One gift that holds a place of honor in my office is a signed copy of the long poem “abu ghraib arias” by Phil Metres. The chapbook’s cover is made of Combat Paper, veterans’ uniforms pulped into paper. It is a precious candle lit against such an enormous darkness.
A month ago, the poet Fady Joudah and I carried on a dialogue over email. The occasion was the publication of Sand Opera, but along the way we discuss quite a bit — including love and politics, Elaine Scarry and the theology of torture, the Oliver Stone Syndrome and American Sniper, empire, the Iraqs I carry, 9/11, Standard Operating Procedures, black sites, docupoetics, trance states, recursion, poems about children, the vital vulnerability of the human body, the openness of ears, the sound of listening, the War Story and its exclusions, the Umbra poets and the Black Arts Movement, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, RAWI (the Radius of Arab American Writers), and the state of Arab American literature.
We hope that this can be the start of a new conversation about the state of poetry, American life, and the role of Arab-American literature in our ongoing cultural and political debate about U.S. foreign and domestic policy regarding the Arab world. We welcome further conversation. More to come.
See an excerpt of their conversation below:
PHILIP METRES is the author and translator of a number of books, including Sand Opera (Alice James 2015), I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (forthcoming 2015), Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Poetic Texts of Lev Rubinstein (Ugly Duckling Presse 2014), A Concordance of Leaves (chapbook, Diode 2013), abu ghraib arias (chapbook, Flying Guillotine 2011), To See the Earth (Cleveland State 2008), and Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront (University of Iowa 2007). His work has appeared in Best American Poetry and has garnered two NEA fellowships, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, five Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Beatrice Hawley Award, two Arab American Book Awards, the Cleveland Arts Prize, the Anne Halley Prize, the PEN/Heim Translation grant, and the Creative Workforce Fellowship. He is professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland. Were it not for Ellis Island translation, his last name would be Abourjaili.
FADY JOUDAH: Sand Opera is ultimately a book about love, its loss and recapture, and the struggle in between. Many will completely misread it as another political book of poems, in that reductive, ready-made sense of “political” which is reserved for certain themes but mostly for certain ethnicities. So part of that misreading is due to the book’s subject matter or its Abu Ghraib arias, and also because it is written by an Arab American.
PHILIP METRES: I love the fact that you read Sand Opera as a book about love. The longer I worked on the book, the more I felt compelled to move past the dark forces that instigated its beginnings, forces that threatened to overwhelm it and me. Love, as much as I can understand it, thrives in an atmosphere of care for the self and other — the self of the other and the other of the self — through openness, listening, and dialogue. Because the book was born in the post-9/11 era, it necessarily confronts the dark side of oppression, silencing, and torture. Torture, as Elaine Scarry has explored so powerfully in The Body in Pain, is the diametrical opposite of love, the radical decreation of the other for political ends. The recent release of the so-called “Torture Report,” and the torrent of responses (both expressions of condemnation and defensive justifications) has felt like a traumatic repetition for me. Didn’t we deal with this during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the “Enhanced Interrogation” debate? Even now, the political conversation seems to skip over the fact that torture contravenes international law and is a profoundly immoral act, and moves so quickly to debate its merits — whether any good “intelligence” may have been gleaned from it. Why is that the writers who have gained the widest platforms were veterans of the war, some of whom participated directly in interrogation — for example, Eric Fair’s courageous mea culpa December 2014 Letter to the Editor in The New York Times — while Arab voices, like Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon’s, are so hard to find and so marginalized? …
Read the whole interview.
Foreign Policy’s The Cable provided insight today into backroom negotiations between the Iraqi government and the Obama administration about allowing American drones to bomb “al-Qaeda affiliated militants” in Iraq. So bad on so many levels. Apparently, the Obama administration finally gave a definitive “no.”
Here’s a snippet from The Cable:
For weeks, Iraqi officials have been publicly floating the idea of using American drones to hit the increasingly lethal al-Qaeda-affiliated militants on their soil. But the ordinarily drone-friendly Obama administration is apparently in no mood to open up a new front in global campaign of unmanned attacks. An administration official tells The Cable that American drone strikes in Iraq are now off the table.
Though neither Iraqi nor U.S. officials will say who called off the drones, it’s no secret who began discussing them in the first place. In an August 17 trip to Washington, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters that Baghdad is seeking U.S. advisers, air surveillance or drone strikes to combat al-Qaeda’s grip on the country. “We cannot fight these increasing terrorist” threats alone, he said. Speaking of drone strikes specifically, he said as long as they were used to “target al-Qaeda and their bases,” without “collateral damage,” Iraqis would welcome them.
Also read Sojourners‘ excellent coverage on why people of faith are against the new drone arms race: What’s Wrong With Drones? by Duane Shank
“This is a man who gave us the warrantless wiretapping scheme as a kind of atrocity warm-up on the way to deceitfully engineering a conflict that has killed over 4,400 and maimed nearly 32,000 Americans, as well as leaving over 100,000 Iraqis dead. Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American.”–NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden after former vice president Cheney called Snowden a “traitor”
President Obama’s drone policy and his assassination “kill list” not only infringe on the sovereignty of other countries but the assassinations violate laws put in place in the 1970s after scandals enveloped an earlier era of CIA criminality. What’s more, by allowing the executive branch to circumvent judicial review, the kill list makes a mockery of due process for terror suspects, even U.S. citizens—in clear violation of the Constitution.
Send a protest to President Obama telling him you want him to ground lethal drones and end the “kill list” policy.
Here’s an excerpt from the column I wrote for the May issue of Sojourners related to this topic:
AS THE HUMAN soul matures, we are confronted with moments that force us to let go of yet another thin veil of self-delusion. The “right road,” the moral high ground, sinks into a thicket of gray.
Two examples from this Lent: An American Army staff sergeant, with four deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and probable concussive brain trauma, allegedly pulls 16 unarmed Afghan civilians, including nine children, out of their beds in the middle of the night and shoots them. The thin cloth of protection that allows us to believe “if we weren’t there things would be worse” slips to the ground.
The U.S. attorney general explains in a logical manner why it is legal and lawful in some circumstances for a U.S. president to order the “targeted killing” of an American citizen. These deaths shouldn’t be called “assassinations,” the attorney general says, because assassinations are “unlawful killing” and, if the president approves it, then it’s not “unlawful.” More veils fall—“a person is innocent until proven guilty”; “intelligent people will make morally right decisions.” Our soul runs terror-stricken into the dark woods; our complicity with evil simply too much to bear.
THOMAS MERTON describes these moments as encounters with the Unspeakable. “It is the emptiness of ‘the end,’” Merton writes. “Not necessarily the end of the world, but a theological point of no return, a climax of absolute finality in refusal, in equivocation, in disorder, in absurdity …” In the face of the Unspeakable, our nakedness is complete. All meaning is stripped away. Our carefully collected coverings lie in a heap. We are running into a silent, disorienting night. …–Rose Marie Berger, read more here
Send a protest to President Obama telling him you want him to ground lethal drones and end the “kill list” policy.
“I’ve watched with increasing dismay the widening gap between rich and poor the huge injustices in our world the way that we’ve exploited other countries way that we’ve exploit our own work force. And I feel really uncomfortable with that. You know, I love the fact that we’re camping out occupying Wall Street, occupying St Paul’s – just saying, this cannot go on. So if that’s political, then I am political.
It amazes me that everyone has been able to carry on with business as normal as though there are not crimes against humanity … whether that’s dead bodies in Iraq or whether it’s the fact that the global economy has tipped over into complete chaos, it doesn’t happen by chance. It happens because people – usually men – take enoromous risks with the lives and well-being of the rest of us, usually to make money.–Jeanette Winterson, author of Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?
I’ve had some lovely email exchanges with Portland magazine editor Brian Doyle. He’s a thoughtful, thoroughly human writer (see his newest collection Grace Notes). Portland magazine is the wildly popular “alumni magazine” from the Catholic University of Portland (Oregon).
Last week I received a copy of Portland‘s Summer 2011 issue in the mail. Brian’s opening essay speaks volumes about thousands of war survivors in our country and in the countries of our “enemies.”
He writes, “Recently I met a quiet woman who didn’t say much but what she said was wry and pithy and direct, and after a while I asked if I could take notes as she talked, and she said okay, and this is most of what she said.”
My name is Jacqueline. You can call me Jackie. Until recently you could call me Sergeant. I am now retired from the service. I will be twenty-seven years old on Sunday, at fourteen hundred hours. I was a hematology nurse, I am in good health, considering. I have a dog named Gus. I live near the beach. I drink tea. I learned to love tea in Kirkuk. Some days we had tea ten times a day. We found a samovar and learned how to use it. There was a man among us who could play that thing like a guitar. It got so we couldn’t drink anything other than the tea he summoned from that samovar. He vanished one day when his truck was hit by the bandits. Another man took his place. He vanished too. I took his place. After a while I forgot everyone’s names. For a while I called people by their numbers but after a while I didn’t call them anything. That’s when I knew I had war sickness, big time. I never got hit by fire but pretty much everyone I knew did. For a while there I thought it was me, that as soon as I said hello to someone or shook hands or learned their names they were doomed, so I stopped touching people and learning names. You would think wigging out in the middle of a war would be bad but it’s just normal, No one talks about what happens to the people nothing happens to, but something happens to them, and no one talks about it. Probably because we don’t have any words for what happens. Wars kill words, but no one talks about that. …
Read Brian’s whole essay here.
Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, one of the greatest modern Arabic poets, was born near Basra in 1926. After World War II several leading Arabic poets began experimenting with Christian metaphor and imagery after work by T.S. Eliot, especially The Wasteland. Al-Sayyab allows the image of Christ to echo his own homeland’s need of resurrection.
The Messiah After the Crucifixion
by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab
After I was brought down, I heard the winds
Whip the palm trees with wild laments;
Footsteps receded into infinity. Wounds
And the cross I was nailed to all afternoon
Didn’t kill me. I listened. A cry of grief
Crossed the plain between me and the city
Like a hawser pulling a ship
Destined to sink. The cry
Was a thread of light between morning
And night in sad winter sky.
Despite all this, the city fell asleep.
When the orange and mulberry trees bloom
When my village Jaykour reaches the limits of fantasy
When grass grows green and sings with fragrance
And the sun suckles it with brilliance
When even darkness grows green
Warmth touches my heart and my blood flows into earth
My heart becomes sun, when sun throbs with light
My heart become earth, throbbing with wheat, blossom
and sweet water
My heart is water, an ear of corn
Its death is resurrection. It lives in him who eats
The dough, round as a little breast, life’s breast.
I died by fire. When I burned, the darkness of my clay
disappeared. Only God remained.
I was the beginning, and in the beginning was poverty
I died so bread would be eaten in my name
So I would be sown in season.
Many are the lives I’ll live. In every soil
I’ll become a future, a seed, a generation of men
A drop of blood, or more, in every man’s heart.
Then I returned. When Judas saw me he turned pale
I was his secret!
He was a shadow of mine, grown dark
The frozen image of an idea
From which life was plucked
He feared I might reveal death in his eyes
(his eyes were a rock
behind which he hid his death)
He feared my warmth. It was a threat to him
so he betrayed it.
“Is this you? Or is it my shadow grown white
Men die only once! That’s what our fathers said
That’s what they taught us. Or was it a lie?!”
That’s what he said when he saw me. His whole face spoke.
I hear footsteps, approaching and falling
The tomb rumbles with their fall
Have they come again? Who else could it be?
Their falling footsteps follow me
I lay rocks on my chest
Didn’t they crucify me yesterday? Yet here I am!
Who could know that I . . . ? Who?
And as for Judas and his friends, no one will believe them.
Their footsteps follow me and fall.
Here I am now, naked in my dank tomb
Yesterday I curled up like a thought, a bud
Beneath my shroud of snow. My blood bloomed from moisture
I was then a thin shadow between night and day.
When I burst my soul into treasures and peeled it like fruit
When I turned my pockets into swaddling clothes
and my sleeves into a cover
When I kept the bones of little children
warm within my flesh
And stripped my wounds to dress the wound of another
The wall between me and God disappeared.
The soldiers surprised even my wounds and my heartbeats
They surprised all that wasn’t dead
even if it was a tomb
They took me by surprise the way a flock of starving birds
pluck the fruit of a palm tree in a deserted village.
The rifles are pointed and have eyes
with which they devour my road
Their fire dreams of my crucifixion
Their eyes are made of fire and iron
The eyes of my people are light in the skies
they shine with memory and love.
Their rifles relieve me of my burden;
my cross grows moist. How small
Such death is! My death. And yet how great!
After I was nailed to the cross, I cast my eyes
toward the city
I could hardly recognize the plain, the wall, the cemetery
Something, as far as my eyes could see, sprung forth
Like a forest in bloom
Everywhere there was a cross and a mourning mother
Blessed be the Lord!
Such are the pains of a city in labor.
Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s poem was translated from the Arabic by Ben M. Bennani, whose book of translations of three contemporary Arabic poets, Bread, Hasheesh, & Moon, was published by Copper Canyon Press (Spring 1975).
Zainab Salbi is the founder of Women for Women International. In the mid-1990s, I worked with her advocating for Bosnian women in the middle of the Bosnian genocide. At the time, she and I were one of the few women in the DC-area who were organizing for peace in Bosnia. Zainab’s an Iraqi refugee and we bonded over Christian and Muslim women coming together for Christian and Muslim women in the former Yugoslavia. Zainab’s team at W4WI lifts up the stories of women in war zones around the world.
As the U.S. and others once again go to war in Libya – under the guise of “redemptive violence” – I’m prompted by Zainab to call to mind the women and children in Libya, the doctors, the pacifists, and all those who refuse to fight for any side. Pray for them. Look for their stories.
Below is a TED talk by Zainab from Oxford last summer.
I grew up with the colors of war — the red colors of fire and blood, the brown tones of earth as it explodes in our faces and the piercing silver of an exploded missile, so bright that nothing can protect your eyes from it. I grew up with the sounds of war — the staccato sounds of gunfire, the wrenching booms of explosions, ominous drones of jets flying overhead and the wailing warning sounds of sirens. These are the sounds you would expect, but they are also the sounds of dissonant concerts of a flock of birds screeching in the night, the high-pitched honest cries of children and the thunderous, unbearable, silence. “War,” a friend of mine said, “is not about sound at all. It is actually about silence, the silence of humanity.”–Zainab Salbi
“There are women who are standing on their feet in spite of their circumstances, not because of it. Think of how the world can be a much better place if, for a change, we have a better equality, we have equality, we have a representation and we understand war, both from the front-line and the back-line discussion.
Rumi, a 13th century Sufi poet, says, “Out beyond the worlds of right doings and wrong doings, there is a field. I will meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” no longer makes any sense.” I humbly add — humbly add — that out beyond the worlds of war and peace, there is a field, and there are many women and men [who] are meeting there. Let us make this field a much bigger place. Let us all meet in that field.”–Zainab Salbi
Iraq and Afghanistan veterans marched on Washington today to demand that traumatized troops not be sent back in to combat. After gathering outside Walter Reed Army Medical Center, veterans and civilian members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, Civilian Soldier Alliance, and Ethan McCord of the film Collateral Damage marched 6 miles to Capitol Hill to launch Operation Recovery: Stop the Deployment of Traumatized Troops.
During a press conference on Capitol Hill, veterans testified about their experiences being redeployed while traumatized and delivered a letter to government and military officials requesting an end to the deployment of traumatized troops. (See the article on CNN.)
“October 7th marks the 9-year anniversary of the Afghanistan War, the longest ongoing war in U.S. history. Pressure from fighting two wars has put enormous strain on U.S. troops, with multiple deployments leading to an explosion of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder,” Iraq Veterans Against the War said in a press release.
“PTSD makes service members six times more likely to commit suicide. Instead of being treated, troops are often redeployed to combat while still suffering from PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Military Sexual Trauma. Officials recognize that suicides and violent crimes are on the rise, with four decorated combat vets killing themselves at Ft. Hood in one week.”
“I was denied treatment for the mental and physical wounds I sustained in battle, like so many others,” says Ethan McCord, a veteran whose unit was captured in the “Collateral Murder” video distributed by Wikileaks. “IVAW’s campaign is critical for soldiers because we are asserting our right to heal. Now, the government has a choice – will it recognize our right to heal, or deny it?”
“Right now, 20 percent of our fighting force are being deployed on at least one psychotropic medication. These are common medications that are used for things like PTSD and TBI [Traumatic Brain Injury],” said IVAW member Jason Hurd. “I myself am a 100 percent disabled veteran with PTSD. The same medications that I’m currently on, things like Trazedone and things like Prozac, our soldiers are getting sent to Iraq and Afghanistan on these very same drugs, and I’m disabled. So, what does that say…?” Hurd served as a medic in Iraq.