Judith Wright Poetry Prize: Border control: mediations

Some of the questions two young soldiers asked me

at the King Hussein border crossing checkpoint…


Were you born on a Thursday in Cleopatra

Hospital? Did you come out silently, as day-

break smudged the night sky? And why was

your father absent? What is the name of your

father and his father and his father? Do your

neighbours Mohamed and Faduma water

the orphaned houseplant whenever you are

away? Are you aware your parents first arrived

in Australia with their life savings wrapped in

brown paper, their only English the lyrics to

We are the Champions? Did your mother bring

two dresses, red polka dot and turquoise taffeta,

in her peeling 60s suitcase? Did you correct

her thanks God? Did she put up a fight when

you said you were leaving? When he left? And

how was your first Ramadan alone? Did you

miss the walnut maamoul and Allahu Akbars

tossed at you Eid mornings? Have you told any-

one about the Enid Blyton books you stole from

Stanmore library, because your mother worked

three jobs? If you flatten your gutturals is it still

Arabic? Why did your childhood best friend run

away? What man siphoned her dry? Why does

your grief stick to everything? Did inhaling an

onion help with the tear gas they threw during

the protests of ’03? What remedies did you inherit

from your ancestors? What skeletons? Who taught

you to roll wara2 3enab like that? Does 2am still

grab you by the throat? Amongst the Gitanes and

sewage and Roman ruins, can Beirut forgive its

people? How many times have you phoned your

mother since? Does your grandmother always boil

her water twice? And why are you still shocked

at how things (don’t) work there? What other

city turns its war bunkers into clubs? Its prayers

into curses? And why do the wretched always

sell roses on Bliss street? And how do you revive

the dead? Why did they take your brother? Could

you make out his face amongst the thousands

flickering in the waters of the Mediterranean?

Did he return months after the funeral to ask

you, what wrongs did I commit? What village

do you carry on your lips, balance on your

breath? Have you been to Jerusalem during olive

harvest season? Did you pick and press, before

the settlers gathered like acid in your chest and

poisoned the ancient trees? Have you tired yet of

the may Allah have mercys? Have they tired of

you? Were you afraid of the men with guns those

nights the power cut? Did you splutter your amens

and sweat out your tasabeeh? Do you remember

the countries you’ve lost? Do their crooked rivers

still cling to you? Did you hear the aunties, rusted

arms, coarse hairs on chins, call you lonely? Call

you nobody’s mama anymore? Did you tell your

mama you named him Omar Al Farouk, after the

revered warrior? Why did it end with your Great Love

Who Changes Everything? Did he make your wide

hips tremble with jazz and derbake? Did he linger

long enough on each letter of ya leil, ya ein and

the evening news headlines? Did your hurts trail

behind him like tangled fishing lines, too much for

the life he lived? And does weight like that settle

or lift? And what of the days you feel the earth

greying? And when will you stop writing about borders

and bloodshed and war and death and home? And

home? And home?




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Sara M Saleh

Sara M Saleh is the daughter of migrants from Palestine, Egypt, and Lebanon, living on Gadigal land. A campaigner, writer, and poet, Sara’s work has been published in English and Arabic, and she co-edited the anthology Arab-Australian-Other. Sara received the 2021 Peter Porter Poetry Prize, and is developing her debut novel

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