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Compose a poem, scene, or story in an imaginary museum, one unlike any you’ve ever been in. Your aim is to say something — that is, to have something to say. What is it that you have to say? Why does it matter? Why should we care? Other questions you might ask yourself: What is collected in this museum? Why are they collected there? What does the collection say about your culture? Your concerns? Your fears? Your aspirations? Your culture’s concerns and fears and aspirations? In what way have you used your choice of voice, language, point of view, and setting to convey what it is you’d like to convey?

Do you prefer oranges or tangerines?

I really like this question because it marks a turning point in Firdaus’s life. Up until now, her actions have been more reactionary than anything else. If her father wanted dinner, then her whole family had dinner. If her mother wanted her to undergo female circumcision, then she did. If her uncle wanted to send her to boarding school, then she went. Even when she runs away from her uncle and his wife when they decide that she should marry her dead aunt’s husband, she is sent running right back because of the strange men watching her on the street. Even when she runs away from her husband, there is no planning involved, no conscious thought of escape; it just happens.

When Bayoumi asks her the question above, it is the first time that anyone has asked her anything. The saddest thing is that she doesn’t know what to say, stammering out the word tangerines when she really means oranges.  At this point in her life, she can’t even change her statement because she feels too guilty about liking the more expensive of the fruits. This changes when she plots to escape Bayoumi; knowing what she wants, she begins to fight for herself.

One of the main themes of Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero is power.  Throughout the book, Firdaus fights first to gain, then maintain her autonomy.  Her father is the first character that has power over her.  Firdaus recalls being forced to wash his legs at the end of each day, and how he always had dinner, even if there was no food in the house for his children to eat.  When he dies, Firdaus goes to live with her uncle.  He treats her much better than her father did.  Under her uncle’s rule, Firdaus goes to school, obtaining her secondary school certificate.  While she truly loves learning, attending school is also something that she does because a male authority figure tells her she must.  Once she is finished with school, Firdaus is married off to a much older man, once again a choice of her uncle.  Her father and uncle are the two characters from whom she never truly breaks free – they are removed from her life, but not as a result of her decisions.

Firdaus starts to take more control of her own life when she meets Sharifa, an affluent prostitute.  Sharifa teaches Firdaus how to make herself more expensive, more powerful to the men she serves.  For the first time, Firdaus feels what it is like to have power over herself, as she is able to turn some customers down.  Ultimately, she is still under Sharifa’s control, so she eventually breaks away from her mentor, as well.  For a while, Firdaus is free to do as she pleases, even briefly taking a new, “honorable” job as an office assistant before returning to prostitution.

She loses her autonomy when an influential pimp forces her to accept his services, until one day when she snaps and kills him.  Afterwards, she takes a job from an Arab prince, charging him $20,000 and tearing the bills up in his face.  This rebellious act proves that he has no power over her.  She can’t be bought; she does things of her own volition.

Woman at Point Zero ends with Firdaus’ execution.  When the narrator speaks with Firdaus in prison, she comes to understand that Firdaus is okay with dying because she is in control of herself again.  Firdaus knows that she is in prison not only for the crime of murder, but also because the men who run the justice system (and by extension, every man in her country) are afraid of her.  They recognize a powerful woman when they see one, and it frightens them.  To them, she is so great a threat that she must be eliminated.  Coming from a childhood like hers, Firdaus sees this as the best development in her life.

Woman at Point Zero

I sometimes wonder whether a person can be born twice. (p25)

This sentence deserves to be underlined because it is a symbol of what Nawal El Saadawi is doing with this book. The narrator visits a woman named Firdaus who is in prison for a murder and who is going to die for her crime. She is condemned, doomed. Firdaus tells her story to the narrator while she is in prison waiting for her time to come, a time other humans will decide. This text is powerful because it gives the opportunity to speak to a woman who has been reduced to silence. A woman who has always been under men’s law, in a country where women’s rights are not respected. She has been abused and married to a stranger and then has become a prostitute by choice, as an act of rebellion. She ends up in this prison, talking with the narrator and sharing her life and her story what made her kill a man.

Throughout this account by Firdaus, Nawal El Saadawi tells the story of a culture, of a status in a society the woman one. She also talks about insufficient liberty, privation, and women’s sexuality and shows how all these themes are problematic in this society. The story is told from Firdaus’s point of view because it is hers and the author and narrator are just a vehicle for it. This is the story of a revolution in the body and the brain of Firdaus. We see things that change, her body and her vision of it, her vision of her own culture, of men. The frustration becomes anger and it leads her to kill. It also shows a change in her status, from daughter to wife, from wife to prostitute, from prostitute to murderer, from murderer to prisoner. But most of all, from a prisoner, way before she was in jail, to a free woman. Free of everything because not afraid anymore, not enchained anymore.

That is why this short sentence seems so important because what the book shows is this process of being born twice. This capacity to reinvent herself that Firdaus shows. But also, the capacity of the author and the narrator to give birth to someone a second time and to make her eternal. That is what Nawal El Saadawi does with this book, she brings to life a woman a second time and makes her an eternal living human being throughout literature. And there is no cultural border, no question of a country because as long as there will be women on earth, the story of Firdaus will still talk to people and be a manifesto about women’s freedom and fierce.

A Woman of Her Own

How many were the years of my life that went before my body and my self
became really mine, to do with them as I wished? How many were the years of my life that were lost before I took my body and my self away from the people who held me in their grasp since the very first day?
— Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero

Throughout Woman at Point Zero, Saadawi depicts Firdaus as a woman who is treated as an object to be used and placed at will by all those in her life. In her youth, she is abused and tormented by those meant to care for her and as she grows it seems she is all but abandoned when she is deemed “unuseful,” and subsequently married off to a stranger. It seems throughout the book, that power and autonomy are only allotted to men, and even within that subset, only men with means can fully wield the power of their privilege. Rich men do not have to obey or respect anyone, even their God, while women, of any social class, are expected to serve and obey almost everyone. Firdaus seems to recognize this from a young age as she witnesses the abuse of her mother and the uncaring manner in which she is treated by her father. She is not allowed the privilege of choice from the time of her birth until far later into her life.

The effects of Firdaus’ lack of autonomy are obvious as she grows throughout the novel. Her sense of identity seems to be mostly tied up in who is, “in charge of her,” and where she has been stationed as opposed to an innate sense of purpose. She constantly seems to be seeking the care and emotional support that was denied to her and almost seems to mythicize the few moments she can recognize as being comforted or supported, as seen in the repetition of the occurrence of her mother’s eyes glowing and growing until they eclipse everything. Firdaus is a woman who spent most of her life being made to endure traumatic experiences where her only options were to suffer in silence or run away into a world that was largely a mystery to her. It isn’t until she is seemingly free from the trappings of societal norms that she is, in turn, allowed the right to make decisions for herself and “take” her identity back.

Woman At Point Zero

Woman At Point Zero is a haunting account of the life of Firdaus, a woman imprisoned for murder. The author, Nawal El Saadawi, serves almost as Firdaus’ translator. Although Firdaus is perfectly capable of communicating, she is an incarcerated woman with a tale of woe that men do not want to hear and in some ways truly seems to speak a different language than those around her. Saadawi’s choice to write Firdaus’ story from Firdaus’ point of view is an important one: it not only eliminates what would’ve been countless extra pages and breaks of dialogue but allows for a connection between reader and Firdaus that would not have been as accessible if Saadawi’s thoughts and opinions had interfered. I think this choice to tell Firdaus’ story in her “own” voice was extremely respectful and fitting of the author’s reputation as a feminist, as well as wise in the way of craft.

The author’s use of repetition in this story also resonated with me. There are several instances, but the one most often used is the imagery of eyes. On pages 20 and 21 Firdaus says, “I tried to recall what my mother had looked like the first time I saw her. I can remember two eyes. I can remember her eyes in particular. I cannot describe their colour, or their shape. They were eyes that I watched. They were eyes that watched me… Two eyes to which I clung with all my might. Two eyes alone that seemed to hold me up.” On the next pages, she describes the woman that her father told her was her mother, the one in whose eyes she could “look into” and “feel she was not my mother… No light seemed ever to touch the eyes of this woman, even when the day was radiant and the sun at its very brightest” (22-23). The eyes are mentioned in detail again when Firdaus is talking with Miss Iqbal. She says, “I could see her eyes looking at me, observing me, despite the darkness. Every time I turned my head, they were after me, holding onto me, refusing to let me go… She remained by my side, seated in silence. I could see her black eyes wandering into the night, and the tears welling up in them with a glistening light. She tightened her lips and swallowed hard and suddenly the light in her eyes went out” (37).

The repetition in the sentences (They were eyes that I watched. They were eyes that watched me.), as well as the repetition of imagery with the eyes, are used several times throughout the novel. The eyes seem to be the first thing, or the most important thing, that Firdaus observes about the people around her, and how they change in accordance with their behavior or personalities.

Woman at Point Zero

I discovered that all these rulers were men. What they had in common was an avaricious and distorted personality, a never-ending appetite for money, sex, and unlimited power.
              –Firdaus, Woman at Point Zero

This novel is about a woman who is sentenced to be hanged after she is accused of killing a man. She is recounting her story to a female psychiatrist who comes to visit her the day before she is sentenced to die, and from the very beginning we can see that she has been deeply traumatized by men throughout the course of her life. In the very beginning she discusses how her father would treat her and her mother; constantly beating them, eating the last of their food without sharing, and just genuinely having no regard for their well-being. This is what she comes to know, and expects from the men in her life from a very young age. She then goes on to share that when she was a young girl working out in the fields, she and one of the little boys played “bride and bridegroom” in one of the huts. She is too young to know exactly what is going on, but keeps coming back to those feelings later on in her life. She then goes on to mention that her own uncle used to touch her when she was still a child as well and did not know that it was wrong until she saw a film a little bit later on once she moves in with him.

The quotation at the top of this post stuck with me while reading the first half of the novel because I feel it perfectly sums up the experiences she has had with men thus far and epitomizes what she thinks of them. She believes that from the dawn of time men have only cared about three things: money, sex, and power. This makes me believe that her opinion of men is only going to get worse, since she ended up in prison for supposedly killing a man. I appreciated this foreshadowing because at least for me after reading that and having the a-ha moment of relating it back to why we are hearing her story in the first place, I want to speed up and hear what led her to end up where she is. Saadawi did such a wonderful job of crafting a character who is so captivating and dynamic; right off the bat she hooks the audience. I’m having a very tough time putting this novel down; I’m extremely emotionally invested in Firdau’s story and am itching to see how it all unfolds.

Woman at Point Zero

My self-confidence began to be badly shaken, and I went through difficult moments. It looked to me as though this woman who had killed a human being, and was shortly to be killed herself, was a much better person than I. Compared to her, I was nothing but a small insect crawling upon the land amidst millions of other insects. Whenever I remembered the expression in the eyes of the warder, or the prison doctor, as they spoke of her complete indifference to everything, her attitude of total rejection, and above all her refusal to see me, the feeling that I was helpless, and of no significance grew on me.

The book Woman at Point Zero is about a journalist who goes to a prison to interview the prisoners, where she, in turn, is frustrated that a prisoner refuses to see her. This prisoner, Firdaus, is scheduled to be hanged within the following days of when the story opens. At the bottom of the third page of this story, we can see that the narrator is thinking about the effect this one prisoner rejecting her is making her feel. Even though it is only on the third page of the text and even though we just met the character and have a limited understanding of who she is as a person, this quote already connects the reader with her. Most readers have been through a situation where they have been rejected by someone they wanted to see or talk to. Even though the situation, culture, and location are not the same as in this story, we can connect to it and feel empathy for this character already.

This is what we were talking about in class, how even though I, as a reader, don’t know the author’s life and situations I can still relate to the story and the characters in it. The author wrote this line, not necessarily knowing we would read it, but she knew someone would. So she wrote about something anyone could relate to. This quote does raise a question, “Why does the narrator care so much about this woman and that she rejected our narrator?” While this quote is relatable, it makes me believe this woman is either important to our narrator, or that her self-esteem may be fragile enough to get damaged by a person she has not met not wanting to see her. It is stated later that they did not know each other. So why did Firdaus’s opinion matter to the narrator? Could it just be because she had been trying to talk to her and get this prisoners story? Or is it because she was the one person trying to get Firdaus’s side of the story, and all the narrator got in return was rejection?

Woman at Point Zero

In Women at Point Zero, Firdaus tells her story, a story of loneliness, rape, inequality, and longing.  Nawal El Saadawi is the mouthpiece for Firdaus.  Unable to tell her own story, as she is imprisoned and awaiting execution, Saadawi is the mouthpiece for Firdaus.  Saadawi gives a voice to a point of view that would normally go unheard.  I think point of view is very important in this story.  Obviously, we are hearing Firdaus’ story but we are hearing it through Saadawi.  Are these Firdaus’ direct words or has Saadawi added her own language to Firdaus’ recount?  Either way, I think it is important to consider point of view.  Who is speaking? Is it more Firdaus or Saadawi?

But however Saadawi has decided to tell Firdaus’ story, the recounting of the imprisoned woman’s life is important, shocking, and disturbing.  The conversation between Wafeya and Firdaus was one of the moments that stood out to me the most.  Wafeya asks “Have you ever fallen in love?” Firdaus answers that she has never been in love.  Wafeya cannot believe that Firdaus has never been in love.  Their conversation ends with Wafeya making the remark “Then you are either living a lie, or not living at all.”  This sentence stood out the most to me in what I have read so far.  This question haunts Firdaus.  It has haunted Firdaus since she was a child, she has just never been able to articulate her feelings correctly.

Firdaus is a woman lost in a world that does not value her existence.  She is constantly tossed around like a rag doll.  She does not even see her own parents has her own, but as imposters.  Her uncle, a man who has sexually abused her since she was a child, is the man she loves the most.  She longs for love, for human contact, but it is impossible for her to create healthy relationships when everyone around her treats her as if she is nothing.  She only finds a semblance of stability in her years at school but that lasts only for a moment before she is auctioned off to an old man she must marry.  Abuse follows her.  She can never escape the cycle.  She is a woman and so in this society, she is doomed.  Just like Wafeya said, Firdaus is not living at all.

Woman at Point Zero

One of the major things I noticed while reading Woman at Point Zero is the repetition of eye imagery. The first time I noted that this was something to pay attention to was when Firdaus describes what her mother looked like the first time she saw her. She says, “I can remember two eyes. I can remember her eyes in particular… They were eyes that watched me. Even if I disappeared from their view, they could see me, and follow me wherever I went, so that if I faltered while learning to walk they would hold me up” (21). She continues, “All I can remember are two rings of intense white around two circles of intense black. I only had to look into them for the white to become whiter and the black even blacker, as though sunlight was pouring into them from some magical source neither on earth, nor in the sky, for the earth was pitch black, and the sky dark as night, with no sun and no moon” (21-22).

The same description is repeated in a number of scenes throughout the novel, including when Firdaus is talking to Miss Iqbal, during the school ceremony in which certificates are given out, and when someone stares at her on the street. She also describes Bayoumi’s eyes when she first meets him, saying that “his eyes were resigned and calm. They did not seem to me like the eyes of someone who would kill” (62). Later, when he slaps her, she describes his eyes as “two jet black surfaces,” a description much more similar to the description repeated thus far. She also describes Sharifa’s eyes when they meet, this time drawing attention to the color green rather than black or white (69).

It seems that these descriptions all lead back to Firdaus’s mother, though I am still trying to discover what it all means, as I have not yet finished the novel. The description of the black and white circles appears many different times and when Firdaus is dealing with many different emotions. She seems to be at ease when she is talking to her teacher at night, but she is overwhelmed during the ceremony, and she is uneasy when she sees the eyes on the street. These different situations might represent the different sides of her relationship with her mother – the soft, maternal side, and the side in which Firdaus is afraid of doing anything wrong. It is worth noting that her description of Bayoumi’s eyes changes once he hurts her, and the fact that she focuses on a different color when describing Sharifa. I am interested to see how this imagery continues to play a part as I finish reading the novel.

After reading Amber’s blog post, I strongly agree with the connection she made between Woman at Point Zero and A Thousand Splendid Suns. While I was in the process of reading Woman at Point Zero, I continuously found connections between Saadawi’s book and The Kite Runner (which is the novel which prefaces A Thousand Splendid Suns). I found the realness of both of these pieces of literature to contain raw shock value and come from a place of honesty. It is important to note that while Woman at Point Zero was prompted by actual events, Hosseini’s The Kite Runner only draws from life experiences and is a work of fiction. However, the themes which are pragmatic in both of these books seem to intertwine with one another.

Consensual and non-consensual sexual acts riddle both of these texts, which become an apparent theme throughout Woman at Point Zero and The Kite Runner. At the beginning of Hosseini’s novel, readers stumble upon a traumatic scene of a young boy (being Hassan) being raped by another child, who is the main antagonist of the book. Perverted, disgusting acts and rape are mentioned many times throughout The Kite Runner, as they are as well in Woman at Point Zero. It becomes apparent that Firdaus experiences many of the same issues which are present in The Kite Runner, such as the molestation by her uncle and various other men in her life (including her husband). The thematic sexual experiences – consensual or not – is what led me to draw the connection between the two books. Both are sadistic, but beautifully written pieces of literature which surround difficult topics.

While there are numerous similarities, differences are also present and apparent. I appreciated the feministic approach to Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero, which gave a whole new insight into issues which were current in Cairo during this time. Fidarus discusses ad nauseam her love of books and thirst for education but also brings up the standard of women in Egypt at this time. Going to University was beyond a privilege, and could even be seen as a sin. Fidarus can overhear her aunt (her uncle’s new wife) speaking about how society would look down on females being education side by side with men, which also solidifies religion as a theme throughout Woman at Point Zero.

It is clear that there are many reoccurring themes throughout Woman at Point Zero, and it is difficult to pinpoint just a few. Readers can link many of these themes to other pieces of literature and have the ability to strike many connections.

Woman at Point Zero

Reading Woman at Point Zero brings to mind a book with a similar premise that I read in high school, A Thousand Splendid Suns. In both novels, the protagonist is executed for killing a man. Firdaus’ impending execution is the frame story for Woman at Point Zero, while Mariam’s execution in A Thousand Splendid Suns occurs towards the latter half of the book as part of the natural sequence of events, but both characters never had a chance of escaping their sentence because of the culture they lived in. Both women are finally compelled to fight back against their male tormentors after years of suffering but make no attempt to contest their death sentences. Mariam, like Firdaus, refuses all visitors when she is in prison, and both characters are well-known among their fellow prisoners because of their crimes.

One major difference in the telling of these two stories is the perspective from which they are told. Firdaus is looking back on her life in the last few hours before her death, while Mariam is not. This difference in perspective contributes greatly to the tone of each novel. Firdaus seems to feel every emotion deeply and viscerally, and even tells Saadawi: “All my life I have been searching for something that would fill me with pride, make me feel superior to everyone else …” (Saadawi 13). Mariam generally comes across as a much gentler character, while Firdaus is more willing to fight for what she wants. Firdaus and Mariam also kill for different reasons: Firdaus because her rage at all the men who have ever mistreated her has finally broken free, Mariam because she is protecting the lives of those she loves from her abusive husband.

From what Saadawi says in the preface of Woman at Point Zero, it was fairly common for women to be imprisoned and given harsh sentences for fighting back against the men who tormented them. Still, I wonder if A Thousand Splendid Suns was inspired at least in part by Saadawi’s novel.

“I held her eyes in mine, took her hand in mine. The feeling of our hands touching was strange, sudden. It was a feeling that made my body tremble with a deep distant pleasure, more distant than the age of my remembered life, deeper than the consciousness I had carried with me throughout. I could feel it somewhere, like a part of my being which had been born with me when I was born, but had not grown with me when I had grown, like a part of my being that I had once known, but left behind when I was born. A cloudy awareness of something that could have been, and yet was never lived.” (Saadawi 38)

So many different desires are being awakened in Firdaus in this moment. For one, a sexual desire; before now, Firdaus has been sexually abused and objectified repeatedly by her uncle, her only experience with intimacy being nonconsensual acts. Here, she is able to experience it in a different way for the very first time. There is compassion between the two of them—Firdaus and Miss Iqbal understand one another and care for one another, with each wishing to ease the other’s pain. Their connection is loving and gentle; with this mutual fondness, Firdaus is able to experience a very pure kind of desire in which nothing is being taken from her, in which she only gives what she chooses to give of herself. Her pleasure arises from a bond that is honest, in which nothing is being demanded of her.

A deeper desire might be the desire for a mother figure. Firdaus has never truly experienced a mother’s love or protection. With Miss Iqbal, she is able to feel wanted, loved, protected. She is able to feel truly seen for the first time in her life as a woman worthy of love and respect.

A third option is the desire to be free from her worldly pain. She talks of a deep desire that has been with her since before her birth, “something that could have been, and yet was never lived.” This could be a sense of hope at all the possibilities of life, and how diminished that hope can become once the hardships of life begin to appear. In Miss Iqbal, perhaps she sees what her life might have been like, if she had not become Firdaus. What is the life of this woman like? Is it better or worse than her own? If Firdaus has been born as another, where would she be now?

Umm Kulthum (1898-1975)

The reception accorded the death of Umm Kulthum showed how powerful and beloved the Egyptian vocalist had become. With the streets of Cairo lined by several million mourners, Kulthum’s fans took her body from the shoulders of of the official pallbearers and passed her from person to person for the three-hour-long journey to the mosque of al-Sayyid Husayn. This sign of affection and respect was the culmination of a career that had begun nearly six decades before. In an article for Harvard Magazine, Virginia Danielson, author of The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century, wrote, ‘Imagine a singer with the virtuosity of Joan Sutherland or Ella Fitzgerald, the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt and the audience of Elvis and you have Umm Kulthum, the most accomplished singer of her century in the Arab world.’

— Craig Harris, AllMusic.com

Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture is, as the organization’s mission statement declares, “dedicated to presenting and teaching Arab culture through the arts and language.” As part of their educational work, they’ve created a wonderful website about Umm Kulthum.

Here is a brief biographical video about her life:

And here she is in performance:

Finally, here is a scene from the film Looking for Oum Kulthum (you’ll discover that their are many different spellings of her name in its transliteration from Arabic to the Latin alphabet):

This new film, directed by Shirin Neshat, is “a film within a film [about] the plight of an Iranian woman artist/filmmaker living in exile, as she embarks on capturing the life and art of the legendary female singer of the Arab world, Oum Kulthum. Through her difficult journey, not unlike her heroine’s, she has to face the struggles, sacrifices and the price that a woman has to pay if she dares to cross the lines of a conservative male dominated society.” (IMDB)

Mubtadiyah
by Leila Chatti

(Arabic) Beginner: One who sees blood for the first time.
“And indeed, [appointed] over you are keepers, Noble and recording;
They know whatever you do.”
—The Holy Quran 82: 10-12

Hidden in a dim stall as the muezzin called
all worshipers to prayer, I touched privately
the indelible stain. And watched, with a nascent sense
of kinship, the women washing
through the interstice of the door,
their veils slipping off like water, water
spotting their clothes like rain.
I thought the thought only
children and the pious believe, that I was, just
like that, no longer
a girl: the blood my summons, blot like a seal, a scarlet membership
card slid from my innermost pocket. I was newly twelve and wise
enough to be frightened. I had read The Book and so understood
my own was now opening, alighting
onto my shoulders like some ethereal bird flapping
briefly immaculate
wings, and understood, too, that I myself engendered
the ink with which, on its pages, my sins would forever be
written (not literally but
this was how I imagined it, metaphor, as the blood brought
God’s recorders like sharks to me,
menarche a bright flare, a matador’s crimson cape)
—I had not been good
all my life but until this first vermillion drip
I lived unobserved, my sins not sins
because no one looked. And now,
above like a lamp suddenly
ablaze, God’s reproachful
eye turned my way, a searchlight eternally
searching, and seeing and seeing—
I was as good as I would ever be. In the dark, the ruddy
iris stared back at me.

Beginnings
by Mahtem Shiferraw

This is not how it begins
but how you understand it.

I walk many kilometers and
find myself to be the same—

the same moon hovering over
the same, bleached sky,

and when the officer calls me
it is a name I do not recognize,
a self I do not recognize.

We are asked to kneel, or
stand still, depending on which land
we embroider our feet with—

this one is copious with black blood
or so I am told.

Someone calls me by the skin
I did not know I had
and to this I think—language,

there must be a language
that contains us all
that contains all of this.

How to disassemble
the sorrow of beginnings,

how to let go, and not,
how to crouch beneath other bodies
how to stop breathing, how not to.

Our fathers are not elders here;
they are long-bearded men
shoving taxi cabs and sprawled
in small valet parking lots—

at their sight, my body dims its light
(a desiccated grape)
and murmur, Igziabher Yistilign
our pride, raw-purple again.

We begin like this: all of us
walking in solitude
walking a desert earth and
unforgiving bodies. We cross lines
we dare not speak of; we learn and
unlearn things quickly, or intentionally slow
(because, that, we can control)
and give ourselves new names
because these selves must be new
to forget the old blue.

But, sometimes, we also begin like this:
on a cold, cold night
memorizing escape routes
kissing the foreheads of small children
hiding accat in our pockets,
a rosary for safekeeping.

Or, married off to men thirty years our elders
big house, big job, big, striking hands.

Or, thinking of the mouths to feed.

At times
we begin in silence;

water making its way into our bodies—
rain, or tears, or black and red seas
until we are ripe with longing.

 

About This Poem

“It is difficult to contain the plights of the nomads, the immigrants, in a language. It is filled with displacement, disarray, a thick grief. It is lonely. It is humbling. It breaks us, slowly, slowly. But we can talk about it in bits and pieces. And part of being an immigrant is having to start over again, having to begin in a new land, a new life, without forgetting the old one. Having a new identity, a new name, a new self. To begin—without a home, walking in solitude; to begin in silence. This poem is an attempt to give space to that.”
Mahtem Shiferraw