THE NAME OF THE PLACE
There are three sizes of firewood here. The first is what a woman, pregnant or otherwise, adolescent or not, can place elegantly on her head, with or without strapping an infant or a toddler on her back; whether that toddler is sibling, son, neighbor's child, or grandchild.
Next is the kind donkeys carry. A matter of distance. The farther one goes from the village to collect wood, the better its quality and quantity. A donkey is not made for thick logs. Its back is not long enough.
And if the likelihood of having your donkey robbed, yourself killed or raped, upon venturing too far, is high, then you would have to wait for the camel owners— the same ones who would rob, rape or kill you, to bring wood to you as you barter. They have already taken all your cash. To see a camel caravan floating like ocean otters on the desert floor is an aesthetic of cadence. The wood they carry is massive.
The nomads have already slaughtered. And piled. And hung children on bayonets. Now the villages sunbathe topless: each thatch rooftop has been burned. And if you were of the agrarian middle class and could afford a zinc roof, your metal was disassembled before the torching, to be resold to you, or your neighbor, along with the wood, at a later date, in your new town market.
What is it called when you drive a camel, not a donkey; if you fly a horse into atrocity, then have a two-animal garage? Isn't it a remarkable entrepreneurial feat to massacre a people, as a form of terror, or ablution, and then turn them into willing, choiceless customers?
Some trees here, decades or over a century old, are like lynched men flanking the dry wadis. Their giant limbs axed and dangling for the paradoxical chew of a camel's jaw. Caviar leaves and paté saplings. Branches that were once higher than a camel's neck. And now, since the place is cleansed, the ashes brushed, and a new order is in place, the nomads can keep on cutting. Business after blood. A way of life.
Even lizards and mice become victims of destroyed human dwellings. Whose ants will they eat? Whose kitchens will they inhabit?
The cook told me, in objection to our gluey cardboard snack-trap for better hygiene, that the poor creatures have had enough. She said that at the time of the war, drivers going back to pick up more people to safety (evacuees at the time, in the process of being either massacred or internally displaced) saw thousands of dead lizards and mice on the same path that fleeing villagers took to the new domed city of plastic tents— beautiful white mirage. It was where the path crossed the desert road that the scent of exodus in the feet was strongest.
Driving on a desert highway often means no more than that there is a carved-out path for vehicles. It takes a whole day to cross this western province's 240-kilometer-waist. The jeep bounces your internal organs around until you wonder if you would fool the best radiologist reading a computerized abdominal scan, the one you might undergo for any line of symptoms in your local hospital, upon your safe return home.
A hoopoe guided us part of the way. Blue crested and rapid from branch to branch, it had to be divine providence. And ghostly village after ghostly village, adorned with the dangling trees, the desert lit up. "Villages like dots erased off their letters," Mahmoud Darwish says.
When I arrived, I could see the town was at village-size only a few months ago. It is not such a beautiful thing, the birth of the city. Yet aesthetic tries to rise above it because, in the trabecular recesses of its heart, it longs to be noble. So I played doctor for a while, there at the foot of the jabal, where the resistance fighters were besieged, some with Bob Marley locks, while besieging their own people.
One facet of revolution is certain. To revolt for, against, or away from an object is eventually actualized as a commodity. Once a tragedy is politicized, for example, its people become an abstraction. Once a poem breaks new ground, it becomes a swamp of mirrors. We love mirrors. What is victim. Who is hero. Which beauty. What tree is a no-no to cut down. No image without distance. No reflection without space.
By now, the victims of the place are IDP's, internally displaced persons , a term that differs from a refugee in that the latter must cross a political border on a post-colonial map, regardless of the disaster, man-made or cosmic.
And if you are born to refugee parents, chances are you will remain a refugee. Comparatively, IDP born children have a much higher batting average of growing up into nationality, or passport. Either case, you are hot exile material, a poetic step-up. A potential cultural cricket. An abbreviation of the barbarous sound.
But my biggest surprise was to come. On my first day at work, in the IPD (in-patient department), I met Flannery O'Connor. She was reincarnated as a French nurse, busy with her humanitarian duties. I asked her what she thought of such differentiating nomenclature, and she replied, "Horse poop! Whoever ain't where they were born at and there's nowhere for them to go is a DP, no I's about it — like if you was run outta here and wouldn't nobody have you."
I was stunned by the southern vernacular pronunciation she maintained as a French woman, but quickly recovered from the illogic of the situation and asked her, "And what if someone takes you in, what does that make you?"
"No one really takes you in. The name they give you is who you be the rest of your life. If they call you refugee, you'll sit like a heap of dust till they find some other way to make you less human than you already is. Christ was just another DP. Muhammad, and Moses too. We seen them come and we seen them go."
And it hit me. Flannery O'Connor was now mutant. Dialect free of persona. My ears could not guide her inflections to a proverbial tone, so I persisted, "What about the Buddhas, Sufis, and others? The saints?"
"At best, they exiles. Their papa and mama was D.P's at one time or another"
I've heard that before.
"You see, it's the people that run away from where they come from that most people got no use for."
"But that is not the case anymore, Flan. There is humanitarian aid now, civil rights, peace accords, global village, you name it."
She said nothing and walked off. As if I had surprised her with new knowledge.
The next time I saw her, it was a few weeks later, she was leaning over a beautiful boy going blind in his right eye from Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. The boy's mother spoke neither French nor English, so I translated: "Flan, the mother says her boy loves you very much, and she is willing for you to take him back to your country, give him a good education and then send him back to her when he is older . . . with future."
This time, Flannery burst into tears and shouted at me: "You ain't got no eyes to see, do ya? Do you know what it means to love? Who will remain whole? Who?"
I haven't seen her since.
In paradise hospital beds
Are under ageless
Mahogany and Sycamore,
Bearing every kind of fruit.
Hot meals are autumn leaves,
Branches are waitress arms,
And also poles for drips.
And birds drop the pills
Into your mouth
From bills of
For Aspirin the swallow,
For Benadryl the nightingale.
No harm befalls you.
The roots will sense your ailment.
And where there's a latrine
A perfume tree
Will grow, a dappled zephyr
Full of return.
Before the massacres, few foreigners made it out here. Only the real naturalists among them. The jabal is a dormant volcano. Its name means stone-thrower . The word for it has also become an abstraction, like Chatahootchee, for example, not many know how to explain it to foreigners. Only if you had worked as translator or tour-guide for the exotic other, the khawajah , could you muster this linguistic riddle. The path up is lunar. The lake in the crater is mythic. There used to be so much water flowing down, there were elephant pools, alligator streams, all desiccant names now.
I was no different. I was also a dried out abstraction in the desert. I had no name. The children called me, khawajah, khawajah , as they do to everyone else whose skin is not a shade of red, green or blue. They shouted at me as if I were a price in an auction where no sale takes place yet the bidding goes on. Khawajah ! while I walked. Khawajah ! while I ran Nike in their dust. From what? They would ask me and snicker. From what are you running, khawajah ? I was displaced into poem.
Still, my retreat, my solace, was often in nature. Stone-thrower mountain is a place for feathered migration. All sorts of wading birds with long bills would arrive in the middle of July, when the brief, violent rainy season bewilders the desert into lushness, as if it had never been jaundiced. Some birds you know and some are look-alikes. Herons, egrets, ibis and where would you find an ornithology book? The desert falls and temperatures drop. A chill metamorphosis. As one emaciated woman put it when I asked her what color her diarrhea was: "Green. Green like autumn," she said.
Was there genocide? There was genocide! Was there genocide?
This is the age of calculating our crimes against the criteria of words. Semantics. Take ethnic cleansing, for example. Or, as my medical mentor, a septuagenarian Jewish man from Waco, Texas, might say to similar linguistic precision often uttered in medical practice: Which detergent do you use?
did you grow your cluster bomb in? And your
Depleted geranium, your thistle
Spray by the emerald sea,
Of time in myelin, sheathed
Ceremonial dagger, a name
Like any other name but yours.
At the free OPD (outpatient department), I found a huge gathering of patients who suffer from what the French call bobologie , a phonetic neologism from the primal sound adults make to their children when they suffer a bobo injury that requires a kiss, a rub, or vitamin C. I have arrived after all the heaps of the dead have been buried, and all that remains is the terror of living. I was one more step removed from darkness. Now is pill-carnival time. Post-tragedy compassion. Confetti of capsules and injections. Modern medicine as Pez dispenser. A revolution for every customer. A Lazaraus of science.
Of course, the trauma of the people is not to be diminished, measured, or sensationalized. And it remains a seductive reflex to engage in narrative, and elevate the psychologic, or psychiatric, into yet another metaphor. The gap that exists between humanitarian aid organizations (an occidental phenomenon — being the provider of modernity and science) and the populations they serve is paradoxical and enormous. What one encounters while on "mission" often transforms humanitarian aid agencies into the church of neo-colonialism. And how long does one stop to take this fashionable polemic into mind while the dead are floating around? There is always enough time, it seems, an intermission, when the dead are in between acts.
He came, the humanitarian man, and
In the solitude of giving, he befriended
A stray dog as mirror.
Everyday after the long arduous hours
Of the humane, he would come home
To be consoled: the dog
Waiting inside the door,
Wagging and panting, in a rave.
He named him
Something foreign to the population
So as not to offend anyone.
He trained him
To sit on the cheap sofa
One finds in places of conscious exile.
And the dog got to know the front seat of the car,
His tongue licking the refugee oxygen, hair
Blowing, children cheering barefoot.
Then time was a leaving. Time
To make him part of his family
Of dogs back home, but the cruel
Government of the wretched refused.
There was no identity card.
And no mirror inside the mirror
Could console the dog, slumped by the door
In hunger strike until he died.
He came, the humanitarian man,
He came and loved, and then he went.
Much in today's poetry straps itself to the socio-psychologic, inward turning, "I" in privation, under democratic excess. Paradoxically, this heterogeneity, this balkanization of the "I," does not safeguard against homogeneity necessarily. It often slips into a voice box of empire. The self as nation. Aesthetic as talk show screen. A jazzy sketch of sovereignty. Commodity and clone. Shiftless pronoun. A way of life.
True, there's never been a poet who could affect the political climate, or we would have left art to enter history, the mother of all propaganda. Art history, for example, qualifies as such on occasion. A canon firing east or west of the pen, in the name of the place. To write the political is not necessarily to proselytize or to write history. But not to consider the political brings poetry down to aloofness, a pretension of higher morality. The political in poetry today is not faint as much as it is deflected. This repelled presence is often the writer's apprehensive, indoctrinated stance against the "use" of art, opting instead for the subjective as aesthetic, for hermetic humility. And dialogue stagnates into automated, knee-jerk algorithms.
It is not only a matter of how much, but also how our art is a possession of empire. And how is freedom of speech, in American poetry, manipulated under the rule of art, let alone the rule of democratic hegemony? Poetry is a product of its place, of the speech of that place. So what is the name of the place? Is it the global village, an evolutionary step from Marlowe's (Conrad's) childhood love of maps, or is it the ostrich head of the "I," neither, a combination thereof, with or without other intermediate choices on the wild swing of the pendulum?
I used to follow the description of the place. Here
are excess trees, and here is an incomplete moon.
And as in poems, grass sprouts
over an aching stone. It is not a dream
nor is it a symbol that leads to a national bird,
it is a cloud that has ripened . . .
Then I wondered: how does place become
a reflection of its image in myth,
or an adjective of speech?
And is a thing's image stronger
than the thing itself?
If it weren't for my imagination
my other self would have told me:
you are not here!
And I wondered: had the camera and the media
been witnesses above the walls of Asian Troy,
would Homer have written other than the Odyssey?
I walk, I introduce myself to itself:
you, O self, are one of the adjectives of the place.
The marginality of humanitarian aid, as relief or as neo-nobility, parallels that of poetry. Humanitarian aid measures its interventional impulse on the number of the dead. An afterthought of variable insightful slowness. Impartiality is its charter. And sometimes, when death is not the worst thing that can happen to you, it is the number of the living dead that determines intercession. It is part science (part statistic), part aesthetic.
And like humanitarian relief (and science), poetry often revels in its myth of independence from the communal theatre of the political, and ends up parroting the illusory separation between self and state. How does poetry heed forty million displaced persons in this world while struggling with Roman choices at home in the "I."
Perhaps poetry aims at the prehistoric in us. That which began before consciousness, and will be there when we end. On the interface of the neocrotex and the ancient, reptilian part of our brain. Love, or something like it. And if our brains are still subject to evolution, it is likely that the new mind will find a new host. For now, we are who we have been. Which is much larger than the "I" witness news.
This is Elizabeth Bishop, reporting from paradise:
I have set my small jaws for the ages
and nothing can distract me from
solving the appointed emergencies
even with my small brain.
Fady Joudah is a physician of Internal medicine, and has been a field member of Doctors Without Borders since 2001. His poetry has appeared (or will) in the Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Bellingham Review, and Crab Orchard, among many. His translation of Mahmoud Darwish's most recent poetry, The Butterfly's Burden, is forthcoming form Copper Canyon Press in the fall of 2006. He spent two six-month missions— the first in Zambia (2002) and most recently in Darfur-Sudan (2005).