For the “angry Arabs” who won’t let anyone catch them crying
I’m sitting with Teta and we’re watching the Lebanese news channel. Jido’s parakeet, Aziz, is in a cage on the porch whistling at honeybees or traffic or the air becoming his body. He lives in my ear closest to the door, but the television in here is still louder. Now the journalist is standing in front of rows of cages full of bulbul birds. It’s an art thing. Teta, how is this art, those poor birds, they’re just in cages? Then the artist is on screen, talking about how he brought all these bulbuls together to calibrate themselves to the metronome of each other. He’s going to release them over his city. Call and response filtered through wrought iron windows and creaking trees. Their music will always be descending somewhere from the sky, filling in the chasms that metallic screams once put in the atmosphere—those wounds in the sky that gave birth to children who still carry the shriek of war like a phantom limb where the light can’t reach, but the bulbuls still sing.
We had a bird like that back home, Teta tells me, we’d leave its cage door open, it would fly around the house, singing into every room before it made its way back through the bars to rest.
I don’t ask what I know to be true: that the house in this story is the same house in another story where they were huddled in a basement, bricks for pillows while the whistles leaking in were less feathered and more cracked through the barrel of a plane held to the sun’s temple. The bulbuls in cages, still singing, or crying, at the air about to become them, but everything else still louder. I don’t ask what happened to the birds.
I think this is how my people talk both in poem and obituary. Bird song and elegy. Sunrise and sunset, but always the penultimate one, because last sunset is the one that brings the lid of your coffin down with it. I close my eyes and think about the last dead body I saw, organs pulled out by the tumors, his blood siphoned out, his bald head cold under my lips, his mouth wired into a smile that wasn’t his, but still the same mouth that sang to the bulbul he claimed lived inside me. I wish I could tell him what I’ve learned from the erasure of him. From the feathers still falling into the space he left behind.
I’ve learned that when we are lowered into the ground, we push the worms of us back up like fingers reaching for heaven. Then we die again between the beaks whose music once woke us every morning. But this is how we get wings before hatching again as song from the mouths of these birds. I think that is the next life—much closer to the ground than we thought, because maybe there is no heaven. Or maybe this is heaven: how we will always become sound that aims for the void that keeps coming for us, and our children, and their children, and all the trees we bury them beneath, and all the heavy apples that the worms reach up for.
And now the news station somehow transitions into a report about the latest political tension in this president-less country, third year running. Now my father is in the room. Voice rising at the television. Look, he removed the pin from his lapel. A sign of what’s to come. The alliances he to’s and from’s like they are branches when we need to protect the whole tree. And Arabic is how you speak yourself alive every day both in anise root and burning bush. A fire inside us we like to tell ourselves God put there, and not the colonizers.
My father doesn’t write poems but in his dreams he lights candles for a dead man who once shared our blood but now lives in the ground. Single flicker to light a darkened room. This silent whistle Pops holds in his fingers and uses to light cigarettes upon waking. It makes the turkish coffee go down smoother, smokes out the bird in him that repeats these dreams through his teeth and into the muddy porcelain like these grounds might be his future.
The cup readers say And now stamp your thumb into the grounds, now let yourself want, now lick this future from your finger. And this is how you look for God inside of dirt. This is how you pray with the fear living under your tongue, same one America mistakes for venom. So sometimes, you’re afraid to open your mouth, to speak slow enough for anyone to see.
I feel like I need to talk about the times I found myself or my family backed into corners. You want to hear about when our neighbors called us drug dealers or terrorists at stop signs and little league games. Not sure where they’re from, but they’ve always got music on, prayers of some sort, probably, and some other language, windows open, cars in and out, lawns a mess, there goes the neighborhood. I tell ya. All this in the sunlight. You want to know that I was fourteen. That my cousin was up to bat. That this white man was red from something that wasn’t the sun when I turned around, hand extended and said Hey there, I think we’re neighbors. I’m Jess. The sweetest victory, the tartest lemonade on a summer day, all ice to cool the burn I did not put inside me. But you can swallow anything if it’s cold enough to fool your taste buds. You welcome the mouthfuls of ice, rage erupting in your gut, you tell yourself that this fire is your legacy, that your genetics first struck the flint to light their way into the first person who spoke the language that brought you here.
I’ve never questioned this narrative. It helped me survive for a long time. Pops always said Don’t let anyone push you around. Never let anyone forget you are Lebanese. You tell them I COME FROM CEDARS. BURNING ALL THE TIME, BUT I COME FROM A COUNTRY THAT IS A PHOENIX. I internalized this ember, let it glow behind my navel, let it keep me warm when everything else about me was fair game for the American kids around me to twist in their mouths, between their fingers, under their shoes. Splattered on the asphalt, but not in ways that left any marks I could see. But this, this was mine.
I could tell you how proud my dad was when I recounted what our neighbor said, and how I extended my hand again to show him how exposed my palm was to this white man who knew where we slept. That’s right. Habibt ‘albi, teach him what it is to be a person. But the story is not in how that man’s kids vandalized our house or car or continued to talk shit. It’s not in how they called the police in broad daylight an hour into a family party after we turned on the Arabic music. It’s not in the racism my darker family members face all the time in a country that didn’t like them long before 9/11. It’s not in being Arab and still looking this country in the eye while shaking its hand. Or maybe it is.
It’s in the way my father still smiles at the white man when they are both getting the mail. It’s in the way he laughs and jokes with him, plows his driveway when it snows because that’s just what you do. The story is in the tightening chests as police cruisers pulled into our driveway, and then the accusation of too loud, too much, too bright, too burning, because did we really think ourselves the sun and not just burning ships? And then my father: arms extended into invitation, yalla it’s fine, we’ll be quieter, but please do join us, there’s plenty of food, today you are family.
And the man in the ground once said be the balsam to the serpent’s venom / be as sweet as another’s bitterness / as their burnt. / Expect no reward for this.
Once, my dad picked up a call that was meant for me. When he handed me the phone, my American friend asked me why is he so mad? I looked over to where he sat at the table, smoking a cigarette and drinking orange juice. He’s not, I said. He wasn’t. I remember this. But you know, sometimes he is. And sometimes I am. And sometimes all any of us can talk about is colonialism and sometimes we forget that some of our people once colonized other people, too, and that’s something I’m still learning about. Something I need to be louder about.
And I’ve grown up to learn that we are always making our own salve. I’ve learned the flames inside us are not some legacy tucked behind our navels. They fool us into thinking that the birds inside us are phoenixes, and not gentle songbirds inside creaking trees. But that is a beautiful thought, isn’t it? That we were born to be resilient and not just born to be. I want so much to call this narrative my country so I can keep it safe inside me. But I know it’s just some old poem we claimed so we could call our bodies sunset. To avoid talking about the tender tissue of our histories, why it is so red. Even when we watch our blood drained from the body of someone we love.
And the man in the ground once said America is responsible for every child who falls asleep crying. The man in the ground fell asleep that last night, crying. The same man once called America his new mother when his own mother stared down the barrel of a gun, all eyebrows and incense for the children she would never be ready to bury. So the man ripped out his hair, tore his shirt down the middle, tried to rip out the bird, too. It’s easier to be all rage and nothing that makes the night soft, and you’d like that wouldn’t you? But we are always more soft underneath the parts of us that are louder and easier for you to hate. And now America responsible for his body. Held it down while he died, now holds it like a breath. I still hear his whistle when I stop to touch flowers, but all the earth around him is louder.
I ask my dad about his own grandparents, his childhood, the first dream he remembered Please Jessica / you are opening all my wounds / جروحي / and his voice lined with feathers, something whistling even though everything else about him is louder. Because maybe it’s too late to save the bulbul? Maybe one day we won’t be able to speak both in poetry and raised fists. Maybe one day I won’t be able to talk about the man in the ground before falling to it myself. And the last time my father said he was proud of me was when the man in the ground was not yet the man in the ground but the ground was an opening wound, waiting for his body. You are stronger than I thought, you are stronger than I’ll ever be, you are the softness unflinching against the knife. And you are the knife.
And America refuses to see that. And America wants us to bury our softest parts and the hatchet, too. And America holds its sleeping foster children, every one of them crying. This country’s many arms making many cages and we call this home. But under the hiss and spit America calls our only face, we recognize each other. We sing to each other in the night. We calibrate to the metronome of us where light can’t reach, but the bulbuls can. Our music always descending from the skies, feathers filling in the spaces our dead leave behind.
I wish I could tell the man in the ground what else I’ve learned, but instead I pour it into his absence: Maybe poetry is a knife born from the fertile crescent / a finger aiming for heaven but we tucked it under our tongues / and when the colonizers came / our mouths became wounds for the earth to crawl into / to bloom / to bite / we are both garden and snake.
What I mean to say is: stop separating Middle-Eastern people from the lutes and ouds, the Gibrans and Rumis, like they are softer or more civilized than we are. Like they too wouldn’t be consumed by the rage you set to the earth after they were lowered into it. Like their corpses aren’t still pushing up knives aimed at every drone you put in the sky. Like the glint of their blades aren’t candles in the night for every crying child. Like the languages behind their translations aren’t softer arms raised to a God who helps you sleep at night.
When I am gone, stamp the ashes of me like a thumb into the ground. Let everything I want become flowers at your feet. A future you can bend down and feel between your fingers. Something soft to stick into the barrel of their guns.
Jess Rizkallah is a Lebanese-American writer, illustrator, and coffee slinger living between Boston & New York. She’s an MFA candidate at NYU & founding editor at Maps For Teeth magazine / pizza pi press. She’s a pushcart prize nominated & nationally ranked WoWPS poet. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Word Riot, Nailed Magazine, HEArt Online, Alien Mouth, and on her mother’s fridge. Talk to her about whales & find her at jessrizkallah.com