Rumpus Original Poetry: Three Poems by Joumana Altallal









Hafiz pulls into Al-Huriya gas station in Baghdad: he is driving a black 1981 Toyota Crown with one broken headlight and a license plate issued in Najaf. A mawal by Fouad Salem plays on the car radio. Hafiz’s son Haydar is in the passenger seat tapping his fingers to the tune of the oud: slowly at first, and then faster.

Hafiz exits the car, pays the attendant 12,000 dinars and begins to pump gas. He clicks the rusted nozzle three times before it leaks. He stares into the car window at his son, who is now singing along, and smiles. A warm air blows.

Haydar, embarrassed that his father has noticed his impassioned singing, bursts into laughter and lowers the radio’s volume. As Hafiz turns, a silver Volkswagen Passat cruises by. A man whose face is not visible, points the muzzle of his rifle through a crack in the window and fires. A bullet punctures Hafiz’s left shoulder blade. The nozzle hits the cement first: leaks drops of petrol. Hafiz’s body falls to the ground. Haydar opens the door but is frozen in the passenger seat. One leg inside the car, one leg in a stream of gasoline.




Hafiz tightens his grip on the steering wheel as he backs
into the gas station. The lilt of Fouad Salem
on the car radio. The tapping of fingers. His son

in the passenger seat hums along: I burned the soul and I burned
the soul, when I bid them farewell. What do you know of a loss
like this, Hafiz thinks to ask his son.

The metal of the body, the city’s sudden chill.
Haydar eyes his father’s slow movement, his reach
for the gas pump, the click of the nozzle.

Hafiz laughs to himself remembering
his father’s advice: when someone says something that upsets you, pretend
you’re at the cinema in Baghdad, pretend you are just watching a scene unfold.

Then like a neck the nozzle snaps, coils beside his body.
The bullet smoking the fumes, the rainbowed oil.
Haydar tries to move from the passenger seat.

Where is—? How do I—? 
How to finish a question like this.
There are people who run. People who hold him

gasping like a newborn, nose clogged, lashes wet.
His blood dries. And how, how will I forget them.
Fouad Salem sings.



Even if they stuffed Baghdad with gold
I would not return.


Photograph of Joumana Altallal by Nada Aladhami.

Joumana Altallal is an Iraqi Lebanese writer and Zell Fellow in Poetry at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. She works with Citywide Poets to lead a weekly after-school poetry session for high school students in Metro Detroit. Her recent work appears in Glass Poetry, Muzzle Magazine, Mud Season Review, and Bayou Magazine. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers' Conference, Napa Valley Writer's Conference, and the Radius for Arab American Writers. You can find Joumana on Twitter at @joualt. More from this author →