Jamil stared at the blinking cursor, the blank virtual page on the computer screen, and wondered if he really hadn’t lived enough for the words to start coming automatically. Had anyone ever lived enough? Maybe it was a pointless question to ask oneself at twenty-two.
Jamil sighed. No. Twenty-two was what he was living now. It was all he had, everything he carried. It wasn’t enough, and that wasn’t an excuse.
Whatever the reasons, two poems remained unwritten. What would he share at his poetry workshop now?
Jamil had always loved poetry. The passion had come from his mother, Fatima, who from when he was young had always taught Jamil to recite from memory. He learned Mahmoud Darwish in the original Arabic, but this was the only poet of Palestinian heritage in whose work Jamil took an active interest. He memorized the lines of Darwish’s poems even before he knew the meaning behind the words and their combinations.
Seeing how much of a natural talent her son had for recitation, Fatima tried to supplement Darwish with Rashid Hussein, May Sayigh, and Muhammad al-Asʿad, but no matter how many volumes she left on Jamil’s desk or the number of times she made encouragements, Darwish remained the exception. Eventually, Jamil turned to Coleridge, Byron, Tennyson, and the Brownings. Later, it was the Americans—Poe, Dickinson, Ginsberg, Williams, Plath, and cummings. But aside from its sole ambassador, Palestine remained invisible to whatever new literary geographies Jamil explored.
Fatima couldn’t understand. At first she had taken to asking her son why he seemed intent on wasting his linguistic potential, even talent. The Quranic school she had had Jamil attend on the weekends so that he wouldn’t lose his Arabic had ensured that he had a strong grasp of the classical Arabic, or fous’ha. He could read and recite the Quran from memory. And unlike the other students, Jamil didn’t just limit his efforts to recitation. He could actually speak in fous’ha as well, in addition to being fluent in their family’s local dialect of Arabic. There really was no other word but “talent” to describe Jamil’s grasp of Arabic.
“English poetry is beautiful, habibi, but it is easier, and you will always have it, living in this country. Arabic is different. That you could lose. Why not keep reciting Arabic poetry? Wallahi your Arabic is stronger even than some of the children I knew back in falasteen. Why let it go to waste?”
Whenever Fatima asked him such questions, Jamil only looked away in a silence that spoke about the stress of needing to have nothing less than perfect recitations for the Quranic school instructor, ustaz Usama, or the looks people started to give him and his mother, who wore the hijab, whenever they were out together after 9/11.
Once, they had been grocery shopping together and Fatima had asked Jamil to go find milk, to which Jamil had responded, with mock formality in fous’ha, “Yes, dearest mother of mine, more exalted than the loftiest star! Your bidding is my duty.”
Neither of them had noticed the man following them. Fatima barely had time to roll her eyes at Jamil’s affected tone and placing of his hand against his forehead, military style, before the “FUCK YOU!” startled them. Jamil began to turn out of instinct, but a fierce shove launched him forward. He landed flat on his face and chest, and registered his pain simultaneous to realizing that there was a new, clashing course of voices several feet behind him. He heard Fatima among them and tried, dizzily, to get back on his feet, wobbling and wiping the blood from his nose. His watery eyes made it difficult to see, but still he could tell that by now several other customers had subdued the man, who was screaming predictable slogans and insults like “Go back to your country” and “This is America.” It couldn’t have been more cliché, and still it was reality, a reality that they were forced to accept.
Jamil couldn’t help but feel that these experiences were also Arabic for him, as much as, and perhaps even more than the ways that Darwish’s lines thrummed against his heart. English, and English poetry in particular, felt more than aesthetic. It seemed a way out.
It was only a matter of time before Jamil began writing poetry, as well. At fourteen, he had missed school for nearly two weeks due to a serious bout of flu. When his mother asked him how he felt after he was able to rise from bed again, in place of a response, he handed her a piece of paper on which he had written the following lines:
Learning and skill
may urge healing faster
Yet the body, still, remains the ultimate master.
Fatima was a teacher at the same high school that Jamil attended (in fact, this was how he had been able to secure attendance—the fees of the private school would have been too prohibitive otherwise). In secret, she shared the poem with Jamil’s English teacher, Mr. Jenkins, who agreed that it was creative. Mr. Jenkins began encouraging Jamil to send him poems in addition to the regular essays he assigned the class, and he never failed to pass these back to Jamil after class with words of encouragement.
Think about creative writing in college! was one that made a lasting impression.
Jamil did more than think. His senior year of high school was spent applying to colleges known for their creative writing programs. And though it meant her son leaving home, Fatima happily celebrated Jamil’s eventual acceptance to his top choice.
That he was the only Arab, let alone person of color in the creative writing workshops didn’t bother Jamil so much at first. The others called him “Jam,” and he quickly grew accustomed to its grate of presumed familiarity. He even used the byline Jam Salah, taking pleasure in its distinction.
His poems, usually individual explorations of his private feelings, were well-received by the other budding poets and instructors. And while he had long since abandoned rhymes (“Though it may come as a shock to some, I ask you all to kindly remember that we are no longer in the nineteenth century,” was how one workshop instructor summed up his opposition to the submission of rhymed poetry), several instructors noted that his poems still retained a distinctly lyrical quality. His sophomore year of college ended with his instructor reading “Whispers of Love,” by Jam Salah, out loud to the roomful of aspiring poets, all of whom clapped and whistled in admiration.
Although she never admitted it even to herself, Fatima dimly recognized her Jamil’s reasons for trying to draw a boundary between Arabic and his poetic life. It was, in fact, why she used to ask him about it periodically. Perhaps she hoped that even if the inquiries didn’t accomplish anything in the moment, at the very least they could prod her son to reconsider his choices down the line.
It was especially painful for her to see Jamil erecting a border separating Palestine and poetry when for her, Palestinian identity was inherently poetic, tied and sustained through the rich music of poetry. Perhaps someday she would ask her son once again, and tell him, as she had never done before, how she herself had written poetry in her youth when she still lived with her family in their village in Palestine, how it had been her favorite subject at school, and one at which she excelled. Eventually, however, they insisted she turn to more “practical” concerns. Yes, poetry is beautiful, but you can’t eat beauty, her father used to say. Her family didn’t explicitly bar her from writing or reading, but the need to find work young, coupled with the expectation that she help take care of the house, didn't exactly leave much time for either pursuit. Worse yet, it had meant needing to leave school young. The pattern didn’t change after she married her first and only husband, Mounir, Jamil’s father, and came to America shortly thereafter.
But even leaving a hard, loveless marriage after Jamil was born didn’t help. There were too many distances between family and homeland by then, distances that weighed like bottomless vacuums deep within her heart. It meant more to her than Jamil could ever know that she had a child who had such a passion and talent for poetry. But did it really have to come at such a price?
She too had been terrified at the grocery store. But she was a visibly Arab and Muslim woman who taught high school for a living. Even if they didn’t use his tone or methods, many students had expressed similar sentiments to that man. It often happened in the form of questions: “Why do your people hate us?” “Do you wear that because your husband makes you?” “Why are you here if you don’t want peace and freedom?”
Yes, Fatima had her own experiences of needing to accept absurdity as reality. But nothing felt more absurd to her than needing to hide who she was, where she came from, something she refused to do. She couldn’t judge Jamil’s choices. She only hoped that her son would find his own way of refusing.
It was in a History of the Modern Middle East course that Jamil first met Dunya. He had taken the class practically on a whim. Two weeks into the semester, he realized he still didn’t have enough units and, after flipping through the catalogue, decided on the course as a fresh alternative to more English literature surveys or workshops. It didn’t hurt that the class also offered General Education credits towards graduation.
Jamil walked into the classroom for the first time a few minutes before the official start of class to try and find a good seat. Right away, he recognized the sticker on one of the laptops as being of the Palestinian flag, and took a seat one chair to the immediate left of the owner in the row behind hers.
Grant Willis, the instructor, ambled in about three minutes after the official start time. Willis was a blond white man in his early thirties who perpetually carried a cup of coffee that never seemed to do anything to dispel the deep bags under his eyes. Probably from working on his dissertation at night, Jamil would realize later.
“Mr. Willis,” said an irritable-sounding young man who’d taken a seat to the right of the owner of the laptop with the Palestinian flag sticker.
“Yes, Connor,” Mr. Willis responded, rubbing his forehead with his eyes closed.
“Mr. Willis. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but—this sticker on Dunya’s laptop [Another Arab, Jamil thought, surmising, obviously enough, that Dunya was the name of the woman in front of him] is objectionable. It’s a symbol of terrorism.”
“My God, you are such a racist—”
“Dunya, [he pronounced it “Doo-neeyuh”] please, let’s not get heated,” Willis muttered half-heartedly. “Why don’t we—”
“Heated? Because I’m a woman reacting, rightfully, to this entitled brat—”
“HEY. MR. WILLIS!”
“They don’t pay me enough for this,” Willis muttered, assuming no one else could hear him,
“—calling the flag of my homeland, my people, a symbol of terrorism, I’m heated? Nice misogyny.”
“Dunya, please, I’m just trying to get class started—”
“And why do you always sit next to me anyway, you little creep?” Dunya said, turning to Connor. “Huh? Why do you feel so entitled to be up close to me and criticize what I choose to put on my stuff? What’s up with that?”
“HEY. ENOUGH,” Grant Willis called out, giving two deep, fierce claps. “Dunya, your sticker clearly offends Connor. Please take it off by next class.”
“What? Why should I—”
“That’s final. If you want to keep this class, which I know you, like everyone else in the room needs, those are the terms.”
Dunya sat back and smiled bitterly.
“I see. So just to see if I understand, you’re saying I can’t come back here unless I don’t have this sticker on my laptop any longer?”
“That’s right,” Grant Willis said.
“Okay, Grant. I understand completely,” Dunya said, the same smile plastered on her face.
“Good. Thank you, Dunya. Now, let’s get started with role…”
Jamil only spoke once, to introduce himself as “Jam Salah.” Connor sat back in his chair with a smile of his own, his eyes flashing at Dunya with victory. Dunya came in to the next class with a sticker of Leila Khaled in place of the Palestinian flag.
“Just doing what I’m told,” she beamed.
“Dunya. . . ” Grant Willis began, and then sighed “Connor, just shut up and move,” before the back-and-forth could begin again.
“Excuse me,” Jamil said after class had ended, “Hi.”
Dunya turned around.
“‘Jam,’” Dunya said, eyeing Jamil strangely, “right?”
“Er, yes. Right. Short for Jamil.”
“Then why don’t you just say Jamil?”
“Ah. Well. It’s just become kind of a thing, you know.”
“No, I don’t,” Dunya said.
She began to pack her things.
“You’re Palestinian?” Jamil asked.
“No. I just put the flag on my computer for fun,” Dunya replied sarcastically, still looking down at her things. Her bag fully packed, she stood to leave.
Dunya turned back to Jamil.
“I’m sorry. Have I done something to offend you?”
“Of course not,” Dunya said. “Nice meeting you. Jam.”
She started out the door.
As though by instinct, Jamil began to recite Mahmoud Darwish’s “Identity Card.”
Fatima didn’t know how it happened. It couldn’t have anything to do with the day that had just passed, for it had been unremarkable, even mundane. It couldn’t have had anything to do with reading something particularly stimulating, for uncharacteristic of her usual routine, she hadn’t been able to bring herself to read the poets whose work she used to plead with Jamil to explore for the past few days.
And yet, for all of that, on this seemingly unimpressive day, Fatima came home after teaching her classes and found herself heading not to the kitchen to make Arabic coffee, as was usually her habit after returning, but instead to the little desk in her bedroom. She pulled out a pen and paper, and felt years of aphasia evaporate from her spirit. The pen danced furiously up and down the page with every curve of the Arabic letters, sprinting atop the characters with every sukoon, summersaulting with every fatha, diving deeply with every kasra. The ecstatic rhythms of her heart in the throes of inspiration seemed to be imprinted in each and every shadda.
When she finished, it was almost as though she had written a poem for every year of silence.
She felt at home.
“So let me get this straight,” Dunya said later that evening at the café, “you know Arabic. You can recite Darwish. You write poetry. But you don’t write about Palestine?”
“That’s about the size of it,” Jamil said, taking a sip of his latté.
“And why not?”
Jamil leaned back. “A poet doesn’t choose the poem. The poem chooses the—”
“Please. Spare me.”
“It’s the truth!”
“It’s a bourgeois illusion. Art can, and has played an important role in the Palestinian struggle. As a direct tool. Ghassan Kanafani clearly reflects that.”
“I.. have yet to read Kanafani.”
“OK. Even Darwish is an example of that.”
“Perhaps. It’s just not who I am. It’s not my art.”
“Why do I still feel like you’re trying to turn a choice into a whim of fate?”
“Do you write?” Jamil asked.
It was the first time he’d seen Dunya taken aback in an exchange. She frowned and looked away.
“No,” she said finally, as though setting the word free against her better judgment.
“Then how can you—”
“All I know is this,” Dunya interrupted. “I would kill to know Arabic. To not have to read my favorite books in English translation. To not have to engage Palestinian literature with all the baggage of diaspora. I mean, I can speak a bit. I started formally studying Arabic a year ago, but to get to that point, it feels like it would take a lifetime. And you have it. My parents aren’t like your mom”— for naturally they had discussed how Jamil came to know Arabic—“my dad figured there was no need for his children, who were born here, to learn the language. ‘We’re American now,’ he used to say. My mom says she regrets it now, but she still went along with it at the time, so what does that say? And with both of them, it’s like… I don’t know. It’s unlike any of the other Palestinians or even Arabs I’ve met—they barely even talk to their families! I feel like I talk to my mom and dad’s brothers and sisters more than they do.”
The story of Jamil and Fatima at the grocery store hovered invisibly between them now.
“Do you really mean to say that your poetry classes and your heritage can have nothing to do with each other? Nothing at all?”
“I’m afraid I don't understand,” Jim Forrester, Jamil’s workshop instructor said. “You don’t have anything to read for tonight? And here we were, expecting another ‘Whispers of Love!’”
“Aw, he’s just kidding, Jim,” said Garrett, a thickly-bearded poet in a too-tight Velvet Underground: Banana Album T-shirt. Garrett was writing an epic poem about his life that spanned a childhood in Portland, his eventual discovery of his poetic destiny while backpacking for a year in South America, and ended on the open dilemma of whether each of the three women he was seeing would ever accept that “genius resists confinement, in love as every other sphere of life” (the poem was far from finished, but Garrett had walked the rest of the class through its design with a detailed outline that he read for twenty-five minutes when Forrester asked for brief introductions on the first meeting).
“Aren’t you, Jam?” Garrett asked, smacking Jamil on the back.
Jamil pulled away slightly.
“It’s not a joke,” he said, facing the entire class, including Dunya, who was sitting in for the night. “But it also doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to share. And if the class is open to it, there are a few things I’d like to say first.”
Jamil looked now to Jim Forrester, who turned his palm upwards towards Jamil in a silent invitation to continue speaking.
“Well, I haven’t exactly prepared anything formal, so it’s going to be a bit improv,” Jamil said, turning back to face the rest of the room, “but… well, I’m sure all of you can relate to writer’s block. I’ve had it for a little while now. It’s not the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But this block still feels different. I couldn’t figure out why, at first. And it was only very recently that it hit me.
“You see, my writing started, at least partly, from a strange tension. And what makes this tension strange is that it shouldn’t be a tension in the first place. My name is Jam—Jamil. Jamil Salah. I’m a Palestinian American, and I was brought up by a mother who always worked to make sure not only that I didn’t lose Arabic, but that I had an understanding and passion for Arabic poetry. In some ways, maybe too many, I ignored those efforts.”
He paused for a minute, unsure of his feelings and direction. There was a small, quiet cough. The rest looked on, intrigued.
“I can’t pretend to know how, if at all, this will change anything. I don’t know what forms inspiration will take for me in the future. But tonight, at what feels in many ways to be a creative impasse of sorts, I didn’t feel I could continue without sharing this with all of you. This, and one more thing…”
Here, Jamil inhaled deeply.
All eyes remained on him.
He closed his eyes, and in a tone that was serious yet not overly-dramatic, began:
“Sajil, ana ʿarabī…”
Fatima was not surprised by Jamil’s call, even though she had not been expecting it.
“Mama?” he said as soon as she had said hello into the receiver.
“Yes habibi, how are you? Is everything ok?”
“Yes Mama, everything is fine. It’s just… something happened recently. I did something, and I wanted to share it with you.”
Fatima stared at the pages of handwritten verse on her desk.
“What a coincidence,” she said, and Jamil could hear the smile in her voice.
“What a coincidence,” she said again. She wasn’t sure at exactly what point it was that she went from reading poetry in her mind to voicing its words to the eager presence waiting on the other end of the line.