in my dreams i read arabic fast

there’s a coil in smoke that makes a letter i pronounce w/ my brow.

the root of this letter springs from the waking world

where arabic lives in the way we see each other

in the way we Yes, and No, and say with widened eyes

Stay Still Until The Sirens Pass, until the pat down is complete.

until we are safely on the plane.

& close the window gently behind you

even if you are arab and don’t know arabic, you are fluent in how the body implies it

before the warm charcoal in our throats casts bold lines across a room, unwinding

the thread spooled around our spines. rulers swat the back of our hands

to sit us up straight: our words matter. i get that now:

how they string the holy beads of a laugh together. your jido’s masbaha

and my teta’s rosary make the same clink as they pray for us as we walk the city alone at night

meeting in the middle. our love where the family swords meet

in opposition despite the God we share. it’s the same clink of the glass against the spoon

as the sugar melts into the chai, the dark tremble of liquid steeped over the flames on a stove

to close with sobhiyeh the space politics makes between our faiths.

the adhan and church bells fill our shared valley like a basin of soft water.

at dusk the mist cools our fevers. shrouds us from the shadows the night throws on the walls.

the arson always cracking the wood before it can be harvested for anything holy.

in dreams, i’ve held smoke the way one holds a braid before undoing it.

the river becoming in my palm. a casual physic in the dreamsphere.

the root of found in my waking life:

where the ribbons of the incense spiral away from me when i’m not watching,

then lovingly around my head when i turn my eyes to the making

& unmaking: the calligraphy i’ve always seen in the frankincense

before i was trained to to see it there, to make it gold, & accessible

to audience & empire.

all the while my name flat in their mouths. Rizkallah: my name containing God’s name

which they think is different from their God. if they knew otherwise, they would say it correctly.

when the government is paying them to spy on my family they say it correctly.

spit still shining. there’s an aftertaste in the water. polishes the spy’s “marhaba, neighbor”

if you are deemed One of The Good Ones. here, fire is not for alchemy

but for branding like cattle those of us who won’t die.

in a dream teta and i both had, water came for my mother’s ankles,

salamat ‘alba, her back always aching at the root, the chakra locked.

teta woke up to find the painting of jesus under the olive tree

swinging on the wall. a pendulum.

she chased my mother with a bowl of cold water & melted lead

until we all doubled over laughing at the comedy of ritual

in the digital age. how capitalism & trauma present their aches

in the body the same way a curse does when written on a scroll

& hidden in your house by an enemy. these days the enemy

is always in our house. in our pockets. there’s lead in our water.

we are cursed & cured as often as we answer the phone

or brush our teeth. so yeah, it’s fuckin funny

& we doubled over, our laughter flushing the static from the air

& just like that, the eye looming over us shriveled in its socket.

may the laughter keep coming. the sea rising even as i speak

& may it keep coming, as it does when we welcome it

to wash our feet or to baptise us new.

i could wish the enemy rust and bad crops, cold sores and sore throats

until they tell the truth but i don’t want to do that as much as i want to be joyful

in the face of the state. i want to be more useful than shouting

at the waves rising over my head.

i reject orientalizing my own mouth. i want to celebrate arabic

by using it to figure out how we can be as family as we feel.

we could be better to each other. we could be building boats.

let’s fall in line behind the activists and archivists. let’s take good notes.

i want to pay attention to my cousins across borders and faiths.

i want to recite both poems and prayers. i want to dismantle walls

and -isms that don’t work anymore    using the same hands that hold a pen.

i want to say Fuck You and Hamdillah. i want to light candles and torches.

a flame held to the bukhoor and to the spit. i want to honor the dead.

to cry is to make room for the joy that keeps their memories alive.

in my dreams my chest has a door. behind that door is a key where my heart should be.

the root of of this fact is found in waking life, where my heart is the size of a fist in the air.

is the size of a hand holding another hand.

love is the key but make no mistake:

there is no difference between

a lover and a fighter

just whether the light illuminates

the hilt or the blade. arabic knows this.

my dreams remind me of this.

i listen until my body is fluent.

my tongue sharpened by fire

and water.

Jess Rizkallah

Jess Rizkallah is a Lebanese-American writer and illustrator. Her full-length collection THE MAGIC MY BODY BECOMES was a finalist for The Believer Poetry Award and won the 2017 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize as awarded by the Radius of Arab-American Writers and University of Arkansas Press. Find her at