Skip to main content
caption: Poet and activist Lena Khalaf Tuffaha
Enlarge Icon
Poet and activist Lena Khalaf Tuffaha
Courtesy of Ayman Aldahleh

Seattle Arab-American Poet Seeks To 'Remind Us Of The Human'

Washington state poet laureate Elizabeth Austen presents two poems by Seattle-based poet Lena Khalaf Tuffaha: "Fragment" and "Running Orders."

Tuffaha was born in Seattle, but spent her youth in the Middle East, the child of a Palestinian father and a Jordanian-Syrian mother.

Tuffaha told Austen she hopes her poem "Fragment" will provide a different kind of context for events in Syria.

"My hope for poetry, and all art, is that it reminds us of the human. It takes you back a few steps before the explosion," she said. "I keep wanting to gently help the reader pull back the curtain and see the human beings living inside the house before it's destroyed."

"Fragment" was written in response to a drawing by Karen Cappotto, and originally published by Broadsided Press for the "Responses for Syrian Refugees" series. Broadsided Press specializes in collaborations between poems and images.

In the summer of 2014, during yet another war in Gaza, Tuffaha redirected her frustration and helplessness into a creative response and wrote the poem “Running Orders.”

She posted it to her Facebook page, where the poem was picked up, re-posted and tweeted around the world. It was translated into several languages - including Hebrew.

Read the two poems below, or click the play button above to hear Tuffaha read them.


There’s nothing living here,

Only sea shells warped to the shapes

of their exiled residents,

trinkets from the kingdom of childhood.

The forecast calls for white phosphorous

with occasional sun breaks

barrel bombs in the afternoon,

and in the evening

checkpoints and falling temperatures.

We reach for what is useful,

a skin to wear between weather

patterns, a flame resistant faith,

hope enough

to fit into our backpacks.

Used by permission of Broadsided Press.

"Running Orders"

They call us now.

Before they drop the bombs.

The phone rings

and someone who knows my first name

calls and says in perfect Arabic

“This is David.”

And in my stupor of sonic booms and glass shattering symphonies

still smashing around in my head

I think “Do I know any Davids in Gaza?”

They call us now to say


You have 58 seconds from the end of this message.

Your house is next.

They think of it as some kind of

war time courtesy.

It doesn’t matter that

there is nowhere to run to.

It means nothing that the borders are closed

and your papers are worthless

and mark you only for a life sentence

in this prison by the sea

and the alleyways are narrow

and there are more human lives

packed one against the other

more than any other place on earth

Just run.

We aren’t trying to kill you.

It doesn’t matter that

you can’t call us back to tell us

the people we claim to want aren’t in your house

that there’s no one here

except you and your children

who were cheering for Argentina

sharing the last loaf of bread for this week

counting candles left in case the power goes out.

It doesn’t matter that you have children.

You live in the wrong place

and now is your chance to run

to nowhere.

It doesn’t matter

that 58 seconds isn’t long enough

to find your wedding album

or your son’s favorite blanket

or your daughter’s almost completed college application

or your shoes

or to gather everyone in the house.

It doesn’t matter what you had planned.

It doesn’t matter who you are.

Prove you’re human.

Prove you stand on two legs.


Used by permission of the author, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha.

Why you can trust KUOW