“How Lightly We Learn to Hold Hope”










by Danusha Laméris

I don’t know when it slipped into my speech
that soft word meaning, “if God wills it.”
Insha’Allah I will see you next summer.
The baby will come in spring insha’Allah.
Insha’Allah this year we will have enough rain.

So many plans I’ve laid have unraveled
easily as braids beneath my mother’s quick fingers.

Every language must have a word for this. A word
our grandmothers uttered under her breath
as they pinned the whites, soaked in lemon,
hung them to dry in the sun, or peeled potatoes,
dropping the discarded skins into a bowl.

Our sons will return next month, insha’Allah.
Insha’Allah this war will end, soon. Insha’Allah
the rice will be enough to last through the winter.

How lightly we learn to hold hope,
as if it were an animal that could turn around
and bite your hand. And still we carry it
the way a mother would, carefully,
from one day to the next.

from The Moons of August
Autumn House Press, 2014

I thought of this poem again recently when I read a news story about a young man escorted off a plane after a fellow passenger overheard him making “threatening comments” in Arabic while on his phone. He had been talking to his uncle, who asked his nephew to call him back when he arrived at his final destination. The young man then ended the call by saying, “Insh’Allah insh’Allah, I will call you when I arrive.” Before he knew what was happening, however, he was kicked off his flight and interrogated by the police. “Insh’Allah”—that “soft word, meaning, ‘If God wills it’—had inspired fear instead of faith. The word has been part of my own speech for several years now; a friend who taught English to Somali refugees learned it from them, and we both found it fitting to use with one another as a way to hold our hopes more lightly. As Danusha Laméris wisely points out in her poem, more often than not, our best-laid plans “unravel,” our lives come undone. Yet we learn to speak those heartfelt prayers and pleas under our breath (or sometimes out loud): “Insh’Allah this war will end, soon,” as Laméris writes. Or, as I have been saying to myself lately: Insh’Allah this hate that divides us from each other somehow turns into love and light. Insh’Allah we approach the world not with fear, but with a greater curiosity that makes us ask questions, instead of assuming the worst. Insh’Allah we keep carrying our hope like a careful parent “from one day to the next,” without losing faith.

—James Crews