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Arabic Dictionary Exercise in the Letter ط [or] That Gay Girl from Damascus

I tried to be a good daughter / and tell the right story to the guests, who were / always listening from their window across the road.

Editors’ Note: The following poem by Banah el Ghadbanah is part of the notebook I Want Sky, collecting prose, poems, and hybrid work celebrating Egyptian activist Sarah Hegazy, and the lives of all LGBTQ+ Arabs and people of the SWANA region and its diaspora. Edited by Mariam Bazeed and published as a part of a partnership with Mizna, the notebook will also be available as a print issue this summer, including pieces exclusive to that format. Continue reading work published in this series here.

Arabic Dictionary Exercise in the Letter ط
That Gay Girl from Damascus

“Do you remember I once was a flower… I was a tree…”
Huda Numani

to pacify, humor, to soothe : طَيِّب خاطِرَة

I tried to be a good daughter
and tell the right story to the guests, who were
always listening from their window across the road.

delicious, dainty, tasteful, palatable: طَيَّب، لَذِيذ

I wore my hair in steady braids
and the nice Moroccan dress.
I brought the dates out on a golden plate,
and the tea was just the right shade.

good humored, agreeable, complaisant, obliging: طَيِّبَ الخُلق

I was the perfect perfume
on a woman’s shoulders,
a pleasant accessory, I never complained.
I held my composure like a careful computer,
the dimples in my cheeks were ready and generous
to unfold at any compliment.

I was a star performer.

to starve, to spend the day in hunger: طوى النهار جوعاً

I never asked for seconds but
I always readily ate what came next.

long suffering, enduring, patient: طَويلُ الأَناةِ أو البال أو الرُّوح

The dish water never burned my hands.
I ground the kishiq until my palms bled.

under the seal of secrecy: تَحْتَ (في) طَيّ الكتْمان

Leave me alone!
She’s my friend from school!

enclosed, attached, herewith: طَيَّهُ، طَيَّ هذا في طَيَّه

We made love on the bathroom floor
on a Sunday afternoon
and my tower fell into the sea.

to embrace, hug, take into one’s arms: طَوَّقَهُ بِذِراعَيه

Her lips were like velvet or shark skin.
She made me swear I wouldn’t be with anyone else,
the rope around my throat tightened. But
I would give her the moon if that’s what she asked for.

might, power, strength: طَوَّلَ، قُوَّة، قُدْرَة

She slept with my friend after a year of my devotion.
I was shattered. But I was strong,
I could bear a storm: that’s what lovers do.

time after time, often; repeatedly: طَوْراً، بَعْدَ طَوْر

Break up and return, I would always return.

to subjugate; render obedient: طَوَّعَ، أَخضَعَ

I was still the perfect daughter.

voluntarily, willingly, with all ones heart, readily without demur: طَوْع، طاعَة

I took her on a river trip with my friends,
and she almost flipped over the canoe
because a man kept staring at me.

raft, catamaran, lighter, float: طَوْف، رَمث، عَوَّامَة

I should have run away then,
but we were in the middle of unsteady waters
and I couldn’t jump.

flood, inundation, deluge, cataclysm: طوفان: سَيْلٌ جارِف، فَيَضَان

For my birthday she took me 
to a poetry workshop
then made me swear an oath
I would stop writing poems. I swore.

limit, bound: طَوْر، حَدّ

My love for her was an endless river.
She told me to stop crushing
my embers for the safety of others.

chastity, modesty, virtue, purity: طَهَارة، عِفَّة

I cut off all my hair for the first time
and became round like the moon.

aspiration, longing, yearning: طَمُوُح

A life without restriction.
A home I didn’t need to flee.
A world where I could be
in my fullness with nothing
but the desert and the streams.

to pass through, to cover a certain distance: طَوَى

My mother discovered 
a woman broke my heart
and she opened her horizon
to the possibility of my volcano.
A mountain escaped from my face.

innermost feelings, interior heart, mind: طَوِيَّة داخلية

The sensuality of women.
The laughter of femmes
brown folds and brown lips,
a crown of liras, a forehead of jade,
loving my own face
in the mirror.

freed, liberated, set free, released, at liberty: طَليق، حُرّ

I wish this is how
I could end the poem.
I could say I was set free. 
I could say I became the poet of my dreams.
I could say the world knew, I could say my family understood,
I could say I left, and that it didn’t take years,
that the world of women is holy,
I could say I ran away to Jupiter
where there was no sunrise.

to reassure, restore confidence, pacify, appease: طَمْأَنَ، حَمَلَهُ على الطُّمأْنينة، هدَّأَهُ

I could pretend I’m not afraid
of who will read this poem.
I could tell you that I am a palm tree
ten thousand years old and no wind
can deter me.  But I do not want to
tell you the perfect story. There is
no victory, no pride flag on my door,
only my grandmothers’ prayers
and the dates I bought from the store

going out, coming out, emergence: طُلُوع، الخروج

I am not your tragic queer.
I am not your oppressed muslim.
I am not your warrior either.
I am not your lonely arab rising from the sun.
The ancestors longed for this
moment to come to fruition.
I am only the beginning of a longer story.
May you bury me and
fill me up with earth.

May you bury me is a Levantine phrase of affection, t’eburni. تقبرني. It means, may you bury me so I don’t have to live without you.

The Gay Girl in Damascus is a reference to a fake blog written from the perspective of a gay girl in Damascus, later discovered to be an American man orientalizing and fetishizing the interior world of a fantasy character who he could imagine speaking for herself only in the realm of his mind.