My grandmother’s name is Sala Sa-la
A hard L- the kind where your tongue has to push against the back of your front two teeth
My grandfather’s name was Mustafa
But we always called him Tati Ta-tee
They grew up in the same village
And played together until the age that boys and girls are separated to learn their roles
My grandmother retreated to her father’s house, learning to cook and clean
And my grandfather started going to school
My grandmother blushes when she admits to me that she used to sneak up to the roof of her house when dawn came
Just to see my grandfather walking to school, books clutched against his chest
Every morning, him and the sun
It seemed to her that the sun rose with him,
That it could only be coaxed eastward if he pulled it with him
My grandmother married the boy who pulled the sun up for her every day
And they had six children
Seven, if you count the one who died before his first birthday cake could be made
My grandfather was, as they say, “ahead of his time"
He was an intelligent and forward-thinking academic living in Communist times
His children came home from school each afternoon singing songs about the benevolent nature of their leader Tito belongs to us and we belong to Tito, they hummed
But when Tito died, the tides changed
And when my grandfather spoke up opposing the nationalistic movement against Albanians- which would one day grow into full-fledged ethnic cleansing-
He didn’t make it home from work
And my grandmother wondered how to explain ‘political prisoner’ to her children
One night, months after my grandfather’s disappearance,
My grandmother saw a blue-eyed stranger trudging up the village hill
In his hands- a note scrawled in my grandfather’s handwriting Sell everything. Meet me in Rome.
So she did
She sold everything, kissed her weeping relatives goodbye
And trudged across Europe with her children
In Rome, a reunion We’re going to America, my grandfather said We’re refugees, he said
America- the word was bulky in my grandmother’s mouth on that sundrenched day in Rome
And even now she can’t quite wrap her tongue around it Amer-eek, she said Amer-eek, their children mimicked in high-pitched voices Amer-eek!
My mother, an 8-year old pig-tailed refugee in Rome
On her way to Amer-eek
New York City, to be precise
Their first house was right off of Ditmas Avenue in Brooklyn
A crumbling 3-family home shared with other Albanian refugees
Where, during that first year, English was spoken so rarely that you could almost forget you’d left home
The house was right underneath the Cortelyou Road subway station
Every time the trains rumbled past, the walls of the house shook and trembled and my grandmother prayed under her breath
My grandmother- a woman who gave birth to seven children and raised six of them
But never learned to read
Every morning she sent her children to school, a place she would never set foot in, a mystical land where knowledge and learning were the status quo
They came home speaking English, which my grandmother was glad for only so that they could translate for her at the grocery store or the doctor’s office
My grandfather worked days in a factory and spent his nights smoking and reading about the land that he’d left behind
As his sons and daughters grew into young men and women,
Their old country smoldered-
A fire quietly growing
It would spread soon, my grandfather knew
It wouldn’t be long before the name of his country became famous for all the wrong reasons
Blasted out of radios, smeared across CNN Serbian forces move to Kosovo
But that wasn’t until the ‘90s
And in the decade before his country was ripped apart by misplaced nationalism,
My grandfather sent my 18-year old mother back home Go to college, he said, get a degree
Meet a nice boy, my grandmother said, get married
She did both
And when she finally returned to America a couple of years later,
It was with my father and oldest sister in tow
My parents made their own home in America in the mid-80s
By 1985, my second sister made her appearance-
the first of the Latifi’s to be born in America
Meanwhile, my father was studying for his medical boards and his ESL class at the same time
And my mother was raising my sisters in the bustle of Brooklyn
The 80’s faded and in the first year of the 90’s, my brother joined our family
My father named him Kushtrim, which means battle cry
And was fitting because as my brother was taking his first steps,
Our Bosnian neighbors were being brought to their knees
By the time the war spread from Bosnia to Kosovo,
I was 5 years old and living in Virginia with my family
In a sprawling brick house surrounded by a lush green lawn that my father mowed every Sunday
Just like a real American
But the news was on every hour of every day
And some of my earliest memories are of peeking over the living room couch,
Straining to see what was happening in the country where my family started-
Where my grandparents met as children
Where my parents fell in love as college students
My brother and I were deemed to young to watch the news with my parents
So we snuck looks from behind doorways,
Sat on the stairs that wrapped around the back of our house-
Anything to catch a few words from Christiane Amanpour’s mouth that would explain why my mother jumped every time the phone rang
And my father sat in front of the TV with his mouth pulled into a tight line
My brother and I whispered to each other from our hiding spots,
Pulled dictionaries into our room and blew the dust from their pages Genocide: the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation
My brother read the definition aloud and I tilted my head to the side Why us?
He slowly shook his head side to side
8 years old
How was he supposed to know?
In the spring of 1998,
I sat on top of my father’s shoulders as we marched through Times Square,
Chanted in front of the United Nations building in Midtown Manhattan
Around us, the crowd swarmed
Red and black t-shirts, the Albanian eagle stamped on every single one Free Kosova, U.S.A.! we yelled Free Kosova, U.S.A.!
In 1999, Bill Clinton became the hero of Albanians everywhere when he ordered NATO to launch an air strike against Serbia
78 days later, the war was over
But what we didn’t understand then was that it had just began
The first time I saw the country of my ancestors was in the summer of 1999
British army tanks rolled down the streets instead of cars
And my mother tried to distract me by pointing out landmarks That’s where your father and I used to have coffee
That’s where my dorm was
But all I could see was the soldiers guarding the entrance to my aunts’ apartment building
And the pile of rubble that used to be my father’s childhood home
I looked out with my big brown eyes
And saw an entire country bleeding and breaking
I went back to America after the summer of 1999 with the taste of my homeland burning my tongue
He lived to see the war start and end
But died before anyone recognized our independence
A snowy New Year’s Eve
2003 slipping into 2004
A heart attack
The first time I saw my mother cry
My youngest uncle washing my grandfather’s body
My baby sister only three months old, screaming like she felt our pain
It’s been 10 years and my grandmother is still mourning my grandfather
It’s been 15 years and my country is still mourning our lost souls
But my grandmother has stopped wearing all black and she laughs with her grandchildren like we’re the only thing that keep her breathing
And my country just celebrated 6 years of independence
I know my grandmother is lonely
She talks about my grandfather like he just stepped out of the room for a moment
And I know my country is hurting
We still hang flowers on the mass graves of our countrymen
But we’re all healing
Which reminds me of the best advice my grandfather ever gave me- Shpresa le te v’des e fundit-
Let hope die last
Fortesa Latifi - The Plight of the Refugee & Their Family
I don’t want to be “specialized” in one thing.
I want to write poetry, take photos, draw, go hiking, go swimming, travel, walk, ride, cycle, laugh, cry, be emotional, be angry, be mad, be good, be bad, be loving, be everything, be nothing, become… become… become…
I want to be everything that I can become,
even if I suck at everything I can be.
When I was 8, a little girl I went to school with told me that since I hadn’t been baptized, I was going to Hell. She actually said ‘h-e-double hockey sticks’ like even pronouncing the word might damn her too. I ran home and begged my mom to baptize me.
Tears running down my face, the word ‘forever’ on my tongue, shaking like the leaves falling from the trees outside my bedroom window, I begged.
My mother pushed my hair back from my face and pulled me onto her lap.
‘Be a good person,’ she said. ‘Help other people and be kind and treat everyone you meet how you would want to be treated.’
I nodded. I could do that.
‘Baby,’ she said. ‘If there is a God, he’ll accept you. He’ll accept you.’
That was my first lesson about you. I tucked my mother’s words into the spaces between my ribs and listened to them expand with every inhale.
The first time I was angry with you was that same year.
I had gone back to the country where my parents were born and on every corner I saw the scars of genocide, the wounds of ethnic cleansing. My father’s childhood home was burned to the ground with only the foundation still peeking out from between the weeds. Army tanks rolled down the street where my parents had first held hands as college students. An entire country, bleeding and breaking.
My parents told me the story of Adem Jashari- a nationally celebrated war hero, the face of liberation, a fearless fighter whose entire family was killed in one vicious siege right when his outstretched fingers seemed to be closing around freedom for his country.
The Jashari family was killed on a clear March day in 1998. When I walked through their house in the summer of 1999, their blood was still splattered against the walls, faded reminders of their deaths. I held my fingers out as I walked through the rooms, touching ghosts as I went.
‘Sixty people,’ my dad said. ‘His whole family.’
Behind the house was a graveyard for the Jashari family and as I walked through the rows of the mass grave I mentally calculated the age of each of the people now sleeping beneath the cold ground.
Adem was first. Forty-two.
His wife, Adile, lay next to him. Forty.
I wove through the rows of graves, reading each headstone and moving on until I saw my brother’s name.
On top of the grave lay a plastic bag with two light blue shoes in it. The dead boy with my brother’s name had been only 13 years old when he was ripped from this world in a storm of bullets and blood. How am I supposed to believe you have a plan for everyone and if you do, why is that boy dead beneath the snow while shoes he’ll never wear rest on top of it?
I’m trying to understand, I swear, I really am. But some days, the world just seems so violent, so horrible, so nonsensical that I feel shards of glass in my lungs when I try to breathe. Is this our fault? Can you control us? Can’t you stop this? Did we lose touch with you somehow? Did we lose touch with ourselves? Are you even there?
I’ve been looking for you all my life and I’ve never found you in a church or between the pages of a dusty Bible. The places I’ve found you are the catch in my sister’s voice before she laughs and the wrinkles lining my grandmother’s face. I’ve found you in sunsets that look like they’re bleeding and the way my father’s eyes are the color of celery. Sometimes I see you in the faces of strangers on the train who look like my dead grandfather. Last week, my little sister asked me what happens after we die and I looked to the clouds like maybe you’d written the answer there for me.
Life is a gift from you, right? I know you’ve probably heard by now that last fall, I thought about returning it. My mother said she talked to you a lot during that time. What did you say to her? What should I say to myself? Do you forgive the people who put gun barrels in their mouths and whisper one last prayer for oblivion? Do you dry their tears when they get to you or turn your face away from their broken hearts?
I like to think that you’re sitting in the sky, resting amongst the planets and looking down on your creation, but some days I’m just not sure. Is it okay to say that? I know it’s not very original, but when I think of you I picture long hair and a robe, maybe a trident of some kind. I’m sure that if you’re there, you spend a lot of time watching us and crying. Smiling, too, and laughing some days, but mostly, there must be a lot of crying. Did we ruin everything?
One last question. We all come to you when we’re broken and on our knees and looking for salvation.
Who do you go to?
Did it matter?
Of course it did! After all, both my spiritual and physical shape were involved in it.
Did it hurt?
As hell itself!
Would you do it again?
Again and again and again…
I already told you, because it mattered.
don’t play with fire, kid. don’t push your hands in. ash smeared all over your skin, you love it. you love the taste of smoke when with your tongue you caress your lips. but don’t play for too long, kid, it’s not worth your skin.
when with only bones you touch the ones your touch seek they won’t feel a thing. just lust, pure, uncontrollable, that wants to touch more than just meat; but MEAT, won’t feel it. meat craves meat.
so don’t burn you hands, kid. it’s not worth the poem, it’s not worth the skin.
She was like a bowl that had the shape of me.
I could pour on her all of myself, and not a single drop would be spilled.
The problem was… I did not have the shape of her.
She poured on me, and everything was lost.
I could not contain her;
She was too much…
It’s funny! Every morning people wake up, And even though crying throughout the night They promised themselves to change when they wake up; They don’t. They just lie! They were still the same in the morning Just as they were the other night.
And here I was, Judging them for their lies. While forgetting that the night passed, The morning came, And I was still I.
umbrellas carry people, grounded, people never move up. “Call to launch!” spaceships seek the skies but nothing breaks the chains imprinted on us.
rain, holy water of the Heavens can’t make the meat meant to rot grow up. it slides upon its skin as sweat, dirty! the moment it touches it it laments the possibilities of what it could have been; an ocean, or at least, a part of it.
nothing goes beyond this, nothing! and rain dies. dreaming of becoming something more than meat.