Caught in the Middle, by   Hussein Hisham Aljabi

Caught in the Middle, by Hussein Hisham Aljabi

 I only started growing a beard because my face was thinning. My friends, uncles and aunts, and most incessantly, my mother, had been worrying about me. You look so thin, habeebi, they would say. Have you been dieting? Are you in love? Well, I might be, I would answer. But it’s none of your business. What they didn’t know, those fools, my mother (bless her) being the greatest of them, was that I had started smoking again. 

On the night of my departure, I packed my 12-pack Marlboro Reds into my suitcase, tickled my mother’s cheek with my beard as I kissed her goodbye, and left to Queen Alia’s International Airport. She told me not to worry, that she’ll always love me, that she’ll wail for the first two months, and that she’ll eventually get over it. I told her I’d appreciate it if she reduced the wailing period to thirty days. She nodded and kissed me back.

Over there, I was greeted by the smiles of fellow Jordanians who wished nothing more for me than the best of luck, and to return with a heart for change. I got on the plane, which, although was playing a crackling instrumental of our national anthem, looked cozy. The woman I sat next to, a middle aged American or European, smiled at me and nodded, and I smiled back and nodded too. Her eyes burned a hole into my beard— so big a hole I could smell my hair burning. But I didn’t really mind. It was a big, brown bush of hair. I would’ve stared at it too, if I were seated next to me. 

I had never understood why airplanes, which supposedly fly at a cruising speed of about 900 kilometers per hour, took so long. Twelve hours. Twelve, long, nauseating hours, it took me to finally reach American land. By then, my beard was a clump of ashes, all thanks to Mrs. Fugard, who turned out to be South African, after all. I nodded a goodbye to her as I approached gate 62, she pretended not to see. I didn’t mind that either. 

It took me around two or three minutes to reach security. Thankfully, the line was short, and I only had to wait around thirty minutes to reach the round, freckled man who, in his POLICE attire, looked like a badass santa. I appreciated the way he smiled at everyone, possibly stood there analyzing every one of his smiles (the way the left side of his mouth poked when it was a woman he was talking to or the way his eyes wrinkled when he was talking with a child) until my phone buzzed in my pocket and I got distracted by it. Another three minutes passed, and as I was flicking through the photos my mother had sent me of the dinner she’d cooked, I heard the man say, “Next.” 

    “Hi,” I said and smiled. 

    He didn’t smile back. “Where are you coming from?”

    “I just got off a 12 hour flight from Amman. Tired as hell!” I laughed.

    He eyed the security guard who was situated in the glass box right next to us. 

    I, all of a sudden, was in horror up to my elbows. 

    “What is the nature of your visit?” He asked. 

    “I am enrolled—I go to school here.”  

    “Your passport.”

“Ah, yes. Yes, right here,” I almost dropped everything as I rummaged through my backpack in search for my passport. I could feel my cheeks burning, the very tips of my fingers lubricating. A whiff of my own sweat seared the inside of my nostrils (which I assumed was the result of the twelve hour flight), and I knew that everyone was watching me. What truly petrified me was when I saw three security guards approaching our glass box. A few seconds before they arrived, I finally snatched my passport out and placed it on the counter in front of me. They didn’t stop. 

    “Step aside please. Put your bag down,” one of them, the taller one, said. 

    My eyes stung with tears. This really was happening. 

    “We need you to come with us.” 

    I couldn’t find my words. 

    “Sir, drop your bag, and come with us.” His voice was louder. 

I was shaken, my feet glued in place. “Okay,” I squeaked, and what an ugly thing that was for a man to do, my grandfather would’ve probably said if he were there. 

One of the men grabbed my arm, and twisted it behind my back. I knew he wasn’t trying to hurt me, only to get me to walk with him, but he was hard-muscled and I wasn’t. 

It was when I started walking with them, as the eyes of every man and woman and child I passed ate at my flesh, that I lost all control. I was crying like a mourner, cursing myself for not replying to what my mother had sent me and worrying that I would not get the chance to after this. I knew, also, that if I were to move an inch of my body, I would be pinned to the ground in less than a second and throttled to death by the chunky knee of that security guard. So I just walked, floated even—behaved so that Mr. Bearded-So-Automatically-Terrorist would come out of this alive.



After seven years, Ghada’s bird hatched three eggs in a cone-shaped nest. The cage was purposefully never locked so the bird could fly around the garden and neighborhood, and it would always return. Ghada kept her bird in an enormous rounded cage by the living room window. She fed it fresh fruit from her trees, and sometimes cockroaches from her bathroom. She offered her cupped hand full of fruit by the cage so its long leaning beak could reach through the metal rungs. She involved herself in feeding the bird, it put her at ease. The bird prefered green grapes above everything. Her neighbors questioned her when she first brought the bird in, but it began to add to the apartment’s personality over the years as guests helped feed the bird as well.

Ghada was pleased to find the eggs. It made the bird enthusiastic. Her morning routine was sacred, and she shared it with her bird. Ghada would cook herself scrambled eggs and sing her favorite Asmahan song after feeding the crow. After she cleaned her kitchen, she fetched her book to read on the plump, crayon-red armchair next to the cage. The chair was an antique from her mother’s old apartment, and the only thing she took when Mama died. Ghada was convinced she could still feel the depression in the chair where Mama used to sit slightly slanted. The two of them spent many mornings like this, exchanging songs and whistles.

Two weeks after the eggs, the crow’s feathers began to wilt. Almost overnight the shiny feathers morphed into a muddied fabric. She asked her few friends for advice, but they blamed her for keeping the bird imprisoned for so long. They didn’t understand. Her bird was freer than her. It was the warmth in Ghada’s home and her singing that kept her and the bird lovingly bound. Maybe the bird had fallen into a murky puddle outside, and the dirt crystallized on its feathers. She took the bird into her bathtub and cleaned it gently, over and over. As gentle as she was, this only loosened its feathers and some fell out. She was devastated. She thought her bird was nearing death. How strange, considering it had only recently laid eggs. Ghada called a local doctor. She was well known in the area for her herbal medicines that could ease any sickness. She assured Ghada the bird was still healthy. It had likely been violent with a group of birds outside.

Ghada was convinced for a few days, until her bird only ate half the food offered. It was strange because her own appetite was also beginning to waver. Instead of her usual two eggs every morning, she could barely stomach one. She once liked to slice halloumi on bread an hour or so after breakfast, but she would no longer head to the fridge for snacks. Before cleaning up, she and her bird would sit in silence. Neither of them sang anymore. Ghada’s voice felt heavy in her throat. The bird no longer left the cage, despite the square door remaining unlocked and wide open. It spent its days perched completely still, peering into nothing in particular with wide empty eyes that no longer flickered in the light. Ghada couldn’t bring herself to leave the house except for groceries. Like a shock patient, the bird scarcely moved its neck except to pick at food to scrape by. She felt like her bird on most days. Her human condition forced her to do more than the crow each day, so she pushed through the cloudy fatigue. The whole house felt smothering. She called the doctor again.

Ghada’s body felt like it was falling apart. Her hair used to hold heavy curls well into her thirties. She ate balanced meals and never restricted herself from simple joys. It kept her young. She had a few shallow wrinkles above her nose and at the corner of her eyes, it was natural for a life well lived. Over the course of those days, her hair began to thin and separate. She wore a loose veil whenever she left the house to buy the few groceries she could manage to carry. Her eyes sank sorrily into her cheeks and all her joints clenched together.

On a sunny cloudless Saturday, she dropped the groceries before she had a chance to close the front door. Her palms fell into the heap of food and she began to shake violently. Her finger landed on a can of beans and she tried to shout. Furious, she pulled herself up using the wall with her uninjured hand. The door was still hinged open. She marched to the crow’s cage in a haze and began to shake it and scream. Her voice was still unable to find its way out, but the long croak she managed caused the bird to panic. It became militant and hissed at her. It stretched its wings wide to protect the eggs. Ghada stopped shaking the cage and fell to her knees in heaving tears, still clinging to the metal. As if feeling her grief, the bird immediately calmed down. She fell into a hush and looked up at the bird from the floor. They remained like this for some time, the bird tilting its head back and forth, and Ghada holding a slight smile. The bird broke the spell first. It let out a tired shriek and nudged one of its eggs forward.

Ghada propped herself up on the armchair and opened the cage door. She poked at the egg twice then rolled it into her palm. It was half hatched, but there was no movement inside. She peeled away the loose shell and found the wound-up hatchling dead. She reached inside the cage again and checked the other two eggs. One was unhatched and intact, the other was dead. They grieved together for a moment. The room was deathly still. She buried the hatchlings side-by-side under a small olive tree in her garden and prayed in a hurry. She went back inside and pulled the remaining egg out of the cage with care to examine it. The bird didn’t stop her.

The burden of sickness had continued to poison the house since the bird laid its eggs. Ghada owed it to the bird to make sure one survived. She could not put the egg down for the hours to come that passed like seconds. She cradled it on the floor, the sofa, the bed. She only put it down to tear one of her pillows apart and collect the white feathers that had found their place everywhere. Ghada fisted the feathers into a plastic bowl until it was safe for the egg to rest on top. She could no longer feel her injured finger. She went back to the cage and returned the egg in its new nest. She ripped all her idle blankets from the cupboards and arranged them around the egg. She sat cross-legged across from the bird in its cage, her toes pressed to the cold metal.

For a day she sat fixed in her spot on the floor. They could both sense the egg would soon hatch. She only moved to drink a glass of water once. She didn’t sleep. Her head kept rocking forward, and she would fight to stay awake watching the egg. She must have slept for a minute because she was brought back to life by her bird’s cry. She swung backwards, alarmed, then lifted herself towards the cage. The shell cracked and collapsed inwards. Ghada’s throat and nostrils were on fire. Her bird flew into the cage rungs, missing the door and losing more feathers. The chick was making its way out of the egg, and it was surrounded by something ghastly. The smell of absolute misfortune and sickness came out from inside the shell and choked the room. Her bird found the cage door at last and escaped the murderous stench to the freedom outside the house. The chick collapsed in its own waste. Ghada’s eyes were burning from the roots in the back of her head.

Without any shoes, she ran outside, chasing her bird’s caws. She could never catch up. She kept running to leave behind the stench of death in a place that was no longer her home. She dropped to her knees on the asphalt in a neighborhood she did not know. She ran her fingers through her hair when she caught her breath. She would miss her bird.


إنسانٌ بلا عنوان

في هذا اليوم، استحممت تحت أحجار كريمة
كانت تنهمر فوق رأسي بكل رقة و تقبل بدفئ يدي
كنت أتوق للحظة عزلة، أهرب تحتها من الوحدة المزمنة
فوجدت الروبي والأوبال يمررون حوافهم المواسية من خلال شعري
لماذا خلق الانسان مع احتمال النسيان عن اي شئ
الا الشعور بأنه فارغ وتافه ووحيد وتعيس وانطوائي؟
فقد يغفل عقله عن الصلاة ولكن لا يغفل عن تذكيره بالاوجاع
فقد يتفادى اخذ الدواء ولكن لا يتفادى خياطة جراحه بالمأسي
فهل خلق الإنسان ميالاً للتعاسة ام نحن من مسخناه؟
هل يجب علي أن أعيد صباغة بطانة قلبي وتغيير تردد أفكاري؟
قيل لي مرة بتعجرفٍ ربّاني "الحياة ليست عبثاً"
ولكني أكتب لها بكل صدق كما تراني
لا يحتسب عدم تواجد صغيرُ العدَم
ما لم يزل اللا وجود متعايش في كياني




Gardenia // Ghardenia

The cream, the ivory
the soft petals floating
in tamed waters. 

Dig your hole into the palms
of an earth smooth, smooth
it might crumble.

Like the words, an effort
of the throat, lips, 
tongue, and heart. 

Where did I leave the cup
the one with the floating
gardenia? On the balcony

the door open so that, yes, 
the air might slip out, 
and the dawn might spill in. 

I heard you wake up before
the light had a chance to put on you.

I heard the soft crash
of glass on the balcony. 

Jasmine // Yasmeen

The first time she held a jasmine
she threw it up to the sky
as tribute.

The small petals crowned her
tiny fingers, their short reign left traces
of herself in them.

Nearby birds let themselves
get carried away
by swinging branches.

The first time I saw her spine
through the hospital gown
slit with flowers sandpapered

against her skin,
samples of undefeated blood
colored some of them purple.

The bare IV vines wrapped
over her open mouth
over some part of her that is now missing. 

Narcissus // Nargis

When I gather the water of ablution, it is
to force the disappointments to streak
my face, to check the soil in the pot
to forget twice a week, to feel dry
the top inch of soil like the layer
of my mother’s skin, wet always
when she prays.

It is the distant rumble of late august
the too soon out leaves
of bulbs bloomed to chill from six weeks
to six months to a life.

Time new again but still the old meaning. 


Poppy // Khaskhash

Since the late august sky
Pressed together its evening dusks.
Since the water began to flow
backwards in the Barada river,
smoothing the riverbeds, its fatal
caress the talk over dinners.
Since the street signs in geometric, 
familiar letters were replaced
by their counterparts in a rigid, straight
alphabet. Ever since the grace
of dawn receded to the untidy eclipse
of scattered afternoons one after the other
after the other. Since
One phone call and eleven years of ruptured quiet
grieving while fingering her rosary, since
my mother left the sand banks
of a thousand elegized city
she no longer returns to. Since marriage
since children, since the early tide
of a long war. Ever since she catches
her body over the bed, 
somewhere near her throat, 
her fears are caught too. 

Tuberose Season // Mawsim al-Zambaq

The tuberose has a short season
of wilting and growing. 

Her fingertips smell of it, 
I left them in a vase by the window.

The perfumery in Damascus has crystal
bottles of different sizes, all clear
full of liquid flower.

He measures out 50ml of tuberose—
travel size containers from Syria.

The smell wafts
from the bottle as he dips it
towards her wrist, she rubs together
skin and tuberose and oil. 

How does the smell reach her fingertips, 
her hair, the corner of her eyes—
tuberose-shaped smells.

But the flowers here are limp
whenever she walks by the flower stand.

Outside of Syria they have a weak smell,
she says, so she handles them

softly between her fingertips.
the bottle of tuberose liquid
is down to its last ml.




I only knew what home meant when I left
Home within home
Sand, sunflowers, mountains
Going abroad and coming back
Home isn't home without it
People make me proud
Heritage is holy
Culture is everywhere
An envy
In one spirit


Note: this was translated from arabic, by shaima. the original words were by her mother, when asked about her hometown



The loneliness of living dawns on me occasionally. It’s a massive dark shadow that lingers among failing lungs. It’s a trembling emptiness that envelops my limbs. It’s a truth that stands shaky, naked and wet, before me, while I hide under the sheets. 

No one wants to give you anything that matters. No one really cares about the tides of your stupid happiness. You’re reduced to a selfish little girl who is too afraid of the world — too afraid of its men. All they want to do is touch you, they want to taste you, they want to ultimately break you. They don’t want your big dusty fears. They don’t want your emptiness and tears. They damn sure don’t want you to shed your spiritual skin for them. All you need are your trembling knees and a mouth that tastes of fruity scum. You need every one of your 50 hundred eyelashes and 10 painted nails and those fucking dim eyes of yours. Just make sure your skin is milk and your dress is pretty. You’ll be fine if you show them your big teeth and rested brow.

Satisfaction is a marketing ploy, forget it. Love, happiness, people that care, they’re all bullshit and fiction. You’re better off good and pure and miserable. Just don’t bother people, don’t bother the streets and concrete. They don’t want to hear your ancient rambling and your silly trains of nausea-infused nonsense. Bruise your face with a smile and fill that busy head of yours with small talk and sweet prose.

You’re fine now. You’re so very fine.



human beings are tightly programed to see and detect faces
they've seen faces everywhere, on skirts, on lamp posts
on the kitchen sink
they have especially seen the face of jesus christ
a couple of times
he was crying
and people think its a miracle
there is nothing miraculous about a man crying.
human beings, however, are equally talented at absolutely dismissing faces.
I'm so tired i could hardly breath. the festering air in this room pressing against my chest.
I'm so lonesome I could drown instantaneously, and it would be a blessing.
it is the sort of thing that is so terribly unimportant it swells gradually into
something utterly overwhelming you cant even react to it
it was not an event there was no catastrophe
only the state of things

my favorite poet did not kill himself
he only grew old in a city only miles away from his wife and daughter
whom he hadn't seen in a quarter of a century
they did not seem to really mind
the extended electric neurons inhabiting his scull
neurons that nourish on verse and meter
had slowly auto-digested the part of his brain responsible for detecting certain faces
in his 74 year old brain his dark eyed wife looked like
a burned blur
I for one
have run out of ways to handle the corners of this box I'm carrying
always carrying through the desert through the cafes through the family gatherings
at one point I dug in it
at another I wrapped it with floral white paper
I kept it in the back of my closet and heard it whisper to me whisper my name recite my poetry
and kept the closet locked.

I think I am going to eat a little and write a little
and grow patch of lilies in my backyard
magnolia too
pretend, wash out the parts that know I
was propelled from my mothers womb to instantly fade
or better yet
to wish to fade




The emptiness that is me cannot be filled with presence.
Cannot be satisfied with feelings.
Cannot be healed with tears,
Trails of smoke,
Or words.

The hollow existence of which I cease to be.
With nothing but the sounds of my waves of thoughts.
Crashing the walls of my mind.
The drops linger on my trembling hungry lips yet die young.

I am not what I once was.
I am not yet what I want to be.
I am stuck in a maze that I once thought was a straight line.
People that I once held on to left to find their way out.
and the longer I stay,
The more lost I get in the twists, twirls, and turns.

I am stuck.
I am trapped.
I am estranged.
Yet become familiar with the tiles and the cracks creeping up the seldom walls that are wrapped around me.
They never changed.
They never left.
And I start to wonder if I want to find my way back.

With nothing to lose,
I am empty. 
I am content.
And as close as I will ever be to happiness.

So I stop the race with time.
I stop running after the ghost of promises.
I plant my feet in the solid ground.
I dissolve in the paleness of the aging walls.

For the first time,
I stop.
I surrender.