By Hala Alyan
Forgetting something doesn’t change it.
In Jerusalem a man blocked the door in front of a hostel
to tell me to unpin my hair. I did,
but then kept the story from anyone for years.
There are times I can see the bus stops clear as day,
the jasmine soap I bought from the Armenian quarter,
how I rewatched an episode of The Wire in bed
the first night, afraid if I left my room I would lose it.
That summer I was lousy with photographs—
church pews, skinny trees. A single one
of myself, peeking into a mirror. My hair over one eye.
Sometimes I wonder if the man even asked,
if I am misremembering, whether I am the culprit
of my own fear. But then I remember the two pairs of shoes
I wore through the soles that trip, how I finally walked barefoot
down the Mount of Olives until a cab stopped for me,
speaking in English first, then Arabic,
asking if I’d like to see photographs of his granddaughter,
telling me to write a story about him. The city was all men.
But he was kind and eager and me ka’ak
to eat, calling me asfoura when I picked it apart
with my fingers. Bird. You eat like one.
What should I name you in the story, I asked.
Land remembers like a body does. A city full of men
still has a mother. I told myself I disliked Jerusalem
but that was code for couldn’t shake it. I was capable of too much.
I cursed the heat and cried on the way to the airport.
There never was another story. When I got back home,
I cut my hair, then dreamt I buried my grandmother
under Al-Aqsa mosque, but she hadn’t even died yet.
Today’s poem first appeared in Thrush Poetry Journal and appears here today with permission from the poet.
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.
Guest Editor’s Note: Hala Alyan’s “In Jerusalem” begins with a maxim: “Forgetting something doesn’t change it,” laying the groundwork for what is to come. In this poem of place, the poet sets out assured that she knows where she is going, and in the cascade of couplets, following her steps through her narrative seems natural and the conclusions the speaker draws instinctive. Cultural conflicts filled with contradiction arise in “A city full of men,” in which the traveler wonders “whether I am the culprit/of my own fear,” creating a distinctive turn and shift to a slight difference in tone and purpose for the reader and the speaker, ending with a dream of an act of preservation that could leave evidence that she had been there and remembered things as they really happened. She tells us that “Land remembers like a body does,” and her wish to bury her grandmother under the Al-Aqsa mosque is her way of wanting to add to the land’s memory what she knows to be true, that “A city full of men/ still has a mother.” Sensory imagery contributes to the veracity of the speaker’s recollections and to an understanding of her conclusions drawn from the experiences that, like most human experiences, are filled with conflict and uncertainty, ripe for introspection.
Want to read more by and about Hala Alyan?
Hala Alyan’s Official Website
A NOTE FROM THE MANAGING EDITOR:
After nearly ten years as Contributing Editor of this series, the time has come for change. I am thrilled to expand my role to Managing Editor and provide the opportunity for fresh voices to contribute to this ongoing dialogue. It is an honor and a unique opportunity to share this series with a number of guest editors, including the editor featured here today.
Viva la poesia!
Sivan, Managing Editor
Saturday Poetry Series, AIOTB