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from the July/August 2021 issue

Linguistic Threads, translated by Alta L. Price

Afro-Italian poet Rahma Nur describes her experience as a member of a diaspora living in Italy, noting how language marks the body and how it shapes one's sense of loss.

Words Without Borders · Rahma Nur Reads "Fili Linguistici" ("Linguistic Threads")


As you make headway
between the land where you were born
and the ground that took you in
a thread stretches to connect them
like an IV.
It feeds you words and sentences
prepositions and long periods
you can’t parse them
so you just let them flow in
between the red cells coursing through your veins
under your smooth, dark epidermis
which discourages presumptions
yet endures snap judgments:
Hadaad soomaali tahay maxaad somali ugu hadlin?1
You speak such fluent Italian!
Both here and there
muteness calls the shots
the only sure answer
is a non-answer.

They say words are music
they say words are food
they say words are art
but they don’t say words cause confusion
that words leave you speechless
facing other words
they don’t tell you words are language
that there are lots of languages
that not everyone has one
that your mother tongue
can become your stepmother tongue
and your wicked stepmother language
can become your gentle maternal language
and that they aren’t always interchangeable
and that you can spend an entire lifetime
without speaking one, even though
you have another two or three inside.
A mother tongue can be healing
but it can also make you sick
if you don’t speak it well
so you go with your stepmother tongue
as a spring to slake your thirst.

As the diaspora
shuttles you from one country to another
you choose a tone that can convey
that gets you through the gaps
both real and imagined
a code
that opens doors
and in this vacuum you’re living in
others are born and grow up
and the distance between siblings widens
just one connecting thread is left
it isn’t Somali, Dutch, Swedish,
it’s hands, skin, eyes,
your whole body
that fills the void
between one country and another.
It’s this external casing
that tacitly answers the questions,
that speaks for you,
because your mouth is rendered mute
by too many invading tongues.

1. If you're Somali, why don't you speak Somali?

"Fili linguistici" first published in Formafluens vol. 2, no. 1, January–April 2020 (pages 17–18). © 2020 by Rahma Nur. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Alta L. Price. All rights reserved.

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