July 21, 2016KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsReadingWriting

Histories of Our Faces

I recently returned home from teaching for two weeks in the Between the Lines program at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in Iowa City. The session in which I taught brings together teenage students from America, Russia, and Arabic-speaking countries of North Africa and the Middle East for both cultural exchange and immersion in the art and craft of creative writing. Students traveled from Siberia, Palestine, Hawaii. Students traveled from Moscow, Utah, Cairo. From June 25 to July 9, the students met and learned with and from each other, through the national celebration of the Fourth of July, through the holy celebration of Eid. Through news of terror in Dhaka, Baghdad, Medina; through more police killings of black men in the U.S.—this time Alton Sterling in Louisiana on July 5, then Philando Castile in Minnesota on July 6. July 7: the killing of five police officers in Dallas. The students kept connecting, kept questioning, kept processing through their writing.

Toward the end of our time together, I shared Khaled Mattawa’s poem “History of My Face” in our Global Literature class:

History of My Face

My lips came with a caravan of slaves
That belonged to the Grand Sanussi.
In Al-Jaghbub he freed them.
They still live in the poor section of Benghazi
Near the hospital where I was born.

They never meant to settle
In Tokara those Greeks
Whose eyebrows I wear
—then they smelled the wild sage
And declared my country their birthplace.

The Knights of St. John invaded Tripoli.
The residents of the city
Sought help from Istanbul. In 1531
The Turks brought along my nose.

My hair stretches back
To a concubine of Septimus Severus.
She made his breakfast,
Bore four of his sons.

Uqba took my city
In the name of God.
We sit by his grave
And I sing to you:
     Sweet lashes, arrow-sharp,
     Is that my face I see
     Reflected in your eyes?

Each stanza, a legacy of invasion, conquering, domination—culminating in the tender, enigmatic conclusion, intimacy and connection in spite of everything. Inspired by Mattawa’s poem, we wrote our own shared history, each contributing a line or phrase or image. Both classes gave collective permission to share their pieces here:

Histories of Ourselves (I)

After Khaled Mattawa

My eyebrows came from blackberry brambles and Scandinavian woods.

My eyebrows came from a Cossack, a good brave fellow.
He died in a battle, but he left a son.

My father lost his menorah and Hanukkah in his refusal of a Bar Mitzvah,
but they let him give his Jewish eyebrows.

Lifeless eyes, like a petal falls, giving impression of endless stroll.

These eyes are not my own—they are my grandmother’s
dark, reassuring, bold.

I have eyes too.
My eyes came over on the Mayflower
or maybe from a tractor salesman in Nebraska.

My eyesight problems came from all of the Palestinian sunsets
that my mother used to cry watching.

I see my beauty in my mother’s eyes.
Her beauty entered my eyes, then suddenly
she became them.

My head came from Israel, before the coming of Christ.

My frown comes from the descendants of King Lear.

My hair is found in the nests of birds
in Canada, Germany, Jersey.

My teeth come from the top of the Reservation Mountain
where there is a notebook full of the signatures
of everyone who has ever hiked to the top.

Search the States for the wrinkles on my face,
please let me know where they are.

The mirror is a truth, I know it. Touch my eyes, but don’t look.
You will see the truth too. I have an image of the great patriotic war,
and when I kiss you, you see my lips in the blood.
Those lips came in the summer of the 41st year,
and they stayed with me forever.

My face is just a puzzle.
Put it together from thousands of people
who I didn’t know, I don’t know, and I’ll never know.

My mind comes from the mountains,
beholds the sun where Urals are located.

My small hands slip through the invisible
cracks of borders that have changed and changed.


Histories of Ourselves (II)

After Khaled Mattawa

I will know when my mother comes to my coffin
because my face is a prayer and it becomes shorter
when Little Ararat still stays there.
My face is a cocoon—and I blow the dust off it.

My lips came with the Amazighs.
Ceramic bowls and basins,
Goblets buried under the dust.
Similar to how the French buried my Grandfather.

Veiled women walking in the street, women walking
the isle, women who within their eyes a spark of fragile princesses,
women who behind their chests where born patience, women
who within their minds the plans of a King, women who
within their souls the purity of Virgin Mary.

My lips came with runaway slaves,
they sought shelter in Asian deserts,
so my lips dried in scalding suns,
became thin.

My eyes have colour of the great Russian river
when my noble-in-past grand-grandmother
looked at it for the first time after a long escape
from the Leningrad blockade and war.

My eyes come from the light-blue Volga
where my mother lived
and recolored into the hazel Baltic Sea.

My tears come from a water spring in the
middle of a dry desert
where famished travelers pass by.

I’m not sure.
My eyes come from
I’m not sure.
But I’m sure
that my soul came from
Jesus Christ, Buddha, Allah, Krishna,
Zeus, Odin, Poseidon, Amon
at the same

My stomach appeared after Hiroshima’s fireworks
and scattered with Japanese little mouths
near the hospital where my heels were born,
whose thigh made love
with millions of soldiers
in a blood-poppy field.

Look into my eyes and tell me,
do you see the infinitely deep, blue waters
of a lake that hugs chestnut trees, or
maybe the matte green of pine needles
crushed under the foot
of a man with a red arm.

My fingers come from the revolting hands
of a forgotten cry in the distant
golden sands of Morocco.

Dark hair—thick, slippery—that traveled across
the Pacific from Okinawa, a family of immigrants searching
for a better life that they would only find after generations
of poverty and hard work.

My eyes were fished out
of the Chesapeake Bay,
dropped by skybirds and
smoothed until soft by brackish waves.

My dark eyes are from the black kajul
my grandmother wore on her wedding day.
My large mouth comes from my ancestors’
protest again British rule.

The bump on my nose
comes from Scottish hills
that roll green and yellow.

My lips came from the sun stained fields of Pennsylvania.
My eyes from my mother, awash in sunlight and pain.
My grin came from a confidence obtained over years
of tradition, bound and released.
My heart came from my grandfather kneeling
before the altar, his blood shed for mine.

My skin is of my grandmother’s wrinkles
and all the stories that reside beneath them:
the ongoing Nakbas and our refugeed God.


If you’d like to read more of the words of these young writers, you can check out their “Between the Lines: Peace & The Writing Experience” Tumblr here.