1. A Dream of Adam
ONE AFTERNOON IN AUTUMN, I find him in the backyard trying to shelter himself from the rain. Disheveled and exhausted, he reminds me so much of Marquez’s old man with enormous wings that I half expect to see feathers on his back. His long hair falls in white, thin strands smeared with mud, and his wet matted beard barely hides his sunken cheeks. He refuses to come inside when I invite him, only asks for a hot drink, “with something in it, please!” When I return with tea spiked with rum, he holds the mug with both hands and brings it close to his chest. “Sit down,” he tells me. “I need to rest here for a little bit.” I set my chair next to his, and he begins talking, his words interrupted by coughs, grunts, and long sighs. He talks all night through my sleep.
2. My City, the Plume
Deep under the affluent college town where I live, there is a moving plume of groundwater contaminated with 1,4-dioxane. The chemical ended up in the water table when a local manufacturer dumped large quantities of it into the ground. A known human carcinogen, 1,4-dioxane is a colorless liquid with a faint sweet smell. Brief exposure can irritate the eyes and respiratory tract, while repeated exposure can damage the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys. The chemical does not readily bind to soils, and it quickly leaches into groundwater. Dioxane in surface soil can take up to fifteen years to degrade to half its concentration. In deeper soil it will remain virtually unchanged.
Our plume spread through the groundwater of the surrounding townships, forcing the closure of private wells, and is now edging closer to our city’s main water supply, Barton Lake. Local environmental authorities report that they have detected dioxane in the lake. The manufacturer who originally dumped the chemical is still fighting litigation as the plume continues to spread.
I’m still taken by the word “plume.” I can’t erase the associations it has with carnival, flapper fashion, Cyrano de Bergerac’s hat, and the ostrich-feather fans of my childhood. In our local context the word has begun to refer almost exclusively to the dioxane under us, not that we talk about it much. In newspapers and on the internet, maps of the hundreds of underground water contamination sites in the US consistently portray them as giant colorful feather shapes, some pointed and sleek, others fluffy and plump.
3. An Idea for a Short Film
I imagine writing a screenplay for my friend, the filmmaker Tamer El Said, who is no longer allowed to work in his native land. I doubt that he will want to make this film, but I’ve written a treatment just for him in any case.
In the first scene, Prometheus lines up the men he’s made out of clay and places them on a hill above a valley. He asks Zephyros for a shower of rain and watches as his creations dissolve and trickle down into the river.
The next scene requires a screen split four ways. On screen one, the Chinese goddess Nüwa pounds the molded figures she’s made out of yellow earth into flat circles like pancakes. Screen two will show the Sumerian earth goddess Ninhursag, like a wine presser, standing in a giant vat pounding the human shapes she has made into one huge lump of clay. On screen three, Ea, the Akkadian god, is tossing whole populations of human clay figures into the Tigris and watching as they sink. His demeanor and motions should resemble those of a man tossing bread to the fish and ducks of a city park pond. And on screen four we will see the Yoruba god Obatala tucking human-shaped lumps, like wedges of yam in planting season, into the soil from which he made them. The movements on the four screens showing the simultaneous action should bring to mind propaganda footage of factory workers enjoying the tasks they do.
We go single screen again in the third scene. Here the Hindu goddess Parvati is shown moving her brush in deliberate strokes—as if the film is being played backward—to remove the blue patina from her son Ganesh, whom she made from clay before giving him life. The scene ends with her tearing off his fingers and toes.
Split screen for the fourth scene: Yahweh and the Maˉori god Taˉne are pulling back the breath they’d blown into the nostrils of the first man and woman they’d made respectively. The breaths should look like white ribbons at first but grow into clouds as more is pulled out.
As for the final scene, I wrote to Tamer that we “must do our best to film it in Luxor despite the risks and the censorship.” Here, the god Khnum reaches inside human wombs. He pulls us out, we the pieces of clay he’d once placed there.
4. My City of Ruins
And now to my disheveled native city, which lit up in rebellion and then turned on itself with assassinations and riots leading to outright war. Downtown, with its date-palm-frond covered souqs and its charming worn-out piazzas, where I spent much of my childhood, became the battleground. Combatants fought alley to alley, house to house, room to room, exactly as the dictator they’d toppled foretold. As the fighting spread and intensified, civilians scurried to the outskirts, regrouped in clans, armed themselves to scavenge the failing state’s remains. The city, built on a drained marshland, became a vista of ruin and conflagration, interrupted now and then by lagoons formed from the broken sewer systems and seawater overflow. As I watch the footage now, I notice reeds several feet high, young date palms, and eager eucalyptus trees rising among the rubble of bombed-out modern towers and squat mud-walled homes.
5. Our Neighbors: Poisoned City
Five years ago the state government of Michigan changed the city of Flint’s water source to the nearby Flint River. Shortly thereafter, there was not only more lead coming out of the city’s taps but also more lead in the blood of the city’s children. In just eighteen months, the percentage of children under age five with high blood-lead levels had jumped from 2.1 percent to 4 percent. When the physician who made the discovery looked at the two zip codes with the highest levels in their water, she realized that there was even greater harm. There, the proportion of children with high blood-lead levels rose to 6.3 percent. Both areas were mostly poor and with large African American populations, 67 percent and 46 percent respectively. As many as twenty-seven thousand children were vulnerable to persistent lead exposure.
The switch to the Flint River happened even though everyone knew that the river was highly contaminated. When the state government began talking of using it as the city’s new source of drinking water, “we thought it was a joke,” said one citizen. A pastor in the city testified that over at his church, they had stopped using the river for baptisms years ago.
Scientists tell us that clay, a seemingly infertile blend of minerals, was the first shelter for biomolecules, allowing them to ferment in ancient seawater. The hydrogel in the clay, they explain, created microscopic burrows like holes in a sponge. And in another version, tiny gelatinous balloons of fat or polymer protected the nascent processes of life until cell membranes were formed. Inside these bubbles or burrows, it took billions of years of chemicals transforming and reforming in an untraceable genealogy of reactions to form proteins, which drew energy from lightning or volcanic vents, for DNA to emerge. “And that’s how the machinery that makes a living cell works came into being,” the leading scientist of early evolution explained.
That’s all fine and good. But clay, according to the three landscapers who’ve inspected our backyard, is the problem, the reason the lawn is soggy and the grass won’t grow. Several times we added new soil, planted plants that were supposed to thrive here, but nothing worked. Shoveling the soil, and adjusting the drains of the rain garden, almost ankle deep in wet clay, more than once I recalled my mother’s burial, and how I myself laid her in her grave a few miles from the Pyramids. I was struck by how moist and soft the dirt was, and how it felt like a comfortable bed for her.
But what does it mean that this clay, this catalyst of existence, refuses to render life, that it is pushing against the foundation of the house, that it is sucking me by the feet into it? Of course I’m not ready, but there is a song beginning to shape itself between my ears.
7. A Friend from Al-Raqqah
I’m remembering now a friend from Al-Raqqah. Studying to become an agricultural engineer when I first met him, he couldn’t wait to graduate and go home. I used to chide him, saying, “You’ll be returning to the Great Leader. It’ll be ‘Revolution this’ and ‘Motherland that’ for you from now on.” He’d play along with a sendup of Ba’ath party bureaucrats stuttering through their allegiance oaths. Then he’d quickly turn to me and say, “But you know you’re the one who’s trapped. Can’t stay here, and can’t go there,” which was true then. He was returning to his Euphrates, to the family farm with a notebook full of plans and a head buzzing with dreams. We exchanged letters several times early on. I still remember his address:
P.O. Box ##
He sent back postcards of the river and news of his farm, his fields of clover and herds of sheep. “It’s paradise here,” he wrote soon after he got married. “We started a bee nursery,” he reported once, and later, “We just exported our first shipment of fig preserve to the Emirates. organic 100%!” “You just have to keep your focus despite all the hurdles, and you’ll succeed even here,” one of his last letters closed.
Our lives had taken different and more tangled paths by our early thirties, and I did not hear from him for more than twenty years, not until a year ago. His city and mine surged in hope, then fell into nightmare. ISIS took his farm, he wrote from Damascus. He managed to ship the children off to study abroad—Canada, Turkey, Greece—likely never to return. “I have so much time on my hands now. I translate two short stories a week, and newspaper articles, several every day. I probably translate in my sleep.”
Al-Raqqah is now mile upon mile of rubble, the destruction mainly the work of American fighter jets. What remains standing is probably booby-trapped. When it rains in the countryside near my friend’s farm—the rain now comes from different directions, he tells me—“the old huts and barns are mounds of glistening clay.”
8. Your City
In your Cairo, Tamer, the generals fear another revolt. They are planning to abandon the city and are building a new capital in the middle of the desert to house all the government’s thirty ministries and their staff. Everything in the new capital will be the tallest or largest in the Middle East and Africa. It will have a new airport, a monorail, hundreds of colleges, hospitals, and schools, forty thousand hotel rooms, a theme park four times the size of Disneyland, sensors for pollution, sensors for speed, and huge solar energy farms. The plans do not include low-income housing, but certainly thousands of facial recognition cameras to track and arrest potential troublemakers. The project will occupy six million acres of desert land. It will siphon water that had been slated for other towns.
9. Unreal City
How would I return? After all that happened, I’d choose to be a stubborn thing. Stubborn and dignified. No, not a rat, cockroach, or mosquito. I mean something that has beauty about it. Maybe that’s what perseverance is, not to simply endure but to allow yourself to be pulled by some notion of beauty away from the suffering.
Sometimes, to comfort myself, I think of myself as a city, not a woman, but a city that can be rebuilt again. I’ll lie fallow like a field and let gentle life come to me. Poets would sing of my river, and of my roads as living veins. But I have been a city, a city that has kept a secret hurt under it for so long, and in the dredging of renewal, of towers and networks and pipes, secrets emerge, stark and horrifying.
What happened to me? It’s what has happened to women and cities in war, and in peace, when life turns against itself. I would want to return to undo what had been done, and to have what I was denied, of course. But sometimes I think I would rather live in beauty alone—my crude function lost to my brain—and when beauty fades away, I’ll never know what I lost, or what it means to have had anything. I can only think of the good things that I’d like to happen. That’s all.
10. The Suburbs
In the backyard, I see him standing among the trees, bow in hand, a stone axe strapped to his waist. He is exploring a land no one owned yet, feeling emotions that had not been felt for a long time here. He does not see me, and I can only see him through the eyes of a word that started out moving slowly, reaching for something far away, then seizing it in a fist. Linger, long, belong, so goes the history of dispossession.
The leaves fall and drift, gather and swirl as if they are a murmuration of starlings and the front yard a piece of sky. The chipmunks darting under the hostas may have a better explanation, but they seem too impatient to give it. But him, what brings him here now, deep from history? Is he bringing us awful news? Has he come to rescue us? I want to tell him that he can have it all, that everything here is a weight tied to my feet, that it pulls me despite myself into forms of disquiet I had never known.
See how I’ve opted to let the dandelions bully the grass, I want to tell him, how I let the grass grow disheveled beyond polite length, how a thin film of mold is turning the northern side of our white-painted house green? Is this how I’m giving it all back?
I want also to tell him that when it rains in the spring, our sodden backyard becomes a virtual bog, our failed rain garden a small lagoon. Some nights deer stop by to drink. Frogs live there now; Canada geese alight, wet their beaks, and soak their wings.
11. Our Cities
When I think of our cities, it’s always afternoon decades ago, a time of siesta after the midday meal. None of our houses had phones or air conditioners then, and the one television channel didn’t start until early evening. There was nothing for a child to do but sneak out to a neighbor’s house or read or join the adults in their sleep. I always think of it also as a time of conspiracies and devastating change—the photo of Mossadegh in pajamas after his nap, receiving news of the coup and the Shah’s impending return, and Nasser, already broken, listening to a report about Black September in Amman. It was also a time of new music, poetry, and film, of women teachers teaching eager girls, of setting aside myths for the sake of a modest dream. A promise conceived in quiet assurance tossed into history’s profane embrace—this is the era in which we were born.
Now it’s the mayhem and clangor of descent: your city roaring like the sound of God revving up an old, tired engine; Bassam’s city of plastic surgery, of the harlotry of renewal and the temporary crusting into the eternal; and Hassan’s city of convulsions and dark cloisters where clerics plot the savior’s return. All have their counterparts here blaring from televisions and cell phones. O how they long to bring the world to an end, to ascend to their Lord like laser beams before the missiles are unleashed!
Departing our ramshackle towns, we thought we were joining “the immense city composed of two words: the others,” where “in every one of them there is an I clipped from a we,” the metropolis “that dreams us all, that all of us build and unbuild and rebuild as we dream.”
I see you smiling at my child, in both your eyes a glimmer that redeems.
But I have news for you. In your city of exile, they’re building an elevated park meant to protect it from the new fierce storms and rising seas. A series of levees and a floodwall, the park will add eleven blocks of green space with biking and jogging trails, a theater and a gallery, restaurants and cafes. This project too will shortchange nearby neighborhoods. It’s meant only to protect the financial district and the high-income high-risers living near.
Autumn and a river drying in the mind, a river whose source is blood cells and the tunnels of survival. A river that traffics in happiness, whose waters keep time for my sleep, and sutures and dresses my wounds. Dry now like the Aral Sea, it has become an open road where my father, Abraham-like, is intent on ushering me into a higher purpose, where my mother asks for the years I stole from her youth, and where a lover holds the child we never had. Even the drab moon turns its face and looks away.
Autumn where the chipmunks dart across the yard, stopping to glance at me before slinking into their burrows with what will sustain them this winter. Autumn and the hostas holding on to their green a little longer before they brown, shrivel, and desiccate.
Why can’t time take the river’s source to the sleep that rises diurnal, nimble and green? To not think of dying and living, only of the wont for change.
13. The Only One We Have
Scientists have been studying the skeleton of one of our ancestors who was about forty when he died. His skull shows that he suffered a serious injury to the left side of his head as a teenager, an injury so severe that he was most likely blind and otherwise disabled. As he matured, the right side of his body began to atrophy while the left side, being fed by the right brain, continued to develop. He could walk, but with a limp. The bones of his right leg and arm weakened and shortened; his right hand eventually shriveled to nothing. What is surprising is that he lived for at least two decades after his injury, the cause of which could not be determined. (Many of our ancient ancestors have injuries similar to those of rodeo performers, which they incurred while hunting large mammals.) The injury also could have occurred during the many turf wars that this ancestor and his clan engaged in with other clans. Scientists are certain, given his blindness and the severe headaches he must have suffered from his head trauma, that this particular ancestor could not have existed for two decades without others taking care of him. His remains were discovered in a cave a few hundred miles north of Baghdad. From the pollen found near his skeleton, scientists hypothesize that flowers had been buried with him, as with the others lying next to him.
The thirteen pieces here are modified haibuns, prose poems that end with a renga rather than a haiku. A renga combines the work of two or more poets.
A Dream of Adam: The renga combines lines from John Milton’s Paradise Lost Book X and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Tithonus.”
My City, the Plume: The renga combines lines from Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “A Ballad of François Villon, Prince of All Ballad-Makers” and Jennifer Elise Foerster’s “Coosa.”
An Idea for a Short Film: The renga combines lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 71 and Thomas Campion’s “Now Winter Nights Enlarge.”
My City of Ruins: The renga combines lines from Su Croll’s “the consolation of trees” and Derek Walcott’s “Sea Grapes.”
Poisoned City: The renga combines lines from Charles Baudelaire’s “The Poison” and William Blake’s “A Poison Tree.”
Clay: The renga combines lines from Gwendolyn Brooks’s “truth” and John Clare’s “Summer Images.”
A Friend from Al-Raqqah: The last three lines are based on lines from “Tracing” by Gottfried Benn, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann.
Your City: The renga combines lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Amal Dunqul’s “Safar al-Takween” (“The Book of Creation”).
Unreal City: The renga combines lines from “The Comfort Women” by Lollie Butler, Milton’s Paradise Lost Book II, and Lynda Hull’s “Suite for Emily.”
The Suburbs: The renga combines lines from George Oppen’s “The Gesture” and Bakiza Amin Khaki’s “Ya Qalb” (“O Heart”).
Our Cities: The prose passage includes lines from Octavio Paz’s “I Speak of the City,” and the renga reworks lines from Shelley’s “The Triumph of Life.”
Autumn: The renga combines lines from Ibrahim Naji’s “Al-khareef” (“Autumn”) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode.”
The Only One We Have: The renga combines lines from Cathy Song’s “The Kindness of Others” and Swinburne’s “The Triumph of Time.”
Khaled Mattawa has published five books of poems, most recently Mare Nostrum (Sarabande). He also translates poetry and has edited anthologies of Arab American writing. Recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, he teaches at the University of Michigan and edits the Michigan Quarterly Review.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.