William Vlach

Writing

Archive for the month “January, 2015”

Facing the Pacific

He stands in the sand
flings the pole forward.
Weight hook bait line
fly overhead into the surf.

He wonders what will come
from the ocean:
debris, a silver fish, ideas.
His boots are planted in the sand.

A white line of surf
moves up to his feet.
He does not move, for his
footing is solid.

It’s not.

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Je Suis Hija

Some of the earliest nasty satire is from Medieval Islamic Arabia. Hija is an Arabic form of satire. It is restricted to poetry, but is not exactly satire in the Western sense in that it is more closely resembles straight out invective. Another word for hija is dhamm, or blame. According to the Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature it lacks some of the sparkle of western satire and is generally more of a polemic. It is insulting, abusive, and highly critical. Hija has been called the abuse poetry of the Umayyads, the Muslim dynasty that ruled Moorish Spain for 700 years. The poetry is extremely course and inflammatory. These hijas, abusive and course poems, were usually aimed at rival tribes. These poems were thought to be fatal, and at times the poet led his people into battle, hurling his verses as he would hurl a spear.

Here’s a fine title for a book: The Bad and the Ugly: Attitudes Toward Invective Poetry (Hija). The book finds that only rarely were poets punished for hija, though the poet Jarir was flogged by al-Walid’s (caliph of Damascus, 668-715 AD) minions. But the typical leader’s attitude was that of Al-Ma’mun’s: “It is not my habit to have someone killed, even if his sin is grave: so should I then do it in the case of a poet?” The reason these abusive invective poets were generally not punished is that the punishments were not seen as effective and would probably incite further invective.

Hellooooo…

I imagine the ancient hija was like the French soldier in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”

A famous hija from Tayyib al-Mutanabbi (AD 915-965) who attacked the former slave and now ruler of Egypt wrote “…this black man with his pierced camel lips,” who is “pot bellied” and “a woman-like slave.” In a further poetic attack, this target, Kafour, is so unworthy that not even death will bother to take him away, “unless his hand has a trace of its stink. With loosened belt, the flabby belly breaks wind;/ neither counted among men nor yet among women.”

Satire, a long and good tradition in the West and in Islamic cultures.

1965:2015

I was fresh out of high school when Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were killed.

My elementary and middle school years were filled with white kids whose fathers worked at the factory or were ranch hands, Black kids who demanded a quarter to walk up to the gym or sat quietly in the back of class with pretty ironed hair, Latino kids who outran everybody on the field or invited me to their quinceanera. We moved to the white Sacramento suburbs after my father died. Ninth grade began with a school counselor who placed me in bonehead English.

Fuck you, Mrs. Cartensen.

The suburbs were a mix of doctor’s daughters and meat packer’s sons. The school was 100% white, except for the blind Vietnamese exchange student.

The summer I graduated three three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were shot, their bodies were covered with a bull dozer. They had been registering voters in Mississippi. This was the segregationist Jim Crow American South. 17,000 black residents of Mississippi attempted to register to vote that summer, only 1,600 of the completed applications were accepted by local registrars. Nothing subtle about that voter suppression.

Crowds gathered in front of the State Capital in Sacramento. I worked three blocks from the building in my uncle’s insurance company– opening mail, filing, looking out the window.

It was a different era, easy access to our political leaders. At the end of the demonstration I walked over to the governor, Edmund G. Brown, and asked for his autograph. I liked him. He was a bit jowly and made me think of my uncles. I was pleased he signed the back of a paper which had the words to ‘We Shall Overcome’ on the other side.

I wanted to get there, to the South, to be a part of the struggle against segregation. No way. I had just got my driver’s license. Never been out of the state.

I saw the governor again, a year later. Back then the governor’s house was an old white Victorian building in downtown Sacramento. My friend Scott and I walked along ‘H’ Street, and there he was, watering the roses. We walked over to the black iron waist high fence and called out to him. A different era indeed.

It was almost exactly a year after the three civil rights workers were killed: August, 1965. Watts had exploded. 34 deaths. Over a thousand injured. Millions of dollars of property damage.

“Hello, Mr. Governor,” I probably said. Not sure. But I know I asked him about Watts. I know because I clearly remember him holding a green hose with his right hand and saying to us, “It’s like a prison riot. It has to be put down.” His free left arm pushed the air down to the lawn.

Watts had begun with an incident with the white California Highway Patrol officers and 21 year old African-American Marquette Frye.

The governor hadn’t made the connection between the two events.

Fifty years later it is obvious.

Wouldn’t you think…

And do you know what a man says when a klansman’s gun is stuck into his ribs?

“Sir, I know just how you feel.” That was Michael Schwerner seconds before he was shot to death.

Their deaths resonate fifty years later. His impossible empathy resonates fifty years later.

Is empathy the light that can get us through this mess this time?

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