A ‘Ghazal’ Sensibility on Valentine’s Day

How a poet finds solace in the ebb and flow of an Arabic lyrical form

A ‘Ghazal’ Sensibility on Valentine’s Day
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

Last month, as I tried to walk across thick mud, my feet slipped out of my shoes. I stood there in my socks and hollered for my husband to help me. Marwan was ahead of me and unwilling to go back into the mud himself, so I dug my shoes out with my bare hands. “You should have hopped quick-quick,” he gestured, “without letting your feet sink.” He shook his head, half-smiling, half-mad at me for this bad idea: Did we have to walk this long Bay Area trail, especially after a week of rain? We should have turned back halfway, as he’d suggested. What started out as a pleasant January hike on an unusually warm Sunday to celebrate our upcoming 16th anniversary had turned into endless exhaustion. 

A weekend earlier, on the final day of the year, I’d stayed in bed, watching the rain from my window. It was a little more than a year since we’d moved from Dubai to California, and I was getting reacquainted with the rain and with daily-ness on another continent. I had decided not to go to the New Year’s party my friend invited me to. Though I enjoy dancing, even with people I barely know, I chose solitude that day. As I listened to the rain, al-Sayyab’s famous lines echoed in my head: “Do you know what sorrow the rain brings forth?” Yes, what sorrow, and what rhapsody. A certain all-at-once-ness.

I thought of the literal idea of moving, of putting one foot in front of the other, and I decided I would take nature walks alone and with my husband; this would be good for our health, my sanity, and our relationship. I thought of my marriage (verging on its 17th year), of my children (teenagers who no longer like me) and of my friendships (old ones in different time zones and new ones I’m nervously trying to build at age 41) — all the loves that sustain me. I thought of my fear for everyone I love, a feeling that’s been amplified since we moved to California. I am more worried about my daughters, I am more aware that my parents in Lebanon are growing older, and I have been listening to my husband in his sleep to make sure he is breathing. I am overwhelmed by the fear of losing someone I love. 

By mid-January, it was still raining, and I happened to be reading Agha Shahid Ali’s “Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English.” The ghazal, too, like rain, has an all-at-once-ness. The poetic form began in Arabic and migrated into many languages, including Farsi, Urdu and English. One of my favorite things about the form is this: The couplets that make up the English ghazal are completely autonomous, which means one should be able to change their order without affecting the poem. One couplet could be about divine love, another about romantic love, another about friendship, another about revolution. One could make you laugh while another could make you cry — all within the span of one poem — as long as each ends with the established refrain (“radif”), which is preceded by the rhyme (“qafia”). Here are three couplets from Agha Shahid Ali’s “Ghazal”:

Majnoon, by stopped caravans, rips his collars, cries “Laila!”

Pain translated is O! much more — not less — in Arabic. 


When Lorca died, they left the balconies open and saw:

On the sea his qasidas stitched seamless in Arabic.

Where there were homes in Deir Yassein, you will see dense forests —

The village was razed. There is no address in Arabic.  

The unconnected couplets disrupt thematic or narrative unity. As Shahid Ali’s lines return to the refrain “in Arabic” and the “ess” rhyme before it, they leap from Majnoon Laila to Lorca to the occupation of Palestine. The ghazal’s ability to contain a multitude of ideas, images and tones without bothering to logically link them — its “contrapuntal air,” as Shahid Ali calls it — makes it, for me, the best kind of love poem. For if we are committed to love, we will see it everywhere, in spheres seemingly unrelated: in ourselves, in our romantic partners, in our friends, in how we choose to believe or not believe and in our political stances.

Departure and return, variation and repetition; these movements that the ghazal makes with immense longing have come to qualify all my loves. I leave Lebanon and return to it. My daughters push me away and summon me back, as I have done with my mother. I say goodbye to friends and meet them again in different cities. My husband and I go through periods of disconnection and closeness. 

Two Sundays ago, I returned from a short trip to Dubai and arrived at San Francisco International Airport at the same time Marwan was there to fly to Paris. He had checked in, thinking he could meet me at my gate before he left. When he realized we were on different floors, he walked out, met me on the arrivals floor for a few minutes — enough time to give me a hug and walk me to my ride-app’s pickup spot — then checked in again. When I feared he would miss his plane with this detour of his, he texted, “It’s OK. I haven’t seen you in ten days. It’s worth it.” He didn’t mean he was fine with missing his plane but that being with the one you love, even if only for a few minutes, is worth the hassle, the rush and the worry.

The disunity of the ghazal and the song the rain sings don’t console. They don’t provide fixed answers. They merely hold everything all at once, if only for a moment. Though not without grief, they seem to be without dread, and I’ve been trying to learn from this. In the car, I savored the tenderness of the brief meeting with Marwan; I was brokenhearted to be away from my friends in Dubai again and I marveled at the sight of the water as I crossed the Bay Bridge. Perhaps there was a way to hold it all. Perhaps I was even beginning to love where I lived. 

Five days later, after Marwan had returned from France, I received a message on my phone from my daughter’s high school: “Please close and lock your doors, turn off your lights, and keep students inside.” My husband and I immediately drove there and found police cars and drones. My daughter was messaging me from under a table, during a shelter-in-place incident after a potential shooter threat on campus: “i’m scared mom i don’t wanna die.” I cried. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I looked at Marwan and said, “We grew up in civil-war Lebanon and never felt unsafe at school!” I reassured her she wouldn’t die. I remembered I had dreamt of a baby elephant swimming in the ocean. I quickly Googled it and found out it was a good omen. 


Life’s lengthy or short but it ends when it ends

We arrive and we go and that’s so, my dear. 

The elected must govern, the masses must vote

And a man has his price (quid pro quo, my dear)


The moon eats her heart out again and again

But the rivers just go with the flow, my dear. 

— Kathryn Simmonds, “Experience” 

The pear trees are flowering. My daughter walks out of her school, safe and terrified, hugs me and asks if she can go to lunch with her friends. My mother in Lebanon packs a bag and leaves it by the door, should another earthquake strike. The birds fly into the trees at sunset. My friend attends a funeral on Zoom. Another friend sends me a video that says, “Me on February 14th,” with the Egyptian actress Abla Kamel popping out balloons and destroying a cake at a party. Another is worried Valium won’t be enough to get her into an MRI machine. The moon, the water. My younger daughter sends me a message telling me her team won a volleyball game. The mountains. My husband and I walk. There is no moving forward or turning back. There is no road, no arrival. 

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