Growing up Iranian-American, there was this sense of division within the diaspora community I grew up in: of what came before and what came after the traumatic conflicts that led us to the United States. In Tariq Luthun’s collection How the Water Holds Me, his poetry delves into similar ideologies that I had noticed in my community, but from the unique experience of the Palestinian diaspora. Published by Bull City Press and selected for publication in the 2019 Frost Place Chapbook Competition, Luthun’s poems explore the devastation that Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans have faced, giving life, memories, and meaning to a group of people that are often reduced to and judged by the conflict they are trapped within, even when they are displaced far away from their original homeland.
The very first poem in the chapbook immediately sets the tone for what’s to come. Titled “The Summer My Cousin Went Missing,” the Luthun uses language like “buried” to describe how busy their khalto (which is Arabic for the aunt on your mother’s side) was. The lines “Child upon child goes, and someone’s mother / is no longer a mother.” The pivot from the speaker’s aunt to a generalization encompasses universal grief, one felt among an entire community. It is here where we, as readers, come to realize that this isn’t an isolated incident. As the poem continues onwards, it shifts again. The focus is no longer on their aunt’s suffering, shifting from “she” to “we.” The speaker asks “how will we ever stay fed” and “how ever / will we live long enough to grieve,” leaving a sense of lingering for both the reader and the speaker.
Throughout the collection, something that caught my eye was how Luthun weaved together his personal experiences, one as a Palestinian-American coming of age, to touch upon universal themes. In the poem “Al-Bahr,” he says “but I saw / a boy that could have become / me wash up on a shore.” A common story among refugees, particularly Palestinian ones, is drowning in the act of seeking a new home. This is a stark juxtaposition to the poem “Upon Leaving the Diamond to Catch 14 Stitches in My Brow,” where Luthun describes how when struck with a bat, how their “off-white noise” showed division between “us” and “them.” Their accented English, their darker skin, makes the neighbors “see us / bleed and think: / prey.” Comparing “Al-Bahr” to “Upon Leaving the Diamond to Catch 14 Stitches in My Brow,” Luthun navigates between the personal and the political. While the conflict in youth may have been the fourteen stitches, it evolves into something more, something so much more sinister, by seeing boys like him drowning and leaving their community behind to seek out a new community that might not ever even accept them.
There are moments in the book that act as cultural preservation as well. Even long after Luthun is gone, his poems have preserved mundane practices and rituals, such as going out to pick mint leaves for his mother, or, how he says in the poem “We Already Know This”: “I want to be sure / everyone knows where my parents / hail from.” This is particularly evident in the poem “After Spending an Evening in November Trying to Convince My Mother That We’ll Be Fine,” where the poet describes how “it isn’t easy / to accept that the coverage of / the world outside can be spun so much.” The final lines of that poem are “a country that cannot have him–/ a country that does not want him.” “Him,” in this line, refers to Luthun’s father. Palestine is the country that cannot have him, while America is the country that didn’t want him. For marginalized communities like Palestinian-Americans, it is brave to speak out like this, to say that this isn’t what they experienced. This their truth and reality, not what is on television.
In Tariq Luthun’s collection How the Water Holds Me, while it explores the tragedy of the Palestinian diaspora, it offers hope and preservation to their unique experience. In the actual formatting of the book, next to the page numbers, there is a little key. This represents the Palestinian right of return; keys have become a symbol for Palestinians, as many kept the keys to their original home, to represent how one day they will be able to return to their ancestral home. While many Palestinians cannot go home, Luthun offers a metaphorical home in his work, one that comes from a place of both loss and understanding. In the poem “People, Drunk at Parties, Tell Me Love” he says it’s difficult for him to say “I love you.” The poems in How the Water Holds Me show this devotion, this unspoken love.
Tariq Luthun’s How the Water Holds Me can be purchased here.
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is an undergraduate at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her work has appeared in/forthcoming from Rust+Moth, Into the Void, Corvid Queen, and cahoodaloodaling, among others. She attended the International Writing Program’s Summer Institute and was a Brooklyn Poets Fellow. Currently, she is trying to figure out a happy intersection between her writing, film, and photography endeavors.