Monday, September 19, 2011

Lisa Suhair Majaj's "Guidelines"

Lisa Suhair Majaj's "Guidelines" is the sort of how-to kit that more than a few Arab Americans could have used after the 9/11 attacks, when suddenly they became a national suspicion and felt the need to drape themselves in flags to prove their loyalty.


If they ask you what you are,
say Arab. If they flinch, don't react,
just remember your great-aunt's eyes.

If they ask you where you come from,
say Toledo. Detroit. Mission Viejo.
Fall Springs. Topeka. If they seem confused,

help them locate these places on a map,
then inquire casually, Where are you from?
Have you been here long? Do you like this country?

If they ask what you eat,
don't dissemble. If garlic is your secret friend,
admit it. Likewise, crab cakes.

If they say you're not American,
don't pull out your personal,
wallet-sized flag. Instead, recall

the Bill of Rights. Mention the Constitution.
Wear democracy like a favorite garment:
comfortable, intimate.

If they wave newspapers in your face and shout,
stay calm. Remember everything they never learned.
Offer to take them to the library.

If they ask you if you're white, say it depends.
Say no. Say maybe. If appropriate, inquire,
Have you always been white, or is it recent?

If you take to the streets in protest,
link hands with whomever is beside you.
Keep your eye on the colonizer's maps,

geography's twisted strands, the many colors
of struggle. No matter how far you've come, remember:
the starting line is always closer than you think.

If they ask how long you plan to stay, say forever.
Console them if they seem upset. Say, don't worry,
you'll get used to it. Say, we live here. How about you?

-Lisa Suhair Majaj

From Geographies of Light (Del Sol Press, 2009)
Used by permission.

Lisa Suhair Majaj is the author of Geographies of Light (winner of the Del Sol Press Poetry Prize) and co-editor of three volumes of literary essays: Intersections: Gender, Nation and Community in Arab Women's Novels (Syracuse University Press, 2002), Etel Adnan: Critical Essays on the Arab-American Writer and Artist (McFarland Publishing, 2002) and Going Global: The Transnational Reception of Third World Women Writers. (NY: Garland/Routledge, 2000). She publishes poetry, creative nonfiction and critical essays in journals and anthologies the US, Europe and the Middle East, and has read at venues such as London's Poetry International. She currently lives in Cyprus.

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