Seattle Arab-American Poet Seeks To 'Remind Us Of The Human' | KUOW News and Information

Seattle Arab-American Poet Seeks To 'Remind Us Of The Human'

Dec 9, 2015

Washington state poet laureate Elizabeth Austen presents two poems by Seattle-based poet Lena Khalaf Tuffaha: "Fragment" and "Running Orders." 

Tuffaha was born in Seattle, but spent her youth in the Middle East, the child of a Palestinian father and a Jordanian-Syrian mother.

Tuffaha told Austen she hopes her poem "Fragment" will provide a different kind of context for events in Syria.

"My hope for poetry, and all art, is that it reminds us of the human. It takes you back a few steps before the explosion," she said. "I keep wanting to gently help the reader pull back the curtain and see the human beings living inside the house before it's destroyed."

"Fragment" was written in response to a drawing by Karen Cappotto, and originally published by Broadsided Press for the "Responses for Syrian Refugees" series. Broadsided Press specializes in collaborations between poems and images.

In the summer of 2014, during yet another war in Gaza, Tuffaha redirected her frustration and helplessness into a creative response and wrote the poem “Running Orders.”

She posted it to her Facebook page, where the poem was picked up, re-posted and tweeted around the world. It was translated into several languages - including Hebrew.

Read the two poems below, or click the play button above to hear Tuffaha read them.


There’s nothing living here,
Only sea shells warped to the shapes
of their exiled residents,
trinkets from the kingdom of childhood.

The forecast calls for white phosphorous
with occasional sun breaks
barrel bombs in the afternoon,
and in the evening
checkpoints and falling temperatures.

We reach for what is useful,
a skin to wear between weather
patterns, a flame resistant faith,
hope enough
to fit into our backpacks.

Used by permission of Broadsided Press.

"Running Orders"

They call us now.
Before they drop the bombs.
The phone rings
and someone who knows my first name
calls and says in perfect Arabic
“This is David.”
And in my stupor of sonic booms and glass shattering symphonies
still smashing around in my head
I think “Do I know any Davids in Gaza?”
They call us now to say
You have 58 seconds from the end of this message.
Your house is next.
They think of it as some kind of
war time courtesy.
It doesn’t matter that
there is nowhere to run to.
It means nothing that the borders are closed
and your papers are worthless
and mark you only for a life sentence
in this prison by the sea
and the alleyways are narrow
and there are more human lives
packed one against the other
more than any other place on earth
Just run.
We aren’t trying to kill you.
It doesn’t matter that
you can’t call us back to tell us
the people we claim to want aren’t in your house
that there’s no one here
except you and your children
who were cheering for Argentina
sharing the last loaf of bread for this week
counting candles left in case the power goes out.
It doesn’t matter that you have children.
You live in the wrong place
and now is your chance to run
to nowhere.
It doesn’t matter
that 58 seconds isn’t long enough
to find your wedding album
or your son’s favorite blanket
or your daughter’s almost completed college application
or your shoes
or to gather everyone in the house.
It doesn’t matter what you had planned.
It doesn’t matter who you are.
Prove you’re human.
Prove you stand on two legs.

Used by permission of the author, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha.