On Staying

                          for Abu Shahad

My father’s old friend insists he must show us
his room as we linger—hours before our flight—at his door.
It is night in Najaf and the eager ask is small; my father
cannot refuse. We say we will visit quickly; he welcomes us in
like kings, rushes to light a candle, three flashlights
when the circuit breaker ticks, as it often does,
and twists the room dark.
The first home I enter with a bookshelf: blue
and tucked under the stairs. Beside it, a china cabinet crammed
with tarnished trinkets, brass vessels, a pile of corroded coins.
My eyes adjust to each dust-filled corner. Afraid to touch
anything, I ask: where do you get these from? He extends a short
copper vase to me like an offering. When people leave
behind their homes I collect what’s left.
He walks us to his room,
villages of yellowed books line the shelves. I don’t go out anymore
I would rather be here, than anywhere in the world.
A small bed
pushed against the wall.
When my father tells him I write in English,
he opens a drawer stuffed with German textbooks and hands
them to me. I pretend to read.


Joumana Altallal is a Zell Fellow in Poetry at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. She works with Citywide Poets to lead a weekly after-school poetry program for high school students in Metro Detroit. Her work appears in Glass Poetry, Mud Season Review, Bayou Magazine, and Rusted Radishes, among others. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference, Napa Valley Writer’s Conference, and the Radius for Arab American Writers. You can follow Joumana on Twitter @joualt