Cairo’s taxi drivers speak to me in English.
I answer, and they say your Arabic is good.
How long have you been with us? All my life
I tell them, but I’m never believed.
They speak to me in Farsi, speak to me in Greek,
and I answer with mountains of gold and silver,
ghost ships sailing the weed-choked seas.
And when they speak to me in Spanish,
I say Moriscos and Alhambra.
I say Jews rescued by Ottoman boats.
And when the speak to me in Portuguese,
all my life I tell them, coffee, cocoa,
Indians and poisoned spears.
I say Afonsso king of Bikongo writing
Manuel to free his enslaved sons.
And Cairo’s taxi drivers tell me
your Arabic is surprisingly good.
Then they speak to me in Italian,
and I tell them how I lay swaddled
a month’s walk from here. I tell them
camps in the desert, barbed wire, wives
and daughters dying, camels frothing disease,
the sand stretching an endless pool.
And they say so good so good.
How long have you been with us?
All my life, but I’m never believed.
Then they speak to me in French,
and I answer Jamila, Leopold, Stanley,
baskets of severed hands and feet.
I say the horror, battles of Algiers.
And they speak to me in English
and I say Lucknow, Arbenz. I say indigo,
Hiroshima, continents soaked in tea.
I play the drum beat of stamps. I invoke
Mrs. Cummings, U.S. consul in Athens,
I say Ishi, Custer, Wounded Knee.
And Cairo's taxi drivers tell me
your Arabic is unbelievably good.
Tell the truth now, tell the truth,
how long have you been with us?
I say my first name is little lion,
my last name is broken branch.
I sing "Happiness uncontainable"
and "field greening in March"
until I'm sad and tired of truth,
and as usual I'm never believed.
Then they lead me through congestion,
gritty air, narrow streets crowded with
Pepsi and Daewoo and the sunken faces
of the poor. And when we arrive, Cairo's
taxi drivers and I speak all the languages
of the world, and we argue and argue about
corruption, disillusionment, the missed chances,
the wicked binds, the cataclysmic fares.
Khaled Mattawa, "Echo & Elixir 2" from Zodiac of Echoes. Copyright © 2003 by Khaled Mattawa. Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org.
Source: Zodiac of Echoes (Copper Canyon Press, 2003)
image : Nadia Kaabi-Linke -- Impressions of Cairo (2010)