The Muslim Hangover

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Chromatography

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The lowest arms of the almond tree
hang scrawny, leafless, dark:
a reminder of winter.

I take off my paper sun hat
sweating (why did I wear black?)
sun bleached by a thin cloud veil
pushing the sleeping baby uphill,
4.30pm, July.

He’s poured water over a scarf that
I’ve arranged to shade him
and my red wool bag strap
bleeds pink into the blue.

His muscular eyebrows furrow
beneath dirty blond curls, the boy who was
dreamt of being welcomed by the arms of his
long-departed grandmother
in a Persian aunt’s sleeping head.

“Let us see your hair,” they had urged me;
“Is it real, the colour? Can we touch it?”

I grinned painfully, was their doll for a while,
let them thread my puny brows,
ruthlessly devoid forehead and top lip
of hairs only Iranian women can see.

We European women have been liberated of
facial hair!
I cried inwardly, eyes watering
with each every rip.

(She did do an excellent job.
My eyebrows, in dye, came alive.)

In the women’ section of the bus in Tehran
girls in school uniform laughed
still too pubescent to be allowed
the monthly ritual of a trip to the salon
their black brows luscious and combed
combined with blood red lips.

We got off a speeding fine
en route to Isfahan
because of the “khariji” guests
in the car: the free pass
that Europe grants
and who would rather pay?

“Pesar-e-khariji-e-man!”
“He’s so cute and blond,
he looks just like you!”

My husband says I’m his amulet,
lucky charm in official places,
a signal that he’s a
Middle Eastern Man Done Good.

But there is a ruefulness to his good fortune:
they glare at him like a shopkeeper at a thief.
He asks me not to wear a headscarf
lest they think he’s forced me.

Greedily, I seek out our son’s Asian features
glowing to think he’s struck out from
pork scratching pink
the pasty British skin on
a nose they’ve chosen to
sever from the face of the continent
forgetting the Viking, Saxon, Norman,
Roman and yet more exotic genes.

“¡Qué blanquito!”
How they praise him
for his pallour
to his caramel father’s ears.

A talisman. Not powerful enough to
stop the waiter snubbing his order
sneering at his polite reminder
or when, at the police commissary,
trying to fix my residency
after six years as an illegal American
always treated as though I belong
the Spanish official barked at him
for his papers – in order since a decade ago –
checked them on the system, tossed
the card back without meeting his eye.

(If they only knew
what a nightmare I am to live with
they would see he is my talisman, his patience
my salvation.)

We need to raise colour blind kids!
I rant silently on insomniac nights.
Those of us at the top of this
pyramid of privilege
didn’t rise here because of the
buoyancy of our merit:
our forebears clawed their way up
trampling millions of black and brown backs
and no-one else can rise until we step down because
we are taking up space!

Wash your feet honey:
they’re black with dirt.

Malaga is easy to fly through, I say.
Not for me, says she – they always make me
show under my skirt, my hijab.
Oh! Really? That’s outrageous!
But, you know, she says, drawing a circle
with one finger around her face,
wry Somali smile.

I don’t wear hijab through airports.
Am I being practical, or cowardly?
Would I beat out every last bandit
every ugly, self-congratulating thought
expose their emptiness as
phantom confidences
if I put myself in the same
rocking, overcrowded boat
with the flimsy life jackets
and the leaking hold?

We reach my parents’ house
forbidding black gates,
cornflower blue door.

Beside is a bougainvillea
bursting alternately with
deep fuchsia and
palest green lanterns.

Inside the summerhouse
the dark wood stain has bled through knots
forming irrevocable pools on the blond wood.

“Make me a new sandwich!”
“I took out the avocado…”
“But there’s still a stain
on the bread!”

My daughter is fuming, tearful;
a veil of reddish clay lies over her face
wiped unthinkingly at craft time earlier
and two tears have dried
leaving pale tracks with brown outlines.

Clean your face, honey,
your tears have run brown.

Every story is edited at bedtime,
the blackness accidental, not evil
the lily white princess made ruddy and tanned
her long golden hair darkened
water babies not just cherubic because they’ve been
washed of all that terrible oafish soot but
pure of heart and soul.

At the Jumu’ah meal she asks,
Are angels white?
With exquisite Senegalese women on all sides
I answer, no, they’re made of pure light:
light is all of the colors put together.

But science won’t stop her from thinking it.

Our heads need cleaning! I declaim silently
All these messages upon messages
that make us look down on others!

Black is beautiful. Brown is gorgeous.
Look at her style.

Sweetie, I can’t explain I why,
walls just look better white.

The kids splash my notebook
and the turqouise ink splits
inexplicably to vivid pink

I write my second draft
in indelible black.

Before the Removal Men

Beloved friends leave us
keepsakes to remember them by
a curl of their hair in a locket
a scarf that still smells of their sandalwood
but You don’t have hair
or need for neckerchiefs
What You have is Spirit
or what You are is – the knots
words tie tongues in! –
instead, You left a trace of Yourself
in every human’s being
so we could close our eyes
shut our mouths
sink our yearning faces into it
and smell our way back to You

You left in us a doorway
that was once the only place we’d stand
backs turned to the
grimy storeroom of our brains
contemplating only Your garden
but noises from this side distract
furniture gets in the way, bruises shins
boxes of sentimental value build up
each one blocking out that marvellous door
by another cardboard square
until at last we place a wardrobe in front of it
and forget it ever existed
And we only remember
when the house is crumbling
the wardrobe eaten by woodworm
and in the moment the wrecking ball
tears off the roof
that golden opening blinks

God, help us clear away all this junk
before the removal men come
for us

New Mountains (or, Woman with a Blue Rinse)

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Where a scramble of wet paw prints
describes a recent canine hootenanny
a shrunken stooped lady in purple dressing gown
and slippers turns her patchy blue rinse
to squint at me while creaking uphill
clouds an unreal pink and burnt orange
candyfloss across an ageing turquoise sky

Walking, the house I imagined on the riverbed
appears two hundred yards up the road
irruptions in an in-carried map
that push places apart like
volcanic surges beneath passing feet
stretching the soil, new mountains, while
absent minds erase steps trodden
and insert whole bandstands of emotion
on sleepy street corners
where disgruntled long-haired tabbies
arch their backs among tumbling rocks
and Venus’s Navels, abandoned slopes
that have shrunken out of sight and retreated
off maps so long that if you walk into them
you might disappear, blink out of this scene
and into another’s moment of awakening
materialising, to their eyes, as an ancient woman
in an aubergine coloured robe
with a blue curled head and a cane
turning her head in amazement that
looks like sciatica and suspicion
vanishing around a corner again
and you return to your spot
which is now as wide as a sea
for everything you have seen in it

Lone Wolves

Running is falling when fear’s at your heels
Good men turn lone wolves in failure’s mirror
It’s safe on the hills but one day they’ll ask

Where he was when mama cried while she cooked
Until shocks ran from the hob to her heart?
Running is falling when fear’s at your heels

Spears are flung stupidly like porcupine
quills, harming backwards with poisonous ends
It’s safe on the hills but one day they’ll ask

Mothers’ arms become safety nests for the fled
Too necessary to crack with their weight
Running is falling when fear’s at your heels

In discomfort we are loved to an ache
There is bliss in being their world, and risk
It’s safe on the hills but one day they’ll ask

The glitter of pristine snow was no lure
Hot coals of their need of him singed him raw
Running is falling when fear’s at your heels
It’s safe on the hills but one day they’ll ask

Love is a Traveller…For Sale Online Now!

It gives me great pleasure to announce that my first collection of poems is now available to buy online here!

LOVE IS TRAVELLER  FC Jan 28  copy

According to the publisher, Daniel ‘Abdal-Hayy Moore at Ecstatic Exchange:

“With Medina Whiteman’s lively, metamorphosing voice, we have here finely detailed poetic stances on whatever attracts her and her pen, and her heart is here, and its centripetal ripples edge out to our own world and wash over it as if with our own sensibilities — and it is a welcoming thing, a sweet and healing thing to know these enlightened trails.”

And from a review by Michael Sugich, author of Signs on the Horizons:

“Love is a Traveller and We are Its Path” is an astonishing, accomplished, heartbreakingly beautiful work. Ms. Whiteman writes as a girl, a woman, a mother, and a wide-eyed, reflective observer of her world — as seeker, believer and sage. For her God is truly in the details. Each observation, whether earthy or supernal, is internalized and suffused with a piercing awareness of meaning, and a deep, abiding faith that shines through a world full of mundane and transcendent particulars.”

Ain’t Lateefa Spiker‘s cover art lovely? Here‘s the link to buy a copy yourself and see if you agree with them. Pass on the news, and happy reading!

 

 

 

Hiatus in the Reasoning Mind

When they pulled us out
through the broken side window
the one I smashed with my cheek
as the car behind hit ours
– oh my God oh my God oh my God –
I saw a couple in their late 30s, perhaps,
soft, dark, kind eyes
but strong and wordless
familiar from I didn’t know where
dark curly hair
she was shortish
soothing and solid as a nurse
who takes trauma in her arms daily
he was young, too, black-haired
colour in their cheeks

I turned to hug my seven year old
both sobbing relief
pieces of blue shattered glass
on us, the seats, the edge
of the ditch we’d skidded into
metal violence of the impact
still shuddering in my bones
hot hurt on my face
blooming into a bruise
then our rescuers were gone
and a dozen others appeared
to console, assess damage to
the car – crushed concave
door lips now pressed eternally together
help pledged
glass of water fetched
the police in reassuring
yellow jackets appeared
from a restaurant down the road
embraces, explanations from the
man in the other car
his inflated airbags wilting and
cracked radiator weeping
“This isn’t what anyone wants, is it…”

Later, the car towed,
we shored up at Casualty
the young doctor tearing his hair out
at the amount of paperwork to do
told me to touch my nose, his finger, here
here, there, and there
hammered my kneecaps
said I was lucky I didn’t
break my cheekbone
– luck! –
the story spiralled
became a slip from death
in my recountings
as perhaps it was
packs of friends came by
like wise women bringing
organic praline and grape juice
to a giggling Mary with
half-Iranian baby Jesus on her lap
one even went home to bake us a cake
– luck! –

Five days later, I’d been
sick and sore, neck sprained
headachey but counting blessings
the baby wasn’t in the back seat
where his car had caught ours
– luck! –
so musing I went to change a charger
at a computer shop where the couple
always seemed fed up of selling tech
disgruntled, pallid, he
prematurely white-haired, she
a towering bottle redhead with
glum green eyes and
lipstick over an unsmiling mouth
We haggled a bit: he complained
the keyboard I’d taken back worked fine
made me buy a better cable than
then one I’d planned to buy,
gave a wry laugh about the
capriciousness of wires
As I’m leaving he asks,
How are you after your crash?
I point to the faint emerald crescent
on my cheek, the tiny scratch fading.
Did you see the car?
We were there, he replies, in the car behind,
saw everything. Lucky he wasn’t going so fast.
Lucky! They had to pull me out
of the window! I remonstrated.
That was us, he says quietly.
I pulled you out.
There is a glint
in his black irises
of a holy secret shared.

I struggle to pair this
slightly grumpy man
bored wife accomplice
with the couple in my memory:
it couldn’t have been them!
Confused, I explain that
it all went blank,
thanked them anyway, backed out,
spinning. Did I repaint them,
in the panic of the moment,
that hiatus in the reasoning mind?
Or was that a glimpse
of their best selves,
their waiting hero selves,
the strong, alive, kind selves
who are not worrying about returned keyboards
balancing books, the tedium of tablets
repeated conversations about
warranties and RAM?
That was not them;
that was them,
not disappeared, only
in waiting.

Fires of Regret and Relief

You sleep curled in a hungry embrace
filling the space your father left

her lips pressed to your forehead
eclipse the absence of his kiss

she strokes your hair and forgets
the hand that would sting if it touched hers now

your warm weight on her belly
almost replaces

her need to be encircled

You must have drunk in
her panic too

exposed like a mother cat
on a coverless plain

but you don’t see her
as she sees herself

scarred and tired
and less than lovable

You sleep in bliss
while she weighs her options

will stumbling and kindling
fires of regret and relief

Sleep. You are the sea she gained
when her spring ran dry

and while her cheeks sparkle with thanks
she prays she hasn’t given you

a taste for disaster

West is Not a Direction

Map on gazelle skin dated 1513 CE by Turkish navigator Piri Reis

Map on gazelle skin dated 1513 CE by Turkish navigator Piri Reis

West is not a direction

It’s a
limo on a
dirty Bombay street
an architecture masters
from the university of Madrid
hanging on a wall in Tehran
it’s a pizza on a plate in Cairo
an iPhone in a hand in São Paolo
a book by Sartre on a shelf in Phuket
a magician on a talent show
being watched on YouTube in Pakistan

It’s a breeze block in the wall of a house in Nairobi
an engineered seed in a sack in the Congo
a factory for dish scrubbers in China
a boat stuffed with young women sewing shirts
a van with a Moroccan man clinging underneath
a Khoi-San bushman longing for his homeland
from a high-rise in Johannesburg
a black woman in Nigeria bleaching her skin
burning her scalp to make her hair straight

It’s a million bake sales and sponsored skydives
Afghan orphans adopted by never-seen donors
a sign saying ‘Don’t be Silly’ at an anti-fascism rally
vans full of mens’ running shoes being driven to Calais
curses muttered at the £9m concrete wall they pass
It’s a 19-year-old activist being crushed under a tank in Tel Aviv
A London boy barefoot in the Amazon seeking
Wisdom from painted shamans
The tents we designed for refugees fleeing
Missiles we made and sold

It’s a ninety-year old English man who dies of cold in winter
because he can’t afford the heating bills
It’s a Spanish woman in a red dressing gown
And shiny peach lipstick wearing dirty crocs
walking her dog
It’s a young woman fighting to be free of a husband
who tells her “You’ll starve to death without me”

It’s an ice floe in Norway creaking downhill unseen

An Ann Summers party among suburban housewives
and a nun on a Soho street ladling out soup

It’s a pool of mercury on whose silver palm
The sky is distortedly clear
Whose glistening promises burn with their cold
If you ever get close enough to touch it
And it sends drops of itself scattering
Trying to reach the bamboo forests
And the warm red soil
And the forgiving ocean
To forget their nature and reflect
Some truer texture
But we are always an emulsion
We don’t dissolve

West is hope
And vanity
And frustrated ambition

You might drown trying to reach it
or get dizzy trying to avoid it
because it’s east and south and north
It’s in a private school in Rabat
while the spirituality you seek is back home
in a quiet town in Europe
where there is enough abundance to let go of it
enough gloss to want freedom from it

There is Dunya wherever you go

Turn the atlas inside out