Elmaz Abinader


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At the end of the Mass, Francis greeted each refugee, one by one, posing for selfies and accepting notes as he moved down the rows. (on the occasion of Pope Francis washing the refugees’ feet, Holy Week 2016)

the first time I put
my feet in the pedicure tub
the woman looked up at me,
asked me my name.

I wanted to tell her
how horrified I was
to have her at my feet,
below me, crouched
on a stool that folded her knees
and snailed her back.

My body rose, volcanic,
one with the padded trembling
chair, her low angle emphasized.
a monument of a woman—insulated
by birthplace and syntax.

In the moment hand to foot
so personal, we tricked each other
with fake names: her real one
a scarred branch, my birth name
a recovered shiv.

The water, warm enough
swished the soft Dong Nai River
and her hands churning
froth around my ankles,
moved me away from apology.

How could I sit in the chair
my own Lincoln Memorial
and not carry the tag
of conqueror? The vibration
stretched my back muscles
gave me an uncurled spine…

You did not imagine yourself
a traveller until you become refugee–
hands fumbling for the one bag
desperately bundled because
your inexperience came
lacking the list of items needed:

to walk through brambles
and rush from trains, to dodge
border patrols and patriots
to scarf a bowl of meal
dampened with sea water
to have no water at all.

It was not on the bucket list
to stretch the self, bat-wing
wide, extending flat skin
around family a huddle home.
Lungs and stomach
do not inflate the needed capacity
to float mother, daughter,
father-in-law across a sea.

The body has harvested its
own vermin, their satisfaction
squirms in cells and their hunger
Check from head
to toe, the sores vary in colour
size and cause. Reach for balm,
find only salt.


It comes down to this: feet
Cannot fly: walk
Cannot ride: walk
Cannot jump, or leap or saunter–
walk—the only thing left to do.

Heel to pavement of empty highways
Metatarsal to thicket between forbidding countries
Toes to rocks climbing a promise
Ball to metal track racing a train
Arch rises on cliff side a dangling hopefulness
grow talons
flesh out webs
harden to leather


It may have been important,
necessary to give up on
protect this ordinance
as something not divine not on purpose

the stories of refugees studied
as children, exiles in the desert,
desperate for rule and bread,
learned mythologies
to heed theologies.

this is no story.

My father sold shoes
crouched on a red vinyl stool
at the feet of miner’s wives
who pushed square toes
into patent and points.

he was silent on this:
kneeling in supplication
deflecting the battering
of homeland, the insults
hurled at his children.

So we:

clear rocks

Must every step start
at the feet? If we sit
below, do we always
rise head level?

This is the outcome
this humility
of taking a foot into a hand
caressing its history
measuring its success
knowing this foundation is stronger
than the miles covered
the days lost

Elmaz Abinader

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Elmaz Abinader’s recent work has appeared in Michigan Quartely Review, Prism International and Mizna, and the anthologies, Essential Truths, Minding Nature and Beyond Memory. Her poetry collection, This House, My Bones, was the Editor’s Selection 2014 from Willow Books. She has a memoir: Children of the Roojme, A Family’s Journey from Lebanon, and and book of poetry, In the Country of My Dreams…winner of PEN Oakland. Elmaz was a co-founder of The Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA/Voices).


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