Self Portrait in Egypt, Eating Kebab and Koufta
My first time back in eight years, I think
I recognize the small park we drive by to get to mama’s family’s home
where we used to set up posts for games boys don’t play soccer
here any more Grass lays numb on its side doesn’t try to reclaim the
dirt patches where cigarette butts declare independence Nike hoodies
smoke under trees I’m told heroin is done here now
Mama’s family lives in the same rusted, mossy building
1st floor is mama’s brother’s family
2nd floor is mama’s sister’s family
3rd floor is mama’s mama
We gather in the sufra for al-‘asha They made tortillas wrapped around
chicken chunks, peppers, tahini, tomatoes quiches and grape leaves
and fateera They ordered fries and steak kebab and koufta
In mama’s mama’s sufra
we pull up stools and ottomans to fit around the table She passes
around hot platters food crisp golden steaming delicious drinks are
spilled apologies issued elbows shoved with thirty-two arms reaching
sixteen b’ism Allah al-rahman al-raheem’s are whispered
Here, here mama’s mama says just one more, try one more
I shovel kebab and koufta and soggy fries onto my plate remember the
greasy smell from visits I paid eight no, nine years ago It is
the same place from before
In mama’s mama’s sufra
everyone asks me questions but
I just want to eat
why didn’t you visit sooner? why don’t you want to stay
longer? can you still speak Arabic? mashallah you can!
do you remember his name? doesn’t it feel good to be
home? why do you let your dad treat mama this way?
I pile more koufta onto my plate I lift pieces and
eat them whole letting the grease dribble down my chin
perfectly round like prayer beads I count each falling globule
up to ninety-nine forgive me with every splatter on my plate
interview with the man hit by the truck on the highway between cairo and sidi abdel rahman
Did you see the truck coming?
Would you have moved had you
seen the truck coming?
Okay, wait. Let me start over okay.
Would you please state your name for the record?
How bad did you imagine it hurting, an eighty
mile per hour truck slamming into your body
your body literally exploding I saw your arm fly
and roll down the other lane I saw your blood
cascade on the road and the truck and the grass
on the side of the road There was not much left
when the ambulance arrived just scraps of
intestines and shards of bone embedded in the
Do you think he saw you crossing the highway?
How long would you guess it took the truck
Did you hear my mother scream?
Did you die before or after the recognition
of what had happened?
Is there anything you’d like said to your
wife and kids?
Is there anything you’d like said to the
man who didn’t know what piece of you
to beg to for forgiveness?
Would you believe me if I said I went back
the next day and found your head still wrapped
in the bloody keffiyeh, your face buried in the dirt?
Would you like me to clear the earth from
your mouth so you may speak for yourself?
presage for Amina, married to the man i saw killed by a truck
You tell me you’ve carried your husband’s head everywhere since the accident / tightly and carefully wrapped in the keffiyeh you’d spent months sewing / like Qur’an you let nothing fall on it / not dust / not the children’s eyes / you carry it in a basket hanging from your neck / a ritual to undress it by candlelight / every night it is naked in your bed / facing you on the pillow / when you say you whisper in its mouth / I imagine you stuff in every sigh and every ache / every gnawing pain / clamp its teeth shut to hide those words / every morning it’s bandaged back up / and it hangs heavier around your neck / syllables and sobs rattling between rotted teeth
What I think will happen when you’re buried is / they will place it in a hole far from yours / unable to tell who it was / his face long carried away by insects / leaving only your words locked behind a crumbling skull / but when the dirt is smoothed over / and the recitation of Qur’an ends / he will begin to speak / words he meant for you will spill forth / like a river winding through dirt / sweeping worms and rocks and sediment and roots / they will rage and tear through the earth searching for you / and when they push through the ground / and erupt like springs / and I finally sit to hear their echoes / I will learn I was wrong / the words you tucked in his jaw were never of hurt / but tender treasures you meant to bury with him / they were nervous giggles after your first kiss / disagreements over getting the children a dog / vows you read after al-nikah / phone calls he made when he forgot the grocery list / every shared breath you didn’t have the chance to thank him for / and when you are found / and they fill in your every empty space / it will be warm / like you both are still in bed / arms intertwined / those five minutes before the children call asking for breakfast
Gulf Oaks Assisted Living, 2015
When Room 43 Bed B masturbates, Corinne
and I pull the curtain and wait out his
grunts. After, we say “Good morning!” like
the one three minutes ago had been a
rehearsal. Cleaning the mess, pulling his pants
back up, helping him into a wheelchair
to wash his hands in the sink, I wonder how
he keeps it up everday, knowing we are
just a few feet away. They’re still people like
you and me, Corinne says, wheeling him
out the room, down the corridor. They still
get aroused like you and me. When she
parks him at a cafeteria table, I quickly wipe
cum from his beard we didn’t notice before.
Blind in one eye and cloudy in the other,
Room 12 Bed A insists I’m her son when I
come to refill her water or take away the
hardly-touched food tray. With the Alzheimer’s,
she forgets I was ever there the next day.
Today, I walk in after working the cafeteria
and she stares long before recognition. She
says, Bardon why haven’t you come to visit?
then pisses herself. I clean her, tell her accidents
happen, pat the aged creases of her trembling
legs dry. She leans in and whispers how sorry
so sorry she is to me, her only son, about the
mess she will forget she always makes.
Residents are allowed to fuck, I wonder if
this applies to us, too. While I wait for an
answer, I try to be scheduled the same shifts
as Corinne. After helping Room 12 Bed A
into her wheelchair and changing her dirty
linens, I’m in the shower room with Corinne,
who’s scrubbing and rinsing Room 4 Bed B,
who leans on the shower rails and starts to
shit. Quivering, she shits pile after pile, looks
over, cries Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry.
Saggy breasts clap to her whimpering apologies.
Corinne scrubs and rinses. It’s all right, honey.
You’re fine. I hose apart clumps from behind,
force pieces down the drain. I smell the rest of
the day, and I imagine Corinne bathing me
when I masturbate in the shower that night.
There is a lot of people and a lot of yelling
the next morning. One of the residents got to
scratching her hand the day before and didn’t
stop. She kept digging, the same way my friends
and I did the sand at recess thinking we could
get to China, thinking that if we got just a bit
further, what we wished for would be buried
below. The night nurse only noticed when he came
to see why her light was still on and found her
in a chair, blood at her feet, still dripping from
her hand where she was still digging. Her
daughter and step-son are there, yelling How did
you let this happen? and That’s my mother!
Nurses look helpless and administration gives their
best excuses. I sneak around to her, one hand
bandaged, the other bound to keep away. I ask Did
you find what you were looking for? Silenced
by brain decay, her eyes beg me to help her look.
Monday morning Corinne is extra talkative,
telling me her son got A-Honor Roll, that he’s
graduating from the fifth grade this Saturday.
We deliver breakfast trays before wheeling able-
residents to the cafeteria. Doing our rounds,
we’re told to skip Room 43, he passed away early
that morning. Cardiac arrest, we’re told. I
walk in and pull back the curtain, ready to see
him glance at me, uncaring of what I see as
he brings himself to finish. Instead I find empty
sheets without a crease. Corinne pulls me
along to wheel the others, and I wonder what
happened when no one came to claim him.
Did they wrap him up in his sheets and leave
him out back in a bin for other wrapped, un-
claimed belongings? Is there a discount for
damaged items? I hardly notice when I run
a resident into another’s wheelchair. Later, when
I’m taking Room 12 Bed A’s breakfast tray,
she calls me over, tugs on my shirt to bring me down,
asks Bardon, why haven’t you come to visit?
I collapse into her sheets and cry. Oh honey, she
says, what’s wrong? I shake the bed, weeping–
she runs her hand through my hair, hums me a lullaby
until I can stand.
What are you holding?
I was just six when my grandfather died
I asked my mother if he was mad
I didn’t visit last summer
She cried behind locked doors for
said that the dead don’t hold grudges
What do they hold?
Branches of orange trees stripped
of fruit and leaf
they sit on wooden swing sets
after we leave
“Look at the pecans that used to
grow on this tree”
Did you look?
I’m trying not to hold grudges
Are they heavy?
Instead I’m filling my
seeds and fallen nuts
How do they taste?
I used to dream I’d be an
explore outer space but
fourteen years later
the emptiest places I’ve been
are the halls
in my house haunted by
ghosts I promised not to tell
After my parents
I won’t get married
If you’re looking
you can find me on my knees
praying I won’t rot
without the other half
What other half?
Half my words are spent
And the other half?
All my nights
are spent waiting
I’m sure if you’re
they would sing you
the most beautiful songs
Youssef Helmi: "I am an American writer and poet of Egyptian descent at Florida State University, where I study Creative Writing, Political Science, Arabic, and French. My fiction and poetry have been featured in Cleaver Magazine, Scribendi Magazine, the Rappahannock Review, and is forthcoming in Track//Four Journal. When not writing, I stress drink lattes at local coffee shops, rewatch Wes Anderson movies, and muse over the musical merits of death metal."