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‘Fifty April Years’

Khaled Mattawa was a young child in Benghazi, Libya, when Moammar Gadhafi first came to power in 1969. Mattawa eventually came to the United States and made a life as a writer and scholar. He’s published four collections of his own poetry, “Tocqueville” (New Issues Press, 2010); “Amorisco” (Ausable Press, 2008); “Zodiac of Echoes” (Ausable Press, 2003); and “Ismailia Eclipse” (Sheep Meadow Press, 1996). He has also and translated and edited numerous volumes of Arabic writing for English readers. Mattawa is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan.

Jeffrey Brown spoke to Mattawa for Art Beat on Tuesday, and we invited him back to be on the PBS NewsHour for Wednesday’s program. Below is a poem that he read for us.

Fifty April Years

By Khaled Mattawa

A soldier waved our bus
into a detour. We didn’t pass
by Parliament Square that day.
I’d hoped to go to a pastry shop,
coins I saved for a week.
Southern winds, sun shrouded
in dirty clouds, red tongues
of dust on windowpanes.
There’d been a hanging on the square.
On the day of the hanging,
my father drove home,
a poster of the President
on the hood of his car.
He tried to explain.
Over and over he said “survive.”

Once I believed forgetfulness
was a gift from the gods,
not an erosion of the soul.
Now I know enough to say
this has happened before,
and even crueler things—
the bombardment of the ghetto
as the republic ate its lunch
in the park, held its toddlers,
napped on lawns, smoke-sharp air
fevered with the hiss of a flute.

Don’t ask. I too find myself
listening to gurus
who abhor coherence, who tell us
language is a bucket of slop
and we can only grunt and squeal.
I wonder if they say this to silence
the wretched who have found no words,
who wave their torn limbs at us.

This too has happened before:
My brother and I snuck to the car
the night of the hangings.
We intended to tear the President’s poster.
But something held us,
not a policeman’s shadow
or the neighborhood spy.
Not even my father
who hours before
had gone to sleep.

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