The Paper Camera (excerpt)

Youmna Chlala | It's not easy to see the grass in things and in words | Photograph on archival paper (Mylar, ink, graphite, eraser, tape) 21x14 inches


To translate, would mean engaging an electrical circuit in his brain, bypassing his heart.

– Luc Sante


Mannerisms in language
slashes above A’s, marks below long Y’s
when reading Arabic these are not printed
just understood
this is how you knew that you would leave before I did



Variations between

letter and sound
is released

from the back of the throat

force and muscle      spit and saliva and tongue against teeth.
The difference is a minute tongue induced difference

When they ask where you come from, tell them:
Don’t believe in origins. Authenticity died with Colonialism.

Find a worn Arabic phrase book, practice saying Ghorba.
a kind of home, outside of language

Ghorba:  Gha is a fricative sound.

Even if your mouth is closed (you are a mouthpiece)



Where are we in the legacy of crusaders?

(make sense of it all in translation)

First, we had to learn each other’s languages.
This was the longest, most loving trial.

Then we undid our own.


French, all is a run on.
Arabic, codes, departure
encounter in transition
if authority then authentic, the I returns.

Collective, pronoun as mispronunciation
of proper name, translation demands
greater knowledge of the self, a kind of ort.

Ornamentation, a third dimension
for example, bolts, thunder, underwater god
holds the silver screws in place.

Narration, voice again from below
instructions arrive in apparitions
the motivation is in the tongues.


Fur meaning close to cypress
but not quite that, rows of
narrow trunks that would not
allow anything between them

a pink light on the needles of pines
softness in hundreds of small pricks
space accounted for by trees




mattar (rain) +  mattar (airport)
sound the same,  if mispronounced

What is the matter?
ma – fee- shee  (nothing-there-is)

“Mama, will they take pictures of my whole body?”
“No honey, just the heart.”



A city is only as good as its satellite dishes
and Yo Te Amo is a big big word

I tell you as a seal moves slowly towards us
slick mass of muscle and a cartoon smile
on the beach where buildings recede
behind chlorinated pools

we are famished, eat sambousek and tabouli
you tear the lettuce leaves, give me the cœur
say, she who is heart will fight.

Youmna Chlala’s poems are excerpted from her forthcoming book The Paper Camera (Litmus Press, 2018).

Image Credits: Youmna Chlala