Issue 3 / Poetry

Two poems by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha


Which country do you love more?

The question asked of each one of us

young travelers of the diaspora,

children with shiny shoes and English textbooks.

At this checkpoint no travel documents will do,

only testimonials of praise in perfect syllables

gutturals and glottal stops recited

with conviction to the cheering crowds.

On summer pilgrimages we are delivered

to the embrace of relatives,

the scent of their skin a heavy musk in the heat,

indistinguishable from the cumin and clay

of the garden where our fingers loosen

glimmering shards beneath green

shade of geranium leaves.

No time for deep breathing or personal

space—here the senses are overwhelmed,

here the air overflows with the sorrow

and story of love fattening on the vine,

and the longing, always the longing

for what is no longer here nor possible.

In this land of a thousand mirrors

reflections of everyone we must and could be,

mirage of our selves fragments on the horizon.

Let us in they beckon

Let our stories slip under your fingernails

Let our language collect in brushstrokes

across your furrowed brow.

Stay. Stay longer.

More tea? With mint or sage?

Consider carefully,

every herb a cure for one ailment

and companion to another.

Here our portraits find their frames,

the bells in our laughter find echoes.

With enough time and tea between us

the bridge of my nose becomes

an heirloom from ancestral villages,

your curls a heritage of defiance,

the shape of our fingers a flag.

Stay a while longer

there is so much more they will tell you.

Linger with us in the infinite hours

their invitation echoes.

Let the day lift its veils from the sky,

let the embers of sunset burn slowly,

let night drape its stars over the hills.



 Found Poems from the War in Syria

Zaatari Refugee Camp

We used to dream about snow.

It was like a fairytale.

But that was when we had shoes

and our feet were warm inside our houses.


The teacher told them they were

too loud. They needed to behave.

She sent them out of the classroom

for being bad. The barrel descended

from the sky exploding

in the school yard.

She hasn’t stopped wailing

they will never be loud again.

Yarmouk Refugee Camp

I don’t remember what jam tastes like

but I know I used to love it.

We haven’t even had bread for weeks

but I keep dreaming of apricot jam.

We haven’t had water.

Beirut International Airport

Everyone said: “why would a girl

do this?”

My brother and I are leaving

In Sweden they grant some people asylum.

It’s a really long journey

but it can’t be worse than the war

My friend is going

to film everything on his mobile phone.


Someone said they were a free army

from Libya. They wanted more money,

they wanted dollars, they sold us

to other smugglers.

We couldn’t argue, they scared us

with their guns. We didn’t know

which country we were in. The desert

looks the same everywhere.

No one knows where

we’ll go if they let us leave. They make us


for trucks to take us to the sea.

Mediterranean Sea

And they kept bringing people

and more people and more people.

The boat rocked right to left and filled

with water. The smugglers told us

there would be life

jackets for everyone

but they lied. Everyone prays so

loud, so many shouting Allahu Akbar

because we know that now is finally

the moment we will die.

Italian Coast Guard Boat

My mother saw it on the news, the bodies

floating in the sea and kept looking

for me and my brother. I thought

we would be happy

to survive but our friends drowned.

I don’t know what to do now that

we are alive.


Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is an Arab American poet of Palestinian, Jordanian, and Syrian heritage. She spent childhood summers savoring poems and fresh-picked pistachios  in her grandparents’ garden in Amman. She writes poetry as well as essays and literary translations. Her writing has been published in journals in the UK, Turkey, Egypt, Mexico, and the United States, including the Kenyon Review online, the Lake for Poetry, the Monarch Review, and Sukoon. Her poem “Immigrant” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. Her first collection of poems, Water & Salt, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. Find her at These poems were selected by Michelle Peñaloza. 

I love language that sings its many roots. I want words that show the stamps on their passports, that make me look up pronunciation, etymology, origins. I enjoy and want more poems that live in many worlds.

Image © Igor via Creative Commons