Wednesday, June 27, 2007

screaming bloody murder

There is scarcely a rejoinder made to critics (such as myself) of Israel’s brutal occupation that does not include something along the lines of, “Why do these people make such a fuss over the deaths of a few Palestinians, but they make hardly a peep at the deaths of dozens or thousands of Muslims at the hands of other Muslims in Iran or Afghanistan?” Implicit in such questions is the idea that we on the Left don’t actually care about the lives of Muslims, except as a political prop with which to attack Israel. Our caring for the lives and deaths of Palestinians is false, since it is motivated by ulterior, political motives.

To this sort of critique, I have a simple answer: our protests against Israeli state violence against stateless Arabs is not some fey, New Age-y all-life-is-sacred thing, nor is it some abstract moral calculus of the values of Arab lives as opposed to others, nor is it an anti-semitism which focuses on “Jewish violence” to the exclusion of other violence. We care, rather selfishly, more for our moral beings than we care for the lives of particular people. We do not know those who have been killed. Nor do we know those who killed. We do not care whether the dead are labeled as “militant” or not (a sly insinuation that adds a beard and an AK-47 to the mental picture and thus softens the extra-judicial murder, mutating it into a “targeted killing”), nor whether the Israeli who pushed the button was a family man with Brooklyn-accented English. We do not particularly care for these personal details. Rather, we protest the blood on our hands!

Our entire government buys into the mad policy of stealing yet more Arab land (accelerated during the Oslo “peace” process), and our tax money goes to the weapons killing those who resist. The fact that some of those murdered are sure to be bad guys does not really matter. In fact, that is a red herring, and no better than the logic of the terrorists: send a human bomb into a restaurant and some of the dead are sure to be guilty.

The notion that we protest Israeli killings because we place more value on Arab life than Jewish is absurd. We are not crying over dead Palestinians (except in an abstract, principled opposition to killing, which applies to all victims of violence) but over our own bloodied conscience. We protest the Israeli state murders and not others (such as those carried out by Hamas, or the Taliban, or the Janjaweed) for the simple reason that we as American citizens are directly implicated in these crimes, and not those others: our hands are forcibly pushed into the blood congealing in the dusty streets of Gaza. I can only ask these apologists for Israeli occupation: why is it our duty, as moral people, to pay as much attention to the crimes of others as to our own crimes? In what moral or religious tradition are people commanded to see to the wicked deeds of others before attending to one’s own wickedness? Israeli crimes are the beam in our own eye, the beam we are being urged to overlook in favor of the motes (or beams) in the eyes of others.

Israeli extra-judicial murders could not occur without the complicity of the United States. Therefore, we American citizens are accessories to murder. It is this disgusting fact that makes us on the Left scream bloody murder: the same reason we condemn the deaths of Somalis, and Afghanis, and Colombians, and all other victims of weapons supplied by the United States for some august cause in some horrific civil war which Washington found to be useful enough to exploit.

To be a moral person one begins from oneself and works outward. To be a moral nation a people follows the same basic principle.

Let's hear it for the one state solution, for a democratic, secular state of Israel/Palestine.

Monday, June 25, 2007

meniscus of stars

Fireflies flurry over Lover’s Lane to the scent
of semen or wet dough off marshes wafted

as I ghost down the shore by bike
wondering at the hush of coy cottages

with orange lamps and ethernet nestled,
each one deeded a private moon.

Long Island gleams and blinks but no one gazes,
Gatsby’s gone; these ones are sated, and deserve it.

Passing the Dolly Madison a
single shout “Yeah dude!” startles
air so still so clear
I can almost hear the ringing
of machines stamping blingbling in China, the racket
of chilled trucks hauling Ding Dongs in Iraq
(almost, a humming highway)

and the slither of profit up fiberoptic wires
squirming its way back from spawning,
worm of money fertilizing the soil
of this enchanted sphere.

I can almost hear but not quite.

The starry membrane shimmers,
quavers, avers, shivers, limpid force field of the elect
repelling the poor.

How is a skin of silence so delicate
engined by pistons so huge?

Is there no tang of fear nor sear of sweat
in the brandy in the hand of the man
on the veranda?

A golden meniscus suckles his upper lip
he sips with a beatific smile.

Glenn Beck's Clash of Religions

9-11 has been very good to media hawkers of religious war. America is being turned into a (Judeo) Christian Nation in the discourse of these people. Glenn Beck of CNN’s Headline News is one of them. I was not surprised when my little brother told me that Beck had once been the obnoxious half of a morning radio show for KC101 out of New Haven, Connecticut. Nor was I surprised to hear that Beck had converted to Mormonism, which allows him to wrap his hate speech in a self-righteous mantle. CNN, desperate to compete with Fox News, has decided to tap into belligerent juvenilia in a bid for young viewers. As usual, it is always, only, about the bottom line: the future of the world be damned. And as usual with the right, “opposing terrorism” means obsessing about it, to the point that one mirrors its propaganda. Warriors such as Beck copy the hateful diatribes of those they hate, all the while proclaiming their virtue. They are able to have their poisoned cake and eat it, too.

On his show of June 23, 2007, I was only able to stomach the first 4 minutes. As usual he begins with a petulant spiel to the effect of, “Can anyone tell me what in the world is going on?” This exasperation leads not to examination of events but straight to conclusions! “I’ll tell ya why there’s never gonna be peace in the Middle East,” he hectors young viewers, “And its because the other side doesn’t want it!” (Here he was referring to the Palestinians, who, I suppose, were ethnically cleansed because they “didn’t want peace.”)

Beck, like other terror aficionados, conflates many different events and conflicts. In this particular show, America is collapsed into Israel. “The other side” is the Arabs, Hamas in particular. One wonders: what if I happen to be an Arab American computer programmer, just back from Taco Bell, with my I-pod turned off, a marketer’s dream, just settling in for a nice Saturday evening with the news? Am I “the other side”? Or do I have to pick sides: American (and Christian and white) or Arab? What if I am one of many Americans who do not support Israel’s long war on the Palestinians? Am I, too, considered “the other side”?

Beck’s other conflation is “Christian” with “America” – neglecting, of course, that in Palestine, it is the Arab population, not the Jewish, that contains Christians. No matter: Palestinian equals Muslim equals terrorist in Beck’s book. Beck reports on the sacking by Hamas militia men of a Catholic office in the Gaza Strip. Instead of the incident being part of the civil conflict between Palestinians (radical Islamists against moderate factions, of which Christians may be a part), or between Palestinians and Israelis, or even between Palestinians and foreign aid organizations, Beck simply takes the incident as a nice opening for the old “us” versus “them.” A further conflation is Hamas, a radical nationalist organization much like the IRA, with Al-Qaeda, a radical internationalist organization.

“We respect their religious sites,” he says, “But why doesn’t the other side respect ours?” But wait, Glenn. I’m not a Catholic! Nor are “they” all Muslims. Not to mention that the Jews are subsumed in with his vision of America. So there is a Jewish-Christian nation of America-Israel faced off against Muslims of all sorts. Is Glen just being sloppy, lazily fudging the definitions of “us” and “them”? Maybe. But why doesn’t he just say, “Hamas does not respect the religious sites of non-Muslim Palestinians”? If he said such a thing, he would remove the fantasy that somehow there is a global war of religions taking place, in which any and all Islamist group, national or international, is automatically fighting the USA. It’s a lie, Glen. Hamas is not fighting us.

Glenn’s goal is the same as that of the American government: to align the country with one side of a civil war. And, as usual, American interference in Palestine’s civil war has exacerbated it, by taking away the incentive of “our side” (less bad Muslims who only a few years ago were just plain bad) from finding a political solution to the conflict. Oh, this is an old story, and it happens all over the place. Most recently, Somalia’s civil conflict has been exploited, and hence worsened, by the US as well.

But religiously based incitement is apparently good for business at CNN. Like an ice cream shop looking to increase business, CNN is telling Beck to pile on the hot fudge sauce of religious war language, and cut back on anything specific about politics. It’s all so damn complicated anyway, says the exasperated juvenile whine of the ideal CNN viewer. And CNN has found the perfect voice to complement that pissed off white male’s inner rant. I think “pander” is the word here.

In Palestine, it is all about politics and land. As in Northern Ireland, religion is only a major idiom in which the conflict is expressed. Religion is the idiom used only when normal politics has failed: take note. Hamas is a relatively recent phenomenon, not at all some kind of ancient grudge. Hamas grew because of Israeli intransigence and refusal to use politics to solve problems. Israel backed this tiny radical movement in the 80s in order to destabilize and discredit Fatah, just as the US backed vicious Islamist groups in Afghanistan for its own selfish, violent purposes. “We” undermine political processes, which spurs radicalism, which we then label an all-purpose “them” with a kind of “I told you so” logic. See, say people like Beck, pointing at outrageous acts committed by people excluded from politics by our policies, I told you we could not trust them. But to keep this kind of ridiculousness credible, the hawkers of hate have to keep discussion away from history, away from politics, and keep it simple: bad guys and (we) good guys.

But it is all about politics and land. The various groups were not killing each other in Belfast over theological differences, but over colonialism and control of territory. Give Palestine a state and the extremist movements will gradually fizzle out and be marginalized (look at how politics has gradually succeeded in N. Ireland). Keep up the war, the interventions, the missile strikes, and you (Glenn Beck and the Israeli establishment), are guaranteed a very favorable business. The willful ignorance of the American public ensures continued support for dirty tricks on foreign soil, which in turn increases the appeal of ever-more radical nationalist and internationalist movements, which of course commit crimes which are wonderful propaganda presents for professional hawkers of Armageddon. Oh, it’s a veritable gravy train for these people.

What’s next? Don Imus doing a show on international affairs?

Ever read anything about the religious wars of Europe in the 16th centuries? Beck’s predecessors did very well then, as well, on both sides. People like Beck keep their hands clean while egging on others who do the killing. Conflict can only continue with healthy infusions of propaganda highlighting OUR virtue and THEIR evil. It is the worst kind of moral cowardice. It is like putting the controls of a space shuttle into the sweaty hands of a pissed off teenager.

Monday, June 18, 2007

in hebei

City people dream the end of the world
country people dream of the city
movies take them where they wish,
to apocalypse, or the bright lights.

I too want an end
a slow outflow, a sighing,
sunflowers sprouting in the check-out aisles
a slow end, a forgetting,
industry shuddering off to sleep.

You put your hand on the teacup
having forgotten all else, forgotten me.
I forget why I’m skimming face down
just above a harvested field
burned brown skin of earth
and I am content not to remember.

Fiberoptic cables curl
into corn floss; buildings blob;
the end is nigh, and then another.
You taste something of the past
so you set the cup down crisply
but its too late, the past is gone for good.

A late sun blooms across your limp train tracks
(noodles of steel),
and you’ve lost all but that smile,
leftover from the world of names.

2005 China

Saturday, June 16, 2007

trophy towns

How long has it been since local agricultural producers sold their products directly to local people in this town? Never mind for now that half the people milling about the town green are New Yorkers up at their beach houses for the weekend: they pay taxes, so for modern purposes, they are locals. And leave aside the sporadic exceptions: the truck selling corn off the side of the road, the oystermen selling directly to patrons of Jake’s Bar by the milk jug. In any case, that has not happened since the sixties. Jake’s Bar is now R.J. Julia’s Booksellers.

As I watched well-fed, well-lived white folk like myself prod the pies and finger the arrugula leaf, chat and buy almond crunch bars from the carefully reconstructed Original Good Humor truck, I thought: it’s an event! Like the Fourth of July, like a Hand football game. But it is every week, and it is focused, not around celebrations of symbolic belonging to nation or high school or town, but purchase of food commodities. Something had been broken, just like that: the lock held by the impersonal, corporate transaction on the definition of modern life.

Just a couple of years back I was decrying what I saw as the final death knell of human-human transactions, the installation of self service check out lines at Stop and Shop. What it said to me was the last extremity of the guillotine of (emotional) convenience: the blow severing the pitiful patch of social skin still connecting members of the social body. Even “Do you have your Stop and Shop card?” was to be relegated to the past. The cocoon of the self’s daily experience was to be made complete, the sole identity of a person as resident was to exist only in purchase of goods – in solitude. One could be a Madisonite and speak to no one.

Now, suddenly, there is a counter-current. The few remaining farmers and fisherfolk in the state see themselves selling directly to people they previously had no access to, unless it was through the supermarket. And wealthy residents can feel themselves alive in a sun-dappled, picture book of small town life, buying flowers or pies in sight of the white church.

Oddly enough, the stringent zoning laws whose sole aim is to preserve the “small town character” of the town has actually had the effect of killing off nearly all sings of small townhood, at least in retail life, replacing shops and stores people might need with luxury boutiques and gift shops selling antique beaten copper wash basins and embroidered lamp shades. There is nothing like a small town than a shop called “Harp and Hearth” selling “Celtic Wares,” or “Merrimax Financial Services.” “Small town character” is clearly a code word for “politically obligatory high property values.” The two main streets of the center of town are lined with eerily silent shops crammed with gleaming, high end bric a brac. Small towns historically had little truck with useless luxury goods meant for hanging on the wall of a trophy beach house. Excuse me: cottage.

A farmer’s market is not going to lessen the yawning gap between the classes buying cheese on the green and the rest of the nation’s population. But at least some producers are allowed space to develop clientele previously denied to them, monopolized by corporations and their agribusiness produce from Chile and California. And this sensibly local character shines even more brightly in this era when shipping broccoli from Mexico to Madison (along with surplus labor also produced by NAFTA) is looking more and more absurd from the perspective of energy wasted and economic suppression of local producers. The “natural” free market based on long distance transport is looking more and more like quite an artificial, constructed artifact.

Finally, I feel good that the old idol of modernity founded on the idea of impersonality and rule of corporations has gotten eroded a tiny bit more – even if it is just a bit of upper class fantasizing about small town life. It is fantasizing with real dollars and cents, however.

As I walked about I heard my name called, just as I was thinking how weirdly anonymous I felt, in the very town I grew up in! I turned to see the sallow, gaunt face of Grace Zahornicky. She is one of the few reminders of a working class presence in the local Mormon ward (congregation). Even though I have not attended church in almost two decades, she gives off not a whiff of estrangement or awkwardness. I thank her for the delicious zucchini bread she gave my parents the week before at church. She looks faint: “Oh, no, don’t say that. . .it fell.” I protest that it tasted great, however it looked. But she is unconsoled and unfooled. “But I’ve got some Texas pecans in the mail,” she says brightly, looking to a future glory. I say she could surely compete with the pie sellers here, a statement so obvious she does not bother responding to. She is with her neighbor, an Asian American woman, and when she gives up waiting for my father – whom she assiduously calls “Bishop,” despite his having retired the post decades before, she moves on. My father told me recently how hard it was being bishop in Madison in the seventies, with all the struggling working class members then. He had marveled at all the physicians and professors now in the ward. Hearing my father was about, Grace quipped, “Good thing I did not bring any booze or cigarettes here, he’d think I was a real bad person!” I assure her I too am such a person.

As she leaves I feel something touchingly old fashioned, a touch of a parallel life where I live in an actual small town where people know each other, and where people like Grace pay a trusting sort of homage to my father, which is simply extended to me as his son. It is a world where local elites smile benevolently on the people in a circuit of relationships that extend decades, generations. Because of Grace, stray remainder of a time when this town was a town of more than one class, I have felt a whiff of a world all but gone, at least here. But at least the farmer’s market has stirred something to life, a shift in the horizons of possibility. Is it possible the 4-H pavilions at local fairs will get more attention than just as a place to look at the snow white lambs and monster pumpkins, a curiosity of an agriculture firmly in the past?

Not longer so firmly fixed there, it seems. Not that Madison itself would ever relent in its fortress of laws, but towns near here like Durham might see a modest shift.

So the investment trophy “small town” is infiltrated unawares by the real small townness of small producers and food.

What is the most ironic thing of all? The fact that the rural is being interwoven back into the (faux) small-town due to the influence of the city! The growth and popularity of farmer’s markets in cities across the country, but most importantly in New York City, is clearly the inspiration for this development. Madison is now a distant suburb of New York, less distant in the summer, when the market runs. The big cities, in more ways than one, have acted for suburbs much the same way that monasteries acted for Europe between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, as receptacles for a precious knowledge. In the case of American cities, they preserved the basic notion of urbanity as valuing the multiple interactions of people throughout the day. It was not a textual knowledge but a living one. The suburbs, however, celebrated separation in all aspects. They drained the cities. But the cities never died entirely. Now the realization slowly spreads through the culture – due to a reconfiguration of class geography where elites once again desire cities – that urban life is rich and irreplaceable, a fabric of experience.

This urbanity does not lie in density of population but in valuation of contact, even friction, particularly around human culture. In Madison, the opening of R.J. Julia booksellers was the first example, several years back, of New York “seeding” Madison with the practice of urbanity. Or I should say, the city seeding this suburb with an urbanity dressed up in their play imagination of the rural. This farmer’s market is a second example. Interesting, isn’t it, how cities have begun teaching suburbs how to be towns again? And paring back the worst excesses of the trophy towns?

Of course, I have not mentioned at all how rural areas have injected suburbs with new life: through churches. But even there, the growth of churches I am not so sure is not a phenomenon as suburban and urban as it is rural: a protest against the segregation and isolation of private property in America, even as consumers have seemed to crave more of the same. Clearly what we are seeing is schizophrenia: more and more Netflix and self-service check out aisles, to further remove us from people, and simultaneously more and more churches and farmer’s markets, to save us from the yawning space of our own heads.

We want it all: trophy town and soul.

In the summer, as I ride or walk down near the shoreline, where all the summer homes are, I find myself becoming so much more gregarious. “Hello,” I find myself saying to people I meet, “How are you?” I do so only because these fake small town residents look at me and, feeling that this is what small town people do, nod their heads and greet me. What am I going to do, not respond? And in any case, maybe this faux rurality has something good in it.


Friday, June 15, 2007

we invisibles

Yellow grass tickles sky
the beach is empty and open
invisibles watch their lawns grow
they call this a town.

I think through a letter.
This guy emailed me seven years ago
re: Hey there big Brain
I was moved to respond
to this childhood friend.

The shades of boys he taunted
drew near. I paused
for seven years.

Bucky deserved it least.
His squirrelly limbs outclimbed me
Chayse, I just looove chayse he’d say
in the voice of Pepe Le Pew’s amor
his hair was bushy
his mom alone
we crawled into the ventilation tunnel
under the chapel one Sunday
his name was J.P. for Jean Pierre
he liked Suzie Himmelberg
to her vast embarrassment.

Bucky snapped once. I remember
the slap. church lawn. white that face. lips purse.

Jean Pierre only responded
to my first letter. “I don’t have
fond memories of Connecticut,
with some exceptions of course.”
It was typed.
He taught Tae-kwon-do in Pennsylvania.

Maybe my letters helped him
bury this place
of invisibles of which I too
am one: there are no exceptions
to the spectralizing air
of property values.

I like the ex-bully working in
a bank in Boston. Will my
letter soothe something in him?
Let our sameness be known?

When he thinks of me,
does he see Bucky
as I see when I think of him?
When Jean Pierre thinks of
me, does he see that whitening face?
Does it matter that I hated it too?

Yellow grass rustles on the sky.

June 15, 2007

this meadow, and you (II)

Sky beyond the late-lit sky, air beyond this air,
what need have I for them, with you here?

We find ourselves lost together
By happenstance in a meadow, here -- meadow
scented with time, and camellias, where doves coo
and fireflies flicker, winking, twinkling out
their humble code of light.

Were we like them? Lost finding each other,
winding up here by happy chance
(chance that is no chance),
with birds, time, flowers,
eyes, lips, you, I, and hours,
by love so gently overpowered?

Evening falls, summer evening,
meadow where all evenings are this one evening
(and only this)
where we are young and old all at once,
where all loves are this sweet love
where all anguish falls asleep softly, softly,
meadow where I am your sky, and you, my air,
flickering flaring twinkling soaring.

What do we need beyond this --
this meadow, this summer’s eve,
these fireflies’ dance, this us?
Us that only we are; us that was air, once, sprites
without name
in that sultanate in the sky.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

clicks of the shutter from valdez

I remember very well certain clicks of the shutter from Valdez. I picture lying on the wooden platform that served as a step into the prefab bunkhouse with my arms crossed over my eyes, alternately railing against the anonymous malice of the fire alarm that had pulled us night shifters out of bed, and marveling at the work of the sun. I had not seen the sun since I had arrived in Valdez, and here it was peering under my defiant eyelids, here it came while I slept sweeping brilliant clouds out of the bay and greening the mountains to a brilliance only enhanced by streaks of still-living snow. . . I and my companions sat or lolled on the platform, surprised, disgruntled, half-dressed, cursing, blinking in the sunlight. I try, and hard, to remember whether I pulled off my shirt or not. Why should that be important? Probably I just lay back and pulled it up off my stomach and chest. I had stumbled out dressed for fog. Did we talk about anything? Little more than about “who the hell was pulling this trick,” about the ungodly 11 am we had gotten to bed, about (if you were new) the shocking change in the weather (this rush to crystalline) and finally, resignedly, about what we contemplated breaking out for breakfast. . .

The other picture has only returned to me this morning. It is of baskets of fish going down the conveyor belt to be picked up by the next crew until suddenly people down the line are yelling, “Hey! What’s this all about?” and we realizing that their table was fuller than ours, leaving them and us chuckling. The light, I believe, is fluorescent. The roar of the fans and the coslime feeders with the steady Chunk-hiss! Chunk-hiss! Chunk-hiss! of the headers fills my ears; the sterile smell of fish guts and blood palls the air. My sudden laughter and what it meant left me awestruck. It had burst through an hour of turmoil, interrupting an inner war over What to do to want to live, and How to fight off doom. How? I asked insistently, How? Of the cold, stripped salmon in my hands and the silent cluster of people around the table. And then the indignant shouts rang out. I took the easy grin on my face to be religious revelation, from fish to me. My wallowing in fish had, suddenly, a stroke of the possible in it. I dumped a renegade basket back into the tank still grinning. I may have tingled up the back of my legs. Question: and answer!

And of course there is the picture of my first night there, just off the ferry, setting up my tent in the dark atop the round stones, overhearing two guys making fun of me in a nearby tent.

The air leaves me different today and yesterday than previous days. It gave me a feeling familiar but completely forgotten until now: languid, lustrous, a slowness and watching their bodies move, a working shirtless in the night washing pots, hair long and obsessed with her presence but not with her, shaking with want, hard scrubbing and nervousness. . .

All the same songs sound out over springtime in America, except for a few enclaves of the Bronx and LA. “So I get on my guitar and play – just like yesterday – then I get on my knees and pray (bam bam ba-bam) We won’t get fooled again!” How many times have I heard this song?

So, Mr. Townshend, you are privileged with “not getting fooled” again in your blissful recording session but then the song is off on its own, leaving us programmed with the repeated sameness of that four minutes in time done over and over again as we work or play or drive. How ironic that a song extolling revolution can become such an ossified piece of the wall holding our energy – creative or revolutionary – inside, and slack as an early morning gas station attendant, content with studying the tabloid covers from his slouch behind the counter. . .

February 1992, Palo Alto, California

ferry to kamal

The young women call out rice! Eggs for a hundred!
peanuts! Aqua! Buckets balanced atop their heads
swaying down the aisle of the ten pm bus.

They are not the banter-old ibus of daylight.(1)
Head scarfs glitter like comets down their backs
and lipstick is a sight for
rows of men
bobbing adoze on black waters,
the factory-light gleam from Gresik (2)

spelling the horizon that before was lost in oneness
and speaking to Madura in its inkiness (3)
This will be you

winking sleepless on waters someday

The sellers sense the way for women today: you’re lucky
if its only your face for sale
in the market that is free
for the surrender of freedom, you
who give less rice than ever for the old price clenched at 300,
wrapped in banana leaves, like before
and offer the difference in lipstick
as a tribute to every nodding prince
a bribe to stave off bargaining.

A woman’s teeth go iron quick behind lipstick
when she’s balanced on the bottom line
running down the aisle of a ten pm bus,
and in the squeeze between seats
there is no margin left
to which she can back further
ever further
back ever further

Indonesia 1994; revised 1995
1. ibu means "mother," used to address married/older women
2. Gresik: industrial suburb of Surabaya, Java
3. Madura: rural island, destination of ferry

texas bus love song

The aisle between us is an eye-moat too sheer
for, a tongue-leap too lear for
my minutes-to-two hope – and we,
miles from Abilene’s
shimmersign grope. So

Mourn, night, this freeway’s burrow and veer –
mourn trucks wary at Christmas, lights gripping
us, their quarry; pedal down – then fuming us free with feathery
palms, racing hand in hand with me,
graceless Greyhound groom born of a land
yet churl

To outbound which-towned peasant girl,
(up three rows) whose eyes slow close
on (hair shiny from) weeks grueling down
apples in Oregon –

Apples maybe misted (si me quieres) a sleek
beaded cold that (how I ache to) spark
(piqued to) dusky gold in (steal you from
Sweetwater) moments (if, eyes, you wake)

lost before dawn.

Published 1992 Dialtone; revised 2007

Sunday, June 10, 2007

song beneath a tamarind tree

In the same dusk
as this still birdless dusk

and in the same valley
as this valley wan and sunless

thousands of penny-paid men
have been obliterated in battle over
and over
for a prince’s grudge
and for less, far less than this
and lain on ground that
was not cultivated or reaped
for any other purpose

than to receive them.

Each night is the same night
dusk is no more dusk than the dusk
fallen shortly before
or after

all history is a whispered
repetition in shaking voice
in plywood and tin town alleys

of certain fundaments in
various posture and dress

trying to hush
the same long howl for justice.

I am young. For princes’ fears
I refuse to die.
My only hope is that

the constellations of love
will sparkle such

that death will not take me

as a sigh of breath wasted
no traces of jasmine
in the sunless valley of the prince.

Because night is one
all ages are knowable

I hold out my hand

night light turns the skin wonderful
burning it too ancient
to be this smooth.

I know folk
a long spell dead

Sing! Sing! says the tamarind tree

and I’ve squeezed the toes of babies
who after hundreds of years suspended
in this one night

will open their mouths at last and gasp
for first breath

and ask the princes in vain
who we are.

vision of java from the sea

Once I saw Java
mountainous unpeopled island
Java that was never mine
oh my Java

When no clouds flouted our meeting
when no boats flecked the sea
seethed and decked

historic worlds sang one to me
let them spring free
and the enormous rains of time
lilted willingly below me
below the rustling leaves and drying grieve!

Oh sink me into trees’
bitter trunks dust me
in old tongues
of the age when roads
were squirmed first by snakes and pounded flat
by slaves

shaking as they raised the stones,
and let them --- raised and let them –

(no one ran easily then
for thieves throve
and kings knew)

Let them fall.

no one's bereft

No one’s bereft.
No day’s left in lack
All nerves erupt at
Thunderclap one eye
Can sift what thousands
Only clap two hands not
Cleft astound attack
Feet bound through grass
Know dew be deft
No one’s bereft.


come evening: east timor

The small boys that float intently after me
are as silent as birds sensing fall of night
and every bit as fleet

carrying my candle to the bathroom delicately
I know how easily it can be snuffed out at nightfall

even two hundred thousand candles burning on these grassy slopes (1)
could flit to black in the same moment’s gasp

if the wind tore strong enough
if markets and planting times were blockaded long enough.

When I enter the bathroom to place the still living candle
the door is pulled shut and the giggling of bird boys finds me

even nineteen years after dusk fell

with sharp wind and napalm from America.
Kissinger himself let the curtain drop on the sun (2)
then crackling forests gave abundant light
to the land.

May 1994

1. refers to the estimated 200,000 East Timorese who died after Indonesia invaded.
2. refers to Kissinger's (and Ford's) go ahead to Indonesia's army just before the invasion.

train out of surabaya

Breathing in the whirling air of Surabaya toxic, and deeply,
thinking always of good bye to you
one month to go and counting down:
See the crowded shack alleys, kaki limas and a lantern (1)
boys and girls strolling at Marghrib not yet thinking (1a)
how few words one needs to say good bye and be gone
yet how many words mill at the gates
like workers hearing word sepakatnya nol (1)
three moments after leaving you standing.

Bojonegoro, Pati, Semarang and Cirebon (2)
if you have any words for me
send them in nightmares that stink of your industry
I don’t have to give in, capital cannot win
flying by you in the monotony of a railroad night
face faced into wind remembering the joy
Aku lelah. (3)

Kites flourish in ‘Boyo (4)
despite tin roofs, oppression and sewage sawah (5)
kites do not discourage
demikian sejarah bangsa dalam masa jenuh
laut adalah kita, saya dan kamu aku tahu (6)
but let me protest our separation for now
and then let me mourn.

O padi Jawa di belakang favela favela sengsara (7)
hear me!
In your glimmerless night hear me
who is not a stranger.

1. kaki lima: "five feet," a small food cart
1a. marghrib: in islam, the fourth prayer of the day, in early evening
1. sepakatnya nol: the agreement is zero, or null
2. names of cities in Java
3. I am tired
4. short for Surabaya
5. sawah: field, referring to ponds of sewage
6. such is the history of a people in times of frustration
the sea is us, I and you I know
7. Oh paddies of Java behind miserable favelas

the persistence of moments

I could’ve told you, he said, that when the end came
you’d view the world how much more truly
your own passions in balance and propelling you much too fast
at the very moment when you’d want to slow down

and I could’ve told you how bright the women’s head scarves
would hang down as they bent to offer 200 rupiah
for cucumbers, come on come on its harvest, cajoling
and pushing without a sign of unfriendliness or discomfort in pushing

a sign of trust, and the gleam of their silver eye teeth clear
as if at last your feet raised no dust
and you no longer touched the earth
as if you were already gone, he said,

and naturally that made me sad, but the notion of end
as long as my mind flits on and on
doesn’t quite fit, I said: the ancient tree at the summit
from which half the realm of my life glimmered green and blue

down there, Pakamban, Karduluk, Prenduan and the tailor
who could’ve been from New Jersey, Brungbung jamming
the road on market day oh helter of voices; Bataal,
Beragung and Nangker on the north side;

that tree hasn’t disappeared from my consciousness
even if an earthquake has since roared up from the south
and toppled the proud hilltop where once I meditated
or was lost in instinctive conversings with

a girl I seemed to understand, and sensed
when I drifted between rows of tobacco sleepily breathing
the luminous dust of evening, I said to him
and he said Yes, you are right about the persistence

of moments.

Indonesia, 1994 (about to return home)

Friday, June 8, 2007

mcsorley's and katz's

I wonder if McSorley’s Ale House and Katz’s Deli, New York landmarks, could exist in the same way if they were in other countries? Could I go to Budapest or to Johor Baru and find pubs or restaurants not only old but their age preserved delicately, to the point of superstitious absurdity? Could I find establishments feted for their history whose pastness is fetishized in the objects, in the walls and tables, in the peculiar procedures preserved over decades, in the very dust?

I shouldered into McSorley’s for my own fascination with time, with my little brother. I very distinctly noticed a row of objects displayed over the ancient cash register, so woolly with dust I could not make out what they were. I deciphered them at last as wishbones. The stripped smooth wood floor covered with sawdust, the lack of tap handles for the beer, the faded photos of old gentlemen and baseball teams, all bespoke an unimaginable age, its attraction attested to by the roar of portly young men and women around round wooden tables. But the shaggy wishbones were something more, something beyond, something in excess. They demonstrated an utterly fanatic devotion. Were the bartenders to dust the wishbones would an unacceptable modernity intrude? Is history signified by filth; is dust to soften the sharp lines of the present? Particularly in such a busy place, it was odd to see a thick layer of dust anywhere. And the dust itself was modern as the asphalt and jackhammers, the vacuums and sheetrock, the diesel and cement that made it.

Katz’s was a different kind of playground of the past. As I wandered in, a gruff voice barked out, “Hey! Hey!” until I turned and saw a man holding out a ticket for me. I took it, intimation of some old fashioned Procedure curtly but reverently preserved. All along one wall of the massive space were grills worked by men. I wanted a hot dog, the cheapest option, but could not tell where to order: people clustered here and there. I tried ordering at one place, but it turned out to be for corned beef and tongue. As in most places where an idiosyncratic procedure becomes a hallowed institution, the employees care nothing for the blank looks of newcomers and non-initiates. I had stood uncertainly before the hot dog counter a while but got no guidance. This gruff territoriality, a hunkering down comfortably indifferent behind a bulwark of habit and History, is one kind of working class consciousness in this city. I was annoyed that the hot dog man had not rescued me from my awkward moments lingering there, but is this not a small price to pay for facing workers who have a bit of dignity? Isn’t a bit of annoyance better than to face the processed, limp submission of fast food workers?

The walls of the place were hung with framed photos and newspaper articles signifying History, recent and old. There were signed photographs of celebrities and heroes. A sign hung from the ceiling over one small table, reading, “Where Harry Met Sally (don’t you want what she ordered?)” At many tables people aimed cameras at each other, mouths posed agape over stupendously high sandwiches. The wall behind one counter was hung with salamis, and the slogan “Send a Salami to you your Boy in the Army!” trumpeted out from a sign. It was curious to feel that whiff of World War II still hanging in the air, as if the jaunty, playful patriotism of that epic struggle could be found or reproduced in this corrupt age.

The greatest gap of course lay in the global nature of that war and the universality of the participation: one imagined salamis going to Guam, Sicily, North Africa, London, China. Today, of course, there are soldiers all over the globe, but we think of them as “operatives,” Matt Damon-like nervous types with earphones in the back of laundry vans or piloting a Predator by monitor from a hundred miles away. For that more virtuous war we see “boys,” crowded into pubs or running to get into formation for morning inspection. One imagines most families seeing the sign in those days could feel a personal tug in that advertising spiel, leading all the way out to that staging ground or airfield in the grey light of dawn so far away.

But now, the number of families of soldiers is relatively few, and the professionalization of the forces makes it less likely they will be referred to as “the boys.” This shift in terminology shows a shift in feeling: no longer is the whole nation conflated with the good-natured banter of a front stoop or a soda counter at Woolworth’s. Recently, in fact, an angry man on a Marine’s blog chastised me for using the mere term “soldier.” “The proper term for Marines is ‘warrior,’” he indignantly intoned. From “boys” to “warriors”: what a massive change is this!

No longer the neighbor kid multiplied by millions, the armed forces are to be imagined as muscle-bound Hoplites or CGI Hercules, Brad Pitts with Greek helmets and M-16s. It is as if we are slipping into the World of Warcraft, a shift masking the real development: the increasing service of these people (who are still kids, it turns out) in a more and more nakedly corporate and imperially defined “national interest.” The more they turn into mercenaries, the more a bloated mythology elevates them to virtuous gods of war, like the Polish gentry’s propagation of a mythic military lineage even as the nation veered over the precipice of collapse and partition in the 17th century.

How oddly echoes the cheery past. Even contemporary representations of that era ring overdone and falsely lofty: the plain spoken people of those times, frightened and enraged into action by fascist depradation, would have snorted dismissively at the moniker, “The Greatest Generation.” Its usage shows more our longing than their greatness. Even if they were great, their greatness lay in their lack of self-promotion.

There were men in old-fashioned diner uniforms, smocks with collars and big pockets for stowing notepads. The tables against the wall were reserved for waiter service. The odd juxtaposition of working class possessiveness and 11.00 prices for sandwiches showed the value of history being consumed. There was a stubborn adherence to past ways of doing things, ordinary ways that somehow remained, like horses marooned on a sand bar as the tide rolled in, and gained value. There were post cards. But the fetish did not go so far as to mistake pastness with actual dust. I brought my ticket to the cashier at the exit and he read what the hot dog man had scrawled

this meadow, and you

Sky beyond the sky, air beyond this air,
what need have I for them, with you here?

We find ourselves lost together
Surprised, here, in a meadow
scented with time, and camelias: doves coo
and fireflies flicker, winking, twinkling out
their humble code of light.

Were we lost finding each other,
winding up here by chance,
(chance that is no chance),
with birds, time, flowers,
eyes, lips, you, I, and hours,
by love so gently overpowered?

Evening falls, summer evening,
meadow where all evenings are this one evening
where we are young and old all at once,
where all loves are this sweet love
where all anguish comes to rest softly, softly,
meadow where I am your sky, and you, my air,
flickering flaring twinkling soaring.

What do we need beyond this,
This meadow, this summer’s eve,
these fireflies’ dance, this us?
Us that was sky, once, and air?
You, sky beyond my sky!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

eating with the mind

My second day back in the United States after spending a year in China, I found myself looking into the front window of the Madison Coffee Shop, craving ordinary food. I walked in self-consciously, as if I had turned Chinese over my year in Sichuan. The physical space between people, and the sense of polite distance, lent the whole town a feeling of sparseness, of silence, which only increased my sense of self-consciousness. At first look it was thickly treed and moving with people, but in fact it was a social desert, of nervous ants occasionally rubbing antenna and hurrying on. I entered and inwardly shied away at the teenage girl’s noisy – but timid – approach. “Hi howya doin’?” she asked, but her eyes only darted to meet mine for a moment, then fled. I studied the simple menu a long time, turning over all the possibilities, tasting the corned beef hash, the club sandwiches, the hamburgers – tasting them with my mind, trying to imagine each one there in my mouth. Like most Americans, my eating started out as a mental speculation.

“Yeah, can I get the tuna salad sandwich and onion rings?” I said finally.

“What bread would you like with that?” she asked. Damn, I had forgotten about all this choosing you have to do in this country. After I had ordered I felt the regret of all the things I had not ordered – suddenly I noticed someone else biting into a hotdog, or a piece of chicken. It is the little voice of the greedy consumer self. It is the tortured never-satisfaction of eating with the mind!

Five days later I am not done craving ordinary food, but the craving is cooling down slowly. It seems like over the past year I have gotten more demanding about taste. I was about to say I had turned into a food snob, but I don’t think that is quite right, because I know a good hot dog can taste as good as a raspberry-chutney braised salmon. I think what happened in China was I got used to eating with my mouth. The American habit of eating with my mind, my eyes, my sense of anticipation and psychological need – did not die. But a new habit partly took over. My last night in China, my old friend Mrs. Chen said, “Americans eat with their mind, and Japanese with their eyes. But Chinese eat with the mouth. Taste is everything for us.”

I came to New York when I was over my jet-lag, slathering with the memory of all my old favorites. The lasagna, the tacos, the pizza and hamburgers all had the exciting smell, look and aura of good food. The first moment biting down into them was bliss – the sense of fulfillment after long absence. But as I chewed this feeling faded away. The Mexican place was packed with Americans lured by the scented smoke and fever of the little place. But I can assure you, it would have been empty in Mexico. The carne pastor looked good, and smelled good, but lacked that oomph of flavor I had tasted many times in Mexico. The lasagna was very fresh and creamy, but it too lacked that punch. Its mushrooms lay there, forlornly bland. And I do not mean the lasagna was not spicy, though this might be inferred from the fact I had spent a year in Sichuan. But it was not that. I know because the tuna sandwich I ate that first day in the coffee shop was heavenly, even with the bread untoasted.

The food I ate was on the whole not unlike a beautiful woman (or man, if you like) who bores. The food I ate was exactly like the people chosen by network television to star in reality shows: if one took a subway car of 57 New Yorkers, the networks would inevitably choose the two most attractive people with the least to say. Like it or not, I have started eating with my mouth. China ruined me. That slice of pizza I ate last night looked and felt right, with crispy thin crust and soft warm cheese. But shake whatever I could onto it – garlic powder, peppers, more cheese – I could not shoehorn any flavor into it. It was not delicious; it was pleasant, inoffensive. Yeah, that is the right word for most of these disappointments: pleasant. Like many American people, who project great vitality and health, with combed hair and teeth scrubbed bright – they are bland as sin, with hardly an unorthodox thought in them. You are what you eat, I guess.

Sichuan trained my tongue. I came back super thin, but I ate well every day over there.

The fact that Americans tend to emphasize “atmosphere” in dining out is revealing. This focus on atmosphere means that one wants a feeling, a fantasy of a different setting or culture – an imaginatively different environment of which the food is a (symbolic) part. In such cases of “eating with the mind,” the food only needs to be different in some way from other foods, it only needs to fit the exotic scenery. It is mental data that lets one sit back and think, “how interesting!” It lets one sink back into the state of suspended disbelief and feel the satisfaction of “eating Thai.”

Eating with the mind is closely related to language. Eating with the mind is a mental anticipation built around two elements: luscious images and a caption which frames and enhances them. Last night I consumed a chicken breast stuffed with seafood. The photograph on the box showed the (frozen) white meat bursting with rich, glistening scallops and lobster, and the words sold the photograph as chicken breast with “succulent lobster and scallop stuffing.” The anticipated idea of seafood overwhelmed the reality that it was a frozen product (the least flavorful meat on the bird) pumped with additives. Chinese believe that freezing, and even refrigerating, tends to kill the vitality of food. This seafood-stuffed chicken breast went in my mouth with anticipation. But it was dead food, lifeless, embalmed in a factory.

Chinese care little for atmosphere in restaurants, except as a marker of status. They don’t care much about variety. They only care about taste. Inasmuch as some Chinese people are paying more attention to atmosphere, to novelty, and to service, it is an outgrowth of economic reforms and rising incomes for some. The “experience” of going out to eat is acquiring its own independent value apart from taste. So nicer Chinese restaurant menus are beginning to resemble American menus, with lots of adjectives and unusual combinations. But I cannot say the food at such places tastes better than the hole in the wall for students at Luzhou Medical College. The elaborate dishes are an accessory to the excitement of being rich and raising toasts to one’s friends. They are a sidenote, an expensive decoration.

In this country, expensive restaurants and dedicated hobbyists at home produce two exceptions to the overall blandness of food cooked for the mind.

Recent Chinese interest in restaurant décor and service are aimed, not so much at one’s individual imagination, as at the collective social ritual and status that goes with it. Hence many nicer Chinese places are aesthetically bombastic and magnificent, with far less interest in the intimacy, dimness, and rough edges of US establishments, which aim at a sleepy contemplativeness – a serene, soothing cover for the nervous individual crouched in the unfriendly headlights of the market. Chinese restaurants are for shouting, toasting, laughing: for a heady celebration of the violence of the market and the way people with the wealth to feast have managed to ride it to their own benefit. There is a triumphalism of a gilded age.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

the acrobats

Walking to the movie theatre in Luzhou to see what was playing I saw a mass of people gathered in a circle, some crowded on the department store steps. Kenny G’s saxophone wafting from the store was broken to bits by a loud disco beat coming from the open circle in the heart of the crowd. I pushed in closer and saw two men on unicycles and a third, microphone in hand, working the crowd. “Do I see a five yuan note there? Is that a five? That’s a generous person there, I can see. . . .What else is there? Some coins? Obviously the difficulty of retrieving coins is much greater; will they succeed in doing so?”

The unicyclists were young, half man and half bike: cyclotaurs. They wore circus wear, red Chinese shirts hanging open with velvet vests inside. Their clothes were dirty, and their feet were sheathed in greasy black cloth shoes (known here as “China flats”). All in all they were not too unlike a country cook after a shift, except for the small bikes welded to their asses. They jigged front and back, front and back.

On the ground bills were wadded and strewn. And they began to collect. They accomplished this in a flash, rolling back the hips and diving swiftly with the hand. The roll backwards gave them the split second of balance they needed to swoop down and grab the bill. Occasionally they would swoop down and recover shakily, nearly barging into the crowd and yanking themselves back only inches from the startled faces of the citizenry. After the rippling, the startling, there were smiles. And the beat kept on, and the strange birds kept swooping and pecking at the ground, flapping their gaudy wings about.

When I came back a few minutes later I saw the little girl who had previously acted as a helper perched on the shoulders of one of the bikers. The patter of the strong man with the mike went on. “As you may realize, the difficulty of two people retrieving money from a moving cycle will be considerably greater. . .” The girl, maybe seven years of age, wore a pink leotard and thick tights. She stretched her arms wide, flying in a circle, and suddenly clasped the boy’s head and slipped down so she was riding his back. At the key moment he let go one of her legs, she swung low on his back, and he dove down for the bill. I threw a bill into the circle too, and I saw money growing out of his mouth. Chinese consider money a morally polluted thing, and it is dirty as well. And he was stuffing it in his mouth, eating it as she picked it up, disgorging it into a bucket when his mouth got too full.

I went into the supermarket for some cookies and when I came out a ladder rose above the crowd. It shook. A small shape was ascending. A woman lay on her back on a table, rear braced with pillows. Her legs stuck into the air, quaking pillars supporting a board, on which the ladder stood. And the girl climbed the ladder, pausing again and again, like a small and querulous animal sniffing the air for danger. She wove her body between the rungs from one side to the other.

“This performer began practicing with her mother at the tender age of five. As you can see, in this open air performance, she is equipped with safety equipment neither above her nor below her. You see no halters, no safety net below her. A fall would result in bone breakage at least; at the worst, spinal paralysis or even fatality.

“Until 2003 we lived in our hometown in ~~, Hunan, when a flood swept away our home. Since then we have lived a wandering life, “selling art” to stay alive. This young girl has suffered countless falls from this very ladder; yes, she has shed numberless tears. I can see there must be three hundred people enjoying our performance this evening, and if each and every one of you were to pluck one yuan from your wallet. . . “

And at this moment the girl had formed a ring, her body bent backward, legs pulled under and feet hooking around her shoulders which were arched downward. She hung on the rung, rocking slowly forward and back, to and fro. And tomorrow where would she be? And in 30 years would she have been promoted from the ladder to the table and flat on her back, watching a “daughter” of her own trembling twenty feet above? And would she feel drops of tears and sweat splatter on her own body from above? And how could she not feel every ache as her own, a body of memory there on the table within the body of flesh and bone?

Monday, June 4, 2007

turning egyptian

November 6, 1998

Something came over me on the way back from Ramses Station. Cairo felt different. I felt different walking through it. Arriving in Cairo a second time from Alexandria I was seeing it anew, though everything I saw I had seen before, which can only mean that it has thrown the hem of its robe over me so I see it from the inside. Hold out my hand and it is not the same hand, there is a hue of Egypt on it, the robe colors the light. Egypt has started to remake me. If I had left before today it would have meant nothing to me, there would have been no loss because Egypt would have been merely a scroll of quaint pictures instead of the monumental being suffering alive for millennia. Leaving Egypt I would have left nothing of myself, but now it is inside of me. Leave it and I suffer amputation, as I suffer for those other places as impossible to forget as loved faces, old and still odd, but known. . .

It is I that have changed, and not it. It has gone inside me like a disease whose symptoms are bouts of forgetfulness of home, bouts of euphoria, delusions of understanding. Retracing my path of yesterday toward the statue of Mestafa Kemal I walked surely. My feet were as steady as stones and my eyes as light and fast as hawks. In my new bondage I was freer. I saw the city in its impossible collage of dusty dilapidation and bright pastel. Past the quirky kitsch and cheer of shoe stores and bakeries, past the French style buildings ornamented with dingy plaster wreaths and cornucopias I saw the peach colored Cosmos Cinema. I looked up and saw the sign on the eight floor, “New Palace Hotel,” where I had stayed my first night.

I slowed passing the run-down cafeteria where I had sat with David that night, the wonder and disbelief alternating with forebodings of psychic collapse and disintegration which got stronger as he shook my hand and got in the taxi, leaving me. I saw my face in the glass, this different Egyptianized face. I passed on, remembering the very stretch of sidewalk where, the morning after, I shakily steadied myself, setting my mental sights on the gates of the American University, yet making myself take in each old man, tissue vendor, Baladi woman in black, Peugot taxis one by one – to consider each one in such a way that the unfathomable alienness of Egypt as a whole would not drown me – send my fragile mind crying, shivering for refuge where there simply was no refuge.

I remembered that night and that morning – before sleeping I had opened the small photo album that was perhaps the only refuge I had, and looked at pictures of my family, friends, pictures of other places already inside me. I looked at them so as to be able to lie down in the darkness without tumbling away – panicking – before sleep saved me. As it was, I started writing a sentence but could not finish; closing my eyes I felt my feet slippery on the edge, had to open my eyes on the dim ceiling a few times to remember I was not falling, even though the sight of it reminded me of the strange place I was trapped. And it was the kind of trapped whereby to run outside was even worse. I held on because I had to. Sleep came, and the next day I found my first friend, Ntoko, video game-loving Cameroonian.

September 9, 1999
Frozen here, I’m caught and want to be caught and held while I struggle. . . feel I could walk for weeks and still be in Cairo’s embrace of dusty baroque stone and facades of joviality and indifference and roughness on every side – facades over repressed passion, a passion like mine. But the tactility of walking the streets is powerful, one’s bare skin brushed by arms of people shouldering by, by the closeness of their eyes, by the bus fumes unrepentant, by the unrelinquished roughness of shops and old men’s bristly jaws, by the loud debate and assertion, by the mad scent of guava from the juice bars, and one’s mind cannot flee the impossibility of flight from humans. So if you walk, on and on, a hopeless assertion of mobility, you can reach spiritual orgasm, an exertion and a letting go of self, a release of defensive posture, a lying slack for invasion by sensuality both rough and sweet – in sound and noise, scent and stink, clutter and coziness, caress and slap. People hate Cairo and love it, sunk in it. It will never be what anyone wants it to be, yet it barks out what it is anyhow, it brands you indelibly with what it is, it is what it is, and I give in, yes: held like a fly in honey.

observing wadi, 1983

Wadi and Cocki are the nicknames for my little brothers Robert and Scott

Living room, 6:15: Wadi sits in a chair, looking bored, thumb in mouth, walks over by mom who is on the couch and leans on the edge watching TV. He is wearing his Hulk shirt. He says to mom: “Mom, that plant grew big.” To Scott: “scott, Scotty, look!” he shoves a cracker in his mouth. He grabs another one while staring at the TV. “Mommy look, mommy look!” he says about a toothpaste ad. Scott wants a cracker. “Cotti they are all gone,” Rob says. He creeps into the kitchen, grabs another pack, and brings it into the living room, but mom says No. He climbs on the couch, turns the thermostat, goes and opens the front door, and goes out the other door. On the front lawn, he reaches up and tries to touch the flag, watches me, wondering why I keep following him. Mom asks if he has to go, he shakes his head. He puts his thumb in his mouth, pulls open the door, still watching me. When I follow him in, he says, “Brian, you’re writing about us – what are you writing?”

Later: as dad worked on the truck I wandered into the open garage. To my amazement I saw Scott prancing about on top of the camper. Surprised, I kept asking how he got up there. He did not say much, but then something quickly drew my glance away from Cocki. I turned and saw a guilty-faced Wadi standing motionless. I looked a little more and saw something dripping from behind his back. Looking down, my gaze rested on a small dark pool at his feet. Oh no! he must have wet his pants, I think at first. But then I reasoned that this liquid was a little too thick and rich to be you know what. “Wadi,” I began curiously, moving toward him. From behind his back he drew grampa’s yellow sprinker, dripping. He was quickly very cooperative. “it’s oil,” he said innocently, “I put it in the sprinkler.” He even showed from where he got the oil.

I dashed outside to find dad behind the noisy truck and just as I did I got a fleeting glance of a small figure fleeing toward the house. I told dad about it and said he was hiding. He said, “well, he has good reason to hide, that’s the second time he’s done it.” After cleaning up the mess, I went inside to try and scare Wadi out of hiding. Robert! Robert! You are in big trouble! Dad’s gonna spank you! Not until ten minutes later did he show.

Later, at lunch, as mom, gramma, and grampa were bustling about, Wadi and I began to act up. We started to throw crusts around, laughing. I’d call him a poopy. He’d reply by saying “You’re a pooly pooly in a BM!” Scott would laugh, shouting BM. I’d drink his milk, telling him to eat his poopy, and he would throw some crumbs at me. Mom would yell at us. Then I crammed some bread down Rob’s pants. He squirmed around in his seat, both hands down his pants. Just as Jen came in I said, “ew, Wadi, gross! Look, Jennifer!” and she would look sickened. Finally he pulled out most of the bread, looked at me and said, “you dirty rat.” Laughing, he ran into the living room, me in pursuit. I pulled him to the floor, shrieking.

Two nights ago, after dinner, Cocki and I wandered into the garage. Climbing up on a seat, he said, “deos – buttoofly cage!” and pointing. I asked him closely where it was. Looking unsure, he began to walk around the garage. “Where is it, Cocki?” I persisted. “umm. . . ohhh. . . deo dis!” he said, pointing triumphantly at a garbage can. “buttooflies in doggoo can.”

the bump in cheyenne

That summer evening in the camper was a typical looking night. Cheyenne’s only interest to us that day had been the gift shops and the Safeway store. But now, as we neared another standard gas station, it seemed of little interest to us – except maybe for a bargain soda. The macaroni was on the stove, and we were all involved in our own little worlds, expecting supper soon after gas – probably by moonlight at a dreary rest stop. My mind had strayed to greater things though.

I, as a guard of a Union train and its passengers during the Civil War, thought it my duty to protect them. Firing through the windows of our train car, I saw the enemy train racing past, firing into ours. Quick, up front! Reloading, I climbed up into the overcab. There lay Jennifer in a classic pose of stoic boredom: lying flat on her stomach, head in her hands, eyes staring sightlessly. Karen, sensing a 35 cent soda, was climbing down from the bed. But I had no time for this nonsense: I had a battle to fight. Take aim – CRASH!!

The world turned upside down as we left the street. In an instant it had happened – the biggest bump! The tiny drainage ditch, crossed at an angle, had turned the camper into mayhem. The results, disasterous. Poor, unsuspecting Jennifer, was hurled onto her back in an instant, where she lay stunned, from which she never fully recovered. Innocent Karen, wishing only for a cold drink and undeserving of such punishment, hit the floor, bottom first. Our would-be dinner lay also upon the floor. Kathleen, our cook, later fought valiantly to save at least some of it, so that others might partake of its cheesy flavor. To others in the cab, I know not of their ordeals, although assuredly great.

But of all these disasters, I know not of any greater than mine. I lay there, shocked, my loaded musket unused, the hostile train mysteriously escaped, gone from memory – the battle lost! Of course the counters and shelves of the camper were cleaned in the wink of an eye, but the trip, in spite of the catastrophe, was not a total loss. And in reverence I know that in time all mankind wilt know of this, the big bump, greatest page in the history of our life.

July 4, 1983 (age 14)

Sunday, June 3, 2007

flower for Rinfahim

I woke just before my alarm went off at 5:20. Eating good savory fuul in bread as I passed the Cairo Opera House, handing a pound to the beggar woman who sleeps on the bridge, I was the first one to the boathouse. The sun was inches above the buildings above the Nile. Of course the fisherfolk were already in the water. Gradually athletes and athletes-to-be and coaches showed up. I stayed until 9, rowing or sitting in two different boats. It was the first time I or Karim learned anything, the big-bellied jovial coach sitting in the bow of the tippy four-man boat instructing us. He told me my shoulders were too tense and I realized in 29 years no stranger had read in me such an accurate physical detail. It wasn’t easy; I banged my pinky on one clumsy sweep. He ordered me to look at Karim’s back rather than my oar so I was forced to extend my senses through the oar, to feel it splash too low as I rolled forward, swinging it back, or break free too easily.

We rowed, hardly aware so intent we were, under the bridge humming with cars, and back under. Then he turned his attention on the other two rowers, so Karim and I hunched forward, oars nestled up against our bellies to drag the water’s surface, and watched large clumps of dislodged water plants float past, trailing rainbows of oil, looking like sea monsters in the hazy glare.

We let off the two rear guys and let in a girl and a boy. She stepped in behind me as a dockmate held the slender boat steady, and I heard him ask her name. “Rinfahim,” she said sweetly, and the confounded man blurted several attempts at the unusual name as she laughed and repeated it. “It could be an actresses,” she said and I could hear her smile. I knew she was claimed, for she had sat next to one of our fellow rowers while waiting, both somber as tombs of love, and she was so damn young but that was why I loved being near her, hearing her voice half-shy still, a whisper of breeze amplified by a microphone accidentally at hand, and musical laughter not at all intending melody, as the big coach fell in love with her, standing in the bow, leaning against the cord around his belly, springing any joke into his instructions just to provoke that music, his wispy hair crested up by the breeze over his massive, granite head, his gestures and smiles those of a conductor pouring affection over an adored musician who knows she is adored, and provoked to song. Then I knew what it was for the old to love the young: midway (in two ways) between the girl and the craggy captain.

“Bravo alaiki ya Rin!” he would bellow at her, echoing in me slumped forward, looking sideways and seeing only her oar flash out of the water, not needing to see her face. A big bunch of plants slipped by against the boat and out of it the coach plucked a pink flower and put it beside himself and I smiled at the coincidence of my mind and his, allegedly as distant as two banks of a cultural canyon – and at how alive I felt there on the River Nile.

I also ran a mile waiting for another boat. The only people out on the street at 7 am were men in ill-fitting uniforms with machine guns, and two fisher-folk waifs. The exercise, the girl behind me in the boat, and the coach giving her the stray flower, and being out on the polluted, free water, made me very happy the rest of the day.

famous beans

The fuul stand out left of my doorway is a bewildering ritual: I round the corner, edge my way in among the shouting, money-waving men, and wait for benevolent attention which never comes. If I observe closely enough, I think, I’ll discern the pattern of pleading, demanding, and granting, and thus myself be granted a pocket of bread with beans and lime juice. But this morning it just didn’t happen. Yesterday too.

There is an old man. He is quite old. He is the engine of the operation. He has been ladling beans and dousing them with the right blend of oils and salts and juices for so many decades he is simply a master. Even I can see that. What normally would be a brown goop – something like refried beans – takes on a luster of tastiness when he flings powders and oils negligently over them. Are we just bedazzled by his air of grizzled authority? Or reduced to a calculation of numbers of consumers in finding our own appetites? For just fifty yards down the sidewalk, in the sun, is a pitiful stand with few enough people standing around it so as to be actually visible – making one wonder how bad the slop they are spooning out must be.

Which causes me to just stand there, at the exalted stand, because twenty other men are mad for the old man’s concoctions. He wears a misshapen cap, like a skullcap stretched over a giant head once, and now flopping to one side. I have noticed one pattern. Once the man has dished up all the fuul in his mixing bowl, he sets aside the bowl and pulls his whole jumble of rumpled bills out of his apron pocket and piles them on the counter. Then he gives change to all the people who last paid. Whether he remembers each one is unlikely, judging by his hesitant, slightly bumbling manner. The eaters, who have stood around wolfing the beans and tomatoes from tin plates, must all be regulars and hence honest. Maybe the cultish makeup of the patrons is what causes me to be ignored. But aside from that one pattern of beans-money-beans, I can make no sense of the scene.

There seems to be little relation between the vehemence of customer’s appeals and the server’s pace. When a dozen people are competing for change or for service they dither on details, such as cutting limes, or arbitrarily serve and keep serving one person. When the appeals die down they may turn industrious and methodical. They are in little hurry, regardless. I suppose they are famous enough they have little need to hurry. There are always plenty of customers whatever they do. Their attitude may be described as pre-capitalist for not deigning to expand the operation to soak up “surplus market capacity.”

However long I wait the number of people in front of me remains the same. But finally I gave up: I had seen no clue that would serve me in getting beans; didn’t even know what I should say, let alone shout in front of strangers. The most vocal seemed to get served hardly any sooner than the silent.

So I walked over to the pitifully unshaded cart and was served right away. I noticed the spooner was in his thirties, and actually looked at me. He performed all steps. His beans were damn good, even cooled down in my refrigerated classroom 409, and I wondered if, thirty years down the road he will not have moved to the shade and lost any need to ask customers, “What do you want?” I suppose he will deserve his tiny despotism of beans then, just for having done his time with the pell mell demands, grasping and reaching every morning. By that time too he will have a younger woman at his side to spoon the tomatoes, wrap the sandwiches to go, and be actively arbitrary. To handle the people he will just mix, douse, and spoon – a purist, a skilled specialist of taste, in a noisy sidewalk niche. Maybe he will be more of a capitalist in a more capitalist world. But the way he waits for leftover customers, fatalistically knowing he’ll have to wait for the old man’s death, tells me he is still from the old school, and the old school dies slow.

Cairo, September 20, 1998

cairo barbershop

The sun throws a square on me. A dog barks from a rooftop in the hellish white landscape yawning out beyond my window. He is lonely; he pestered a woman. She brandished a brick. He was cowed. Last night when I went down on the street perfumed smoke lay in the busy air; the Eid holiday is coming and goats and cows munch grass before butcher shops. This morning, I throw open the windows -- the scent of burning plastic invades our rooms.

Sitting in the barbershop the insistent waver of Umm Kalthum’s scratchy voice lulled me out of the magazine I was reading. Two men were playing backgammon. They were in their thirties, tossing the dice, rapidly responding. One man tossed the dice with a downward swipe of the wrist. I smiled to myself, felt lulled by or into the atmosphere, heard a third man comment on their quiet game. When the barber motioned me to the chair I sank further into it all; the dregs in the tea glass in front of the mirror were as rich a golden brown as my silence. The barber too, inquisitive a moment, was silent once he ascertained my attitude of indifferent confidence in his ability.

His scissors clacked constantly like a hovering bird plucking at my hair; closing my eyes I felt the metal beak touch my brow a moment and fly clacking away again. Still the music plucked away at me and her voice smoothed me right back down. He touched the buzzing shaver to the back of my neck. A spray of water tingled over my scalp and his hands rubbed my hair wet. In the mirror were our two faces; we communicated silences, mine of contentment, his of focus. He drew my part slowly several times, with an architect’s precision for line. I heard the group of men joking. One finds a culture’s genius of male communion in obscure places.

Walking home I saw the men sitting in shadows, half inside doorways, saw the group of boys digging down into a sandpile, saw two boy grease monkeys carrying a metal frame, saw a middle aged couple walk by thick-middled preoccupied with the most mundane of worries, heard two street sweepers conferring under a tree, heard a breeze walking across treetops, crossed the line into our neighborhood and saw the sheep and cows tied, saw the carcasses hanging from hooks, lit by strings of cheerful lights.

hepatitis wisdom

The apartment is empty and spare, the white sky subdued
Fiats honk tentatively below.
I’m left in peace on day X of my illness
no more my body’s droning quarrels to occupy this space
no more blankness of patient, prayerless waiting.

Deep in the night my mind, so long quiescent, roused,
rife with bitter resistances, rewordings, rejoinders.
I’m an ideologue-to-be, twenty nine years to life.

In with the plans ran memories:
A whore stood on the stairs at Beijing Station
rivers of men disgorged from the underground lapping at her feet
her lipstick was not well-drawn
as if stenciled by a hasty giant or industrial machine
her body squeezed by tight clothes

I was in the middle of laughter when I saw her,
bounding up ahead of friends to the top
solitary she waded in the shallows of the river of men
my eyes swung aside at the signal of her lipstick
the signal of her stance, stare, and dress.

She gave the impression of looking for someone in particular
someone long-awaited, long-wondered
as if she were not a whore but a girlfriend, a sister.

As I passed her watching her eyes found me
she felt the question of my look
as if I were not a stranger but a boyfriend or brother unrecognized.
Was the illusion in me or in her?
A whore should be harder than that.
The illness of humanity still lingered in her.

Last night three Chinese girls I know barged in uninvited
commandeered my symptoms for comment,
scraped crust from my pots and pans,
cooked, watched me eat, demanded I see a doctor:
the fierce compassion of young girls.

If only illness softens us, weakens us, humanizes us,
what is our hardness but health unchecked, the arrogance of
sustained growth, a cancerous bloom of power?

May 23, 1999 Cairo

islands of memory

The sea is still the sea
let not her majesty
the paler be
for trash astrew
on her shores of blue
and gold.
Such a mark is less blight
than a mosquito to alight
on the sun’s flowering flame:
her brilliance is the same,
the sea
our puny evils never to tame.

My childhood ends today on this brown beach strewn with white stones and washed by waves. The air sparkles with droplets as if there could be no sorrow in such a passing. Syrian families stroll down the sand or bend over collecting the roundest stones; the third day of the Eid is a happy day for them. My childhood ends not because my childhood dreams have been fulfilled but because I have gone beyond every last one of them, and nothing remains to be done of them; not because I am brave but because I have lost the illusion of courage; because I need love, and sex if it is not to be had – both is best of all, though most often I go with neither; and because I see death coming slowly, like a horse down a distant beach. And all the deeds of childhood form islands of memory on the sea of forgetting, whose waves erode the beaches, tumbling memories into the sea, stones unresistant.

January 22, 1999 Lattakiyah, Syria

when names disappear

There was a minute or so yesterday I forgot names and maps. It was as I ascended past Nawo Village on the scooter into lusher, fresher climate. My visor was open, the fresh air and warm sun overcame me in a shock. The shock was sensual pleasure after long separation: suddenly a beautiful woman disrobes and presses against you.

For a minute I rode along slightly disoriented, awash in heaven, uneasy. The power of the wave of beauty swept away the mental map I normally spin anywhere I go, the space-defining thumbtacks of self-orientation. I just drove on, on, in wonder and vague unease – as if I were about to float away from the surface of the road. Names too vanished. I know because I fumbled briefly about in my brain for them. When it occurred to me “Taiwan” was the name for where I was, it rang foreign.

This is when we have touched the earth: when the political name for a place loses its aura of naturalness in our mind, and we look at that mountain or stream as having no name, and we, too, the same: nameless. Rounding the folds of the mountain I rode through pockets of air cold and warm.
The other side was less lush, and more marked by man.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

back to madura

In Sabri’s House

Sabri, my old student and I rode on the backs of two motorcycles, surfing over waves of stone. I sit in the sitting room, 6 or 7 little boys sit on the floor watching a 70s slapstick comedy with two guys fighting a crocodile in a river. Some boys are totally naked, others are wrapped desultorily in a sarong. A snake enters the picture, and a kid shouts “Olar!” (snake). The father, dressed in batik shirt, blue and green plaid sarong and black peci, pulls out another clove cigarette and asks,

“In your language how do you say ‘olar’?”

“Snake,” I say.

“Sss-nake,” he repeats with a smile. The kids giggle and say it too.

Apparently yesterday was the Big Day (Idul Fitri) here. On the table in front of me are several plastic jars full of sandwich crème cookies. The homemade Madurese cookies are amazingly arid, dry enough to turn to sweet powder textured like granular snow. .. but these store bought ones show there is extra money in the house. Sabri is
the only person in this area to have attended college – albeit dirt cheap, studying Islamic Education at nearby An-Nuqayah. His passion, confessed last night, is to “become very rich.”

On the TV, the movie turns to dialogue, which blurs in and out, and the kids remember the novel word, and there arises a chorus:


“Se-nake” (ha ha).

“chunek” (hee hee hee).

“ssnake” (hu hu huuu).

When I first got here, most of these antsy kids were buck naked. Now, after my amused attention, embarrassed parents seem to have ordered them into sarongs, which they wrap variously around themselves, the way we fiddle with a piece of paper or a pen when we have nothing to do. Over their heads, around their knees, etc.

I turn to them and tell them the word “Nose.” They stare at me saying nothing. It is their second word of English and the first time they have been addressed by a foreigner (not to mention a Javanese). I repeat the word a few times and one finally remembers his voice. On the TV, Benjamin, a goofy big guy, tries to cut a steak Western style with knife and fork, causing the steak to fly into the face of a Westerner sitting nearby who, enraged, calls Benjamin a “monkey” and dumps gravy over his head. The kids laugh as Benjamin licks his lips.

Now there is a scene of people in a nightclub dancing to Dangdut music, that of sinuous women’s voices and fluttering flute which creates moving and twisting and swaying surprising to a friend of mine who said, “How weird! This is a Muslim country – how can they get away with that?”

Outside a few newcomers gather and exclaim “tourist!” and look at me through the glass. A conversation of sorts ensues, with them repeating laughingly the words I have learned, or remembered today (from my time in Madura years before), while asking Sabri about me, or about religion in the USA. A curious man comes in and exclaims,

“Outsiders are so big, and Madurese are tiny tiny. We just nyornit at you when you come here.”

“What’s that?” I say to Sabri. He goes behind a curtain and looks out at me. “Ah, peer out,” I say. The man turns to the kids watching and says,

“So if I am sleeping and I catch you sneaking a look at me, you’ll say, ‘I was nyornit you,’ and I will say No, you peew at me,” and we all laugh.

Minibus to Guluk Guluk

The windows of the taxi van fog up, and rain runs in rivulets and sheets over them. Bumping softly from Sumenep to Ganding I feel the van is going through a cloudy sky. Village people in their finery are squeezed together, chatting. Just now we stopped to let people out. The gaunt old man in sarong, jeans jacket and black songkok hat sitting next to the door could not open it, so the driver had to get out and run around to do so. The handle not working, he struggled to pull open the window while rain streamed down his face.

Finally, the door opened and the first man put his black velveteen hat right under the river funneling off the roof. Everyone accepted the squeezing and contorting needed to get out as calmly as village people usually do. The rain soaked them as they, helpless sheep, struggled to extricate a foot from the bunched up passengers, without losing a sandal. They sometimes joke or jibe at themselves, “ohh I better run!” but rarely do they complain about proximity to other people’s bodies, nor to the elements.

Ferry from Kalianget, Madura, to Jongkar, Java

A silver fish leaps out ahead of the ferry and flipping its tail dances far in front. The ferry passes fishing boats. Some are gaily painted, with names. One has tassels on the rigging and mirrors hung on the bow. Oddly contrasting are the waifs pulling in the nets, wrapped in skirts of plastic, heads like flowers of straw in floppy hats; fabric covers their faces. So when they turn to wave, or jeer the pilot who has steered too close, or wave us away, they are more like apparitions or children than men.

We feel a cloud cover the sun, thankfully. People are sprawled about all over the bow; peanut shells litter the deck; boys in pecis, smoking, cluster at the tip, looking down at the water.

I entered Madura as I entered it 5 and a half years ago in Tanjung Perak, Surabaya: the women selling salak and rice in newspaper, faded tops and bright sarongs and strong brown faces crowding onto the bus were my first sight. This time I walked out to the bow and crouched down amidst the people there, in front of the new motorcycles. As usual they said nothing to me but their eyes were always on me, a quiet crowd: twentyish men near the splashing water speculating with some cynicism but no unfriendliness; older people with mere uneradicable wondering; children more like the old. As I crouched on a wooden block a large woman in green head scarf asked me gruffly, in polite wording, if I could make a place for her. To my left squatted a man like the Madurese men of old, dressed in black – his sarong was a plaid with purple mixed into the black.

His face was that peculiar meeting of force and gentleness, or perhaps surrender, weariness, that I have come to know in men over 35 here: the cheekbones, brows and chin accentuated by the hollowing years of work does to the soft parts of the face, a browning and a tautening. That effect, that masculinity American men revere in advertising, combines with weakness in the eyes that is left out of the Marlboro man, a sense of inevitability and knowledge of eventual surrender that only comes, I suppose, with an intimate daily sense of the body’s limits and energy’s decline. It is not that he has surrendered but that he is surrendering every day, and knows it: whereas we blessed with offices can ignore it, run from it, feel threatened by it.

The man crouched, rough bare arms and thick brown fingers around a little girl who was as fresh as her father was weathered. She stood next to him so I saw their faces close, in profile, as the father raised his arm and pointed at some of the ships at anchor and spoke low to her. I saw her smile, lips move responding, and his slight smile. Her dress was a bright yellow. The Madurese easily accommodate such extremes as this old black and new yellow, knowing perhaps more realistically the range of sea we humans can sweep.

And now I leave Madura as I left it last then, by this Eastern tip, letting it slip away amongst the boats and the bogans, bamboo fishing platforms seeming to skid above the water like huge water bugs. Shade is scarce. The tiny rim along this left bulwark narrows, and sun creeps over my knees and toes. Some men unroll a small tarp and let it down. Many people just lie in the sun, a handkerchief over their faces, and sleep. One boy up on the little platform on the tip is still awake, he has no room to lie down, his arms hang over the railing bars, his bare feet resting atop the lip of the bulwark. He wears a striped sarong, peach shirt and white and blue trimmed cap.

Yesterday I found Zaini’s house, asking people at the warung to be sure, staring hard at the shape and distance of the roofs over the fields of corn and measuring it with my memory, or what remains in it. A new house had sprung up next to the path, confusing me. But as I entered the fields I knew it was right, saw the little graveyard, stones newly painted, and the curve of the path around it.

My entrance caused no shock. But swiftly people gathered, smiling at me smiling at them. I remembered the faces of the children, saw others I did not know, like their older brothers and sisters, some with dull reddish hair, skin rashes, slack looks. We exchanged questions, simple ones.

Where’ve you been?

Are you healthy?

Has Zaini sent you money?

Are you married?

How many kids do you have now?

What’s in that box you have there?

Oh, I can’t tell you. I can only give it to Zaini’s dad. But I can tell you there are three types of gift in it: one is from Dasuk Village, one is from Japan, one is from America. They smile and look at the box wondering. One by one the menfolk appear and I rise and bow to shake their hands.

“Who is that?” I ask, remembering the little girl’s truculent sweet face.

“I’is,” says Zaini’s older sister. I’is is the family prize I can see, healthy and strong and pretty even as her mother’s beauty and strength begins to go. She buttons her shirt from nursing another baby and brushes back her hair.

Rain starts coming down and tea is placed in front of me. “Where is the old man who always did this?” I ask, putting my arm straight out in front of me, then letting it droop. The vulgar old man always made me laugh with his exhortations to virility, as hard a dick as possible in the face of women folks’ challenges. I think he is dead.

“Oh, he is still here,” they say, laughing. He appears, only three teeth in his grin now, and pretty soon he is back at it to the delight and embarrassment of all. Zaini’s mom is not here from the fields yet to chastise him.

Kerra!” he says, arm out stiff. I remember the word, repeat it laughing. He continues his lesson. “If you are not stiff (kerra), then women will kick you around (elanchot)!” The English word “kick” really fails before the crudity and force of the word he uses, “Elanchot,” as he lifts his sandaled foot and demonstrates a hard kick. He used to come up with as many violent words as possible, “elbow in the crotch!” “twist the ears!” words I immediately grasped the essence of just from the sounds – or imagined I did. His voice too is gruff and slightly slurred. When describing the curses of limpness his voice too is tender and wheedling.

Lemas, maslemas,” he says, hand drooping and wagging side to side. We all laugh.

Zaini’s father comes in and I greet him. His arms are covered with rash apparently from corn leaves. He is weaker now, but still lights up a smoke. He has few words. His wife is the real mover, the wise one I suspect. The rain starts to let up and I say, I must go, I am going to Java; I repeat it through their expected chorus of dismay and exhortations to stay the night. The old man points and my box and points at his crotch.

“You want this?” I say, pulling off a piece of tape and offering it to him. He makes a face. “It is comfortable, feels great,” I say. Then I rise and give the box to Zaini’s father. “Don’t open this until I reach the road. Promise?” I say.

“Promise,” he says. I step off the porch and say Salam and wish them health and get one last glimpse of all their faces before turning, sandals in hand, into the rain. I try to run along the trails but it is incredibly slick. My bare feet feel wonderful in the mud, the air is cool, I am running and in the car toward Guluk Guluk I imagine them opening the box, exclaiming to find: a Sony Walkman under the glittery tinsel; a bunch of half-ripe Kadungdung fruit from Dasuk, and at the bottom, when they think I have mocked them, an envelope with a million and a half rupiah, the equivalent of a factory worker’s wages for at least 16 months. It is good to get rid of the money. I have been carrying it for nine days.

I wonder now what they have done with it, push away the worry they will throw it away on TVs and shirts, remember that if I ever see them again they will be just as poor. I suppose if they have fun for two weeks and buy new sarongs made in Bali and a bed carved with birds and eat beef every day that is good too. Anyway Zaini’s mom won’t let it all go. They will all get a piece, but she will hold onto some of it. Maybe they will pour a cement floor in the little house where grandmother sleeps when she is not sucking siri, or betel nut: that grandmother, toothless grin still remembering my name, the one I photographed in the graveyard four years ago cutting grass, the one I thought would be dead now, looking the same age, still alive and cackling at my presence.

When I get out at Kamisan market I walk still barefoot, still happy up the road to An-Nuqayah school, my home and place of work for two years.

Silo, East Java

“There is a Dutchman in there,” says a voice from a neighboring house.

“What’s he doing in there?”

“I don’t know.”

The host bowed low and patted my hands in his two hands when I came in, speaking softly and deferentially. Only when I asked him to not inform Muqiet of my coming did he look at me and smile. The tables are littered with cigarette boxes and teacups. Now, again, do I remember what separates Java from Madura: rain, and rich soil. In Madura, the poor red soil keeps people poor. In Java, the rich black soil keeps people poor as well, by encouraging dense population for labor.

The host slips in and removes coffee cups onto a tray – gracefully, noiseless, deferentially. I should be the same way. I sit forward a bit, put down my pen, and when he gestures at my tea I only tug the saucer closer to me but do not pick it up. Usually only several urgings will bring a polite guest to sip.

Oh, it is cool here, thank god. I look at my arms, burned red on the crossing. Situbondo was hellish bright, and with that ugly feeling I crossed the terminal, that edge under the word hissed my way: “rist! Tourist!” On the way from Jangkar I had watched for signs of the burnings that took place in Octobor: 25 churches and several stores, but I see none. Situbondo, “city of santri”! (santri is an Islamic student).

The rain started pouring down on the bus south. The man sitting next to me said, “I am the sixth of eight children.”

I dropped my reserve and said, “I am number five of nine.” He turned out to be a civil servant, and I asked him – gently – about the “disturbances” that had taken place in East Java since the fall. He confidently asserted that no one “educated” would do that.

--- January, 1998

Postscript: my student Zaini, who at the time of my visit to his home in Madura was away in Malaysia working as a construction laborer, is now in Australia studying for a BA at Flinders University. His family used the money, it turned out, to repay a debt the father owed, which allowed Zaini to return home. Some years later, after the Bali bombings which killed several hundred people (and many Australians), the American organization which had posted me to teach at An-Nuqayah from 1992 to 1994 sharply reduced its number of volunteer teachers. There was no way the progressive leadership of An-Nuqayah could get a new teacher from VIA. At the same time, the war against Iraq was beginning. Soon after, the Australian government decided to begin posting English teachers to Islamic schools, and An-Nuqayah received one. The new teacher nominated Zaini for a full scholarship to an Australian university. The scholarship is paid for by the Australian government, on the assumption that increasing cultural and educational ties can only increase Australia’s security. The sensibility of their strategy only highlights the failing of the American policy of fighting Islamic radicalism: pulling back into fortress America and sending out the army to kill as many as possible.