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24 June 2022

almost-shahrazad by Shereen Leanne

Wasafiri is proud to publish the shortlisted works of the 2021 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. These poems, essays, and short stories detail a range of emotions and experiences, produced by skilled new writers from all over the globe. In this poem, Shereen Leanne weaves the mythic and contemporary to interrogate the act of storytelling, and the complex weight of heritage. The 2022 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open until 30 June. You can enter the prize and read more about it here.

there are palm fronds of wallpaper peelinginto whispered green along the terraced house ona birmingham street, where almost-shahrazadis prising out a story from the painting on the wall.

outside the rain falls quiet when she begins and puddles into colours of a sigh. but in the framethree horses riding through the desert stop,as their three riders wonder how they                                                                                   lost 

the baghdad road and ended up reversingthe oasis to the only pause of sand for milesin a dim-brick rainchorus of overflowingdrains. almost-shahrazad sits cross-legged

on a carpet that stubbornly refuses to fly,even though its wingspan would makean albatross’s eyes spin red with envy.her brother sits there too, after being exiled

 from the land of the other room for interruptingcoffee-table-talk by folding coke cans intosmaller smaller strips of sugared glints.over in the corner, the persians and the arabs 

 are at war again over the black-white noise of towli: the emir and the hakawati hunch over the board, hurling languages at countersas they cross on pilgrimage. 

‘the first brother spoke into the womb of the sun and his thoughts turned the same shade of reins drawing landscapes into palms.yalah, he called, and the word folded up the …’  

‘how long’s this storeee gonna be?’

‘what’s wrong with my story?’  

‘nuffin, yeh, but your stoooooreeesare always soooo loooong’

                                                                                                                   ‘do-shesh!’ ‘waahid-thalaatha. ooh blasted dice!’     ‘well how long should it be, genie-ass?’  

‘how long’s a piece of storee-string?’

‘double the length from the mid-dle to the far edge of its tapestry,baradare kuchulu’   

‘stop rubbin the word lampmiss dicktionary’

  ‘how about na’ 

the hakawati leans over to seewhat al and almost-shahrazad arespitting stars over, sending a musing tideto navy down the sparks of their argument.

 

                                                                                                          ‘my neffew, nazar, he painted this’

 

so the quarrellers pause with their(s)words drawn to trace how the ooo of the hakwati’s nephew blows the dust in a muttering rise about the horses’ hooves, sweeping

 a broom of rusted storms into the facesof the three lost men. and as the sand sticks to the creases of his breath,these shards of desert split his syllables in

 to a solar calendar, charting out the eveninginto fades of light…but an unfinished gamewill always keep the hakawati from finishinghis tale, and soon his war resumes.

‘ok ok go on i’m half-listenin. What arethe bros lookin for agen?’

‘The other horses! From the firstpainting!' 

‘Wot first painting?’

almost-shahrazad deep-breathes, knowingthat she cannot answer this without returningto the source of the tigris, climbing theirancestral palm to replant dates now

 wrinkled with the weight of generations. she cannot answer this without retracing stepsthrough stories that were told when they wereeach no more than a possibility in the world,

 stardust furled on an astronomer’s map, waiting for collisions between planetarybodies to turn visions into childrenand innocence to wisdom…


Shereen Leanne was born and raised with the rhymes and concrete chimes of Birmingham. She is currently an unsettled guest on xwməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam) territory where she is a PhD student in comparative literature at the University of British Columbia and a Peer Supporter with The Support Network for Indigenous Women and Women of Colour. Her poetry takes shape out of a responsibility to pass ancestral stories on by exploring life between borders as a child of Iraqi and Iranian parents.     Cover photo via WikiCommons, under the Creative Commons Licence.
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