Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 19: “Recipe from the Abbasid”: Palimpsests of God + Layla Azmi Goushey & Sarah Browning

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 19
“Recipe from the Abbasid”: Palimpsests of God + Layla Azmi Goushey & Sarah Browning

Of course I have no idea who God is. In the Scripture today, the first reading is from the opening of Exodus, when Moses, tending the flock, came to Horeb, and he walks by a burning bush (“the bush, though on fire, was not consumed”). This bush begins speaking to him in the voice of God. Is God. Is “I am who am.” Is Is.

Somewhere I’ve read from Kazim Ali, on translations of Allah in Islam, and from Alicia Ostriker, on the Jewish and Christian traditions, that there is a God beneath the God we have conceived. (Kazim’s Fasting at Ramadan, of course, is partly an inspiration to this project. شكرا). All our human knowing of God (and world!) is incomplete, fragmentary, myopic, dangerously partial (in both senses of the word).

Ostriker: “But I do know that when women’s spiritual insights contribute as much as men’s have done until now, to what we think God is, or the soul, or good and evil, all these things will be different. The being we call God the Father swallowed God the Mother in pre-history. But like the grandmother that the wolf swallows in Little Red Riding Hood, the Goddess is not dead. She’s still there in the belly of the beast. It’s time for her to be re-born, and we can all be midwives.”

How can we midwife a new sense of the divine, when we can’t even understand and embrace the layers of Iraq, or ourselves, for that matter? I’m thinking of these layers today, partly because of the poem I’m posting, “Recipe from the Abbasid,” which concerns an ancient recipe dating from the 13th century (the source will be revealed tomorrow), creates a palimpsest between the 13th and the 20th centuries, two eras of empires in Iraq, two of many eras—Iraq being not just a benighted country riven by civil war, nor just a site of imperial longing, but a place that is the cradle of civilization, host of thousands and thousands of years of human history. I recall reading with delight many years ago Samuel Noah Kramer’s History Begins at Sumer (1956), which is doubtlessly flawed but eye-opening in many ways.

Today, alongside “Recipe from the Abbasid,” is Layla Azmi Goushey’s reflection on it and Munif’s classic Cities of Salt, and Sarah Browning’s poem “Gas.” Many layers to dig through!

Recipe from the Abbasid
Skin & clean a fat, young sheep & open it
like a door, a port city hosting overseas guests

& remove its stomach. In its interior, place
surveyors in exploratory khaki, a stuffed goose

& in the goose’s belly, a stuffed hen, & in the hen,
machine gun nests, C rations, grenades, a stuffed

pigeon, & in the pigeon’s belly, a stuffed thrush,
& in the thrush’s belly, contractual negotiations

& subtle threats, all sprinkled with sauce. Sew the slit
into a smile, dispatch handshakes. Add Chevron,

Exxon, Texaco, Shell. Place the sheep in the oven
& leave until this black slimy stuff, excretion

of the earth’s body, is crispy on the outside
& ready for presentation.

“‘Recipe for the Abbasid’ and Cities of Salt: Collective Memories” by Layla Azmi-Goushey

Compassion can be exorcised for the price of a Gulf starling. Nets are cast across shorn winter fields to catch the oil-black iridescent birds speckled with white dots. The nets are lifted, and, like the bedouins in Cities of Salt, the zarzour's migration is interrupted. They are placed in cages for passersby to purchase for merciful release or they come with a Recipe to gut open like a door to roast and consume their dignity and strength.

In Munif’s Cities of Salt, the Emir tells workers in Metres’s new port city hosting overseas guests to kill a camel and several sheep to welcome the Americans. The head of the camel is placed in front of the American chief and the heads of the sheep are placed before the other American guests. The heads’ sincere humble smiles face the surveyors in exploratory khaki. The Emir’s sacrifice a sad parody of Eid al-Adha; Ibrahim’s sacrifice to a merciful God.

In truth, not much changed between the Abbasid and Aramco dynasties. Our collective unconscious travels along slow genetic DNA trails. Golden ages are defined by the victors. Suture this generous wound; roast this humble beast emitting a petroleum blood-pudding butter. Carboniferous residue denying mercy to the sweet-songed bulbul thrush; the pigeon a victim of Munif’s Emir’s falcon... a stuffed goose & in the goose’s belly, a stuffed hen, & in the hen… a stuffed pigeon, & in the pigeon’s belly, a stuffed thrush, & in the thrush’s belly… layers of cooked ambitions and manipulations black layer of machine gun nests, C rations, grenades… contractual negotiations & subtle threats. Great glass cities of salt that will melt back into the sands of Wadi Ibrahim. Opportunities for occasional mercy imprisoned in the belly of treacherous sacrifice. The recipe and the ingredients never change.

Layla Azmi Goushey is a Palestinian-American writer and educator based in Saint Louis, MO. Assistant Professor of English at St. Louis Community College, she holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and a Certificate in the Teaching of Writing from the University of Missouri - St. Louis where she is pursuing a PhD in Adult Education. Goushey's work has been published in journals such as “Yellow Medicine Review”, “Mizna: Journal of Prose, Poetry and Art Exploring Arab America”, and “Natural Bridge”. She writes a blog titled Transnational Literacies at Follow her on Twitter @lgoushey.

“Gas” by Sarah Browning

After the great snow of 2016, my car sits
locked in icy drifts a week, green fossil
of the oil age preserved in graying amber.

I relearn the art of walking, of reading
pocket paperbacks on the bus, which uses
this same stuff, this gas, to bear us through

the snow-narrowed streets of Washington, DC –
Capital of Exxon, Capital City of Shell;
still we are two dozen here driving one tank.

Once the rains come and the weather gang
shakes their collective heads as the mercury
rises to 60 degrees, my car is free to roam again

the Precincts of BP, the Republic of Sunoco.
I’ll drive my car to the climate change rally.
I’ll drive it to the poetry reading that protests

war in Iraq, that denounces repression in Syria,
that stands in solidarity with poets locked up
in Saudi Arabia. My car gives me that much

freedom and power, plus music to soothe me
and a phone charger to keep me connected
to my comrades in struggle. My car glides

smoothly in and out of gear, builds my self-
esteem as I parallel park perfectly each day
in tight spots on the hill where we dwell.

The weather scares me. The wars enrage me.
The poets, silenced by the despots, break my heart.
But my car needs me. My car is nothing

without me. My car and I are one. I pledged
my allegiance long ago – an American century
ago – to my beautiful, necessary, beloved car.

--Sarah Browning is co-founder and Executive Director of Split This Rock. She is an Associate Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and a featured writer for Other Words. Author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007), now in its second printing, and coeditor of D.C. Poets Against the War: An Anthology (Argonne House Press, 2004), she is the recipient of artist fellowships from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, a Creative Communities Initiative grant, and the People Before Profits Poetry Prize. In March, 2014 Browning co-edited a special Split This Rock issue of POETRY Magazine with Don Share. 

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