Amani Elkassabany


At the South Wall

steel irises filter
the rays of an afternoon sun
suspended above the Seine’s west bank:
light softens into shadow

through a mammoth mashrabiyyah
like the carved wooden latticework
that screened the windows of old Cairo’s parlors
where unveiled women gathered

in a private shade,
sitting with legs crossed, infants in their laps
the dough of morning’s kneading stiff
under their fingernails

tomorrow’s gossip
falling from their lips
while shafts of sunlight caressed their hair
and settled softly on their shoulders.

Not so different from the light
greeting you at the south wall.
Its circles, rectangles, and octagons
open and close at the sun’s touch,

like twenty thousand diaphragms
expanding and contracting
breathing life into steel and glass, as if to say,
My treasures are not dead things.

Walk beyond the wall
Linger before ancient mosaic tiles that festooned royal Tunisian palaces
Touch carved rosewood doors that opened onto Fatimid courtyards
See the gleaming glazed pottery of Abbasid princes

Imagine the caliph’s engineer designing this astrolabe.
To navigate the seas, one must know the stars,
and a journey’s distance must be calculated
before an empire can be built.

From the pages of an Umayyad Qur’an,
read the Arabic calligrapher’s script.
Before light flooded Paris,
Damascus shone like a jewel.

And long before l’Institute du Monde Arabe’s wall of apertures took the Pritzker,
Andalusian princes smiled at the play of light and shadow
from the lattice screens that shaded their palace windows:
Nouvel’s inspiration.

On this bridge, East and West connect,
partnered in a dance lasting a millennium—

not as long as the sun and earth have made shadows,
but long enough for each to move a hundred thousand times,
forward and backward, side to side,
the way light yields to shadow, shadow to light.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, and educated in the United States, Amani Elkassabany has a special interest in literature that explores the Arab American and Muslim American experience. “At the South Wall” was inspired by a recent trip to Paris. Elkassabany’s short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out edited by Fawzia Afzal-Khan (Interlink Books, 2005) and Women’s Lives (McGraw Hill, 2007), in the journal Mizna, and is forthcoming in Callaloo. Elkassabany holds a B.A. in English and history from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and an M.A. in English from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Since 1999, she has been a member of the faculty at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Maryland. Elkassabany is currently at work on a novel and a collection of poetry. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland.


Published in Volume 10, Number 1, Winter 2009.