Haye, Peshawar

My immediate expression of grief is the Urdu word haye delivered in varying intonations. I say it without thinking, without even paying attention to my reaction. It has escaped my lips so many times over the past two days, haye, haye, haye...

Haye (Urdu), most closely meaning "alack," an expression of regret or dismay.

Haye, haye, haye...

The most haunting memory of my childhood is of being awakened by my mother's screams, "Haye, haye, haye, haye, Guriya, haye, Guriya," after learning of her sister Guriya's sudden death, and of the aftermath: Her restrained sobs late into the night, her voice hoarse from screaming out her grief, her broken whispers grazing my five-year-old ears, "Haye, Guriya, haye, Guriya..."

Haye. Grief brims from this expression. With each utterance, grief grows bigger rather than diminishing, it balloons and consumes the mourner. To the aggrieved, who is gutted by his loss, this expression becomes a tether to life, two syllables holding fast a fractured reality.

What can you say about a loss of this magnitude? But even the word "loss" is misused here. It is not a loss. It is thievery. Loss implies carelessness, as though it were equivalent to misplacing your keys. This is a robbery of 141 lives. And what kind of cognitive dissonance must the aftermath bear? A mother's body betraying her every day, her eyes opening at the same time every morning with the intention of sending her child to school, and then the reality washing over her like winter rain - no more, no more, no more, haye, haye, haye. Does her voice betray her when she calls the child's name in the empty house at dinner time? How many ways does she remember her child? Photographs, dirty laundry, pens and pencils scattered on a desk, books strewn across a room, the screensaver on her laptop of smiling faces, the child's last Facebook post, maybe, "Tomorrow I will...." No tomorrow, no tomorrow, no tomorrow, haye, haye, haye.

Can you imagine, we say to each other, young mothers seeing our toddlers coloring and rolling out soft balls of play-doh with their chubby hands. Haye, those mothers, we say. Haye, Peshawar, we say. Can you imagine? The answer, quite clearly, is no. No, we cannot imagine. It is unfolding in front of our eyes, but we cannot imagine, because how could we? How could we, really, imagine those chubby hands never moving again? How could we ever imagine not hearing that sweet voice? How could we imagine not holding our babies? Could those mothers imagine this? No, and yet they are living through it. What they cannot imagine now perhaps is continuing to live in this new vacuum, leading an altered life in which the child in not present. And no matter how much we grieve for the parents and for those who were robbed from their families, we cannot truly imagine the depths of terror and pain reverberating through Peshawar right now. 

Years after my aunt's death, my mother was rolling out dough to make chapaatis. We were talking about families. I said, "Isn't it great that we are three sisters and you are three sisters, too?" She was quiet for a few moments. Her rolling pin faltered in its strokes and her face began to break along the lips. "We were four," she said. "We were four." 

Grief, when it enters your life, does not ever leave it. 

Please. Pray for Peshawar. Share their grief. Donate to education.

Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop - Days 6 & 7

I am home now. It's a regular Monday evening. Dinner is on the stove - chicken karahi, Jahan went to Montessori today and I went to work. The Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop is over, and I can't wait to go back. This was a healing sort of trip. Mountains and writing and cuddles with a cute baby at night. The last two days of the workshop were the busiest, which is why I was not able to update the blog while I was there.

On Thursday, I had my workshop with Don Mee Choi, whose book The Morning News is Exciting is what I am currently reading. Her poems are chilling in their matter-of-fact-ness. I wrote a poem called Dissonance for the workshop session that she led. It was a poem I had been struggling to write for a very long time encompassing the Peshawar suicide bombing attacks of 2013, but sending a broader message, a sort of reclamation of my identity, my country, my history, but I was afraid that the message would sound contrived. I was surprised at the feedback I received - heartfelt praise and encouragement. Workshop participants told me that this poem was important, this message was important and timely. Later, Don Mee Choi told me, "Keep writing! I like what you're doing." After the workshop, when I was talking to two new poet friends, I almost started to cry while telling them what this poem, this story meant to me, and I could see that they were genuinely interested and moved.

On Thursday night, Haryette Mullen gave a craft talk circling around her book Urban Tumbleweed - A Tanka Diary. She talked about her process, how she decided to start writing a tanka a day to get into the habit of writing, then decided to see if she could do it for a year, and eventually ended up writing for over a year and condensing to create the book. Later in the evening, the staff poets gave a reading, which was open to the general public. They read from their published and unpublished works. Of note, Matthew Zapruder's work evoked both laughter and reflection. It was a long and rewarding evening, but I still had to get a poem ready for the next day's workshop when I got to the lodge. 

For Friday, my workshop with C.D. Wright, I wrote a poem called Chronology of the Evil Eye, another idea I had been toying with for a while, all the tips and tricks and old wives' tales I grew up with. As usual, I got great feedback from the workshop participants and am ready to work on another draft of  the poem keeping their suggestions in mind. Later on Friday, Bob Hass gave his craft talk, which was based on the questions that poets submitted all week. Wonderful things were said in Bob Hass' signature style, many different tangents were explored, and we came back to the statement he made on the first day, "Out in the world, no one wants you to write poetry. They don't mind if you write poetry, but they don't want you to." This time he didn't have to tell us that the Community of Writers wants us to write poetry - we knew. In the evening, we went to the Hall House - the house of Barbara and Oakley Hall, the ones who started the Squaw Valley Community of Writers 44 years ago. SVCW is now managed by Brett Hall Jones, Mr. and Mrs. Hall's daughter along with her sisters, Tracy Hall and Sands Hall. The house was beautiful, and the view from the deck was spectacular. Curry was served from Mexican ceramic pots that were about 3 feet tall. The house was full of tables covered with cheerful tablecloths and candles. Real, not disposable plates were used. The food was divine! For dessert, cookies were passed around and there was also coffee. Bob made a speech after dinner thanking Barbara Hall and the SVCW staff. Then there was a long session of poetry recitation and singing. Poets recited Yeats and Dickinson and Issa and Plath and Tu Fu from memory. Joni Mitchell graced the occasion in the voice of Sands Hall and others sang along. I had a long conversation with Brett Hall Jones in the company of two fellow poets and learned a lot about the history of SVCW. When it was time to say goodbye, we walked outside and were dazzled by all the stars we could see in the sky. Expletives were uttered by one and all upon seeing the breathtaking night sky. I should have spent more time under the stars...

The next day, our last, workshop was held an hour earlier than usual. It was casual - no copies were passed around and we simply read our poems aloud to the group. I read a translation of my mother's poem, originally written in Urdu, titled Mai Har Soorat Maa Hoon translated very clumsily to Regardless, I am Mother. It was a short session and afterwards, we said our goodbyes.

This was one of the most delightful experiences of my life. The poet in me found sustenance and reassurance. I didn't have to use qualifiers and justifications when I talked with my fellow poets about the importance of poetry, what it means to me, why I write. We could all joke about the difficulty of getting published, our writing process, our tastes in poetry. There is no way for me to describe the satisfaction I felt while I was there. The change was profound and meaningful enough that Usman asked me to sign up for the workshop again and promised to take me back to Squaw Valley soon. Jahan, too, flourished in the mountains. She loved going outside and running around in the Village, she loved playing in the lake. I can't wait to go back, but until then, more poems and more reading. Also, I am changing my "Introduction" to something other than "dried-up poet," because if there is one thing I have learned, it is that a dried-up poet, I am not.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

A Poem for Peshawar

Peshawar 2013

let me show you the cost of worship:

a man, with his eyes closed, arms splayed
as if embracing the carnage around him,
another man's hand on his back,
mayhem, comfort

five rescue workers carrying a girl on a charpoy,
rubber flip-flops, one dangling from her foot,
about to fall off,
her bright yellow shalwar with a floral print,
basant, kites                                       dead? alive?
a woman sitting on the ground,
hands clasped, head bent low,
meditative, almost,
a crimson stain on her shoulder, blooming,
a full-mouthed lily, an inkblot
another woman wailing, walking toward the first,
her reaching palm, an effigy in midair,
grief immortalized in the contortion of her face,
kith? kin?
a row of five plain oak coffins,
mercifully closed,
a hand resting on the lid,
precious cargo,
78 dead, over a hundred injured,
death toll climbing, climbing, they say,
like a vine it grows,
no photos of children, yet
no children, please, god, please,
no more, no more