These poems were submitted by Rashidah Ismaili as part of the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology. They form part of a book-length collection of narrative poems entitled In Shallah. The collection begins with forty poems listed only by numbers, which signify the days of traditional mourning in both Islamic and African culture.

Rashidah Ismaili’s events: The WitnessesOpening Panel: Discussing Diaspora




It happened yesterday.

Yesterday it happened.

It happened in the yesterdays

of yester years, this thing

that haunts me.


A sound broke out

against a sun-filled day.

Bombastic, blasts

against a dust-filled sky.

Dust blocks the sun.


Dark. It happened in the dark.

In the silence of night-dark

when sleep takes in the heart

and lets the head rest.

Last night and all the nights

before the last

it happened in the dark.


It rained yesterday.

Rain-cloud-dark sky

of last yesterday

when hope was high

and dreams floated

in autumnal days.


It is raining.

There are huge droppings.

Pulverized pellets fall

onto a buried graveyard

and into waiting arms.


The dead sleep nude.

Centuries have robbed coats.

Dresses have been discarded

for non-essential yardage.

Here and there a hand reaches


to grasp a falling file,

to input data into a burnt-out

hard drive that crashes above

a supervisor’s head.

That happened yesterday.


Yesterday it was to be

the birthday of the founder

who eats an early croissant

with imported smoked salmon.


He, the founder, lost his way.

Yesterday the founder forgot

the way to winding stairs

tried to recapture an athletic past,

ran headlong without quarterback

to make a final touchdown.





Today the waiting ends.

Yesterday’s mourning ends.

Clear skies of fall cover streets

scarred and empty.


Today the current returns.

Wind echoes in hollow towers

of old and abandoned minarets.

A tinny voice rings out calling


calling to prayers those who

yet have faith left in emaciated

parched bodies. Slow steps

find their way from water tap


to masjids. Today in the courtyard

of an old, old masjid where

blue and green tiles, chipped

and cracked speak to horror


sufferance. An old voice

raises up the words,

invoking a Presence

some feel was absent

a month or so ago


when the sky was blotted out

by a mushroom spread of darkness

that choked southbound birds.

Children remembering a bad dream


run believing a horde of ghosts

were chasing them. Come now.

It is time to go down to the river.

It is time to cast off dark shrouds.


It is time to dip in the cool water.

It is time for lamman.

Come, wear this djelleba of pale green.

Here, let the scent of attar


discreetly cover the stench of decomposition.

Come, tie your hair under a white hijab.

Come, it is time to end the idat.

It is time for smiles and dances.


Fires wait in crumbling back yards

for old and tired clothes of sad times.

Today, a widow plucks the soft puff

of a once-was-skirt-pants

all piled in a heap left

on the other side of tomorrow.


A woman says to the air.

“Come husband, father, brother, son,

uncle, all. Sink yourselves in tin tubs

of warmed water. Let the odor

of tortuous hours alone, in battle,


distance, be removed from your skin.

Ah, Ahmed, come to me and I shall

greet you in a new shawl. And I will

rub you in the attar of a thousand roses.


You will sing to me in a voice rarely used.

Tonight we shall feast and sing of new times.

The night approaches in a red ball

and your arms are painted by the sun.


It sinks slowly to the other side of the world.

Come little ones and eat.

Come eat, there is enough.

Tonight we eat halal and our dreams be blessed.


Tonight when the sun sets,

tonight when the moon ascends,

tonight when The Call comes

we shall race to answer.


And I shall run with you my sisters

and laugh. Ah, the sound of laughter

held back all these past days. But now

it has ended and the joy promised


comes slowly as food—unfamiliar

seeks a place in flattened bellies.

It has ended, the enforced fast

that sought to starve us all.


We are here and here we are.

This land under our feet is ours.

With our hands we will build.

Tomorrow when the moon sinks,

the sun rises, we will become


shadows moving, moving

against the landscape

of our sleep-filled nights.

We will plant and water

this our land. Our land, me—


I am waiting for you

to come up a hilly road

singing, singing.

And I will meet you


and throw petals

from a thousand roses

and stand watching them

fall at your feet.”