Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 43: What Have We Done With Us? + Yahia Lababidi and Hayan Charara
Lord, in your great love, answer me.
For your sake I bear insult,
and shame covers my face.
I have become an outcast to my brothers,
a stranger to my mother’s sons,
because zeal for your house consumes me,
and the insults of those who blaspheme you fall upon me.
From “Homefront/Removes” (Sand Opera)
As if, somehow, I were responsible. Patriotism is a feeling, the student wrote, that is rotted deep inside every one of us, and it’s hard to let something such as your country go to shame. The photos of hijackers in the newspaper looked like a Warhol of our family album (the women oddly absent), portraits bleared in displaced layers of ink. Who fed you, who changed you, who memorized your hands, who breathed you in? The ex-editor of Life lays down the old rule of thumb in journalism: one person dead in your paper’s hometown equals five dead the next town over equals fifty dead in the next state or 5,000 dead in China. The homeland is late blue, and tastes of metal, like blood in the mouth. My cousins my demons my plotting and foiled selves, what have you done, what have we done with us?
“Breath” by Yahia Lababidi
Beneath the intricate network of noise
there’s a still more persistent tapestry
woven of whispers, murmurs and chants
It’s the heaving breath of the very earth
carrying along the prayer of all things:
trees, ants, stones, creeks and mountains, alike
All giving silent thanks and remembrance
each moment, as a tug on a rosary bead
while we hurry past, heedless of the mysteries
And, yet, every secret wants to be told
every shy creature to approach and trust us
if we patiently listen, with all our senses.
--Yahia Lababidi, Egyptian-American, is the author of 6 books of poetry and prose. “Breath” can be found in his latest collection, Balancing Acts: New & Selected Poems(1993-2015) available for pre-order here: http://www.press53.com/Yahia_Lababidi.html
“Usage” by Hayan Charara
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 in less than a second jumps from
70 to 200 beats per minute. 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 eighty-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 of (not due to) a lack
of knowledge. Later, he retracted the statement,
worried it might offend the Middle East;
it never occurred to him 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 ur 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 speak American English. I read American poetry.
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
Good to see here my friend Yahia's poem. His voice is like deep still water.
And what a remarkable piece by Charara.
I've been happy to share these Arab American voices and gain some new readers!
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