by Claudia F. Saleeby Savage | Contributing Writer
Riding the train to work in Portland, Oregon a little over a year ago, before COVID-19 hit, I was reading Kassem Eid’s book, My Country: A Syrian Memoir, when three white tourists from the Midwest started talking to me.
“What’s your book about?” asked the first.
“Syria,” I said.
“How is it?” asked the second.
“Strong language!” said the first. “Why are you reading it?”
(I took a minute to think and didn’t answer.)
“Well, I mean, why? Are you Syrian?”
I don’t know why I told them that my ancestral family was from Lebanon, right over the border from Syria, east of Beirut. I don’t know why I felt the need to explain my compassion for Syrians in a language they might understand.
“But, you’re American now, right?” asked the second, eyes darting.
My stop was next, and I left before answering.
I started reading Syrian memoirs several years ago. At the time, the Syrian civil war—and its people’s quest for basic rights and freedom—seemed to have been going on forever. So many people imprisoned. So many dying. I remember a satellite picture taken from above one prison showed the expansion, every few months, of graves beside it, while here in the U.S. we went from one president (Obama) who did nothing while chemical weapons were used on Syrian civilians twice, to another president (Trump) who closed the borders on the suffering of millions of Syrian refugees.
I couldn’t stop dreaming of those children, those fathers, those mothers like me. I walked around feeling as if someone had ripped a Band-Aid off the wound that was my entire body.
My daughter was born after the Arab Spring began in Tunisia. She nursed as I read the news of Mohamed Bouazizi, the poor fruit vendor who’d set himself on fire (and who managed, with that act of protest, to incite much of the Arab world toward revolution against autocratic regimes). I tried to set the news aside so my milk would keep flowing. At that point it had been a decade since the events of September 11, but far too many Americans still thought of any Arab (or anyone with Arab ancestry) as a threat. At one party I attended, bringing a Lebanese zucchini dip made me suspect. (Seriously. The host’s husband said my name was “awfully American sounding” and asked why my English was so good.)
As the Arab Spring continued, I dreamed of the children trapped under bombed buildings. In Syria, children were tortured. Bashar al-Assad’s regime told the mothers of the children he killed to forget them.
I held my plump baby girl and shuddered.
Of course, we all know the U.S. practice of separating refugee parents and children, and the practice of imprisoning those children at our southern borders. After all, our country was built on a foundation of Indigenous oppression and Black slavery, and every day we police and kill our own citizens because of the darkness of their skin. America destroys children too.
Often, poetry feels like a small comfort. Other times, when I barely have the energy to work and mother, it feels like everything. One of my favorite poems ever written about motherhood is “January” by the uncompromising Alice Notley. Here’s a tiny excerpt:
My armpits smell like chicken soup. . . . My
head weighs too much on the pillow. I have to sweat.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I need you to stop this train.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
asking me if
I liked my life. I . . . said
you dislike being a poet? and having
children is only human
There is so much to feel powerless about as a mother—bullying, the flu, constant “active shooter” drills where they ask small children to huddle together, shades drawn, room locked.
I try to allay my constant fear by talking with other Arab American poets. I admit to thinking poets might have the answers.
Mohja Kahf, a Syrian American poet and activist, whose daughters traveled with her to Syria to help the freedom protestors at the height of the conflict, is one of the bravest writers I know. I interviewed her for my series on Arab American poets in the journal Anomaly and I admire her courage and humor in the face of the enormous risks she took in order to support the cause of the Syrian people. In “Parturition 1999,” from her book Emails from Scheherazad, she says:
In Iraq, after U.S. bombing . . .
people are having babies with no faces . . .
is the mother . . .
Everyone in the world today
belongs to the age of deformity.
But I know that to be a mother you must also live in hope—if not for yourself, then at least for your children. Mohja Kahf knows this too. In “To My Queenly Daughters,” she writes:
O my little daughters who will one day be queens . . .
I am arming you
with talismans, the talon of the falcon I was.
“Because I love you” is a good answer
to nearly everything you will ask me
so remember it when I am gone.
Ask any mother on the planet what she wishes for more than anything else, and she’ll say some variant of this: the best for my children, their happiness, their health, their success, their joy. But is that possible when you are just trying to survive? In “Hijra,” Hala Alyan, a Palestinian American poet, says:
We became seamstresses, mapping departure
into our eyelids. Allah’s calligraphy stitched
our vertebrae. We wrote their unsaid names
on parchment, buried them in boxes, gave birth
to our daughters in caves. When our breasts wept
milk for months, we drank it ourselves.
“Beauty survives us” she says in another poem, and I want to tell my daughter that’s why I’m a poet. Poetry allows us the chance to grasp what’s precious when everything is crumbling.
I read the memoirs of Syria because I need to remember that the mothers and children fleeing war are the most vulnerable people on the earth. If we look away from them, we condone their pain.
This time in history feels especially fraught with paranoia, whether we are talking about COVID-19 or systemic racism. But it isn’t paranoia that we feel, it’s a sense of awareness.
In her book In the Pines, Alice Notley says, “I always knew the house was on fire. It was one of the first things I knew.” That’s it. What I feel every day. Everything is on fire and I can only look at the flames. It helps that my fellow Arab mama-poets are doing the same.
Zeina Hashem Beck, from Tripoli, reminds me how to cultivate strength in “Dear White Critic,”:
If I told you I do not choose to write
about war & the children, would you believe me?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I’m tired of knocking on the doors of empires.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I’m tired of metaphors about peace.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I banish you from these lines.
But banishment is exile. And exile means that I can’t, as an artist and citizen, participate in my own country’s redemption. Hassan Abbas, in his essay “Between the Cultures of Sectarianism and Citizenship,” writes about how he envisioned a day when Syria would recover “the true meaning of citizenship”:
Fascist parties and oppressive regimes base their political ideas on the principle that the nation is sacred. . . . Nevertheless, such organizations are far from the practice of citizenship because they are founded on ideas of discrimination, whether racist, sectarian, or despotic . . . freedom changes ‘latent citizens,’ who are satisfied with what the state allots to them, into ‘active citizens,’ who exercise their civil, political and cultural rights, participate in the enactment of legislation and engage in the politics that regulate the affairs of their state and society. . . .
My friend, the poet Lisa Birman, wrote the poems in for that return passage: a Valentine for the United States of America when she was in the process of becoming a citizen of the U.S. Composed of blackout poems of immigration documents, love letters, eulogies, sonnets, and child-like notes with boxes to be checked, the book exhibits a type of burning. The kind of burning you do when you wonder if you need to erase one identity for another. Or, rather, when you live in the midst of an internal war between two worlds. It is something I feel as a mother trying to be an artist, trying to raise a family, trying to make a living, trying not to feel scared when I watch the police murder a fellow citizen, when I watch the news and hear a “fellow” American quoted as saying, “Arabs are all terrorists.” Birman composed her Valentine while George W. Bush was president and the U.S. invaded Iraq. In “Saddest Poem” she writes:
I live here and sometimes I live elsewhere . . .
To count the daily deaths, more immense with each night.
And the poem falls to the soul as the bombs too fall to the soul.
What does it matter that my home is a scattered place?
The flag is full of stars and stripes . . .
Somewhere else. Somewhere else. As I once was here.
This land, this water. This place called home.
I no longer live here, true, but still I live here.
Love is so short and oblivion so long.
Birman is Jewish but she mourned the people of Iraq.
Here’s where I admit I’ve not been completely transparent. My family is not only Arab. On one side of my family, I’m Jewish. I have family that perished in the Holocaust. Family that perished in Lebanon. Maybe that’s why I feel Syria’s pain so keenly. I see my cousins in the faces of Syrian refugees. And, as a Jewish woman, I also know annihilation.
Syrian American writer Alia Malek, in her memoir, The Home That Was Our Country, says you can’t be both Jewish and Arab at the same time anymore: “Once it hadn’t been impossible to be both Arab and Jewish, there was a time when it wasn’t an identity no-man’s land.” I’d have to disagree. I am living proof of being both; I live in a state of constant contradiction. I rarely feel fully at home in either context; I am in my forties and I still haven’t figured out how to inhabit that duality, but I’m not willing to give either piece of myself up. On days when some maniac storms a temple and shoots people, I sense one grandmother hovering beside me shaking her head. On days when I read in the newspaper that the U.S. is allowing Iran, Russia, and Turkey to storm the Syrian town of Idlib, I sense the other one weeping.
On Hanukkah, I light candles and say the Hebrew prayers because it comforts me to connect to my mother, who has been dead for over six years. My daughter, like all children, loves the ritual, the sounds I sing, the soft light in our dark living room. She asks, “Am I Jewish?” and I tell her yes, and, also, no. She is part of that culture but also part Arab, and part of her father’s ancestry too.
I cook my daughter sfeeha (meat pies), loubieh bi zeit (green beans and tomatoes in olive oil), and, her favorite, mujadara (lentils and rice with fried onions). She asks me if she is Lebanese, if she is Syrian, if she is Arab, and I tell her yes, and also no. She is a part of that culture and others. She is all of me and all of my husband, and her ancestry is vast and complicated and beautiful. And when she tells me that she is the only Arab child in her first grade classroom, the only Jewish child in her classroom—and that she feels proud of it—I hold that moment in my chest like a precious stone, polished and shining.
The poet Lauren Camp knows how I feel. She is Mizrahi (a Jewish Arab). Her father immigrated to the U.S. from Iraq. She writes about his story and her own in her collection, One Hundred Hungers. When I interviewed her, she said, “My father was not at all forthcoming with his history . . . for a while I was convinced I couldn’t possibly write what I wasn’t told, that I didn’t understand all the pluralities of his life.” In “Remembrance” she says:
We must erase our first sorrow.
How shall we hope?
We must hope.
In Camp’s book there are pages and pages of the names of those lost in the genocide of Jewish Iraqis after World War II. In many of the Syrian memoirs I’ve been reading lately, the names of the dead are listed. I make sure to say those names out loud. That, too, is poetry.
In Turquoise Door, Camp’s most recent book, she wonders if we will find a way to forgive each other. In “Canyon Trail #59” she writes:
Let me believe in vulnerable sprouting . . .
another morning . . . Let us be
less anxious each time
the trees shuffle.
I am trying, Lauren. I am trying.
If you’re confused by the uprising in Syria—by the tribes, the religions (different Muslim sects, Christians, Jews, and the secular), the immigrants (Kassem Eid, who I mentioned earlier, is Palestinian Syrian), and the fighters (against the government, for the government, supported by Iran, from Iraq, religious fanatics)—you’re not alone. I’ve read over thirty memoirs, have family from the region, and still I don’t know if I have everything straight.
As a poet, I want to say, for the moment forget all that. What you need to know is people keep dying.
It isn’t enough to hold someone’s sorrow in your body till it ferments into song. Witnessing isn’t enough. You must become the sorrow. In Jewish mama-poet Joy Katz’s poem, “In My Mother’s 1935 American College Dictionary,” she risks ingesting grief:
Between “holocaine” and “holocene,” I came upon “holocaust.” . . . “Pestilence. Locusts,” I read. The holocaust sits there making a noise like a bee-box. “From the Greek holokauston,” I read, “burnt offering.” Mad glare. “Wholesale destruction.”
Reading that poem makes me believe in art’s power. That my two selves are not so disparate after all. I am more than those two selves; I hold all of it—my Arab ancestry, my Jewish ancestry, America’s brutal past and its present pain. My own poems want to hold the suffering of the protestors down the street and the refugees across the ocean. Poet-mothers, we can’t ask you to hold us right now. But, through your poems, you will anyway.
Take Audre Lorde’s “But What Can You Teach My Daughter”:
even my daughter knows
what you know
can hurt you
. . . . . . . . . . . .
but what you do
Or Marie Ponsot’s “Love is not Love”:
I reach for comfort
to the left-out lives of women here and gone.
They lend them willingly. They know my need.
They do not hate me for crying. It beats despair.
Or Zeina Hashem Beck’s “Poem Beginning & Ending with My Birth”:
My daughter, my lovely wreck, my immense
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Tonight the cities to be bombed will be
bombed. The mothers will die little deaths.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
We’re birthing (what difference?) sinners, prophets.
Or, finally, the great Wanda Coleman’s “About God & Things”:
i want to have your child
cuz upon losing you
i’ll have more than memory
more than ache
more than greatness
i’ll have laughter
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Despite everything, I’m holding fast to the chance to tell my daughter it might be OK. The peaceful protestors of Syria said, “One, One, One, the Syrian people are one.” They risked themselves and their children for the chance to unite. We can love one another. We can give more than we thought possible to those we have harmed.
I cannot keep going on anger and adrenaline alone. I’m ready, America, to hold my daughter without my heart beating with worry. I’m ready to place my life beside yours. I’m opening the gates that separate us. Poetry, help me. I hear my sisters, the mothers on the other side, weeping. Then, beneath that, singing.
For Further Reading:
Lauren Camp: One Hundred Hungers (Tupelo Press, 2016) and Turquoise Door: Finding Mabel Dodge Luhan in New Mexico (Three: A Taos Press, 2018)
Audre Lorde: The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (W.W. Norton, 1997) Zeina Hashem Beck: Louder than Hearts (Bauhan Publishing, 2017)
Joy Katz: All You Do Is Perceive (Four Way Books, 2014)
Wanda Coleman: Imagoes (Black Sparrow Press, 1963)
Hala Alyan: Hijra (Southern Illinois University Press, 2016)
Lisa Birman: for that return passage: a Valentine for the United States of America (Hollowdeck Press, 2008)
Mohja Kahf: E-mails from Scheherazad (University Press of Florida,2003)
Alia Malek: The Home That Was Our Country (Nation Books, 2017)
Alice Notley: In the Pines (Penguin, 2007) and Grave of Light (Wesleyan University Press, 2006)
“Between the Cultures of Sectarianism and Citizenship,” Hassan Abbas in Syria Speaks: Art and Culture From the Frontline (Saqi Books, 2014)
Kassem Eid: My Country: A Syrian Memoir (Bloomsbury Publishing,2018)
Marie Ponsot: The Green Dark (Knopf, 1988)
John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on Trump & Syria
Claudia F. Saleeby Savage is a poet, essayist, teacher, and mama. Her latest manuscript about the Syrian refugee crisis and America’s response began as a performance piece for her duo Thick In The Throat Honey. She is a 2018–2021 Black Earth Institute Fellow and the author of Bruising Continents (Spuyten Duyvil). Reductions, a collaboration about motherhood with visual artist Jacklyn Brickman, will be exhibited in Portland and Detroit in 2023. Find her at: www.claudiafsavage.com and @thickinthethroathoney on Instagram.