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Arabic Lessons in Egypt – Poems, Pictures & Prose by Saaleha Idrees Bamjee

Arabic Lessons in Egypt

Published in Poetry Potion 2013.01.Print Quarterly edition: On Being Human


Arabic Lessons in Egypt

At a masjid in Madinat Nasr
just before Maghrib
I find jidatee with her nose
in His signs
while a metronome
of bone on bone
keeps time with
each fatha
each kasra
she breathes
those knees creak as much
as the scuffed plastic
of the chair under them
she’s not really my grandmother
I hear only one word out of her hundred.
Ana la atakalam arabiyya the guidebook told me to say.
Ana talibah, min junoob iffrikiya was from today’s class lesson.
jidatee, who’s not really,
fingers the dark cloth of my jacket
before pointing to my skin
she’s trying to figure it out
South African but you are not black?
Ummi’s ummi’s ummi min Hindeeyah I stumble
I haven’t yet learnt the Arabic word for great-grandmother
jidatee brings her finger to her forehead
makes a little circle with it in the middle
La, la, Muslim I say
sounds a bit like a song
and we laugh before we pray


maghrib – the sunset prayer
jidatee – Arabic word for ‘my grandmother’
fatha – Arabic grammatical mark
kasra – Arabic grammatical mark
ana la atakalam arabiyya – I don’t speak Arabic
ana talibah, min junoob iffrikiya – I am a student from South Africa
ummi – Arabic for ‘my mother’
min Hindeeya – Arabic for ‘from India’
la la- Arabic for ‘no, no’

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I am a writer and photographer (look up my work on based in Johannesburg, South Africa. I have an MA in Creative Writing from the university currently known as Rhodes. My writing accolades include winning the 2014 Writivism Short Story Prize and the 2020 Ingrid Jonker Poetry Prize for my debut collection, Zikr.

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