Iman Mersal

Translated from the Arabic by
Khaled Mattawa


Iman MersalMaybe the window I sat by
foretold an unusual glory.
I wrote on my notebooks:
A student at: The Iman Mersal Elementary School.
Neither the teacher’s stick
nor the laughs that leapt from the back desks
could make me give up on the matter.

I thought of naming our street after me
but only if the houses on it were widened
and secret rooms were built
for my girlfriends to smoke in their beds
without their older brothers catching them.

Maybe the doors can be painted orange
as an expression of joy.
Small holes can be drilled through them
to allow anyone to spy on the large families.
Maybe then no one will be lonely on our street.

“Pioneering experiments
are shaped by great minds,”
this is how passersby might describe me
as they stroll the white sidewalks
of a street bearing my name.
But because of an old animosity between us—
its stones had left marks on my knees—
I decided that my old street isn’t worth it.

I don’t remember when I discovered that I have
a musical name suitable for autographing
metered poems and for flying
before the faces of friends who have ordinary names
and who do not understand the significance
of being granted a dubious name
that raises suspicions about you
and that makes you want to become someone else
so that new acquaintances might ask:
Are you Christian?
Do you have Lebanese roots?

Unfortunately, something happened.
When someone now calls out my name
I get confused and look around me.
Is it possible for a body like mine
and a chest whose breathing is getting raspier
with each day to have such a name?
I look at myself often
crossing from the bedroom to the bathroom
where I do not have a whale’s stomach
to get rid of what I can’t digest.


One day I will pass in front of the house
that was mine for years
and try not to measure how far it is from my friends’ homes.

The plump widow whose cries for love woke me
is not my neighbor any more.

I’ll invent things so not to get confused.
Count my steps
or bite my lower lip savoring the slight pain
or keep my fingers busy with tearing a whole packet
of paper tissues.

I will not try short cuts
to avoid the pain.
I will not stop myself from loitering
as I train my teeth to chew on hate
that leaps from within.
And to forgive
the cold hands that pushed me toward it,
I will remember
that I did not smudge the bathroom’s whiteness
with my own darkness.

No doubt, things elude me.
The wall itself did not enter my dreams.
I did not imagine a color paint
to match the scene’s tragic lighting.

This house was my home for years.
It wasn’t a student hostel
where I would leave an evening gown
on a nail behind the door
or paste old pictures with temporary glue.
The romantic sentences
I extracted from Love in the Time of Cholera
must be jumbled up now
making an altogether comic text.


After I returned with the grown-up strides
from burying my mother,
leaving her to raise her hens in an ‘mysterious’ place,
I had to protect the house from the neighbors’ spying.
I got used to sitting on the doorstep
waiting for the heroine of the radio soap opera
who was always persecuted.
And on the day my friend got a visa
to test her body on another continent—
though she did not as usual forget
her cigarettes on my table—
I became certain that smoking is a necessity.
I began to have a private drawer
and a secret man
who used to be her old lover.

when the doctors fail to find a kidney
that Osama’s body will not reject—
whose kidneys frayed
because he repressed his bitterness to appear elegant—
maybe I’ll start using his firmly raised thumb to assert my presence
in conversation…

It seems I inherit the dead.
One day
after the death of all those I love,
I will sit alone in a café
without any sense of loss,
because my body is a huge basket
where all those who leave
drop things
that bear their traces.


You order beer by phone
with the confidence of a woman who knows three languages
and who weaves words into unexpected contexts.

How did you find this sense of security
as if you’d never left your father’s house?
Why does your presence provoke this destructiveness
that is completely free of intent,
this gravity
that releases my senses from their darkness?
What else should I do
when a shared hotel room offers me
a perfect friend
except to lump my unrefined manners and fling them
at her face as a crudeness I have contrived?

Go ahead, amuse yourself.
I am fair.
I’ll let you have more than half the room’s oxygen
on the condition that you see me beyond comparisons,
you who are twenty years older than my mother.
You wear bright colors
and will never grow old.

My perfect friend,
why don’t you leave now.
Perhaps I’ll open the gray wardrobes
and try on your stylish things.

Why don’t you go
and leave me all the room’s oxygen.
The void of your absence may lead me
to bite my lip in despair
as I look at your toothbrush,
familiar… and wet.


Rumor mongers
for reasons of self-esteem,
lovers of bango and psychoanalysis,
agitators against the state,
theoreticians of infidelity,
those who search among their ancestors’ names
for memorable titles,
reformers from within,
honest as garbage,
pessimistic from a distance,
and kind because there is no alternative:

Those who resemble me
and are worthy of my friendship,
those whom you create for me
are plentiful this year.
Dear God,
take away your gifts,
and don’t break your promise
about new enemies.


I must tell my father
that the only man for whom “desire shattered me”
looked exactly like him,

and tell my friends
that I have different pictures of myself,
all true, all me,
that I will distribute among them one at a time.

I must tell my lover,
“Be grateful for my infidelities.
Without them
I wouldn’t have waited all this time
to discover the exceptional void in your laugh.”

As for me
I am almost certain
that I scandalize myself
to hide behind it.


Facing bright storefronts
flourishing with panties
I cannot stop myself
from thinking of Marx.

Respecting Marx
is the only thing all those who loved me shared
and I have allowed them all, in varying degrees,
to claw at the cotton dolls
hidden in my body.

Karl Marx,
I will never forgive him.


He sleeps in the next room, a wall between us.
I do not mean any symbols by this,
only there is a wall between us.
I can fill it with pictures of my lover
smoking or thinking.
But I must find a neutral place for them,
respecting the distance between us.

It seems God does not love me.
I am old enough to believe that
God has not loved me for a long time, not since
he loved the math teacher
and gave him sharp eyesight
and colored chalks
and many chances to torture a girl like me
who cannot divine the link
between two unattached numbers.

But it’s not important that God love me.
No one in this world, not even the righteous ones,
can prove that God loves him.

I can open the door and shut it
softly so my lover does not wake.
A girl who goes out to the street
without a place to shelter her
is not dramatic at all.

When Dostoevsky said,
“One must have a home to go to,”
he was talking about classical people
who wore long sideburns
and overcoats resembling loneliness.

I do not like melodrama
and find no reason to empty a flower of its joy
to match it to a loved one who had died.

If I leave now
I will grab the hand of the first person I meet
and force him to go with me to a side street café.
I will tell him that a man sleeps in the next room
without nightmares,
that his head was not level with my body
and he never became
a garbage pail for me, not even once—he let everything
scatter out into the street.
I will tell this stranger that I am an orphan,
and that I used to think that was enough to write good poems,
which proved untrue,
and that I did not take good care of myself
so much that a small inflammation in my sinuses
is about to become a tumor.
Yet I continue to lie—one of course
is supposed to be angelic for a little while
before dying to make it easy for his friends
to find good things to say about him—aware
that if he leaves me, my death will be easier
than moving my right foot.

At a side street café
I will tell a man I don’t know many things all at once,
and I will press my vocal cords
on his old wish to be useful.
Maybe he will take me to his house and wake his wife.
I will watch her step toward me as she
tramples a filthy rug like a tractor and as I feign
shyness to comfort her and make her feel satisfied
with her husband while he advises me to start over
and as I promise him to learn to play a musical instrument that matches my
small frame
and that we meet again during the national holidays.

I threatened all who loved me with my death
if I ever lose them.
Yet I do not think I will die for anyone’s sake.
Surely, suicides must have trusted life more
than they should have, and must have thought
it was waiting for them somewhere else.

I will not leave here before he dies in front of me.
I will place my ear to his chest where silence is so clear that
even a cat
with the claws of a disappointed woman who tries
to hysterically topple the pail filled
with the remains of our evening together (which
I place at the top of the stairs
to prove to the neighbors that I have a safe family)
will not make me doubt it.

I will hold your fingers
and watch with the precision
of a surgeon who does not need scalpels to remove
pustules from a deteriorating body.
I will place them in an ice bowl where there are no tremors…
And I will leave here
clad in loss, and light.

You must die in front of me.
The death of loved ones is a wonderful opportunity to find alternatives.
On the East Delta train I often pick a suitable
lady who opens the coffers of her sympathy when I tell her
my mother died when I was six.

The truth is
it happened when I was seven,
but for me “six” seems to have greater effect.
Middle-aged mothers are addicted to sadness
maybe to justify mourning before it begins.
These touch-ups in the telling
have a magic
that cannot be understood by those
who never needed to steal
from others.

From: A Dark Alley Suitable for Dance Lesson

IMAN MERSAL is considered one of the best young poets writing in Arabic today. She is the author of four books of poems in Arabic Ittisafat (Characterizations) 1990; Mamarr Mu‘tim Yasluh li Ta‘allum al-Raqs (A Dark Alley Suitable for Dance Lessons), 1995; al-Mashy Atwal Waqt Mumkin (Walking As Long As Possible), 1997; Jughrafia Badila (Alternative Geography), 2006. She was born in 1966 in the northern Egyptian Delta. A selection of poems translated into English by Khaled Mattawa is forthcoming from Sheep Meadow in 2008. . Mersal is an assistant professor of Arabic at the University of Alberta in Canada. She lives in Edmonton with her husband and two children.

KHALED MATTAWA is the author of three books of poetry, Ismailia Eclipse, Zodiac of Echoes, and Amorisco. He has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts translation grant, the Alfred Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, and three Pushcart Prizes. Mattawa has translated seven volumes of Arabic poetry, and co-edited two anthologies of Arab American literature. He is an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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