Page 17


OETRY I BY SHARIF S. ELMUSA I SELDOM THINK OF BEN GAY I seldom think of Ben Gay; but it came up the other day when I talked with the bawwab, of our building. In the place the sun gods made a home, where it hardly ever rains, Ahmad lives, like the multitude of Cairo’s janitors, in a dark basement room. He sits much of the time in his bamboo chair, does errands, and wags his tail for the tenants. That’s life, he said, like a date, some eat the fruit, others the pit why make it worse. On a small table, frames with verses from the Quran and a certificate of the older boy promise horizons beyond the walls. Even the chill of January he can bear. But the dampness, the dampness clutches at the bones. The back bends, the spirit buckles. What is courage, Sir? We must wear the long robe of patience. And, what is the name of the cream that comes in a tube and when you rub it on the skin and joints the heat spreads through the body and the pain is gone in a flash? “You mean Ben Gay?” Yes, Ben Gay. Could you bring some when you go back to America? Mister Jack used to. “But it doesn’t work all that well:’ BREAKING FOR PRAYERS Humans invented numerous ways to entreat the heavens: Obelisks, minarets, church steeples, pyramids with intention tapered from the ground up. Domes of shrines and libraries rounded the edges of despair. Humans and animals were sacrificed and beer was offered at the altars of the deity. The quavering fingers of lovers pointed toward perfect moons. The gods were amused and relished having men as their clowns and private laborers. Eventually, men figured out the game and invented Prometheus. The gods, taking the advice of their strategic think tanks, let them win the battle, and let the possession of fire go into their heads. Men’s self-confidence grew more visible, like the paunches of middle-age. And lately, rather than beseech the gods, they flattened the rooftops of their buildings and crowded them with TV dishesconcave, like the laps of seducersto net entertainment. An old couple I stayed with one winter clicked the TV remote all day, breaking every now and then for prayers. Yes, it does. With incense and prayers. SHARIF S. ELMUSA is a widely published poet, scholar, and translator. He is the author of the forthcoming Flawed Landscape: Poems 1987 -2008 and co -editor of the anthology Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab -American Poetry. Elmusa, who holds a Ph.D. from M.I.T., is currently an associate professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. E -mail: [email protected] . Naomi Shihab Nye SEPTEMBER 5, 2008 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23