From the Desk of Our Poet-in-Residence, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

Letters To & From Home
(Part 1: Amman, Jordan)

The bookstore I’m reading in tonight is decorated for the holidays, complete with heart-shaped ornaments in the red and white fabric of the hatta, the headdress worn by our grandfathers. On the shelf behind me, looking elegant with her jet-black hair styled in a chignon, Fadwa Touqan, the great Palestinian poet of Nablus, graces the cover of her autobiography. I take the placement of her book as a pre-reading omen: the poetry grandmothers have our backs, and they’re watching over us as we write and send our words out into the world.

I stand with my back to the autobiography section, and I narrate some of my own for the beautiful audience before me. I tell them about the poem of leaving Amman as a child, of becoming an immigrant, of the first war that sent me away. I tell them how many decades had to pass before I could write it. To my right, a little below my shoulder, King Abdullah smiles from the cover of his book. The bookstore sits inside a shopping center, and when the door opens, wisps of Christmas carols waft in. I read about leaving and in the back row the echo sings: “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

There is a thick haze hanging over Amman’s typically blue skies. I didn’t expect this in December, which is normally cold and can bring rain and even snowstorms to this city of crowded hills. But there has been little to no rain, and it is what people fret about as we talk over coffee and delectable sweets. That and the ill-begotten pronouncements of the current White House resident about Jerusalem. Crops will die in frost or drought. Limping economies will finally falter. People will continue to suffer.

Every evening there are protests in front of the American embassy, a sprawling compound whose security barrier swallows street after street in its elegant Abdoun neighborhood. Better known for its fancy shops and restaurants, Abdoun is an unlikely place for political graffiti, but some determined soul has spray-painted FREE PALESTINE across a wall as close as they could get to the embassy.

In the bookstore, I quoted Gwendolyn Brooks to the audience: “Poetry is life distilled.” On my last morning in Amman, I walk through my grandparents’ neighborhood. Elweibdeh is showing its age, but the wrinkles of our loved ones are mostly endearing. The same mosque with its stained glass windows around the corner, the bountiful olive trees spilling over garden walls onto the sidewalk, the same produce stall and bakery. Down the road are the new and decidedly hip establishments I do not recognize, where tourists and foreign students of Arabic gather with locals at a café unironically named Rumi. Seriously, Rumi. This is life distilled, this poem of a morning, full of what stays and what changes side by side, jostling for space—physical and emotional. All part of a place I often call home.


LenaLena Khalaf Tuffaha  is a poet, writer, and translator. She is the winner of the 2016 Two Sylvias Chapbook Prize for Arab in Newsland, and the author of Water & Salt, a book of poems from Red Hen Press published in April 2017. She is currently Poet-in-Residence at Open Books: A Poem Emporium.