without grief without wailing aloud
for my loved ones
where I must not ask where is Abu Fadi
because he will be there beside me
I need to talk about living room
because I need to talk about home
Audre Lorde says of poetry that “it forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” It is not documentation, and more than protest, to which the poem aspires. The glaze of “political,” which is slathered over so many of our poems when they speak from within the precise moments we are living, is so often reductive and seems to stand apart from whatever else poetry does or is supposed to do—create, engage, celebrate. But I believe Jordan and many poets who write of the red earth not covering the bodies are simply doing the work of art. In this tradition, we are looking. And by implication, we will not, we cannot, look away.
I was born a Black woman
I am become a Palestinian
against the relentless laughter of evil
there is less and less living room
and where are my loved ones?
It is time to make our way home.
As the 70th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba nears, there are more marches planned, one this weekend, to the edge of that obscene border fence that has caged in nearly two million people for a decade, so many of them already refugees. There have been more murders of black men at the hands of police officers who see phantom weapons, who are trained for a war that unfolds on our streets every day. More people are going to lose their lives. What will we, human beings who are alive with varying degrees of safety and privilege, do? Poetry is nowhere near enough. Poetry is one possible way of engagement. Poetry is one way of not looking away.
On a March day of mostly blue skies and temperatures inching into the 50s in Seattle, the mind turns to spring. I realize there is evermore rain in the forecast and gloom on the horizon and in the news. But I’ve been reading about the seasons, cycles of endings and beginnings.
In Palestinian folklore, the seasons are named and subdivided. February, Shbaat, is described as ما عليه رباط, a month that is “unpredictable.” It belongs to the khamseeniyeh, the final fifty days of winter, which are in turn divided into four phases, or saads. Cutting saad of bitter cold that leaves not even a dog barking outside, swallowing sa’ad, in which the earth drinks in the rain as its temperature gradually rises, and saad il suood, a kind of supreme sa’ad, in which water flows again in the veins of plants. The final phase is hidden sa’ad, when creatures come out of hibernation.
Soon, as the final sa’ad winds down, it will be almond blossom season again in Palestine. Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “To Describe an Almond Blossom” begins:
To describe an almond blossom no encyclopedia of flowers
is any help to me, no dictionary.
Words carry me off to snares of rhetoric
that wound the sense, and praise the wound they’ve made.
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I’ve been thinking about words, their cycles of beginnings and endings, how we wield them in our daily transactions. These considerations are not exclusively reserved for reckoning with the unfurling of almond blossoms on the branch. How do I write in a time of civilizational destruction without wounding and then praising the wound?
In the winter, on my book tour through the Arab world, I had the otherworldly experience of reading poems at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah. The center lives in a beautiful old Ramallah house, and was the site of Mahmoud Darwish’s last office. I arrived more nervous than I have ever felt at a reading. What could my poems, written in the faraway galaxy of the diaspora, offer to an audience surviving at this very moment an active violent occupation? To survive—to continue to live or exist despite difficulty or hardship, from the Old French sourvivre, and before that from the Latin supervivere. Super--in addition to vivere--living.
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It’s possible the young man at Sakakini Center, Alhareth, senses my nervousness. Or simply out of reverence for the space I have just entered and of which he is a custodian, he offers: “Behind that door is his office. Would you like to see it?” It is a room with heavy wooden doors painted in soft ecru. He turns an old key in the lock and pushes them open as I try to compose myself. Darwish’s desk, still piled with folders and stacks of mail and journals, sits facing a window with a view of the garden. In the center of the desk there is a letter opener resting on an envelope. A rose and a sprig of lavender have dried silently beside them.
On the 13th of this month readers around the world commemorate Darwish’s birthday. He was born in the Palestinian village of Al-Birweh, and his life and poems were marked by cycles of exile and return. In 2004, in an awards acceptance speech, he reflected on the cycles of his own life and, by extension, on the role of poetry.
“A person can only be born in one place. However, he may die several times elsewhere: in the exiles and prisons, and in a homeland transformed by the occupation and oppression into a nightmare. Poetry is perhaps what teaches us to nurture the charming illusion: how to be reborn out of ourselves over and over again, and use words to construct a better world, a fictitious world that enables us to sign a pact for a permanent and comprehensive peace…with life.”
Alhareth asks if I prefer water or zhoorat, a tisane of dried wildflowers. Asked and answered. My voice has become haggard from the ubiquitous cigarette smoke and the cabin air of multiple flights; I sip with gratitude. My mind is crowded with the flora of the place. The lifeless rose on the desk, the relics of spring past floating in my cup, and the stubborn jasmine vine clinging to the wall of the house. The audience is utterly generous—they receive the poems like letters written only for them, envelopes spilling pressed flowers. I sip again with gratitude, life pulsing in my warmed veins, the super living of that night.
The bookstore I’m reading in tonight is decorated for the holidays, complete with heart-shaped ornaments in the red and white fabric of the 7atta, the headdress worn by our grandfathers. On the shelf behind me, looking elegant with her jet-black hair styled in a chignon, Fadwa Touqan, the great Palestinian poet of Nablus, graces the cover of her autobiography. I take the placement of her book as a pre-reading omen: the poetry grandmothers have our backs, and they’re watching over us as we write and send our words out into the world.
I stand with my back to the autobiography section, and I narrate some of my own for the beautiful audience before me. I tell them about the poem of leaving Amman as a child, of becoming an immigrant, of the first war that sent me away. I tell them how many decades had to pass before I could write it. To my right, a little below my shoulder, King Abdullah smiles from the cover of his book. The bookstore sits inside a shopping center, and when the door opens, wisps of Christmas carols waft in. I read about leaving and in the back row the echo sings: “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”
There is a thick haze hanging over Amman’s typically blue skies. I didn’t expect this in December, which is normally cold and can bring rain and even snowstorms to this city of crowded hills. But there has been little to no rain, and it is what people fret about as we talk over coffee and delectable sweets. That and the ill-begotten pronouncements of the current White House resident about Jerusalem. Crops will die in frost or drought. Limping economies will finally falter. People will continue to suffer.
Every evening there are protests in front of the American embassy, a sprawling compound whose security barrier swallows street after street in its elegant Abdoun neighborhood. Better known for its fancy shops and restaurants, Abdoun is an unlikely place for political graffiti, but some determined soul has spray-painted FREE PALESTINE across a wall as close as they could get to the embassy.
In the bookstore, I quoted Gwendolyn Brooks to the audience: “Poetry is life distilled.” On my last morning in Amman, I walk through my grandparents’ neighborhood. Elweibdeh is showing its age, but the wrinkles of our loved ones are mostly endearing. The same mosque with its stained glass windows around the corner, the bountiful olive trees spilling over garden walls onto the sidewalk, the same produce stall and bakery. Down the road are the new and decidedly hip establishments I do not recognize, where tourists and foreign students of Arabic gather with locals at a café unironically named Rumi. Seriously, Rumi. This is life distilled, this poem of a morning, full of what stays and what changes side by side, jostling for space—physical and emotional. All part of a place I often call home.
This might seem a strange time to consider beginnings. The year winds its way toward winter, and daily the leaves leap from their branches into showy red and gold piles around us. It is time to take stock of what keeps us, and the weather seems to ask: Do you have a good coat? Is the furnace working? What books will shelter you as the cold settles in? But I find myself lingering at the top of the blank page.
A few months ago, poet Kaveh Akbar tweeted an invitation to share favorite first lines of poems, and some immediately floated up from memory: “Here I come to the very edge / where nothing at all needs saying.” Alastair Reid’s translation of Pablo Neruda has lived with me since the first time I read “It Is Born.” I love the conundrum the first line of the poem engages, longing in words for a place where words are no longer needed, chasing after the ocean’s elusive answers. Then I thought of Naomi Shihab Nye’s line: “Letters swallow themselves in seconds.” This square finality she plants at the beginning of “Burning the Old Year,” a fire that calls the reader to attention as the poem braids beginning and ending into one sturdy thread.
In her essay “Lusters” (Rough Likeness), Lia Purpura says of beginnings: “I remind myself that starting anticipates a geography. A moment seeks a shape and claims here (bedroom window, perfume bottle) as its wobbly launch.” These days, I feel like I wobble, I hope that I launch. The geography of my beginnings might be, finally, the elliptical machine at the gym after slow months of physical therapy, a ballot mailed, or a trowel dusted off to place narcissus bulbs in the garden bed. On Tuesdays, it is a lucky seat against a turquoise-painted wall in the bookstore. Ensconced in my warmly lit corner and surrounded by shelves of poetry, I live among those who claimed a here in times even more difficult than ours, who began again “in the smallest numbers” when it seemed like only endings loomed overhead.
“Love remains a kind of present tense” is Carolina Ebeid’s opening line in “Punctum/Metaphora.” May that be our geography, dear reader, a place from which to launch, however haltingly, again and again.
At a writing residency this summer, during a discussion about what is now known as “these difficult times,” one of my writing mentors, the poet and essayist Lia Purpura, reframed our discussion with a challenge that she has given herself. “I want to live more like a poem asks me to live,” she told us. This has become an invitation that fascinates me. Instead of poetry as an island of escape or solace, let me welcome it, the practices it demands, and try to imagine the kind of life it requires. Each of the essays I’ll share in this space is my response to Lia’s invitation.
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A Poem Asks Us to Name Our World
Naming is an audacious act. The child arrives and the stitching of their story begins immediately in many cultures.
In 2013, my family and I visited the cities of Haifa, Yafa, and Akka.
Naming claims at least some aspect of the named, braids the giver and the recipient in a process of signification.
I am writing the names of the cities as I know them, cities that people the poetry and novels of Palestinian literature, cities with Arabic names.
I find that poetry is often a naming impulse, that search in a thick fog for the best words in the best order.
These are the cities that many of my friends call home, to which they trace back their lineage centuries.
The best order, the scaffold from naming to making sense of, to placing within reach and in context of what else we believe is known.
American passports made it possible for my family and me, despite our Palestinian names and histories, to visit these places.
We were able to cross checkpoints, rent a car, and drive on roads lined with bright blue highway signs emblazoned with the names of towns most Palestinians cannot access. The first sign at the exit indicating to us that we were leaving Jerusalem, for example, noted the city limits in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic, and English.
A name can speak loudly in its absence.
In the scripts of all three languages, the city was identified by its Hebrew name: Urshalim. The Arabic did not read: Al-Quds. Three versions of an unnaming unfurled over the highway. This was a deliberate decision of the Israeli Ministry of Transportation that began in 2009, in which the Netanyahu government set out to replace the names of cities outside the West Bank and Gaza with Hebrew-only names.
I think about this naming often when I remember the textures of that day, the moods that passed through us on the drive in search of the places and the origin stories they anchor, the lives, the actual living bodies they sustain.
The erasure grew more disorienting as we drove along the coast, the names of places we were hoping to visit or signs we wanted to photograph for friends who are denied this journey by exile and occupation were nowhere to be found. Evidence of Palestinian identity was steadily being disappeared in favor of this three-script consolidation of a claim on place and time alike.
Poetry can name our world in ways that seem unimaginable outside a poem. Or perhaps in ways that only seem possible once a poem has carved out a space for them.
On that same visit to cities and villages stripped of their Arabic names for everyone except their native people, we took a tour of Akka. Also known as Acre, Akka is a walled city on the Mediterranean coast famous for its sweeping views and the youth who dive gleefully off its fortress into the sea below. It was also a district, before 1948, greater Akka a home to over sixty villages, many of which were razed to the ground during the war. Local guides now offer tours of the sites of destroyed and renamed villages.
The village of Al-Birweh, hometown of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, was also part of the Akka district. In his poem “Jidaariya (Mural)” Darwish writes: “This sea is mine/This air is mine/And my name—if I mispronounce it on my coffin—is mine/As for me—full of all reasons for leaving—/I am note mine.”
An Israeli organization named Zochrot, a Hebrew word that means memory, also runs such tours, (re)naming what seem like ruins along the highway. We visited with a Palestinian guide, a history teacher and native of Akka. He drove us from the emerald-domed mosque at the heart of the city to the site of Al-Kabri, a village nine miles northeast of Akka. Only a desecrated cemetery and the hefty foundation stones of homes remain.
Naming is an act of defiance against time. Is it the language of memory with which we linger? Are we “refusing to move forward,” or are we carrying our bodies across battlefields and hastily drawn borders, bringing the sound and resonance of who we are into today?
Growing up we learned to sing a version of the Darwish poem “Identity Card,” which opens with the declarative sentence: “Sajjel, Ana Arabi,” often translated “Record, I am an Arab.” First published in 1964, the poem is known for its response to that early wave of erasures, the criminalization of language and symbol that swept across Palestinian communities.
Al-Kabri is an Arabic name whose etymological family includes pride, grandeur, expanse. The place is now a public park, another breathtaking unnaming as the park is inaccessible to the great number of refugees who belong in this village but cannot return. Yet it is available to those who wish simply to picnic on its ruins.
What does it mean to live amidst such cacophonous silence?
We were there as the sun began to set, and we made our way to the remains of the cemetery to recite Al-Fatiha. On headstones that had survived the destruction, most names were rendered illegible.
Among the graves, beneath the amber light and thickening shadows of carob and pine, praying for the nameless dead, I tried to fill the space with all the throaty Arabic syllables of the sura. On that August day in 2013, we learned an Arabic name, braiding it with its story and location. This, too, is how poetry asks us to live, to embrace this audacity, to fully inhabit our bodies in time and space, to speak their living etymologies.
Naming is an audacious act, a demand that each of us confronts in different places, and an invitation to carry meaning in our lives.
I know Paris is beautiful, I am lucky to have traveled there several times. I know it is much easier to love what is beautiful. What does it tell us about ourselves that just because we don't know the beauty of other cities -- Beirut, Baghdad -- because we do not know the beautiful moments of individual lives lived in those cities, that we cannot feel the same grief when they are attacked? We make this fractured world in our own image, all our dark prejudices and tribal notions of 'us' vs. 'them', how Paris stands for something greater, more beautiful in us, living across an imaginary border we have drawn. I could post pictures of all that is achingly beautiful in Beirut or tell you about Baghdad and its beauty that captivated my father as a young college student so that he never stops telling us the stories of his time there. But maybe what I most want is for us to see how worthy of our lights and flags and tears these cities and people are, these cities and their people who have survived utter despair. How beautiful they are, how beloved they should be to all of us.
It began with a story about a translation from Arabic to English gone haywire, as so many instant translations do. This story was a cobbled-together approximation for the benefit of a child who is almost but not quite bilingual. Or bilingual enough to communicate, but often misses the nuances, the stories built into the words. And the child in question responded with predictable confusion. For evidence of this, click the “see translation” button beneath any Facebook post in a foreign language. The road to translation is paved with good intentions.
One of the reasons translations fall short or fall apart is that the speaker of the first language may not realize how much information is missing about the meaning of the words she's been using her whole life until she tries to explain their meaning or reproduce them in another language.
Colloquial Palestinian and Syrian Arabic, for example, are filled with souvenirs of occupations past. Upon closer examination, many of the unusual words our grandmothers used have roots in English and French. To translate grandma, one must identify the regime that colonized the homeland during her childhood. My husband's Palestinian grandmother referred to a "Nahrsa" who took care of people when they were ill -- from the English word "nurse". My Syrian grandmother would ask us to bring her "il-eshaarp" if she was going to step into "es-sa-loan". Both words are from French, "l’echarpe" means scarf, which she used to cover her hair, and "es-salon" is from “le salon” referring to the sitting room where she would receive guests. Both were carried over into Arabic intact, with the simple addition of an article before the word, a hinge to connect it to the rest of the sentence.
The most fascinating words are ones I cannot decipher easily. "Hardabasht" is my favorite in this category. I think it might be a corruption of a Turkish word (but it could easily be Kurdish or Assyrian – I don’t have enough linguistic expertise to know) and in colloquial Arabic it’s used to suggest "haphazard" or "disorderly".
But not all the treasures of translation (and the opportunities for failure) reside in words borrowed from other languages. Sometimes the challenge is the sheer volume of information that a handful of words need to convey. The first time I unlocked one of these phrases on my own, I felt like I had put on goggles and was happily diving into the cerulean deep of a pool after years of blurry immersion. My mother’s friend was telling her about a relative she tried to avoid at family gatherings. The reason she gave was that the woman repeated stories of old betrayals over and over again. The phrase she used to describe this condition was “bet’eed u bteftuq.” The literal translation of these words is: “she repeats and rips.”
I understood the general meaning. But for some reason, the second word “rip” floated up to my ears on its own that day. And I thought about where it came from. That specific verb suggests “ripping a seam” or “undoing stitches.” The phrase is meant to evoke the image of someone hand-sewing stitches, then methodically (and by implication mindlessly) undoing them, only to sew them over again. The infinite loop par excellence. Could there be a more evocative description? I would definitely want to avoid that woman at family gatherings after realizing what those three words actually mean.
And in those three words lies the whisper of the poetic. The success of the image rests on one word. The perfect word. And the image relies on the line – the placement of the first word relative to the last word. She repeats and then rips. It’s noteworthy that she begins by “repeating.” That already tells us she’s been engaged in this activity for some time now, and sets us up not for the cathartic release of ripping the seams or pulling up the stitches. No, no such freedom is insight. Instead, we know she will go back over this same path again, because the word “repeat” was first. Words and Lines. The words in that line as a kind of snow-globe in which a silent scene played out. Translation lives in the heart of Poetry.