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In Further Memory of Edward Said

27 Dec

In Further Memory of Edward Said

 

Always, always

 

That voice

remains

is gone

needed

 

What he gave

we miss

we need

we want

 

Our loss

his loss

remains

an echo

 

Sunsets bright

that shine

yet soon

depart

 

Unlike waves

that beat

on shore

remains

 

Relentless

is loss

his gift

our hope

 

Remembering

our loss

our tears

his hopes

 

Honor such a loss

clear eyes

brave words

courage

 

XII..27…2012

Beyond Language: Reflections on the Arakan Tragedy

15 Oct

 

 

            Yesterday I listened to the wife of the Prime Minister, Emine Erdogan, speak about her recent harrowing visit to the Rohingya people in the the federal state of Arakan ( mainly known in the West as Rakhine) who are located in northwestern Myanmar (aka Burma). The Rohingya are a Muslim minority numbering over one million, long victimized locally and nationally in Burma and on several occasions over the years their people have been brutally massacred and their villages burned. She spoke in a deeply moving way about this witnessing of acute human suffering shortly after the most recent bloody episode of communal violence in June of this year. She lamented that such an orgy of violence directed at an ethnic and religious minority by the Buddhist majority is almost totally ignored by most of the world, and is quietly consigned by media outlets to their outermost zones of indifference and irrelevance. She especially appealed to the women present to respond with activist compassion, stressing that women are always the most victimized category in these extreme situations of minority persecution and ethnic cleansing.

 

            The situation of the Rohingya is an archetypal example of acute vulnerability in a state-centric world. In 1982 the territorial government of Burma stripped away the citizen rights of the impoverished Rohingya Muslims who have lived in Arakan for many generations, but are cynically claimed by Rangoon to be unlawful new migrants from bordering Bangladesh who do not belong in Burma and have no right to remain or to burden the state or cause tension by their presence. Bangladesh in turn, itself among the world’s poorest countries, already has 500,000 Rohingya who fled across the Burmese border after earlier attacks on their communities, and has closed its borders to any further crossings by those escaping persecution, displacement, destruction of their homes and villages, and threats to their lives. To deepen this aspect of the tragedy, only 10% of these migrants who fled from Burma have been accepted as ‘refugees’ by the UN High Commission of Refugees, and the great majority of the Rohingya living in Bangladesh for years survive miserably as stateless persons without rights and living generally at or even below subsistence levels.  The Rohingya who continue to exist precariously within Arakan are stateless and unwanted, many are reported to wish openly for their own death. As a group they endure hardships and deprivations in many forms, including denial of health services, educational opportunity, and normal civil rights, while those who have left for the sake of survival, are considered to be comparatively fortunate if they manage to be accepted as ‘refugees’ even if their status as undocumented refugees means the absence of minimal protection, the denial of any realistic opportunity for a life of dignity, and the terrifying uncertainties of being at the continuing mercy of a hostile community and an inhospitable state.

 

            The principal purpose of this educational conference sponsored by Mazlumder, a Turkish NGO with strong Muslim affinities, was to gather experts to report on the situation and urge the audience to take action and thereby mobilize public opinion in support of the Rohingya people. It served to reinforce the high profile diplomatic and aid initiatives undertaken in recent months by the Turkish government to relieve the Rohingya plight. It also called attention to the strange and unacceptable silence of Aung Anh San Suu Kyi, the widely admired democratic political leader in Myanmar, herself long placed under punitive house arrest by the ruling military junta and recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize honoring her heroic resistance to dictatorship in her country. Her voice on behalf of justice for Burmese ethnic and religious minorities, and especially for the Rohingya, would carry great weight among Buddhists in the country and with world public opinion, and might shame the government into taking appropriate action. As it is, the present Burmese leadership and the prevailing tendency in domestic public opinion is to view the conflict as intractable, with preferred solutions being one or another version of ethnic cleansing, a crime against humanity– either forced deportation or the distribution of the Rohingya throughout the country so as to destroy their identity as a coherent people with deep historical roots in  northern Arakan. Outside pressures from Saudi Arabia and the United States might help to rally wider international concern, especially if tied to Burma’s economic goals. Aside from Turkey, governments have been reluctant to put pressure on Rangoon in this period because the Rangoon leadership has softened their dictatorial style of governance and seem to be moving toward the establishment of constitutional democracy in the country.

 

            What struck me while listening to the presentations at the conference was how powerful language can become when its role is to think with the heart. I have always found that women are far less afraid to do this in public spaces than men. We fully secular children of the European Enlightenment are brainwashed from infancy, taught in myriad ways that instrumental reason and logical analysis are the only acceptable ways to think and express serious interpretations of societal reality. Mrs. Erdogan, not only thinks with her heart, but she infuses such thought with an obvious religious consciousness that conveys a spiritual commitment to empathy that neither needs nor relies upon some sort of rational justification.

 

            Such a powerful rendering of suffering reminded me of James Douglass’ use of the realm of the ‘unspeakable’ (in turn inspired by the Catholic mystic author and poet, Thomas Merton) to address those crimes that shock our conscience but can only be diminished in their magnitude by speech. Their essential horror cannot be comprehended by expository language even if it is emotively heightened by an inspirational appeal. Only that blend of thinking with the heart combined the existential validation of direct witnessing can begin to communicate what we know, in the organic sense of knowing, to be the reality. I have discovered in my attempt to address the Palestinian ordeal as honestly as possible that direct contact with the actualities of occupation and the experience of listening closely to those who have been most directly victimized is my only way to approximate the existential reality. For this reason, my exclusion by Israel from visiting Occupied Palestine in my UN role does not affect the rational legal analysis of the violation of Palestinian rights under international law, but it does diminish my capacity as a witness to touch the live tissue of these violations, and erodes my capacity to convey to others a fuller sense of what this means for the lives and wellbeing of those so victimized. Of course, UN reports are edited to drain their emotive content in any event.

 

            I recall also my experience with the world media after a 1968 visit to Hanoi in the midst of the Vietnam War. I had been invited by a European lawyers’ organization to view the bomb damage in North Vietnam at a time when American officials, especially the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, were claiming ‘the most surgical strikes in the history of air warfare.’  I accepted this ‘controversial’ invitation to visit ‘the enemy’ during an ongoing war, although the fighting was somewhat paused at the time, as ‘a realist’ opponent of the war, basically accepting the position of Bernard Fall, George Kennan, and Hans Morgenthau that it was a losing proposition to suppose that the U.S. could achieve what the French colonial occupying power was unable to do and that it was a costly diversion of resources and attention from more important security concerns. My experience in Hanoi transformed my understanding and outlook on the war. It was a result of meeting many of the leaders, including the Prime Minister on several occasions, visiting bombed villages, talking with peasants and ordinary Vietnamese, and most of all, realizing the total vulnerability of the country to the military superiority of the United States with no prospect of retaliation—the concrete and cumulative terror of being on the receiving end of one-sided war that continues for years.  I came away from North Vietnam convinced that ‘the enemy,’ and especially its people, was on the right side of history, and the United States, and the badly corrupted Saigon regime that it propped up, was on the wrong side; above all, I felt the pain of the Vietnamese and was moved by their courage, humanity, and under the dire circumstances, their uncanny faith in humanity and their own collective destiny as a free nation. It produced a sea change in my mindset concerning the Vietnam War, and ever since.

 

            When I left Vietnam, and returned to Paris, I received lots of attention from mainstream media, but total disinterest from these prominent journalists in what was for me the most important outcome of the trip—the realization of what it meant humanly for a peasant society to be on the receiving end of a high tech war machine of a distant superpower whose homeland was completely outside what is now being called ‘the hot battlefield.’ The journalists had no interest in my (re)interpretation of the war, but they were keenly  eager to report on proposals for ending the conflict that had been entrusted to me by Vietnamese leaders to convey to the United States Government upon my return. It turned out that the contour of these proposals was more favorable from Washington’s point of view than what was negotiated four years and many deaths later by Henry Kissinger, who ironically received a Nobel Peace Prize for his questionable efforts. My main reflection relates back to the Arakan meeting. The media is completely deaf to the concerns of the heart, and is only capable of thinking, if at all, with the head. It limits thought to what can be set forth analytically, as if emotion, law, and morality are irrelevant to forming an understanding of public events. What at he time interested the NY Times and CBS correspondents, who were sympathetic and intelligent individuals, was the shaping of a diplomatic bargain that might end the war, whether it was a serious proposal, and whether Washington might be interested. It turned out that Washington was not ready for even such  a favorable compromise, and plodded on for several years, culminating in the unseemly withdrawal in 1975 in the setting of a thinly disguised surrende.  

 

            Poets in the West, caught between a cultural insistence on heeding the voice of reason and their inability to transfer feelings and perceptions into words, vent their frustration with language as the only available vehicle for truth-telling. As T.S. Eliot memorably expressed it in the final section of his great poem East Coker:

 

Trying to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

 

Imagine if the master poet of the English language in the prior century gives voice to such feelings of defeat (paradoxically in one of the great modern poems), how must the rest of us feel! We who are mere journeymen of the written word fault ourselves for inadequacies of depictions and usually lack the temerity to blame the imperfect medium of language for the shortcomings of efforts to communicate that which eludes precise expression.

 

            Earlier in the same poem Eliot writes some lines that makes me wonder if I have not crossed a line in the sands of time, and should long ago have taken refuge in silent vigil:

 

…..Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly    

Reflections on Two Occupations

23 Nov

 

Not long ago I took part in a workshop in London that was jointly organized by young Palestinians and Israeli, and discussed prospects for a just peace, emphasizing the imperative of ending ‘the occupation.’ At about the same time I experienced the radiant energy of the young occupiers at Wall Street and near St Paul’s Cathedral. Several months ago I was in Cairo not long after Mubarak left power, and visited Tahrir Square still alive with its memories of occupation by the protesters. Occupation became a word of many resonances, both favorable and heinous, and this poem tries to acknowledge this interplay of feelings of solidarity and alienation. Perhaps, it is too personal to be sharable.

*********

 

 

Reflections on Two Occupations

 

To live             to love

                                                is to occupy           

                                                to be

                                                            occupied

 

By whom             with whom           

Occupy/ing

                        Tahrir Square

                        Wall Street

                        St Paul’s Cathedral

                                                            the world

 

To hope to dream

                                    to act

                                                is

                                                to

                                                            occupy

 

By whom            for whom

To fear to hide

                        to resist

                                                is to be

                                                                        (pre)occupied

            from within

            from without

 

It was once your land

I entered your land

                        picking olives

                                                settling there

Buying occupying

 

Above all remembering

                                                another distant tale

Filled with tears and dying

                                                                       

                                                                        my land

                                                                                    my law                       

                                                            my birthright

 

And now ours to keep:

                        history forgives

                                                what is stolen if time passes quietly

                                   

 

Long ago now

I did ask you to leave

            in a polite voice

                        then a raised voice

                                    then a scream

                                                            then no voice at all

                                    to go             get out

 

All I wanted then was for birds

                                    to sing some old songs

All I wanted was for flowers

                                                to bend toward home

 

And now I declare

            to myself to you

                                    to the world

                                                this occupation will end:

 

The graves

                        already full

 

            as dawn

                                    splits

                                                            the Jerusalem sky in two

 

What is occupied with love lives

What is occupied with force kills

                                                            before it dies and lives again           

                                                                                                            elsewhere

 

I never wanted this earth scorched

                                                            moist with

                                                                        native blood

 

amid the ruins

                        I fight              resist    pray           

 

 

XI/22/2011

Saying No to Alan Dershowitz

10 Nov

On declining Alan Dershowitz’s challenge to debate my endorsement of Gilad Atzmon’s autobiographical The Wandering Who? (my few lines are an echo of a poem by ee cummings that I recall reading many years ago). Dershowitz’s defamatory polemic can be found in the Huffington Post, but why it was considered publishable remains for me a dark mystery. Gilad Atzmon’s response can be found on his blog for those sufficiently interested.

 ********************************

 

 

A SHITSLINGER’S LAMENT

 

 

 

There is

 

                        some

 

                                                                        SHIT

 

I

 

            will not

 

            sling

 

 

 

 

 

 

XI..9..2011

 

Preparing for Revolution

5 Nov

PREPARING FOR REVOLUTION

 

To be human

            is to be

                        naked

                                    before and after

                                                                                    the law

 

To be protected

            if ever

                        if at all

                                    only by

                                                the decency

                                                                                                of others

 

And when unprotected

            abused neglected

                        there are

                                    dark clouds

                                                in the sky

                                                                                    of the citizen

 

He who seems proud

            only when

                                    saluting

                                                flags

            paying bills on time

                                                            this code of his:

                                                                                    ‘virtuous obedience’

 

My code

            is learned

                        (if ever learned)

                                    only by moonlight:

                                                                        ‘disobedience is love’

 

Nurtures

            the heart

                        in hard times

                                                even amid strangers

                                                                        even on crowded streets

 

Silence

            helps also

                        until the time

                                                finally comes

                                                            and when it does—

                                                                                                            it will

 

 

Then

            to do to undo

                                    to act

                                                ready to kiss one another

                                                                                                            ready to die

 

 

Again Libya

27 Mar

Again Libya

It is that time

It is that time again

to call a spade a heart

Protecting the people of that desert country

by killing them

Doing so with righteous zeal

these faux servants of the UN

Humanist hawks and nostalgic imperialists

gather in a single tent

To once more break bread spill blood

Yes, but:

Qaddafi a genuine monster on the prowl

a demented killer

Addressing his tormented people as ‘rats and dogs’

Promising a hunt ‘alley by alley,

house by house, room by room’

Decreeing death for those fools

who dare snuff his candle

But war for whom? For what? Whose war?

For the clouds above

and their shadows below

For those who breakfast on oil

For surly arms dealers with mean grins

this war pleases merchants of death

As surely giant purchase orders will follow

Almost as the guns fall silent

The ‘rebels’ cheer the advent of missiles

but who are the rebels

Even their flags seem ill-chosen, evoking a lost past

Their struggle seems real, their bravery real

And yet does it matter– it is no longer their war

It has become our war to win lose or draw

They asked for this happening perhaps unknowingly

Didn’t they? Didn’t we?

As night falls Mars keeps smiling

Unlike some gloom at the Pentagon

where past lost wars are less easily forgotten

And yet these sullen military faces cannot bring peace

nor even rouse their tasered citizenry to dissent

Nor ban news channels glutted with agit-prop

at best a few wisely searching elsewhere for the real

Even sports or animal shows tell more truths these days

III..27…2011

On Reading Elif Shafak’s “The Forty Rules of Love”

29 Jan

While my blogs on the Arizona shootings and on Jewish identity has sparked unexpectedly intense controversy, I have done my best to continue with normal work and activities. At times of stress poetry and philosophy have offered me consolation. Recently I finished reading Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love, which I found instructive about the Sufi worldview, the spiritual education of Rumi (the world’s greatest poet of love), and the abiding magnetism of this 13th century spiritual flourishing for those seeking a deeper experience of contemporary life. Shafak writes knowingly, and skillfully weaves a vivid tapestry of character and narrative, with seamless time shifts between that historical moment in Konya and the present. It almost doesn’t matter that the sub-plot is neither credible nor engaging: an American middle aged Jewish housewife, bored in a loveless marriage in the small college town of Northampton, becomes romantically entwined with a terminally ailing Scottish Sufi convert through email correspondence that takes off in an abrupt flight that crosses the cyber barrier with grace, but a bit too smoothly for my taste. What matters is the moral clarity and depth that Shafak brings to the Sufi tradition as it unfolded in Konya through this fascinating fictionalization of the interplay between Rumi and a wandering Dervish, Shams of Tabriz, who became the spiritual teacher of Rumi, and was murdered by representatives of the local established order who could not abide his virtue or his teaching. The parallels to the life of Jesus are too obvious to explicate, as are the differences.

This book led me to write the following poem that seeks to express my personal encounter with its thought and journey:

After Reading Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love

You impose

this singular fish

it swims below my surfaces

it swims deep below surfaces

it crisscrosses my heart’s ocean

this singular fish can creep

can creep along slick walls

of deceit, of deception

I can only impose

laughter on subtle strangers

whose delight is frostbite

These who know nothing

nothing at all

of singular fish

and the forty rules of love

will swim away in panic

will ignore the hymnals

of forty hovering angels

in flight  below soft clouds

not high above your sea

the water thick with..yes

singular fish

I.24.2011


Despairing Angels

14 Jan

Despairing Angels

Carnalized in our time

Wingless

floating floating

Serenading cities aflame

far below

Lyrics of death descending

Shrill with despair

Not not

the sweet Tiepolo angels

Now now

a lost imagining:

the sweetest among angels

are being tutored to die

While wingless beings

graceless and grotesque float

above our menaced planet

 

Digital Enigma

3 Jan

Digital Enigma

Rivers of words

flowing through my mind

from smiling eyes

from everywhere


These intimate strangers

descending from digital clouds

becoming even aspiring lovers

or worse…declared soulmates

Or so it seems

Or so it seems


Our 21st century senses permeable

that lust for lust

that thirst for phantasy

neglecting what is touchable

this love that infects our bodies

disabling  all that is autoimmune

befogging our clogged desiring

escaping from what? to what?

Or so it seems

Or so it seems


The answers my friends the answers

encased in the soul’s tomb

mummified forgotten

mystery unsolved unsolvable

Or so it seems

Or so it seems


A Christmas Poem

23 Dec
 

 


  • JESUS AND MARY

How many time have I seen them together

Yet mostly near birth or just after death

Neglecting the hard passage through time

From infant Jesus to the cross is too quick

For my modern eye to see

And rarely caught the painter’s fancy

But holding the holy infant

Became back then the artist’s signature of belief

As holding the limp sacred body

Became the artist’s inscription of faith

This holy mother alone for centuries

Abandoned in hard times by Joseph

Or was it the other way around

Abandoned also by her only son

Or was it the other way around

Her son who finds the world to lose it

And is found again and mortally spurned

And found yet again to be so well remembered.


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