Palestine Twenty Times in a Sentence

May 12, 2021

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.


¤


We


Yes, we

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,

always 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,

yes mothers

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


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.

Nothing’s forever.

Not success or laziness,

not dithering or labor,

even dazzling verse

grows onerous,

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,

through teargas,

incursions,

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.


Fady Joudah’s fifth poetry collection, Tethered to Stars, is now available from Milkweed Books.


¤


Photograph by Ilya Varlamov.