Rabha Ashry’s Poems

Rabha Ashry is Egyptian, from Abu Dhabi, and based in Chicago. A New York University Abu Dhabi graduate, she has recently completed an MFA in Writing at School of the Arts Institute of Chicago. She writes about exile, the diaspora, and living between languages. Her work has been published in the Oyez reviewCollected 2018, Airport Road, Electra Street, and Strange Horizons. She spends a lot of time talking to her roommate’s cats in Arabic because she’s convinced they speak Arabic too.


at 2
arranging strangers’ shoes

at 3
beginning to end

at 5
counting silent black cars

at 7
collecting flies

at 9
shopping for costumes

at 11
too messy

at 13
balconies finally part of the architecture

at 14
this is the reverse of myth making

at 15
oh you’ve put on a little weight haven’t you

at 16
get out of my office I never want to see you again

at 17
I bleed dry on Skype calls
a voice that wouldn’t let go

at 18
body grotesque in every mirror

at 19
first snow my first no

at 20
body hijacked
like I had offered it at the altars
of a vengeful god

at 21
running into nightmares
stumbling into ghosts

at 22
a month shy

at 23
twelve months I can’t rewrite
potholes and all

at 24
keys seared into my palms

or maybe
a failed exorcism

or maybe
heaven is under
my mother’s feet

or maybe
I’m just not
the right anthology

or maybe
I’m a very convincing lie

or maybe
I am the contingency plan

the autobiography of barbara streisand the cat
(an encounter with a sad person)

the aftermath of a remembrance,
hand stitched into our history
hardwired into our vocal chords
our ancient gods
their mythology
engrained and engraved
our old tongue when we understood


spoke ancient scriptures
the language of gods soft in her mouth
torn apart
monsters colonizers lovers
a language corrupted for
off-springs of suns and mothers,
suddenly in need of each other


I remember how to pray
a muscle memory

I don’t know a god
just mama’s green eyes
following me
I pray too fast she says
i stumble,

my enunciation unsatisfactory

I remember the neat
her nudging me to move closer
as I stare at the ankles
of the woman in front of me

fold your hands over your chest
stand up with hands raised
touch your forehead to the ground

twice, four times, twelve times
five times a day, 35 times a week
no penance; a stone under my tongue

the murmur of the woman praying

our lives are all questions and disappointment

red sea

I am the floods I’ve read about in mother’s
holy book I’ve studied the art of drowning
I’m trying to explain why I fixate on
beaches meant for winter

I trick myself into smelling salt water
lie in bed let my limbs float
my phantom sun a sometimes sin

I hold my breath long enough
to swallow the taste of
summers by seas like
clogged bathtubs bodies
holding water & djinn

home somewhere between
too cold water too warm sand
so smooth I volunteer a burial
waterlogged scarves in amusement parks
barely a vice a little bit anchoring

I remember being 12 my two layer hijab a noose
& a blue eyed Egyptian boy
beautiful like a husband to be
holding my book like he was asking
for my first riddle
انجليزي ولا فرنسي like they were different
like the foreign alphabets made
the same poetry

Abu Dhabi beaches cost me 15 dirhams &
skin browner than I can confess tan lines
like landscapes my sunburned shoulders
décolletage for fantasy bridal shower

I still have the bells of the same
gold bracelet
snaking around my wrists
a testament to my father’s memory
for forgetfulness

at 8 ,at 11, at 18, at 24
each its own theater


smoke now fills my mouths it is
an unexpected home no it’s
بلدی it’s بيتي stronger than  
أمي a nation or a mother or
both        الكلمات كلماتي                             
there are drums اللغة لغتي
in my eyes don’t look at                   
me like that I grew up
in malls somewhere
far far away

in malls somewhere far far away
a nation بلدی بيتي أمي            
or a mother or both
don’t look at me like that  
اللغة لغتي   there are
drums in unexpected homes
I don’t believe in mothers
I barely believe in dirt
but she gave me
bitter leaves
told me
to quit
my pills
poison or
something that tastes
like mint tea leaves somewhere
now smoke fills my mouths

half asleep

no locks on my mouth
not a tongue heavy with anchor
giving you more than midnight

she’s a laugh I never mastered
everything I can’t drown

ribs that hurt to play

on the wall

everything ;
a crashing

in the truest traditions of
my knuckles
my dry wall

the ghost in the room

the way in which things are foreign.


I wrote you the in
hospitality of my mouth

my first poem was a siren

my open hands speak
write poems about the calligraphy of
a river
breaking a country in half
the enjambment of my broken tooth
a cave

on the other hand


I burned my hair to sleep
your shirt didn’t scream against my skin
I forget the dream and remember the shape
my stillness is a betray
alI choke on my name

due to

your head full of curls I can’t touch
my clothes folded in a grocery bag in a corner
the round green pills they gave me at 19
the quaking within me a scratch that doesn’t scar
a throat that has no room for names


I keep my hair intact if not undamaged
I’ll rinse you out of me
between midnights and sunlights I play at sleep
I don’t scratch I don’t burn I don’t count
it’s a name I only misplaced

in which case

I’ll water it and it will grow
I’ll find my way back into my skin
I’ll dream awake anyways
I’ll find a soft place without you
I’ll live it and it will live in me once more

red ink

I’ve been stuttering poems for nine months
a gestation without a birth
without a name waiting

cartography was never my thing
I can trace veins down my arms
call them my blue rivers

I have abandoned the Nile
I don’t remember it’s color or smell
just the boat with neon lights that one night
and the too-loud music no one liked