Poetry and Prose from Web del Sol

The Works of Khaled Mattawa, Part 1


My lips came with a caravan of slaves
That belonged to the Grand Sanussi.
In Al-Jaghbub he freed them.
They still live in the poor section of Benghazi
Near the hospital where I was born.

They never meant to settle
In Tokara those Greeks
Whose eyebrows I wear
--then they smelled the wild sage
And declared my country their birthplace.

The Knights of St. John invaded Tripoli.
The residents of the city
Sought help from Istanbul. In 1531
The Turks brought along my nose.

My hair stretches back
To a concubine of Septimus Severus.
She made his breakfast,
Bore four of his sons.

Uqba took my city
In the name of God.
We sit by his grave
And I sing to you:
     Sweet lashes, arrow-sharp,
     Is that my face I see
     Reflected in your eyes?


The morning a promise
neither false nor true.
She makes coffee, the taste
of cardamom and a sweetness
she cannot recall.
Mabruka served us
cookies and light tea
in porcelain cups,
the handles shaped like fish.

This from a social call
twenty four years ago.
We gave their baby a bracelet
with a big Allah engraved
next to his name.

"The baby" operating a train
between Aswan and Asyut
as we speak. I listen.
Her laughter, and the past
a spool of tales
unwinding. An hour.
Now I must leave.
She is happy
I have work to do.


A train whistle
and I cling to handlebars
as though it were my last chance
at birth. In the cabin
my thoughts stutter
no further than the window,
never penetrating the glass.
Why did I go see her village?
Buffalo carcasses
floating on channels
and channels suffocating
with water hyacinths.
Pot bellied grain boats stranded
and a boy sleeping on deck,
flies swarm his thin face.
She lived beside the train tracks.
She lived and played
and waited for the caboose
to shake her home.
And the musty smell of the cow stall
and the mule, a depository
of rage and affection,
a whole family of angry kicks,
and the boy called
to piss on its wound.
They waited for the train,
for the day to slip like a shovel
in the metallic taste of dirt.
Weddings and feasts--
oboes and clarinets drift
to nearby villages beckoning
guests and pariah dogs.
And the meals of lentils and rice,
the head of a calf
hung above the day,
a charm, and proof
nothing was spared.
But who ate its heart and tongue?
No one knows.


We are not in a valley.
Cow bells in the afternoon.
We are not looking at a river.
Fishing boats, miles of nets.
We are in a London mall.
"Like a mouse
in the Pasha's storeroom,"
she is astounded by the choices,
filling bags with dresses
and cheap shoes.
Her neighbors
Her extending tribe.
Then she sees the toddler,
blue eyes, blonde curls, picks it up,
a flurry of kisses and hugs,
and God bless and God protect,
the father--enraged--
rushing toward her pulling
the baby from her embrace--
his face a universal sign of disgust.
On the train,
her bags at her feet,
she is dejected and wants
to go home. She turns to me.
But I have no pity to give.


The road a ribbon
paralleling the railway,
stitches on the desert floor.
She rides west now
and now is then.
Before the cramped resorts.
Before the road swelled,
shoulders pockmarked
by watermelon stalls.
And confetti.
Millions of black plastic bags.
Hollow crows.
No, no, I was not the child
who wept Let us go back,
the one who was laughed at
for years. She rides west now
in a van, two daughters
at her side. They see the train
and drive beside it for hours.
And for hours the children wave
at strangers and strangers
wave back at them.
After Marsa Matrouh
they crane their necks
searching for it
until someone remembers
that at Marsa Matrouh
the railway ends.


The year I shared a room with her
I asked my sister to let me
smell her hair and run my fingers
through it. It was long and black
and shined like a new piano.
She combed my hair, told me
I was sweeter than a girl.
One afternoon we took a picture
and she showed to her friends,
told them she was the daughter
of Haroon Ar-Rasheed
and I was her slave boy,
a gift from Charlemagne
in exchange for a clock.
She told them I was an angel
who descended with Gabriel
to teach Solomon how to speak
to the Nightingale.
But I refused to return to heaven
because I fell in love
with her, Queen Sheba.
She said I was Joseph
and she was Al-Aziz's wife
who kept me beautiful
with a potion she had bought
from the magician
who mummified King Tut.

On her wedding day
my sister kissed my cheek
and begged me not to grow.
It talked to her yesterday
on the phone. She said
she shows the picture
to her children and tells them
when I was her slave
I ran away aboard a ship
to Marseilles. From there
I was sent to the court
of Ferdinand and Isabella.
They gave me to Columbus who
traded me for gold to the Indians.

But the Indians had no us for me;
they needed neither angels nor slaves.
She tells them I live on a street
with 22 churches and a synagogue.
On Rossville Boulevard
I pawned my wings for rent money,
and now I man store where
poor black women buy their groceries
and they pay me with "Sugar,"
"Darling," "Honey bun."


The general's wife came
begging for mutton fat,
her husband in jail.
Her children begged for corn;
for their horse, they said.
When the horse died
they burned him
behind our house.
It was my uncle's wedding day.
No one sang.
No one ate.


Summer, the only time
children saw the moon.
My father and his friends chat,
their white robes, silver
flags rippling in the dark.


In May my mother breaks
a twig from our largest fig.
She licks the milky sap,
the more bitter the taste
the sweeter the crop.


Mosquitoes pop
on bedroom walls,
white paint
freckled with blood.


Under the grapevine shed
my mother roasts
ears of corn. Beside her
tea water boiling
on a charcoal stove.
Late afternoon
I climb to pick.
Clusters. Blue feet,
hundreds of toes.


The gardener stopped
drinking coffee.
We were alarmed.
Serving him tea, we asked
about his health.
He joined the army one spring.
The peppers died,
the spinach, parsley,
and mint.


New neighbors moved in.
An old couple,
seven daughters and a dog.
They gave us a puppy,
a bitch. We fed her
meat from a can.
Hungry, she mauled
my mother's chicks.
Then fled.


An olive tree
bears no fruit
the year its owner dies.
My grandfather died
and a gardener brought a basket.
He shook the tree; he shook.
Two nests fell
with broken blue shells.

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