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The Root of Routes in Nathalie Handal’s "Life in a Country Album"

posted on: Jul 22, 2020

The Root of Routes in Nathalie Handal’s Life in a Country Album

Nathalie Handal’s Life in a Country Album

By: Alanoud M. Alajmi/Arab America Contributing Writer

In “A Rhyme for the Odes” Mahmoud Darwish writes: No land on earth bears me. Only my words bear me, / a bird born from me who builds a nest in my ruins / before me, and in the rubble of the enchanting world around me.

Life in A Country Album is Nathalie Handal’s seventh poetry collection and her most personal collection. Shortlisted for the Palestine Book Award and a Finalist for The Foreword Indies Book Award, the collection reflects Handal’s love for music and the rhythm of motion. This moving collection records a concerto of longings and belongings in the book’s French, Mediterranean and American albums. As the poems cross the borders of old and new worlds, the poet reminds us in the “Declaration of Independence,” the complicated nature of belonging when one’s body and heart are unbound to the rules of space and time. And relays in “Home in Transit”: “We can’t estimate / the distance / between a titled sky / and a broken heart / so we memorize / the sheets of sound / in our moving.”

Most poignantly, as Handal boldly navigates her hyphenated identities, she also fervently dismisses them. The poems invite readers to question if and/or how a country defines one’s identity and belonging. 

At the heart of the collection, we encounter ‘Conversation with Mahmoud Darwish and the Mediterranean Album,’ symbolizing Palestine and Handal’s journey in exile. Palestine is the root of routes in this collection, it is the pulse of all the albums. In “Echoes: A Historical Afterwards,” history speaks of its victims: “The truth is you are now without a home / The reason is they’re in your home / The reason is they’ve convinced themselves you left / The truth is you only went to safety.”

Withstanding the transnational allegiances that stretch from East to West in the collection, the speaker’s belonging to Palestine transcends all the geographical and political frontiers. In “Sculpting Time Seven Times,” Handal writes: “It doesn’t matter where I was born / Where I lived, where I went, or what I did / What matters is that / Time sculpted me seven times / In the eternity of the old city / And saved me / From those who tried / To reinvent us.”

While Mahmoud Darwish is Palestine’s poet, Handal is the voice of its exiles. In “Your Mystery Is the Milky Way,” the two are dialoguing on loss, longing, and desire:

: What is longing on this line?

: What is this line without longing?

: Who wants most when the wave is weary?

: Who’s marred most when the map is missing?

: Don’t maps lie?

: Like a country with two names. 

: Even if we can’t gather all the natives. 

: But we’ll always be able to gather their hearts.

: Maybe when I finish this line, you will reappear

 and the metaphor you left me in a verse, will liberate me

from what is about to happen. 

The Root of Routes in Nathalie Handal’s Life in a Country Album
Author Nathalie Handal

Since migration is central to Handal’s works, the ‘American Album’ celebrates the diversity and cultural plurality of the United States. The epic poem “American Camino” narrates the poet’s long journey roaming all the American states, where she reflects on the heterogeneity of the American landscape, culture, and the diverse people who contributed to the country: Yusef Komenyakaa, Frank Sinatra, Joan Kane, Steve Jobs, and Muhammad Ali, among others. But the poem’s refrain is “Who is American?” 

A farmer born in Texas, another born in Mexico who calls Arizona home; a politician born in Honolulu of Kenyan roots, who lived in Indonesia, is Christian with a Muslim name; a Cuban exile in Miami turned music legend, an Afghan refugee turned entrepreneur, a writer of Middle Eastern roots whose home is New York City.

Who is American?

When a great eagle followed me to Lincoln, then to Cairo, Nebraska, where I passed a pyramid-shaped sign, a statue of a camel, and streets named the Nile, Nubia, Suez, Alexandria, Mecca, Syria, Medina, I dreamed I was Faten Hamama in Land of Peace.

From the wings of the Milwaukee Art Museum to the Kansas City Public Library to the Super 8 in Ohio, I saw my life do backward somersaults through a haze of old wine in Oklahoma. I consorted with Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek ghosts of forced migration.


Was I American when I bought cowboy boots on my way to my uncle’s house in Lubbock, or when Naomi Shihab Nye told me about her walk with Edward Said to the Alamo? 

The speaker in the poem reminds us that we can’t have a just country until we confront our past, admit our injustices until “mouths open, and sins spill.”


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