It’s not difficult to hear “verdict” in the “sentence” above, just as it is hard to ignore the breathlessness of resistance in it. The following poems are by Maya Abu-Alhayyat, a Palestinian poet, novelist, editor, and author of children’s books who resides in Jerusalem. For the last 20 years her poems seem to live on a carousel. Given enough time, whatever changes in craft may take place in them, the poems return to speak the same story. Israeli occupation and colonialism try to choke even Palestinian art. Yet always the poem survives, passes through us “like a miracle.”
Three Palestinian-American women poets — Deema Shehabi, Lena Tuffaha, and Hala Alyan — offer their readings of the poems below each text.
who raise our flags on every occasion,
mention Palestine twenty times in a sentence,
afraid to laugh for too long,
guilty over our fleeting small joys,
we the pursued
over our identities,
our places of birth,
and especially our burial lots,
we, kind and wicked,
heroic and obstinate,
the first to die and, if necessary, the last,
we nationalists, sentimentalists, tearful,
over children we don’t know
who pass by us
with or without sending smiles our way,
their many questions and infuriating habits.
We showed our hand too soon,
our weeping over adolescents
who peacefully stand in front of their houses
making gestures, playing
the game of men,
and our weeping over mothers, all of them,
the happy ones with news of pregnancy,
and those who dispatch letters to TV
and radio stations, oh mothers
who send winter clothes one size too big
to their incarcerated sons,
who regurgitate their sorrows and mottos
as stories regurgitate us,
year after year,
we cry and cry
until we cry no more
and stop joking around.
We showed our hand too soon,
we know who we are.
Listen to Deema Shehabi read the poem:
Massacres teach me not to wait
for those who’ll be pulled out of the rubble,
and not to follow the stories of survivors.
I go on with my day without pausing for wonders.
I’ve learned how friends forget me
and, if I’m lucky, my enemies as well.
Callously I pass through memories.
Love on the faces
of adolescent girls also passes,
makeup and sorrow eat it.
And the orphanage within the suitcases of orphans
is tossed by slogans to the rubbish bins of poetry.
Not success or laziness,
not dithering or labor,
even dazzling verse
and to stumble or shatter
is sometimes beautiful.
A little bit of weight gain,
a fainting glimmer in the eyes,
some friends who evade or desire you,
there’s not much more to learn.
I keep running in empty rooms
to begin my day as if yesterday didn’t end
and tomorrow won’t come.
And before I cast my curses
on those who persevere in loneliness
and hesitate to return my greetings,
I remember how often in the chill
we leave tender skin
bloodied, alien, and dry.
Listen to Lena Tuffaha read the poem:
I Don’t Ask Anymore
How many kids you have,
where you live
or what your profession is:
I don’t care. Maybe I care
how you spend your day
or pass the long nights in anguish,
how you treat your chronic illness,
seasonal allergies, swellings,
your method with longing,
how you avoid toxic videos
and never stop on the street
when everyone else stops.
Tell me how you crossed the street
after you were released
from long detention —
it matters to me
what you’re thinking now
as you coerce your kids to sleep
in the middle of shelling,
as you sweep off them
the ghost of death in nightmares.
I don’t ask anymore
about your land or religion,
maybe I care
how you were tortured
in the first or second intifada
and other wars. How you took care
of your pills and fears,
escaped destiny by chance,
and the tank in the city square.
Your name, your age,
what you look like don’t matter.
You passed through here
like a miracle.
Listen to Hala Alyan read the poem:
Maya Abu-Alhayyat’s volume of selected poems from 2006 to 2021, You Can Be the Last Leaf, is forthcoming form Milkweed Books in 2022, translated by Fady Joudah. She has published four poetry collections, four novels, and several books for children. Her writing has been featured in international journals and magazines and has been translated into English, French, German, Swedish, and Korean. Since 2013 Maya has worked as the director of the Palestinian Writing Workshop in Birzeit, West Bank, Palestine. She currently lives in Jerusalem with her husband and children.
Photograph by Ilya Varlamov.