The following is a guest post by Soraya Qahwaji, whose poetry appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse.
At left: A fragment from Lebanon, a painting realized by Nabil Kanso in 1983, expressing the horror of the Lebanese civil war. http://lebanonpainting.com/works.html.
The basement scene depicted in my poem “Beirut, Summer 1982” could have happened at almost any time of the fifteen-year long Lebanese civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990. I chose to situate it during the summer of 1982 as an allusion to the siege and carpet-bombing of Beirut by the Israel Defense Forces. This choice was inspired by an American friend who once told me: “I understand Israel, because the people around Israel are Nazis.”
I was surprised by such a piecemeal statement that demonized and justified the killing of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese, and condoned practices such as occupation, torture and ethnic cleansing. In the Western political narrative, the rhetorical function of comparing a group of people – especially Arabs – to Nazis, is to imply that their lives don’t matter, and that protections granted by international law and human rights conventions should not apply to them. I wasn’t expecting to hear that from my friend, a graduate of a very liberal – and very expensive – college, and a convert to Buddhism who believed in practicing compassion towards all beings and was planning to become a monk in the Thai forest tradition. I decided to take the incident as a testimony to the hold of negative representations of Arabs on the American mind, especially the younger generation.
My friend had just begun elementary school when the twin towers were attacked. He has been exposed to negative depictions of Arabs for all his life, which has conditioned his mind in a way that his Buddhist values and practice has been powerless to remedy. I felt the need for a counter-narrative. Not a counter-narrative that would fall into the trap of tit-for-tat and demonize Israel or its army – neither are mentioned in the poem – but a counter-narrative that would humanize “the people around Israel.” What I hoped to achieve is forcing the humanity of the victims onto those who deny it.
Beirut, Summer 1982 is also my Ars Poetica. Deep down, I am that mother who wants to comfort and entertain her children, at the risk of her own sanity. This, to me, is the essence of poetry: providing spiritual and moral sustenance. One of the most poetic things I’ve recently heard was on a BBC documentary on Chinese “reeducation camps” for the Uyghur minority in East Turkistan. One Uyghur inmate had written on the bathroom wall: “Oh my heart, don’t break!” The writing itself was not shown on camera, so as not to endanger its author. You could say that the sentence is trite and cliché. The language is unsurprising, the picture, juvenile. But whoever wrote that sentence was trying to remain spiritually, morally and psychologically alive in the face of extreme circumstances. This is poetry.
Soraya Qahwaji is a writer of whom nothing is known. Now let’s look at her essay.
Shukran. I spent some time in Lebanon in 1968, on my way home from Peace Corps service in India. Beirut was the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen in my life. I met nothing but open, generous, wonderful people people there, who treated me with great hospitality and respect. I had, and continue to have, enormous respect them. I have no disrespect for Israel. One of my nephews is a Sabra. There are many bad things happening to a lot of good people in the Middle East. There are people doing bad things but there are also people doing good things: on both sides.