Summer Hamzeh, age 16
This poem was written in response to another poem called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Arab Girl” by Arab American poet Jessica Abughattas. I really connected to how she describes her identity as an Arab girl in her poem. I felt so seen that I was inspired to think about how I could portray myself, my family, my mother, my grandmother and Arab women whom I’ve looked up to. Thus, I wrote a poem that relays how I feel as an Arab and an American girl, how I relate to my culture, how I’ve struggled with claiming and understanding my own dual identity, and how I feel both seen and not seen as an Arab American. I wrote the section “La-a, memnua’a, memnua’a” to convey an Arabic phrase without using actual Arabic letters.
The Bulbul Sings
“Habibti, can you speak Arabic?”
I respond in a thread of broken words and fragments
And it’s enough for her to know
I’m not truly her habibti
I was born an American baby
But I miss the smell of spices, cedar trees and jasmine that I never got used to
I miss the language that connected itself through the folds of my body
And maybe I regret splintering it
My name is Summer
The light that reflects off the water
The Syrian heat that broiled my four-year-old skin
I was born in the summer
hearing shrieks of laughter that fill the air as night falls
I hear whispers of Samar
Samar is evening conversations
The night wind that prickles my skin
The evening stars that beckon my body back to
the music and poetry that I don’t understand
my Arabic name
Because it holds more meaning
Laces my fingers in constellations of letters
But there is no place
in that desert night
for me to speak
to meld language
with my tongue
La-a, memnua’a, memnua’a
And sometimes I feel the roots of cedar trees snaking through my veins
Bursting through my hips, wrapping tightly
Spelling letters that ask
“Habibti, are you Arab?”
I don’t know.
Am I Arab?
Am I more Syrian? Or Lebanese?
Am I Middle Eastern? Or Mediterranean?
Am I too white-passing, too American to even claim these identities?
Do I enjoy white privilege too much not to claim it?
Am I annoying everyone with my questions?
I just want to be called habibti
And I don’t want to forget my Arab identity
I think Arab girls are too often forgotten
Hidden in the crests of oil and blood, war and bombs
Lost in the folds of history
Drowned out amidst the voices that perceive them
We are as quiet as the whisperings of the rain that nurses the
green, Levantine mountains
in a lost field
of feathering sand
I wish they would see us
Not as children
Not as servants
Not as white
Not as terrorists
Not as the refugees they don’t want
Not as liberated by their stupid white savior fashion magazines
But they don’t
Arab Girl, You. Are Not. Seen.
So until we are
I’ll bolden my nose
And darken my lashes
And thicken my brows
And maybe someday
I’ll feel the vines of language
Twirl my rib cage
And I’ll let them rosewater my teeth
And the bulbul will sing for me once more
Ya habibti ana