8.12.12

Galateas' Tremens

Deft Pygmalion two statues formed;

each was shaped from the same mold,

and face-to-face he placed them,

face-to-face they stood

one completely veiled

the other completely nude.

Two women of the same umbra they stood

for Pygmalion to stare and fondle- but truth,

seeing one he imagines the other,

naming one whore and the other sister-mother.

Lucky for him, and woe to the women

it was lascivious Aphrodite that enlivened

cold marble and nervous tremens

to warm, comforting make-me-a-man visions,

so hollow shells their bodies became

for bold Pygmalion to appropriate again and again.

But silly me, I can't help but wonder

if instead of Aphrodite, Athena had taken over

would we still be subject to Pygmalion's lustful blunders?

Would still we be confined to porchsteps and pedestals

and left to find for ourselves the appropriate answers:

Secluded in clothes or exposed to the world,

what does it matter

if it's only a shell that's valued,

leaving us wrapping around an empty interior

and staring, jealously, at each other's figures?

My See-Saw Swing Hero

Malak got off the Oakland Bart at the MacArthur stop, eyes nervously scanning the jostling stream of people as she awkwardly shouldered her booksack and shoved the book she had been reading under her armpit. The words "Ella Shohat" were just visible peeking out from the pale folds of her arm, and she seemed to shrink into herself as the people exiting the station sandwiched her inbetween each other in their blind rush towards the turnstiles. As she plucked the transfer sticking out of the turnstile's slot like a strange blue-and-white tongue, the brilliant midafternoon sunlight slapped her in the face like an unwanted memory. A memory....

Malak blinked, and the chiaroscuro pattern of dazzling sunlight against deep cold shadows from the overhead tracks suddenly seemed painfully familiar in a different way. A pressure in her head grew, expanding against the limits of her skull, then popped. For a second she was on a South Tel Aviv street in the middle of the day, the chiaroscuro pattern now one of dazzling white sunlight and the charred black of a scorched bus, the vague faint echoes of the explosion still echoing back to her with the shuffle of feet and people around her warped and panicked and- was this the MacArthur Bart station bus stop she was standing in front of or a memory?

Malak blinked again, and the man setting up sticks of incense around the perimeter of the bus stop to display his wares looked at her in suspicion and curiosity. Folding into herself again she shifted the book to underneath her other arm, shouldered her bag again, and began walking the ten blocks down to Oasis.

Oasis was a large grocer-cum-restaurant-cum-all-your-needs Middle Eastern store sandwiched between corner shops sporting Amharic, English, and Arabic signs that excitedly proclaimed the newest international calling rates for this or that company and religious programs for the area. Malak passed in front of the middle-aged Oakland-accented dark-skinned man sporting a kufi and a thaub selling incense, zikr beads, Qurans, and rugs in front of the store's open-air vegetable section and slid past the plump cinnamon Ethiopian hostess into the cafe portion with an anxious nod. She mentally chose a secluded round corner seat near the door hidden from most views, praying to herself that nobody took it as she walked across to the sweets counter to buy a mint tea. Her English came out sounding lilting and staccato to her own ears as she ordered and thanked the man. The American accent she had picked up since she moved to the States at the age of twelve seemed to be now just as confused as she was, halting and uncertain in who or how it should be since she had started engaging herself more with translating Hebrew texts for the nonprofit she worked for. It was almost as if her English had reverted back to how she felt wandering the New York subways as a little girl, struggling to find her sister and mother and to understand this place with its strange people and weird signs. But even her Hebrew came out confused and oddly accented, unsure of whether to present itself as an acquired language sanitized of those trilling 'r's of the largely Arab neighborhood her family was from, or to come out as the language she grew up with, the language that she still heard her mother and grandmother speaking in. Arabic and Hebrew- one she had to learn later in college against vague recollections of snippets and simple phrases learned at her grandmother's feet; and the other she had to struggle to re-remember in its literary form, wrestling with shame over place, accent, and heritage each time she attempted to speak or write it. Malak grabbed a few sprigs of fresh mint and crushed them into her tea, stirring them around with a couple cubes of sugar as she returned to her- thankfully still vacant- chosen spot.

She arranged her papers, laptop, Hebrew-English dictionary, and books around her in an orderly disorderly mess, took a sip of tea to settle herself, and typed in her password. Haaretz, Al Jazeera English (and to cross-examine while working on improving her Arabic, Al Jazeera), Counterpunch, Jewish Voice for Peace, Amnesty International, Electronic Intifada, American Muslims for Palestine, Huffington Post, Jadaliyya, Color Lines, Facebook, Gmail, and various blogs and forums in Hebrew and English all popped up one after the other on her screen as she habitually opened each link in a ritual that had become part of her hourly routine. She scanned through the pages, skimming over Facebook, deleting messages written in awkward English that seemed to follow the inevitable plot of "Hello dear young girl my name is [insert name] I am so happy to see your work you do very good things for Arabs and for Palestine I never thought a Jew would do such things- are you free to marry?" or else began with "Dear pigfucker/traitor/anti-Semitic Arab-loving Muslim spy/[insert your own insult here]." A cold nervous spasm shuddered through her as she followed a thread on a Palestinian rights' page where one young man was insisting on the inherently inhuman nature of Israeli Jews, as witnessed by their allowing "fags" in their military- a disgrace to God and to mankind- on top of their animalistic treatment of Palestinians and their lust to wipe out every last Arab Muslim.

Malak forced a sip of tea down a throat that seemed as tight as Gaza's border clearance, gritted her teeth to calm herself and began typing out a well-thought-out and concise response contradicting the man's assertions while still acknowledging certain truths of the Israeli government's stance towards Palestine and Arabs (not forgetting to include that many Jews and Christians were Arab as well, and thus victims of governmental and personal discrimination) and its recent pinkwashing propaganda. Scanning through Haaretz she focused in on certain stories she felt the non-profit would want its constituency to be aware of and looked for English versions to share through Facebook for some of the information contained in the articles. Electronic Intifada hadn't been updated yet, so she moved on, looking up counter information on some of the Israeli media articles. The anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Iraq was coming up, and the news was waving its usual smokescreen fanfare of propaganda about the cruel treatment of Jews while reactionary voices decried the cruel treatment by Jews and each seemed to miss the point that neither was an excuse for the other's existence. Malak pursed her lips and stared at the screen thoughtfully through her glasses, chewing at one fingernail. How to contradict the propaganda without denying or belittling the tragic experience of the Iraqi Jews now living in Israel and being used- for the time being at least- as a scapegoat figurehead for the Zionist politicians defending Israel's existence and being claimed as an overwrought example by the anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian voices decrying Israel's settler colonialism and defending the rights of Palestinians to return and to manage their own land? And let's certainly not forget how this same propaganda is used to cover human rights' abuses against African refugees- even Ethiopian Jews- and foreign workers in Israel, she reminded herself. Malak chewed thoughtfully.

Al Jazeera was on the televisions above the deli. It was a repeat program of a documentary on the survivors of the Armenian genocide. Malak sighed and raised a hand against the building pressure behind her forehead, wearily rubbing her glasses away as well. Vaguely she registered the conversation of a man and woman sitting at a couple tables not far from her as they dug into their vegetarian combo plate of hummus, tabbouleh, falafel, babba ghanoush, tahini, and pickles.

". . .really, I mean, tell me more about mizrahim. I think this is fascinating, especially how the Arabic language- pan-Arabism, really- can be a rallying call for unity. I mean, after all, nationalism does have some positive aspects- it's not all bad."

Malak felt a stab at her identity as acute as when her cousin in the IDF had called her a traitor and thrown the epithet "self-hating Jew" her way for supporting Palestinians' right of return. It was eased somewhat when she heard the woman reply, "Well, you have to keep in mind.....for some communities, some Jewish communities included, the Arabic language is the language of the colonizer, of the foreign conqueror. Of course, there are Jewish communities that are Arab, but their relationship with the Arabic language and pan-Arabism is far different than that of, say, a Berber Moroccan Jew, and a Berber Jew-"

"There are Berber Jews?"

"Uh...yeah. Yeah there are. But, anyway, the Berber Jews will have a different relationship vis-a-vis Arabic and Arabness than a Sephardic Jew living in Morocco whose family fled there from Spain or Portugal four hundred years ago. There are so many different narratives, and so many different dimensions to these things....really, it can't be- and shouldn't be- simplified into some nationalistic meta-narrative. Because, I mean, if you do consider pan-Arabism, where would that leave the Berber Jews in Morocco or Tuareg traditionalists in Mali or the Sephardic Jews in Tunisia or the Italian Catholics in Algeria or the Amharic-speaking Muslims in South Egypt or Swahili-speaking Arab descendants on the Kenyan coast- there's just too many exceptions. What even of the people of Arab descent in the Americas or Malaysia or elsewhere, those who have become so much a part of their new culture, language, and environment that they consider themselves- and rightly so- more, say, American or Nicaraguan or Malaysian than Arab, by nature of the fact that 'Arab' means little to them other than what they're told it means by family or society or the media, with no real reference to culture, community, or history to ground themselves in an 'Arab' identity? You end up silencing so many voices for a single conquering voice of unitarianism....at least, I don't think it's really right. I don't agree with all these panacea 'pan' movements at all- pan-Slavicism in all its historic bloodiness, pan-Africanism in all its exploitation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the American race dynamics, pan-Arabism...none of it. Perhaps there's some good, and certainly the diasporic community each claims to give precedence to is real, but....it leaves out too much. It's too simplistic and ineffective in implementation."

Malak shot a look over at the table, but quickly tilted her head down again into her work before she could get a good look at the two. Part of her was afraid that they would notice and get upset at her for listening, the other was afraid that she might start speaking her mind if she caught one of their eyes. She wouldn't mind the last part- the conversation sounded like it would be fascinating to involve herself in, especially since she herself had relevant personal experience she could draw from to affirm or refute certain points- but she was feeling too tired and overwhelmed to allow herself the luxury. Maybe later she would stop them to talk before they left, see who they were. Gingerly massaging her forehead once more a thought threaded through the building pressure and whispered to her something about the past, memory, historicity versus history, and the unlikely likelihood of moving beyond all this shit. She swallowed the tingly minty dregs of her now super-sweet tea and opened the inbox for her account with the anti-Zionist group she worked for. She scanned the list and began deleting e-mails that she could see began with headers like "Hello dear young sir or madam my name is [insert name] I am so happy to see your work you do very good things for Arabs and for Palestine I never thought Jews would be doing such things" or "Dear pigfucker/traitor/anti-Semitic Arab-loving Muslim spy/[insert your own insult here]."