Speaking of lemon trees and home: Late night Poetry

we speak of lemon trees

that are,

that aren’t.

we speak of olive trees

– one of the first things I noticed in the Diaspora

was how the olives tasted different-

and how home tastes different.

the further away I am,

the more time passes,

home is different,

but I think it still welcomes me

even when it’s painful to write about

because sometimes

it seems like I write

about lemon trees

that are,

that weren’t,

and olive trees

-the shade of those trees are different –

that call us,

that want us,

that remind us

where we were…and how long we’ve come

for home,

for the homes we make.


Sebastia, Summer 2017




The Lingering Smell of My Grandfather and Father’s Old Antique Shop

Some time around October of 2016, when I was still adjusting to moving back to New Orleans, I found myself stopping in front of a gate entrance with a “No Parking” sign on St. Louis in the French Quarter. I paused for a moment. I always passed by this, but a gust of air carried with it a familiar smell this time…a smell I could not quite put my finger on until I stood there for a moment.

I looked into the gate entrance. Beyond the gate, there was a long hallway to what seemed like an abandoned courtyard, like the ones I imagine to be a part of old Syrian or French homes. The smell was mixed of paint and wood, and it was too familiar to leave behind. I stood in place for a few moments, and my nose flared as I took it in. I can’t begin to tell you about the connection between smell and memory, but right at that moment, I saw what I was looking at.

The gate entrance led to my grandfather and father’s old antique refurnishing shop. I spent most – if not all – of my weekends there as a child growing up in New Orleans before I moved to Palestine. That hallway that led to the courtyard was where I would put one hand in my mother’s palm and one in my father’s so that they could swing me high up in the air on our way out.

The empty courtyard was where my brother and I would pick on each other or entertain ourselves with whatever toys we got from the French Market.


The Courtyard, French Quarter 2018

My grandfather and father owuld be inside working on antiques – painting, refurnishing, polishing. My grandfather would call out to my brother as “Abu Steif” and myself as “Hasheematon”, adding an Arabic grammar affect to my name. He would give us paint brushes he wasn’t using and have us paint on something him and my father didn’t need. After that, he’d give us cotton balls with a bit of alcohol to wipe the paint off our hands.

The paint stains never left his hands, and they haven’t left my father’s.

I stood there a few days ago and looked in. The smell was still there. I moved to Palestine. Hurricane Katrina happened. My father and grandfather relocated their business to a second location since. Thirteen years passed in Palestine. I moved back. A year passed. My grandfather passed away. But the smell is still there reminding me of time…where this journey began.

My Grandfather: A Story About His Birthday

A few months ago, I saw my father flipping through an old notebook filled with pages of Arabic handwriting. It was a notebook of poems my grandfather, Mustafa Afaneh, had written – some poems dated back to the 1970s. I took it from my father and put it on my desk. We needed to make copies of this in case it ever got lost, I thought. It’s still sitting on my desk.

A couple of months later, right before the new year rolled up, my grandfather passed away. He was eighty-two years old – half of those years spent in the Middle East and half spent in New Orleans.


Mustafa Afaneh, Sr.

Some years ago, when it was olive picking season in Palestine, the subject of my grandfather’s birthday, which is on November 4th, came up.

“You know, I’m not quite sure if November 4th is actually my birthday,” my grandfather said in Arabic. We were sitting on the baranda of his home in Palestine that faces an Israeli settlement. He was holding prayer beads and sat across from me, staring into space and smiling.

“How so? Your passport says your birthday is the 4th of November,” I replied, breaking into a laugh. I knew a story was coming along. He always had a story.

“Well, at the time, they [the British] put November 4th on my birth certificate, but my mother said that I was born between mawsem el teen wel zaytoon, the season of figs and olives, which is anywhere between April and November,” he told me.

I was fascinated by the idea that at one point in time, birth dates revolved around the present season in which the event took place. In a way, they still do. I smiled at my grandfather, and he smiled back.

“That’s how November 4th is my birthday, but we’ll never really know.” He laughed. I can hear his laugh as I write this.

“Then, we’ll have to celebrate your birthday at least once a month from April to November,” I replied.

I think back to his life some times and the lives and places he’s touched, especially when I walk around the French Quarter. He worked with antiques, created some of the most beautiful work, and taught my father the craft. He, along with his brothers, also wrote and sang Palestinian folklore. He was a beloved grandfather with a sense of humor like no other.

We could make copies of poetry books – even of antiques –  but we can never copy or replace the people we love and lost.

“Where’s the sea?”: Conversations with the Little One

“Where’s the sea?” My youngest sibling asked.

I’m sitting in a small coffee shop three blocks away from a river.

“Do we even have one?” She continues.

“Yes,” I sigh. “We have one.”

“Well, I want to see it.”

I remember the trips my high school used to take me on. We were next to the sea. The sea from “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

“When you come to America, I’ll take you to the beach.”

“We can’t go to the one here?”

It’s not complicated. We can’t. 

“Because it’s in Israel,” she continues.


“Okay. When I come to America then.”




My friend’s a refugee: Conversations with The Little One

“My friend is from the Jalazone refugee camp,” my youngest sibling told me, in Arabic, one day as I picked her up from her last day of school this past May.

I remember a performer from Sard’s* August Open Mic Night, who was also from the Jalazone refugee camp. Before he started rapping with a friend, he told the audience, “No one is born a refugee.”

“Oh, yeah? She comes all the way here from there?” I asked.

“Yes. One of my friend’s is from Bethlehem, too. But sometimes, they don’t come. There are problems.”

I know the problems very well. During my undergraduate years, I have had professors, colleagues and friends who weren’t able to come to university because of “problems.” These problems manifest in blocked roads, sealed refugee camps, or closed checkpoints.

“What’s a refugee camp, anyway?” She asked.

“Well…” I sigh. “A refugee camp is a place people live in because they were…” I search for the right words. There are no right words.

“Because they were kicked out of their homes.”

“Why was my friend kicked out?” She asked.

“No, not your friend. Her grandparents…or her parents were probably kicked out.”


“Well, you know how there’s an occupation? A lot of people were kicked out from their homes. They can’t go back, so they now live in refugee camps.”

“I see. Do they go back?”

I sigh. “They can’t. Not now.”

“Then when?” I wonder if I was that curious when I was her age.

“Well, one day.”

I’m not sure how to move beyond that answer.



One Thousand Questions: Conversations with The Little One

“I have one thousand questions to ask you,” my youngest sibling says over the phone.

I sigh. I am in the middle of midterms – most of which are papers. She has a thousand questions. I feel a bit of guilt, take back my sigh, and respond with enthusiasm.

“One thousand? Want to ask some of them now and the rest later?”

“Sure,” she says.

“Okay, what’s your first question?” I asked, a grin on my face.

I did not expect her first question.

“When did the Jews take Palestine?” She asked.

I correct her. “The Israelis.”

“When did the Israelis take Palestine?”

I explain to her that it happened over seventy years ago.

She asks, “Well, were you alive?”

I laugh. “No, I wasn’t, but Siti [Grandma] Rahma, was alive.” Siti Rahma was our great grandmother. That put things into perspective for her.

“I see. Well, not all of them hate us, right?” She asks.

I sigh. “No. Not all of them. We shouldn’t hate anyone either, right?”

“Right. What does occupation mean?”

I try to search for a word that a second-grader would know. “It means…it means…taken. It means ‘taken.'”

“Okay. I’ll ask the rest later.”


That was the end of that conversation a few months ago, but I know it isn’t the end of her questions. I still have questions of my own that I search for an adult to answer. No one can seem to give me one.

The Independence of Nothing

“Our future children are going to be so confused at our concept of ‘Independence Day,'” I tell one of my dear friends.

“Girl, we’re still confused at our concept of ‘Independence Day,” she replied.

We laughed. We laughed because it is true. Some of the breaths taken between every chuckle were filled with a moment – extremely brief moment – of reflection and a subtle sadness at the possibility that we may never know this independence we desperately seek in Palestine and that our future children – the future generation of Palestinians – will enter the world of chaos and identity crises that we are in.

I remember it was in my fifth grade elementary school that I heard of the Palestinian “Independence Day.” How could that be?  I lived next to an Israeli settlement. I saw IOF military jeeps every now and then. I heard of fellow Palestinians being killed and imprisoned. What’s independence? 

The independence of nothing…for now.

On Literary Evenings: Conversations With The Little One

The evening of May 18th was a calm spring evening in Palestine. A few days earlier, I had just arrived to the country after nine months of being away, and I had it in my mind to make this a very enriching, adventurous, productive and active summer – not only for my resume but also for my soul.

With that in mind, I was coming to Palestine right around the time that the tenth Palestine Festival of Literature, or PalFest, was happening. I clicked on the “Going” icon on the Facebook event and tagged a couple of friends and my cousin to tag along with me. I scanned the schedule for the event that would take place in Ramallah and took a mental note.

Earlier on May 18th, I met my dear friends and cousin for a little lunch. My youngest sibling tagged along also.

“Let’s go the PalFest? It’s the last day.”

“Sure,” we agreed. It wasn’t far from where we were sitting.

We got to Khalil El-Sakakini Cultural Center, and the performances were happening right in the garden. We sat and listened.

We listened to Ahdaf Soueif, Nathalie Handal, Jehan Bseiso (I even formally met her), and others. We listened, laughed, cried, and hoped. There was so much hoping and smiling.

When one of my friends was crying, my youngest sibling turned to me and said, “Why’s she crying?”

The words. The words.

One of the performances were for Nathalie Handal, and she sang to us. She sang something along the lines of “Dance. Let’s just dance.” It was so soothing, so magical, and as I observed my youngest sibling, with her head in her hands, watching and listening closely, I was overcome with such calmness for her.

After the performance was over, my youngest sibling turned to me and said, “That was really nice,” in Arabic.

I smiled. It was. She went home and told my mother about the performance.

When she’s old enough, I want to remember to ask her if this was a pivotal moment for her wanting to attend such events, even though the language is very complicated. After that evening, my youngest sibling wanted to tag along for other literary or spoken word events. At times, she did, and at other times, she wanted to ride her bike with cousins her age.

Sometimes, when we are sitting together, her and I, we remember Nathalie Handal and those words to that song, and we sing them over and over. I still hear her singing, “Dance. Let’s just dance.”

Podcast Episode

I got to speaking with Nadia Abuelezam, host of the Palestinians Podcast, close to a year ago, after indulging in many episodes regarding her podcast. We talked over the months, and she asked if I’d be interested in being interviewed. I’m just an ordinary person, but I thought to myself, why not?

As a result, my feature made it to the podcast’s 20th episode. Happy listening!