I have written “Out of Egypt” as a mark of the end of my many years in Egypt, teaching at the American University in Cairo.
It is a kind of dialogue with the biblical book of Exodus, especially chapter 16. It felt like a natural — though emotionally excruciating — poem to write because my family name is Elmusa (Moses), and because I am Palestinian. My departure from Egypt differs from the biblical narrative in several ways. I am not being forced out of the country and I am the one who has exploited Egypt’s subalterns (not that the story of the enslavement of the Jews and their expulsion from Egypt has been corroborated by historical evidence). Abraham was promised a land he had never stepped in, whereas in the poem I long to return to Palestine, where I was born and raised, and from which I was forcibly removed, along with millions of other Palestinians. The poem, then, is about loss meant as a paean to Egypt and a burning wish for reunion with Palestine.
No strong hand is driving me out.
I am of circumcised lips, but have no need
to be on speaking terms with the President.
I am the one who has afflicted the people
of the black land with my burdens.
The cracked hands of the maids
cleaned my house
and purged the bad breath of my socks.
Young shoulders delivered
cases of water and secret beer to my kitchen.
Whose backs stooped over
the bright cotton flowers,
the fabric of my shirts?
Egypt gave me my name —
part cow sound, part whisper.
The daily scribes tutored me
to sing sad songs
until they became love songs.
Delight in sweet and greasy food.
Say to a stranger asking for a hand,
“Here, with both my eyes.”
We are fate, head to toe.
The musty air of temples
reeks with questions.
The guest, my mother taught us, sits lightly
on the outermost seat.
After fifteen years
(five I studied and ten I taught)
after the pigments of my lizard’s skin
tired of morphing,
is time to say goodbye.
Goodbye to the evening jasmine
whose potent scent made my nostrils
feel virginal every time;
to the hoopoe bird that perched
on my balcony, stared at my book
then at me, as if I was Solomon;
to my balcony where I looked for my poetry;
to the full, red moon hanging low,
wanting to be urban;
to Nueth who birthed me
a day every morning!
to the delta and the valley:
the flower bending in the breeze.
What is left of my heart
wants to beat in Palestine —
short on water
flowing with corrupt chiefs,
tiny and beautiful and exposed,
like the poppies of the field,
the land wherein I would not be an odd stranger.
From her ribs a strong hand
uprooted my family tree.
My mother is Maryam
and sister Fatima
and brother Ibrahim
and brother Ahmad
and uncle Mousa
and uncle Issa,
and cousin Sarah
and friend Isaac.
My brain has become warring cantons.
But a demon of hope stirs —
there will be unexpected manna.
My tongue keeps lashing at the conscience
of the farthest angels,
the clock gazing,
and my living rooms moving.