“The deepest hole
where the bullet,
my father’s back,
--Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds
I want to know how my father’s eyes remain open when they hold
the weight of an entire country’s tragedy.
In the mirror, my father’s eyes.
The burnt brown that fits just so in a Syrian complexion
is a mystery when placed in the paleness of my half-blood skin
but still, they’re his eyes.
I am only half of him and waning as America takes me in,
as his country is annihilated, also waning into rubble
and bomb craters where children play, but in this mirror I see
the moon of our amber iris darkens, waxes, I am
In Syria, these days,
everything which touches the ground
connects to the dead.
Rubble is mixed
with the ash of many mothers
and the men who sold
gem-toned blue stones
and golden bracelets I hold
close to my heart.
The lucky ones
have been buried in white sheets
instead of burst
like pomegranate seeds
and left to sour
in the Aleppo sun.
My father tells himself
not to picture our loved ones
dead for fear of too much loss,
a fear which has already violently ravaged
those clay bodies.
At night, I sleep
while they count
In Damascus, down the street from my grandparent’s
abandoned flat, there is a juice shop next to a bakery
with a name which I cannot remember
and I know if I went back it would look different
or it wouldn’t be there at all.
In Chicago, just a crescent’s worth of memory
allows me to see my father, really see him across the dinner table,
through these eyes which we have in common like language.
Tonight, he uses our eyes to cry about his father, my Jido’s colon
which destroys him from the inside, about the inevitable
distance between our table and his table in Dubai,
the city in which he seeks refuge.
Jido’s colon heals, but my father can never quite get back
the tryst he had with mortality.
I realize, the severe brown-ness of these eyes is the only thing about my appearance which proves that I’m Syrian. I know that my origins are deeply embedded into my body, no matter how close or distant from my soul. It’s there in the mirror, the stark equivalent of dirt roads in Aleppo.
My red hair is louder than my dark eyes and louder than my last name which comes out in three smooth beats. Alsamsam means dagger.
Ten generations of my father’s pure Syrian family has the same sharp stab of our last name. They bought watermelon from salesmen on the corner and took the force-fed poison of war into their low, growling stomachs.
I experience the violence from afar but still I long for that country. I feel so irrevocably attached to the chaos of its constant imploding though I know it only from a string of visits in the summer and what my father has told me.
I want to know why bodies are made strong for battle but still supple for love, for grief, for poetry. My father’s eyes are so clearly reflected in my face and in this mirror, but I still worry that my Syrian iris fades like a horizon line as the Damascus lights rise into the star-pricked sky.
It’s easier to accept destruction when you let it destroy you, too.
The rubble of Aleppo collects beneath his clear eyes.
Even in my dreams I cannot
conjure an image of the country
my father came from
when it was un
broken. I can remember
the domes, but they’re already
bloated and ready to burst.
Emerald lights emanate from the mosques
but even in photos they flicker
ready to burn out.
The imam’s voice is woven already
with melancholy, even at dawn,
knowing he wakes the city
a day closer to battle. I cannot
see ancient stone walls
without cracks in them,
two thousand years severed
with hairlines fractures
of corruption. It is true
that Da Vinci taught his protégés
to study the cracks in the walls
instead of famous sketches. It is true
that the crescent moon
keeps spinning through its cycles
indifferent, or rather, uncertain,
of the world it reflects
someone else’s light on.
These eyes are mine because they are yours. This war
is mine because it is yours. I do not yet know
how to tell you that years of cold between us
cannot freeze the heat of all those Syrian summers.
The other day we watched a video of a rebel
who cut out a Syrian government soldier’s heart
and took a bite. If you had not come to America
you would have fought as a rebel soldier, too,
against Bashar who was on your childhood soccer team,
Bashar who was not even meant to rule a country,
the sensitive one compared to his brother,
the un-fit son in the words of his father.
You see yourself in that violent rebel
whose family was taken for dead and captive.
You see yourself in the children floating
over water, over borders, attempting to seek refuge anywhere
that will take them in. Not even war can recover
what I have not said to you for so long, what is locked
into my half-blood heart. I cannot even speak to myself
in the mirror because your eyes stare back at me,
mine but not mine.