Farah was struggling to keep her balance in the heaving crowd near the locked gate. Despite how long she would have to wait to get into the hall at Amman University—where she’d already been standing for more than an hour—she remained both calm and cheerful. She was even humming a song—the last one she’d listened to on the way from the border crossing to a modest hotel in the Jordanian capital where she was sharing a room with the university friend joining her for the Fairouz concert.
The pores of life are clogged in this room. Making it difficult to breathe. There’s a hanging smell of death that’s impossible to miss. Visitors are unnerved by it. Except those visitors whose nerves have been hardened by the tedium of their dutiful weekly visits to the woman at the far end of the room: boredom and emptiness compressed into no more than half an hour.
I was leaving El Rafidayn supermarket in Ramallah. I had bought coffee, wet wipes, and two cans of tuna. One of the Israeli occupation’s patrols was parked at El Rafidayn roundabout. I was alone in the area, and the hour was approaching midnight. The patrol blew its impudent horn. I ignored it and kept my course due home. But a soldier opened the window and called out, “Come over here, monkey.”
He stormed out of the house, yelling and cursing. His belly, hemmed in and taunted by high-waisted underpants (which had once been white), flopped over his waistband as if trying to flee from his too-short pants. He cursed those raucous kids; cursed their parents, those bastards; cursed the father who spawned those wretched creatures. As for his other neighbors: in a matter of seconds they were at the black iron railings, gripping onto the bars that surrounded the high windows to stop reckless children from falling yet still allow the adults to enjoy the view over the city. Meanwhile, the Syrian characters of the soap opera were left to discuss amongst themselves the various methods of smuggling weapons and prisoners, and how to free themselves from the yoke of the French colonizer.
Slowly, we raised our heads as hellish cries echoed in our ears, and we looked up in awe and fear. The sky was a summery blue with no trace of a cloud, and the sun had spread out, occupying every corner. We lowered our gazes, licking our bluish lips as we exchanged panicked glances. Our cracked feet were rooted to the furrowed mud, as if our slightest movement might stir up the screeching. We chewed over our terror for a few minutes, our parted lips emitting silence. Our mounts were as terrified as we were, and they scattered around the courtyard at the inn, fear spurring them to shake off the torpor of the midday heat.
Drowsiness weighed down my eyelids, so I stretched myself out on the mattress, swimming in the shadows made by the light of the single candle, lonely in the cold, rugged corner where it stood. My friends had been sleeping for an hour or so. I nodded along to their continuous, flutelike noises, a steady chaos.
Abdelghaffar, owner of the tallest building in the quarter—built by the sweat of his brow, as he reportedly doesn’t tire of saying—is pacing up and down his rooftop, stressed about the stray dogs that have been disturbing the neighborhood’s sleep with their nonstop barking every night—Abdelghaffar’s sleep is more affected than anyone’s, his home being the highest in the neighborhood and receiving the noise from all directions at once.
Both of the Tomaž Šalamun poems in this feature come from books published in the early 1970s: “On the border” first appeared in Amerika (1972), and “Trieste” first appeared in Arena (1973). “On the border” demonstrates Šalamun’s newfound engagement with the United States (he was a fellow at Iowa’s International Writing Program from 1971 to 1972), while “Trieste” is set in a city that Šalamun knew well since it is about ten miles from his hometown of Koper.
Malta is a country caught in the crosscurrents: between North Africa and continental Europe; between insularity and a constructive role on the world stage; between prehistoric ruins and the blockchain. Mifsud is the voice of Malta, reflecting the archipelago in its richness, complexity, and contradictions. His is the voice through which the margins question the center; myths of progress are challenged; and the ancient interrogates the present, as in “Ġgantija II.”
The Ġgantija (“Giantess”) temples of Gozo were built during the Neolithic and are thought to be more than 5,500 years old, older than the pyramids of Egypt. They were erected by a people who worshipped a mother figure, a goddess. Awareness of intergenerationality and the unbroken cycles of life takes on a peculiar intensity when all that you have ever been surrounds all that you are in the present — and all you might aspire to become. It is comforting; it is confining. “Ġgantija II” was commissioned for an interdisciplinary event and an excerpt from it, in the Maltese, has been incorporated into a public sculpture on the island of Gozo.