First Words: "Approaching Zainab"
by Luma Sarhan
Page 1 of 2
Zainab. Zaina-a-a-a-b. Zainab. Is it really you catching me in this muffled moment? No, you have not changed. But where is your body? You approach with your usual smile, seductive as ever, and I collapse in your embrace, forever repudiating you and the city to which you are doomed to return.
A Judas’s kiss to you, my friend. Farewell, my long awaited one. You are now a stranger on the way to Baghdad—and I shall not repent.
June 3: entering
We hear about the desert and think, “Oh, we know the desert, we come from the desert, we are from Iraq.” But that is a false impression. I know you know it is a false impression. For Mesopotamia is the fertile land between the two great rivers. But I did not know that. I only learned it in books that had the Leader’s picture on the first page, then Surat al-Fatihah on the next, then Surat al-Aalaq on the third. No one bothered to believe anything they were made to memorize from these books. At least I did not bother to know if anyone bothered to believe in what they memorized. At any rate, the desert existed in our hearts, despite the fertility of these texts, and that of the magic land, the powerful people and the great Leader, whom the people idolized and then toppled in a bronze image, recasting ending replicas of it ever since. The desert—any desert—is a unique experience. If you ever get a chance and you want to learn something new about life, go to the desert. But this is a contradiction, because the desert is painful. To be in a desert is to suffer. If you truly want my advice, I cannot give it. You have to find it. And if you do, it is no longer my advice.
Once you enter a desert, you never come out of it.
A square glass cabin. Inside, four armed men chattering in hazy dialects (Berber? Tunisian? certainly not Moroccan). Jeremy is smoking outside, silent, and I—rushing in—a conspicuous anomaly both in my womanhood and shaven scalp.
“I’d like to inquire about trips from—” I began in my hybrid Arabic, concocted both to conceal its southern Iraqi origins and to facilitate the awkward interaction.
Still indecipherable to them.
“There aren’t any,” rejoin three voices with their heads jerking upward.
“We’re not looking for a tourist cruise. We only need to make our way out of this desert to Syria.”
“Why not fly?”
“B-because we want to travel by land.”
“Where are you from?”
“Baghdad, but I was born in—”
“How old are you?” “What do you do here?” “Who’s that foreigner with you?” “Are you married?” “There aren’t any here, go back to Rabat.”
Midnight, plus minutes. Jeremy pretends to sleep, but I know he is watching me. A New Yorker I met two weeks ago in Fès.
We managed to find a bus to take us out of this, my only reality until now, and his temporary barbaric nightmare. I am anxious to see my childhood friends in Detroit, and Jeremy seems anxious to see something, something more immediate. I can feel his eyes scale from the tips of my toes and up to where my knees cross and perhaps even higher. He pretends to sleep, so I will pretend to write with this new mechanical pencil, new but identical and soon its newness will be forgotten and I will not be able to tell it apart from the one it came to replace. Reclining in bed. A raw friction looms in this parched Mesopotamian horizon. Shivering. How can we stay in one room and keep out of each other’s beds? Zainab would question our relation. Zainab the desirable, the strong, the calm.
Tomorrow we sail from Tangier to Genoa. He managed to arrange the deal with his standard Arabic.
After the sand foray, we headed back to our tent for supper. Without knowing it, the tent housed what seemed to me a cardboard image of certain scenes in Lawrence of Arabia. This film is itself a cardboard image of a scene called the East. And cardboard is often colored like sand. And our food looked like cardboard to us. No greens or colors other than the desert’s were in that delicious cuisine despite our childish expectations. That meal, as wretched as the life it fueled. Despite its deliciousness, it made you want to reject it for its heaviness and scarce hues. If it were not for the fatigue of the long journey up and down the dunes, I doubt that either of us would have eaten it as eagerly as we did, least of all Jeremy. If it were not for the drabness of the meat, and the heat of the sand that resembled it in color and temperature, I doubt that either of us would have resented it as much as we did. Resigned to our fatigue, we devoured the brown flesh—an incarnation of sand—while the desert males (equally fatigued perhaps? more hungry?) drummed on the tautly stretched skin, eliciting bestial rhythms that in turn elicited in some of us pains of pasts abandoned in a bygone Iraq, and in others a lust for a brief romance or a harmless adventure, and fixated yet others in the agony of that eternal moment. For an instant I felt pity for the refugees whose tents loomed on that shriveled horizon. How cyclopic and cyclic is their life, from the idea of one refuge to the next; how meager are their resources if you take away this imagination!
Perhaps in ten years, as we walk hand in hand along the paths of our endless Tigris, I will remind you of your first love poem, Zainab. Remember how you fell madly in love with a photograph? Nijinsky, 1910, dressed as the Gold Slave in Korsakov’s Scheherazade. How badly we needed to live that voluptuousness, even if only vicariously.
With the dead
Like a lunatic—with the lunatic
And I, Zainab? At that time I lacked the courage to tell you how I longed to be your Zobeide. How old was War that day, Zainab? Oh, do not bother to count, because in the next phase we will only walk down foreign paths, bathed in estrangement if the snows of the West do not lull our hearts.
Jeremy and I may have forgotten how reading is impossible on a trip like this, when nausea is apt to overwhelm everything, including the ability to recall this fact or make use of it the next time we take a trip. But to be satiated with queasiness did not obliterate the capacity to be touched by other sensibilities. The colors of other selves asserted their presence. The more they sustained their being, the longer that nausea persisted. Our bus was on its way to Merzouga, all the way from Fès.
Near the cold stream we will tell each other stories. I shall speak of days of a bygone Ali whom I adored only before his eyes and yours; and you, Zainab, will recount the flooding of the Saddam Airport. You will let the horror in your eyes speak of how they electrocuted the first of the American troops on their first night on the way to invading Baghdad. No one has told me about it, you will think, because until this day the story resides within the realm of rumor. No TV or radio station has publicized it yet—but Salima did and you will. Your brother Haytham will recite endless verses of Iraqi poetry as he plunges in and out of the cold stream. Your sister Farida will tell the unofficial story of Sayyida-Zainab’s martyrdom and read al-Faatiha near al-Jawahiri’s tomb.
But who will tell the story of all the nameless soldiers, Zainab?
The world transformed into sand. The air was sand, the sky was sand, your own mouth was sand. Everything I could remember about you, your love, your hate, your smile, your happiness, your dreams, your homeland—everything was sand. Yet I clung to it ever so fast. Alas, there was nothing else to cling to. The world was null. From sand and unto Him we return. Even the eyes could not resist the incessant sand. For three days after the storm, sand was still gushing out of our eyes and nostrils whenever the bodily fluids were merciful enough to drive it out. Then there remained that clump of sand, stationed in the throat, censoring each and every sentiment you might wish to voice or repress, censoring you up to your frail breath of life. All was sand. A desert storm, in Marzouga or your mind or the battlefield, transforms your soul into sand.
Ali must have understood the desert storm, but he never returned to tell its story.
An image. An icon. Zainab. Naked. Perfectly proportioned. Brown. Untouchable.
At thirteen, you did not know whether you really wanted to traverse the kingdom of death to meet with your imagined Nijinsky or simply carried within you that visceral craving to live like all other adolescents outside of Iraq. To live, not simply survive. Either way, both desires were within the realm of the impossible during our era. Zainab, you particularly were doomed to remain Iraqi. Iraqi in every sense of the imagined identity.
Zainab, my beautiful icon, my homeland that I will not deign to touch once more, do you understand the difference between living the sanctions and observing their morbid shadows from afar?
I can feel it palpitating as if in my very aorta. I can see the birth of a book. How finally my English has evolved (and devolved) into a tool! How deftly I can lie about essences! Perhaps next summer when I am done with navigating old Iraqi dreams and traces of friendship and all else I will draft a story or two in my quiet exile—like Gibran!—alone in the company of books and transmuted vestiges of self.
We shall meet in Damascus, Zainab, because Baghdad has denounced me. The deserts of Karbala and Najaf will sanction your arduous passage, but not mine. You see the blood of Hussein, and in me they see an American infidel.
Not everything was sand. There was wind and sand. The wind raised our clothes higher, exposing our skin to the bombardments of a thousand sand crystals per second. Sand attacks and sand assaults and sand! sand! sand!
“I was stripped naked from the waist up. I hope no one noticed.”
“Weren’t you wearing a bra?” Jeremy inquired.
“No. Why should I? I don’t need to.”
A bit of defiance inadvertently spurted out. A jealousy intermixed with derision. All the boys fell for Zainab, for she was the one with the most attractive bosom. She did not choose to have it, nor did I choose to have mine. Yet all the same: A woman is a bag of bones, Ali used to say.
Last night in the minivan on the way from Naples to Taranto I pictured Iraq as a heavy rock I had finally defecated. My dream of writing Iraq was over. A momentary, unmitigated freedom. I had no people or history to talk of. I had absolutely no past that I wished to retrieve or sustain. The world owed me no stories. I am absolved of all responsibility. My nausea delivered me: here-I-am, right at this empty moment.
But how do I do away with Zainab and all the blood?
Tunis-Tunisia. Tunis-Tunisia. The capital is the country.
Third day in this city. A summer resort for a deadened Algeria. Ex-nationalists and their offspring spend their vacations here. “Just as Gulf Arabs have taken over Lebanon,” Ali would have said. The remaining week smells like a year from this sultry distance. Will I really make it to Syria to meet her? No energy or interest to get up in the morning in these filthy budget hotels, to get up and see Jeremy’s nauseating face first thing in the morning. Squalid sheets, predictable bathroom problems: faucet too low, faucet too high, sink too dirty, no trashcan, shower wets toilet paper, no toilet paper to begin with, toilet in the way of door, etc., etc.
Jeremy is getting more and more peculiar. Zainab has not replied to my message yet. Got to make it to the other side; got to give magic one more try.
The sizes of our bodies mattered not back then, for both of us could fit in the shelter your father had dug near the chicken coop. It was our home for many nights, Zainab, nights blessed by Venus and Athens and their missiles.
Cabin fever: when your traveling companion begins to sicken you and you begin to feel that you are leading your day in a bubble.
Time burp: when you unexpectedly see a familiar scene from your past, and in the wrong place.
I am sick of seductive old sailors and their hackneyed charms, weary of sleeping bathed in nearby blather and drizzling salt. Oh magnificent, star-studded sea sky, when do we reach Piraeus?
But our house was bombed twice, I used to tell you, boasting of the bonus missile your house never received. These death presents were noises from nowhere, Zainab, and to us they meant only that we did our homework in vain. There would be no school the next morning. Sometimes they also made me cry, for I would not see Ali that day.
Table of Contents
- Duo Duo’s acceptance speech and biographical profile
- Duo Duo new poems, trans. Yibing Huang
- Michelle Yeh, “Monologue of a Stormy Soul: Duo Duo, 1972–88"
- Yibing Huang, "Duo Duo: Master of Wishful Thinking"
SPECIAL SECTION: Jazz Poetry
Guest edited by Lauren Camp
- Introductory essay by Lauren Camp: "What's in the Notes: The Sound of Jazz in Poetry"
- Poetry from Lauren Camp: “Thelonious Monk on a Subway” and “What You Might Hear” plus web exclusive audio clips
- Virgil Suárez (Cuba/US): “Latin Jazz on the Go in Havana”
- Adrian Matejka (Germany/US): “Behind the Yashmak"
- Nii Parkes (Ghana/Great Britain): “Our Love Is Here to Stay” & “Hymn"
- Virgil Mihaiu (Romania; tr. Adam Sorkin): “Finesse de Brasil," “Universal Canticle,” and a web exclusive concert recording.
- Author Profile: E.C. Osondu (Nigeria)
- City Profile: Seoul, South Korea
- First Words: Luma Sarhan, “Approaching Zainab”
- WLT Online Bookclub: The United States of Africa by Abdourahman A. Waberi
- New books: recent translations
CRIME & MYSTERY
- J. Madison Davis, “Scarface Al and His Pals”
- Romeo Çollaku (Albania), Two poems, tr. Peter Constantine
- Stuart Friebert (US), “Good Leg Up, Bad Leg Down"
- Jan Wagner (Germany) Two poems, tr. Chenxin Jiang
Q&A: WLT INTERVIEWS
- Erwin Koch (Switzerland) by John K. Cox
- Adrianne Kalfopoulou (Greece/US), “Ruin”
Web Exclusive: PHOTO GALLERY: Athens Street Art
- Web Exclusive: "But It Was Beautiful" by Erwin Koch
- Luay Hamza Abbas (Iraq), “Spit Out What Is in Your Mouth,” tr. Yasmeen Hanoosh
WORLD LITERATURE IN REVIEW
OUTPOSTS: Literary Events & Landmarks