Bilingual


By Mariam Zafar

I won't forget to teach them to count in Urdu, to show them ek
rhymes with bake or a little cake, and do
sounds just like sow, to sleep or to grow, and teen
can be seen as a mean kidney bean, while char
could be a faraway star, and that paanch
with his raunchy paunch, always preying on stray che!

I know myself—I'll keep tumbling out an avalanche
of rhymes because language is not like groceries, not to be eked
out, rationed. I won't store away my mother tongue in a pouch
in the pantry, but feed it to them in generous portions, do
the right thing. And once in a while, they'll don their charming
shalwars and sit cross-legged on the floor, peeling mangosteens.

I say all this because I remember myself in my teens,
too eager to switch out my pulao for ceviche
and my glass of lassi for some chardonnay,
ashamed of some balding uncle when he would say ek-
scooz me and not excuse me—doesn't he know it's a door
and not a darwaaza?—and wish someone had punched

me in the face back then. I used to imagine myself on a patch
of suburban grass in the backyard, with my canteen
of Dr. Pepper and a plateful of blueberry pancakes and a dog
resting on my bare legs, having kissed a mustache
farewell that belonged to an ekistician
of some sort, with thoughts of charcoal

and Fourth of July barbecues charring
my fixated mind, until one future rainy day, in my poncho
and rain boots, while I was trying to write an ekphrastic
food poem in a diner in New York City with teeny
booths and Nazareth's "Another Heartache"
playing in the background, I began to describe a dosa

instead of a crepe (and no, I won't pretend a donut
is just a gulaab jaamun either), and the poem seemed so charmless
without garnishes of Urdu, and suddenly, the cache
I tried to hide for years unfolded like a pouch,
and out came two tongues instead of one, woven like sateen,
origins eclectic (for the sake of this sestina, spelled eklektic).

And if my children do try to forget, I'll teach them ek
sounds just like ache, and that paanch feels just like a punch.
They'll count to chaar and sail to sleep, in a ship with mighty lateens.


Mariam Zafar is a Pakistani-American writer and a recent graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at The New School. Winner of the 2015 winner of the Paul Vioili Prize in Poetry and a desert dweller at heart, she currently writes between Miami, Dubai, and New York City.

Photo Credit: Jasmin Garcia Photography

Photo Credit: Jasmin Garcia Photography