By Hala Alyan
Wind churning a daub of Haifa seawater into my eye. Tomorrow,
a strip of sunburn,
skin peeling auburn.
Word scuffing my throat at Qalandiya checkpoint
as a man nods and
click rotates metal bars. Word rasps at Ramallah windows facing
the burly settlements—No—even during autumn
weddings. Word nests like a sunflower seed between
teeth and only
later do I spit it out
beneath a harvest moon in Manhattan.
Hot cheek kiss from Jimmy. Naming the dead, and their
ambered his eyes and Jerusalem keening
for Shabbat as we strode the dawn.
A photograph of the sunlit souk: prayer
kaffiyehs, ceramics, carpet. Finger pricked on the crown
of thorns fashioned out of cedar wood.
Shukran from the Palestinian shopkeeper when I translated
to the American women for him:
no the kitten is his not injured she likes to sleep in the tire
Blond eyebrows knitted
and when they left, the shopkeeper shrugged and said— bemused,
The Americans, their hearts bleed for cats.
At the top the hill dips clefted
over the granite. Coffins cluster
between the groves of green-
tipped olive shrubs. A man shovels
dirt, the blade copper in the sun.
He shuffles soil for a new grave,
intent on his task (tiny in this
monstrous land), ignoring the
Indian tourists rustling maps and
the Austrian men arguing about
soccer over flasks. Was it an olive
in the hands of a woman choking
dirty water in the camps (the other
camps, not the camps of Sabra
Baqa’a Zarqa Rashidieh Kalandia
Khan Yunis Jabalia Aida Shatila)?
Was it an olive steadied between the
teeth of one who spoke god and
lived another sun? Was the olive
the clay, then, was it the air that
kept bodies alive and hurtled
across the sea for this crescent
of land? The ancients said
plants took the scent of their
tenders. When they ate a leaf,
they thanked the hand that
plucked it. Who picked the olives
that crowded a bowl on that first
table in 1948 Yazur Umm al-Faraj
Kafr Sabt Qira Ibdis Kafra Danna
Kudna Nitaf Saffuriyya Hatta
Ayn Ghazal Sajad Dimra Aqir?
And what was the taste as
tongue rolled over the sphere
what was the memory lodged
like scar onto that green skin?
Did you taste it, do you still taste
it—the salt from the hands that
shuffled life from the dirt bitter
salty and sharp as any truth. Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American writer and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Guernica and elsewhere. Her poetry collections have won the Arab American Book Award and the Crab Orchard Series. Her debut novel, SALT HOUSES, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017, and was longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize.