an essay on profanity / arab girlhood

CAMBRIDGE, MA / 2016

rebeccalynn asks if i remember the first person who called me a bitch. i don’t answer, but it was my mother. i was more surprised than wounded. i must have deserved it. don’t tell me my mother was a bad mother.     this is before we both began the unlearning.    all this before
me and my sister started saying bitch in the same sentence as i love you                   
i love you, bitch           i’ m never going to stop loving you, bitch                  
                         yes, bitch                    

             i learned the unlearning of language’s fingers in the space my mother gave me
to be my whole body even while she was telling me it looked too big in the color white
or in horizontal stripes or stop eating put that down                when i remember these things
she says           you know accountability isn’t about making wounds into knives and saving them for the most strategic time why do you hold pain like a grudge why don’t you say OUCH when people hurt you    but i did, i did, i always did        i am still        it’s all i do.

a man who is my friend tells me my language sounds more like an airing of grievances       
than it does grieving    which is a more delicate sound            for others to hear
but i do not always want to grieve      


INFOCOMMONS / FINALS WEEK / SPRING 2013

i slice my bananas before eating them. this is not because it makes men with penises uncomfortable. not everything is about you. the banana is just easier to eat that way and doesn’t make that soft noise in my mouth, which i hate. i hate tasting that noise. i hate many things. i don’t hate men                  but i like when i can make them uncomfortable for even a moment because that makes time into a window i can slip out of on my way to get shit done.
 

DOWNTOWN BEIRUT / AUGUST 2009

only my people understand the full brunt of the phrase araf tileh hayati, or YOU HAVE DISGUSTED MY WHOLE LIFE because i can’t find the right letters in english for the revulsion that becomes me when i buy a box of tampons and the cashier says to me sahtein, which means eat well or             bon apetit          lebanese people leave backdoors open in their mouths for their colonizers. i don’t know why but sometimes when i see the word “arab” there’s a moment             when it still feels like “dirty” should come before it                this uncanny valley
where i feel an involuntary pang of shame. i know this is only reflex something learnt
but knowing that doesn’t unlearn it.
 

COMPREHENSIVE GRAMMAR SCHOOL / WINTER 2001

my whole class is at recess and i am alone. the sponge unstiffens in the bucket, gorges with water. i lift it out and squeeze, the water dripping clear. i bring the sponge down the chalkboard, combing until the pale green slate is deep and fresh again. the bucket is murky with ghosts of the week’s lessons, lapping against the sponge in tiny waves. i step back and watch the moisture shrink inward from the edges of the board until only a spot is left in the middle, already disappearing and then i am alone again looking at a mirror i can’t see myself in. i volunteered my free time for this, for the quiet, for the same satisfaction i get cleaning dirt from beneath my fingernails then holding them up to the light. good job, jessica, good as new save for the scratches still embedded in the board, waiting to be filled again. next week ms. davis will throw the contents of my cubby all over the classroom to the amusement and then silent horror of my classmates. all the while yelling YOU’RE A DIRTY GIRL, YOU’RE A DISGUSTING DIRTY GIRL.
 

WINTER CHORUS RECITAL / 2005

mama fried cauliflower and eggplant before dropping me off at the school and then heading back home. all the perfume she owns could not mask how ethnic i smell. i don’t hang out with many american kids but i’m pretty sure their houses don’t smell like mine. i slip in undetected and i go to the bathroom first. i’m wearing a shirt that makes me feel unfeminine. i’m not bothered. it’s a white button down that hides the extra of my stomach. my hair is flat-ironed but frizzy. i stare at my mustache in the mirror. i’m just bothered enough by it, but it’s my eyebrows crossing their arms in the middle of my face that bothers me more. they cast shadows under my eyes. they make me look angrier than i am. when i line up with my row, i am only one of two tall girls, but of course mrs. travis didn’t stand us next to each other. no, i am between jonathan and michael. they whisper around me like i’m not there but also like i’m the only thing there. i feel more hairs bristle through my body. i think of the word bitch and how much like a knife up my sleeves it feels              as if they’ve heard me, they stop whispering and back me into a corner. they bark at me. they won’t stop. no words, just barking. no one seems to notice, but they are so loud.
so barking, so red, so foolish. i don’t understand why they do it. i thought americans liked dogs? these boys definitely do not like me. i stare back at them. to keep from shaking, i picture them shitting in yards and sniffing each other’s buttholes and getting shocked with electric collars when they get too close. the next day mama asks me if i want to trim my eyebrows or wax my mustache but i tell her no.
 

BAY RIDGE, BROOKLYN / WINTER 2016

you can tell that arabs don’t often own dogs because when you tell The Man of The House no, you can’t call me that. if you had a son would you say that to him?      he says why do you all treat me like a dog in this house? shou, ana kalb? don’t be so american                   but i have american friends who buy dog sweaters and spend half their paychecks on visits to the groomer, or the vet,  or whatever      and my friends, they look at their dogs with these celestial orbs for eyes,           they throw their arms wide open and welcoming when their dogs chew up a whole couch or a good pair of shoes or make a mess of the rug or drink from the toilet and then lick all over my friends’ faces and then into their mouths, which never stop smiling through it all, and i don’t understand any of this.        i think araf touleh hayati          that is until the day my best friend’s dog sees me crying. she walks over, places both paws on my shoulder, and stares right into my eyes             i smile and for that moment at least, i understand.
 

ARBANIEH, LEBANON / 1978

Rin Tin Tin was my dad’s best friend before my dad was a man. he was a german shepherd who my grandfather swears had the eyes of a person. he was not a house dog, but still rode shotgun every time, even that last ride to the mountains, after he survived the bullet in the city. he would be safer from his post by the garden. he still barked at the militiamen always passing through the village with rifles. one night Jido heard whimpering outside so he opened the door to find Rin Tin Tin                   his tongue a pond of blood, glass shimmering under the moonlight,
his eyes looking right into Jido’s before collapsing.               the militiamen had crushed glass
into his food.               this is not the first hunted dog my father’s family had, but it was the last.
             there is a first time that i was told this story, one day there will be a last.
 

EASTERN MASSACHUSETTS / JULY 2015

i had a dream about someone i fear                 her eyes milky             red outlines     
a scroll in one hand, a quill in another.            on the paper, she drew an eye, rolled it up
and into a pouch full of sand               then hid that pouch in the back of my house’s throat.         
             i’m awake and terrified at the reality of hexes.             next time i visit Teta,
i ask her about the prayer everyone in the family has always asked of her when the evil eye descends, its leathery wing blocking every window to the sun.     she is surprised, but pleased. i’m glad you asked. only a woman can wield this magic. only she doesn’t call it magic.                     
             i tell her i’m ready to learn. i sit up, my spine a quill at the ready.  
no, not today.             why?               a man needs to write it down for you
                                      why?               you need to learn it by his hand.
                                                              i’ll have your grandfather dictate
                                                                                                                  when he’s less tired.

 

BAY RIDGE, BROOKLYN / FEBRUARY 2017

i’m listening to men at the counter rejoice over a potential injury on the red sox roster. i smile into my chocolate glazed, ever the undercover bostonian. an old man and his grandson walk in. his grandfather asks him what kind of donut he wants. He says pink! then smiles into it before taking a bite. i don’t have any brothers so i think this kid looks like he could be my cousin.

his Jido’s eyes, which remind me of my Jido’s eyes, do that twinkling thing you only read about in novels, and then he orders a coffee for himself. a man at the table next to me knows both of them.                     i assumed he was a white man, just as he likely assumed i am a white girl.
he’s not wrong: my skin grants me safety and passage in many contexts.
i don’t need it in this one, but i am secretly grateful that in this moment i am undetected
by my own people.      in this moment, i don’t have to worry about more than my cup of coffee, don’t have to worry about watering down an entire language          in the way i say hello. ever the undercover brown girl staring through another window she just slipped out of. today this does not make me feel lonely. there is too much light and everything smells like coffee. the man at the table leans over to greet the boy habibi! ya bambino! habibi inta! and now the light is coming from his voice and suddenly i am missing everyone in my life.
 

SUNSET PARK, BROOKLYN / 2017

i send my friend a meme about arabic's inherent plunge to the death at the center of a light.  
            how a poem in english can say these flowers sprout from where i feel for you
            and the same poem in arabic will say something like drag her to my grave
            for my bones long to sleep under her feet while she stomps.

feet stepping over those sleeping or dead is disrespectful        so it’s fascinating,
that subversion love makes of the prim and proper that grows over the etymology of us     
that pit surely remaining alive, still     under everything the earth strips
from around that nucleus we all contain        
                                   –this is another thing i dont know how to translate
because how do you dissect a chest with a false bottom opening into a gradient night
its light half-dead by the time it reaches our ears?

my friend says to me this meme is well-meaning, as our language is a treasure trove, of course, but, be careful, America will be quick to celebrate you as liberated native informant.     don’t keep this near the fore of your mind yet be mindful of this    

i tell him i am always aware of this, i will always be quick
                                                                     in raining on those celebrations

 

HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE / SPRING 2012 / CAMBRIDGE, MA

we’re not in middle school anymore so no one in this class
asks me to teach them the curse words            which is a relief when my professor
is pleased i speak another language and says the government will either hire you
or open a case file on you.

 

IN EVERY FAMILY THROUGHOUT THE DIASPORA

you only have daughters. just sell your land back home and forget
that we ever called it home.                 or just leave it to her husband
though i guess even in her name, that’s what you’d be doing.            daughters are just
daughters are just women and women are only good for leaving, only good for giving us
sons that root our family name into the earth.

 

ALL THE FUCKING TIME

i feel scared to tell you that i am not sorry about my anger, but you should know:
                                                 i am not sorry.
not when i think about the men who would rejoice in turning my bones to confetti               
like i’m not already anthrax compacted around the first incisor there ever was.         
the softness of my body makes a sound i hate in your mouth.
             one day you will choke on how Not About You everything is.
until then dance, motherfuckers, dance.           i hate that word a lot   motherfucker  
           why do we use the softness of the body that brought us here to make
a jarring sound inside our mouths       to wield like a new knife each time
           and each time made from another one of our mothers’ bones?           
i try not to say it, but there is a texture so satisfying when it comes out of my mouth
i feel most like a man when i say it      i feel equally as revolting as a man  when i say it       
go ahead, say it                                     Motherfucker.                        good
now we are all truly equal.  this is the only place you can call me as bad as you
and be right.   

i never say this word in arabic
                                               because it actually sounds as ugly as it is
                                                                                                             how fucking shitty i am
 

PALM SUNDAY / 2017

mama calls me, tells me she still needs to schedule her doctor’s appointment. her back always hurts. she tells me to drink more water, says she is so proud of me. i tell her about my healing by way of watching buffy the vampire slayer fling swords at men who interrupt her when she is taking her whole self back                      mama laughs gently and says okay,
                         but i still want grandchildren from you
so i laugh too, i tell her what she wants to hear           and not that these scenes heal me
because they remind me of the first sword i ever saw flung across the room:                        
             her tongue       and i have been practicing my aim ever since   
 

Jess Rizkallah is a Lebanese-American writer and illustrator living in New York. She's an MFA candidate at New York University, and founding editor at Pizza Pi Press. Her collection THE MAGIC MY BODY BECOMES won the 2017 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize as awarded by the Radius of Arab American Writers and University of Arkansas Press. Find her at jessrizkallah.com.  

jessriz_bio.jpg