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Published June 2022Become a subscriber
She said to him, When a woman informs you that she’s a little drunk this is actually a warning that she’s liable to collapse at any moment. And when she tells you of a lost happiness she means that you’re responsible for giving it back to her on a silver platter, like those knights in the stories of Caliphs who return home with the heads of enemies on their spears. She continued, And when she sits next to you in the office just as I’m sitting next to you right now you must listen to her while placing your right hand on top of her left. The woman spoke in rather husky tones, which wasn’t appropriate with a man like that, so wide-eyed, but as for me, I sat and calmly listened to these passionate words of wisdom delivered by an employee to her colleague at work.
One day, a man decided to explain to me what love is. He was buttoning up his shirt while shadows gathered in the corners and the afternoon light crossed from one side of the room to the other. He seemed only half there, as when the screen dims and everyone in the movie theatre starts looking for exit signs. It was then, glasses tidily fixed around the backs of his ears, that he decided to explain to me what love is.
In the half-lit room he murmured, ‘Love is actually a quest for…,’ I opened my eyes and saw a band of conquistadors searching for gold in remotest Chile, hungry and dejected, while an Indian crouches behind a rock in fear. And when he said, ‘Love is being truly content with…,’ I began to hear the voice of Ella Fitzgerald and pressed my fingers into a mound of black chocolate. And when he said, ‘It is a happiness which…,’ well, I really couldn’t imagine anything at all.
I’m sure I never saw that man again, because I never got to ask him if love is forgetting one’s watch by the bedside.
I wanted to describe my chronic migraine as one piece of evidence that the chemical processes occurring in my wonderful brain were working effectively. I intended to begin My two hands aren’t enough to prop my head up but wrote instead: A bullet from an unseen gun rips into peaceful dimness complete disorientation fracture a thousand separate splinters— and also the pleasure of arousing the sore spots simply by remembering them.
This didn’t happen in my family home – no, not among those who know me (or so I once believed).
My life, the life I’ve never been able to touch, never been able to find a picture showing just the two of us – that life is next to me on my bed, opening her eyes after a long slumber and stretching her limbs, like a princess who knows that her father’s palace is magically protected against thieves, and that although the wars never seem to end, happiness lies just beneath the skin.
This is the life into which more than one father stuffed his ambitions, more than one mother her scissors, more than one doctor his pills, more than one activist his sword, more than one institution its stupidity, and more than one school of poetry its poetics.
My life that I’ve lugged with me from city to city, running out of breath while chasing it from school to library, from the kitchen to the bar, from the flute to the piano, from Marx to the museums, from the memory of a body’s smell to the dream of an airport lounge, from everything that I don’t know to everything that I don’t know. My life, whose existence I’ve never been sure of, lies next to me on my bed, opening her eyes after a long slumber and stretching her limbs, like a princess who knows that her father’s palace is magically protected against thieves, and that although the wars never seem to end, happiness lies just beneath the skin.
This is how I awoke in that strange land the morning I turned forty, and if it weren’t for the fact that God has never once chosen a woman, I’d have said it was the first sign of prophethood. If it weren’t for my own peculiar way of thinking, I’d cite Mahmoud Darwish about a woman who entered her forties with perfect apricots, or else the words of Miłosz: I felt a door opening in me and I entered.
I see before me a long line of the dead – dead, perhaps, because I loved them – and I see the homes designed for insomnia, which I always cleaned very carefully during the holidays, and the gifts I never opened, and the poems stolen from me line by line until I doubted whether they were ever mine, and men I only met at the wrong times, and clinics of which I remember nothing but the bars on their windows. I see my whole life before me and I could even embrace her if I wished, or sit on her lap and sing, or wail.
With his hand by my hair a man pulled me up when I was drowning after walking on water an ark made of gold split in two with a forest in the middle and a sun that was like the sun a cinereous wave of velvet but no ashes a museum for everything extinct and still deeper down tiny fish swam into my lungs and by my hair with his hand a man pulled me up until I twisted in the wind time streamed past and the mountains wavered between flames and light all this happened and then I was back onshore my dress torn feeling the sand’s firmness and now that I’m here I’m not frightened of the sea for the closed book of desire is open with a bookmark on one of its pages.
Translated from the Arabic by Robyn Creswell.
Robyn Creswell teaches comparative literature at Yale and is the author of City of Beginnings: Poetic Modernism in Beirut.
Iman Mersal is an Egyptian poet and Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at the University of Alberta. She is the author of five books of poetry and an essay collection, How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts. Her collection, The Threshold (trans. Robyn Creswell), was published in 2022.Read more