Zeina Azzam

Nafas in the Kitchen; To the Israeli Officer Who X-rayed and Swabbed Our Mother’s Ashes: Zeina Azzam

Nafas in the Kitchen

For Reem Kassis

The Palestinian chef
says nafas is like a spirit,
an undefined knowing
that lives in the act of
preparing food

as if ancestors
reside in the knives
that chop and slice,
the parers and the
juicers, the measurers
and the tasters.

Nafas flows from the scents
of spices from childhood,
the deep colors of
beets and saffron,
the memories of how
to stuff a grapeleaf
just so,
pick mallow leaves
from their stalks,
grate nutmeg resolutely
with a coarse metal shield.

You can’t teach nafas,
she stresses,
just like you can’t implant
a memory, a presence.
It seeps into generations,
forming something bigger
than both the pinch of salt
and the generous stewing pot.

Nafas is the sigh
that emanates from
the core, the inhale
and exhale into air,
to share.
Even zaatar, she says,
breathes between cultures,
travels thousands of miles
to bring nafas
to new homes,
kitchens in exile.

To the Israeli Officer Who X-rayed and Swabbed Our Mother’s Ashes

Even though you looked me in the eye
my peripheral vision was stuck on the machine gun
cradled in your colleague’s jittery arms next to me.
Your questions were like jagged metal soldiers
on a conveyor belt, a continuous barrage,
the same sharp words coming steadily,
marching toward my brother and me.
All the supervisors who came, all those
young military minds with colorful stripes
trained in war but with no grasp of our grief,
of a Palestinian heart, of a simple desire
to return homeward.
To you, these were just salt crystals
in an engraved wooden box
you must run through the x-ray machine twice,
swab all around, carry as if a purse, a sack of books.

To us, those were our mother’s remains
from an unholy world that kept her far away from her homeland
for 71 years, made her a refugee everywhere she went.
You will never know who our mother was.
My brother and I would have told you that
we were carrying what was left of her because
you wouldn’t let her living body come back,
you wouldn’t allow a refugee and her family
to return to Nazareth.
But after your razor-like interrogation ended
and our halting answers were enough,
we crossed your checkpoint and continued our journey.
We buried her ashes in the Palestine she knew.
Our Palestinian mother finally exercised her right of return.

Zeina Azzam is a Palestinian American poet, editor, and community activist. She volunteers for organizations that promote Palestinian rights and the civil rights of vulnerable communities in Alexandria, Virginia, where she is active with the group Grassroots Alexandria. She also serves as a mentor for We Are Not Numbers, a writing program for youth in Gaza. Zeina currently works as publications editor for the DC think tank, Arab Center Washington. Her poems are or will be published in Pleiades, Cordite Poetry Review, Mizna, Sukoon Magazine, Split This Rock, Heartwood Literary Magazine, Lunch Ticket, The Fourth River, Barzakh: A Literary Magazine, Infinite Rust, and the edited volumes Bettering American Poetry, Making Mirrors: Writing/Righting by and for Refugees, Write Like You're Alive, The Poeming Pigeon: Love Poems, The Poeming Pigeon: Pop Culture, Gaza Unsilenced, and Yellow as Turmeric, Fragrant as Cloves. Zeina holds an M.A. in Arabic literature from Georgetown University.