Thursday, July 12, 2007

Hayan Charara's "Usage"



When I attended this year's RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers) Conference in Dearborn, I felt somehow that I finally found my literary brothers and sisters. All versed in the poetics of hummus and zaatar, of pride and shame, they pushed and are pushing beyond the cliches of identity politics. One of them, Hayan Charara, is completing an anthology called Inclined to Speak: Contemporary Arab American Poetry. His recent "Usage," which appears in the recent issue of Literary Imagination, is a stark poem that employs grammatical rules to explore the inner and outer grammars of Arab immigrant and second generation existence in America in the wake of September 11, 2001. (In the original, certain words are highlighted, to demonstrate the rule.)

Usage

An assumption, a pejorative, an honest language, an honorable
death. In grade school, I refused to accept the mayor’s
handshake; he smiled at everyone except people with names
like mine. I was born here. I didn’t have to adopt America,
but I adapted to it. You understand: a man must be averse
to opinions that have adverse impacts on whether he lives
or dies. “Before taking any advice, know the language
of those who seek to advise you.” Certain words affected
me. Sand nigger, I was called. Camel jockey. What was
the effect? While I already muttered under my breath,
I did so even more. I am not altogether sure we can all
together come. Everything was not all right. Everything
is not all right. Imagine poetry without allusions to
Shakespeare, Greek mythology, the Bible; or allusions
without the adjectives “fanatical,” “extremist,” “Islamic,”
“right,” “left,” “Christian,” “conservative,” “liberal.” /
Language written or translated into a single tongue gives
the illusion of tradition. A lot of people murder language–
a lot fully aware. Among all the dead, choose between
“us” and “them.” Among all the names for the dead–
mother, father, brother, sister, husband, wife, child, friend,
colleague, neighbor, teacher, student, stranger–choose
between “citizen” and “terrorist.” / And poet? Immoral,
yes, but never amoral? Large amounts, the number
between 75 and 90 percent of the estimated 150 million
to 1 billion–civilians–killed during wars, over all of recorded
human history. Anxious is “worried” or “apprehensive.” /
American poetry, Americans. Young, I learned anyone
born here could become President. Older, I can point to
any one of a hundred reasons why this is a lie. Anyway,
I don’t want to be President, not of a country, or club, not
here or there, not anywhere. He said, “I turned the car
around because it began raining bombs.” There’s no chance
of ambiguity–an as here could mean “because” or “when”;
it makes no difference–he saw the sky, felt the ground,
knew what would come next; it matters little when the heart
rate jumps from 70 to 200 beats per minute in less than
a second. What they did to my grandfather was awful–
its wretchedness, awe-inspiring; its cruelty, terrible; it was
awfully hard to forget. Just after 8:46AM, I wondered awhile
what would happen next. At 9:03AM, I knew there was going
to be trouble for a while to come. When in her grief,
the woman said, “We’re going to hurt them bad,” she meant
to say, “We’re going to hurt them badly.” For seventeen days,
during air strikes, my grandfather slept on a cot beside a kerosene
lamp in the basement of his house. Besides a few days worth
of pills, and a gallon of water, he had nothing else to eat
or drink. Given these conditions, none of us were surprised
that on the eighteenth day, he died. / Besides, he was
eight-two years old. I can write what I please. I don’t need
to ask, May I? Like a song: Men with capital meet in
the Capitol in the nation’s capital. Any disagreements,
censored; those making them–poets, dissenters, activists–,
censured. The aftermath, approximately 655,000 people killed. /
“The Human Cost of War in Iraq: A Mortality Study, 2002-2006,”
Bloomsburg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University
(Baltimore, Maryland); School of Medicine, Al Mustansiriya
University (Baghdad, Iraq); in cooperation with the Center
for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(Cambridge, Massachusetts). The figure just cited–655,000
dead–resulted from a household survey conducted at actual sites,
in Iraq, not the Pentagon, or White House, or a newsroom,
or someone’s imagination. Of course, language has been
corrupted. Look, the President, who speaks coarsely, says,
“We must stay the course.” The problem with “Let your
conscience be your guide” is you must first be aware, conscious,
of the fact that a moral principle is a subjective thing. I wonder:
when one “smokes ‘em out of a hole,” if the person doing
the smoking is conscious of his conscience at work. / Am I
fully conscious of how I arrived at this? The continual
dissemination of similar images and ideas. / The continual
aired footage of planes striking the towers, the towers
crumbling to the streets, dust, screams, a continuous reel
of destruction, fear, as if the attacks were happening twenty-four
hours a day, every day, any time. For a while, I couldn’t
care less about war. / Then I saw corpses, of boys, who
looked just like me. This was 1982, at age ten. Ever since,
I couldn’t care less why anyone would want it. In 1982,
any one of those boys could have been me. Now, it’s any one
of those dead men could be me. The Secretary of State
offered such counsel to the ambassadors of the world that
the United Nations Security Council nodded in favor of war.
Criterion easily becomes criteria. Even easier: to no longer
require either. The data turned out false. / The doctrine
of preemption ultimately negated its need. While we both
speak English, our languages are so different from each other,
yours might as well be Greek to me. When the black man
in the park asked, “Are you Mexican, Puerto Rican, or are you
Pakistani?” and I said, “I’m Arab,” and he replied, “Damn.
Someone don’t like you very much,” I understood perfectly
what he meant. The President alluded to the Crusades because
(not due to) a lack of knowledge. / Later, he retracted the statement,
worried it might offend the Middle East; it never occurred
the offense taken was due to the bombs shredding them
to bits and pieces. “You are either with us or with the terrorists”
(September 20, 2001). “You’re either with us or against us”
(November 6, 2001). The day after, the disc jockey
advocated, on air, a thirty-three cent solution (the cost of a bullet)
to the problem of terrorists in our midst–he meant in New York;
also, by terrorists, I wonder, did he know he meant cab drivers,
hot dog vendors, students, bankers, neighbors, passers-by,
New Yorkers, Americans; did he know he also meant Sikhs,
Hindus, Iranians, Africans, Asians; did he know, too,
he meant Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists; did he realize
he was eliciting a violent response, on the radio, in the afternoon? /
Among those who did not find the remark at all illicit:
the owners of the radio station, the FCC, the mayor, the governor,
members of the House, the Senate, the President of the United States. Emigrate is better than immigrate. Proof: No such thing as
illegal emigration. Further proof: Emigration is never
an election issue. I heard enthusiastic speeches. They hate
our freedoms, our way of life, our this, that, and the other,
and so on (not etc.). Not everyone agreed every one not
“with us” was “against us.” Detroit was farther from home
than my father ever imagined. / He convinced himself soon after
arriving here he had ventured further than he should have.
Fewer people live in his hometown than when he left, in 1966.
The number, even less, following thirty-four straight days
of aerial bombardment. First (not firstly), my father spoke
Arabic; second (not secondly) he spoke broken English, third
(not thirdly) he spoke Arabic at home and English at work; fourth
(not fourthly) he refused to speak English anymore. Not every
poem is good. Not every poem does well. Not every poem is well,
either. Nor does every poem do good. “To grow the economy”
is more than jargon. / Can a democracy grow without violence?
Ours didn’t. / They still plan to grow tomatoes this year, despite
what was done. Several men, civilian workers, identified
as enemies, were hanged on a bridge, bodies torched, corpses
swaying in the breeze. / Photographs of the dead were hung
with care. I can hardly describe what is going on. Day after day,
he told himself, “I am an American. I eat apple pie. I watch baseball.
I read American poetry. I speak American English. I was born
in Detroit, a city as American as it gets. I vote. I work. I pay taxes,
too many taxes. I own a car. I make mortgage payments. I am not
hungry. I worry less than the rest of the world. I could stand to lose
a few pounds. I eat several types of cuisine on a regular basis.
I flush toilets. I let the faucet drip. I have central air-conditioning.
I will never starve to death or experience famine. I will never die
of malaria. I can say whatever the fuck I please.” Even words
succumbed; hopefully turned into a kind of joke; hopeful, a slur.
However, I use the words, but less, with more care. The President
implied compassion; but inferred otherwise. This is not
meant to be ingenious. Nor is it ingenuous. The more
he got into it, the more he saw poetry, like language, was in
a constant state of becoming. Regardless, or because of this,
he welcomed the misuse of language. Language is its own
worst enemy–it’s the snake devouring its own tail. They
thought of us not kind of or sort of but as somewhat American.
Lie: “To recline or rest on a surface?” No. “To put or place
something?” No. Depleted uranium, heavy like lead; its use–
uranium shells–led to birth defects. When in his anger,
the man said, “We’re going to teach them a lesson,” I wonder
what he thought they would learn. In a war, a soldier is
less likely to die than a civilian. He looks like he hates
our freedoms. / You don’t know them like I do. / He looks as if
he hates our freedoms. / You don’t know them as I do.
When in his sorrow, my father said, “Everybody loose in war,”
I knew exactly what he meant. It may be poets should
fight wars. Maybe then, metaphors–not bodies, not hillsides,
not hospitals, not schools–will explode. I might have
watched the popular sitcom if not for my family¬–they were
under attack, they might have died. / Others may have been
laughing at jokes while bodies were being torn apart.
I could not risk that kind of laughter. Of all the media
covering war, which medium best abolishes the truth?
I deceive myself. / I will deceive you myself. In the Bronx,
I passed as Puerto Rican. I passed as Greek in Queens,
also Brazilian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, even a famous,
good-looking American movie actor. As Iranian in Manhattan.
At the mall in New Jersey, the sales clerk guessed Italian.
Where Henry Ford was born, my hometown, I always pass
as Arab. / I may look like the men in the great paintings
of the Near East, but their lives, their ways, I assure you,
are in the past. Plus, except in those paintings, or at the movies,
I never saw Arabs with multiple wives, or who rode camels,
lived in silk tents, drank from desert wells; moreover, it’s time
to move past that. Did language precede violence? / Can
violence proceed without language? It broke my father’s heart
to talk about the principle of equal justice. The news aired
several quotations from the airline passengers, one of whom was
a middle-aged man with children, who said, “I didn’t feel
safe with them on board.” He used the word “them” though
only one, an Arab, was on the plane. Being from Detroit,
I couldn’t help but think of Rosa Parks. Then I got angry.
I said to the TV, to no one in particular, “If you don’t feel safe,
then you get off the goddamn plane.” / You can quote me
on that. I was really angry¬–not real angry, but really angry.
The reason? A poet asked me why I didn’t write poems
about Muslim and Arab violence against others, and I said I did,
and then he said he meant violence against Americans and Israelis,
respectively, and I said I did, and before I could go on, he interrupted
to ask why I didn’t write poems about mothers who sent
their sons and daughters on suicide missions. As if, as if, as if.
I respectfully decline to answer any more questions. / Write
your own goddamn poem! Does this poem gratify the physical
senses? Does it use sensuous language? It certainly does not
attempt to gratify those senses associated with sexual pleasure.
In this way, it may not be a sensual poem. However, men have
been known to experience sexual gratification in situations
involving power, especially over women, other men, life, and
language. My father said, “No matter how angry they make you,
invite the agents in the house, offer them coffee, be polite.
If they stay long, ask them to sit. Otherwise, they will try to set
you straight.” When in his frustration, he said, “Should of,
could of, would of,” he meant, “Stop, leave me alone, I refuse
to examine the problem further.” Because (not since) the terrorists
attacked us, we became more like the rest of the world than
ever before. This is supposed to be a poem; it is supposed to
be in a conversation with you. Be sure and participate.
“No language is more violent than another,” he said. Then
he laughed, and said, “Except the one you use.” Do conflicts
of interest exist when governments award wartime contracts
to companies that have close ties to government officials?
From 1995 to 2000, Dick Cheney, Vice President of the United States,
was CEO of Halliburton, which is headquartered in Houston,
Texas, near Bush International Airport. Would they benefit
themselves by declaring war? Please send those men back home.
My grandfather lay there unconscious. For days, there was
no water, no medicine, nothing to eat. The soldiers left their
footprints at the doorstep. / His sons and daughters, they’re now
grieving him. “Try not to make too much of it” was the advice
given after two Homeland Security agents visited my house,
not once, not twice, but three times. I’m waiting for my right
mind. The language is a long ways from here. After
the bombs fell, I called every night to find out whether my father
was alive or dead. He always asked, “How’s the weather there?”
Soon enough, he assured me, things would return to normal,
that (not where) a ceasefire was on the way. Although
(not while) I spoke English with my father, he replied in Arabic.
Then I wondered, who’s to decide whose language it is anyway–
you, me? your mother, father, books, perspective, sky, earth,
ground, dirt, dearly departed, customs, energy, sadness, fear,
spirit, poetry, God, dog, cat, sister, brother, daughter, family,
you, poems, nights, thoughts, secrets, habits, lines, grievances,
breaks, memories, nightmares, mornings, faith, desire, sex,
funerals, metaphors, histories, names, tongues, syntax, coffee,
smoke, eyes, addiction, witness, paper, fingers, skin, you, your,
you’re here, there, the sky, the rain, the past, sleep, rest, live, stop,
go, breathe.

2 comments:

Christina Wolford said...

To glance into the spirit of someone and realize that those differences we think are so prevalent are not, is, enlightening. How is it, we justify the value of life by minimalizing everyone else's. My mind has a clearer vision, thanks!

Philip Metres said...

Thanks for reading it! One of Hayan's most powerful poems!