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Birth Ritual

by Dana Alsamsam

Sister      you came into the world
silent      & expecting

to listen      your father’s voice
whispering into your right ear

these holy words to call you
into a life of worship

His voice
was the first voice I heard

like many daughters
& their fathers

& the recitation
of this ghostsong

Assalatu khairum-minan-naum
Prayer is better than sleep

But you      my sister      heard only
frantic calls      clipped

conversations      the echo
of emergency waking you

into a world that won’t get
any quieter      I know our father

does not have any sweetness
left to      rub on your gums

He is too tired to teach you
the many steps of cleansing

before prayer as he taught me
his devotion washed away

in the silt      & the sand
his prayer only ritual      a performance

of memory      He kneels
stands      no longer feels urgency

Hayya ‘ala-s-Salah      Hayya ‘ala-s-Salah
Hayya ‘ala-l-Falah      Hayya ‘ala-l-Falah

Hurry to the prayer      Hurry to the prayer
Hurry to Salvation      Hurry to Salvation

Hurry to me sister      & I will try
to teach you that soap

is not the same as purity
but sometimes this water is all we have

to scrub the shame passed down
My sister      you & I

are both unholy daughters
the same despite our beginnings

Sleep      it calls to us
Dark      it calls to us

I admit      sister      I still remember
what the Adhan sounds like

The calm urgency of its calling
across the dawn      the night

the day      but I have forgotten
to what world

this incantation calls us
I have forgotten its meaning

In Islam, the earliest tradition that we experience in our lives is our father whispering the Adhan, or the call to prayer, into our right ear. This tradition blesses the child and welcomes them into a life of worship and godliness. My youngest sister did not experience this ritual, however, because she was born quickly in the passenger seat of my father’s car on the way to hospital. Years later, my parents would divorce and I had started my own adult life outside of my parents’ house. My little sister and father were essentially alone, and it broke my heart to see my father struggling, and my little sister coming of age in such a different reality. I wanted to protect her from the evils that young women experience in this world. I used the birth ritual to highlight the difference between myself and her, but then collapse that difference throughout the poem. Is there any real difference between us when I had strayed so far from the path my father wished for me anyways? When I had succumbed so many times to a life that was unholy?

Dana Alsamsam is a first generation Syrian-American from Chicago and is currently based in Boston where she works in arts development. A Lambda Literary fellow, she received her MFA in Poetry from Emerson College where she was the editor-in-chief of Redivider and senior editorial assistant at Ploughshares. She is the author of a chapbook, (in)habit (tenderness lit, 2018), and her poems are published or forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, North American Review, The Shallow Ends, The Offing, Tinderbox, Salamander, BOOTH, The Common, and others.