Watching Her

A loud — ha!
shows the gap in her teeth,
and a smile so big her eyes
are drawn to slits.
Here in the small room
where the women crowd,
there are stories to tell.
“You may believe this or not…”
She laughs.  Her belly bounces.
She shifts the weight
of bulky breasts and hips
this Umm Habiba,
who wears soft
light cloth that covers her
like clouds over a mountain.
Her head’s wrapped,
in a length of Abyssinian
textile, burnt orange and ochre
that favor her skin, and when she walks she sways,
a boat in weather.

She smells of musk and amber.
She spills out of this poem.
Tear up her picture, let no image last,
forget what she might say.
She made some jests
but no one wrote them down.

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i. Foreigner in Aksum

Imagine how it chafes, the lost
Arabia, her cousin’s gab gone
too, her husband’s vanished touch —
gone, her favored niece, her housecats;
she misses even the desert heat.
She stands for late night prayer,
although God offers her no solace.
She kneels alone in the insect din,
the monkey screech, the hyena chuckle.
In the jungle there are more
than imaginary tigers —
how fast they take a goat, a child.

ii. keep the faith, do good works…
and [hold to] patience in adversity.[Q.103: 1-3].

Here, local women have a hand-on-hip look,
visible without the hand, without the hip,
and talk a cockeyed talk she never caught
but she could understand her husband’s taunts.

When umma families died, completely gone,
and when her angry daughter turned
her eyes away — my mother, phagh!
she understood a need. Then
did she set out remedies,
those tiny jars of salve and scent,
the ones to ease the rub and itch of exile?
Did she fast and keep the faith?
Did her mouth taste of Allah’s word
until at last she heard Medina call?

iii. Plant a tree

After the orchids, the dress,
the wedding words, the feast, the lion on a chain,
she might appear holding the kosso sapling,
the tree that flowers with ten-thousand stars
and sets its roots in earth. She would have helped
to dig the hole. She might say simply:
“God willing, It’s my final day in Aksum.
When the end comes, plant a tree.”

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From Untold: A History of the Wives of Prophet Muhammad, Tamam Kahn. Rhinebeck, Red Elixir Press, (Monkfish Books) 2009.