Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 21: Authoring Mercy: "A Toast (for Nawal Nasrallah)," Fadhil al-Azzawi, and Zeina Hashem Beck

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 21: Authoring Mercy: "A Toast (for Nawal Nasrallah)," Fadhil al-Azzawi, and Zeina Hashem Beck

Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive him?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.

Today’s Scripture touches on the moment when Peter, no doubt pissed off by something his brother has done, asks Jesus how many times should he forgive him? When Jesus says seventy-seven times, he’s basically saying: until all eternity.

I’ve been thinking about a phrase I heard the other day in Mass, in which Father Tom Fanta referred to God as “The Author of All Mercy.” It struck me with a force, because I think I’ve often secretly carried an idea of God as one who metes out justice, a dictator with a bad temper and a vindictive streak who can’t believe the crazy shit that we do.

We carry around our gods in our bodies and our heads, but we can’t run from them. They follow us closer than our hearts. I recall Father Howard Gray once said that perhaps all sins could be thought of as violating the Second Commandment, “you shall have no other gods before me.” It in itself is a great one, because it reminds us that during the time of early monotheism, there were plenty of possible gods to worship, and so there is this sense of gods as a plurality. Any time we elevate something or someone above the Above, we make gods of them. We give them power over us. Is that why Jesus says we need to keep forgiving our others? Because we need to forgive ourselves? To stop ruling ourselves like dictators.

Today’s poem returns us to the table of Nawal Nasrallah, whose food was itself a mercy, a way of holding onto the country that she and her husband Shakir Mustafa had left so many years ago. The poem was inspired by the time that they and I (and many others) heard Iraqi poet Fadhil al-Azzawi read his poem “Toasts” in the basement of the Arab American National Museum. The great joie de vivre of al-Azzawi’s recitation (and Khaled Mattawa’s translation) seemed a perfect antidote to the exiles’ natural melancholy, carrying their countries with them—Nawal’s and Shakir’s and Fadhil’s Iraq and Khaled’s Libya. Because mercy can have the last word. Also included is Zeina Hashem Beck’s reflection on first hearing about the Persian Gulf War, while at American University in Beirut. As she notes, “the exiles’ hell is as much about art and creation as it is about loss and suffering.”

A Toast (for Nawal Nasrallah)    (from Sand Opera)

Chair legs screech across the banquet floor
            above us, a wedding feast
of people pulling themselves closer, closer
            to the constellation of tables

while here underground, alone with our ears,
            we can’t get close enough
to Al-Azzawi reciting “A Toast,” and laughter
            in two languages marinates

the hunger of this room, and now you lean
            to hear him, who has not lived
in your homeland for most of his days on earth,
            like you who have lived

your country in kitchens, far from your country,
testing the tastes of the ancients,
citizen of this implacable state and its armies
pitching their permanent tent  

in the dictator’s palaces; you, who out of grief’s
            maw, the daily shipwreck of news,
translate the alien clay of cuneiform relief
            into Mesopotamian stews,

a toast to you, Nawal, at whose Mesopotamian
            table I have been honored to sit
and be sated, not with fried eggplant but buran,
            not with drumsticks baked in fig

but with Afkhadh al-Dijaj bil-Teen, your homeland
            transfigured by flame, Baghdad
now spiced with coriander, now stewed in the skin,
            a toast to you, for my insides

still sing, and now the people above us are dancing,
            they cannot help themselves,
they are wrapping themselves in a song,
            stuffed like grape leaves,

they have no room for us in the light, so below
            in our rootcellar of words,
here in the underland of exile, a toast to you,
            the country of your tongue.

TOASTS  بغداد تحترق
 by Fadhil al-Azzawi, translation by Khaled Mattawa

Even though I am drunk and sad and can barely talk
please allow me to propose another toast:
A toast to the blind who see in the dark
A toast to the mute who talk to God on the mountain
A toast to the deaf who listen to the music of eternity
A toast to the poet who steals fire from the gods
A toast to God to create a better world the next time around
A toast to Satan losing his bet and returning to hell
A toast to the mother under whose feet paradise lay
A toast to the beloved waiting on the shore
A toast to the friend who does not abandon us
even when the rooster crows thrice
A toast to the deceiver who does not whisper evil in people’s hearts
A toast to the noose that bends to the hanged man’s neck
A toast to the torturer who flogs himself
A toast to the victim who rises from his torment
A toast to the bird that leaves the cage
A toast to exile that does not defeat our will
A toast to the homeland with rivers running beneath
A toast to freedom until the end
A toast to a world for all in collectivity
A toast to the despots we hire as museum guards
A toast to the tree with roots deep in the earth
A toast to the moon listening to lovers’ laments
A toast to the sun in the bitter cold of February
A toast to the planets still rumbling about since the Big Bang
A toast to heaven on earth
A toast to hell pouring concrete over her closed gates
A toast to the past as it tells us its memories
A toast to the present gushing like a river in the streets
A toast to a future we climb without ladders
A toast to this beautiful, short life.

--Fadhil al-Azzawi was born in 1940 in Kirkuk, in northern Iraq. He studied English literature at Baghdad University, earning a B.A. degree, then earned a PhD in cultural journalism at Leipzig University in Germany. He edited a number of magazines in Iraq and abroad and founded Shi`r 69(Poetry 69), which was banned after the fourth number. He spent three years in jail under the dictatorship of the Ba`ath regime. His poetry and criticism have been published in the leading Arab literary magazines since the early sixties and his books published in many Arab countries. He has published eight volumes of poetry in Arabic and one in German, two open texts, five novels, one volume of short stories, two volumes of criticism and theoretical writings, and many literary works of translation from English and German. He left Iraq in 1977 and has lived since 1983 as a freelance writer in Berlin. His poems and works had been translated into many European and eastern languages, including English, German, French, Swedish, Spanish, Norwegian, Hungarian, Turkish, Hebrew, and Persian. Titles available in English include Miracle Maker (2003), poems translated by Khaled Mattawa, and three novels, The Last of the Angels (2007 and 2008), Cell Block Five (2008), and The Traveler and the Innkeeper (2011), all translated by William Maynard Hutchins.

بغداد تحترق! / “Baghdad is Burning” by Zeina Hashem Beck

I was a student at the American University of Beirut when the 2003 war on Iraq started. I remember sitting in a professor’s office, probably discussing a paper, when a student ran down the corridor and shouted, بغداد تحترق! بغداد تحترق!  I started crying and translated to my American teacher that the young man was shouting, “Baghdad is burning! Baghdad is burning!”

Reading Sand Opera and trying to choose a poem to reflect on was like living this moment over and over again, seeing Abu Ghraib’s brutality over and over again—painful, suffocating. I read poem after poem, thinking, “I can’t do this.” I know about the necessity of writing about war, of telling the stories, but I felt paralyzed, felt I wasn’t capable of uttering anything beyond swear words. And then I read “A Toast (for Nawal Nasrallah).”

The poem begins with the description of a wedding party “above us.” We soon learn that the speaker and his friends are gathered “underground,” eating, laughing, reciting poetry. What a befitting place for a group of Arabs and Arab-Americans, some of whom have not been in their home country for a long time, “for most of [their] days on earth.”

Then Metres starts to speak about and address Nawal Nasrallah, “who [has] lived [her] country in kitchens,” who “translate[s]” grief into Mesopotamian stews. There is hunger for the broken homeland in this “underland of exile.” But there is also satiation—the friends are laughing in two languages; poet Fadhil Al-Azzawi is reciting poetry; they have eaten Afkhad al-Dijaj bil-Teen, “not … drumsticks baked in fig” (the poet insists on using the dish’s Arabic name). They have somehow managed to carry home with them, to re-create some of its beauty, and what better way to recollect/re-collect home than by summoning its tastes? Isn’t taste so intimately linked to memory? The poem ends with the line, “the country of your tongue,” and the word tongue resonates with possibilities (think food, language, poetry, storytelling).

I like that Metres doesn’t demonize the people above, dancing “in the light,” a space that the exiles can’t enter. He writes, “They cannot help themselves, / they are wrapping themselves in a song, / stuffed like grape leaves.” I also like that the mainstream is positioned above, where God is usually imagined to be, whereas the marginalized are below, with the devil.

But the exiles’ hell is as much about art and creation as it is about loss and suffering. Consider the double meaning of the line, “transfigured by flame, Baghdad.” In this line, Baghdad is not only burning with bombs; it is also burning with life and flavor through the recipes that Nawal cooks, through the stories transmitted by its people. Let’s raise a toast to that!  كاسكم! Cheers!

----Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her first book, To Live in Autumn (The Backwaters Press, 2014) won the 2013 Backwaters Prizejudged by Lola Haskins, was a runner up for the Julie Suk Award, and has been included on Split This Rock's list for recommended poetry books for 2014. She's been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in various literary magazines such as Ploughshares, Nimrod, Poetry Northwest, Rattle, River Styx, The Common, The Rialto, Magma, and Mslexia, among others.


Nawal Nasrallah said...

A Toast to you Zeina for this moving piece!

Maureen said...

Thinking of the origins of the word "mercy", its Hebrew, Greek, and Latin meanings. Could we not also say, "The Author of All Love", which would encompass the meting out of justice and of pardon? John Paul II in an encylical described mercy as "Love's second name".

I have exploring Nawal Nasrallah's blog (thank you for yesterday's link); the history is fascinating, and I find myself wanting to try many of the recipes. There is an intimacy in the sharing of food round a communal table that is beautifully expressed in "A Toast" from "Sand Opera".

Zeina Hashem Beck's reflection further opens out the post. Lovely!

Nawal Nasrallah said...

Maureen, I am glad you liked the blog, and encourage you to try the recipes. You will not be disappointed.

zeina h. beck said...

Thank you Nawal! For your kind words and for the recipes!