I was very taken by Libyan-American Khaled Mattawa’s poem, which bears the simple title ‘Ramadan’.
“This month the moon becomes a princess,” he writes, “The stars fan her,/ Jupiter pours cups of wine,/ Mars sings melancholy mawals./ Bearded men holding prayer beads and yellow booklets stare at her/ and point aching fingers at her waist.”
The full poem is below and it covers the multi-layered realities of life – an immigrant, a Muslim, a fasting but not especially religious person; in the West but not fully of it.
“The spirits of Johnny Walker and gin / hide in the trunks of white Peugeots./ In the nightclubs of my city, waiters serve only non-alcoholic beer / and belly dancers cover themselves.”
Mr Mattawa’s story is interesting. He was born in Benghazi, Libya’s second-most populous city but known from 2012 for the coordinated attack on two US government facilities by members of the jihadist group Ansar Al Sharia. Mr Mattawa came to the US aged 15 and went on to study right past his doctoral degree. He translates Arab poets in to English and writes poems that are said to explore “the intersection of culture, narrative, and memory.” According to The Poetry Foundation, back in 2007, Mr Mattawa addressed the connection between his emigration from Libya to the United States and his poetry as follows: “I think memory was very important to my work as a structure, that the tone of remembrance, or the position of remembering, is very important, was a way of speaking when I was in between deciding to stay and not stay, and I had decided to stay.”
Here’s the poem:
My mother forgets to feed her animals
because it’s only fair.
She rushes to them when
she hears hoarse roosters crowing
and billy goats butting
over a last straw.
This month the moon becomes a princess.
The stars fan her,
Jupiter pours cups of wine,
Mars sings melancholy mawals.
Bearded men holding prayer beads
and yellow booklets stare at her
and point aching fingers at her waist.
In our house we break a fast
with dates from Huun
and glasses of buttermilk.
Then on to bowls of lamb soup
flavored with mint, trays
of stuffed grape leaves,
spiced fava beans drenched
in olive oil and lemon juice.
And that is only the beginning.
The spirits of Johnny Walker and gin
hide in the trunks of white Peugeots.
In the nightclubs of my city, waiters
serve only non-alcoholic beer
and belly dancers cover themselves.
Father of sixteen children, our neighbor
visits bringing two kilos of baklava.
He washes them down with a dozen
demitasses of sweet sage tea.
Before dawn he runs to one
of his two wives, both named Salma,
and loves her hurriedly,
his hands barely touching a breast.
– From ‘Ismailia Eclipse’, The Sheep Meadow Press, 1995