The April SWANA Voices
In April, Font brings you richness from some—just some—of the writers of SWANA (South West Asian and North African) heritage currently living in Quebec.
Discover here voices from Amazigh, Egyptian, Palestinian, Lebanese and Iranian backgrounds; female, femme, and queer; born in Quebec, newly arrived, or embedded for over thirty years. This is no monolith but a diverse and shining array of writers, linked sometimes by geography and landscape, sometimes by language, heritage, and culture, but unique in voice and in concerns.
These are works which explore the world and the body; which hold fear and hope for humanity; which question borders and boundaries, violence and healing. Critical questions asked about ‘home’ and complicated loyalties. Relationships stretched around the world, or in the closest of intimacies.
There has been an education in discussion with our contributors about the naming of this Issue. ‘SWANA Voices’ was chosen after becoming aware of the colonial and Eurocentric tones underpinning the original title of ‘Arab and Middle Eastern Voices’. There is a fascinating and ongoing conversation happening around identities and naming, one well worth reading more on. My thanks to the contributors for their patience and generosity as we worked this out.
Font’s mandate is to present work in English and other minority languages in Quebec, and so we are proud to include here classic Arabic and colloquial Egyptian in Font in the works of poet Ehab Lotayef and songwriter Nadah el Shazly. Thanks also to Edward He and Deanna Smith for their translations from the French of Emné Nasereddine and Elkahna Talbi. We invite you to enjoy.
the northern gannet
may I one day be free from the spell to label the earth
the smell of the sand
the brittle wind
may I stop mouthing the sorrow
and if the idea
beyond a fissure
really, living is easy: just face the wind at an angle and undo yourself from the name
take shelter under the name and untangle yourself from the wind
melt into stone
shackle your smile
like the toughest
balance in the world
just forget and the sea brews anew
no doubt I have worsened the tale
killed the mother
burned the city dropped more bombs and destruction
no doubt I have secretly wished that life would shrivel at my feet
to be broadcasted on the shortwaves
and to capitalize on
I’ve never tasted
what is expected of me
I would tell you about a northern gannet piercing the sea
about the moon howling
about the matter of the moment
about the lovely
of the wind
about the contortion
of the ether
even if I disappear
here is the poem of a resting body
rain covers the day like a careless chant
on the city’s roofs
rumour has it
that the sun
Translation from the French by Edward He.
Consider your state of ambivalence. It is outside your field of vision. Outside your field of consideration? It is ultimately of the utmost importance. It is ultimately not important at all. The wave of shock that runs through every cell of your body, up and down your arms, is uncontrollable. The time it takes you to control yourself is picking a fight and looking at it from the outside. The body is either hesitant or not, present or not. The waves that lap underneath your skin are agitated. Warm, a late spring breeze, walking in the sun for too long. Hesitancy has never gotten you anywhere but neither has fighting. Your diplomacy is as instinctual as drinking, and you drink a lot of water. This makes you enter and exit the bathroom often disrupting your thinking. You can’t think while peeing, too focused on the sound. Your mind goes blank. What are you feeling inside? A blank unfilling. A relief. Further investigation brings you nowhere because you are unwilling to do it. The battle within you is deep and old, the tears only a flesh wound. A scar is thick, fibrous tissue lapping at your skin. She tells you the skin of the scar is not like the skin of the rest of the body. It is just a quick fix. She pushes at your scars, rubs, scratches, caresses in wisps and tingles. She burns, she numbs, she reminds you where your nipples are. The faint pain reminds you of something else but you can’t reach it. She tries to help you find it but doesn’t know what she’s looking for. You won’t say. She asks, should I touch here? Or here? You say you think it is all numb, yes, all numb, oh no, wait?
مهداة الى أليكسي نافالني
مونتريال، 9 إبريل 2021
لو الدنيا ضاقت وجار الزمان
ومات الضيا واستبد الظلام
وهانوا الكرام وسادوا اللئام
وتهنا ما بين الحلال والحرام
لو ناسك خنوعة وصاحبك جبان
يحب المراوغة، يخاف م الكلام
في وسط المظالم وتحت الحصار
يا واقف لوحدك
مفيش لك خيار
تنور ليالي الأسية
بكلمة جريئة تناجي النهار
for Alexei Navalny, April 9, 2021
If your world collapses,
light suffocates and darkness spreads.
If the righteous are oppressed,
the wicked rule
and we can’t distinguish right from wrong.
If your people are cowards,
your friends are scared,
afraid to rise up, afraid to speak
in the midst of injustice
who stands alone
have no recourse.
But your voice
illuminates the night
with a word of truth
Translation from the Arabic by Ehab Lotayef.
الكهرمان سايح على جيلك
ده الرش على صوابعك عشّق
من قبل ما أوعى يا عيوني
How do I heal
When I have nothing?
Not my words
Will console you
Nor my tongue
Your favours reveal
Your generation swims in melted amber
You turn away and still admonish
Honey, these pesticides had blended into your hands
Long before my memory began.
Just came back from Egypt, thirty years after my last visit. Twenty-one years after 9/11. Ten years after discovering I was Arab, looking in the mirror, with my pale skin, my Québécois accent, my radical left-wing ideas, my queerness. “Egypt is finished.” “Egypt is fucked.”—Alphonse said, Adham agreed, Yasna nodded. I went there to continue the dismantling of my inner racism by submerging it into beauty; and also to flee my issues in Montreal, let’s be honest. I wrote every day to my friends and family, talking about the intensity I encountered, the incredible kindness of the humans I met over there. The smell of fresh guava in my hotel room connecting me briefly to my father. He wrote me “You understand, now.” A little bit more, I guess. The type of smell that imprints your body, this famous mark of immigration: the smell of what’s left behind and felt good.
Hundreds of sparks are crystallizing into narratives: going to Saint Samaan The Tanner Coptic Monastery on top of the Muqattam mountain, then down the mountain through Garbage City, and then through the intricate narrow crowded, oh so crowded, streets and infinite market, buying a huge bag of strawberries for the equivalent of 50 Canadian cents. Same amount same price for fresh guavas. “Min Kanada? Canada dry!” people would say, again and again with a welcoming smile.
Ahmed showing me around the Fish market, and the feist of fresh and baked before us sayadeya and samak mashwi and shrimps and baba ghanoug’ and fried eggplant we eat half-hidden – it is slightly before iftar – behind a stall that belongs to a family he’s known for 40 years, and his father before that, presenting me as من الاسكندرية (min aliaskandaria) consequently making everybody even more kind to me.
Sexy Islam flirting with me in a queer cozy apartment party, talking about his global Mediterranean art project and bringing up Foucault.
Meeting aunty Kot-Kot (she insists I don’t call her Catherine) and cousin Mina, Kot-Kot’s tears when leaving me at the hotel saying goodbye, probably adieu, crying because my way-too-pale-to-be-Arab face reminds her of her estranged brother. The disappearance of my grief for the brief time of my trip, my grief of two recently deceased friends and of a very meaningful relationship.
The pyramids, the fucking pyramids.
Alexandre, the Franco-Vietnamese soufi anti-vax radical leftist frexitist complotist traveller, who talked to me while I was deep in contemplation of the spirituality of the courtyard of the Ibn Tulun Mosque, also thinking about the hate against Copts that has probably been spread in this same courtyard. Alexandre assured me that relationships between Arab colonizers and Coptic first nation were wonderful, loving, caring.
The talk all in German with Birte (half-pronounce the “r” she insisted), a Berlin pottery artist making a tea pot in the pottery neighbourhood behind the heavily guarded walls of the Suspended Church, talking about politics in Egypt for the first time since I arrived, protected by the crypticness of that language. Being out of my body, out of my mind, out of my identity, just absorbing.
Coming back to Quebec hearing about the big Publisac debate, and the rise of the extreme right in the polls, the sixth Covid wave. Watching Harry Potter prequel with my nieces and trying to forget about the transphobia of its author. Remembering who I am and for whom I am fighting for. Getting a text message from my ex-partner saying she is so exhausted, and that she got flowers from a new partner. Grieving the family we started to build with her children will take more than a trip to Egypt.
All will macerate, will be developed, be scrutinized through discourse. At first, impressions. Then opinions, probably not mine. I don’t want to have opinions about Egypt just yet.
The mixture of sand and smog in Cairo’s air giving a golden sheen to everything. The murder of yet another Coptic priest while I was there. How Coptic as much as Muslim institutions hate queers to death. The overpopulation. The garbage, so much garbage, literally layers of garbage sedimenting. The crippling forests of oh so high buildings without glass in the windows. The literal rivers of garbage, the water being not even slightly visible under the empty bottles, car parts, food packaging and whatnots. The face of the dictator all over the place, his name never pronounced around me. Back in North America writing non-fiction and poetry being a trans femme Egypto-Québécois neurodivergent pansexual polyamorous slut queen. How do I write about the garbage and the violence without adding to the racism?
I can’t help thinking about downtown Laval, how it could become as dirty and garbage-full like Cairo in no time. It is not discussed in a serious enough manner how horrible that place is, how beauty is non-existent, not protected and nourished over there. I’m not writing this in a “let’s make fun of the suburbs” mindset, I am deeply concerned. Last February, I visited this huge exhibition of sculptures made of wires and Christmas lights in downtown Laval with my sisters’ kids. Dinosaurs, reindeer, humungous candies, three hours walking on concrete in the bleak winter. All that concrete, all that absence of beauty. All that lightness of mind about car culture. No trees coming out of that rich soil beneath but huge quantities of little Christmas lights, hanging on familiar shapes to make children dream of beauty. Their joy being there. Their happiness making me happy, a lot, while not easing my concern. Imagine having 12 billion inhabitants in Laval, like in Cairo, with that absence of sense of the importance of beauty?
I am a trans femme Egypto-Québécois neurodivergent pansexual polyamorous slut queen. I was afraid for the disappearance of beauty, and grieving, before leaving Quebec. Everything changed while visiting this country that I was so pressured to visit since the day I was born. I am perhaps not the same person now. And yet, I am still a trans femme Egypto-Québécois neurodivergent pansexual polyamorous slut queen afraid for the disappearance of beauty, and grieving.
Where Is My Country
Where is my goddamn country
whose floods disarm roads and
neighbours track the shame
of torn bras and underwear in the rain.
Don’t you look don’t you turn away
don’t you leave this is my country
let me see your travel papers
thwak! my stamp my face my words
my language impossible to leave without it
promises detain me
I’m not going anywhere today.
Where is my country?
The one I wrote about but in the wrong
accent saying things I never meant
as the wheels sucked up the clay from the riverbed
and sprayed it onto our faces
hardening into masks that hurt when we smiled
not that we tried, it wasn’t that kind of wild.
It was the time you held out your hands
at the border crossing and the agent said
I know another name we can call you and that was that
you fled like the coward you are, my history
is full of people like you.
Where is my country?
A cliff leaning against the ocean where you hold my arms
behind my back and spread my legs
for inspection with the tip of your soft boot.
You ask where was I born
who were my parents why did I leave
who sent me in whom do I believe
until it’s too much even for you and
my laughter cuts your serious face
Where is my country.
Too many allegiances what a luxury to have
just one language one religion one mountain one
valley one lover, you know, that country.
The one we saw in a movie
where he smiled like a compass
and she said look at me like you mean it
look at me like you know me
like your dreams aren’t full of weaponry
like the length of your arms aren’t a boundary
and he did and when no one
was watching she handed
him her passport
I am an adult.
But to my mother, I have always been a kid.
When I left her three years ago by moving to Montreal, she sold our apartment and asked my father to move. Unfortunately—or fortunately—she couldn’t get a permanent residency.
She spends ten dollars a day calling me from Iran. Nowadays in Iran, ten dollars would let you go to the best restaurants and eat delicious Iranian luxuries.
But she prefers to call me instead. Every other hour, she calls me to confirm that I ate my breakfast, my brunch, my lunch, my coffee and cake, my dinner, my after-dinner meal, and drank my milk before sleep.
She calls me every fucking morning, exactly after she has her saffron tea with Persian cookies in rose water and cardamon. It’s her habit. However, she doesn’t want to accept that 12 p.m. in Iran is 5 a.m. in Montreal.
“Oh, my son! Good morning! Did I wake you up? What did you eat for your breakfast?”
I explain to her, “Mom, my darling, it’s 5 a.m. in the morning and I have a dance competition today! I’m exhausted!”
It doesn’t make any difference.
If you have never seen met an Iranian mother, let me explain.
You might arrive home at midnight, with torn clothes and puffy eyes, blood all over your clothes. You cannot breathe, you cannot walk, there is a knife in your body, and you are going to die.
She would say, “My darling, did you eat something?”
And it’s enough to say, when you are half dead, “No, I didn’t eat!”
At this moment she will look at you with big open eyes and say “What? You didn’t eat!”
“Mom, I have blood all over my body, what are you talking about?”
But for Iranian mothers, nothing changes.
Back to 5 a.m. in Montreal.
“I am sorry to wake you up, my son but what did you eat? I will send you some Ghorme sabzi!”
“Send it? You can’t send it by post!”
She agrees. Instead, she will go to the airport, find some poor guy taking a flight to Montreal, and convince him to take some important medicine for her son who is going to die.
She’s not lying. She has done this before.
The last time, she found a nice guy at the airport who accepted for humane reasons to bring the box to me, thinking it was important medications.
After a twenty-hour trip to Canada, he was promptly attached by all the dogs in Montreal airport. The officer smelled the baggage and asked him to open it. It reeked of fenugreek, and was a mess. He ended up throwing away his whole baggage.
I understand. It smells but it’s fucking delicious, man!
I still have my phone in my hands, I can’t keep my eyes open. Mom repeats that if I am not eating well, she can send some food. I am exhausted and I just wish to sleep.
“Mom, tabarnak! I eat shit! Leave me alone!”
“Why do you eat shit? You don’t take care of yourself then! That is why I ask you to live with us! It’s your father’s fault, he lets you live alone, and this is the result!”
I hang up the phone and fall back to sleep. I see myself dancing and dancing. I win Canada’s Got Talent. I turn to the public. They encourage me and call my name. They give me a standing ovation, screaming and clapping.
I won it, man! I see my entire community here full of joy and they are proud of me. And then I see my mom, in the crowd, smiling, with a big plate of Ghorme sabzi.
“My son, did you eat?”
if I stay (no. 15)
If I stay
it’s because I want to believe that it’s still possible
Our life would be beautiful
us, unworn out
It would be beautiful
without all of these authors of asinine answers
convinced they are leading us in the right direction
though the trip ends in pieces
We’ll need the patience of a saint
to rebuild it all
the sweat will hide the blinding light known to infernal shortcuts
like a fog
the weight on our shoulders is increasing
day after day
along with doubt pounding in our heads
why are we doing this, for whom
life would be beautiful, without all that
only our hands to read the beauty of the world
and knead the bread that feeds the week
Our days spent on a bit of land
that belongs to no one
and everyone at the same time
land that welcomes our exhausted yet triumphant footsteps
land scattered with the seeds for the harvest of delicate flowers
Is there enough beauty left in us to believe?
a will as wide as a field of wheat
a will to run with the glee of childhood
without grasping the canyon that our frenzied behaviour
could be tempted to recreate
We would take ourselves seriously tallying the stars
sleep as our boss
the flow of days
a carefree stream
Fueled by an ambition no larger than ourselves
focused on a future without us
Do we have enough hope left to imagine such a thing?
Do we have enough time left?
I wake up each morning
in the luxury of space
and everyday peace
Translation from the French by Deanna Smith.
a letter from the sun
when was before
that August day
ten pictures of Lebanon
an olive tree north of trablos
men stroke it with a tall stick
olives fall on the sky blue tarp
sitting women sing, sifting in the shade
these good for oil, these good for brine
i wished for the knowledge to enter me
a prayer to the know-how
of the last craftsmen
in the souq
this one weaves the chairs
(the musical chairs)
that one beats the metal
(an ancestral polyphony)
the crouched one sews the quilt
(for stillborn winters)
the sun distills
finger-picked mountain herbs
delivered by the forager’s fists
to the famous ‘attār
in the center of the souq
he will brew fragrances
for my great-grandfather
who will pour and cut and sell
the family signature soap
I don’t care about
if we lose it all
if our success
is not intertwined
stop with the moody eyebrows
you’re not fooling the sky
I know by night you cry
by day you forget,
thinking: this is how I fight
but you’re tired, splintered
just like me
looking for Beirut and the sea
you were never an island
you, peninsula of your mother
and I of mine
tectonic seashell ears
sea magnet sun
in story waves
but fearing eternity
and your power
vote them in
so we pray and rebuild
and rebuild and pray
I fly into my bones
a single cell membrane
be more sophisticated
than je ne sais quoi
proteins build railroads
bacteria erect gates
hearts emit photons
see how inhabited you are
go tell them there is no such thing as
“junk DNA” and to think so
is presumptuous towards the Light that feeds
is to ignore it rewrites your code
even when the patriarchy’s hacked you
since your grandmother’s mitochondria
living crystals of your soul:
secrets folded into your cells
telomeres alphabetized in holy books
punch the plasma
ruin the image
burn the postcard
you are a letter from the sun
الطريق /The Road
سحابٌ يمطرُ وهماً
ارضٌ تلفظ نباتها ولحمٌ تعفن
أخجلُ من الفقراء
أخبئ وجهي في عتمةِ الليل
كي لا يروا بسمتي
(التي تداري حزنَ السنين)
حبيبةٌ لم تلتقيني
غريبان في دربِ غربةٍ
أعودُ لنقطةِ صفري
غريرٌ – برغمِ الجراح
الاقي الصباحَ العنيدَ
فما الألمُ إلا نورٌ
يريدُ ان يتحرر
بأظافرنا ننحتُ الجدار
تسمحُ للضوءِ بالمرورِ
إلى داخلنا المظلم
إذا لم نتطاردُ حلماً
وماذا سيتبقى منا
إن وأدنا اماني الصبا
في قفارِ الكهولة
At the end
a promise will be broken
fields reject the crops
I hide my face
behind the cloak of darkness
so the poor won’t see my smile
(which masks a lifetime of misery)
She longs for me
A lover, who I’ve never met
Strangers, we are
since the day we were born
I return to where I started
a shattered spirit
a disfigured body
yet innocent – despite the wounds
I greet every angry dawn
with newborn hope
For what is pain
trying to break free
scratch the wall
to open a crack
so sunlight can reach the darkness
of our hearts
What would we be
if we didn’t chase a dream
or believe in the impossible
and what would remain of us
if we bury our childhood fantasies
in the wilderness of adulthood
Translation from the Arabic by Ehab Lotayef.