January 16, 2010

I am currently occupied with writing essays for finals here at the American University of Beirut. As I was reading through some older essays to try to psych myself up for new writing… I came across this essay from a course on Arabic poetry and prose by Dr. Gabriel Asfar at Simon’s Rock. Some of you might like to read it. Fa- enjoy!

Gabriel Asfar Laurel Harig

Arabic Poetry and Prose 18-11-07

Bitter Coffee: Some Repercussions of War and Exile in Modern Arabic Literature

This essay intends to trace some of the psychological repercussions of war in modern Arabic writing. The strategic importance of the Middle East has exposed it’s residents to an almost unending series of invasions, bombardments, interventions and “civilizing” missions. The Middle East has also suffered and been repeatedly criticized in the global arena for being unable to develop representative democracy, instead choosing a series of failed governments led by petty tyrants and corrupt leaders. I would like to show that these two facts are not unconnected, conversely, they are intimately and inextricably related. Three texts, Memory for Forgetfulness by Mahmoud Darwish, In Search of Walid Masoud by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and A Land of Stone and Thyme by Liana Badr, will be analyzed for the insight they can give us into the interior life of those displaced by war and armed conflict.  We can then apply these insights to some of the historical problems that the Arab world has faced, which again these texts will make clear.

Memory for Forgetfulness by the esteemed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish is an extraordinary collection of prose poems detailing the author’s perceptions of the violence that erupted in Beirut during the 1980’s. In particular, 1982 was a year that saw an extreme intensification of the violence, with Israeli forces besieging the city from June to August. In the Introduction, Ibrahim Muhawi writes, ” Extraordinary conditions foreground the ordinary, and the heroic consists in living every moment to the full.” (xv) Mahmoud Darwish, amazingly writing from exile in Paris, manages to live within the moments of Beirut, 1982, in order to write a vivid and haunting memoir of the experience. Mirroring the experience of Darwish himself, who lacked an official identity, the lives of the Palestinians, both inside Israel and Lebanon, were fraught with inconvenience, systematic discrimination and arbitrary imprisonment. All of this pales however, to the traumatized immediacy of living from moment to moment, not knowing whether or not you will survive a night of falling missiles.

Because of this, the text is haunted by a recurring dream. The narrator keeps dreaming and waking. He hears birds singing in the morning, dreams of making coffee. In this text, coffee symbolizes his longing for the innocence of an unhurried life, a life before the threat of violence. His repeated insistence on the material reality of making coffee, measuring it, boiling water, the spoon, is a reverse attempt to de-symbolize the act of making coffee, in order to rescue it, to preserve it from the horrors of the outside world. He tells us that “the essence of war is to degrade symbols.” (9) Living in such a charged temporal environment, real everyday things assert their symbolic quality as an act of resistance to war. “Water does have a color that reveals itself in the unfolding of thirst.”  (9) Ironically, the innocent birds and the airplanes which bring destruction share the same Arabic root, tai’ra, to fly.  “Not everything that flies is an airplane.” (10) By preserving his memories of everyday things, Darwish’s text is a song of anguish against the destruction of the city. “I am terrified of falling among the ruins.” (24) He is afraid of death, of dying and having his memory extinguished. Writing is the bastion against this, the fort which guarantees safety from oblivion. Also, morbidly, Darwish imagines that “Perhaps a wall will slowly, slowly fall on me and my suffering will be endless.” (24) Writing, likewise, at the same time  both saves and destroys the poet.

In the Introduction, Ibrahim Muhawi gives us his interpretation of the text; “Suspended between wholeness and fracture, the text, like Palestine, is a crossroads of competing meanings.” (xvii) These competing meanings give the text it’s dreamlike and surreal quality. Therefore, in reading the book, we should not look for a direct one- to- one correlation between the experience of Beirut in 1982 and Darwish’s response to it. Rather, the relationships between the inspiration and the art which results from it are far more complicated and fragmentary. In some ways, Darwish expresses only the inability to describe his surroundings. In other ways, he shows us the inner workings of the situation with a clarity and a prescience that seems to rise above his external reality. It is in this way that “death, in the aesthetic transformation of reality into art, becomes a metaphor intrinsic to the work.” (xxi) Darwish, as the poet, must die to the horror of his surroundings; cease to become a witness to his own suffering lest he be paralyzed by it and thereby unable to write.

Merging the personal and the political, Darwish searches for a way to understand what is happening to him. His medium; language, is at once an enemy and a confidante in this struggle. “Guard then… the cutting edge of the song against what blunts the heart in this narrow wilderness.” (50) What is blunting the heart is narrowness, a refusal to see the human side of the tragedy, on the part of the intellectuals, the officials and the hardened people, such as Darwish’s neighbor who tells him that the Palestinians should leave Lebanon. It is also the hardness of the military machine itself. “I want to find a language… to use against these sparkling silver insects, these jets.” (52) To his ruined city, he asks; “Is Beirut beautiful in itself?” (52) He draws comparisons to Hiroshima. The destructive power of nuclear weapons, gives the power to (who? ourselves?) to end the world as we know it, completely, irrevocably. “Which is more cruel? That a human being should wake up to find he’s a giant insect, or that an insect should wake up to find it is a human being who plays with an atomic bomb thinking it nothing more than a football?” (86) Out of the agony of living under bombardment, Darwish has excavated incredibly rich poetic material and the ability to portray political realities with gut- wrenching poignancy.

Darwish lays the problem, the existential quandary of the Palestinian experience before us. He says of those those with no homeland; “Why should so much amnesia be expected of them… And who is going to help them forget in the midst of this anguish, which never stops reminding them of their alienation from place and society?” (15) Thus, the Palestinians live within a paradox, cursed to bear the burdens of a memory of their homeland, unable to forget the scars of their forced removal, yet prompted by political ideologies to both forget and remember simultaneously. His neighbor, a Lebanese woman, through her self- absorption stemming from fear, tells him that he, like all the Palestinians, should leave Lebanon, as they are causing the war and the shortages of food/ water/ housing. Darwish replies, “We will never understand Lebanon.” (45) Lebanon is not the home of the Palestinians, yet they are being told they cannot stay there. Israel is not the home of the Palestinians yet they are told that they do not belong there. They belong to a homeland which does not officially exist.

Darwish tells of his hopes for a nation rooted in the idea of a homeland, but this is a bitter dream. Instead of helping their most vulnerable citizens, the Arab states float above their citizens, tripping on the power of international negotiations or ferreting away cash from lucrative arms deals in the region. “Why not?” (96) Intellectuals and officials are making decisions that will not impact them. They can always escape danger, but the people on the ground cannot. They challenge the refugees to, paradoxically, “Prove you exist?” (126) Darwish notes the absurdity that “those buried under the rubble have to declare the legitimacy of their slaughter.” (149) For a refugee, “our absence is a right that grants the Other the right to decide our destiny.” (149) The status of a refugee is always uncertain. Conveniently, the refugees “should stay offstage… a subject for others to take up and interpret.” (110) In this way, they are denied agency, denied a voice to speak for themselves.  The ending of the book; “I don’t see a shore. I don’t see a dove,” is not so much pessimistic as it is simply a statement of reality, after the horror of the bombing of Beirut, is there anyone who offers a solution? Could any kind of solution justify the violence? Israel and America will turn blind eyes, the Lebanese will try to rebuild, leaving only the Palestinians, for whom no homeland has yet been procured, to bear the burdens of their memory and their official “absence.”

There are many resistance movements, serving to channel this anxiety into action, yet Darwish speaks of the confusion of the Arabs in defining their cause, is it nationalistic, is it the Arab League, is is following a Western model of resistance, is it an Islamic movement? These anxieties are a hallmark of the postcolonial experience, as the formerly oppressed struggle to form conceptions of their own identities that are not simply reactions to the domination of the West. This is a difficult task, especially when the oppression continues albeit in a more subtle but no less demeaning way. This oppression is primarily economic. He says to the Americans, “Take the oil, give us water. Take us, but give us water!” (34) The situation of the Palestinian refugees can be broadly compared to the realities of conquered peoples everywhere, including those present in modern-day Iraq. Where the Palestinians are being denied a state or a homeland, the Iraqis are being given a state, both without their consent and heedless of their opinions on the matter. Darwish mentions journalists, reporters and “an American who runs after tragedy with his camera.” (148) Both situations are conducted with an embarrassing lack of humanity and an officialism that sees suffering as a casualty of higher ideals, one which ignores the realities of daily life on a battleground. We like to quantify suffering (with our cameras, with statistics) but we do not like to hear anything that reflects back to us our own complicity with suffering; through our interest in the region because of our dependence on oil and the strategic position of the Middle East.

Darwish talks about the psyche of Israel, who in this case act as direct military oppressors. “No one else had the right to… become the victim.” (110) Because of the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust, the modern state of Israel functions in a weird state of amnesia regarding their aggression towards the Palestinians while living inside a conflated memory of their own suffering. This distorted desire for victimhood causes their actions to take on an extended meaning of hypocrisy and (in my own personal opinion) a more blatant evil. Woven into the text of Darwish’s novel are long passages from sources on Arab history. (120) They deal with battles, with vengeance, with writing and with memory. This captures the truth of the situation, bringing out of an isolated event its linkages to history, in an act of remembering that allows humans to learn from the past. From the history of the Arabs, we see how history can revive the past in order to serve the needs of the present in a parable, in a story which educates. Darwish is ever so conscious of the other side of this function, the ways in which history can be used to accuse the Other of evils and to justify the repetition of killings, of wars and campaigns in the name of a tarnished honor. Darwish, in his skepticism for grand claims,  tells us that ” I am embarrassed by the great ambiguity of the Idea.” (60) Instead, he tries to mediate between the ideology of wars and revolutions with poetry, which symbolizes and problematizes the tiny occurrences of daily life, forcing us to consider the ways in which ideology cannot meet humanity when it simplifies history into a parable with the righteous on one side and the enemy on the other.

In terms of connections to the materials we have discussed in class, I want to focus on the notion of exile and the common psychological threads of this experience. I cannot help thinking of the situation of Iraqi refugees in Jordan as similar to that of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Both groups are waiting for something, for someone to give them a path of action. Meanwhile they are living on their savings and on the goodwill of strangers. I saw in an NY Times article recently that some Iraqi refugees are being welcomed back into their country, given $100 as a resettlement fee and hoping to go back to their villages, if they still exist. Conversely, for Palestinians, their country is being written off the map in a global insensitivity to time that is enabling both the Israeli government and the Arab states to do nothing about the situation. As Palestinians and other exiled people settle elsewhere, their homeland becomes a nostalgic memory yet, as Darwish shows us, one that they continue to intensely, poetically and psychologically live within. This brings me to the next part of the essay, which examines Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s In Search of Walid Masoud.

This short story, which is full of allusions and ambiguities, unfolds with the search of a woman, Wisal, for the son of her former lover. Wisal is completely in love with Walid Masoud, however, he is in love with Jinan, a woman from his past. The woman feels as though her life has been stolen by falling in love, one minute it brings her pearls, the next minute, scorpions. “Flawed angels botched the job of forming the universe, so the universe was full of flaws too. (199) By forming a relationship with his son, is she trying to claim another part of his life for herself? The son whom she finds in a camp near Beirut has “rejected everything except his new comrades in this tented city, which I could feel taking me back to the forgotten essence of life.” (200) Marwan, the son, has become a resistance fighter, a jihadi.  Like his father, “You arrived as a stranger, at war; and that’s the way you stayed, a stranger fighting on various fronts in a world molded with flaws. (199)  She tours his camp, “Teach me how to fire a gun,” I said to Marwan./ He looked at me in my tight- fitting pants. ” Whenever you want to try it!” he replied.” (201)

Despite his cynicism, Marwan eventually sits down to dinner with Wisal. She tries to convince him to come back to Baghdad. They fight because she wants him to go to university, she tries to give him money but he refuses, “as though they were some strange creatures he was afraid to touch.” (201) She tells him, “You’re just like your father. Stubborn as hell! You Palestinians, you’re all stubborn!” (202) Then, unexpectedly, they find that they have common ground in the love of his father. Marwan asks Wisal to help his father realize that he in no longer a young man, and to stop requesting to be included in the fighting. Through the struggle of this family trying to sort out love through their disagreements and estrangements, the whole of Arab society can be seen as a sort of dysfunctional family always caught up in contradictions and causes which sweep up parts of society and leave others wondering what to do with them.

Marwan and Wisal laugh and joke, having a pleasant time in the cafe. Then, Marwan mentions another woman who was in love with his father. Wisal knows that she shouldn’t let herself be hurt by this, but can’t really help it. “‘I’ll make you a promise,'” he said./ “‘A promise?'”/ “One day I’ll make fish for you from Lake Tiberias, with myself, you and my father sitting by the shore. It may take five or ten years. Do you accept?” (205) The camps where Marwan makes his life are marginal structures masquerading as safe havens. They have no security and no stable reality. Perhaps this is why Marwan dreams of a secure future, in which he will be able to entertain guests and make peace with his family.

At the end of the short story, Walid is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He is unable to escape from the ghosts of the men he has killed and the things he has seen. He “came back exhausted and broken” from the fighting in Jordan. (206) He screams and collapses in pain from witnessing the events of the war. “The room felt small for the two of us, as though the walls were collapsing in on us.” (206) Wisal too collapses from her agony at being in love, at being close to, trying to understand this person, Walid, who is so protective of his ideals and his vanity. They spend the rest of the day “like a pair of corpses, wrapped one around the other.” (207)

Finally, Wisal tells us, “The world doesn’t understand and never will; and accordingly, I reject a world that doesn’t understand me. I must keep my wounds to myself… continue my rejection and join the other rejectionists.” (207) Wisal is not allowing herself to live either, persisting in chasing a figure from her past. In the narrow realm of options given to women, she is forced to agree with Walid when he tries to justify his actions or to risk losing him forever. Ultimately, she chooses to live with the hypocrisy of men and live in denial. This illustrates the fact that the violence of war is something that is perpetrated almost exclusively by men upon other men. Women and children are caught in the crossfire and forcibly uprooted, forced to become representatives of ideologies that they have no responsibility for nor connection to.

The short story A Land of Stone and Thyme by the Palestinian novelist Liana Badr also explores these themes of everyday life in the face of extraordinary events through the eyes of a young woman. In the first section, entitled, “Photograph,” she dreams she is being haunted by a photograph in a cemetery. “I looked for him but didn’t know where he’d gone.” (45) We learn that she is waiting for her husband, who has disappeared and is probably dead. “Life has been nothing but waiting upon waiting.” (45) Yusra’s memory of her husband keeps her wavering between the past, in which she was happy, and the present, a time of waiting.

The second section, “Al-Damoor,” is the name of a refugee camp to which the family is e exiled. Badr’s description of the decrepit old house in which they try to live is an important aspect of the reality of exile. The conditions of life that refugees must face are hardly conducive to healing and rehabilitation. They are tormented by both poverty and exile. Yusra’s mother is afraid of the wind, which made “sounds like bombing.” (46) Then they are uprooted again and forced to move to Beirut. Refugees, as unstable persons are often played upon by the official “logics” of population transfer. I am thinking of a situation after the Holocaust where Jewish refugees were kept afloat on a cruise ship for weeks while the US government debated the politics of letting them ashore.

The third and last section of the story, entitled, ” And Water Has Memory,” brings the everyday task of fetching water close to the extraordinary experience of getting bombed. “We would spend eight to ten hours waiting for our turn at the tap.” (47) The tap is located unfortunately next to a factory, a strategic target. The family is also forced to sleep in the ruins of this factory, with seven hundred other people, “all piled one on top of each other.” (47) The camp’s sense of security is again disrupted by the fighting. “They were near us, very near.” (47) The fighting moves closer and closer until “the snipers gained control of the main entrance.” (47) The people are forced to flee for a third time. In a haunting narrative at the end of the story, Yusra tells us how she went back with some others to retrieve supplies from the factory. However, this group of people is caught on their way out and many of them were shot by the snipers. She wryly tells us, “Lucky the ones who could escape by the skin of their teeth.” (48)

Like the narrator in Memory for Forgetfulness, Yusra in A Land of Stone and Thyme struggles to continue living when that possibility is becoming less and less likely as the violence intensifies. Forced to move from her home, she is able to reflect back to us only a bitter lament for the happier days of the past. Also, like Wisal in In Search of Walid Masoud, Yusra is struggling to live in a world where the men are mostly absent, either dead or fighting. If they are present, they are often emotionally unavailable, scarred from the violence which is being committed mostly by them and in the name of their ideals.

In conclusion, the texts Memory for Forgetfulness, A Land of Stone and Thyme and In Search of Walid Masoud exemplify the major theme of this course, that of literature in a time of war. The problematics of writing in a unstable reality are also an asset to literature from zones of conflict, giving the narratives an urgency and a bitterness that can serve as testimony to the natures of both institutionally organized forgetting and official narratives of memory, serving as warnings that the simplifications of these ideologies can never approach the reality of war nor propose an adequate solution to it. Until we accede to the fact that we must look closer into the wounds of history and the ways in which these scars are written into our own identities, we will be doomed to repeat history over and over again like a mechanical clock. Both the poet, Darwish and the novelists, Jabra and Badr serve as canaries in this mine-shaft, as cuckoo birds who direct our eyes to the intricacies of this process and the ways in which it is still ongoing and unfinished.

In terms of the Arab world, it is obvious that, like the United States in the aftermath of September 11th, a people who are afraid, who are threatened by violence, will choose a leader who promises to take a tough line with the enemy. As can be observed in leaders, past and present who have enjoyed a cult of personality, such as Saddam Hussein and George Bush, the people will choose a leader who twists the thread of a country’s history and then plays to their vanity (for Americans as defenders of freedom and democracy or in the case of the Arabs as the holders of a long and illustrious history) all the while proceeding to carry out his own twisted agenda (that of making money for his friends and family). Like Walid Masoud, the soldiers and generals of this country will persist in using outdated tactics even when other methods might be effective. The people, who are too scared or too focused on the material realities of daily life (gasoline, water) to object, will knowingly go along with this regime.

In conclusion, our hypocrisy as Americans involved in the Middle East is this; that we blame the Other for the sins of ourselves. We feel superior to the “backwards” Arabs and “unenlightened” Muslims, meanwhile we fail to examine our own history. In this way, we are guilty of the same amnesia as our friend, Israel. Much of the conflict in the Middle East arises from it’s colonial history under the British Empire, which was also instrumental in creating the state of Israel. Thus, blaming Arab society for failing to become “civilized,” is a paradox, much like that of the Palestinians. If a region, or a society is to develop a stable sense of self, it must first be given room to breathe and the freedom from violence which would enable this self- creation. Only then will the Arabs, like other former colonies, be able to live in a way that is not merely a reaction to systematic political and economic oppression. Like Darwish’s conclusion, on the near horizon, there does not seem to be any hope of peace, any “dove.” However, there is much work to be done in the meantime. Everyone must be involved in the creation of peace and we can start by reading literature.

In courageous and honest literature, such as the texts examined above, we can see our own face in the mirror of history, whether we are Arab or American, for our mistake is the same. We continue to focus on the enemy as an outsider instead of in our own hearts. If we were honest with ourselves, we would be forced to acknowledge that coffee (Starbucks) is sometimes more important to us than the sufferings of others. Despite our good intentions, we often only care when the fighting is driven close to us and our families. The only difference is that for now, Americans have the luxury of stirring our coffee and driving our SUVs in relative comfort, for the battlefields of the modern world are still unfairly, located in the Middle East. The processes of creating a true democracy must begin within ourselves, in honesty and with a bravery of the spirit that is seen in these three writers, as they write, as witnesses to our troubled past and our uncertain future.

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