Hazem Fahmy is a Pushcart-nominated writer and critic from Cairo. He is currently pursuing his MA in Middle Eastern Studies and Film Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. His debut chapbook, Red//Jild//Prayer won the 2017 Diode Editions Contest. A Kundiman and Watering Hole Fellow, his poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming in Apogee, AAWW, The Boston Review and The Offing. His performances have been featured on Button Poetry and Write About Now. He is a reader for The Shade Journal, a contributing writer for Film Inquiry and writes a monthly column on Egyptian horror cinema for Nightmare on Film Street.
INTERROGATING THE NASSER PORTRAIT IN MY ROOM
I watch him in a black and white
press conference, lauding
our blood, calling us beautiful;
holy yet still in need
of piety. But a father's love
comes with a price, and some were
happy to pay it. Men
in uniform smile when you
least expect it. Omar marked
an قهوة in Queens worthy
enough because it hung
his framed portrait; pride of martyr
and poet, mustache so majestic,
it could grow from celluloid.
Ahmed Zaki once spoke
in his voice and no man has been
worthy since. Still, we’ve summoned
his name in hushed times and that was
prayer. We're not ready
to admit. For years, Baba
held vigils for him in his
dreams and spoke of a love
he may never know again. I
settled for inherited memory,
paid libations to a god
that never knew me by name.
When I'm ready I light
a candle and know what it means
to smell history, impure
and whole. I light a candle
and watch it drift swiftly through
Habits never die easy,
but neither did he. 1970
still lingers: thick smog,
in every nostril,
a shadow, we hid
in for too long. The saying
التفتكره موسى يطلع فرعون
But I am not sailing to
find a pharaoh. There are
no prophets where I am heading.
ESSAY FOR THE ERASED
Under the briefest scrutiny, Egypt becomes unreal. A friend of my professor riffs on Benedict Anderson — all communities are imagined, but some more than others. The implication being: there is value in the primordial. Say: خيال عملي. Say: your ancestors matter (ed). Say: here, I have all my papers. But who will you call ancestor in the same breath as father? Half of Cairo dreams of being “Arabian” or Turkish. Nationalism will have me believe I am a “pharaoh.” يا سيدي I am no king, speak for yourself, unless given consent.
When I say unreal, I am speaking of the quotidian absurd. Egypt knows nothing if not irony. Human rights lawyers investigates forced disappearances only to disappear. Zubayda appears out of thin air in Faisal. Her mother becomes a liar on international television سمحيني أنا هنا State becomes sorcerer, makes a magic trick out of a daughter. Now you see her, now you don’t. In defense: ISIS complicates things — what is a martyr, anyway? Are you prepared to play God with language? Trust the process. Come back on Monday.
Every day my timeline bleeds for friends of friends claimed by the night, nothing left of their smiles but photos. It is so easy to sad react. What lang uage is left in the age of Amr Adeeb? Say disappeared, and you might follow. Say law and order, and you will get an ocean of uniformed men. My father asks: how do we know these kids are really missing? Perhaps he is really asking me to define that contentious word which haunts all of us.
Define missing in the land of rivers. In a cab whizzing through El Marghany street, I point to a renovated villa sticking out like a blood-soaked thumb. The driver gasps: don’t you know? They put Mubarak in there. I saw him on the balcony. Every year, my mother reminds me Gamal, Mubarak’s youngest, could still make a comeback.
I could buy a ticket today,
and get on a plane tomorrow. I could walk
through a gate, and smile
at the cop who graciously lets me
through. I could drive through traffic
silently, only cursing for dramatic effect. I could find
a job and pay the bills, be diplomatic
by the water fountain; say shit like: you know,
they really are trying, or: no one knows
what really happened to that Italian kid. At least
he came back.
At least he is buried
his mother can visit
and mourn. I could say: Disappeared
is such a strong word.
ME AND EDWARD DRAW
A MAP IN ENGLISH
Turn phone landscape to view on mobile
But first, I say: يا عمي. I have never been taught a geography
Unmarked by cataclysm,
all islands seem
to be drowning. He frowns, grunts a sweet sound
only a عمو second to no man but
Baba can muster. Asks:
isn't that what their vile mouths
have always wanted? يابنى every dawn
is a gift. Who are we without open arms?
I know too well what it is to dream
without rest. I have asked for nothing
but hair of thick night, brushed
across a brown brow, clear;
a beckoning horizon,
all my children need to know
that day is always coming,
the light is already here.
What has the world made of you?
I confess: an apparition in transit; eyes like
scarabs, small desert things, as silly
as they are pretty, can be crushed if
I had a mouth of dry sea, an empty
landscape, miles of antiques
poking out of the sand. I had the teeth
of a dull blade, of recession and wasted aid.
I had the neck of lamb, soft when silenced.
Children gathered to watch how
kitchen knives made a budding rose
of it. I had a chest of bronze, as in
the age, as in
a language bowing to a foreigner’s name.
I had the heart of a stallion shipped as far
as possible from the land that birthed
him. I had
the gut of the calm after
the storm has been forgotten, after
we turn around the boats, let sand and sea
make a home out of our brethren's still bodies.
I had an arm of rubber, flexible to a fault.
Knees of gelatin— there was nothing halal about this.
My feet were a force to be laughed at,
but also lined up; given direction
when needed. And now that you have walked here,
he asks, what will you make
of the morning? What is a land unburdened by blood? I say:
I want a here we craft
with our hands; bring your folk — tell them to bring
their folk, all folk who’ve inherited
the taste of steel,
and all folk who vow to spit it out. We will
meet under an open sky.
Bring your bread, your rice,
your chicken. I know no greater love
than the warm hand after the full belly,
or a wave of music washing over
a gyrating body, the ecstasy
of jiving to the earth.
And what of the weight
of language, he interrupts,
how does the body learn to carry that which once tried to break
Mourn a century. I know
he knows the answer,
nonetheless, I say: I long to lock arms with all y'all, my
all my beobles, come: let us rudely interrupt our own
English. I don't need you to explain
what that word means.
I've left all screens in a faraway world.
Put your throat against mine. Let us vibrate
viciously, accentuate all accented syllables.
My whole life I waited for a spring
of strings and now this music is the only kind of language I need. Once, I cursed the
prick of that tongue that could not
say my name. Here,
I find enough forgiveness to bury
the violence of this English. Here, I can say: praise
English, and you know I mean our English,
as spoken by Mama and Baba, broken
and rebuilt by the b's of my teita: do you hear
how her bronunciation is boetry
in and of itself? English — reborn, glowing as
accents, vernaculars, pidgins,
baptized in all the glory weak hands
once tried to snatch from us –all of us–
who never asked for this language, but have bent to fit our bodies just the same.
We alchemy the tongue. We epic
rhetoric, revive dead rivers with every word reclaimed. We summon
the rain with our throats. يا شعوبي
At last here comes a train we don't need to fear. Screech serenades the night, like
Hugh's trumpet. Behold, a river of dark wine without sin,
borders nothing but a deranged
dying man's fever dream. A song
we stop listening to. Edward smiles. He takes me by the
Drink up. Drink whole. We've earned
a wide world we will never need to