Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Poet on the Sidewalk

Last week, I walked out of our Public Library's Main Branch and ended up locking eyes with a person squating on the sidewalk. Heavyset, caucasian, puffy-faced, his moustache covering his lips, his clothes were soiled and worn out. He had two small bags to accompany him and a ragged shawl covered his shoulders. Still looking into his smiling eyes, as I was about to pass him, he asked me if I wanted to hear a poem. Surprised, I stopped, nodded reluctantly, and sat down facing him. And before reciting the poem, he told me it was called River.

Heroes are spawned
In the rapids
By the leaping salmon
Of emergency

I was stunned by the poety that tumbled forth. His words forced me to relax. I requested that he recite it once more. He was gracious enough to honor my request. I didn't have to twist his arm and he began telling me a bit about his life. Most important, at some point in his life he decided he wanted to be a poet and since then that's what he's done, surviving by busking. I wanted to kiss his feet but I couldn't bring myself to do it. He reminded me of the wandering bhagats and sufi poets of South Asia, like Kabir and Shah Husain and countless others. I wanted to give him some money but realized I had not a penny on me. I told him so. He was calm and said that's fine. I asked him his name and he said Danny McFarland. Goodluck, Danny!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Death of a Poet

It is hard to recall when I first saw the name Mahmoud Darwish. It could be that the great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz had translated one of his poems from Arabic and is included in Faiz's nusxa hai wafa. It is equally possible that when I accidentally laid my hands, in late 80s, on a special issue of a literary magazine called East (I could be misremembering the title) which was dedicated to Faiz, Mahmoud, Nazim Hikmat, Neruda and two others. From that point on I was always on the lookout for his works either in second hand bookstores, San Fracisco State's J. Paul Leonard library or San Francisco Public Library's Main Branch. Now when I look back I realize that my own education regarding dispossession of the Palestinian people began, in parts, due to Darwish. Other figures, such as Said, and friends, like Anthony Costa, will enter the picture later. While browsing Monthly Review's online version for an article I wanted to forward to a friend, I also chanced upon the following: A poet of exile par excellence, Darwish died in exile. The village of his birth in western Galilee, al-Birwa (whose Arabic name is said to have been first recorded in Persian poet and traveler Nasser Khosro's Safarnameh had been demolished, in whose place Moshav Ahihud was built in 1950. His most famous poem Identity Card was published in 1964.

It was a shocking revelation to me to hear an Israeli peacenik many years ago speaking into the tiny loudspeaker held in his hand to a small crowd on a windy day at the Civic Center's UN Plaza, by the Main Library and Bart Station, the revelation that Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was designed to crush PLO precisely because PLO had been reaching out, through diplomatic channels, for a peace deal. Many years later, then, Norman Finkelstein would take on Ben-Ami, Israeli ex-Foreign Minister, on Amy Goodman's Democracy Now and had this to say: Come 1981, as pressure builds on Israel to reach a diplomatic settlement in the Israel-Palestine conflict, they decide to invade Lebanon in order to crush the P.L.O., because the P.L.O. was on record supporting a two-state settlement. As Dr. Ben-Ami's colleague, Avner Yaniv, put it in a very excellent book, Dilemmas of Security, he said, “The main problem for Israel was,” and now I'm quoting him, "the P.L.O.'s peace offensive. They wanted a two-state settlement. Israel did not.” And so Israel decides to crush the P.L.O. in Lebanon. It successfully did so.
The P.L.O. goes into exile.

Norman Finkelstein's name now suddenly reminded me (due to University of California Press, Berkeley, connetion) of a wonderful book they had published in 1995, a translation of Mahmoud Darwish's Memory For Forgetfulness. My fingers grew restless, eyes agitated, flipping through pages, trying to find where the poet of exile mentions another poet of exile. Here: Patience, intellectuals! For the question of life and death which is now supreme, the question of a will committing all its weapons to the battlefield, the question of an existence taking its divine and material shape - these are more important than ethical questions about the role of poetry and the poet. And it is fitting that we should honor the awe which these hours unfold, the hours of the transfer of human existence from one shore to another and from one state of being to another. It is fitting also that traditional poetry should know how to hold its humble silence in the presence of this newborn. And if it becomes necessary for intellectuals to turn into snipers, then let them snipe at their old concepts, their old questions, and their old ethics. We are not now to describe, as much as we are to be described. We're being born totally, or else dying totally. <>Yet our great friend from Pakistan, Fayiz Ahmad Fayiz, is busy with another question: "Where are the artists?"
"Which artists, Fayiz?" I ask. "The artists of Beirut." "What do you want from them?" "To draw this war on the walls of the city." "What's come over you?" I exclaim. "Don't you see the walls crumbling?"

Simone Bitton's 1997 documentary film Mahmoud Darwich: As the Land Is the Language traces some of the paths of Darwish's exile.

Rachel Donadio writes in New York Times Book Review (pg 27) about a reprint - by Ibis - of a controversial novel Khirbet Khizeh (1949) by S. Yizhar about displacement of Palestinians. The author was born in 1916 and served as an intelligence officer in 1948 war. Ms Donado writes, "[T]he book tells of the violent evacuation of a Palestinian village by a Jewish unit in the 1948 war of independence. " No one knows how to wait like soldiers, Yizhar writer, There is the ruthlessly long waiting, the nervous anxious waiting . . . the tedious waiting, that consumes and burns everything." Ms Donado adds: When the order comes, the unit begins shelling. The villagers flee. The narrator speaks, "This is what exile looked like . . . I have never been in diaspora. I had never known what it was like, but people had spoken to me, told me, taught me, and repeatedly recited to me, from every direction . . . exile . . . What, in fact, had we perpatrated her today?"
Noted Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua called the novel, "a little bit naive, simple . . ." and, according to Ms. Donaldo, Mr. Yehoshua thinks "Other Israeli writers have treated 'the Palestinian problem' with far more sophistication."
That reminds me of what Toni Morrison once wrote: Silences from and about the subject was the order of the day. Some of the silences were broken, and some were maintained by authors who lived with and within the policing strategies. What I am interested in are the strategies for breaking it.
(from Playing in the Dark)
Author Yehoshua add, "From 1948 onward, Israel hasn't been 'taking innocent citizens' and trying to do harm to them . . . It's a war between two peoples about the land . . . [Palestinians] don't want us for their own reasons, and we have to be there because we don't have another place. This is the tragedy." He elaborates, "Even if the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are 'evil,' we cannot say that the other side doesn't want to push us to the sea."
This level of intellectual dishonesty from a major author is appalling. Mr. Yehoshua not only justifies occupation, colonialism and apartheid but also obfuscates criticism of such practices. What took place in Palestine was not out of the ordinary during colonialism emanating out of racist Europe, it was normal practice to displace colonized people. The displacement of Masaai people of Kenya, 1904, by the British, forcing them off their rich land to make way for British settlements is a similar story of dispossession. The displacement was not always physical, it involved knowledge of literature and history as well. Finally, TLS in its August 15, 2008, issue exhibits a racist way of honoring Mahmoud Darwish by quoting from an old review of poems (1974): Poets cannot live by sympatyhy alone, and it well that Darwish has the technical expertise to achieve effects that do not depend on biographical information . . ." If he is a major poet, extremely popular, worthy of translation, then, why wouldn't he have technical expertise? Would TLS employ such snobish language about a poet expressing similar feelings about Holocaust? Shame on TLS!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Of poets and painters and filmmakers: a short entry

While browsing a new book on Rothko, I learned that Antonioni the filmmaker, while in New York presenting his L'eclisse, paid a visit to the painter. Rothko brought out his art one piece at a time and was full of anxiety due to Antonioni's silence for an hour or two, when the latter finally spoke through an interpreter saying that they both had the same subject matter: nothingness. Another version has it that the filmmaker said, "Your paintings are like my films. They are about nothing . . . with precision." Antonioni's Il Deserto Rosso was made after his meeting with Rothko and is considered a departure from Anotonioni's singature style of filmmaking. Then later today I happen to read a William Logan's review of Selected Poems by Frank O'Hara in New York Times Book Review and couldn't help admiring a photograph of Artists at the Cedar Tavern, 1959, with the following caption, "We often wrote poems while listening to the painters argue," Frank O'Hara recalled.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ulysses' Gaze: a dialogue between color and history

On a certain level I am still trying to understand the film, its wider implications: its use of long shots (reviews suggest 60 shots for entire film), a mix/switch of languages in the same conversation as if Keitel's character understands different Balkan languages, contours of Balkan history, metaphor of undeveloped film roles, use of cold colors (the most interesting aspect) pitched against human tragedy, use of water, rain, snow and fog, the use of an American character/well-known actor and so on. I'll write as I get more time. Be patient.
A question pops up in mind: Why does the backward journey start with Greece? Is it because Greece (victim of European snobbery) always has to prop up its claim to "the cradle of western civilization"? Cineaste, the film periodical, carried several excellent articles in various issues. Dina Iordanova, in Summer2007, Vol. 32, Issue 3, points out: " . . . all important films from the region ultimately deal with historical memory." More importantly, the new Balkan cinema is also deconstructing the grand narrative of national purity that gripped these states as they acquired their new political indentities. Should the viewer question the choice of a male voyeur in Ulysses' Gaze? a nagging question lingers.
I accidently discovered that Ulysses' Gaze is connected to Angelopoulos' previous film, Weeping Meadows, in that the character Harvey Keitel plays as someone who has returned even if as a tourist, and it is this return that links the story to Alexis' character who in Weeping Meadows departs for America leaving Eleni behind "to bear the brunt of Greek war, political repression and civil war." But Ulysses' Gaze was made in 1995 and Weeping Meadows in 2004.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

New Middle Ages?

While reading an older SF Chronicle (June 18, 2008) for work related matter, I read the following letter to the editor, Welcome to the Middle Ages: Editor - Your
article on the declining numbers of people able to retire ("Comfortable retirement a
fading dream for many," June 16) is consistent with other indicators such as war,
famine and plague that we are entering into a New Middle Ages.
As the American empire crumbles, the barbarians hordes establish their fiefdoms.

The common man becomes a lifetime serf to the corporate aristocracy that uses its
wealth to fund misguided crusades.
Media, in the role of the Church, offer solace through illusion, while heretics are

burned in the headlines.
Most fascinating of all is what form will the coming Renaissance take?
Steve Abney -

San Francisco

The other piece of news that continues to disturb me since I first read this bit on the day of the issue was published. The heading read: Inaction in boy's beating called justified: Experts say witnesses are understandably scared and confused (June 18, 2008)

Something is weirdly wrong with our society. I will share my reflection as I find time to sit down in front of my computer.
Came home and saw this on CommonDreams via The Toronto Star: Haunted by Iraq War. (Read the full story here )
It is a story of one Private Dwyer celebrated as a hero for saving an enemy's child. At home a father kills his two years old by kicking and punching him over hundred time by a roadside and people driving by stop and watch in horror. No one intervenes for the fear he might hurt them. Wonderful! They say they had nothing to stop him with. How about getting in your car and crushing him? I wonder what role media has played in creating such a society that we have come to embrace? For one thing, they justified and continue to sanction a cruel, inhuman war and turned it into a video game as opposed feeling horrified. The sensitized the war by showing images of (not carnage our soldier committed on a foreign people) but by displaying images of humanitarian gestures by the US soldiers, some of whom are now dying by sniffing aerosol spray cleaner. The media has truly turned us into a passive spectator of murders. Media, instead of going after the Neocons who devised the war and exposing their criminal side, turned us into weightless dumbells. Steve is right on when he calls them the new Church.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Something that caught me eye

There is an excellent review by Yvette Biro on Tsai Ming-liang and Jia Zhang-Ke's films in the Summer 2008 issue of Film Quarterly. What really impressed me in Biro's Tender is the Regard: I Don't Want to Sleep Alone and Still Life is the following:

'Tsai rightly states that he is not simply an observer. He touches the depth of sensation, fleeting desires, and instincts but he never does so from a position that is too close to his subjects. Instead he stands back in order, with his exquisite precision, to pay attention to specific details. The lightless, sombre images are nevertheless rich, saturated, despite their repetitive, minimalist components. Although the camera always remain distant, it is clear that man adn environment are indivisible, identical living vegetation. We have time not only to see, but also to live through the micro-life revealed thanks to the patience of the penetrating, immobile camera composition. The bleak, dreary, and narrow walls, the miserably small windows, or the blatantly barren concrete jungle of the city are the unhomely home of people, where human action is restricted to the most trivial, physical activity.

Tsai understands the language of the body, the naked mother tongue of daily existence best. The normal, simple life functions of our being, the everyday rituals: eating and urinating and washing, teeth-brushing and masturbating - devouring and relieving oneself, the "cries and whispers" of hurried sexual intercourse. This is the common, natural timetable of daily life: waiting silently, then feeding, "downloading" . . . and starting again; doing what has to be done, whatever the body requires, for as long as it is possible, before it is necessary to move again. The solitude of heavy dreams cannot be soothed even with a pillow . . . '

Folks, this is sheer poetry! We must salute such sensitive readings of pieces of art.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Boutique, an intense Iranian film

Serious cinema that instinctively casts itelf in opposition to Hollywood style of story telling (acting, frames, camera movements, pacing of scenes and shots) demands attention and engagement from viewers. Kevin Thomas of Los Angeles Times fails to see the difference. Not only does he want every Iranian film to be a masterpiece, he confuses boredom (lack of action?)that emanates from the tragic, depressing and stagnant lives of young men sharing an apartment for weak direction. His complaints "A lot of screen time is spent on the roommates sitting around talking, often about nothing in particular, way past the point of tedium" or "Etti and her dreams bring the film into focus, but Nematollah (the first-time director) can't seem to resist diffusing it with sequences that go on too long" is typical of a child-viewer who's more at ease with the idiom that Hollywood - and by extension most entertainment - hammers into our brain.
Serious films - even when they're made to entertain as well - have to be viewed differently. Slow, unusual pacing of shots allows viewers to engage with what may be happening underneath the skin of the characters who seem depressed, lonely, angry, rejected, inept, unloved, confused. The filmmaker, by his/her choice of lens, camerawork, dialogues, lighting, long shots, forces viewers to examine the worlds the loneliness inside each one of us may have come to resemble. A serious filmmaker tries to bridge the gape between the highly philosophical and banal, attempts to bring into a clash/contrast the exterior and the interior of his characters.
Robert Koehler writing in Variety is more on the mark when he points out, "In this wide-ranging and despairing portrait of a society in crisis, Nematollah's camera frequently seems as loose and unhinged as his characters, some of whom while away the day addicted to opium or watching the tube. Golzar, departing from his usual mode as a bland matinee idol, uses Hamid's subdued nature as a front; when he explodes with anger at the end, it's the rage the movie has been building slowly to all along." Yet the fact is that we don't see Golzar explode in voice, only in action, even that only off camera. The entire scene puts the likes of Scorcese, Spielberg, Tarantino and many other icons of Hollywood to the dustbin of mediocrity. A lesser film would have the half-conscience of the film, the male hero, explode, a lesser filmmaker would have allowed the lead actor to unleash his talent, his range, from subdued to meteoric. However, one of the memorable scenes, acting-wise, takes place at a bridge over street traffic: the lead actress, Golshifte Farahani, who completely succeeds in keeping the audience ambivalent, even irritated, about her childlike behavior, in fact, explodes, revealing an anti-heroine, an angry young woman suffocating inside her. The range of acting the two display should give the viewers some hint into the rich and complex Iranian school of acting.

Friday, June 20, 2008

La Notte: a masterpiece

I finally saw Antonioni's masterpiece La Notte. All the three main artists are superb. But if someone pushed and I had to choose, I'd say Marcello Mastroianni has a mastery of facial expressions where he can simultaneously exude contrasting feelings. Cinematography is just breathtaking and Antonioni's framing evokes such an intense intellectual response. Consider a scene: Jeanne Moreau feels trapped in large crowds and, wandering throughout the huge house where the party takes place, she ends up in a room from where she happens to look down through a large glass window at her novelist husband, Mastroianni, kissing Monica Vitti who while playing cat and mouse tells him to go back to his wife, he tells her, accurately, that it was infact his wife who'd had prodded him to Vitti. In a somewhat similar shot, Moreau locks her gaze, again through similar angle (up to down), briefly with another man she probably have known in the past. She averts her gaze. The framing of shots is simply amazing! Rain comes down and Moreau and the man take off in his sports car. The car parked, he tries to kiss her. She realizes she can't respond. They drive back. In the mean time, back at the house, lights go out when Mastroianni searches for his wife. Antonioni creates such a simple but intense geometry of emotion and then replicates it with surroundings or architecture that hightens alienation. More to come, perhaps.
The party takes place throughout the night. The couple visits a dying friend in a hospital. At some point Moreau phones the hospital from the party house and finds out the friend has died.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Idol Lover and Other Stories: Praise, Encouragement, Critique

I received the following comment from Leslie Simon, a poet based in San Francisco:
"Though I never made it to the reading, I picked up a copy of The Idol Lover at City Lights and thoroughly enjoyed it. Your prose is stunning, and you address politics with a clear eye on the complexities of race, class, gender, nation state. I'm very impressed. I also loved how you moved into the SF context in the second half, giving voice to the cafe society in our midst, both what it gives and what it takes aways. Having worked both sides of the counter as a waitress and a poet, I appreciate your honesty."
Comment by poet and novelist (Mobility Lounge) David R. Lincoln:
"In case this email ever finds its way to you, let me extend my congratulations on the collection of stories that, for me for the first time, gives me insight into my old friend Moazzam, to such an extent that I feel I've met an entirely new friend. Especially, I thought, the title story and Gypsy Leaves, provide us with an engaging voice of a daring new writer."
Comment email to me by novelist (God Bless the Squirrel Cage) Nick Sarno III:
"I just wanted to write a short note to let you know how much I enjoyed The Idol Lover. I read it in three sittings over the course of two days late this week."
Sweetest words by a poet friend, Evelyn Posamentier, to a listserv of women poets:
". . . it occurs that I should mention that my friend, Moazzam Sheikh's new book of short stories, The Idol Lover is stunning and most beautiful."
Via email, by a writer/poet/artist friend, Rinku Dutta, "Ayesha had a copy of your book and I got to read it. Congratulations on a brave exploration of unspoken grounds. I had read Monsoon Rains earlier, and I like it the most. Snakeskins was most intriguing.Looking forward to your next collection."

Saturday, June 14, 2008

the road home: movie by zhang yimou

i can't recall seeing this particular technique in any other movie: present in b&w and past in color. that in itself was good. otherwise, it was hard to believe that the director of movies such as red sorghum and ju dou would have gathered gallons of sap (most of it in the color part) directly extracted from a tree called bollywood/lollywood. one could call the movie a borderline tear jerker. also, the movie never bothers to look into the previous life of the teacher (who comes to the village) and falls in love with the village girl. he seems to have no past or constraints, no parents, no tragedy, nothing, except a cliche of a city where he comes from (more than once), causing tremendous grief to the narrator's mother. the only level where the choice of a colorful past works is that it doesn't bother with complexities, so it stands as romaticized vs "real". music is weak and elevatorish for the most part. cinematography is typically beautiful, especially when in color, takes away from the movie - out-of-africa-esque, internalized orientalism i may be allowed to say. acting was above average, quite good at times. this fact hits in the most vulnerable spot of my cinematic eye. compared to the international standard, indian and pakistani mainstream acting is so bad it hurts.

- moazzam

Entering the age of blogging

it feels weird. it's like suddenly owning a cell phone without the skill or desire to use it. i have a feeling this blog is going to be an excercise in minimalism. i think it'll be mostly about issues regarding writing, films, politics, media, friends, writers, actors, their stories, events at the library where i work worth sharing.

- moazzam