January 5, 2017

Zeina Hashem Beck


The diva is dead, who sang about the hours,
who could dress the toughest mawwal in glitter,
who knew a voice can be fearless.
My earliest singing memory is of her—

who else could dress the toughest mawwal in glitter?
I repeated her habibis in our living room:
my earliest singing memory is of her,
and Mom, showing me off to our guests.

I repeated her habibis in our living room,
I imitated the walk, the hands,
and Mom (showing me off to our guests).
I had no fear of age, of death.

I imitated the walk, the hands
back then, the way she dared to say batata.
“I had no fear of age, of death,”
she could’ve said in an interview, “No fear of men.”

Back then, the way she dared to say batata,
shock people, marry again, mix love with honey.
She could’ve said in an interview, “No! Fear of men?
Yes, Rushdi Abaza was the best kisser.”

Shock people. Marry again. Mix love with honey.
Don’t be afraid, just sing it,
yes, Rushdi Abaza was the best kisser.
Sabbouha means Sabah means morning.

“Don’t be afraid, just sing it,”
Mom urged me in the living room.
“Sabbouha means Sabah means morning,”
she said. Not mourning with a “u.” Yes, that thing that shines.

from 3arabi Song
2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner

[download audio]


Zeina Hashem Beck: “Sabbouha refers to Sabah, famous Lebanese diva who died in November 2014, at the age of 87. She was one of the Arab world’s best-known entertainers. A mawwal is an Arabic genre of vocal music that is performed before the actual song begins. Batata is Arabic for ‘potato.’ Rushdi Abaza was a well-known Egyptian actor.” (website)

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December 18, 2016

Zeina Hashem Beck


the Tyrants sleep like gods
the Diplomats regret
the Diplomats are at their dinner tables
the Dancers dance
the Baker bakes the Bread rises
the Earth orbits
the Mothers weep
the Fathers weep
the Children walk in their coats
the Children know
a law against killing people in houses
is not the same as not killing people in houses
the Rain drops
the Poet writes the dead
City’s name
the dead City remains dead open
like a cow hung in the cold of the slaughterhouse
the Lovers touch
the Singers sing
the Nightmares know
dreaming of being buried under the rubble
is not the same as being buried under the rubble
the Morning comes
the Bookkeepers count the Deaths & Births
the holy Book says
whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it
& whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it
O eternal Cinematographer
the Deeds flicker
on the screens of Hell & Heaven
the fallen building keeps falling
the Saved have no Peace
the tides of Blood & Hope eat the body like a disease
O Lord please do not heal us

Poets Respond
December 18, 2016

[download audio]


Zeina Hashem Beck: “This poem is for Aleppo.” (website)

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October 13, 2016

Zeina Hashem Beck


Time has come knocking on my door, and I’ve told him there’s no healing this country.
I’ve loved and I’ve forgotten. Hozn isn’t merely sadness—she can cling, this country.

On stage, I gather hozn with my hands, gesturing here, and here,
and here my mother died three days after I was born to sing this country.

I’ve written letters from underneath the water. I’ve grown gills. I’ve waited
a long time in my backstage womb before my first breath, my beginning, this country.

My first concert was on a rooftop, like moonlight, like flocks of home-bred pigeons.
Later, I became a dark nightingale. No one could stop my heart from conquering this country.

When Abdel Nasser was defeated, I sang that Masr was washing her hair by the water,
the same water that has gifted me my disease. Still, she loves the morning, this country.

I traced a line from the Qur’an in the air the last time I left for a hospital in
London. Girls threw themselves off balconies the day I died. She has beautiful ways of keening, this country.

One of my songs ends with Laughter and starts with Love. Sing it. I had a radio
near my hospital bed. I could hear Cairo clearly, could hear her ring, this country.

from 3arabi Song
2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner

[download audio]


Zeina Hashem Beck: “Abdel Halim Hafez was one of the most popular Egyptian singers, very well-known across the Arab world. He died in 1977 at age 47 in London, where he was undergoing treatment for Bilharzia, which he had caught as a kid. He was nicknamed ‘The Dark Nightingale.’ Stanzas 1, 3, 5, and 7 contain references to his songs. The word hozn is Arabic for ‘sadness,’ and Masr is Arabic for ‘Egypt.'” (website)

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September 6, 2015

Zeina Hashem Beck


for Syria, September 2015

Tonight a little boy couldn’t walk on water or row back home.
The sea turned its old face away. Again, there was a no, no, back home.

Bahr* is how we were taught to measure poetry,
bahr is how we’ve stopped trying to measure sorrow, back home.

“All that blue is the sea, and it gives life, gives life,” says God to the boy
standing wet at heaven’s gate—does he want to return, to go back home?

My friend who hates cooking has made that eggplant dish,
says nothing was better than yogurt and garlic and tomato, back home.

On the train tracks, a man shouts, “Hold me, hold me,” to his wife,
bites her sleeve, as if he were trying to tow back home.

Thirteen-year-old Kinan with the big eyes says, “We don’t want to stay in Europe.”
“Just stop the war,” he repeats, as if praying, Grow, grow back, home.

Habibi, I never thought our children would write HELP US on cardboard.
Let’s try to remember how we met years ago, back home.

On our honeymoon we kissed by the sea, watched it
rock the lights, the fishing boats to and fro, back home.

* Bahr is Arabic for sea. Also, in Arabic poetry, bahr means meter.

from 3arabi Song


Zeina Hashem Beck: “This ghazal is for Syrian refugees, whose stories this week (and every week) are heartbreaking and surreal. The poem refers to many tragedies that we’ve read about this week: the little toddler drowned in the Aegean sea, the refugees at the train station in Budapest, that video of the Syrian boy simply saying “Just stop the war,” and the video of the man holding on to his wife and baby on the train tracks.” (web)

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July 27, 2014

Zeina Hashem Beck


(Arabic): literally “you bury me,” a term of endearment expressing the desire to die before a loved one, rather than live without them

when my daughter, proud,
carries her milk tooth
in a plastic bag
the graffiti in my head reads


when she asks
how many suns
so the world could shine


when she asks how many


when she brings me
flowers she has picked
their heads floating
in a bowl

(sprayed in vibrant colors)

when she points
to an image of Mary
says, This is the Mona Lisa


when she swings
from an olive tree


when she says she likes
her grandmother’s soup best
in red


when she tells me ya’aburnee
because she thinks it’s the best
love term one could ever use
(I say it to her all the time)
my mind turns


I shout
No, never,

when she asks what ya’aburnee
means, asks again, insists
I explain


means parents
grow old and die before
their children do

when she says,


when you don’t sleep next to me

I know she means






Poets Respond
July 27, 2014

[download audio]


Zeina Hashem Beck: “The morning I read about the shelling of Shujaiya, I carried the knowledge and images with me all day, and they haunted me, even when I was playing with my daughters. Then came the news about ISIS forcing Christian families out of Mosul. That day my daughter told me ‘ya’aburnee,’ and I felt terrified. Ya’aburnee is a very common term we Arab parents tell our children, and it translates as, ‘May you bury me.’ The implication is, ‘May I die before you do (because I love you so much).’ The poem followed from all this. This is for the parents who had to bury children, and for those who are fighting against the burial of identity.” (website)

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