Nathalie Handal



The Combatant and I

Twelve Deaths at Noon


Conversation with a Soldier when no one is Around


Blue Hours                                                                                                                                    

Strangers Inside Me

Around My Body, Lost Songs

Pequeñas Palabras                                                                                                                         








The Combatant and I


It’s been a long time-

where have you been, where are you?

I miss your frowns,

the dark shadow on your oval chin.

I can’t breathe at night, can’t feel my legs.

Dreamed I stopped seeing.

Are you lost?

Are you returning? Am I returning?

I suppose you would say,

I should be happy that I can still love.


It’s been a long time.

Stop looking at me from so far, come to me,

stop following me, come to me,

through these dark alleys,

yellow-green forests, these hills of stone,

rows of olives and lives;

stop walking behind me, come to me,

you make me lose my way and ways…

I look out the window and think of

the shadows behind your shadows

we both don’t recognize,

think that between us,

sleeps the words we had to leave,

think of the movement of hay twirling

on that breezy afternoon we crossed to,


we did not expect to be.



Twelve Deaths at Noon


I look for their eyes, only see the dust

at the corner of their hearts. It’s twelve o’clock. Midday.

Everything starts here. The sun heating our foreheads.

The arrival of a murdered son or husband. The bullet

they vow to find. The voices like drumbeats in our ears.

The strangeness of light between these boys and their stones.

The prisons in our souls. The rivers dying in our mirrors.

When was the last time we looked at our reflection

and saw ourselves, not jars of eroded bones,

not the small child in us looking for our burnt eyelashes.

When was the last time we slept without dreaming we died,

without wishing the killer dead, without looking for our gun

while making love.


I pass tanks, soldiers, orange blossoms,

look at the earth, wait for a message a song.

Hear nothing. The land lies bleeding. It’s noon. The boys,

now angels in stone, have come back to a different home.




A night without a blanket, a blanket

belonging to someone else, someone

else living in our home.

All I want is the quiet of blame

to leave, all I want is the words from dying tongues

to fall, all I want is a row of olive trees,

a field of tulips, to forget

the maze of intestines, the dried corners

of a soldier’s mouth, all I want is for

the small black eyed child to stop

wondering when the fever will stop

the noise will stop, all I want is

a loaf of bread, water

help for the stranger’s torn arm,

all I want is what we have inherited

from the doves, a perfect line of white-

where are the bodies?


Conversation with a Soldier when no one is Around


When no one is around

I change my address.

Can’t change my face

give my father freedom

my brother peace

so I change my address.

Change trains

to keep me going

bring me back.

Change lovers

to keep me coming

keep me going…


When no one is around

I see the book about

to land on the wet floor

but do not pick it up;

can’t leave myself alone.

There are secrets we

can’t leave unguarded,

secrets we don’t

even know we have…


When no one is around

and a child is shot dead,

what will the fighter

or the soldier do, what did you do?

Who cares but the mother

and the father, who are dead

who died yesterday, a while ago,

who knows, no one was around…

were you around?


When no one is around

who will answer your questions—

take your time, don’t answer right away,

no one is around to hear you,

I am no longer here

no one is around

you know that.


When no one is around

the leaves

dye the earth the color of Fall,

a fall we never see coming.





We are who we are,

and home is home

to keep the seasons dreaming

to remind us of

ahweh, zaatar, khoubiz, kaak—

the common things


I am no longer sure what I see:

a field of wheat or a field of olive trees,

a herd of sheep or a burning mountain,

not sure if it matters

now that I stand alone

at the corner of a small road

somewhere between my grandfather

and what seems to be my present…

Am I as old, as young,

as sad, as torn, as strange, as sorry

as those I have lost?

I try to remember all that has been offered to me:

winkled bed sheets, library passes, old passports,

ports we stopped at for an hour…

we are who we are; are we who we are?


We write a ballad to celebrate ourselves, baladna

and wonder, is that what it’s like

to dance in Arabic…



Blue Hours


In the blue hour,

the negrita cries, I hide

not to deceive the darkness

or myself…


La negrita is not far

from where I stand

her eyebrows

her one hand…

I too am visible now, behind the tree

behind the night, behind the cry

and all I want to know

is her name

and ask her:

have you ever heard

your heart undressing,

seen a stray dog at midnight,

realize he understands this hour

better than we will understand any hour?

have you seen yourself in every woman

with your eyes or in women with eyes

more difficult than yours?

have you ever really heard your voice,

echoing in your nipples?


She offers me tea,

we end up drinking coffee,

trying to reach the bottom of the cup



now, my teeth are stained, my English

failing me, my Arabic fading

my Spanish starting to make sense…

we are in a finca now—

perhaps we are safe,

perhaps we desire nothing else,

but I can’t stop bowing in prayer

five times a day,

my country comes to me, tells me:

Compatriota- I will always find you

no matter what language you are speaking.

Strangers Inside Me


We all have reasons

for moving

I move

to keep things whole.

                        -Mark Strand, “Keeping Things Whole”



Outside, the quivers of winter,

a sudden moistness, a slow darkness.

Outside, strangers looking for themselves

in the silent motion of my handwriting.

I stand at the corners of night

hoping that violets will remain purple in winter.


There is a country on my tongue

a small world between my heartbeats.

Strangers inside me that understand

the strangeness of strange things,

that understand they are not strangers

to each other but it seems strange to

others that they belong together, as if

we can refuse ourselves ourselves.


Words slide down my throat

like velvet rivers and outside

a tiny echo is calling me

as I travel and move

from one continent to the next,

move, to be whole.



Around My Body, Lost Songs


Before soldiers and dictators

invaded the bridges over the Euphrates,

before speeches haunted our dreams

and army trucks scrolled their wheels

deep in the heart of Iraq,

every evening was evening in Baghdad.

elegant, convincing, orange skies seducing

neighbors reciting Al-Mutanabbi,

women smoking sheesha, dancing a small dance,

coping with the terror buried in the dark lines

under their eyes.


Before tonight, the lost songs

danced around my body.

But tonight the desert blows at the desert looking for itself

the storm enters the storm to chase the invaders,

bombs explode the sleep of children

leave them orphaned, hungry, leave

them collecting skulls, bodies of victory…


Tonight the sky’s colonized

where will heaven go?

The earth a battlefield

the new refugees refusing their new destinies,

running away from their shadows,

running toward Babel, toward the Arabic language

well preserved


until now, until then,

lover—don’t you understand?

I did not die even if they killed me,

I have forgotten everything

just so that I could never forget…



Pequeñas Palabras


It all ended here

between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy

our disagreement about wealthy liars and poor thieves

left at the corner of these two avenues, left

the way we leave an unfinished sentence hanging

if we think it might betray us, left

the way we leave the awakening of morning

in a place we do not recognize, left

the way we leave our country rising

from a dream – its rios, colinas, llanuras

the way we leave the radio

our grandfather and father listened to

leave the barbershop we passed in front

everyday empty usually empty

left the way we leave it all one day

except the haze of a rainy afternoon

and the words we know best:

cerveza, comida, musica, miseria, amor.



A cup of empty messages in a room of light,

light that blinds; blinded men lined up

the young are unable to die peacefully, I hear a man say.


All is gone: the messy hair of boys, their smile,

the pictures of ancestors, the stories of spirits,

the misty hour before sunrise

when the fig trees await the small hands of a child.


Now the candles have melted

and the bells of the church

no longer ring in Bethlehem.


A continued past of blood,

of jailed cities

confiscated lives,



How can we bear the images that flood our eyes

and bleed our veins: a dead man, perhaps thirty,

with a tight fist, holding some sugar for morning coffee.


Coffee cups full

left on the table

in a radio station

beside three corpses.


Corpses follow gunmen in their sleep, remind them

that today they have killed a tiny child,

a woman trying to say, Stop, please...


a single man holding on to his prayer rug,

holding on to whatever

is left of memory…


listen, how many should die before we start counting,

listen, who is listening, there is no one here, there is nothing left,

there is nothing left after war, only other wars.





water will reach

the rim of the glass but will not

allow itself to leave the glass


violence will erupt and horrors

will tie themselves to

every bare tree


tonight we will hear speeches

that tell us to open our legs

to scandal like whores


tonight we will see

tattooed waistlines and kalashnikovs

in the back trunks of cars


paralyzed memories and

revolutions behind

every house door


we will see red landscapes,

stones of light, light feathers swaying

in the nightscape


and wrinkles will multiply

on our faces tonight as each

dead rises from its grave


tonight exiles, immigrants, refugees

will be caught in songbirds,

cracked asphalt will recite old verses


tonight we will listen to the cracks of narratives

the screams of those strangled

by the night at night


we will listen to the longing

of purple evenings

under god’s robe


tonight love will be difficult.


Poems from the volume “The lives of rain” by Nathalie Handal




(In order poems appear)                                                                                                         

“Baladna”: Baladna: my country; ahweh: coffee; zaatar: spice, mixture of toasted sesame seeds, dried thyme, sumac and salt; houbiz: bread; Kaak: Arabic cookie.


“Blue Hours”: negrita: little black woman; finca: farm; compatriota: countrywoman, compatriot.


“Around my Body, Lost Songs”: sheesha: water filtered smoking pipe, also known at arguileh.       


“Pequeñas Palabras”: Pequeñas: small; Palabras: words; Abraham Lincoln and Kennedy: two main avenues in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; Ríos: rivers; Colinas: hills; Llanuras: fields; Cerveza: beer; Comida: food; Música: music; Miseria: misery, poverty; Amor: love.

Nathalie Handal is a poet, playwright and writer, who has lived in Europe, the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Middle East. She finished her MFA at Bennington College and her post-graduate degree at the University of London. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines, literary journals and anthologies worldwide, and she has been featured on NPR, KPFK, and PBS Radio. She has directed and is the author of numerous plays; and of Traveling Rooms (Poetry CD), The NeverField (poetry book), and The Lives of Rain, Shortlisted for The Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize/Pitt Poetry Series. She is the editor of The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology, an Academy of American Poets bestseller and winner of the Pen Oakland/Josephine Miles Award. Handal is presently working on two theatrical projects, finishing a short story book, editing two anthologies, Dominican Literature and Arab-American and Arab Diaspora Literature (forthcoming, Fall 2005); and co-editing along with Tina Chang and Ravi Shankar, Asian and Middle Eastern Poets. She is Poetry Books Review Editor for Sable (UK) and Associate Artist and Development Executive for the production company, The Kazbah Project. She teaches at Columbia University.



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