Poetry and Prose from Web del Sol

The Works of Khaled Mattawa, Part 5


Maybe I'm a fool
holding two threads,
one black, one white,
waiting for dawn
to tell them apart.
But I'm only practicing
my religion which
I neither borrowed
nor stole.
Maybe I'm a fool
thinking of a better answer
than the transplant patient
who said I'm sorry
someone had to die.

No, I haven't outgrown
my tongue. It's a coat
your mother gives you,
crimson or cobalt blue,
satin inside, the collar
wide enough to cover
your whole neck.
All winter you wear it
then spring comes
but never goes.
That's Arabic to me.
I wear a white shirt now--
thin gray stripes,
top button gone--
and it fits.


I wasn't driving
just crossing a street
with trees, leaves mustard
yellow and ketchup red,
when a low ranking employee
of an insignificant bureaucracy
gave me the finger.
Did my face foretell
seven years of drought?
Did I remind him of
Don Kirshner, The Bee
Gees, the Cold War?
As usual I was lost
between the stuffed
tomatoes of my youth
and a future that says tick
tock boom boom.
Lost because I was living
the now of hurried afternoons,
the present that makes me bark
"No, I don't need help"
to the teenager bagging
my groceries at Mr. D's.
So when the bus driver
gave me the finger,
I gave him the Italian arm.
Brakes screeched, people inside
jerked around like carcasses
in a hot dog plant. He stepped
out shouting, big mouth
flashing. I couldn't hear
a sound. Still
I screamed fuck you,
fuck you, and the present
became a rabbit searching
for its severed head.
I mean the now was Reba
McEntire crooning to Sid
Vicious biting on a slide guitar.
Then the present burned
a heap of old calendars--
June 23, 91,
March 4, 92, the smoke
of all those days!
I didn't look back
but watched my life
from a helicopter
or a sewer hole, my heart
pounding 140 fists a minute.
Look at me, look at me
fling hours at the universe,
headbutt my old friend fear,
knee the wide skirts of hope.


Imagine the singer. April in Paris, his first day out alone. He doesn't mind being lost here. From a small shop he buys a shirt he knows he'll never wear. He buys it because a new shirt with plastic, cardboard, and pins is perfection and that to him is transcendence. Now imagine the singer's pain, his liver eaten up by belharzia. You have to see this because there's a kind breeze blowing on this sunny day in Paris, and because our singer is elated--a new song to record in two weeks, a concert in two months.

Now imagine my cousin who leapt from a balcony the day the singer died. For years everyone said he's ill, he's ill. But such a small, unconfirmed fact is like one of the barrels of gunpowder the Turks stored in the Parthenon for decades. A cigarette or a misfired shell from the rebellious Greeks and the roof blows up. Or the fireworks factory in Tennessee, ten miles from where I lived, a tremor on the pavement, and a distant boom like a whisper that goes unheard. I don't remember how the fire started or how many people died.

I stick a tape of Zai El-Hawa in the stereo and the singer introduces the song. Dilwaati zai el-hawa. Kalimat (lyrics by) Muhammad Hamza. Applause. Talhin (music composed by) Baligh Hamdi. Enthusiastic applause. Tuqadimaha ma'ya (performed by) Al-Orchestra Al-Massiya. Applause. Screaming. One song. Forty minutes. Once a year. Enthusiastic applause.

They love this man, his handsome face, his peasant origins. That he was an orphan would've made them weep had they known it. He's kept the the lice infested orphanages, the molesting by older boys, the rancid food a secret. And only his closest friends know he started singing after failing to master the flute. His listeners only know humble beginnings, and now they see his name written with white roses in a bouquet larger than a bed.

By now they are screaming. Awid. Min Awil. (From the beginning. All over again). They love this song though it's like the others--candle lit nights, flowers, and a longing that's by now a pertro-dollar trope--except the singer insisted on including a saxophone and an electric guitar. "But this is Arabic music," his friends complained. "So what, so what" he yelled back at them. He was right. The crowd loves it. From the beginning, all over again, I chant along with them.

Once on a coffee farm in Kenya a woman began rhyming. The children working for her gathered to listen. When she stopped they said "Sing again, sing like rain." Once I read in a newspaper...

Now imagine the singer getting tired from his walk. He chooses a small cafe filled with sunlight and orders tea. Then a man enters, expensive suit, gold wrist watch, the kind of man who would insist on accompanying the singer all day, buying him gifts, treating him to dinner, the kind of man who would end up drunk late that night telling the singer "I memorize all your songs," and weep to him about his exile and nostalgia and weep and weep.

But the singer hides his face behind a newspaper, and when the man leaves he is relieved the way a dying man would be relieved in learning that all history is wiped out, and pain will no longer exist. Now try to listen to the singer express this with a sound, half-whispter, half-sigh, a gesture liable to make a crowd gather, all screaming "From the beginning. All over again," and a group of child laborers rushing into the cafe begging "Sing again, sing like rain," among them a teen-age girl, fireworks jutting from her hair.


I love the word samovar, and I love
to break it into syllables, "samo"
meaning self, "vari" burn. Quickly
I return to Buddhist monks, saffron
fire lapping their saffron robes,
as though it was all for art. A sweeper
arrives later, handpicks the last grains,
and a procession follows, white roses
and flutes, leading to a cold room--
ashes stored in clear crystal jars.

I love the word samovar, and I love
how it rhymes with czar, conjuring Nicholas
in captivity, hours before his death,
stupid and taciturn, clutching the arm
of a chair, chewing the end of a cigar.
And his son, the hemophyliac, who
one morning, pretending to be
of peasant stock, placed a rock of sugar
between his jaws and waited hours
for his young nurse and her poisoned cup.

I love the word samovar, and I love
the diplomat, my uncle, who brought us one
from Moscow--"The best thing the Russians
make. This, and nuclear bombs!" From
his balcony in Alexandria, his hands clasping
a warm mug, he watches the street, thinks of
a wife, ashes scattered in Sinai, another
in Jakarta, sons in Denmark, daughter
in Madras. Then he sighs--too proud
to call them home, to tired to depart.

I love the word samovar and I love
hats, skull caps my mother brought
from Mecca, one I wore rising at dawn
to pray, a fedora a lover bought me
because my face matched the dreary green,
and the one you hid under all summer,
the times I needed to touch your hair
but tucked my hand in my pocket instead.
It's hard to love your hiding, my hesitancy,
and the words that die unsaid.

I love the word samovar, and I love
fajitas, the way they're served, the meat
crackling, the hot plate's snake-like hiss.
And I love reading Qais, Laila's Fool,
who wrote line after soppy line knowing
she'll never be his. And I love the times,
my bones giddy, my feet a crooked dance,
I turn to you and recite his lines
"Come close, dear love,
eat from my sizzling heart!"

Click on the right arrow below and go to next page