Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Tin House Writers’ Workshop and Dickinson House and prizes from Ploughshares’ Emerging Writer’s Contest, Narrative Magazine’s 30 Below Contest, the 8th Annual Poetry Contest, and the Academy of American Poets. Her poems appear in Best New Poets, Ploughshares, Tin House, Narrative, The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, West Branch, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she is a Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center.
fasting in tunis
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.
– Robert Hass
My God taught me hunger
is a gift, it sweetens
the meal. All day, I have gone without
because I know at the end I will
eat and be satisfied. In this way,
my desire is bearable.
I endure this day
as I have endured years of days
without the whole of your affection.
Your desire is one capable of rest.
Mine keeps its eyes open, stalks
through heat that quivers,
waits to be fed.
The sun burns a hole through
the sky and I am patient.
The ocean eats and eats
at the sand and still hungers.
I watch its wide blue tongue, knowing
you are on the other side.
What is greater: the distance between
these bodies, or their need?
Noon gapes, a vacant maw—
there is long to go
until the moon is served, white as a plate.
You are far and still sleeping;
the morning has not yet slunk into your bed,
its dreams so vast and solitary.
Once, long ago,
I touched you,
and I will touch you again—
your mouth a song
I remember, your mouth
a sugar I drink.
upon realizing there are ghosts in the water
—in memory of the refugees drowned crossing the Mediterranean Sea
I should have known but the water
never told me. It sealed its blue lips
after swallowing you, it licked my ankles
like a dog. I won’t lie
and say the ocean begged for forgiveness;
it gleams unchanged in the sun.
Some things are so big they take and take
and remain exactly the same size.
Darkness is like this; grief too. I cry
and the ocean slips from me—all along
a little sea roiling inside with its own
sad phantoms. For a summer I soaked in
its green warmth, wore its salt like gemstones.
Now the heavy shame: how I waded in
to your grave as if trying it on,
how, when the waves came,
they gave me back.
I never found myself in any pink aisle. There was no box for me
with glossy cellophane like heat and a neat packet of instructions
in six languages. Evenings, I watched TV like a religion
I moderately believed. I watched to see how the others lived, not knowing
I was the Other, no laugh track in my living room, no tidy and punctual
resolution waiting. I took tests in which Jane and William had
so many apples, but never a friend named Khadija. I fasted
through birthday parties and Christmas parties and ate leftover tajine
at plastic lunch tables, picked at pepperoni from slices like blemishes
and tried not to complain. I prayed at the wrong times in the wrong
tongue. I hungered for Jell-O and Starbursts and margarine, could read
mono- and diglycerides by five and knew what gelatin meant, where it came from.
When I asked for anything good, like Cedar Point or slumber parties,
I offered a quick Inshallah, as in Can Jordan sleep over this weekend, Inshallah?,
peeking at my father as if he were a god. Sometimes, I thought
my father was a god, I loved him that much. And the news thought
this was an impossible thing—a Muslim girl who loved her father—
assumed every Muslim girl-heart was a bomb, her love
suspicious. But what did they know of my heart, or my father
who knew it and so drove fifty miles to buy me a doll like a Barbie
because it looked like me, short brown hair underneath her hijab, unthreatening
breasts and feet flat enough to carry her as far as she wanted
to go? In my games, she traveled and didn’t marry, devoured any book
she could curl her small, rigid fingers around. I called her Amira
because it was a name like my sister’s, though I think her name
was supposed to be Sara, that drawled A so like sorry,
which she never, ever was.