Refugees Dropped in a Fantastic Terrain

I’ve been thinking a lot about the bloody repression underway in Syria as Bashar al-Assad proves to be as brutal as his father.  Refugees are pouring out of the country, reminding me of a poem I encountered years ago in the anthology The Poetry of Arab Women (Interlink, 2001).  One of these women, Mohja Kahf, describes the experience of her family fleeing the elder Assad in 1971.  She was four when they arrived in America.

The Roc

By Mohja Kahf.

Here’s my mom and dad leaving
all familiar signposts: Damascus, the streets they knew
measurement of time in mosque sounds,
the regular scrape of heavy wooden shutters,
the daily boiling and cooling of fresh milk.
Anyone back home who had no phone fell off
the disk of their new world; tomato cart man,
schoolchildren in skittish flocks. Crazy Fat’na
the Goatwoman, all the newly married cousins,
the porter at the door
they left behind

Here they are crossing the world,
hoisting up all they know like a sail,
landing in Utah. The time is march
1971. They know nothing
about America: how to grocery
shop, how to open a bank account,
how the milk comes, thin glass bottles
on tin chinking them awake,
what “you bet” or “sure thing” meant
in real spoken English, outside
the London grammar books so creased,
so carefully underlined. It was
my mother said, as if a monstrous bird
had seized them up and dropped
them in a fantastic terrain

Here’s my mother
studying the instructions on the coin-
box of a laundry machine,
enrolling us in kindergarten,
tape recording her college lectures so
that she could play, replay, decode
the stream of alien phonemes into words
That’s her refolding foil, stretching
the ten-cent toys
our treasures of Sinbad

Here’s my father staking
his life’s savings on one semester
He works hard and at the end of the term,
on the day before the last dollar
of the life’s savings is gone,
he walks into the Chair’s office
and the Chair gives him a job teaching
Other friendly natives explain
subsidized student housing,
coupons and the good places to find
bargain basement merchandise

The pilgrims were so happy
at being shown how to survive here
after the first long winter,
they had a feast. That’s mom
laughing at the strange loaf of bread
There’s dad holding up the new world coffee
in its funny striped boxes. That’s us,
small, weightless, wobbly
with the vertigo of the newly landed

Here they are, mom and dad,
telephoning back home, where the folks
gather around the transmission
as it if was from the moon
The phone call to Syria was
for epic events only. The line pulsates
as if with the beating of enormous wings.
They shout and shout into the receiver
as if the other end were ages
and ages away. Spiny talon
digs into rock.

In these days, when popular revolts are facilitated by Facebook, twitter, and cell phones, the idea of shouting into a receiver seems itself to be “ages and ages away.” But the feelings of cultural dislocation are always present.  Pray for those thrown into mass migration.


Go here to subscribe to the weekly newsletter summarizing the week’s posts. Your e-mail address will be kept confidential.

This entry was posted in Kahf (Mohja) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. farida
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    love this poem. And especially the last line..evocative of so many things.
    Robin, people shouting into unfortunately not “ages and ages away” for some of us. I have witnessed and experienced numerous comic scenes just watching, listening to, and people (myself included) shouting into receivers. They maybe the receivers of mobile phones..but the connection lines or whatever are still problematic in some parts of the country here. Also in my father’s home have to find a specific location to have network reception. So you see people wandering about..standing on little hilly mounds..stairways get reception. It can be very frustrating to experience but also very funny.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted July 18, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Ah, you’re right, Farida. I, who am still a neophyte with regard to cell phones (I don’t own one but use Julia’s) often find myself shouting into them when I use them. I guess the image I have from the poem is shouting into the old-fashioned receivers. I love the image you convey here of people wandering about in your father’s village.

    Julia and i still own a rotary dial phone (where you dial rather than punch numbers). Fifteen years ago or so, one of my children’s friends went to use the phone and couldn’t figure out how it worked. In this brave new world, we get dated very fast.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Anthology of poerty | Allsolution on July 13, 2011 at 5:44 am

    […] Refugees Dropped in a Fantastic Terrain […]

  2. By Assad Came Down Like a Wolf on the Fold on August 4, 2011 at 4:54 am

    […] Refugees Dropped in a Fantastic Terrain […]


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete