Monday, February 29, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 20: The Original Recipe from the Abbasid + Delights from the Garden of Eden by Nawal Nasrallah

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 20: The Original Recipe from the Abbasid + Delights from the Garden of Eden by Nawal Nasrallah

The prophet sent him the message:
“Go and wash seven times in the Jordan,
and your flesh will heal, and you will be clean.”
--2 Kings

Happy Leap Day! We’re heading back to the Recipe poem from yesterday, and to share also the text that was its original inspiration, which comes from Nawal Nasrallah’s Delights from the Garden of Eden. Although Lent is a fast time, Nawal’s work reminds us of the centrality of food as nurturing, as healing (like the waters of Jordan), as care for the soul. She even wrote a post on her blog about Lenten dishes in the Middle East! See here:

Amy and I have been honored to eat at her table (the subject of tomorrow’s post). One simple thing you can do for an Iraqi today is buy her amazing cookbook! It can also be purchased here at iTunes:

Recipe from the Abbasid
Skin & clean a fat, young sheep & open it
like a door, a port city hosting overseas guests

& remove its stomach. In its interior, place
surveyors in exploratory khaki, a stuffed goose

& in the goose’s belly, a stuffed hen, & in the hen,
machine gun nests, C rations, grenades, a stuffed

pigeon, & in the pigeon’s belly, a stuffed thrush,
& in the thrush’s belly, contractual negotiations

& subtle threats, all sprinkled with sauce. Sew the slit
into a smile, dispatch handshakes. Add Chevron,

Exxon, Texaco, Shell. Place the sheep in the oven
& leave until this black slimy stuff, excretion

of the earth’s body, is crispy on the outside
& ready for presentation.

“Recipes not for the Faint of Heart” by Nawal Nasrallah (reprinted from Delights from the Garden of Eden)

Here is a recipe of a royal dish, which I found in 13th-century anonymous cookbook Anwa’ al-Saydala fi Alwan al-At’ima (A Compendium of Dishes and their Health Benefits) of Muslim Spain, which was greatly influenced by the haute cuisine of Baghdad during the Abbasid period. The recipe gives directions on how to prepare a stuffed calf.

Take a fat young male sheep, skin and clean it, then make a small opening between the thighs, and carefully empty the cavity. Next, insert a grilled goose, and stuff the goose with grilled chicken. Inside the chicken, put a young pigeon, in the pigeon's belly put a grilled starling (zurzour), and inside the starling put a grilled or fried sparrow (‘usfour). So all these you put inside each other, all grilled and basted with the sauce [mix of murri ‘fermented sauce,’ olive oil, and thyme].
Now sew closed the stuffed sheep, and roast it in a preheated tannour oven until browned. Baste it with the above mentioned sauce, and stuff it in the cavity of a cleaned and prepared calf. Sew closed the calf, and let it roast in a preheated tannour oven until browned. Take it out and serve it. Intaha (that’s it).

If you think that the medieval gourmets with their cooks went a bit too wild, then listen to this: It seems that the trend of stuffing poultry with poultry is the latest gourmet fad in the United States of nowadays. The dish is called "Turducken." It is a Thanksgiving turkey stuffed with a duck, which in turn is stuffed with a stuffed chicken. The trend came from the south where there is a long tradition of stuffing a bird with a bird. What brought this to the attention of people was a Wall Street Journal article in 1996 just before Thanksgiving, featuring a company that prepares turduckens. Immediately after that, we are told, the company received 10,000 orders a day, and the company sold 25,000 turduckens for Thanksgiving. Devotees think its taste just blows your mind, skeptics think the idea is disgusting, and paranoids think it is a bacterial contamination nightmare. What do you think?    

“The Pied Piper” Summoned by Nawal Nasrallah

We all rushed at the Pied Piper summons,
Promising a feast like no other.
A roasted lamb, falling off the bones,
Mightily stuffed with goose, a hen, a pigeon, and a thrush,
Succulent with dripping sauces.
You shall be intrigued, he promised.
The crowds, the confusion, the deafening drums, we all descended,
whether we believed in it or not. The path was steep.
What is this stench? That “black slimy stuff?”
He said that’s the earth’s body, friends, “crispy on the outside, and ready” to eat.
That’s your feast. Dig in!
And the feast, dear fellows, was shoved down our throats that day.
In zero health.

How times have changed.
Wasn’t it like a thousand years or so ago,
When the Pied Piper summoned us back then
Promising a feast like no other?
You shall be intrigued, he promised.
There awaits you guys, including ye party crashers,
The stuffed, the hidden, the buried, the shrouded, the suffocated, you name it.
And we followed, clamoring with the music of drums and tambourines.
There were those though who stayed behind, for they were suspicious of names.
But we who made it there, were indeed intrigued,
The stuffed eggplants, misleading the eaters with their perfect shape,
As if nothing has been done to them,
The meatballs with egg yolks hidden inside,
The stuffed zucchini buried in sweet and sour sauce,
The pastry rolls shrouded in sheets of dough,
The kunafa noodles suffocated with syrup,
And the crown jewel of all stuffed dishes, a grilled lamb in a roasted calf hidden.
Inside the sheep, a goose stuffed with a grilled chicken,
Inside the chicken, a pigeon, with a starling stuffed,
Inside which a sparrow hidden.
All oozing with succulent delight.
And coxed by the Abbasid epicure al-Baghdadi’s sermon on the pleasures of food,
We did indeed enjoy the feast in two healths, back then,
How times have changed.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 19: “Recipe from the Abbasid”: Palimpsests of God + Layla Azmi Goushey & Sarah Browning

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 19
“Recipe from the Abbasid”: Palimpsests of God + Layla Azmi Goushey & Sarah Browning

Of course I have no idea who God is. In the Scripture today, the first reading is from the opening of Exodus, when Moses, tending the flock, came to Horeb, and he walks by a burning bush (“the bush, though on fire, was not consumed”). This bush begins speaking to him in the voice of God. Is God. Is “I am who am.” Is Is.

Somewhere I’ve read from Kazim Ali, on translations of Allah in Islam, and from Alicia Ostriker, on the Jewish and Christian traditions, that there is a God beneath the God we have conceived. (Kazim’s Fasting at Ramadan, of course, is partly an inspiration to this project. شكرا). All our human knowing of God (and world!) is incomplete, fragmentary, myopic, dangerously partial (in both senses of the word).

Ostriker: “But I do know that when women’s spiritual insights contribute as much as men’s have done until now, to what we think God is, or the soul, or good and evil, all these things will be different. The being we call God the Father swallowed God the Mother in pre-history. But like the grandmother that the wolf swallows in Little Red Riding Hood, the Goddess is not dead. She’s still there in the belly of the beast. It’s time for her to be re-born, and we can all be midwives.”

How can we midwife a new sense of the divine, when we can’t even understand and embrace the layers of Iraq, or ourselves, for that matter? I’m thinking of these layers today, partly because of the poem I’m posting, “Recipe from the Abbasid,” which concerns an ancient recipe dating from the 13th century (the source will be revealed tomorrow), creates a palimpsest between the 13th and the 20th centuries, two eras of empires in Iraq, two of many eras—Iraq being not just a benighted country riven by civil war, nor just a site of imperial longing, but a place that is the cradle of civilization, host of thousands and thousands of years of human history. I recall reading with delight many years ago Samuel Noah Kramer’s History Begins at Sumer (1956), which is doubtlessly flawed but eye-opening in many ways.

Today, alongside “Recipe from the Abbasid,” is Layla Azmi Goushey’s reflection on it and Munif’s classic Cities of Salt, and Sarah Browning’s poem “Gas.” Many layers to dig through!

Recipe from the Abbasid
Skin & clean a fat, young sheep & open it
like a door, a port city hosting overseas guests

& remove its stomach. In its interior, place
surveyors in exploratory khaki, a stuffed goose

& in the goose’s belly, a stuffed hen, & in the hen,
machine gun nests, C rations, grenades, a stuffed

pigeon, & in the pigeon’s belly, a stuffed thrush,
& in the thrush’s belly, contractual negotiations

& subtle threats, all sprinkled with sauce. Sew the slit
into a smile, dispatch handshakes. Add Chevron,

Exxon, Texaco, Shell. Place the sheep in the oven
& leave until this black slimy stuff, excretion

of the earth’s body, is crispy on the outside
& ready for presentation.

“‘Recipe for the Abbasid’ and Cities of Salt: Collective Memories” by Layla Azmi-Goushey

Compassion can be exorcised for the price of a Gulf starling. Nets are cast across shorn winter fields to catch the oil-black iridescent birds speckled with white dots. The nets are lifted, and, like the bedouins in Cities of Salt, the zarzour's migration is interrupted. They are placed in cages for passersby to purchase for merciful release or they come with a Recipe to gut open like a door to roast and consume their dignity and strength.

In Munif’s Cities of Salt, the Emir tells workers in Metres’s new port city hosting overseas guests to kill a camel and several sheep to welcome the Americans. The head of the camel is placed in front of the American chief and the heads of the sheep are placed before the other American guests. The heads’ sincere humble smiles face the surveyors in exploratory khaki. The Emir’s sacrifice a sad parody of Eid al-Adha; Ibrahim’s sacrifice to a merciful God.

In truth, not much changed between the Abbasid and Aramco dynasties. Our collective unconscious travels along slow genetic DNA trails. Golden ages are defined by the victors. Suture this generous wound; roast this humble beast emitting a petroleum blood-pudding butter. Carboniferous residue denying mercy to the sweet-songed bulbul thrush; the pigeon a victim of Munif’s Emir’s falcon... a stuffed goose & in the goose’s belly, a stuffed hen, & in the hen… a stuffed pigeon, & in the pigeon’s belly, a stuffed thrush, & in the thrush’s belly… layers of cooked ambitions and manipulations black layer of machine gun nests, C rations, grenades… contractual negotiations & subtle threats. Great glass cities of salt that will melt back into the sands of Wadi Ibrahim. Opportunities for occasional mercy imprisoned in the belly of treacherous sacrifice. The recipe and the ingredients never change.

Layla Azmi Goushey is a Palestinian-American writer and educator based in Saint Louis, MO. Assistant Professor of English at St. Louis Community College, she holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and a Certificate in the Teaching of Writing from the University of Missouri - St. Louis where she is pursuing a PhD in Adult Education. Goushey's work has been published in journals such as “Yellow Medicine Review”, “Mizna: Journal of Prose, Poetry and Art Exploring Arab America”, and “Natural Bridge”. She writes a blog titled Transnational Literacies at Follow her on Twitter @lgoushey.

“Gas” by Sarah Browning

After the great snow of 2016, my car sits
locked in icy drifts a week, green fossil
of the oil age preserved in graying amber.

I relearn the art of walking, of reading
pocket paperbacks on the bus, which uses
this same stuff, this gas, to bear us through

the snow-narrowed streets of Washington, DC –
Capital of Exxon, Capital City of Shell;
still we are two dozen here driving one tank.

Once the rains come and the weather gang
shakes their collective heads as the mercury
rises to 60 degrees, my car is free to roam again

the Precincts of BP, the Republic of Sunoco.
I’ll drive my car to the climate change rally.
I’ll drive it to the poetry reading that protests

war in Iraq, that denounces repression in Syria,
that stands in solidarity with poets locked up
in Saudi Arabia. My car gives me that much

freedom and power, plus music to soothe me
and a phone charger to keep me connected
to my comrades in struggle. My car glides

smoothly in and out of gear, builds my self-
esteem as I parallel park perfectly each day
in tight spots on the hill where we dwell.

The weather scares me. The wars enrage me.
The poets, silenced by the despots, break my heart.
But my car needs me. My car is nothing

without me. My car and I are one. I pledged
my allegiance long ago – an American century
ago – to my beautiful, necessary, beloved car.

--Sarah Browning is co-founder and Executive Director of Split This Rock. She is an Associate Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and a featured writer for Other Words. Author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007), now in its second printing, and coeditor of D.C. Poets Against the War: An Anthology (Argonne House Press, 2004), she is the recipient of artist fellowships from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, a Creative Communities Initiative grant, and the People Before Profits Poetry Prize. In March, 2014 Browning co-edited a special Split This Rock issue of POETRY Magazine with Don Share. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Sand Opera Journey Day 18: Woman Mourning Son, + Solmaz Sharif's "Look" and the Problem of Drone Warfare

Sand Opera Journey Day 18

Today, I read the Gospel of Luke story of what used to be called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” and then came to be called “The Parable of the Forgiving Father,” trying to figure out what it might tell me about “Woman Mourning Son” (from Sand Opera) and Solmaz Sharif’s “Look” (from her forthcoming book LOOK)—two poems dealing with the suddenness and surreality of drone warfare and targeted assassination of suspected terrorists.  

In part, Jesus’s parable concerns a child who stubbornly instrumentalizes his father by taking his share of the inheritance and blowing it “in dissipation.” When the proverbial pig poop hits the fan and he’s literally working with swine (something that would have been seen as forbidden and shameful in every way), he decides to return to his father and confess his sin—even to the point of preparing what he’ll say in advance. The son comes home, perhaps, because he has no other choice. The father, unexpectedly, meets him halfway to the house with arms extended in welcome and forgiveness. “His father caught sight of him and was filled with compassion.”

I had a dream last night in which I realized that I was seeing everyone as merely spectral. I wasn’t able to see them fully, wholly, bodily, spiritually. Maybe the connection is this: the question that the drone operators in the documentary “Unmanned” inevitably ask themselves is: how could I have seen this other person as merely a target, when I spent so long tracking them in their daily life, seeing that they are as human as I am? At what point did I lose my own humanity, failing to see the other as human, executing him? Their question is ours as well.

“Woman Mourning Son”      by Philip Metres

Najaf, Iraq 

I pull up the blinds, they screech in retreat,
mad grackles beaking for space on the lawn.
I flip open the news and she flutters out,
trailing the blot of her shadow. I yawn,

her mouth yawns and yawns. Like wings, her chador
unfurls over a bare, bleached street. She looks
almost like she’s flying, one leg cut off
by the photo. The shape of her shadow’s

an F-16, the flat plane of her hand
the jet nose, the other hand a missile
tucked so gently beneath the wing. And now
the blot of that shadow’s a flailing bat,

a ragged flag—this black-clad woman’s hands
open and skyward, as if she wants to vault
the blot of this shadow. From above, it looks
just like whirling, a waltz with no one

but chadors and shadows. Now she’s lost
her face in the ink. The road is a white
sheet. Somewhere someone’s hands danced
over a keyboard to deliver the ordnance. 

Look               By Solmaz Sharif

It matters what you call a thing: Exquisite a lover called me.

Whereas Well, if I were from your culture, living in this country,
       said the man outside the 2004 Republican National
       Convention, I would put up with that for this country;

Whereas I felt the need to clarify: You would put up with
       TORTURE, you mean and he proclaimed: Yes;

Whereas what is your life;

Whereas years after they LOOK down from their jets
        and declare my mother’s Abadan block PROBABLY
        DESTROYED, we walked by the villas, the faces
        of buildings torn off into dioramas, and recorded it
        on a hand-held camcorder and I said That’s a gun as I
        trained the lens on a rusting GUN-TYPE WEAPON and
        That’s Iraq as I zoomed over the river;

Whereas it could take as long as 16 seconds between
         the trigger pulled in Las Vegas and the Hellfire missile
         landing in Mazar-e-Sharif, after which they will ask
         Did we hit a child? No. A dog. they will answer themselves;

Whereas the federal judge at the sentencing hearing said
         I want to make sure I pronounce the defendant’s name

Whereas this lover would pronounce my name and call me
         Exquisite and LAY the floor lamp across the floor so that
         we would not see each other by DIRECT ILLUMINATION,
         softening even the light;

Whereas the lover made my heat rise, rise so that if heat
         sensors were trained on me, they could read
         my THERMAL SHADOW through the roof and through
         the wardrobe;
Whereas you know we ran into like groups like mass executions.
         w/ hands tied behind their backs. and everybody shot
         in the head side by side. its not like seeing a dead body walking
         to the grocery store here. its not like that. its iraq you know
         its iraq. its kinda like acceptable to see that there and not—it
         was kinda like seeing a dead dog or a dead cat laying—;

Whereas I thought if he would LOOK at my exquisite face
         or my father’s, he would reconsider;
Whereas You mean I should be sent MISSING because of my family
 and he answered Yes. That’s exactly what I mean,
         adding that his wife helped draft the PATRIOT Act;

Whereas the federal judge wanted to be sure he was
         pronouncing the defendant’s name correctly and said he
         had read all the exhibits, which included the letter I
         wrote to cast the defendant in a loving light;
Whereas today we celebrate things like his transfer to a
         detention center closer to home;
Whereas his son has moved across the country;
Whereas I made nothing happen;
Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is 
         your life? It is even a THERMAL SHADOW, it appears
         so little, and then vanishes from the screen;

Whereas I cannot control my own heat and it can take
         as long as 16 seconds between the trigger, the Hellfire
         missile, and A dog, they will answer themselves;
Whereas A dog, they will say: Now, therefore,

Let it matter what we call a thing.
Let it be the exquisite face for at least 16 seconds.
Let me LOOK at you.
Let me look at you in a light that takes years to get here.
(“Look” originally appeared in PEN America)

Born in Istanbul to Iranian parents, Solmaz Sharif holds degrees from U.C. Berkeley, where she studied and taught with June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, and New York University. Her work has appeared in The New Republic, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, jubilat, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, Witness, and others. The former managing director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, her work has been recognized with a “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize, scholarships from NYU and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a winter fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, an NEA fellowship, and a Stegner Fellowship. She has most recently been selected to receive a 2014 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award as well as a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship. She is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. Her first poetry collection, LOOK, will be published by Graywolf Press in 2016.

Other drone-related poems:
“Drone” by Solmaz Sharif
“Bad Intelligence” by Corey Van Landingham
“A Poem for President Drone” by Michael Robbins

Friday, February 26, 2016

Sand Opera Journey Day 17: The final page of the arias & a call to action (end prolonged solitary confinement (+ Danny Caine & Marwa Helal)

Sand Opera Journey Day 17: The final page of the arias & a call to action (end prolonged solitary confinement (+ Danny Caine & Marwa Helal)

So Joseph went after his brothers and caught up with them in Dothan.
They noticed him from a distance,
and before he came up to them, they plotted to kill him.
They said to one another: “Here comes that master dreamer!
Come on, let us kill him and throw him into one of the cisterns here;
we could say that a wild beast devoured him.
We shall then see what comes of his dreams.”

Today is the final installment of the “abu ghraib arias” from Sand Opera. I’m so happy that I can leave the prison behind, tuck it back into the book and into some corner of my brain. I’m grateful that I can do that, and not wake up to it, the way the men remaining in Guantanamo still do, the way prisoners all over the world wake up to it, as if waking up at the bottom of a well.

I’m thinking about Joseph, the favored son, the master dreamer whose special status enraged his brothers. How they first decided to kill him, then to throw him in a well, and finally to sell him. Be careful of the dreamers, the brothers want to tell us, they are dangerous. They think they are better than us.

Thanks to Josie Setzler for the reminder about this: If you’re interested, sign the petition against prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons here:

Here in Cleveland, it’s snowing outside, thick flakes like white punctuation. Bringing silence.

Audio of the full arias:

“Final page of ‘abu ghraib arias’” by Danny Caine

In February 2013, I joined Philip Metres, fellow poet Paige Webb, and pianist Philip Fournier for a performance of Abu Ghraib Arias in its entirety at John Carroll University in Cleveland. The plan was to split the poetic voices between us. The readers would speak their parts simultaneously, creating an overlapping vocal tapestry (and occasionally cacophony). Paige was the voice of God. I was The Redactor—every time a bit of text was blacked over, I was to shout CLASSIFIED.

It was a claustrophobic and difficult reading experience, and I’m sure it was so for the audience as well. This is a good thing. The tragic subject matter of the Arias is difficult to read, but I think it’s even harder to hear those voices—all of them found and sampled, original words as spoken by those involved. What better way to confront the errors and sins of our military, the pain of their victims, and the motivations of the perpetrators than to hear them spoken out loud in the words of those who were there?

As soon as we figured out the timing, things went smoothly. That is, until we got to the last page. How would we tackle the open field of punctuation? The last poem in arias is, memorably, composed entirely of space and commas, white page and periods. It’s a devastating final note for the sequence; it’s the ultimate erasure—all voices have been eliminated, whether Iraqi or American. The last page of arias is the ultimate triumph of The Redactor.

In this way, the poem works really well on the page. Yet how could we translate it to the environment of out-loud reading? Phil had the idea to simply breathe loudly, all four of us, at different tempos. The effect was pretty staggering. Imagine: at the end of a four-person poetry reading, nearing the part where the audience is supposed to clap, all four readers look right at the crowd and simply breathe, loud enough to be heard.

It created an air of unease in the room that suited abu ghraib arias’s subject matter. The piece gives voice to both victims and perpetrators, daring us to search for sympathy for the torturers as well as the tortured. We hear Lane McCotter, Javal Davis, and Lynddie England in their own words, and reading them is as difficult as reading the depictions of violence and torture. Of all the urges one feels reading abu ghraib arias, the urge to applaud is distant. A triumphant ovation and bow from the performers would be a strangely celebratory way to end a reading of such difficult content. The audience did end up clapping, of course. But first: we stared at them and breathed. The room filled with tension. We were there not only to give voice, but to give breath.

Danny Caine’s poems have appeared in Hobart, Mid-American Review, Midwestern Gothic, New Ohio Review, and other places. He is author of the Dispatches from the Factory of Sadness sports poetry column for Atticus Review's More than Sports Talk. He hails from Cleveland and lives in Lawrence, Kansas where he works at the Raven Bookstore and co-edits Beecher's Magazine

Final page of “abu ghraib arias” by Marwa Helal


this silent crescendo a warped series of starts and stops like breath abrupt gulps of constellations somewhere on the other side of these words are heart chambers where they are gasping clenching clutching for air just air as we stare all we do is stare and stars stare back with eyes inverted as nout exits day exits night exits day have you seen ancient temples where confusion transforms into clarity doubts knowing feeling drawing shapes from punctuated forgetting diffusion is a healing through the slippery osmosis count sheets of music on music of music and wash their atomic weight wait i remember the pythagorean theorem is good for shortcuts so move to the next mark a reminder of how intelligent we are so intelligent it is frightening us not knowing how we know what we know that we know what theyre thinking and it paranoias us as verb is reaction on their faces these familiar faces in the punctuation of all things left unsaid there are bodies punctuated punctured souls in the punctuation tell me what is seeing without light country without military without america a guantanamo build a new relationship with cuba to the tune of gil scott-heron rapping about a new route to china what is vitality if a life is forced between brackets an ending of lyric so quote your ability to forget and contract a concentration connecting you thought id say camp to remind you of our humanity to compare this to holocaust put a halo on because we are holograms the holograrabs of abu ghrairabs at this point you should be concentrating like juice in a box flipping pages so grab a colon while youre at it a colon a colon separates thought there is always separation c r e a t i n g distance in d i s t a n c e there is leaving and in leaving there is change reflecting the function of punctuation connecting and separating indicating the signs youve been looking for in what has not yet been written so save it while you listen to the ones who need saving do you hear them they are a symphony arriving and you are singing in this chorus of complicit a choir not of church nor of ameen in collective prayer not of scratchy microphones at dawn or of the silence before we break fast it is their chorus when i can see music in a constellation that is your name is an aria so please join in this recitative and dont let go

Marwa Helal's poetry has appeared in Day One and The Offing. Her other writing has been published in Poets & Writers, the American Book ReviewEntropy Magazine, and elsewhere. More at: or @marwahelal

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 16: The Blues of Joe Darby + Roy Scranton

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 16

Jesus said to the Pharisees:
“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen
and dined sumptuously each day.
And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps
that fell from the rich man’s table.
Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.
When the poor man died,
he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried,
and from the netherworld, where he was in torment,
he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off
and Lazarus at his side.
And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me.
Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,
for I am suffering torment in these flames.’
Abraham replied, ‘My child,
remember that you received what was good during your lifetime
while Lazarus likewise received what was bad;
but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.
Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing
who might wish to go from our side to yours
or from your side to ours.’…”
--Luke 16

The Blues of Joe Darby

I laughed at first I did
not know what I was looking at
a bunch of bodies bending over
a pyramid of tumbling

They call me bulls-eye they call me traitor

the pictures were taken
the pictures I gave them
now they are everywhere and I
can’t go home again

They call me walking dead call me waking night

I dream they stand on naked
boxes again they back on each other’s
backs again they bloody mouth from flinch
of dogs they hands on sandbagged heads

call me talking dead call me waking eye

I gun to sleep again I closet night
no sleep but I would give them up again
I close exposed I wake and listen
I would give them up again

Amiri Baraka once wrote: “Luxury, then, is a way of/ being ignorant, comfortably.” Yet privilege does more than damage our vision; it starves the heart. In today’s scripture, in the biblical parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man’s flaw is not merely being unable to see Lazarus in pain right outside his gate; after his death, when the rich man looks up from Hades, he clearly recognizes Lazarus next to Abraham in heaven and begs Abraham to ask Lazarus for a bit of water to cool his torment. The rich man knows Lazarus by name but even in hell does not see fit to address him directly.

Friends, if you have been reading along with this blog, I want to thank you doubly. First, for participating in this journey, and second, for being open enough to confront things that one would rather not. In an Israeli story I taught today, “Hayuta’s Engagement Party,” a Holocaust survivor is asked by his daughter and granddaughter to not embarrass the family at the engagement party by launching into another of his monologues about life in the camps. We talked in class about the embarrassing difficulty of being “Grandpa Mendels,” people who are compelled to tell a difficult story, if only to lessen their own burden. No one wants to be this person, dragging down the collective mood, by reminding us of what is outside our bubble. I’m extremely aware of how imbalanced this whole project might seem at this point; I was surprised when I met someone who presumed that I would be an angry person because of Sand Opera. (On the contrary, I’m easy-going in actual life, which surprised my acquaintance.) Joe Darby, one of the heroes of the "abu ghraib arias," told the truth about what was happening in the prison and reported it to a military investigator; but this moment of truth-telling also branded him an outsider among his fellow military personnel, and made him extremely vulnerable. Some have accused Darby of being a traitor, and threatened his life. Read more here:

Roy Scranton, a veteran of the Iraq War himself, has himself done some truth-telling. At the end of his piece in Rolling Stone, he writes:

As I sat over my vodka on my last night in Iraq, looking back at my service there and considering what I'd seen and what I'd heard, especially from Iraqis themselves, I realized it didn't matter what we'd intended. What mattered was what we'd done. We'd invaded a sovereign nation on a pretense, fucked up the lives of 30 million people, started a bitter, bloody civil war by pitting one religious sect against another, then left and pretended it had nothing to do with us. We'd helped strengthen fundamentalist religious extremists in the Middle East and put intellectuals, journalists and activists at risk. A few people made a whole bunch of money, and a whole nation was left in shambles. Whether or not breaking Iraq into pieces had been the plan from the beginning, as some evidence suggests, the war had been nothing but a murderous hustle. The politicians who ran the war had shown no higher ideals than robbery and plunder, and I'd been nothing but their thug.

A couple years later, he contributes “Blue Falcon Blues,” a poetic voice piece that situates us back in the confusions of being a soldier, a soldier who betrays his fellow soldiers (a “blue falcon”).  

Blue Falcon Blues (in response to “The Blues of Joe Darby”) by Roy Scranton

One of us plays possum, one of us rode a blog, one of us wrote press releases, one croaked, one went to Rome, one was a real blue falcon. When we do cowboys & indians, you get to pick which poke—Graner, England, Darby—but “fuck me if I’m an injun’.” The important thing, remember, is REDACTED was a Really Bad Dude.

There’s treason and then there’s treason: the important thing is bros before hadjis. The important thing is stick together. The important thing is the military-civilian divide, remind those Mall-of-America pogues they’ll never really understand how complicated it was, what a profound moral burden it was to be cocksmack in a war of choice, illegal invasion, a shameless dumb-show of collective evil, or gross negligence, or wanton stupidity, or fuck it. The important thing is shine your dick all green, keep showing it to people, keep reminding your mom her boy’s a real anus-pop. (Then duck and grin, mutter “aw shucks”).

Joe Darby was a real blue falcon. Joe Darby got Americans killed. It wasn’t the torture, see, per se, because that’s Truly a question of Profound Moral Complexity. The problem was optics. The important thing is you gotta pick slides, and Joe Darby made America sad. The important thing is we gotta stink together.

So they buffalo. But when I stare in the airport, below the mascara it’s Darby. Not Optimus Prime, just a cunty blue falcon, just some gringo whose dick is too small to believe it makes him righteous. America’s a word on a map, see, and the fact is, a shit-ton of brown people died for cheap gasoline, or face, or something even dumber, or nothing. Whatever secrets I had, I’ll tell. Whatever pictures, show. Not because I’m especially good or bad or holy, but just because writing is a word for betrayal.

I’m Darby because I’m England. I’m Darby because I’m Graner. Because I’m Davis. Because I’m McCotter. Because I’m REDACTED. Because I’m REDACTED. Because I’m REDACTED. Because I’m REDACTED. Because I’m REDACTED. Because I’m you.

One of us betrays hisself. One of us betrays his battle. One of us betrays the pen. One of us betrays his sweetpea. One of us betrays the bromance. One of us betrays his race. One of us betrays a nation. One of us betrays us all.

Joe Darby was a real blue falcon.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 15: Muslim Burial (Standard Operating Procedure) + Huda Al-Marashi

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 15

Heed me, O LORD,
and listen to what my adversaries say.
Must good be repaid with evil
that they should dig a pit to take my life?
Remember that I stood before you
to speak in their behalf,
to turn away your wrath from them.
--Jeremiah 18: 18-20

"Muslim Burial (Standard Operating Procedure)"
from Sand Opera:

One of the odder moments in reading Guantanamo Prison S.O.P. manual was discovering a rather elaborate protocol for burying a dead detainee, including a diagram for how the burial should look. It turns out that this rather-elaborate forethought has been necessary. Nine detainees have died while in prison. And seven years after Barack Obama promised to close the prison, it still remains open, thanks to a recalcitrant Congress and political posturing and fear-mongering. Just yesterday, President Obama unveiled a plan to close the prison, saying, “It is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law,” Mr. Obama said. “This is about closing a chapter in our history.” It is not viewed as a stain. It is a stain. The Bush Administration created a prison outside of the jurisdiction of U.S. law in order to do whatever they wanted to do. That is a stain.

While those final detainees continue to rot in prison, Iraqi exiles in the United States are also confronting the fact that many of them may never go back to Iraq. Huda Al-Marashi’s poignant op-ed below describes the experience burying her grandfather in California, keeping the customs but far from her grandfather’s native place.

“After exile, Iraqi immigrants must learn to grieve at a distance” by Huda Al-Marashi, first published in the Los Angeles Times

My uncles wanted to accompany my grandfather's body back to Iraq, but my mother refused. It was 2006, and the insurgency was at its height. “Isn't it enough that I am burying my father?” she said. “Do I have extra brothers to lose?”

We buried my grandfather in the Muslim portion of a sprawling, green-lawned cemetery about an hour from my parents' Monterey home. Because of state regulations, his shrouded body was placed inside a plain wooden box, not directly in the ground as Islamic custom requires.

His children on the East Coast and in Britain came for the funeral. His children in the United Arab Emirates mourned their father in place and held satellite memorials.

Only when I put a loved one in the ground did I feel as if I was putting down roots.

Despite the long drive, we visited my grandfather's grave site regularly, loading up our car with picnic lunches. We'd spread blankets, pray, eat and dote on his grave. Once my mother spilled a bit of coffee onto the dry soil, as if giving her father a sip of his favorite drink, and I marveled at this unexpected thing that had happened: Someone from my household was buried in America, the place that seemed like an accident, the place where my father landed after completing his medical training, the place my mother brought her parents to escape Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

I was born in this country. I was raised in this country. I went to school in this country, own a home in this country and have children in this country. But only when I put a loved one in the ground did I feel as if I was putting down roots.

My mother's sister was among those who didn't attend my grandfather's funeral. But a few weeks before he died, she came to visit from the UAE. When she left, she kissed him in his wheelchair and walked backward to the car, waving and blowing him kisses, only to race back to his side. She did this three more times until we were all standing in the foyer of my mother's house laughing and crying.

Seven months ago, she died of cancer. I didn't see her once while she was in the hospital. I didn't hold her hand. I didn't kiss her goodbye. I have not seen her grave.

I didn't make the trip because I'd recently taken my family of five to attend her son's wedding. It was too much for us all to go again and too difficult for me to go alone and leave my children behind. Such decisions are inevitable when your entire relationship with your extended family hinges on airfare.

When the cancer spread to my aunt's brain, my mother rushed from California to her sister's bedside, where she stayed until she had no choice but to return for work. She cried the whole way back. At the airport, her eyes were red and swollen, her cheeks rubbed raw with tissues.

I found out my aunt was in her final moments when my mother dashed into the hallway with a wild look in her eyes, her cellphone in hand. “She's dying,” she said.

For the next 30 minutes, she watched frantic texts fly back and forth. “Come now!” the caregiver wrote to my aunt's children, who'd not yet arrived at the hospital. The last text came: “No more Madame.” My mother repeated this line again and again and collapsed to the floor.

After my aunt died, I made a list of all the times I'd seen her. She came to California when I moved into my dorm room my second year of college, when I picked out my wedding dress, for my wedding, to meet my first and then second child. I had these stand-alone chapters, 15 of them, to be exact, that I desperately wanted to stitch together into some kind of a story, some semblance of a shared life.

I typed her name into my email search bar. There were six messages from me along with her replies. I printed out every exchange, wondering why I didn't send more, say more. I looked through my old cards and letters and found a note from her from before my wedding that I stuffed into my wallet.

I had not appreciated the particular pain of unanchored, disembodied grief that my aunt must have felt when my grandfather died until she passed away, too.

Now it was our turn to host the satellite memorials. We held two: one for the Iraqi immigrants in Northern California, and one for the Iraqi immigrants in Southern California.

We wept without a body, without a grave site to focus our attention. The women in our community, the ones I grew up calling “aunty,” consoled me, bemoaning the loss of the real aunt with whom I had shared blood but not place or time.

These days I listen to the clamor about refugees, and I think of my grandfather's death and my aunt's death and just how far the grasp of exile extends, how many people it ensnares, how deeply it cuts. I think about the desperation that forces people to accept the vulnerability of living in a foreign land, and I cannot comprehend begrudging another human being such an unenviable lot in life.

The initial exile is just the beginning of generations of heartbreak.

Diaspora means weighing visits against airfare and daily obligations. It means missing out on births, graduations and weddings. It means hearing that a loved one has died and knowing that you spent your short time on Earth in different places.

Huda Al-Marashi is an Iraqi-American at work on a memoir about the impact of her dual-identity on her marriage. Excerpts from this memoir have appeared in the anthologies Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of Muslim American Women, Becoming: What Makes a Woman, In Her Place, and Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women and Extreme Religion, a collection that the Washington Post listed among the best nonfiction for 2013. Other works have appeared in The Rumpus Funny Women Column and the anthology Rust Belt Chic. Her poem, “TV Terror,” is part of a touring exhibit commemorating the Mutanabbi Street Bombing in Baghdad. She is the recipient of a 2012 Cuyahoga County Creative Workforce Fellowship and a 2015 Aspen Summer Words Emerging Writer Fellowship.