Hanging in Egypt with Breyten Breytenbach

By Chris Abani b. 1967 Chris Abani
There are stones even here
worn into a malevolence by time
gritting the teeth and tearing
the eyes with the memory.

Out in the desert, the wind
is a sculptor working the ephemera
of sand. Desperately editing steles
to write the names of thousands of slaves
who died to make Pharaoh great.
It is a fool’s game.

And we are like the blind musician
at the hotel who tells us with a smile:
I’ll see you later.

The guard at the pyramid eyes me.
Are you Egyptian? he demands,
then searches my bag for a bomb.
At the hotel they speak Arabic to me,
don’t treat me like the white guests,
and I guess, even here, with all
the hindsight of history we haven’t
learned to love ourselves.

I cannot crawl into the tombs, and cannot
explain why. How do you say: In my country
they buried me alive for six months?
And so you lie and tell yourself this is love.
I am protecting the world from my rage.

Rabab tells me: We know how to build graves
here. I nod. I know. It is the same all over Africa.

Do you have a knife? Do you have one?
the guards at the museum ask Breyten and me,
searching us. We call this on ourselves. We
are clearly political criminals.

I trace the glyphs chipped into stone.
As a writer I am drawn to this. If I could
I too would carve myself into eternity.
Breyten watching me says: Don’t tell me
you’ve found a spelling mistake in it!

A line of miniature statues is placed
into the tomb to serve the pharaoh.
One for each day of the year. Four hundred.
The overseers are a plus. I think
even death will not ease
the lot of the poor here.

Statues: it seems the more I search the world
for differences the more I find it all the same.
Perhaps the Buddha was a jaded traveler too
when he said we are all one.

Mona argues about who should pay
to see the mummies. It isn’t often I can
treat a girl to a dead body, Breyten insists.

A woman nearby tells her husand she can see
dead bodies at work. Why pay?
Do you think she works in a hospital? I ask.
That or the U.S. State Department, Breyten agrees.

From the top of Bab Zwelia, flat rooftops
spread out like a conference of coffee tables.
Broken walls, furniture, pots, litter the roofs
like family secrets sunning themselves.
Two white goats on a roof chew
their way through the debris.

On the Nile, Rabab sings in Arabic, tells me
she wants to be Celine Dion.
She is my sister calling me home to Egypt.
Perhaps one day I will be ready.
For now it is enough to know I can
be at home here.

Chris Abani, “Hanging in Egypt with Breyten Breytenbach” from Hands Washing Water. Copyright © 2006 by Chris Abani. Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press.

Source: Hands Washing Water (Copper Canyon Press, 2006)

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Poet Chris Abani b. 1967

POET’S REGION Africa

Subjects Relationships, Friends & Enemies, Activities, Travels & Journeys, Arts & Sciences, Poetry & Poets, Humor & Satire, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Race & Ethnicity

 Chris  Abani

Biography

Chris Abani is part of a new generation of Nigerian writers working to convey to an English-speaking audience the experience of those born and raised in that troubled African nation. Abani began writing at a very young age and published his first novel, Masters of the Board, while still a teenager. The plot of the novel, a political thriller, proved uncomfortably close to actual events; it mirrored a coup that was carried out in . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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