It is 4 p.m. in Tunis and all you want is sleep.
The hotel is called Africa.
The nondescript room, the unexplored city outside.
Never mind. Sleep.
You have come so far, for so long.
Never mind the beckoning. Sleep.
Earlier, you had photographed the first glimpse of sky
over a new continent – a shade of Mediterranean that startles.
Your youth had falsely taught you of the possible blues.
You praise the airplane for landing over seas that don’t honor
the sinking of bodies, orange pockets full of lead, as light as hope.
Earlier, you had embraced the languid poses of spirits
there to greet you, unrobed and smoking,
touched the hotel lobby hues of coffee and lipstick,
welcomed the sound of Palestinian psalms as laughter,
breath taken by silver bands under finger joints as protection
to bond these striking women of Tunis, now
blending into a lullaby so you can sleep.
You sleep in the first few hours you have loved
Tunis. You have loved it before ever knowing.
The hotel bed smells of decay.
Never mind, sleep.
As you sink, your mother writes you a love note,
your mother who could have spellbound a warzone, warded
off this fire. Your mother who left so long ago,
before you could write of what that will always mean.
Or the weight of it, the many ways leaving can be measured.
You did not know then that a few days after this slumber,
after this uneasy sleep of lines and tears,
21-young presidential guards will be blown into breaking news. More splintered Arab bodies by the kilo, marks permanent on sidewalks
a hundred steps from where you lie.
Never mind, sleep.
In the dream your mother is still sick.
Bloated, breastless, bald
but her body stands electric, and yours too as it shudders,
complete and younger, leaping into the
hotel lobby, pleased. She has come as a surprise
to African shores, because you are telling stories; Spreading her name, like vintage Damascene safarjal jam – homemade, bittersweet.
Earlier, when the plane finally thudded to a stop
heaving on clouds of your ignorance of physics
you knew the great hawk in the sky had kept an eye on you, so you can cross a murderous sea to see your mother. Is your grief older than the Mediterranean?
Never mind, sleep.
Earlier, everyone’s face was terrified of flying brown, the deserts below weeping Salafi swords and sheep.
Below, people sunstroked, finished by fruit carts, petrol and fear. Everywhere, dark men dressed leather jackets, dressed
metal. Below, a medina once a palette of dazzle,
now devoid of color. Tourists once blew steam off tea infused with seeds of pine, now ghosts in the hungry eyes of the medina stares. The wares of men dangle listless between
revolutions, the feeding hands of children, and
your wallet. Your throat crumbles, cracked ceramic,
swept aside with no regard.
You know this is not a dream. You know no one cares.
Never mind, try to sleep.
You long-hold a dead mother
with her shorn hair, her missing eyelashes.
Her back is damp-warm, a traveler on this stratospheric trip. “I must see you more often,” you plead, knowing visits like these.
She touches your temple, your ribcage, elbows.
“I must leave soon to care for the child,” she responds, before
you can ask more questions of her sweat.
To this day, a year on, you do not speak of this unknown child in need. That is her business, in that other world.
Your body wakes because it is now too much.
These cement legs you sunk into are done.
The ego in the dream is a tadpole, you think.
But before all this, before the suicide bombs, the
evening curfew, filmmakers huddled with Arak and opinions,
before the parade of machine gun guards, before
the bomb scanners smashed crafts left
unattended and we bargained for scarves to hold heat, before
the wary glances, the wringing hands of Tunisian loves
intent on declaring how your people moved their heart beats,
you slept desperately for an afternoon.
Your mother visits as always, plants kisses in the khamsin wind,
while you read letters, trembling, questioning her heat. And your mother, your young lost mother,
your green-eyed mother, her name still twisting
in the crumbled vines of Nazareth, your brave mother
brings sticky Palestinian
honey as poems to your sleep.
While you weep, your mother, your fighter mother disguised as a teacher, writes you incantations as omens,
as guards in regalia, as an amulet in blue,
as a charm – silver, chiseled, worn with ease.
You know what she wants to say:
“When the darkness dwellers whispered
that I was watching over you,
always from this world adjacent, they knew.
It is your first nap in Tunis,
no one has died yet,
there are stories still to be told,
and you are not young.
Hind Shoufani is a Palestinian-American filmmaker, writer and poet. She holds an MFA from NYU and attended the IWP at Iowa University. She's authored two poetry books, edited two anthologies of literary essays, poetry and photography, and hosted over 40 poetry events through her platform, Poeticians.
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