Thursday, February 18, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 9: Knock and You Will Be Let In (+ Shakir Mustafa)

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 9

From Sand Opera:

(echo /ex/)

his name is G
                        “Do you believe in                  

                                                my broken

                                                            ark which he had made

            I lost

I lost

                        G came and laughed

                                                            lo, in her mouth

                        it will break again

arms behind

                                                broken because I can’t

sever pain


            X                                             the hard site                

                                                            while the earth remaineth              

            some pictures              

                                                shall not cease

Matthew 7:7-12

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Which one of you would hand his son a stone
when he asked for a loaf of bread,
or a snake when he asked for a fish?
If you then, who are wicked,
know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give good things
to those who ask him.

“Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.
This is the law and the prophets.”

“Some pictures / shall not cease. The poem for today lands us back into the Abu Ghraib prison, and the trauma of entrapment by the sinister “G.” I have written elsewhere that as I explored the testimonies of the abused Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, I came to think of Graner as a God-like figure, someone whose absolute power terrified and traumatized the prisoners, into a state of unceasing trauma. Today’s Scripture brings us back to the Golden Rule, one of the most basic and universal principles of moral thinking, one that is all-too-rarely followed. “Knock and the door will be opened to you” seems to me one of the most beautiful evocations of generosity I can imagine. We are seeking, and we are in need, and we knock, and we are invited in. I think one of the errors Americans tend to make is to think that everyone (the immigrant, the refugee) just wants to be let into our house. Maybe it’s really the opposite. What if we are the ones who are trapped outside, who need to be let in, to be let into the body of Love?

What Jesus describes is desert hospitality; it is built into the fabric of life in the Middle East. It is the generosity I felt when visiting Shakir and Nawal in their home in Bloomington. I met Shakir in graduate school at Indiana University in 1994. Having been tormented by the Persian Gulf War, which had taken place just a few years before, I was eager to talk with Shakir about his life and work. He was studying Irish literature, a fact that astounded me at the tim—not knowing the colonial and postcolonial history of Ireland and the shared legacy of the bloody British empire in both Iraq and Ireland. Shakir and his wife Nawal became friends, and Amy and I were honored to eat at Shakir and Nawal’s table (of which you’ll read more in a future installment of this Lenten observance). So when I began this Sand Opera project, I got in touch with Shakir and learned about his recent turn toward art, art-making as a sort of liberatory healing practice, to shake off the feeling of entrapment that has haunted his life ever since he left Iraq in 1991.

Shakir Mustafa is a professor of Arabic at Northeastern University. Shakir grew up in Iraq and taught at Mosul University in Northern Iraq for eleven years. He then taught at Indiana University and Boston University from 1999 to 2008. His most recent book is Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology (Syracuse, 2008), which was recognized as “one of the most important books in 2008” by The Bloomsbury Review. His other publications are in the areas of literary translation, Irish drama, and Jewish American fiction. He has given dozens of lectures as well as radio and television interviews (NPR, NECN, FOX News among others) on Arab and Muslim cultures and politics.

If you want to email Shakir about his beautiful work, please do! It might be a gift to him to know that you’re reading his work:

“The Entrapment Syndrome” by Shakir Mustafa

Growing up in Iraq for me meant a gradual awakening to a sense of entrapment. A lifetime might not be long enough to get out of that entrapment, but the urge to break away almost made it bearable. Not exactly the silver lining of western cultures, but the Arabo-Islamic tradition of ultimately arriving at the good essence of what seems bad at the start. A fairly large number of what seemed bad at the start, though, stayed true to its calling, or I was never able to get to the ultimate goodness in them.

Cramped in a Russian Zil truck on our way to Al-Rasheed Camp in Baghdad, a jolly college classmate pointed to me and joked with the others, “we’ll all end up dying, and this guy here will survive.” I was the quiet one on the truck and the others were group singing some of the silliest songs that came to Iraq from neighboring Arab countries .. بید الحنة لسھ وانا ىّ يّ عل تزوج زوجي (My husband got a second wife and I haven’t been married a week yet). That sense of entrapment was so pervasive that I thought on that truck ride that I’d be the one who’d die. It was summer of 1974, and I just finished basic military training, but the word had been going around for a while that we’ll be soon rushed to intensive training to become officers. The Kurdish uprising in the north had escalated again and the army was in dire need of officers.

College graduates across Iraq still on their compulsory military service were rounded up and hurriedly trained to command equally ill-prepared units fighting a protracted insurgency. I was released from intensive training a week later when I got into the Masters program in English literature. We were doing drills under the harsh August sun when a carrier came and handed the Sargent the release order. The Sargent took his time in reading it aloud as the others were eyeing me with faint gratitude for the temporary break. I stepped out of the line to accompany the carrier, and the Sargent asked the rest of the platoon about what people do in a Masters’ program. “Masturbation,” I heard one say in English. Their voices were waning, then a few sing-sang their farewell to me, “masturbation, masturbation.”

Grad school delivered me from that entrapment then, and again in 1990 when I left Iraq to study for a doctorate at Indiana University. That second delivery, however, came to an abrupt end two months later when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 1st. My wife and children were to fly out of Baghdad the following day, but they had to wait as the borders were shut down. That sense of entrapment proved not just potent, but much more far-reaching than anyone thought. The past twenty-five years of living in the States have been a long look into that sense of entrapment. Although my family and I have been safe and flourishing in America, Iraq has been in the news mostly through images of carnage so persistent and enduring that I wonder at times if it were indeed just one country at the receiving end of that wanton destruction. And then things start to come into better focus and one sees that a country where you have nieces and nephews, and brothers and sisters, and a small army of relatives, is something one cannot leave behind. I haven’t really felt Iraq was a country I have been carrying around, but there has always been enough of it to make it too present, and to make that presence too oppressive.

Translation and wood works have helped me turn some of the negative energy of entrapment into meaningful products for myself and for those around me. I haven’t escaped into them—they have been there all the time, lurking among what I love, and they just came out when I seemed to need them most. My first translations of Iraqi fiction and poetry came as a response to the trivialization of Arab culture in much of the American media after 9/11, and as a service to my students who couldn’t read Iraqi literature in Arabic. The wood works I embraced for more personal reasons.

I want to say a thing or two about wood works because they seem the more unusual interests for an academic like myself. They also seem to provide better release from the overwhelming pressures of what has been happening in Iraq after 2003. To take a piece of rough wood and make a polished art product out of it has been a counter measure to the tragic regress of much of Iraq and some Arab countries into sheer ugliness.

I have always loved wood. Wood speaks to me as I decide what to do with it. Or refuses to speak to me, and when it resists mutation, I leave it alone. The slow emergence of a finished wood object is also a record of intimate physical touches and it becomes part of my personal history. The first few pieces I did were mostly carvings as I didn’t dare to cut deeper into the wood. One of the earlier pieces was this carving of a verse of poetry in Iraqi Arabic by Mudhaffar Al-Nawwabb: بحلم تعال جیة إلك وأحسبھا Come in a dream and I’ll count that a visit.

Then I did a series of pieces that show variations on the word سلام (Peace). Some were carvings, others sculptures.

Like peace, love was also diminishing in Iraq, and the word for love, محبة   became a theme for several wood works. An alternative reality of sorts crafted from wood, and, occasionally, stones.

The horrid reality of war and carnage in Iraq also made it to a few wood pieces. One sculpture pays tribute to lives lost in meaningless sectarian or political killings that I based on a Human Rights Watch report of a head-less body identified by family members through the tattooed names of the victim’s children. Tattoos are not common in Iraq, but some started using them as means of identification in case such identification becomes necessary. In this sculpture, in African Winge wood, the names engraved on the arms and hands are random, but they are common Kurdish and Arabic names, and hence they recognize the victim somehow, a Kurd married to an Arab Mousli woman. I did this one last October around Halloween time, and the sculpture conflates the goriness of the theme with the lightness of the American holiday in both design and contents. I carved a verse from the Qur’an on the back,"نون والقلم وما يسطرون"   (Nun and the pen and what they write) and gave it the shape of a laughing face. I also inserted stones for eyes. Red and purple eyes, the kind of eyes on severed heads and Halloween masks.

That horrid reality could not continue. Not in art, at least,
and that consciousness opened up the possibilities of another type of release. One well oriented towards the medieval Arabo-Islamic and Jewish tradition of “relief after adversity,”الفرج بعد الشدة . Confronting the ills of contemporary life in Iraq and beyond started to crack, and a sense of hope set in. These glimmers of hope have already been visible in some of the “Peace” works, with a sense of harmony embodied in an animal-like figure that looks like a pet. Another piece shows two angry Nun characters—they seem shouting at each other. But when I placed them on the wall in a non-confrontational form, the anger seemed to subsided. I called the piece, “Two Nuns Shouting in the Wilderness,” and the tension was thus reduced to a bearable level.

Another piece I just finished has two figures—a parent and a child, with big smiles on their faces. The parent is on the floor holding the child up, and both seem unaware of the world around them. A moment of peace and release from pressure, and the sculpture is a rendering of the Arabic word قدم . My father used to lie down on the floor and lift us on his feet, and I did that with my children. Moments of rising above a reality too powerful to ignore, but memories of such moments are precious and enduring.

In art, I feel I was indeed the one who managed to survive, to keep his head above the water, even when the waters get thicker and murkier.

1 comment:

Maureen said...

I have been following "Sand Opera Lenten Journey" from its beginnings (I also have a copy of the extraordinary collection), each day writing a poem in response to each post. I posted the first of my poems to my own blog (Writing Without Paper) on Tuesday this week; I am holding out those written since with an aim of seeing them someday find a more public way to help prompt greater self-reflection on all our parts - those of us reading here daily, those of us impelled to use art to cast even more light on the wrongs we do as individuals and as a nation, those of us who perhaps never thought to question what it means to be American in the broadest sense.

To undertake this journey with Philip Metres - and it is that, a journey back into the hell no longer making the headlines - during Lent is to give context to the suffering that goes on still. The verses from Scripture take on new meaning, enriching the commentary, and vice versa.

I was particularly moved today to see Shakir Mustafa's beautiful art and words, and, as I have on other days, I wrote a poem and dedicated it to Shakir; I was encouraged also to send it to him. Wood - what a marvelous metaphor it is. Even the hardest wood can be transformed: cut down, cut through, carved, painted, nailed, burned, destroyed, and through ash restored to its most elemental state.

Shakir, may your voice always be so clear; may your art allow you to let go that feeling on entrapment; may each piece of wood you transform always hold something of your spirit. Peace be with you.