Her Name is Fatena Al Ghorra; A Homage

 

It all began from that morning in breakfast room that was a ‘common room’ for writers during my stay at the Iowa House Hotel. I stayed there for about three months as a fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Every year, the International Writing Program hosts almost thirty-four writers from all around the world. Last year it hosted more than forty writers because the program completed its 50th year and was celebrating its long-term association with writers. I was privileged enough to be a part of the 50th anniversary of IWP and hence rewarded by meeting and sharing words with more than forty-three writers.

Coming back to the breakfast room. This was the first morning of my stay in Iowa. After trying to make a room for myself in an alien land I looked around and spotted two women sitting in a not-so-cornered table. I anticipated them to be the fellow participants. I was right. It was her sitting with the Egyptian physician-cum-writer Ghada Al-Absy. They invited me over to join them for the breakfast-discussion which became our morning ritual for those three months. After brief introductory session, we started talking about the literature from Arabic and South-Asian world. This was the first day and I felt a strong bond with her when we started talking about Mahmoud Darwesh and ended our conversation on Forough Farrokkhzad. I felt an urge to hear about her life. So, one night in the first week I asked her out for a walk. It was almost dark and I had a strange feeling that she would refuse. The reason for that feeling could be my experience in Pakistan. In Pakistan it was usually a forbidden thing for women to go out once it was dark. But, to my amazement, she agreed. Hence, we were out exploring Iowa-streets on our own without any guidance, talking fearlessly, laughing and sharing bittersweet phases of our lives with each other. That was the night I discovered that she was the second name of resistance. She had been fighting in her own capacity with the Israel’s occupation of her homeland; Palestine but not through poetry.

Fatena Al Ghorra, born as a Palestinian refugee, participated in the International Writing Program as a Belgian writer. This sentence should be reflective enough to indicate the complexity she has lived through. She lived in Gaza, Palestine, for the major portion of her life and migrated to Egypt, France and finally to Belgium nine years ago when it became almost impossible for her to survive through the politics and the patriarchal setup of the land. In 2016, she was given the status of a Belgian national and hence was sent to the IWP’17 as a Belgian writer of Arab diaspora. Al Ghorra has worked with Aljazeera as a journalist for many years and now she runs her own poetry salon in Belgium. As a close friend and fellow participant, it was quite an experience to witness her fight the idea of identity and the idea of home. In her readings, interviews and panel discussion she would always begin by recalling her affiliation with Palestine but then she would also mention Belgium, at times wilfully and at times half-heartedly. In a panel discussion, titled as “Is my home in my memories, or in my reality?”, which she shared with the writers from Basque, Germany, Kazakhstan and New Zealand, she said “I feel at home even while staying in Belgium when someone speaks to me in Arabic.” Another interesting thing for myself, being a conscious English-speaking-Pakistani, was her pride in her self-taught, grammatically incorrect English. Readers might feel this was something negative but no, it was inspirational. She bluntly owned the fragmented English expression and she would proudly announce that: “I taught myself this English. I did not went to big universities like you.”

One thing which remains an enigma till today is her idea of not utilizing politics or any issue related to Gaza or Palestine in her poetry. I spoke with her in detail about it and she ended the conversation by saying: “I need to do poetry. I need to celebrate beauty and love. Politicians will do their job.” Her poetry celebrates love, life, womanhood and femininity. I was lucky enough to record three of her poems for my YouTube channel. Her work has been translated in more than ten languages. The work celebrates fierce human-energy and womanhood. Her recent poetry collection titled as Orgasm is selectively translated by Ms. Claire Jacobson in English. The work which indicates intense feminine sensibility is created by a woman whose name is Fatena Al Ghorra.

One of her poems titled as “Orgasm” is here for readers’ delight;

“Orgasm”

 

Translated by Claire Jacobson

 

When Death comes for me

I want to prepare for him like a lover for her beloved

Light the house with candles

Down the curtains between the peering eyes and me

Wash my body gently,

coyly

Sweeten it with perfume

Rub it with oil, lightly, subtly

Slip on a nightgown of black lace

And kindle the background music

Anticipating the kiss of life

*****

Like a whore I will readies for him

lighting her apartment in red

Rubs her body with oil

Erasing the memory of men who haven’t been back

Scenting it with a blend of cheap perfumes

Waiting in the doorway

With all her skills and experiences

For the moment he enters

To unzip his trousers and start her work

*****

I will receive Death as should a wife

cleans the house Friday night of the children’s mess

Then takes a shower

Dabs some kohl and pink lipstick

Wears comfortable pajamas

And lies down in the middle of the bed

Readied to do her duty

*****

I will receive Death fully as should a nun

With incense filling the air

The floating scent of calm

That leaves no room for anything else

I will stretch out/ on the altar

Obedient and powerless

And allow delight to drug my limbs with unrelenting slowness

Poised, with no trace of doubt

I will lie down like I never have for a man

Give him what he deserves

****

As a mistress readies for her lover

Waits at the window for his knock

While she chills the wine

prepares the cigarettes and the music

The favorite songs and video clips

That it will make them laugh

until their eyes fill with tears

The light-footed dance      to the beat of delight

Then the fingers start the work,

 slowly,  slowly

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Six Graves and Menstruation

I have been lying down here for hours now. The spider in my mind doesn’t let me move. It spins and weaves a massive web, of images, of words and of stories. But there is no story about which I can spend my time. Time, place, darkness, light, isolation, imitation, euphoria, enigma, tales, taboos and much more. I wish there was a machine which could decode whatever these words mean, whatever runs through my mind. I am neither a storyteller nor a creative writer but still I only have words to offer. Words which could be as attractive as the nectar is for a humming bird or they could be as repulsive as water is for a hydrophobic. I silently wish my words could be as effective as religion is for the masses.

During my years of exploration, I started visiting every shrine, every tomb, every stupa and every monument available in and around Lahore. It was a very different experience, full of new discoveries. Though I never had visited them with any anthropological interest but the behaviour of people towards these shrines, tombs and stupas will make a very interesting study. These visits were made solely out of my curious nature. Beginning from Data Darbar, Bibi Pak Daman, Masjid Maryam Zamani, Gurdawara in Sheikhupuram, Masjid Wazeer Khan, and Jahangir’s Tomb to the tomb of Baba Bulleh Shah in Qasoor.  My moving to Islamabad somewhat hindered this adventurous privilege. However, I visited Buddhist stupas in Taxila and Shah Chan Chiragh in Rawalpindi but somehow I couldn’t find the similar zealot in the shrine‒worshippers of the north which I found in people of Punjab. Maybe, there is some kind of personal prejudice that hinders my rationality.

Last week, after coming back to Lahore. I asked a friend this favour to take me to Bibi Pak Daman, again, after many years. He agreed but the condition was pretty understandable that he would take me only if I was dressed properly i.e. in shalwar kameez with a dupatta covering my head. I agreed for I don’t dislike the attire. As planned, we went to Bibi Pak Daman on Thursday (it was the day of U’rs which we discovered after we reached there). Bibi Pak Daman is a mausoleum of six chaste ladies including Ruqqayah bin’t e Ali who came after the battle of Karbala to Lahore. Their mission, it is said, was to spread the enlightenment and preaching of Islam. There are several myths about their death including the one which explains their death upon their prayer after the Hindu Raja summoned them to his court after their arrival. They observed Purdah and being Muslim women didn’t want to submit to Hindu Raja.  Hence, they prayed to Allah for help. It is said that the earth gobbled them alive right there and then.  People come from different places to the shrine not only to show their devotion but also to have their prayers heard.

We parked his car in the street and started walking through the colourful street which contained numerous shops and stalls including those of rose petals, sacred jewellery, specific green coloured shrine‒ cloth and biryani. There were many hawkers who followed to convince us that we should buy a ‘charhawa’ for our goodwill. Charhwa could be anything according to our “istata’at” ranging from ‘biryani ki daigh’ to ‘chicken qorma’. We completely ignored them in order to convey a silent message that ‘biryaanis’ and ‘qormas’ were above our “istata’at”.  We reached a point where there were two police checkpoints, one for men and the other for women.  I moved away from my friend and went inside a square purdah‒wala checkpoint to get myself tickled through various points by a woman police officer. After coming out we proceeded towards a mosque like building with marble floor and, as social ritual, took our shoes off. As a matter of respect people don’t go inside mosques and shrines with their shoes on. After that my friend looked at me as if he wanted to ask ‘So, now we are here, what do you want?’ I ignored the question in his eyes and went to the portion where there was a small box in front of one of the six graves. I sat down on the marble stair and looked at the small metal locks people had left around the small spaces on the wall of the box. It is another tradition. People leave their ‘manat’ or ‘murad’ in form of a lock. It reminded me of the bridge built on Monongahela River in Pittsburgh where there were many metal locks alongside the poles which people had left as a relic of their love. Interestingly, while I was absorbed in my thoughts, I felt a strong cramp which moved through my spine and ended somewhere in the bottom. I certainly was menstruating and it made me feel incredibly uncomfortable to think about the graves that were there in front of my eyes which, according to the glorified myths, once opened and gobbled six women alive because somehow they wanted to prove themselves chaste.

Huh! A question stroked my nerves. Did they ever menstruate? A self-explanatory answer came from inside: ‘of course, they did.’ So, it means they also had lived through their monthly status of unholy beings. It was so unworthy to sit there and think that before the religion it were men who used to bury the women alive and after the religion it were prayers of the pious and chaste women.  I was called back to the real world by my friend who was extremely annoyed on my sitting in front of the graves of the chaste ladies. Accepting his offer to get my shoes back, I started walking towards the exit thinking how expensive graves and how impoverished lives have become.

After Orgasm

you’d say it doesn’t matter
whatever comes between us
your tender body will haunt mine
but it matters!
whenever a grain separates the two petals of a lotus flower
it matters
which woman eros wants to fuck and at what time
eros! who might’ve a ghost-thing for young men as well
it matters who decides to rescue us from our demons
it matters when a child hides itself in our lap and distracts us
while we struggle with a conversation and fail
it all matters but still it doesn’t matter
whatever comes between us
your tender body will haunt mine

(2)

shouts and screams help
this time
is like other times
when nerves give up
on sanity
insanity is only way out
dying again in the dark
with woes submersed
with burden of bodies
and burden of breaths
submerged.

(3)

life bangs on the walls of existence again
same nauseating love-making
same virgin-wine hallucination
new shadows are mistaken for older ones
it doesn’t get better, it never could
neither between legs nor among nerves

silly poem

disquiet womb of the time expands and gives birth to this moment

i am writing to you now but the moment will travel far away

from the feeling while you read this

my rivers ache to flow out to you

but it will be too late once you realize and come back to embrace them

tobacco burns between my thighs and i sniff at the rising smoke, shut my eyes and start counting your steps

many digits to count upon before i can sense you standing in the front, staring at my coverless thighs, weaving another image,

maybe that of elephant’s erected trunk or swollen penis of a desperate lover, wanting the moment to undo my eyes

wouldn’t it be too late to expect an incredibly potent thing from an infertile moment?

i have been hearing your cries during the nights spent in solitude and despair

i enjoy them. i hear them while i try to carry the weight of my pen and write this to you

i long for your images, dear heart. i long for your voice. i long for you to ask me to pen a silly poem on your spine with the tip of my tongue

i know the feeling will have flown far away when you read this

 

 

Fragments

Summer is on the brink of another blue transformation. The hair on the head fall as autumn trees lose their crimson leaves, with regret and pain. The real wonder is, if trees have memory, do they forget about their lost parts which they may have provided with all their saps and energies to nurture. Well, who knows! They may cry in the disquiet of dark nights and hence deceive scientists with what they understand and explain as the production of carbon dioxide. Who knows!

Anyway, I am losing my mind along with the hair. You must pardon my digressions and senseless deviations. I am in the middle of couple of experiments about life and existence but I must confess that it is too early to talk about it. Do you remember the young Laila you loved and you used to sip her poise with your eyes for hours? You might have forgotten but I still remember her… the shattered glimpses of her poise. Unrefined, raw and boldly crude in every act. I still fancy about the days when we used to sip water like an ethereal drink from each other’s lips. As if that was the only thing we were created for. I still can shut my eyes and touch your face with the fingers of my blurred imagination. Your honeyed, Champagne coloured eyes, long Turkish nose, upper lip covered with thick moustache which hiddes two white pearls in it, and the lower lip made of delicate floral folds. I still can touch your face with the cold fingers of my imagination. There are moments when it hazes away. When I try to sleep during the day, despite all my imaginative effort, I can’t see you with my eyes shut. Frustrated of this repetitive exercise I believe you are a companion of nights but I also know in the folds of my heart that it’s not true. We spent our lives in bright sunny days more than we could spend our nights together. I memorized your features, your perfect body with all its curves, curves of a sea wave, during the afternoons of pure pleasure. How could I believe in such a thought now that you are there only to lull my thoughts during nights and comfort me towards sleep? How could I reduce you to a mere thought now, after those many years? May be it is my imagination that is a perfect companion of my lonely nights. May be it is the insanity I have internalized in an endeavour to escape the undesired light around me. May be I desire only darkness around me, around us. An eternal darkness with long limbs and pale eyes that can burn down the dead desire of companionship in my thirsty brain.

Hotel Poetry

Swear by the olive in the God-kissed land—
There is no sugar in the promised land.
Why must the bars turn neon now when, Love,
I’m already drunk in your capitalist land?
If home is found on both sides of the globe,
home is of course here—and always a missed land.
The hour’s come to redeem the pledge (not wholly?)
in Fate’s “Long years ago we made a tryst” land.
Clearly, these men were here only to destroy,
a mosque now the dust of a prejudiced land.
Will the Doomsayers die, bitten with envy,
when springtime returns to our dismissed land?
The prisons fill with the cries of children.
Then how do you subsist, how do you persist, Land?
“Is my love nothing for I’ve borne no children?”
I’m with you, Sappho, in that anarchist land.
A hurricane is born when the wings flutter …
Where will the butterfly, on my wrist, land?
You made me wait for one who wasn’t even there
though summer had finished in that tourist land.
Do the blind hold temples close to their eyes
when we steal their gods for our atheist land?
Abandoned bride, Night throws down her jewels
so Rome—on our descent—is an amethyst land.
At the moment the heart turns terrorist,
are Shahid’s arms broken, O Promised Land?

Agha Shahid Ali wrote this ghazal, titled as “Land” for Christopher Merrill. It was published in 2001.
For myself, it remained an unfulfilled dream to meet Agha in person. When I joined the International Writing Program in August, one of the things on my prime agenda was to speak to Chris about his closest friend, Agha Shahid Ali.
Agha Shahid Ali, an underrated Kashmiri-American poet, was introduced to me by a very precious soul. In any way, for South Asians, ghazal remains a significant inspiration. Despite will and effort, due to numerous reasons, I couldn’t record a full-length interview on Agha Shahid Ali, but, of course, I will write in detail about how they transformed each other in this long companionship.

Fortunately, despite all fixed-up meetings, readings and hectic schedule, Chris managed to read three poems to me including a ghazal written in correspondence to the aforementioned ghazal which he, of course, dedicated to Agha Shahid Ali. These poems were recorded in a hotel room hence the title ‘Hotel Poetry’ as it was for previous recordings. The recording is embedded within this post or could be watched on my YouTube Channel i.e., Ramsha Ashraf or could be tracked down from Christopher Merrill’s official website i.e., http://www.christophermerrillbooks.com/

Bari Ammi…

Darkness was so intense that night. It is same tonight in a different setting. Exactly after two years. Pretty much on the edge of falling night, I am counting moments. I was hurt then on the inaccuracy of my assumptions, I am hurt today on my optimism. You would never be able to know but I had counted every single second of that night. I was sure that I would see you in the morning with your color and tasteless breakfast, using your hands intelligently, giving instructions either to Ammi or to someone else. I could never take the responsibility to feed you. The thought that you had to rely on someone else for your food was too real for me to accept. You know me, I was a perennial illusionist, a coward. I was sure I would see you breathing and smiling, that was why I returned back home that night but, I swear, I had not slept for a moment. The fear stayed there laughing at my restless state. It mocked me for every single cigarette I had burnt. It ridiculed me for my unexpected tears.  The morning was not far away. Morning! It knew how to fulfill expectations of others and it did. How cruel…

The guilt passes through my bones like the cold wind of that November. I  think it wasn’t your death which made me the way I have become, it was my displacement which  affected me the most. You see, how selfish I am. Ultimately, it isn’t about your not being here. It is about my not feeling at home, wherever I go, whatever I do. I feel at the edge of that dark night. Falling down and down…

They stayed with you and prayed for you after you left. I stayed aloof and could never pray. I can’t forget the questions you asked. I can never ignore those inquiring eyes and the paralyzed tongue. Grief is a private matter, I have been told so many times that I feel the guilt when I recall those moments. One thing, I am sure about is your god is cruel and it certainly never loved you. You wasted your midnight, days and evenings worshiping an empty, sick and heartless fellow who didn’t even care to make your last breaths easy for you. The narcissist psychopath.

Two years have passed and I still am standing on the crossroads. I am not waiting for you. I never did. I am just angry with myself for that one night when I left you trusting that your god would play human. I shouldn’t have and I did. Your god will never play human and I will never be able to forgive myself.

“The Edge of Our World”, Waqas Khwaja and Ramsha

cat sniffing

meeting of lips and noses
bats rip darkness apart and lick roses
tongue scratches upon thorns
bleeds roses of menstrual blood
alight with this infusion
a life hidden beneath breathless blades of grass
torn and turned to provide sap for grass blades
we drink each other’s wounds
sip from cuts
long consigned to forgetfulness
opening up again
uncurl and unwind raw coils and cords
taking the pith and string of rawness
to make of it a shirt to wear
court harmonies

sublimate unities
let them bubble
and spill over the sky’s brim
sketch out its own galaxies
lapping up walls of those bubbles
we wait

for the sky to drizzle us with moments of grace
to drink in their suns

their moons

their planets
their flights of kites and swans
their arches and dips of swallow and dove
their rainbows and ravens
matching flights across the curve of seven colors
lifted and pressed by the wind on our backs
wind of manias and melancholies
squalls dark and thunderous
whirled away with them

to the edge of our world
tipped then beyond
the last boundary
beyond all borders and limits
boundaries which exist

only in minds

and veiled from eyes
physical and imaginary

rent in rags and tatters
we sweep past these ripped rags
past the tattered fringe of the universe
and enter the tunnel of timelessness, again
leaving lines of light far behind
in the curl and curve of passageways
light that tangles with the thread

of deceit and conviction it weaves every day
we take up that tangle

and toss it back into the primal rose
that started it all
with its menstrual red
glowing at its core
scarlet red!
that bulging core
projecting its primal rose
that is

both imputation and the surgence of life
unfolding its protuberant flesh to the world with a gush
unfurling in compliment and tribute
a mute

tribute
i and thou
you and me
merged and renewed
silenced and given speech
all at once
together
us

It is difficult by Ramsha

It is difficult

To voice fears in a strange melody

To spend almost all nights

With eyes wide open

To stare a starless, whitewashed, roof

 

It is difficult

To become oblivious of ambulance sirens

To avoid the factory buzzer at five in the afternoon

That camouflages the direct message

With a polite announcement

‘There’s a fake hope for freedom’

Inducing raw pain in sleepless eyes

 

 

It is difficult

To mention the river, the smoke, mixed

With private anxiety and tasteless food.

The sugary fluid one forces down

The throat in the name of Chai.

To leave the memory behind

Of late night chats, body odours,

Of alien friendly sights.

To forget the silent struggle, and,

A constant anticipation of comfort.

 

It is difficult

To move against the wheel of time

While desiring those two days

To last forever.

Holding onto the last impression

Of the self being strong enough

To bear the burden of departure.

 

It is difficult

To come out of dark spheres

To write sleazy poems

About a woman in [a refugee camp,

About another woman

Stuck with the enigmas of youth

About the betrayals committed

Under slogans of freedom

 

It is difficult

To sing a song of self

While one sees and hears nothing

While the day is full of nightmares

While the home starts drowning

Under the mirth of tears.

 

“EXILE IS AN IMPERATIVE” by Ramsha Ashraf

On a glamorous rainy day, a man was shot dead,

in front of a foreign policeman’s local house,

the bullet left a tiny rabbit–hole in the forehead

providing a perfect sight for ghost-story-writers.

 

 

It affected nothing; no one had known the man,

people forgot, most did it in a few hours, but

a few took their time through the blue of days:

alarm for collective pain did not resonate.

 

Guns had taken over, schools were shut down,

food went missing and it wasn’t required as well

in any way the dead needed coffins not edibles.

Life is a comic series of errors; exile being one.

 

Exile is an imperative, fear made them realize.

Blood, bread and dead, a perfect theatricality

and a good cathartic way of pitying others,

not themselves, ones suffering from amnesia.