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a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society

Claudia F. Saleeby Savage

Sitti Teaches Me Arabic as Pastry

Arabs invented mathematics so you triangle

the dough so quickly I dizzy.


I thought everyone ate them. Sweet

fatty lamb and rich pine nuts. Cinnamon

and bitter parsley. Yogurt tang to sweat

the tongue. Your recipes undecipherable

dashes and ribbons across the paper. A dance

in the mouth, even before the mouth.


Silent, confident fingers that crease and twirl.


It can’t be 30 years, Sitti.


How could you go before teaching me

the word for faith, for hope? February 2021:

12.4 million Syrians are food insecure.

80% of the displaced are women and children.

Where is your recipe? Numbers I can

understand. 1 Tablespoon of cinnamon.

4 cups of milk. Sorrow steals my sleep.

I am not immune. I need handfuls

of surety, pastry commune.


Green parsley bruise the only ache.


after Joy Katz


Was it the Oklahoma City bombing? No. It was my grandmothers’ living rooms.

Meditations on Germany. Iran. Lebanon. Israel. From the French, terroriste, 1795,

to take down a king. Guillotine for injustice. Or, 1920, to colonize a country. One

grandmother could name hers. Hitler killed her, she said fingering a photo

of my great-aunt’s curls. Terrorist = fanatic, one who causes terror, but, also,

terrorist = those who seek to purge perceived difference, to create the world

in their image. Someone who, as Voltaire said, “persecutes his brother

because he is not of his opinion.”


My other grandmother would say, fear your neighbor. They’ll lend you

milk one month. Hitch your feet to the car’s bumper the next.


Both grandmothers assumed everyone who wasn’t us wanted us dead.


We/you are an impediment. We/you who cause alarm; dread. We/you

who cause panic.


My grandmothers are dead.


Tell me: In which moment do you become blind to another’s face?


It is sometimes hard to leave the house now. Signs everywhere declare the

need for justice. The word gives me hives. I do not know when here became

here. I do not know when my brothers and sisters in Lebanon, in Syria, in my

own town, went from demanding with voices to demanding with guns. And was it

us or you who changed the flag from symbol to spear? Are we fighters? Are we



I am uncomfortable with my own face. My rage sparks daily. For my daughter’s sake

I hug my own chest. Breathe into my rapid heart. Stop now, I say to the mirror.

Stop now, terrorist.

To kill a poet first you must destroy the world

for Mohammad Bashir al-Aani


when you touch me after our daughter is born

you recall that water goes back to the sea


though I’m a stream forgotten by the clouds

the valleys of me don’t plump


I’m salted, torn meat; I hang on

invisible hooks


the past dissolves in our daughter’s hungry

hole, mine is barely alive


I could fake it—but that was never our story

even now as you pretend to want what’s left


a friend said she gave her pussy to the second child

her clitoris cleaved and jagged


I’m a poet

I claw my way to desire


the poet takes whatever they feel

and heals the world


(before the war the orange tree silenced us with its blossoms)

(before the war we were three: my wife, my son…)


the poet takes whatever is left

and breathes it back alive




Syrian poet Mohammad Bashir al-Aani and his son, Elyas were kidnapped and murdered by fundamentalists in Syria, March 2016.


Claudia F. Saleeby Savage is part of the performance duo Thick in the Throat, Honey. Her latest collection of poetry is Bruising Continents (Spuyten Duyvil) with recent work in BOMB, Denver Quarterly, Columbia, Nimrod, Water-Stone Review, and Anomaly (the interview series “Witness the Hour: Arab American Poets Across the Diaspora”). She is a 2018–2021 Black Earth Institute Fellow and her collaboration, reductions, with visual artist Jacklyn Brickman, is forthcoming in 2021 in Detroit and Portland. Her poetics are influenced by rabid reading, Alice Coltrane, and long hikes in drippy forests. She lives with her husband and daughter in Portland, OR.

Other works by Claudia F. Saleeby Savage »

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