In the Quran, God taught Adam the names of all things. Even the angels didn’t know the names. Do we carry the weight of these words with us? Do they hold us responsible? We call a tree not by name but type. We recognize a cypress tree by its characteristics. The cypress stands tall and slender in Persian poetry, with turtledoves making their home in its branches, never leaving. But our names aren’t unique or proper. Allah has 99 names, his attributes.
When Reza Shah abolished epithets and called for surnames, my grandmother’s father took the name قریب (Qarib), because he wanted us to be “close.” He was a scholar of Persian literature but chose an Arabic word. Grandmother carried its black petals with pride, through a marriage, and when it was sanctioned that she leave the house without a chador, her skin soft, porous as a peeled apple, its scent describing the air. The noun ties her to her father and separates her from her children and husband, who ran a bookstore, a caravanserai for names. They were Rahnema (“guide”). She was their Qarib (“near,” “relative”).
The two letters ق (q) and غ (gh) sound the same in Persian. But they are different in their Arabic origin. So many words can sound the same when you dress them in another language. We write ق and غ, though we only hear “gh.” But the word remembers. It’s like a tribe from ancient Arabia, with its three-letter family tent migrating to Tehran, where it now lives at the foot of Alborz.
My grandmother spelled her last name as Gharib, like her children taught her. Gharib meaning غریب, meaning expatriate, alien, lonely, exotic, not at home. We didn’t hear the sound leaving the bell of its definition. She had brought the key and forgotten the address. And my grandmother, who watched ABC World News’ nightly count of the days, became Gharib, a stranger with an Elementary English textbook, moving between her sons’ houses.
Grandma, did you introduce yourself as, “I am new; I am Gharib,” when you entered the adult English class in San Jose? Did you teach them how it’s held at the gate of the throat, how it presses on the tongue, bent down by the syllable’s weight on its back. Did you say Gharib like Gharb, as in the “West”?
We are still debating if we are speaking Persian or Farsi. How are we the custodians who carry words to English? If I say I believe in Allah, do you think I believe in a different God? How do you translate God? My grandmother believed in Hafez in Iran and believed in Hafez in America. If you trust in words as attributes, you will go on calling for your grandmother, following all the signposts, not knowing where you are going.
I was writing poems about my grandmother, and I found her father, a great-grandfather I didn’t know, whose old house, now a national heritage site empty of books, is like an empty shirt left beside an alley. I am also Gharib now, great-grandfather. This is the word I want to bring to you, English, where we live as strangers together.
At the hospital, a colony of forms has perched on the bed rail. The carnations, standing guard over the dictionary lying beside the Quran, are tired of smiling all day. Grandma consoles me; gharib navaz (غریب نواز ) is hospitality to strangers. We are all strangers, I wanted to say. How can we get from Gharib to Qarib if we don’t know where the words come from?
Grandma, in what tongue do you speak now? Do you still read Hafez? Tell me again of The Little Black Fish, of the lone Siberian crane still wintering in Fereydunkenar by the Caspian Sea, of where the sun goes. Where will we go to not be lost and startled by the words like the newscaster pronouncing أبو غريب: Abu Gh… Abu Gharib… Ghurayb… Ghraib? How should I talk to Him in Arabic if I don’t know the language? For the path from Qarib to Gharib is to remember.
First published in Elementary English (Anhinga, 2020). Winner of the Rick Campbell Chapbook Award. Included in Vox Populi by permission of the author.
Kaveh Bassiri is an Iranian-American writer and translator. He has received the Bellingham Review’s 49th Parallel Award and a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship. His poems appear in the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Beloit Poetry Journal, Drunken Boat, Nimrod International Journal, the Mississippi Review, and Best New Poets.