The Works of Khaled Mattawa, Part 3
ISTANBUL, 1923I own nothing except my wishes.
I wrap them in colored paper
and stack them on shelves. Mister,
Monsieur, take this one, the wish
to be a doctor, I have had it
for years. Give it to your daughter,
hang it next to her cross. And this
green one, the wish to have a home,
in heaven, passion fruit dangling,
honey lakes, raspberry wine streams,
and Gabriel for a neighbor,
wings under the sun, spit-shined
like a pair of well kept model T's,
velvet cape fluttering on a clothesline,
from a distance you'd think it's a cloud.
Yes, of course the same Gabriel
who convinced the skies to rain
wine on Yemen, for centuries
providing the Hadramoutis with the manna
of pickled fish, among other
prodigious feats. Speaking of miracles,
here's my grandfather's.
He was a slave in the High Court
of Abdulhamid, the last Caliph
of the Sick Man of Europa who,
when the kingdom folded, sold
thousands of horses and concubines.
Even the turbans of Sulaiman
the Magnificent were sold.
The nomads of Anatolia
called them "The Coffers of Wisdom,"
and were crushed when they heard the news.
The Hittites bought a blue turban,
cut it into little pieces and each,
from the toothless grandpa
to the one-eyed babe stitched a piece
on his sleeve. The Khadrites soaked
a red one in the holy well of Zamzam
and drank Sulaiman's wisdom
spoon by spoon. Monsieur,
you are stubborn for a Swede.
Here for two francs, I offer you
the last drops of Magnificence.
Sulaiman, The Lawmaker, he was big,
a notch or two beneath Moses
and the Seven Mighty Priests.
But who's counting now?
It's my wishes that are for sale.
This green one is my father's;
he prayed for salt in his stew
and a taste of meat every holy month.
And it was in a holy month, Monsieur,
that the soldiers left the belly
of Troy's wooden beast. Forget
love of country or the glory of conquest.
It was rampant buggery, Monsieur,
darkness, thirst from eating olives
and dried fruit. This yellow wish
belonged to my cousin who lost his legs
in Gallipoli, and is now deaf in one ear.
A simple wish. Monsieur, don't leave.
One franc is like a bucket from the sea.
Take these pebbles I found in my loaf.
They could have fallen from Christ's sandals
on the day he rode to Jerusalem.
They could have been stuck for days
among miracles, lodged in the bone
mounds of his holy fish.
DAYS OF 1933A man walks down a street and sees a young woman. He turns around and follows her. He does this for a while surprised by the unexpected return of youth. In the depot he loses her among the crowds. A train arriving from the country, farmers, sacks of mangoes, ducks and chickens. It's been many years since the last time he ended up here, since he felt happy to be in a crowd. But soon he begins to feel foolish and old because every day farmers bring their mangoes and chickens to Alexandria, and everyday a young woman boards a train and is never seen again.
GENERAL ITALO BALBO
The snowflakes landing on your shoulders
are a first in this city, in this colony you rule.
The guard who carries your briefcase
tells you snow had never fallen here.
You ask him to leave. It's safe to walk
the streets now, the rebels long subdued
by Graziani. In the square you stroll
he strung up hundreds, once leaving
five dangling for a week until a film crew
(experimenting with color) arrived from Rome.
This is not your method. The few
you catch now are shot far away,
two bullets to the head, unmarked graves.
Your mind drifts back to the snow.
You want a picture of it before it melts.
You want to show it to your fellow Ferraresi,
to the farmhands milling about Napoli
and Trieste. You want to tell them
there is enough water for their vineyards
and orange groves, enough grass for their sheep,
and trash for their pigs. You will have
to exaggerate about the brick homes
you will build them, and the natives'
helpful cowardly ways. And why
would they not believe you General,
their valiant hero who defended the Piedmont,
the fascist youth traveling the countryside
preaching Mazzini and Il Duce's New Rome,
the photogenic ex-veteran who rid Ferrara
of the Red Leagues' "other Austrians," harnessing
the "Bolshevic avalanche," a sapphire studded
dagger strapped to your waist? They will believe
you "Il Padre D'Aeronautica" who crossed
the Atlantic leading a fleet of hydoplanes,
star of the Chicago World's Fair. "Balbo,
Balbo," New York greeted you with downpours
of confetti in a Broadway ticker tape parade.
Roosevelt shook your hand firmly two days later,
poured your coffee, another medal on your breast.
Children are playing in the snow now.
They stop when they see you; the older ones,
who will polish the shoes of your countrymen
or become their hired men, their kitchen help
and part-time pimps, stiffen up in fascist salute.
Their fathers rush to greet you, brushing
snow off your shoulders and cap. You enter
one of the houses for tea, the house of the man
who felt no shame kissing your left hand.
DAYS OF 1948A train threads through twilight heading north. A young couple step in from a small station. She smells as though she had given her father's cow a farewell hug. He, wearing his brother's suit, carries the fields' dark soil on his shoes. They look around them and find an old turbaned man, an imam of sorts. They want someone to marry them quickly--before they reach Irbil. The old man asks for witnesses and soon the peasant women's ululations spread through the train. The newly-weds shyly accept gifts prepared in haste, and stare at their feet. And we, who have come to pity them, sing nuptials and wish them good luck.
MARYAMMarsa Matrouh, 1955
A shadow centered the horizon,
white sands, cloudless sky.
A figure on a donkey appeared
and a man walking beside them.
My name is Mansoor Turki,
of the Sons of Ali.
We have not come from afar,
but would you grant us a drink of water,
and something for the donkey
may Allah brighten your face.
He wet his hands, wiped threads of dirt
from the creases of his forehead.
Maryam drank, showing a missing tooth.
Her crossed eyes parted giving her a new face.
We looked again,
a tattoo under her lower lip.
Father of Generosity,
I have brought you this daughter.
An orphan and this life of wandering
is no life for a sad bird like her.
Take her, discipline her
as you discipline your daughters.
Living under your roof will be her greatest fortune.
And when she becomes a woman
marry her to whomever you see fit.
He stayed for dinner that day,
said he never tasted buttermilk
as good as we offered him. Leaving,
he ran his tongue over his palms
and delicately calmed Maryam's hair.
He kissed her forehead and rode off.
Benghazi, 1963Maryam was the maid when I was four,
when she came to me with pieces
of strawberry candy in her hands.
She smiled when I reached, and her eyes
shone brighter than the dim glow
of her silver tooth. In the storage room
she cupped my groin, her hands sticky
with sugar and sweat. She held me
to her thighs until my forehead burned.
"I want to throw up," I cried,
and like it started it ended--
in silence. With familiar hands
she bathed me, tucked me in to sleep.
She was the maid again, the sister
who sang lullabies at night,
the dark one who fed the children
and the sheep.
Marsa Matrouh, 1970Yes, it's fear I have, like climbing a date palm when I was young, feet shaking on the ridges of the trunk, hands sweating, back ready to take the fall. So I quit when I smelled my sweat and for years worked building houses. I bought a taxi, drove the road between Benghazi and Marsa, filled my stomach on food from roadside shops. Day old bread and dark green tea. I remember the day she came to the station holding a bundle, frightened and quiet. I stopped the men from teasing her and sat her up front. Why I wanted to save her, I'll never know. We got to Marsa at half past one and I took her to my mother's house when I couldn't find her a place. Next morning, I bathed and the rippling of the water me want her. She made breakfast and I watched her dip pieces of bread in her tea. Two weeks later I married her. It's been five years now and we have Zainab and Halima, three and four. It's been five years now and I know nothing about this Maryam sleeping next to me, eyelids covering crossed eyes, a ray shining from her silver tooth, and the tattoo on her chin--how these features came together like the things travelers leave behind in my car! I'm not complaining. I sleep with boys who sell themselves at the cafes in Derna, and whores my mother's age. I'm not complaining. It's just her lack of words.
DAYS OF 1959Warm rain in Baghdad, the butchers calling it a day. They've wrapped their meat in burlap, sent their servants home. It's been a month since the last coup and the wailing from funeral tents hasn't stopped. On a boat docking at the river bank, a black boy practices on his nai. Oblivious of the struggle between captains and kings, he sees bodies swaying to his music in the city's new night club. His voice is sweet, and lately he has made a living reciting verses at the new martyrs' graves.