Amal El-Mohtar: Song For An Ancient City

19 August 2018


Merchant, keep your attar of roses,
your ambers, your oud,
your myrrh and sandalwood. I need
nothing but this dust
palmed in my hand’s cup
like a coin, like a mustard seed,
like a rusted key.
I need
no more than this, this earth
that isn’t earth, but breath,
the exhalation of a living city, the song
of a flute-boned woman,
air and marrow on her lips. This dust,
shaken from a drum, a door opening, a girl’s heel
on stone steps, this dust
like powdered cinnamon, I would wear
as other girls wear jasmine and lilies,
that a child with seafoam eyes
and dusky skin might cry, there
goes a girl with seven thousand years
at the hollow of her throat, there
goes a girl who opens her mouth to pour
caravans, mamelukes, a mongolian horde
from lips that know less of roses
than of temples in the rising sun!

Damascus, Dimashq
is a song I sing to myself. I would find
where she keeps her mouth, meet it with mine,
press my hand against her palm
and see if our fingers match. She
is the sound, the feel
of coins shaken in a cup, of dice,
the alabaster clap of knight claiming rook,
of kings castling — she is the clamour
of tambourines and dirbakki,
nays sighing, qanouns musing, the complaint
of you merchants with spice-lined hands,
and there is dust in her laughter.

I would drink it, dry my tongue
with this noise, these narrow streets,
until she is a parched pain in my throat, a thorned rose
growing outwards from my belly’s pit, aching fragrance
into my lungs. I need no other. I
would spill attar from my eyes,
mix her dust with my salt,
steep my fingers in her stone
and raise them to my lips.

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