Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Darwish's State of Seige

I've already posted a version of Mahmoud Darwish's "Under Seige," and a link to a different translation, but reading Nye inspired me again. It's such a long poem that I decided not to post its entirety, so this is just a small portion. Go here for the rest.

State of Seige

Here, where the hills slope before the sunset and the chasm of time

near gardens whose shades have been cast aside
we do what prisoners do
we do what the jobless do
we sow hope

In a land where the dawn sears
we have become more doltish
and we stare at the moments of victory
there is no starry night in our nights of explosions
our enemies stay up late, they switch on the lights
in the intense darkness of this tunnel

Here after the poems of Job, we wait no more

This siege will persist until we teach our enemies
models of our finest poetry

* * *

here, not “I”
Here, Adam remembers the clay of which he was born

He says, on the verge of death, he says,
“I have no more earth to lose”
Free am I, close to my ultimate freedom, I hold my fortune in my own hands
In a few moments, I will begin my life
born free of father and mother
I will chose letters of sky blue for my name

Under siege, life is the moment between remembrance
of the first moment, and forgetfulness of the last

here, under the mountains of smoke, on the threshold of my home,
time has no measure

* * *

There is no Homeric echo here
Myths come knocking on our door when we need them
There is no Homeric echo here… only a general
looking through the rubble for the awakening state
concealed within the galloping horse from Troy

The soldiers measure the space between being and nothingness
with field-glasses behind a tank’s armoury

We measure the space between our bodies and the coming rockets
with our sixth sense alone

You there, by the threshold of our door
Come in, and sip with us our Arabic coffee
[you may even feel that you are human, just as we are]
you there, by the threshold of our door
take your rockets away from our mornings
we may then feel secure
[and almost human]

* * *

I wrack my head, but uselessly.
What can someone like me think of, there,
on the tip of the hillside, for the past 3 thousand years,
and in this passing moment?
My thoughts slay me
my memory awakens me

When the helicopters disappear the doves fly back
white, very white, marking the cheeks of the horizon
with liberated wings. They revive their radiance and their ownership
of the sky, and of playfulness. Higher and higher they fly,
the doves, very white. ‘O that the sky
was real’ [a man passing between two bombs cried]
A sparkling sky, a vision, lightning!
all very similar….
soon I will know if this is indeed
a revelation
or my close friends will know that the poem
has gone, and yoked its poet

* * *

The evergreen Cypresses behind the soldiers are minarets protecting
the sky from falling. Behind the barbed wire
are soldiers urinating- protected by a tank.
The Autumn day completes its golden stroll on the pavements of
a street as empty as a church after Sunday prayers

Tomorrow we will love life.
When tomorrow comes, life will be something to adore
just as it is, ordinary, or tricky
gray, or colourful…stripped of judgement day and purgatory…
and if joy is a necessity
let it be
light on the heart and the back
Once embittered by joy, twice shy

* * *

[To a killer:] If you reflected upon the face
of the victim you slew, you would have remembered your mother in the room
full of gas. You would have freed yourself
of the bullet’s wisdom,
and changed your mind: ‘I will never find myself thus.’

* * *

We are alone. We are alone to the point
of drunkenness with our own aloneness,
with the occasional rainbow visiting.

We have brothers and sisters overseas..
kind sisters, who love us..
who look our way and weep.
And secretly they say
“I wish that siege was here, so that I could…”
But they cannot finish the sentence.
Do not leave us alone. No.
Do not leave us alone.

Our losses are between two and eight a day.
And ten are wounded.
Twenty homes are gone.
Forty olive groves destroyed,
in addition to the structural damage
afflicting the veins of the poem, the play,
and the unfinished painting.

* * *

Standing here. Sitting here. Always here. Eternally here,
we have one aim and one aim only: to continue to be.
Beyond that aim we differ in all.
We differ on the form of the national flag (we would have done well if we had chosen
o living heart of mine, the symbol of a simple mule).
We differ on the words of the new anthem
(we would have done well to choose a song on the marriage of doves).
We differ on the duties of women
(we would have done well to choose a woman to run the security services).
We differ on proportions, public and private.
We differ on everything. We have one aim: to continue to be.
After fulfilling this aim, we will have time for other choices.

* * *

“I don’t love you. I don’t hate you,”
The prisoner said to the interrogator. “My heart is full
of that which is of no concern to you. My heart is full of the aroma of sage.
My heart is innocent, radiant, brimming.
There is no time in the heart for tests. No.
I do not love you. Who are you that I may give my love to you?
Are you part of my being? Are you a coffee rendezvous?
Are you the wind of the flute, and a song, that I may love you?
I hate imprisonment. But I do not hate you.”
Thus a prisoner said to the investigator. “My feelings are not your concern.
My emotions are my own private night…
my night which moves from bed to bed free of rhyme
and of double meanings!

* * *

[to a semi-orientalist] Let’s say things are the way you think they are -
that I am stupid, stupid, stupid
and that I cannot play golf
or understand high technology
nor can fly a plane!
Is that why you have ransomed my life to create yours?
If you were another - if I were another
we would have been a couple of friends who confessed our need for folly
But the fool, like Shylock the merchant,
consists of heart, and bread, and two frightened eyes

Under siege, time becomes a location
solidified eternally
Under siege, place becomes a time
abandoned by past and future

This low, high land
this holy harlot…
we do not pay much attention to the magic of these words
a cavity may become a vacuum in space
a contour in geography

* * *

Truce, truce. A time to test the teachings: can helicopters be turned into ploughshares?
We said to them: truce, truce, to examine intentions.
The flavour of peace may be absorbed by the soul.
Then we may compete for the love of life using poetic images.
They replied, “Don’t you know that peace begins with oneself,
if you wish to open the door to our citadel of truth?
So we said, “And then?”

* * *

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Travelling with Hope

This is the poem mentioned in the Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye:

Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal
by Naomi Shihab Nye
After learning my flight was detained 4 hours, I heard the announcement: If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic, Please come to the gate immediately.
Well — one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress, Just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.
Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her Problem? we told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she did this.
I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly.
Shu dow-a, shu- biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick, Sho bit se-wee?
The minute she heard any words she knew — however poorly used – She stopped crying.
She thought our flight had been cancelled entirely.
She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the Following day. I said no, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late,
Who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him.
We called her son and I spoke with him in English.
I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and Would ride next to her — southwest.
She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it.
Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and Found out of course they had ten shared friends.
Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian Poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering Questions.
She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies — little powdered Sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts — out of her bag – And was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a Sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California, The lovely woman from Laredo — we were all covered with the same Powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookies.
And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers – Non-alcoholic — and the two little girls for our flight, one African American, one Mexican American — ran around serving us all apple juice And lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar too.
And I noticed my new best friend — by now we were holding hands – Had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing,
With green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always Carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.
Not a single person in this gate — once the crying of confusion stopped – has seemed apprehensive about any other person.
They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere.
Not everything is lost.

Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye

Melissa Tuckey | September 16, 2008

Naomi Shihab Nye was born on March 12, 1952, in St. Louis, Missouri, to a Palestinian father and an American mother. During her high school years, she lived in Ramallah in Jordan, the Old City in Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas. She is the author and/or editor of more than 20 volumes.

Her father, Aziz Shihab, passed away this year. His memoir Does the Land Remember Me? was published by Syracuse University Press in 2006. It traces his longing for home and his attachment to the place of his birth, through the family's forced removal from their Jerusalem home in 1948, to his immigration to the United States, and many returns home to Palestine.

At the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington, DC in 2008, Naomi received a standing ovation for her poem "Wandering around an Albuquerque Terminal," a poem about a chance meeting in an airport that begins with airport security and ends with a picnic and the declaration that "not everything is lost." Among other things, her poems are resilient and full of hope.

Melissa Tuckey: Your father, like many Palestinians, was haunted by the loss of his family home in Jerusalem, which was taken by force during the Nakba of 1948. He explores this loss in his memoir Does the Land Remember Me? How did it affect you, growing up, fully American and with family in Palestine and aware of their struggles and their loss? How did this kind of "double consciousness" shape you as a person and as a writer?

Naomi Shihab Nye: One's mind was always "reaching out" to another place – with concern – and trying to figure out why the spin on that place, in the United States, didn't fit the true story. Always trying to put pieces together, figure things out. Wondering. A great thing about being the child of an immigrant is: one grows up with a very potent sense of the wider world. My father taught us to ask questions about the news. "Well, maybe," he'd often say, in response to a news story, "I'll bet there's another side to that story." Because of course, the story he was living did not fit the spin.

Melissa Tuckey: You've mentioned that writing for both you and your father was how you kept your worlds alive. Can you explain that further – both personally and politically? How does/has writing served you in this way?"

Naomi Shihab Nye: Writing requires paying attention, tipping the head for various perspectives, asking oneself continual questions about what one remembers or cares about – this is a rich and lively life of mindfulness – filtering through the muchness and finding some significant images or threads to hang on to. I honestly wonder, sometimes, how people live without this. I guess people do it in all sorts of different ways. My father often sat down to write when he was feeling frustrated by the unfair spin of news – always treating Palestinians as aggressors, the "bad guys" – he would heal himself by focusing on something precious he remembered, or something eccentric – particular stories and scenes. I've been reading Raja Shehadeh's amazing book Palestinian Walks recently and know how deeply these essays, about being out on the beloved land, would have meant to my dad. Everyone should read this book.

Melissa Tuckey: How important is poetry to Palestinian culture and more recently to Palestinian resistance, and in creating a new state?

Naomi Shihab Nye: With the shocking death of our beloved poet Mahmoud Darwish this past weekend (weirdly in my own current state of Texas), I think the answer is clear – a voice may also be a country of a kind. And the words of Darwish gave thousands, millions of people gravity and comfort and hope. I hope people read his poems together even twice as much as usual and find more ways life on the ground could live up to hopes in the poems. I think poetry is huge for all culture, even though sometimes it feels discreet, subtle, somewhat underground. Where are we without our voices?

Melissa Tuckey: I love this quote from you that "Darwish is the essential breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging." What happens to that breath now? Do you have a favorite line or stanza of his poetry or quote to share?

Naomi Shihab Nye: I hope the breath keeps billowing, like wind. I hope more people breathe it and speak it – the exchange we make with the atmosphere, as poets, as citizens concerned about the twists and turns of justice and injustice. My favorite Darwish quotes are, of course, many, but here's one from "State of Siege":

You there, by the threshold of our door
Come in and sip with us our Arabic coffee
(you may even feel that you are human, just as we are!)
you there, by the threshold of our door
take your rockets away from our mornings
we may then feel secure
(and almost human)

I loved his frequent attempts to "balance" in poetry, to call attention to what remains out-of-balance in our world...

Melissa Tuckey: Can you say something more about how it is that poetry gives balance to what's out of balance in the world?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Poetry reminds us what our hopes were, what our visions held, before clutter and complication and too much chatter distracted us. Poetry reconnects the broken pieces. Poetry refreshes the eye. And spirit.

Melissa Tuckey: Politically conscious poetry, poetry that fully engages human experience in the real world where we live, is full of challenges. What are the challenges you've faced in your own politically engaged poems?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Just to keep writing them. Never to feel they're "enough" but only the best little bit that I, as a writer, can do. How to keep listening, reading, absorbing, all the muchness there is to think about, and continue to find little handles to hold on to – images to contemplate – a way to enter the fray and think about it.

Melissa Tuckey: You wrote in an email that Barack Obama needs to evolve in his positions on Israel/Palestine. What course of action would you recommend for the future president (be he Obama or McCain)?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Balance. Respect for all human beings. All stories. All pain. Recognition of what the Palestinian people have been through in the last 60-plus years. Honest recognition that the violence has hardly been a one-way street.

Melissa Tuckey: Do you believe peace is possible? What are your hopes for Israel and for Palestine? Do you support one state in Israel/ Palestine or two?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Yes, I believe peace is possible. As my father kept saying toward the end of his life, people will have to become exhausted enough with fighting to embrace peace. From what I hear, many, on both "sides" have been exhausted enough to try something better for quite a long time. My hopes are for a one-state cooperative solution (because the territory is simply so small) in which Palestinian and Israeli citizens may share their strengths and resources in mutual respect. I don't see, at this point, how a two-state solution could work as well. The wall must go down. Don't bring it to Texas, either, we have enough problems with our own stupid wall!

Melissa Tuckey is a poet and activist involved in DC Poets Against the War. More of Melissa Tuckey poems can be found at Beltway Poetry Quarterly Wartime edition at http://washingtonart.com/beltway/tuckey.html.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Literature, Conflict, and Peace: Israeli and Palestinian Writing

Those who have known me long, since I first began to speak of Palestine, and my ache for the abandoned children of Lebanese refugee camps, are slightly baffled by my recent interest in graduate school, not in peace studies or development, but in literature.

Perhaps, if my passion was post-colonialism, rather than the obscure work of an amateur British theologian and novelist, it would be easier to justify my interest.

As it is, I find myself attempting to describe the strange, powerful, and ambiguous connection I feel, like a trembling thread, holding life and art together.

Of course, some writing is more easily identified as applicable. I found this article (by Heather McRobie, on guardian.co.uk) to be an excellent introduction of Palestinian and Israeli poets and novelists. It's a bit dated (from January of this year), but still relevant.

Amichai to Darwish: Palestinian and Israeli Writers on Conflict

A bombed-out house in Gaza

(After an Israeli air strike in Rafah, southern Gaza)

"I learnt all the words and broke them up
To make a single word: Homeland"

I Come From There by Mahmoud Darwish

Our newspapers and televisions are filled with two different versions of the same story; two conflicting narratives of the current conflict in Gaza. In the first days of the offensive, like many others, I spent the evenings switching between Al Jazeera's and CNN's coverage; between unrelenting war footage with threadbare analysis, to the American networks, with little footage and a permanent drone of commentary and theorising noise. Between the two, there seemed to be no way to get to the core of the reality, with Gaza so hermetically sealed that even its current tragedy loses some of its power in transmission, if only because it feels so locked, untouchable, even from less than 100 miles away here in Amman. It was with this sense of failure already established that I began re-reading Israeli and Palestinian novelists and poets, hoping these writers could begin to give voices to the current statistics, particularly since access to one side of the conflict has been almost completely cut off.

As with all writing on the topic, it's hard to know where to start. There are so many caveats to place at the beginning of any discussion of Palestinian literature that it can become another eternal preface that prevents us ever reaching the heart of the matter, the core of the writing. In the 1960s Ghassan Khalifani coined the term "resistance poetry" in reference to the work of Palestinian writers such as himself and Tawfiq Ziad , but it is a term that Palestinian writers have at times resisted, or at least sought to rewrite on their own terms. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti also spoke eloquently of the pitfalls of being reduced to a totem of a lost people, and refused to sacrifice "aesthetics for your readership", pointing out "we're not one-theme poets. A moment of joy or misery is juxtaposed by its opposite."

There's the danger that the concept of "resistance poetry" becomes another way that Palestinian culture is colonised, in placing Palestinians again in terms of their relationship to Israel. Conversely, attempts to make a post-resistance literature seem to ignore the reality of the situation, as though there could be an "after-occupation" literature while the political occupation remained present. Another layer of loss is losing the ability or right to trace the subtle stylistic dialogues between Israeli and Palestinian writers – as long as noting the influence of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai on Mahmoud Darwish's work runs the risk of seeming to place Palestinian culture as subordinate to Israeli culture, some critics prefer to leave the line undrawn.

But still, at the core of it, after all the caveats, there is the writing. Most striking is the breadth of Darwish's humanity, intellect and voice: even amid his frequent allegorical references to the lost Edens and biblical exiles, the poetry remains at the same time personal and exploratory. In poems like Psalm 9 and Homing Pigeons, he uses the language of the Song Of Songs without losing the specificity of the very real figures involved. Just as startling are the novels and short stories of Sahar Khalifeh with their sudden bursts of defiant humour and Nabokovian skill for drawing out characters within the space of a few sentences.

Emile Habibi, an Arab-Israeli writer who died in 1996 and was commemorated on Israeli postage stamps in 2003, also mixed humour with pathos and fantasy, as if the reality had to be approached from many angles at once. But his famous novel The Secret Life Of Saeed: The Pessoptimist is not fractured by his approach, so much as it broadens itself to let in many voices and experiences simultaneously: the pessimism and optimism that sit together in the title. Contemporary Jordanian-Palestinian writer Ibrahim Nasrallah writes a different kind of "comedy": his reworking of Balzac's Comedie Humaine into his Palestinian Comedy novels reflects how the varied experiences of occupation and exile in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the diaspora have made "Palestinian peoples, and not a single Palestinian people."

It goes without saying that Israel's premier contemporary writers such as David Grossman have also produced some of the greatest feats of sustaining the multiple narratives and voices of Israel and Palestine. As well as works such as Sleeping On A Wire, which focus on the Palestinian experience, Grossman's 1986 novel See Under: Love threads stories of both memory of the holocaust and 1950s Israel alongside the alienation that comes from a lack of memory, as one character dreams of finding an ever-elusive "White Room" in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum that would lead to an entrance into understanding.

But it is the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai who still seems most able to stretch enough to encompass the suffering on both sides. As much as they dreamed of peace, both Darwish and Amichai rejected the sterile language of the peace treaty, playing with the paper-white terms of conventions and constitutions, converting them into something touchable and everyday. In Wildpeace, Amichai's vision of peace is not the technical "peace of a cease-fire", but a living thing:

"Let it come
like wildflowers
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace."

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Elie Wiesel's Night

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my Faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

-Elie Wiesel, Night, 32

[Wiesel] had seen his mother, a beloved little sister, and all his family except his father disappear into an oven fed with living creatures. As for his father, the child was forced to be a spectator day after day to his martyrdom, his agony, and his death.

It was then that I understood what had first drawn me to the young Jew: that look, as of a Lazarus risen from the dead, yet still a prisoner within the grim confines where he had strayed, stumbling among the shameful corpses. For him, Nietzsche's cry expressed an almost physical reality: God is dead, the God of love, of gentleness, of comfort, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, has vanished forevermore, beneath the gaze of this child, in the smoke of human holocaust. . . . On that day, horrible even among those days of horror, when the child watched the hanging of another child, who, he tells us, had the face of a sad angel, he heard someone behind him groan: " 'Where is God? Where is He? Where can He be now?' and a voice within me answered: 'Where? Here He is--He has been hanged here, on these gallows.' "

And I, who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that angelic sadness which had appeared one day upon the face of the hanged child? What did I say to him? Did I speak of that other Jew, his brother, who may have resembled him--the Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world? Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that the conformity between the Cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished? Zion, however, has risen up again from the crematories and the charnel houses. The Jewish nation has been resurrected from among its thousands of dead. . . . We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear. All is grace. If the Eternal is the Eternal, the last word for each one of us belongs to Him. This is what I should have told this Jewish child. But I could only embrace him, weeping.

-Francois Mauriac, foreword to Night

I read Elie Wiesel's Night for the first time this past week. The autobiographical account of his survival (or destruction) in the Nazi death camps. Winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize.

Once more, I am shaken and undone.

For the first time, in a long time, I begin to believe that maybe, maybe, the Holy Land is a gift. A miracle. Where else would we have had them go, the survivors, those turned to ash, yet still breathing? What else would we have had them do? I have always wished them peace, but maybe peace is more fervent than that. Do I wish them well-being? Life, and laughter, and happiness, in their own land? Away from fear and torment? Do I wish it as fervently as I wish it for the Palestinians? -- those who wear the star today, made of identification cards, ghettos, and violence ["'The yellow star? Oh well, what of it? You don't die of it. . . .' (Poor father! Of what then did you die?)" (Night 9)]. My heart can maybe feel two kinds of pain (the Holocaust has always torn my soul apart), but can it breathe two kinds of joy? The Arab earth of olive trees; the Jewish homeland. My foundations shift, crack, crumble. And I long for peace. An end to humanity's destruction of itself. An end to our continual murdering of God. The Eternal may not be held by any grave, but that does not make the death any less real. The death of God. On a tree, a cross, a gallows. In the ovens. How many times have we killed the Divine? How many times will we do it again? When will we stop?