Demography as poetry: Nathalie Khankan’s ‘Quiet Orient Riot’ astounds with shattering, shimmering lyricality 

Photo of the book, "Quiet Riot"

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Nathalie Khankan’s “Quiet Orient Riot” is a generative and lyrical read. Khankan, who teaches Arabic language & literature in the Near Eastern studies department at UC Berkeley, has written a deeply personal poetic narrative that traces her journey toward motherhood in the midst of demographic and territorial crises. 

Her subject matter is perhaps best captured by a question posed in the foreword: “What does it mean to bear a Palestinian child in the occupied Palestinian territory, enabled through continguent access to Israel’s sophisticated fertility treatment infrastructure?” This tension is at the bedrock of Khankan’s work, but her position as “a national vessel” yields many lyrics — and loves. 

There is a great deal to be said about the collection’s poetic form. The poems are formatted as blocks of text, which, at first glance, appear to be prose poems formatted as paragraphs without line breaks. However, the poems in “Quiet Orient Riot” do, in fact, contain line breaks. Khankan’s sentences, clauses and phrases are broken up by a repurposed punctuation mark: the vertical bar, also known as a “pipe.” 

Furthermore, the poems are uniquely titled. Khankan brings her titles down into the text itself, distinguishing them by differences in capitalization. This is an elegant and intriguing approach because it allows the title to be assimilated into the language and grammar of the poem itself. For example, the final lines of the titular poem of the collection read: “it’s a literary history / it’s a poet’s funeral / it’s a QUIET ORIENT RIOT.” 

“Quiet Orient Riot” has a large ensemble cast. There are many names that come up in Khankan’s poems: Abu Basil, Salim, Maissoun, Kifah, Fatma, Sufian & Canaan (and many others). These names help humanize more amorphous and bureaucratic characters, such as the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. 

But the most regal character of the collection is the city of Ramallah. In the poem “We Consume Summer,” Khankan writes: “we live in a city on a hill & it belongs to god & shuttered cinemas / soils shimmer towards something grand / shattering in many parts.” This description of a shimmering and shattering city is beautifully echoed in a line from “The Joy the Full,” which reads: “a little justice: ramallah sounds like pearls spilling from a string.”

The poems of this collection talk to each other, like neighbors carrying on a conversation through open, opposite-facing windows across the street. Snatches of conversation are often lost, and the poems and the people they discuss retain a certain atmosphere of mystery. Who was the future mother-in-law — the one who bore a striking resemblance to Jackie Kennedy and never returned from the airport? What was the color of the vest Abu Basil wore before he left Mandatory Palestine? Where do the rent boys go after daybreak? Are they “the apple of sodom” or are they its denizens? 

Khankan opens the door to these questions, but the answers are often shut out. The resonances are eerie: missing mothers, colonized homelands, sex industry workers who only come to light in the dark. These ambiguous fragments perhaps belong to the more painful side of Khankan’s collection, a world where “the gates & traumas open only inwards.”

 In such a world, there is an expressed need for “little justices.” Khankan identifies at least eight little justices in the collection, but there are many more to be found. There are moments of humor, such as: “the war is over LET’S TRANSFER SOME EMBRYOS.” There are acts of resistance, such as Khankan’s “demographic intifada.” And then there are beautiful promises: “everyday a tiny goodness aggregates.” 

“Quiet Orient Riot” is an invitation to walk the busy streets of Ramallah, to sit in the waiting room of an Israeli fertility clinic, to stand in the crowd gathered for the funeral of Mahmoud Darwish and most of all, to journey with Khankan through the moment in time & Palestine when her first daughter was born. It is a journey infinitely worth taking.

Contact Blue Fay at [email protected].