in the style of Nazim Hikmeti
I didn’t know I loved limestone dust hovering in the air like a mild white fog
I didn’t know I loved dancing up and down the levels of an ancient Roman amphitheater
I didn’t know I loved women in colorful hijabs chatting on paths, books in their hands,
walking to their classes
I didn’t know I loved the smell of men’s cigarettes and car exhaust, but it mixes into a perfume that I love more than my lifeI didn’t know I loved pronouncing words with letters with sounds which I had never heard
until I was twenty-one years old
I didn’t know I loved Ramadan,
Sneaking into the muddied hill behind our student center
Sneaking our sandwiches – lebneh, cucumber and khubs
I didn’t know I loved lebneh.
I had never known what it was
I had never tasted its tangy cream, had never spread it over bread in the morning,
and then lathered on fresh apricot jelly
I had never realized that I liked apricot jelly.
I had never realized that pomegranates grow in strange leafy trees,
Never realized that I had never eaten one
Never realized that I would do it all wrong, but that I would like it that way
during that first week in Irbid, sleeping on floral pillows in the sunroom,
navigating the strange relationship between a woman and a man in a country
where, for some reason…it’s very complex.
I didn’t know that I loved the Golan Heights. The way the view stretches
far across the waters, and the only vision
is mountains in the distance…which may be clouds,
and no one can really tell.
I never realized that this wouldn’t bother me.
I never realized that I would paint the Golan,
over and over.
Transferring newspaper text on conflicts to the sky of my wet paper…
as if it actually had the power to heal
The text of the conflicts in the actual sky, above Lake Tiberias
I had never known that I loved Palestinians. Never known that they make up such a substantial part of
the population in Jordan. Never known that they are treated as second-class citizens.
I have always known that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict bothered me…
Bothered me personally.
I hadn’t known that so much of this world, had always known this conflict bothered them…Bothered them personally
I had never realized
How powerful it would all be
Melting into the cultural heritage of Jerusalem at the age of twenty-four.
I had never realized
How I would take root in my Catholic upbringing and kiss the wall of the cave
in Caiaphas’s basement
Where Jesus had been imprisoned before his death.
I had never realized how much I hated those tourist groups who walked
The narrow paths of the way of the cross
carrying an actual wooden cross
And thinking that their suffering mattered and thinking that miracles were real.
I had never realized that I would hate this, and I had never realized
the pain from which that hate was born.
And I had never realized that this was exactly the problem
between Israelis and Palestinians
and that maybe I had understood it, all along.
I had never realized that falling in love in Damascus could make you fall in love with Damascus
I had never realized that playing swings
with small blue-eyed Syrian children in thick knitted sweaters
could bridge any cultural or religious gap
Though everyone pretends it can’t
I had never realized how much I would suffer
when Syria devolved into war
I didn’t realize
They would later have me study it
Have me categorize it as “intractable”
Never realized that their lessons of putting war into a glass ornament
of analysis wouldn’t heal it at all
I never realized how much this wasn’t the point of war
until much later
I still don’t realize what the point is.
I never realized how much I would cry
in happiness or separation
About the young Egyptian family who lived by the Coptic church
Never knew that Nisma connected my soul to the earth which bore it
Never knew that my origin was in Cairo,
Had never realized that my soul was born in its hectic crowds of pedaling and trading
Never realized that I never really understood the joke when an Egyptian was leading me
across a busy highway, right into the path of the speeding cars
Never realized that I loved laughing with them
even though I didn’t get the joke
even though I was terrified
Never realized that I loved Nisma and her sister
with all the passion a young woman possesses.
Never realized how my love for them would sweat out the pain from the many lovers
who would leave me in the dust
Never realized that that dust was the dust of Cairo’s dry streets
Never realized that those streets smelt of tobacco and exhaust and never knew
that it brought with it the beauty I never realized life had,
But had secretly dreamed it possessed
Never knew I would dream of that blue and white couch on their roof
Those scurrying ducks,
the one leading the others in silly little circles in the unfiltered sunlight
Never knew that homing pigeons really did return home…at all costs except death
Never knew that I could communicate
only in Arabic
only with my soul
which belonged in Cairo, I finally realized…
all this time.
And I wonder, if I found myself there…in the Middle East, in love
If I could ever leave
I mean, leave it with my soul…
And I know the answer
is that I never can.
Because it has fused into me, with its customs, and hospitality
with the welcome of the university guard, Ahlan wa Sahlan,
and the complete abandonment of fear and regret
Ahlan beek, I reply to him
and in that eternal moment,
I am sure
that I am finally home.
Hikmet, Nazim. Things I Didn’t Know I Loved.