Souk

The soldiers are afraid
of the camera. Are you shooting the souk?
The photographer says No no, just her.
I say Just me, just me.
My black dress, a little above the knee, helps.
A girl learns to spectacle enough.
The soldier nods, lowers his head.
The crew remind me to say

Not from here, to say Half-half,
to speak English, mostly.
Everyone is always kinder to strangers.
The city will devour its children,
unless she doesn’t recognize them.

And so I, of this city,
I who stand on stages and name this city,
deny this city in the heart of the city,
deny this city at the old gate of the city.
I say Bonjour, I say Thank you, I undo
my accent and put on the colonizer’s tongue.
When you say hometown, what do you mean?

The crew comment on the quality
of the light through the tin roofs,
they say Pretend no one is looking.
But the guy with the espresso and cigarette is looking,
and the teenager who sells batteries is looking,
and the man with the shisha is looking, and the woman
in the clothes shop, his wife perhaps, is looking.
The photographer says Beautiful, says Try
to keep your shoulders even. I cross and uncross
my arms, remind him it’s time for my second outfit.
A girl learns not to spectacle too much.

The store owner who’s given us space to change
tells me the story of this ancient street,
tells me about the shootings a few years ago,
says And they were all neighbors,
says Nothing works, nothing works,
says his uncle comes here every morning
just to bathe and feed this kitten.
I do not tell him I heard the fire from my house.
I raise my eyebrows. I shake my head.
I code switch I dress switch
I silent I carnival I hypocrite.
When you say blasphemy, what do you mean?

The looks are lighter when I’m in jeans.
I stand in the center of the street,
remember to give way to the motorcycles,
give way to the old man with a bag of minced meat,
give way to the mother and two daughters.
The crew remind me to breathe
on the count of three, for a better photo.
As we pack up, someone yells, Kiss it!
We laugh. When you say body, what do you mean?

This is called The Wheat Market.
There used to be harvest here, once.
Sometimes names stop belonging to their children,
and does it matter? I used to think
the cemeteries were far from the city.
I used to think my shadow didn’t belong to me—
my mother found me, two years old, terrified,
trying to run from it in the corridor.
I look up—1 2 3, 1 2 3,
there are stone arches,
there are posters of politicians,
there’s a red lace dress
bright on the ropes above us.

More Poems by Zeina Hashem Beck