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Naj’wa (Say in a Whisper), by Menat Allah El Attma

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

A woman stands by water with two children.
Taken 25 Nov 1997. Salalah, Oman.

Here, hope lays in dirt and often gets caught in between toes belonging to small bare feet running on hot sandy cobblestones. These feet return to mothers wary of their color. Rami sits with the soles of his own pressed together and a soccer ball rubbed against their orbital curves. Setting his eyes on the city, he remembers the laundry left waiting at home. His stomach begins to twist like a cycle, forward first then in reverse. Rami lays his eyes at the base of lustrous mud-and-clay structures, her broad frame, then moves up to the stillness of leaves hanging on neighboring lemon trees. His soul swoons slowly. This is still the place of strange luck.

Rami was four when his father had won the Diversity Lottery for Green Card status and five when he left. Mama B says his smell at times was like Turkish coffee and other times cigarettes–and, sometimes, both at once. She made sure coffee remained at the doorstep, never welcome, but cigarettes would now-and-then find themselves between her pale-lined lips, letting him scorch her once more, and again, and again. Inhaling the smoke of him into and out of her, there was a slight hope of it lingering above her, around her, through her. But once the wind overtakes it, away to another city, she would remember entering the bedroom with emptied cabinets overturned, clothes flung onto the floor, and an envelope of savings stored behind the mirror gone missing.

To the city’s surprise, despite how well her beauty preserved itself, Mama B did not remarry. How foolish, she thought. As Rami grew older and began to resemble his father more by the day, she became sharp. Besides, damn it, I know who I am. Rami was too young to remember him, but her cries still dampen his memory. There is something unshakable about a mother’s tears, something that reaches the soul before the heart. And after a month or so, she gathered all the bed sheets she ever laid with him on, folded and stacked. Casting the linen directly on top of fish bones, okra buds, and bottom-of-the-pot-burnt white rice from dinner, Mama B drops olive oil into the can. She unbends her back and moves her head forward. Her eyes peer at the shelf between the exit and television and widen at the sight of his forgotten box of matches. How incessant he was to smoke indoors and how careful she was not to correct him.

Upon reaching the door, there is a persistent pause, as if the spirit of her disapproving mother was present. She forwent all worldly things when passing to the next except her unmistakable revulsion towards the marriage, and in that precise moment, it was as if she had uttered Here, take the match. And so, Mama B does. She walks out and down stairs with the box in hand. Setting the can in front of the complex building, she strikes matches along the edge of the box, the perfect height to light three at once, and projects them into the can. The fire was not a gesture, it was a demand. Talk for its own sake is noise at best, so tell her not that your speech is of a divine faculty. The city now hums in obedience.


Menat Allah El Attma is a diaspora writer, photographer, and a Muslim North African immigrant. Having emigrated from Egypt to the United States in November of 2005, she is now a third-year undergraduate student studying English Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Menat is personally invested in a myriad of art forms because it is through art that we can meaningfully study history, religion, science, language, ourselves and each other. See additional art by Menat in 805 here.


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