My parents leave me behind as a child, To keep the culture
alive. I cry at Aden airport, held in a headlock by an aunt
to keep from running. I’m singularly chosen
like Virgin Mary—my title as heritage emissary
for the Almontaser’s set and sealed since birth.
Back in New York City, I’m designated translator,
mouth of saffron, gold coins, a little burning. When Baba
says, You sneeze you lose, what he means is, Don’t wait
too long or every opportunity will pass you by.
When he says, This light heavy, what he really means is,
The sun is in my breath, each inhale a swallowed flame
in my chest. Since I’ve come back, there’s been less of me
in English. No, there’s less of me out loud. Sah, my native
speech is like a window sash pulled up wa down. Sah,
I shift phrases without thought. Friends stare at my returned
self like I grew horns. Can shoot bombs out my ass. Like
they want to dump me in ma'a, watch me float like a witch.
Speech becomes a cracked cooking pot I bang crude beats
on for the red-furred omnivores to dance to, while I long
to tap a song that doesn’t terrorize, a song that’s understood.
If I forget a verb, use the Arabic equivalent, they pat
my back in case I hack mucus wa dem. Almushkila is
I’m a surging current of feared language. Words
have stopped coming easily. Maybe it was Rumi who said
silence is the language of God and all else is poor
translation. I’m not mathaluhum. I can’t properly translate
myself, so a settled lake floats my tongue quiet. I open
need I .steam senseless of shrouds spout and mouth my
.with accent my sink to anchor an and dictionary a
that, cooing blurred a like sound don’t I that proof need I
I can still make sense. Parent-teacher conferences, I lie
about my D in Algebra. Turn, She daydreams during
lessons, into, Qaluu I pay attention to detail. Turn
She’s suspended for fighting into I’m such a good student
they gave me a day off. Each rephrasing lengthens my nose.
I’m out of breath from so much code-switching, crunching
the sand it leaves between my teeth. When threatened
with a phone-call home, I shrug, Taib. Go ahead.
They’ll say, yes yes, but won’t yafhumun, will ask me
about it later so I can twist it. At dinner, Baba tells a story
of his childhood in Yemen. About catching a wild fox
with his cousin—Arabic the medium through which
his body can return home. I drown him out. Ana asif,
I don’t mean to. It’s only that my languages get mukhtalit
and when he talks it sounds mathal poetry. So when I hear
a line about a lost, sly animal, I’m struck mute.
Think he means ani.
When White Boys Ask To See My Hair
My hair isn’t taking any visitors right now.
My hair was used as a banner on the moon.
My hair is belly-dancing on an auntie’s tabletop.
My hair is flipping off an ICE raider after he barges into her favorite sandwich shop, arresting her neighbors. Look at her hurl her breakfast, concussing an officer with a hexed bacon, egg and cheese.
My hair escaped an arranged marriage to sail the seas near Somalia with a crew of burly pirates. She’s busy battling maritime brigands and trying not to get lost.
My hair is Medusa’s cousin, the strands slithering along your throat. Avert your gaze for your own good.
My hair fell off the long line on Mt. Everest trying to take a selfie.
My hair was captured from the exotic Manu wilderness and caged for a popular circus show.
My hair is under siege in Yemen. Her home was recently bombed and her children buried under the rubble. I’m not entirely sure if she’ll make it out alive.
My hair is ducking underneath a desk, trying to recall the drills, math sheets falling in a white rain.
My hair was abducted by aliens. Rumor has it she got sassy with the supreme lord and was tossed into a black hole. Others say she got on their good side, so they spun her into a star. That might be her there, winking down at you.
My hair was mauled on a Tanzanian Safari. I found a few leftover pieces of her flossed between a leopard’s fangs.
My hair joined a deep-rooted bedouin tribe. She enjoys feeding nomadic camels from her palm, became the shaykh’s third wife, and sings ancient poetry into campfires. She is happy. I don’t think she’s coming back.
Threa Almontaser is a Yemeni-American writer, translator, and multimedia artist from New York City. She received her MFA from North Carolina State University and is the recipient of fellowships from Tin House, Community of Writers, the Fine Arts Work Center, and the Kerouac House. She is the winner of Alternating Current's Unsilenced Grant for Muslim American Women Writers and Tinderbox Journal's Brett Elizabeth Jenkins Poetry Prize, among other honors. Nominated or included in the Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets, and Best of the Net, her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming from Random House, The Offing, American Literary Review, Adroit, Wildness, Frontier, Oxford Review, and elsewhere. Threa writes on the thin membrane that separates human from what we loosely call animal, and believes writing should not only entertain, but provoke. She teaches English to immigrants and refugees in Raleigh while co-organizing a reading and discussion series in the area which promotes the work of undocumented poets and poets of color, raising consciousness about the structural barriers that they face in the literary community. She is currently at work on several projects, including a debut poetry collection and her first novel. For more, please visit threawrites.com.