Ruth Awad on "The Keeper of Allah's Hidden Names"
When I looked up, the clouds muted the bulb of moonlight
or they wisped like scarves around the neck of a woman,
that perfume between light and darkness,
and I was still counting.
I counted the white-clothed canopies pinned to the mountainside,
as though they could drip down the stone wall
like water and wash away.
That water jeweled with blood.
Your names like the sea's broken glass.
I was counting when
you looked down on your animals
who leaned into your breath with wonder
at the wind stinging through their ribs,
was counting when you pulled the moon down into the sea, a pearl
on the tongue of an animal
too stupid to swallow your name and keep it there,
was counting from the cliffs every syllable
of light and water and leaf and bone,
braying your names like an incantation
against the loneliness of knowing you.
On "The Keeper of Allah's Hidden Names"
In Islam, Allah has 99 names—The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful, The King, The Light, The Living…—but some are kept hidden from mankind. I was thinking His hidden names seem like a metaphor for how love works: you can never really know another person, not completely. Love is a kind of faith: you give it without knowing if it will be returned or how long its returning will last.
I was also thinking about what it means to love God and how loving with all your heart can be a lonely labor.
So this is a poem born out of the loneliness particular to having faith. It's about the supreme separation that exists between us and the divine and the gestures we make in an attempt to close that distance. I thought about all the times I've seen my father bow his head in prayer throughout my life. How he taught me to pray and showed me the compass on his prayer rug and why we face the east. I love the precision of my father's faith, its exactness. I am drawn to a love that can be counted.
When I sat down to write this poem, I imagined being tasked with keeping Allah's names so they won't be found. To have an intimate knowledge that no other human possessed. To be so close to the divine that you are alone with it and alone because of it.