Najwa Ali’s poem, “If shore, then traffic” seems to apply itself to the reader just at that point where perception divorces itself from reality, where the horror of an experience that cannot be located by its perceiver creates vertigo precisely because reality must be redefined.
Ali writes that her poem was conceived as a response to U.S. policies of torture, secret rendition and black sites. Making use of published reports, the poem incorporates quotations from policy-makers including former U.S. President George Bush, as well as from the testimony of ex-detainees. Its paratactic style eludes narrative; the fragmentation that results mirrors the experience of being subjugated and subject to another’s will, and structure. The poem’s consistent use of the passive voice underlies this sense of subjectlessness, and of loss of connection between agent and actor. The continually varied grammatical subjects in the poem’s sentences, likewise contribute to this sense of disorientation. This unstable voice seeks, nonetheless, a definite point, a logical point from out of which the world can be deduced, but like the logic of dreams, anything definitive in these poems seems to give way, as truth moves from one’s own experience, to that of the one who holds the power.
- Noam Scheindlin
If shore, then traffic
On his forehead, a sign of prayer. Not many could recognize this.
It was ordinary: the kind of yellow paper you rip from pads bought for $1.99. The double-stripe
denoting the margin was red.
It looked like a swing at first, a child’s swing with stick figures, moving. I had to look closer.
Finally, I had to enlarge the screen.
What got printed was a fragment, one had to guess the rest but I could read a word in Arabic so
He drew a figure holding on to the chain. There is so much to read.
The word طريقة could mean method or else, direction. At Jabal Tariq, we lost our way but eventually we found Granada.
Carve a name on a rock and watch it move : from hand to hand, name to name.
Root date or history.
somewhere else, Hallaj:
but not yet, not now.
So forward: a path. If you take Urdu, watch it turn, abandon.
Translation with so many tongues tied is bound to be a problem.
Back to the drawing: the board was just one way; famous yes, but they found others to hear his
When water falls in Granada, it finds a way. There are channels so a kind of music travels.
It was not really music but noise to scare you. Like from one of those scary movies.
It’s a movie, therefore fictional, therefore not true, therefore it didn’t happen even if you felt it.
I suppose you could trace his movement on a map but you won’t find residence.
Being peripatetic was not unusual, beginning from that place. Stars were often used to provide
A slight pause where it’s not expected: Poland? Romania? End at the place rented from one’s
When walls fall, it’s best to pay attention to what else slides in alongside joy.
The boy had a habit of watching the sky so he noticed the unusual : disappeared signs.
Interiority is key. Listen:
I was scared, there were no dogs but there was noise there. Whenever you try to sleep, they
bang on the door loudly and violently.
Solve with logic: One of the guards always lies. The other always tells the truth.
During lapses in music and sound effects, figure who else is there with you. It’s hard to tell in the dark.
(∃x)(P(x) and Q(x))
Enter Bab Yaman to find the Salt Market.
Where am I?
In Hodeidah, the boats used to gather like doves.
Where am I?
What is the most valuable commodity in wartime?
Who am I?
It has been necessary to move these individuals to an environment where they can be held.
If shore, then traffic: If more, exchange.
That art was ancestral, routes tattooed with memory.
If valuable, keep or transfer.
Know markets by smell, translate father of the destitute, then those mountains perhaps,
recognizable by wind, but after that it’s impossible to keep track.
Alternative sets of procedures were successful (after Zain)
Music disorients, as does light. Or cigarettes. Or water.
Blank out the world.
Najwa Ali writes fiction, non-fiction and sometimes, poetry. Forthcoming publications include two short essays and a poem in World Literature Today. Her essays have appeared in Wasafiri and Room and she was awarded Room’s CNF prize in 2013. She is currently editing her first novel and working on a short story collection. She was born in Zanzibar.