My father loved poetry. Like so many Middle Easterners, he could quote Arabic and English poetry at just about any occasion for just about any reason, and he taught me how to memorize strange poems for class assignments, like “Tiger” by William Blake. He took pride in how much I liked to read, but it was rarely poetry I read–of all the literary and art forms, poetry was the one I took to the least. The day someone gave me a Nizar Qabbani’s book a few years ago, which was about the time one of my oldest friends, Sami Zarour, began writing poems that made me have to puzzle things out, something in my head opened up to poetry, and today I share two poems that remind me of my father. One is by the modern Arab poet laureate Mahmoud Darwish, and the other a poem by Rumi given to me by Dr. Fawzi Yaqub, a former student of my father’s. Of all the positions my father held, he took the most joy in his early career as a math teacher, and I think he saw poetry in math and math in poetry, much as I do now.
I Am There
By Mahmoud Darwish
I come from there and remember,
I was born like everyone is born, I have a mother
and a house with many windows,
I have brothers, friends and a prison.
I have a wave that sea-gulls snatched away.
I have a view of my own and an extra blade of grass.
I have a moon past the peak of words.
I have the godsent food of birds and an olive tree beyond the kent of time.
I have traversed the land before swords turned bodies into banquets.
I come from there, I return the sky to its mother when for its mother the sky cries, and I weep for a returning cloud to know me.
I have learned the words of blood-stained courts in order to break the rules.
I have learned and dismantled all the words to construct a single one:
On the Day I Die
By Jelaludin Rumi
On the day I die, when I’m being carried
toward the grave, don’t weep. Don’t say,
He’s gone! He’s gone.
Death has nothing
to do with going away. The sun sets and the moon sets,
but they’re not gone. Death is a coming together.
The tomb looks like a prison, but it’s really release into union.
The human seed goes down in the ground
like a bucket into the well where Joseph is.
It grows and comes up full of some unimagined beauty.
Your mouth closes here and opens with a shout of joy there.