Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Poetry for Gaza

As a writer of fiction it has always puzzled and saddened me to try and comprehend (or justify) the willful silence of American writers over the Israel/Palestine issue. American writers have shown a remarkably apathetic attitude in deciding to not engage with Palestine's initial colonization with the complicity of the British and other colonial powers of the time, systematic destruction of Palestinian lives, continued dispossession, forced exile, including Plan D, and a long list of racist and colonial practices that result in an apartheid way of life. It may be that there has been a voice here and there, but listening to the brave Tony Kushner on Democracy Now confirms my suspicion.
The recent war on Gaza's children, women and men, some of us feel, has completely exposed the American writer's unexplainable silence. Despite well-in-place damage control mechanism, the news spilled out - like a massive oil spill - except that it was not oil but blood, into the ocean of humanity. The overwhelming news (including graphic images) spill was caused by non-mainstream actors that included Jews, Muslim, Christians, Hindus, atheists, believers and what not. It put the American media and its supporters on the defensive. As a result, that also allowed a few brave voices to come together and speak against the colonial brutality. Poetry for Gaza was one such event put together by Middle East Children Alliance that brought mainly Arab and Jewish women poets together.

After the program I spoke with poet Lenore Weiss and asked her if I could use her poems in my blog as I report on the event. She kindly sent me her poems. As did a few others. The poets who read were Elmaz Abinader, Anita Barrow-Friedman, Chana Bloch, Aurora Levines Morales, Dyanna Loeb, Dina Omar, Deema Shehabi and Lenore Weiss.

Elmaz sent this one in one of her emails:
3 days ago the Israeli special forces assassinated a young man who'd been wanted and in some kind of hiding in Ramalhah. they shot him in the feet and then in the back as he was leaving Nazareth restaurant. my spot. I went by the next day to sit with the men, all of whom greet me familiar now. they watched their friend walk out and then bleed to death for 45 minutes in front of their shop. the ambulance driver was shot trying to reach him. Suheir's email, 1 June 2007

After Breakfast
what can you do but sit and survey the tracks where the ambulance
had stopped yards away from the body and see the flies gather
where the driver was struck by the bullets? the smoke in the air
lingers days old stalemate sorrow the kind that settles into your throat
can’t be unearthed even when singing the old songs that erupt
from the chest freeing the notes as hard as pebbles.

your hangout the cafe where full simmers fresh parsley and scallions
in pots on blue flames throws a shadow on a map of blood
drawn on the sidewalk where at X his feet are shot and at X he is hit
in the back and at X the ambulance arrives later and at X the driver
cannot navigate the storm of fire and fear and at X the street fills
with mourners a matter of course the words fly rocks and melodies

each body is its own island and the waters gather round splashing
against the shores pushing a million heartbeats against the silence
exhaling a thousand zaghlut pumping into the lungs everything
they have. Children are lost everywhere and their bodies form
land masses new diagrams that must be inset into our geographies
so we know where we stand.

sip tepid water slow now wait again for the beans to cool
the metal of the spoon stains your mouth leaves sulfur
on your tongue. you cannot eat here anymore and
you cannot leave.

The poem Elmaz recited, Where the Body Rests, first published in 2007, had a preminatory quality.
The poem Elmaz recited, published in 2007, had a preminatory ring to it.
Just look at these lines:

Our skin has turned to parchment
Our skin are the scrolls upon which
this history will be written

When your skin becomes phosphorous
speckled, yellow and scorches
Each cell is a . . .

I am grateful to Lenore Weiss for emailing her poems she read at the event. Let's read them:

Reincarnated Lenny Bruce Speaks of the Jewish Problem

“… Israel calls in public speeches and schoolbooks the Arab citizens of Israel a demographic nightmare and the enemy from within. As for the Palestinian refugees living under occupation, they are defined in Israeli History schoolbooks as a 'problem to be solved’. Not long ago the Jews were a problem to be solved.”

--Dr. Nurit Peled-Elhanan, Lecturer in Language Education at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a member of Palestinian and Israeli Bereaved Families for Peace.

Before there was a Jewish Problem
there was a Jewish Question.
Maybe they were the same thing.

No one wanted the Jews to live in their country.
People hated them.
Why? Because they were different.

They wore yarmulkes,
striped shawls, and smelled of fish.
Fishy! Yeck!

They spoke a different language,
and lived in filthy ghettos.

After years of being squashed
until their blood coated stones
along every road leading somewhere,

but not to the pub except
for the occasional schnopps on Shabbos,
no, they didn't traipse to the beer garden
where the National Socialists,
or Nazis as they later came to be called,
decided to solve the problem.

The Jewish Problem, was not as so many had said,
religious. It was racial, which gave the Nazis
a legal basis for everything. This was so brilliant.

Jews were now excluded from six branches of industry.
Properties were de-Jewdified.

Jews were prohibited from attending concerts, films, and theaters.
Jews were prohibited from attending German schools.
Jews were prohibited from bearing firearms.

You know what’s next.
We’ve all heard about the six million
who died in the ovens, and how the world

didn't want to know about anything
until it was too late, which is about when
the Jewish Question became the Jewish Problem.

Where do you stick the Jews
who survived the Holocaust?
You out there in the audience.
Where the fuck d'you put them?

There was a search party.
Everyone looked around.
Uganda was too far from where the Jews wanted to be.

The Jews became a People for a Land
for a Land without a People.
But that was a slogan, not the reality,

because it seems
there were many people
who lived in Palestine, the Palestinians,

primitive people, said the army men,
wild beasts with schmutzy teeth.

Fast forward to today when Israelis have a problem
with people who retain keys to houses
that are now occupied by families who light candles
and invite the Shekinah of peace into their homes on Shabbos,
while during the week Israeli soldiers order Palestinian women to strip in front
of their children for security reasons, and as jailers, torture and lock up young men without decent food or clean mattresses who
run checkpoints that force old men to wait in line for hours without water.

Jewish life is filled with irony,
which some of you out there call a Jewish sense of humor,
but this is not funny.
And how can I, Lenny Bruce, who in my day
talked a lot of unfunny stuff,not cry out as a Jew,
how can I not say that justice and mercy belong to us all?

Sh’ma Yisra’el

Hear O Israel,

from a daughter

who can only read the alliterative text of Hebrew

with glasses that need a new prescription

and a mouth that gets filled with saliva

from a tongue that knows not how to deliver

two-dotted vowels—

Here O Israel

from your daughter

who was born in the same year

you were created,

after World War II had folded

its charred arms around

the only hope that was left—

Israel, the land of milk and honey—

You were the voice of my parent’s generation

who planted trees along new boulevard

sand carried ashes sewed

inside the hem of their clothing

to cry along the wadis of your limestone beds,

hugging Exodus by Leon Uris.

You gave them a bright torch

to carry every high holyday

for all their days

raising money and donating shoes—

a reason to drink tea

in a glass mug with a lump of sugar

coating their tongues with sweetness

as they stamped letters,

made phone calls,

argued with each other in the accent

of wherever they’d come from.

Israel, my heart is heavy

with the dreams of my parents,

this second generation daughter

who wanted a lasting peace

to fill the crevices

of your Wailing Wall

with a light of its own creation.

Instead, only war and massacre,

dairy farms and steel plants

laid to rubble.

Twisted iron stabbing the earth.

And the sighs of the six million

each time another official

invokes their name.

I am indebted, once again, to Chana Bloch for reading along other remarkable, courageous poets and for sending me her poem and two poems of Dahlia Ravikovitch (1936-2005).


"Why can't they just get along?" says my neighbor
when he hears the numbers on the morning news.
Then he's got the answer:
"They're people, that's why."

Thus saith my neighbor
who lets his Doberman out to bark at midnight
and grumbles "Yeah, yeah"
when I call to complain.

Meanwhile, in the precincts of power,
the new Chief of Staff
who learned his trade as a fighter pilot
fends off questions from his swivel chair.

"And what did you feel," the reporters ask,
"when you dropped a bomb from an F-16?"
"I felt a slight lift of the wing," he says.
"After a second it passed."

-- Chana Bloch
Tikkun (spring 2008)

Mama and Grandma
will sing you a song,
your shining white mothers
will sing you a song,
Mama’s shawl brushes
your bed with its wing.
Mama and Grandma
a mournful old tune
will sing in Jabalya’s cordon of gloom.
There they sat, clinging together as one:
Papa wrecked, coughing up
blood from his lung,
his son of fifteen embracing his frame
like a steel hoop girding
his father’s crushed form
—what little remained.
True loves,
sweet doves,
thus did their captors make mock of them.

Mama and Grandma
will sing you a song
so you, sweet child,
may sleep without harm.
Rachel is weeping aloud for her sons.
A lamentation. A keening of pain.
When thou art grown and become a man,
the grief of Jabalya thou shalt not forget
the torment of Shati thou shalt not forget,
Hawara and Beita,
Jelazoun, Balata,
their cry still rises night after night.

-- Dahlia Ravikovitch
trans. Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld

The Fruit of the Land
a farewell song to the good old days

You asked if we’ve got enough cannons
They laughed and said: More than enough
and we’ve got new improved anti-tank missiles
and bunker busters to penetrate
double-slab reinforced concrete
and we’ve got crates of napalm and crates of explosives,
unlimited quantities, cornucopias,
a feast for the soul, like some finely seasoned delicacy
and above all, that secret weapon,
the one we can’t talk about.
Calm down, man,
the intel officer and the C.O.
and the border police chief
who’s also a colonel in that hush-hush commando unit
are all primed for the order: Go!
and everything’s shined-up like the skin of a snake
and we’ve got chocolate wafers on every base
and grape juice and Tempo soda
and that’s why we won’t give in to terror
we will not fold in the face of violence
we’ll never fold, no matter what
‘cause our billy clubs are nice and hard.
God, who has chosen us from all the nations,
comforteth with apples
the fighting arm of the IDF
and the iron boxes and the crates of fresh explosives
and we’ve got cluster bombs too,
though of course that’s off the record.
Serve us bourekas and cake, O woman of the house,
for we were slaves in the land of Egypt
but never again,
and blot out the remembrance of Amalek
if you can track him down, and if you seek him in vain,
Blessed be the tiny match
that a soldier in some crack unit will suddenly strike
and set off the whole bloody mess.

-- Dahlia Ravikovitch
trans. Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld

In one of Chana's email note, I learned Dahlia Ravikovitch was one of the great Hebrew poets of our time -- many believe, the greatest Hebrew woman poet of all time. She was widely honored for her artistry and admired for her courage as a peace activist. Dahlia was deeply involved in the cause of Palestinian human rights. She often joined demonstrations against forced evacuations, land confiscation and the mistreatment of women and children in the West Bank. She frequently spoke out on TV and in print, condemning the messianic nationalist settlers, and she didn’t hesitate to confront Israel’s leaders directly.

Power and powerlessness is her defining subject: the devastating consequences of unequal power relations for the individual and for society. In her later work she often writes about the precarious position of women and, with increasing directness, the plight of Palestinians under the Occupation. Dahlia was frank about the reception of her political poems in Israel: “There has been a lot of protest,” she told us, “but I want to do something. I can’t stand my impotence. Because I hold an Israeli passport, I have a share in all the wrongs that are done to the Palestinians. . . I want to be able to say that I did all I could to prevent the bloodshed.”

(The above quoted poems are from a book that is coming out in April, Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch, trans. Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (W.W. Norton, 2009).)

The poetry evening ended with poet Aurora Levins Morales's voice. The darkness fell in the hall and everyone waited. The recording of her poem Wings mesmerized the audience. The recitation pierced the listener's heart.

Cuba y Puerto Rico son Cuba and Puerto Rico

de un pájaro las dos alas. are the two wings of one bird,

Reciben flores y balas receiving flowers and bullets

en el mismo corazon. into the same heart.

Lola Rodriguez de Tió

Two wings of one bird, said the exiled poet

whose words burned too many holes of truth

through the colonial air of a different iron-toothed occupation.

Nothing divides the suffering of the conquered.

Two wings, she said, of a single bird, with one heart between them,

taking bullets and roses, soldiers and prison bars and poetry,

into one pulse of protest. One bird she insisted

as the ship pulled away from San Juan headed for Havana, 1879.

A century later we are still the wounded wing,

fluttering, dragged through the waves, another empire

plucking feathers from living flesh. White egret among the foam,

cried the poet, returning after long years in the dry solitude of Spain:

garza, garza blanca. Those ruffled reefs are infested now

with unexploded bombs. Pastures where white birds

still grace the backs of cattle, are dusted with the toxic waste

of rehearsal for invasion, that seeps into the blood of children,

so that cancer is a required course in the highschools of Vieques,

giving a whole new meaning to the term "drop out".

I was born into an occupied country. I am that wing.

What kind of Jew are you, receiving bullets and roses

as if in a Palestinian heart?

I am the Jewish great-great-grandaughter of . . .

What these poets have managed is nothing short of a miracle whether we realize this or not. If and when history of American poets and writers speaking against the Israel's occupation of Palestine is written, Poetry for Gaza and the poets involved will be seen as the literary avant garde of the 2nd Anti-apartheid movement. Influenced by a similar act of brutality that's a natural outcome of a colonial occupation, some years back I had written my short story The Barbarian and the Mule exploring an interaction between a Palestinian boy, his father and an Israeli soldier at one of the checkpoints manning bantustans, humiliating the real inhabitants of the land on everyday basis. At the time, it was an hurriedly written story and I had, in my frustration and anger, posted it to a writers' listserv, stating and hoping against hope that let this story be the springboard of encouragement for fellow writers to take the issue of occupation and apartheid. I got a few responses. Some of them were sypathetic but over all cowardly.
It is not as if this wasn't part of the discussion among literary community. Ted Soloraroff has written in 1992 in Writing Our Way Home, an anthology of Jewish fiction:
American Jewish fiction, with the exception of Philip Roth's The Counterlife, has been slow, and perhaps loath, to explore the more vexed subject that has been set by the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza: the morality that grows out of the barrel of the gun confronting the morality that grows out of two thousand years of oppression. The the subject is front adn center in Israeli fiction, it has been leading a furtive life in its American counterpart.
Things, since the last slaughter, seem to have changed dramatically. Artists, writers and poets are speaking. Less and less are scared of voicing their anger and protest. Tony Kushner has spoken up. Novelist Ben Ehrenreich has written in LA Times
: Zionism is the Problem. This will not remove the guilt of complicity, but it is a welcome step. Had they spoken up many decades ago, things would've have been different.
Perhaps the American writer's conscience can still redeem itself. Let's hope so.