The Works of Khaled Mattawa, Part 2
GROWING UP WITH A SEARS CATALOGOmar pointed to a pink man
IN BENGHAZI, LIBYA
riding a red lawn mower,
rose bushes, yellow tulips,
orchids framing slick sod.
Owners of villas in Jilyana,
my brother's friends
"the grass machines."
He planned to charge triple
his cost, build a house
by the sea. Eyes half-shut,
cigarette clouds above him,
he snored leaving unfinished
a recitation of truncated schemes.
In my room I gazed
at the pink man again,
marveled at pictures
of women in transparent bras.
How I loved their black nipples
and full gray breasts!
I fancied camping
with the blue-eyed one
in the $42 Coleman tent,
the two of us fishing
at a lake without mosquitoes,
sailing the boat on page 613.
After watching soaps
on our mahogony-cased
(27 inch) color TV,
we galloped lime green scooters
on "scabrous terrains,"
returned to our 4-bedroom home,
mud up to our knees,
to make love on the mattress
on page 1219.
my brother and I, landed
in New Orleans, in the heat.
The city's stench nauseated us,
mosquitoes slipping through
our window screen.
At the Lake Shore Sears
he caressed lipstick
red fenders, sank fingers
in the comfort of seats.
The smallest model
was striped with silver,
and he hugged it
like a long lost niece.
In a patois of his own,
he bargained, told
universal dirty jokes.
We rode two on a nearby lawn,
sunshine, cool morning breeze.
We parked them outside
Morrison's where our waitress
said she bought all
her clothes from Sears.
That night I undressed her
gently, stroked her breasts
with my cheeks.
She sighed, and I heaved,
the air in her room
scented with my dreams.
In the morning she said
I talked in my sleep,
raved at someone,
"What kind of flower
you want planted
next to your grave?"
RAMADANMy mother forgets to feed her animals
because it's only fair.
She rushes to them when
she hears hoarse roosters crowing
and billy goats butting
over a last straw.
This month the moon becomes a princess.
The stars fan her,
Jupiter pours cups of wine,
Mars sings melancholy mawals.
Bearded men holding prayer beads
and yellow booklets stare at her
and point aching fingers at her waist.
In our house we break a fast
with dates from Huun
and glasses of buttermilk.
Then on to bowls of lamb soup
flavored with mint, trays
of stuffed grape leaves,
spiced fava beans drenched
in olive oil and lemon juice.
And that is only the beginning.
The spirits of Johnny Walker and gin
hide in the trunks of white Peugeots.
In the nightclubs of my city, waiters
serve only non-alcoholic beer
and belly dancers cover themselves.
Father of sixteen children, our neighbor
visits bringing two kilos of baklava.
He washes them down with a dozen
demitasses of sweet sage tea.
Before dawn he runs to one
of his two wives, both named Salma,
and loves her hurriedly,
his hands barely touching a breast.
A Mawal is an unaccompanied improvisational vocal solo regularly performed by singers of traditional Arabic music to show their poetic as well as singing prowess.
THREE KITCHENSI pace a friend's house. On the walls,
abstracted hearts of fruit, papayas
figs and pears. The kitchen, white
and plain like a restaurant plate,
the air crisp, not a trace of food.
A year ago a cousin sent me
a video cassette of my family--
winter--mud on the stone fence
and cars, on shoes and hems.
Everyone was in the kitchen.
Through the window near the ceiling
the sun poured an avalanche of milk.
Kerosene stove on the floor,
my sister frying eggplant and squash,
curried steam wafting from a pot of rice.
Someone mentioned a wedding
and they broke into song.
I could not watch any longer.
In my kitchen, I paced between
oven and sink, diced onions,
cut tomatoes into square-inch cubes,
potatoes, carrots and celery
for stew, pressed garlic, the flavor
tarrying on my finger tips.
Forgive me. My friend's kitchen
wasn't so bad, ours not a blissful place.
On my left foot, a burn mark from tripping
on the kerosene stove, the beatings
I got there, my mother humiliated,
my father raging, his dinner late.
But the light pouring in early afternoon!
And the way at night, my bedroom window,
streetlight penetrating the curtains,
I stand in the doorway breathing the haze
and I'm at home when the electricity
had just gone out, everyone scurrying
for candles, lanterns, hurricane lamps.
Shadows large and eerie, the air thick,
we move as though under water,
careful not to stave whomever
the darkness has summoned in.
One night I told my father about
the times my heart stopped beating.
Indignant, eyes half-shut, he looked
as if to say such miracles
were expected on nights like this.
The lights would flash back on,
but we would switch off and wait
until dawn for angels to reappear.
THE PYRAMID OF KHUFUWith each step upward
another was necessary,
and every time I looked down
the familiar world seemed
a dangerous place.
I had never intended
to climb this summit,
never thought I could find
refuge in the sky.
The sand below
shimmered and disappeared
behind a boiling mirage.
With guides and camels
the tourists turbaned
in red satin were a circus
on a hot plate.
Ten steps down
I could have heard
faints echoes of their laughs.
The world crawled,
slow enough for me
to be lost and safe,
enough to be surprised
by what I had forgotten:
Near the tombs of the slaves,
my parents sat
where I left them
in the shade
nibbling on pumpkin seeds.
TWO-RIVER LEDGERJoke used to be:
if you don't like it,
drink from the sea. Now
drink from the Nile.
Year 2030 all the fish will die
before reaching Dimietta.
Sometimes the world breaks
into shards aiming for your face.
Before they reach you
they turn into bubbles
and what joy to see them burst!
I'm talking about Lethe,
not the neighborhood in Benghazi,
five kilometers from the airport
where my father is building a house--
no architect, no map,
no contractor, no frills.
My mother says too big;
my brother, just
like the old house;
my sister, too far.
My father tells them:
Go drink from the sea.
Sadly, Fadil recites
"The waves beat ceaselessly
against my heart."
His neighbors console
"O Eye, be brave!"
Which do you think is resurrection,
the soul chiseling its way
back into the body,
or the body like a doughnut
rewrapping itself around a hole?
Is there such a thing as the art
of farewelling? Is there any other art?
Fadil now cries from a minaret,
"How I wish to drink
from the waters of Lethe,
how I wish to die
on a mountain of fruit."
His neighbors hand him
a spoonful of hashish.
Here's my father again,
drowning in his own water,
tubes out of arms and nose,
mouth open, lavender tongue.
What do you make of the dead,
their voices drifting to outer space,
and the radar we've built
to recapture them?
"Do not forget the blue shoes
I bought you when you were four.
Do not forget the nights
I carried you to the doctor,
frail, choking with coughs.
Do not forget to love your mother.
Do not forget the rosemary bush."
IN THE GLORIOUS YEMEN RESTAURANT25 on Atlantic Avenue, faces kneaded
from Hadramout clay, and walls
the color of canned peaches. The men
and their moustaches come from a country
where all questions were answered
when Solomon glimpsed Sheba's thighs.
Here a man tells his story by the way
he drinks his tea. One named Anwar
asks about a charm he'd lost. His mother
tucked it in his pocket the day he left.
Mine I lost when an officer rummaged
through my clothes. My knees caved in,
my charm dubbed immigrant trash.
Haji Ahmad sits next to me because
my face is familiar. He opens an envelope,
shows me a picture of a niece's wedding.
When did you come here Haji?
He stares, puts on a reminiscent Sinbad:
I was young, took the first ship to Java.
Never returned. In Oran
a woman promised never to forget me.
In Jirba, I kissed the hand of a Jew
because his wife came from Sana'a.
I live here now, but I'm settled everywhere.
The cook wails Ya lail, Ya lail, a song
about tonight, how I'll walk to my room
in George and Donna's house where
Donna will be fucking another man.
Ya lail, Ya lail, Ya lail...
The waiter hands Anwar a basket
filled with lost charms--prayer beads,
photographs, false jewels. He searches
and I'm caught between laughing and weeping
because tonight I sipped sweet mint tea,
ate with my hands and licked my fingers
to satisfy a memory, to water its roots
with frankenscence and cloves.
Ya lail, Ya lail... I am here, I am there,
I am lost between Carroll Street and Smith.
I slip to full moon summers,
stars dancing to the pilgrims' return.
I slip to dreams that happened in dreams.
Ya lail, which means O night!, is a common refrain in Arabic music.