Uncle Mohammed, you mystery, you distant secretive face,
lately you travel across the ocean and tap me on my shoulder
and say “See?” And I think I know what you are talking about,
though we have never talked, though you have never traveled anywhere
in twenty-five years, or anywhere anyone knows about.
Since my childhood, you were the one I cared for,
you of all the uncles, the elder brother of the family.
I’d pump my father, “But why did he go to the mountain?
What happened to him?” and my father, in his usual quiet way,
would shrug and say, “Who knows?”
All I knew was you packed up, you moved to the mountain,
you would not come down.
This fascinated me: How does he get food? Who does he talk to?
What does he do all day?
In grade school my friends had uncles who rode motorcycles,
who cooked steaks outdoors or paid for movies
I preferred you, in all your silence.
In my mind you were like a god, living close to clouds,
fearless and strong, with no one to sing you to sleep.
And I wanted to know you, to touch hands, to have you look at me
and recognize your blood, a small offspring
who did not find you in the least bit
I wonder how much news you know. That Naomi, your sister
for whom I was partially named, Is dead.
That one brother shot himself “by mistake”—
that your brothers Izzat and Mufli have twenty-two children
already marrying each other.
That my father edits one of the largest newspapers in America
but keeps an Arabic inscription above his door, Ahlan Wa Sahlan,
a door you will never enter.
We came to your country, Uncle, we lived there a year
among sheep and stones, camels and fragrant oils,
and you would not come down to see us.
I think that hurt my father, though he never said so.
It hurt me, scanning the mountains for sight of your hut,
quizzing the relative and learning nothing.
Are you angry with us? Do you think my father forgot you
when he packed his satchel and boarded the ship?
Believe me, Uncle, my father is closer to you
than the brothers who never left. When he tends plants,
he walks slowly. His steps sing of the hills.
And when he stirs the thick coffee and grinds the cardamom seed
you think he feels like an American?
You think he forgets to call to prayer?
Oh Uncle, forgive me, how long is your beard?
Maybe you had other reasons.
Maybe you didn’t go up the mountain because you were angry.
This is what I am learning, the voice I hear when I wake at 3 a.m.
It says, Teach me how little I need to live
and I can’t tell if it is me talking, or you,
or the walls of the room. How little, how little,
and the world jokes and says, how much.
Money, events, ambitions, plans, oh Uncle,
I have made myself a quiet place in the swirl.
I think you would like it.
Yesterday I learned how many shavings of wood the knife discards
to leave one smoothly whittled spoon.
Today I read angles of light through the window,
first they touch the floor, then the bed,
till everything is luminous, curtains flung wide.
As for friends, they are fewer and dearer,
and the ones who remain seem also to be climbing mountains
in various ways, though we dreams we will meet at the top.
Will you be there?
Gazing out over valleys and olive orchards,
telling us sit, sit
you expected us all along.