Salah, “Wanting in Arabic,” & Aleppo

 

In light of the recent state violence in Aleppo, I re-read Trans Lebanese poet Trish Salah’s piece “Wanting in Arabic,” from her eponymous collection. For me, the piece most deeply explores the notion of intimacy: with another person, with her own body, as well as with a culture, a history, a people, and a language. Whether the addressee is another person or the Arabic language is ambiguous; what is not ambiguous is Salah’s desire to close her distance from it. “What I can want is just to learn,” she writes, alluding to the way in which trans women’s desire is stigmatized, and told whether they “can” or cannot exist, and how they are allowed to do so. Further, her inability to speak Arabic fluently as a Lebanese-Canadian makes her relationship with her identity even more fraught.

This unstable relationship is painful for Salah. “Suppose,” she suggests, “we looked away, burst into Arabic?” Here, the idea of “bursting into Arabic” rather than tears suggests that the language is both a site of sadness for Salah and an outlet for that sadness to which she does not have access. She later describes Arabic as a “common languish” between herself and the subject of the poem, capitalizing on the homonym. It is a pain that renders her “silent”—unable to provide testimony to it, even while she writes this poem. This is a poem about the strangeness and “recognition” of “body” and “home.” The first time I read this poem, I read in it threads of hope and recuperation: “Touch to the hurt again,/ what is possible for them again, here.” Upon second read, however, I wonder if this was Salah’s intent. Is Salah urging herself to reopen wounds that have scarred over, in the hopes of true healing? It is a poem about “possibility?” Or is Salah warning of traumas that return to haunt, over and over “again,” such as the historical trauma of empire that has wreaked periodic havoc on the Arab world for the past 50 years—with just the most recent iteration in Aleppo.

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