Poetry Sunday: “Blue Date Cake,” “Standing Tall,” and “Over Damascus,” by Tamam Kahn


Blue Date Cake                                 

for Marilyn Hacker

The door opened. I lay in tears alone.
Three women stepped inside. They weren’t from here.
I asked them in.
Where have you been, O Eyes-of-Heaven’s-Own?
They answered: Paradise! And we’re
sent here by God with cake to ease death’s pain.

Your father—You are longing for him. We know.
Salman, I asked their names. They mentioned yours
and gifted us
with blue date cake fragrant as musk, and oh,
one bite! I felt the grief reverse.
I ate and in that rare deliciousness

I slipped right out of time. Before the taste
and peaceful scent of Dar as-Salam arrived,
erosive streams
of loss tore through my life. I had misplaced
my father’s love-words. They revived.
One seed opened inside. It sweetened me.


First published in Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing, March 2016.


Notes on “Blue Date Cake”

Ten days after Muhammad’s death, Fatima’s husband Ali met Salman al-Farsi, a close family friend and follower of the Prophet. Ali told him Fatima had received a gift from Heavenly Beings that she wished to share with him, so he went to her house. She mentioned how the houris had brought a blue date cake because of her great sorrow, and that they spoke his name.

The moment my friend translated this story from Arabic at the table in his living room in Jordan, I knew I had a poem. I pictured three heavenly beings at her door. Her father was dead. Most historians went on and on about her constant inconsolable weeping. That was what was expected of her. A time like that is full of contradictions. She needed to explain to her four children—all under ten years old—what happened to their grandfather, and she needed to care for herself. She would rely on her husband and friends as well as her own internal life to strengthen her. This Shia hadith illustrates heaven’s gifts. Dar as-Salam means “the Abode of Peace” and houris are immortals with transcendent eyes.


Standing Tall

She remains a speaker, though silent;
remains, although invisible, a woman.
—Marilyn Hacker

My daughters are like nails sunk in a board,
when hammered down, they seem to disappear.
Repudiation you can’t miss, ignore.

The music in the metal of their names
rings out, indelible, a small bright mark—
just even with the wood’s smooth grain. Explain.

Each pays a subtle price should she stand tall,
yet daughters hold the home, each room in place
the roof, the beams, the floor, and every wall.


Notes on “Standing Tall”

When Fatima’s two daughters, Zaynab and Umm Kulthum, are mentioned anywhere, it is generally in the aftermath of Karbala, a terrible massacre of Fatima’s last son Husayn and family that marked the Shia and Sunni division as a major political fracture. Often, they are not named. There are many thousands of pages on their brother Husayn and stories of him and Hasan beginning when their grandfather, Muhammad, was alive. But for the daughters there are scraps. There is disagreement as to whom and when they married, time of death, and where each was buried.

When in Syria for several weeks in 2003, I dressed like a Syrian Muslim woman, not a tourist. At the shrine of Ibn al-Arabi, and other places, the men I was traveling with blended in easily. I was met with criticism and an insistence that I copy local women in behavior and every aspect of prayer. I came to understand that if I stood out, it was a danger to all, so like a nail, I must be flattened like the others.



Over Damascus:  A Sonnet

Salaam Great Zaynab, lit at night, shines warm
above the arch below the golden dome.
They say your name is charmed. A honeycomb
against a sting; you face the one who harms.
Yazid-the-tyrant dragged you here and killed
your family. You called him out—“Dark foe!
You bear the burden of blood you shed, and so
your loss comes. God judges!” It was brilliant,
that speech you gave. O mother of the ones
who call, gunfire’s here, windows fly apart.
Tomb keeper’s dead, grandson held to his heart.
This marble floor is sharp with glass. We summon
you. Please come. Damascus lies here stung and stung
Such pain! Zaynab, your name lives on my tongue.


Notes on “Over Damascus”

Over a decade ago, I visited The Shrine of Sayyida Zaynab (granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad) in the suburbs of Damascus. It seemed like the well-in-the-desert for women, a place we could all feel empowered. Recently, it was under attack twice, caught in the crosshairs of the Syrian conflict. The regime that the terrorists and others are trying to overthrow is “Alawi.” The name comes from “Ali,” although they are an independent Muslim group. This is a very important shrine in Damascus. Opponents of the Syrian Regime would like to demolish it.

Zaynab is the patron saint of the nurses of Syria, because she was at Karbala when her brother, Husayn, and many others were killed. She stood up to the tyrant Yazid, as mentioned in this poem, written before the more recent attacks.


All three poems and notes are from Fatima’s Touch: Poems and Stories of the Prophet’s Daughter (Ruhaniat Press 2016), published with permission of the press.


Tamam Kahn is the author of Untold: A History of the Wives of Prophet Muhammad (Monkfish Press 2010), winner of an International Book Award. This prose biography with 70 poems is called a “prosimetrum.” Invited by the Royal Ministry of Morocco to read her poetry, Kahn accepted and read at a symposium in Marrakesh in 2009. Fatima’s Touch: Poems and Stories of the Prophet’s Daughter was released in 2016 and was a finalist for an International Book Award in 2017. Kahn was invited to read at Poet’s House in NYC from The Wide Shore: A Journal of Global Women’s Poetry and has been awarded writing residencies at Ragdale Foundation and the Jentel Artist Residency Program. She lives in Marin County and teaches a poetry class each summer in Mendocino. Fatima’s Touch can be ordered here or at Amazon.com.

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