Poems of Palestinian Motherhood, Loss, Desire and Hope

4 July, 2022
Reem Mouash­er, “Lemon Alley,” acrylic and pas­tel on can­vas, 120x200, 2021 (cour­tesy of the artist).

 

You Can Be the Last Leaf, select­ed poems by Maya Abu Al-Hayyat
Trans­lat­ed by Fady Joudah
Milk­weed Edi­tions, 2022
ISBN 9781571315403

 

Eman Quotah

 

Pales­tin­ian poet Maya Abu Al-Hayy­at claims she left metaphor behind years ago. “Now I betray the metaphor­i­cal with the real and direct,” she told the web­site Laghoo in 2015.

You Can Be the Last Leaf is pub­lished by Milk­weed Edi­tions.

Trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by Pales­tin­ian Amer­i­can poet, physi­cian and trans­la­tor Fady Joudah in the new col­lec­tion You Can Be the Last Leaf, Abu Al-Hayy­at cer­tain­ly over­states her lit­er­ary infi­deli­ty. In her poems, the autho­r­i­al rela­tion­ship to the imag­is­tic and the mun­dane feels more like coex­is­tence or polyamory. The every­day seeps into metaphor and vice ver­sa, a poet­ic reg­is­ter that dis­tinc­tive­ly con­veys the truth of a woman, moth­er, and artist liv­ing under Israeli colo­nial rule. The read­er encoun­ters check­points and house dress­es, loud chil­dren and gos­sip­ing friends, mos­qui­tos and cook­ing shows, a tin of sewing sup­plies and an emp­ty laun­dry bas­ket — as well as death, hope, and fear; a woman grow­ing like a tree; hors­es car­ry­ing a house; pock­ets full of seashells and madness.

You Can Be the Last Leaf gath­ers poems from three of Abu Al-Hayyat’s Ara­bic col­lec­tions, The Book of Fear (2021), House Dress­es and Wars (2016), and That Smile, That Heart (2012). We start in the domes­tic sphere then quick­ly aban­don it, in the collection’s first poem, “My House.”

None of the many hous­es I lived in
con­cern me. After the third house
I lost inter­est, but late­ly my organs and body parts
have been com­plain­ing of unex­plain­able ailments.
My arms extend high­er than a tree.

In Ara­bic, house means abode, fam­i­ly, poet­ry verse, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly home. For Pales­tini­ans, the house is a site of dis­place­ment, and the verse is a locus of both grief and pow­er. The poem con­tin­ues, mov­ing into the realms of lit­er­a­ture and engineering:

I read sev­er­al texts I took for houses
and stayed in them a while: “Liq­uid Mirrors”
was a crazy abode in which I forgot
my first love. There were mag­a­zines, too:

Al-Kar­mal, Poets, and Aqwass,
then I stud­ied engineering,
spe­cial­ized in earthquakes
to build hous­es whose foundations
resist cli­mates and the unpredicted.

The poem ends with a dec­la­ra­tion of pos­si­bil­i­ty for the idea of the house, its mobil­i­ty and muta­bil­i­ty: “I will raise my house on the backs of horses/that will car­ry it to the fields,/there my legs will pause.”

The house is metaphor­i­cal, and also very real.

In the four-part poem “Return,” Abu Al-Hayy­at takes on anoth­er sym­bol of Pales­tin­ian desire and dis­pos­ses­sion — the roads that lead from a lost past to present Israel, from Pales­tine to not-Pales­tine, and from one part of his­toric Pales­tine to another.

On High­way 6
between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem,
dri­vers pay a toll for the well-paved road,
busses on either side
trans­port pas­sen­gers who’ve returned at last
to Ram­leh or Lod, the lat­ter in peace, with jars
for the holy fes­ti­val of Prophet Saleh.
Jus­tice was walk­ing on the shoulder
of the rod out­side the yel­low line
giv­ing back to the streets their names.

The “real and direct” lan­guage of “pay a toll” sug­gests the metaphor­i­cal toll of Pales­tin­ian dis­pos­ses­sion. “Well-paved road,” “peace,” “returned at last” all sug­gest their own absence. Lat­er in the poem, a girl named Mer­cy leans on a rent­ed cane. Years “roll under the bed” and “need clips the wings of dreams/and the legs of the righteous.”

In this col­lec­tion, moth­er­hood is both the poet’s dai­ly life — her habit — and the lens through which she sees the world. In “A Road for Loss,” she packs her chil­dren in a suit­case and wish­es for escape. She asks, “Do you know a road for loss/that doesn’t end/in a set­tle­ment?” The ques­tion aris­es from a spe­cif­ic expe­ri­ence of moth­er­hood, one unique to Pales­tini­ans, yet there are uni­ver­sals: “My chil­dren will grow,/their ques­tions will multiply.”

Sim­i­lar­ly, in “We Were Young, You Gave Us a Home,” Abu Al-Hayy­at writes of feel­ings moth­ers in any set­ting may rec­og­nize in them­selves: “We became lone­ly and had chil­dren who dou­bled our loneliness,/so you gave us more chil­dren.” But the specifics of Pales­tin­ian moth­er­hood return in “Chil­dren,” a three-stan­za one-two-three punch of directness:

A child’s hand sticks out of the rubble
and sends me counting
my three children’s limbs,
their dig­its, exam­in­ing their teeth
and eyebrows.

The silenced voic­es in Yarmouk
turn the vol­ume up on my radio, TV,
and drown the songs on my laptop.
I pinch my kids in their love handles:
let there be crying,
let there be noise.

And the hun­gry hearts
at Qalan­dia check­point open my mouth:
I’m ready for my extra salty
emo­tion­al eat­ing to feed weeping
eyes everywhere.

The Pales­tin­ian moth­er fears for her chil­dren, hov­ers over them, eats her emo­tions — like any moth­er, but also like only a Pales­tin­ian moth­er can. Every­thing she wit­ness­es acts on her: the child’s hand that sends her count­ing, the silenced voic­es that turn up the vol­ume, the hun­gry hearts that open her mouth. The con­crete and the metaphor­i­cal fold in on each oth­er in ser­vice of direct­ly con­vey­ing the real­i­ty of her Pales­tin­ian grief.

In “I Suf­fer a Pho­bia Called Hope,” we see the way care and vio­lence go hand-in-hand, how moth­er­hood is vig­i­lance. Of hope Abu Al-Hayy­at writes,

Each time I hear that word
I recall the disappointments
that were com­mit­ted in its name:
the chil­dren who don’t return,
the ail­ments that are nev­er cured,
the mem­o­ry that’s nev­er senile,
all of it hope crushed
beneath its wings as I smash
this mos­qui­to on my daughter’s head.

Maya Abu Al-Hayy­at is a Beirut-born Pales­tin­ian nov­el­ist and poet liv­ing in Jerusalem. She has pub­lished four col­lec­tions of poems, four nov­els, and numer­ous children’s sto­ries, includ­ing The Blue Pool of Ques­tionsHer work has appeared in A Bird Is Not a Stone: An Anthol­o­gy of Con­tem­po­rary Pales­tin­ian Poet­ry and the Los Ange­les Review of Books, Cordite Poet­ry Review, The Guardian, and Lit­er­ary Hub. She is the edi­tor of The Book of Ramal­lah: A City in Short Fic­tion (Com­ma Press, 2021) and the direc­tor of Pales­tine Writ­ing Work­shop, an insti­tu­tion in Ramal­lah that encour­ages read­ing in Pales­tin­ian com­mu­ni­ties through cre­ative writ­ing projects and sto­ry­telling with chil­dren and teachers.

Moth­er­hood lends the poet empa­thy even for her ene­mies. “Plans” describes her yearn­ing to “solve the world’s problems”:

Now and then I lay down plans
to solve the world’s problems.

My plans elim­i­nate long­ing from stories,
remove exhaus­tion from groans,
place full stops in run­away sentences,
res­cue even sol­diers at checkpoints
along with children
who grow up in deten­tion centers
and moth­ers who wear their wardrobes
of patience …

In Joudah’s clean and sparse trans­la­tion, Abu Al-Hayyat’s poet­ry is mod­ern in both lan­guage and theme. At the same time, by cen­ter­ing her lived expe­ri­ence, she par­tic­i­pates in a tra­di­tion of Arab women’s poet­ry stretch­ing back cen­turies. Ele­gy was the main poet­ic form of the ear­li­est Arab women poets; through it they remem­bered depart­ed loved ones, usu­al­ly men, most often lost to war. In “Ele­gy for the Desire of Moth­ers,” Abu Al-Hayy­at play­ful­ly and sor­row­ful­ly updates the tra­di­tion for our age, mak­ing women’s inte­ri­or and exte­ri­or lives its subject.

As I make my bed and my two kids’ beds,
I’ll remem­ber. As I wipe one’s vom­it off the floor,
open a win­dow to the dust on the road,
trim rose thorns in a pot that doesn’t bud,
and as I read a recipe for authen­tic mansaf,

mend a white gown that lit­tle fingers
have ripped holes through,
I’ll remem­ber. As I bal­ance winter’s budget,
sniff a quilt for ammonia,
flip through the six chil­dren channels
look­ing for Tom & Jer­ry per request,
and as I search in my super­mar­ket of a purse
for a stray pad, I’ll remember.
As I bathe a body the size of my palm,
remove green boogers from ten­der nostrils,
untan­gle hair that choco­late, lollipop,
and apri­cot jam have invaded,
and as I read sto­ries about vibrant ants, lazy lions,
and migrant seals, degum my heart
and the sole of my shoe,
search for the best method
to remove oil stains from fabric,
clip twen­ty nails after a long quest for clippers,
I’ll remember…

Moth­er­hood is a qui­et war that eras­es the desires of the past self, but in it there is sol­i­dar­i­ty: “And when I mine/in my friends’ sto­ries for liv­ing desires,/I’ll remem­ber to men­tion them all.”

What gives Abu Al-Hayyat’s poems so much of their pow­er is her atten­tion to both the details of every­day life and the emo­tions and desires that make us human, even and espe­cial­ly those among us who are dehu­man­ized dai­ly. There is a strong sense of com­mu­ni­ty in her writ­ing, too — a sense that she speaks not for oth­er Pales­tini­ans or oth­er women, but with them. A writer who address­es her­self to Pales­tini­ans of all gen­er­a­tions — Abu Al-Hayy­at directs the Pales­tine Writ­ing Work­shop, which works with stu­dents and teach­ers to encour­age read­ing, and she writes nov­els and children’s books — she’s not afraid to con­demn the fail­ures of the pow­er­ful and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary. In “Rev­o­lu­tion,” she writes,

Those who win by killing few­er children
are losers.

A land that promis­es heaven
is an impov­er­ished land.

Trans­la­tor Joudah does his best to pre­serve the Pales­tin­ian-ness of Abu Al-Hayyat’s poems even as he ren­ders them in Eng­lish. As he explained in an essay for Los Ange­les Review of Books,

Pales­tine in Ara­bic does not need to explain itself. Despite set­backs, dis­as­ters, revolv­ing con­spir­a­cies against it, Pales­tine in Ara­bic is self-pos­sessed. It is exte­ri­or to Eng­lish yet born inter­na­tion­al­ist and shall remain so — nei­ther think­ing it is the cen­ter of the world nor sur­ren­der­ing to the impe­r­i­al cen­ter as the pri­ma­ry source of its future lib­er­a­tion. Pales­tine in Ara­bic is where the over­whelm­ing sac­ri­fice is made. Pales­tine in Ara­bic dreams, lives in and with more than 15 hun­dred years of lit­er­ary, intel­lec­tu­al, and ecu­meni­cal tra­di­tions, belongs to 10 thou­sand years before that. His­to­ry does not end for Pales­tine in Arabic.

The read­er of Abu Al-Hayyat’s trans­lat­ed poems, then, must make a con­cert­ed effort to go to Abu Al-Hayy­at — to read her along­side oth­er con­tem­po­rary Pales­tin­ian poets, trans­lat­ed and not, and to under­stand her poems with­in the con­text of that long his­to­ry as well as in the con­text of the past cen­tu­ry, the ongo­ing Nak­ba, and the cur­rent real­i­ty of Pales­tin­ian life.

When Abu Al-Hayy­at writes, “They will fall in the end,/those who say you can’t,” she does so as a Pales­tin­ian, with all the weight and bag­gage her real­i­ty brings. But she is also address­ing any­one who has ever despaired when she says,

Soon­er or lat­er, all leaves fall to the ground.

You can be the last leaf.
You can con­vince the universe
that you pose no threat
to the tree’s life.

 

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Eman Quotah is the author of the novel Bride of the Sea. She grew up in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, and Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, The Toast, The Establishment, Book Riot, Literary Hub, Electric Literature and other publications. She lives with her family near Washington, D.C.