The angel came down to earth bearing a message of peace. He swept over the pyramids of Giza and landed in the heart of Cairo. People gathered around to witness the heavenly being, capturing the moment through the camera lenses on their phones. The world watched this miracle unfold — taking in the angel’s magnificent wings, which arched off his back in a graceful curve. His skin glistened in the sun like fine copper while his hair fell below his shoulders in flowing locks like unkempt wool. And when he spoke, the people listened, for his voice was like the song of a nightingale bearing the promise of a brighter future. The angel spoke of love and peace, of fear and hatred, of humanity and the eternal light. His words reached the ear of the president, who feared his own stardom would be diminished. He ordered his intelligence agencies to act, and so they did. The angel made the evening news — they called him a criminal, an anarchist, a troublemaker, an outcast. They said he fled from Heaven under a cloud of shame, with the goal of chaos and war. They censored his speeches and erased his online presence. And still the angel stood in the heart of Cairo and called for freedom while the people listened with open hearts. In his growing fear, the president deployed the army, which surrounded the angel and took aim at his chest. The angel smiled for he knew the battle had been won. He removed a single daffodil from his pocket and planted it in the cement beneath his feet. He then spread his resplendent wings and took off, ascending the heavens, his purpose achieved.
“The Ruins” is a term borrowed from pre-Islamic poetry, in which “weeping over the ruins” is a favorite gharad; the word gharad, which literally means “purpose” and roughly corresponds to genre, is used to indicate not so much a poem’s theme as the driving force behind its utterance.
Josh Calvo is a writer who also translates from Hebrew and Arabic, among other languages dead and alive. He can be reached at this email.
Then the rains washed over the ruins, like a book whose text is written and rewritten….
— Labid (d. 661)
For reasons he has kept to himself, Hakham Abraham Yeshaya Dayan–—born around the turn of the nineteenth century in Aleppo, and risen to become a rabbinic leader in its Jewish community, authoring several religious and scholarly books which have now become obscure, the world to which they are addressed having disappeared and the city in which they were to be read and applied having become in the hundred years since he lived unfathomably and irreversibly unrecognizable—decided suddenly, with the dawning of what would be the decade before his death, that the time had come for him to walk along the walls of his ancient city in search of signs from its long history. For want of some sense of his inner motivations, of what he beheld in his mind whenever he tried to see Aleppo in times he cannot have known, of what image of the city as he knew it over his own lifetime had been building itself in his memory, I can discover little more than he himself has admitted—or that has, by chance or by force, admitted itself—into his words. The nineteenth-century Hakham would not have needed to describe the impression left in mind by what he could still see outside: like the feeling of what remained of what once was: or the music of the undead voices of those who lived before: the cold stone of a synagogue surviving in the walls of a mosques: or the distant echoing of King David’s cavalry and Mongol horses heard faintly, aloft the wind from faraway mountains. And now that the Aleppo he knew has smoldered and will never again be seen, what remains are only these silent words by which it will never be described.
Having worked for years to prevent war, and seeing the folly of Italy and America being at war—! I certainly wasn’t telling the troops to revolt. I thought I was fighting an internal question of constitutional government. And if any man, any individual man, can say he has had a bad deal from me because of race, creed, or color, let him come out and state it with particulars. The Guide to Kulchur was dedicated to Basil Bunting and Louis Zukofsky, a Quaker and a Jew …
What I was right about was the conservation of individual rights. If, when the executive or any other branch exceeds its legitimate powers, no one protests, you will lose all your liberties. My method of opposing tyranny was wrong over a thirty-year period; it had nothing to do with the Second World War in particular. If the individual, or heretic, gets hold of some essential truth, or sees some error in the system being practiced, he commits so many marginal errors himself that he is worn out before he can establish his point.
The world in twenty years has piled up hysteria—anxiety over a third war, bureaucratic tyranny, and hysteria from paper forms. The immense and undeniable loss of freedoms, as they were in 1900, is undeniable. We have seen the acceleration in efficiency of the tyrannizing factors. It’s enough to keep a man worried. Wars are made to make debt. I suppose there’s a possible out in space satellites and other ways of making debt.
— from The Paris Review interview with Ezra Pound
“Rizwan, it’s you, it’s you. Is that you, Rizwan?”
“Yes, it is me. But who are you? I know your voice but I can’t put a face to it.”
“Ah, never mind. Your father… your father has been looking for you. Where were you? What took you so long?”
One of my favourite insults to the person of Macbeth comes towards the end of the play, when the aggrieved Macduff calls out to him: “Turn, hellhound, turn!” It is a testament to Shakespeare’s prowess that even after we’ve witnessed all the atrocities committed by Macbeth, the line jars. “He’s not a hellhound!” one feels like shouting back. The insult agitates us. By then we had already tried to alienate ourselves from Macbeth and his deeds, but we’re too intimate with the depths of his anguish to do so, an anguish not mysterious and beyond our grasp, like Hamlet’s. Macbeth is well within our understanding, his dilemma is laid bare for us to ponder and weigh.
The suggestion that in reading Macbeth there are things to be learnt about Bashar al Assad, Saddam Hussein, or al Qathafi, is often laughed to scorn whenever I dare mention it in polite company. It is generally assumed that the characters of these men do not rise to the complexity and elevation of a Shakespearean villain, as if villainy excludes finesse. I am told they are mere butchers, with no depth of feeling or capacity for insight. Yet it is exactly that, insight, that I feel the likes of Saddam have, and which allows them to reign in terror for such elongated periods. One can hate Saddam and everything he stood for, but can we in good faith dismiss him as a brute, or deny his sophisticated methods of intimidation? A viewing of the Al Khold Hall footage – where Saddam solidified his grip on power by effectively staging a play, one where murder was unseen, like Macbeth, but real – demonstrates Saddam’s credentials as a connoisseur of terror. His methods of breaking the wills of men require nothing less than a terrible talent.
Go to the street, ask for anything, it will be given to you.
BARA will have seized the monarchies and set their palaces ablaze.
There is a fellow population suffering.
To have lived it, later generations will assume it caused great conflict of the heart.
But, take my trials, they are too good for me.
Remember, the videos passed around.
I am guilty.
There is nothing left to say.
White sheets compound the pavement.
Chemicals in the territory.
The revolution is a farce.
in this world, beauty is so common
— Jorge Luis Borges
Again I wake up with the sound of drums in my ears, the mattress hard under me. I bury my face in the crook of my arm that is on the pillow, while with the other hand I search for the watch. The drums seem nearer now; their beats ruffle the hair on the back of my head and slide down into my ears, but sleep has not left me entirely and it is with difficulty that I lift my head to check the time. It is not yet eight and I have already twice repeated these movements in the last twenty minutes, which could well be three hours. Then all at once the beating of drums ceases. The company has concluded its morning march. A bugle is heard three times. After that all is silent, though I now become aware of another sound, that of the old fan rotating above. Fighting the urge to fall back to sleep I turn around and rub my eye with a finger. I can think of nothing as I follow the movements of the fan through the mosquito net that closes on me from all sides – like a room within a room. In my sleep I recall feeling the warmth of a body. But here I lie alone, ignoring the discomfort of a full bladder. I see the road that passes through the forest, its trees yellowish-brown skeletons, their branches bare and rising willy-nilly towards a sky which is white with heat; the earth as far as you can look is covered with dead leaves. It is a landscape at the end of time.
He came early with the news:
the best of Khindif, full-grown
and young combined, is dead.
No one brought their enemies
more fear, nor saved so many
held captive. Their pearl. Excellent
in war, undaunted, always the one
to meet kings: it did them proud
when he spoke. His bloodline
was perfect: you could trace it
back, a column reaching all the way
to the tribe’s origin. As a bright star
Nadim wakes up
We play for a while
Then go downstairs to feed him
We find sido Tony already there
Anxious going around waiting for someone to prepare breakfast
Shaved, dressed, ready to go nowhere
“What do you reckon that is?” Abu Imad said, tapping the scope. He looked at me, rubbing his bushy beard thoughtfully. He wanted me to make the two-meter journey to take a look.
“I’m all right here to be honest,” I said, looking at Abu Imad’s powerful frame. In my experience, God creates two types who stay on for the long haul. Either the rugby player variety or the wiry knife wielding sort, used to taking down bigger opponents. Abu Imad belonged to the former.
“Come,” he insisted, “come.”
I didn’t really feel like giving him my opinion. I didn’t want to entertain the mad shit bouncing around his head. What’s it going to be? Either some mountain goat or a hardy plant that has somehow emerged out of this cruel valley where we’d been stuck for years. What new excitement could this brother show me? We hadn’t progressed against the enemy, not because we were weak but because the commanders were arguing sometimes over strategy, sometimes over tactics, most of the time over honour and on rare occasions about God. In spite of them, we held this crag. We were mountain lions in courage and mountain goats in stubbornness.
“Come,” he pleaded, “check it.”
I’d rather fight a war tomorrow than think my son might have to do it one day.
This sentence, which I know to be true, does not belong to me. It does not emanate from me. It inhabits me because I am part of this living planet. It originates in the deepest strata of life, in the mechanisms that regulate the way life is handed down from being to being, from generation to generation, across time. It does not make me any more courageous than the moderately frightened – or more heroic than the moderately selfish – man that I am.
A milkman delivered milk bottles to the house a couple of days a week, came into the yard through the side gate, white uniform, and cap so light and delicately placed we wondered how it stayed put, picked up the empties and left the fresh bottles of thick cadmium white milk on the back porch. We could hear the milkman coming in the early morning, his square truck, the door always open, pulling up to the side of the house, under the three carob trees, coming through the back gate, the milk bottles jostling in his wire milk bottle carrier.
The airport was jamming, very jazzy, cars cutting into the inside lanes, cars triple parked at the curb, traffic cops waving and whistling cars away that were not immediately loading or unloading passengers, a looping loudspeaker voice calling out the cadence. Tall bus shuttles from the local hotels jockeyed for position with honking yellow taxicabs hoping for a long drive up into the hills. Skycaps opened and closed doors, moving bags to and from stuffed car trunks and shaky-wheeled carts, and pocketed tips with a proud, expectant nod with no note of surreptitiousness.
If anyone took notice of us, we got no comments or looks, nary a glance, all about their own business. I pulled Penina close for another long hug, still no cameras shuttering, as if there had never been a war. We were a common couple. I had survived a war, and Penina had survived waiting. Whatever wounds she had yet to show me, her hair still smelled like baseball card bubblegum. I smelled of wheel oil, track grease, and sweat, my worn fatigues tainted from motor pool prattle, but Penina pressed her face against my chest, and I felt her take a deep breath. She rattled my dog tags playfully, and we fell in with a group of civilians waiting at a light and crossed the street. Penina pretended to help me walk through the parking lot, my arm around her shoulder. I stowed my duffle bag in the bed of the truck, and Penina drove us out of the airport, through the long tunnel under the runway, out Imperial, and down to Vista del Mar and the Pacific Ocean.
The mere idea of contributing to the Charlie Hebdo colloquy is a problem. It’s a problem because, whether as a public tragedy or a defense of creative freedom, the incident was blown out of all proportion. It’s a problem because it’s been a moralistic free-for-all: to express solidarity is to omit context, to forego the meaning of your relation to the “slain” object of consensus, to become a hashtag. It’s a problem above all because it turns a small-scale crime of little significance outside France into a cultural trope.
Charlie Hebdo is not about the senseless (or else the political) killing of one party by another. It’s about a Platonic evil called Islam encroaching on the peaceful, beneficent world order created and maintained by the post-Christian west. Defending the latter against the former, commentators not only presume what will sooner or later reduce to the racial superiority of the victim. They also misrepresent the perpetrator as an alien force independent of that order.
Once, long ago, my mother fled a genocide (the Al Anfal campaign). She fled on foot over massive Kurdish mountains carrying me on her back and my little brother in her stomach.
My grandparents, Kurdish villagers/farmers, were faced with brutal oppression. They were forced into the Kurdish struggle, taking up arms to resist the annihilation of their identity. For 50 years they lived with war and the struggle of the Kurds. My grandfather Selman Mahmod Bamernî became a peshmerga at an early age. He was involved in many bloody battles and lost many comrades in the process. He was seriously injured twice, and twice placed in Iraqi prisons. He was often separated from his family, once for over five years, so long that, when he came back, his youngest children did not recognize their own father. He has devoted his life to the Kurdish struggle. A humble person with honor, compassion and an absolutely wonderful sense of humor. He has made many laugh heartily in his day.
A few days after you proposed that I write you this letter, a man was killed, his execution public enough that despite the five thousand miles between us we both could look on. This man, a journalist, had once been captured in Libya, then released, then was captured anew in Syria in 2012, this captivity ending in death. He was American, from New England as I am, he and I earned the same degree from the same university, enough years between us that I did not know him, though we each or both passed years among the low mountains and rising rents of Western Massachusetts, the grave of Emily Dickinson (called back, May 15, 1886) that even if one never bothers to walk behind the hair salon and the Nigerian restaurant to visit it serves as heart, destination of a pilgrimage one imagines.
The video his killers posted online may or may not in fact include the moment of his beheading, but confirms beyond doubt its occurrence. Here, we call the group who killed James Foley ISIS: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; or Iraq and al-Sham; or simply—months pass and the name grows more ambitious—the Islamic State. We’re told that the caliphate they envision stretches from the coast of Syria to Iraq’s eastern border. I had thought that Foley was taken from an internet café, but an article I just glanced at says something about a car being stopped, how men with Kalashnikovs forced him out of the car. If I were to tell the story in a novel, he would be in an internet café, sending as though it were nothing the story of one land and its wars to another, to a land whose replies are silent until the missile drops out of the sky.