A Grammar for Fleeing (and other poems)

A Grammar for Fleeing

You know, when an emigrant needs something to hold on to, a spider web looks like
a wooden beam. –Rafik Schami, Damascus Nights
Hudood, the word for border,
looms in her mind’s vocabulary
like a passive voice, a noun for longing.
Maybe the undulating line runs in water
or in sand, splays on the imagined cover
of a passport, map for a new home.
She has vowed to cross it, daughter on her hip,
two legs doggedly moving apace,
two legs suspended, bare.
She plans to learn the other side
like a foreign language:
first the stones as single utterances,
then the houses and hills, sentences.
The scenes will warm in the light of the sun.
Now it’s dark and the little girl
is ensconced in her arms, eyes closed,
but a lulling breeze could spell betrayal
if they aren’t careful. She reaches
between her breasts for the pendant
inscribed with amal, hope, rubs it
like a magic lamp. The din of conversation
starts to rise as light gathers at the horizon,
where the singular message of true East
has grounded her since childhood.
Lay low, look west, wait for the boat.
She understands the grammar for fleeing,
unspoken rules that decide how
the journey will end, when words
like harb, war, and joo`, hunger,
might ebb and not flow.
Her toddler wakes asking for water
while the sea responds with crashing waves.

A Language for Colors

Asfar she would say
pointing at a yellow tulip.

And the color of grass?


My young daughter had mastered
not only the colors
but also the throaty KH,
two letters in English
that equal one in Arabic.

I would tell her it’s the same sound
as in khamseh, khubez, sabanekh—
five, bread, spinach

and my favorite name
Khaled, Immortal.

I once confessed to a friend wistfully
that I would not name my son Khaled
because Americans couldn’t pronounce it.
Now I wonder about such wisdom:
even my eight-year-old
could constrict her throat muscles the right way
to say Khaled—

immortal like an ancient olive tree,
a flame that never abates,
a mother’s love.

This spring, I saw a patch
of double hybrid tulips,
asfar tinged with akhdar,
and thought of my daughter’s 
satisfied grin at learning those words
thousands of miles away
from her grandparents’ home
in Palestine.

Here we are, hybrid Americans
living between two languages
and speaking in colors,
splendid flowers in a distant field.


  • Zeina Azzam is a Palestinian American poet, writer, editor, and community activist. Her poems appear in literary journals including Pleiades, Gyroscope, Passager, Mizna, Sukoon Magazine, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Split This Rock, Barzakh: A Literary Magazine, and Voice Male and in the edited volumes Tales from Six Feet Apart, Bettering American Poetry, Making Mirrors: Writing/Righting by and for Refugees, and Gaza Unsilenced. Zeina’s chapbook, Bayna Bayna, In-Between, was published by The Poetry Box in May 2021. She earned an M.A. in Arabic literature at Georgetown University.

  • L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was the first book in what became a fourteen-volume series. It sold nearly 15,000 copies within a month of its publication in September 1900 and remains the most popular of the Oz books — not least of all because it’s the only one illustrated by W. W. Denslow, whose depictions of Dorothy, Toto, and all the other creatures and landscapes of Oz have become so iconic as to be inseparable from Baum’s story. From Public Domain Review.