On the connection between Western poetry and the East, tradition says: poetry is our positive way of seeing the East. And the East, being poetic, belongs to poetry.
Romantic is positive, good. Poetry can be nothing but Romantic. What is not Romantic is not poetry. The Romantic defines the poetic.
And Postmodernism says: incorporation of the East into the Western Romantic tradition of poetry is a form of orientalism, that imperialist and colonialist appropriation of 'the Orient' through selected and constructed 'knowledges of the East' and re-presentations of its peoples. Romantic exoticism is nothing but the affective, aesthetic, cultural form of imperialism. Romanticism's apparently sympathetic representations of "the other" exemplify its falseness, its deceit, its complicity with empire. Romantic is negative, bad. Romantic poetry about the East is a major orientalist offender.
Several years ago I wondered: could poetry be written that would itself be a critique of romantic orientalist poetry? This meant metafiction, meta-poetry, and self-criticism in the very act of creation. But then, the Romantics did that too. In those days it was called Romantic irony, and the problem with it was that inbuilt self-criticism often became an excuse for perpetuating what was being criticized. The same problem arises here, as you can see in the following poem. All the tropes are still there, but scolding themselves, which makes everything all right, doesn't it? . . .
More significant in this first attempt at such a poem is the appearance of the gender issue, since it was about a Middle-Eastern woman. At the time I believed that this choice of subject was bound to reverse, within the poem, the Orientalist view of women in the Arab world precisely because, being a woman myself, I would have the poem admire, not degrade her. Now I believe the poem has only one use and one form of validity, and that is in telling the story of how I came to move from tropes which were then my only way of knowing about the chosen subject to something different, another way. What shows here is the struggle with the old guard, the impossibility of breaking free when you are trapped in one way of seeing. That struggle also leads to some strange mixing of metaphors.
A tall woman
A woman taller than men
her strong body firm and full
clothed and veiled all in one
dark plum colour
I want to trap
the ancient goddess in her:
bending to her Trojan son
standing guard over the Greek
But here so clear and sharp she cuts
through my Western eye
reaping other myths
so that height is the
High food shelves and harsh-lit aisles
are all the frame
to this Arab woman smiling
smiling on an unseeing husband
who hails a trio of glottal
hearty and deeply gutteral
ripe and full
plum and white
as fruit loves
hanging from the bough
two deliberate black curls
snake out from under the veil
and taper inward
downward and inward
to the plum and white
A hip is thrust out for the baby
To one leg two small children cling
as the cloth flows from the other
matching the leaning body's curve
curve as smooth as the crescent moon's
to the distant eye
and soothing like the patterned curves
on inner walls of mosques
like a smile
and stolen from
poised here serene
whose age and death
I will not see
and with her
three small clinging moons
passes the crowded bodies
floating in their bright and tunnelled void
and moves from harshest neon glare
into the night
A patriarch could have written many parts of that. A poetic Pierre Loti no doubt.1 But if I wrote as one woman admiring another, and even if for the 'right' reasons, the Orientalist tropes and romantic clichés keep intruding. Curve metaphors have always feminized the Middle East: crescent moons, arabesques, domes of mosques. Even the classic male Middle Eastern weapon, the scimitar, is 'emasculated' by references to its shape. All this precisely through the stereotype of woman as 'all curves'.
And yet it was so: something I actually saw, and that made an impression on me. All those regimentally geometrical shapes in the supermarket, with a predominance of the rectangular, could not fail to intensify the contrast of the woman's appearance with her surroundings. She created a space around her, which was that of her self (emanating from the body), her gender and her culture. That space was curved because she was at its centre. That space was curved as all space is, and it flowed out from her. The association of the curved with the feminine only becomes a problem when seen as an equation that supersedes, even pre-empts, all other possibilities, when it takes up all the space. That is exactly what stereotypes and clichés do. Similarly, it is not the feminization per se of a place or culture that is problematic (space itself, the cosmos, can be validly construed as feminine, as I have shown), but the equation of 'feminine' with 'conquerable', 'passive', 'powerless', 'invaded', 'penetrated'. Space has its own power, spreading and enveloping. Besides, to 'de-feminize' the Orient should also mean redressing the imbalances all round and 'de-masculinizing', with old tropes and new, perceptions of West European, mother-cultures. But I do not like these terms - 'de-feminize', de-masculinize'. Conquest and invasion, imperialism and colonialism are not masculine either, unless - as for the biologist or psychologist who sees a direct connection between aggression and testosterone - conquest and invasion are masculinity run amuck, which is precisely no longer valid as masculinity.
More problematic in the poem is the woman-nature, woman-fruit trope. The poem has her escaping from it, but does she really? The trope is still there, on the page, trying to look apologetically defeated, but it could just be a cover-up . . . She flees by a magic trick that is unbelievable. Frogs to princes, yes, but she is transformed far too abruptly, even for poetry's spells, from a large plum into a large planet that just as suddenly knows where it's going.
Even if we set aside the gender issue for a moment, and colonialism in its most obvious form, we are still left with Orientalist assumptions that invade our most earnest attempts at cross-cultural communication. Relationships formed at the individual level, no matter how sincere, can be full of ignorant (unknowing) patronization. The following poem was originally called "Departure of a Friend." In some ways I liked the poem, but I sensed there was something 'wrong' with it, something too subtle to be easily pinpointed. Now I understand why it felt much better to change the title. Title changes can be a remarkable way to 'dislocate' responsibility, and in this case it was so easy. All I had to do was 'blame the Americans.'
U. S. Citizens' Farewell to a Middle Eastern Friend
Do not write to us Jaafar
And do not promise to write.
Words addressed to the West may hurt.
Years ago you came to our town
By way of the big city where
You were robbed.
In that time you were full of hope;
You were more adventurous and
Now in farewell we commend you
To memories of the flower's bloom
Or the leaf's fall yesterday
In our woods
As you will bless us through burning
Sun or stars or gentle moon that
Tomorrow will be gracing your
Around these the whirlwinds of real
Horror toss up the faces of
Around these hope with nostalgia
And terror now praise Mohammed
But now you have seen old elms,
White spires nursed by setting suns,
And a self that grew and caught you
While we love to believe that your
Poets from Sasanian times
Have claimed a richer blue lustre
For your skies.
Under these you will travel to
Shiraz and its ancient neighbour,
Centre of a world that gave your
Son his name,
And there you will watch the shadows,
Shadows of the ruins as they
The days and replace the foreign
Then our eyes which are blue will
Disturb you a little and
Cause you to
Remember us Jaafar.
We can never become the other. I used to like the saying: "to put oneself in the other's shoes." I was so good at that. How sorry I (read: U.S. citizens) felt for poor Jaafar and his poor country in revolution! How sad he would be to leave behind this best of all lands! Like gender representation, comparison is wrought with problems. Impossible to move out of the self, and all its constructions - family, country, culture, etc. Everything emanates from one position, where I am standing, with all my cultural baggage, wondering why I can't board the next flight.
Feminism, too, now began to spread out to the edges of our culture, to those zones where we stand warm and smug, looking out at others. We did not know that in several Middle Eastern countries women, once accepted into the workplace, receive the same pay as men doing the same job, and this at all levels of the workforce. Or that married women do not take their husbands' names. Or that they have for centuries been able to own and acquire their own property both before and after marriage. But, you might say, that is not the issue: these women are so secluded and oppressed. Yes, and because it was such a clear-cut case of oppression (the Saudi-Arabian examples from the media being generalized across the entire Middle East and North Africa), we all knew how to attack the culture that produced it. That was why I took up my pen-sword and sallied forth with a rallying cry to gather in armies of Muslim women. But how to win them over? With sympathy, of course! It is just as well I have given names to the women in these poems, or you might not know what part of the world they were from.
Words with Flowers (from a sister)
Sitting in your shackled body
talking and sipping tea
alone with the women and children
you glimpse at the edge of the chatter
the keeper of the key
as he barges in and out
shouting or mumbling
Mother of Omar and Yasmine
he is never there.
against your future tears.
The tears are trapped at the source
far from the eye
and I am distant wishes
unable to know you
not even these flowers
Sympathy? Or pity. Why cry for the other unless in doing so I am completing the crying for myself? Why pity the other when we are travelling the same steep path?
There is no denying that women in Middle Eastern countries are oppressed, as they are in Western countries and elsewhere, in different ways. In different, and in similar ways. That poem was written before I went to the Middle East. Theory, and poetry too, cannot live without experience. I could not know 'her', I thought, because she was locked away from me, hidden from the eyes of the foreign woman as from the eyes of other men. Never know 'her'. This was what I believed until I discovered that I am her and she is me, although we will never be as one, I and she: I and a sick mother, I and a veiled university student, I and her illiterate sister, only ten years older.
We will always move in and out of each other, I and she: I and the two wives of Mahmoud . . . no . . . I meant to say: and two women, Ibtisaam and Saussaan, who share a husband, who share children and a family. I have passed through their actuality, though I did not stay, communing with each one as herself, awakening to their harmony together, though togetherness was not at first desired, but was enforced; and I recognize the private pain transformed into shared pain, and into cherishing as they help in each other's labours. In that selfsame patriarchal world they disarm the father's law from within its bounds, finding something more, with each other, than a mere modus vivendi. Here is a togetherness that makes the system work so well it overflows, transcending . . . no . . . going beyond, outside of his desires.
And Habiba. Is she necessarily alone when she is with the women and children? Might she not be just as happy, or happier, when the shouter/mumbler is not there? At night it is against the law even to try to keep her body from him; an owner must not be parted from what he owns; that is a theft. When she really wants the key, then in her own time and in her own way, she will take it, the key to her own space, large and small, public and private. She knows where it is kept; so it is already hers. Or perhaps she does really want him, and if he does not, every night, act upon a constantly renewed desire for her, then she can leave, and that is not a theft.2
There will be no tears for Sameena in marriage, no more than for you or me. And my own tears for Radhiya were indeed trapped at the source, where they should (but did not, at the time of writing), well up for myself, for all of us, to form a navigable sea, to validate the teardrop and to eliminate that very distance in my wishes, that gap of otherness across which I wanted to see her. Now we create the fluidity together, still so far apart, yet joined by the expanse we move across, sailing to each other's shores, with and without veils, furled and unfurled. It is just as well those sorry flowers, those words, did not come between us.
After I had gone to the actual places that I had thought were the sources of my poems, I went into retreat, and silence, for some years. When I began again, details had begun to matter, taking over from grand general sweeps of feeling. Small packages can travel a long way, and will more humbly and comfortably accept all that we want to charge them with. And it is not only the physical, the material and the sexual body that is political, or even that is stamped with gender.
"No details," you told me,
but small things mean.
The tea, now,
they let it in.
Yes, I declared it at Customs and
thought they would say "no" to this packet
of a half kilo.
Two gazelles, bright orange like henna,
bounding over bright orange hills,
declare themselves against a large leaf,
Pure Ceylon Tea,"
says the English, "Packed
in Sri Lanka, shipped
by the Brothers Akbar"
from Colombo to the Arab world.
"Sharka," says the Arabic, that's "Company,"
"Al Tajaariit" (I must look up this word):
"Trade, commercial enterprise,"
and then the third:
"Filistiniia." Ah! the
"Palestinian Trading Company." Thus
the Akbar Brothers
so distinguished in English, and most
enterprising in their leafy mufti,
in Arabic declare themselves.
Insist on Fresh Leaf Tea,
which is discouraged, in the West,
and you get: tiny, tasteless balls of ground up
tea twigs and dust. Or:
bags that in hot water you are supposed to jiggle.
used to being expected to accept the diddle.
Their eyes are pinholes through which the green
They have leapt and bound together
with their hills and their leaf
and then have sailed
from Sri Lanka
to the port of Aqaba
and now have flown
not like reindeer
but in a plane
to Perth, Australia.
having come through so much,
bought by you and me
"Hell" you declare
your life there.
But hell has excellent tea.
The gender of the persona, the 'I' as woman, is absent, silent in this poem. Or is she? Besides the poem's publication in an issue devoted to women's writing, so that you know in advance - or project an assumed knowledge - that the speaker is female, there is a preoccupation here with 'insignificant, domestic things.' Thus many a patriarch (perhaps not all, and certainly not all men) sets the poem aside or flicks through a few more pages with no more thought or response than a patronizing chuckle (that is, if he picked up the volume in the first place).
Tea. Not food, not of the kind that, in all its colourful and creative glory, gives the father-philosopher his excuse to be in the kitchen.3 No, tea. One of those lowly beverages, now at least, and all the more base for having once been grand. Things of the household; things minded, prepared, even mostly used, by women. And yet men still control its production and marketing (as with many things consumed by women), as in the days of empire, of which it was once a symbol. Today, in Western (or Northern or 'first world') societies, men have presided over its transformation from a primary product forced from the colonies into one 'manufactured' (ground down, bagged, packaged, contrived) at home, a product constructed for us and that we are constructed to expect to find in the market.
Outside of this commercially administrative discourse men have rarely spoken about tea, except to request/demand it. Occasionally one has discussed it in the context of that space between corporate commerce and everyday use. Prince Philip once complained of the terrible quality of the tea coming into Britain these days. The Indians heard of his remarks and riposted with observations of their own: Britain had stolen their best tea for a few hundred years and it was time to redress the wrongs, time for a reversal. I accept the brittle teadust, and even the bags, less complainingly now. It is doubly ironic, then, that tea, representing all the primary produce by which Britain sucked so many distant places into her (her?) . . . its . . . his . . . empire, should also have been both the symbol - and 'afternoon tea' the ritual - of the female British imperialist, complicit by her consumption, and the only means by which - and time of day when - she could move outside the domain and direct authority of her male counterpart into a space, at least, of her own.
With all the above connotations of 'tea' jostling with each other in my head, I found it particularly enjoyable to come across a rich, full-bodied, large-leaved tea in a Middle Eastern country (Jordan) that was formerly at the edges of that empire, a tea produced in a major tea-growing centre (Sri Lanka) - formerly very much of that empire - but the production and shipping of which are administered by a family whose people (the Palestinians) are among the colonized and dispossessed, not of yesterday's, but of our present-day world, and are constructed by the 'centre' as its outlaws, its 'terrorists', its pariahs. I enjoy the clever packaging when I see how its two languages (English and Arabic) belong to two discourses, and appeal to two sets of customers: the class that would ape the former colonizers, and the people, who remain, in spite of tensions, in sympathy with those outlaws. Yes, this is indeed a commercial enterprise, no doubt capitalist
(there are plenty of 'bourgeois' Palestinians) as well as patriarchal (how often do we see a company of this sort called 'The . . . Sisters'?) and yet even if for Arabic readers who are let in on the secret that 'secret' is no more than an advertising ploy, there is still something of resistance in all this, something communal and delic-iously undermining precisely for the unexpected site in which it is found. Since the package is real in the sense of an actual and original text, an 'ur-text,' let me reproduce the image here. They are all real now: the package, the poem, the image, and these words in prose. The above are so many details, a kind of stardust trailed by the poem in its passage across the page and past your eyes. The poem itself blurs with the sprinkling of prose in its wake, and yet is separate, just as it blurs with the visual image which is its sibling, and yet is separate.
The label, worn at the top from constant use. [HTML editor's note: image not able to be reproduced.]
How is a woman of European cultural background a political actor in relating to postcolonial peoples and places? What kind of action or behaviour can work to undermine the old perceptions of 'East' and 'West', to alter individuals' and cultural groups' constructions of self and other in these terms? There is always overt political engagement: writing, public speaking, joining movements, demonstrating. These are insufficient, however, and can be among the least effective means unless they are joined by actual interaction: sharing a life, coping together with the everyday, mingling her thoughts with the other's, and with the other woman's. And she should reap her advantage as woman, as one less likely to be suspected of imperialist motives, of a hidden agenda to her journey, one perceived as non-aggressive though coming from an aggressor society. There is more space for her to fill with an 'I am me' without labels even as she creates that everchanging, ever shared-out-and-receiving 'I'.
That is why she cannot go as tourist; the tourist, through scopophilia and consumerism, is the present-day neo-colonialist. So she goes as a guest, if and where wanted or accepted, but as one who will not exploit that role either, not abuse her welcome. Then, and only then, in the ordinariness of everyday life, does she learn to discard her last useless skin. For we cannot take off orientalism and put on post- or non-orientalism like a costume; it is not a theatrical garb, though it may have begun as such; it is actual, active, and a part of us. The 'non' is a space to be filled, and there are stages which must precede others, stages that might seem like a regression before the final remnants of a comfortable old self can be rendered uneasy and peeled away.
Love colonizes. Man's love of woman, yes, but also anyone's love of anyone, anything, anywhere, because desire cannot be completely separated from it. Only reciprocation pre-empts or cancels out love's invasion, appropriativeness. And even then, we may not recognize that two cannot colonize each other. Even then, we may persist along a track of possession, in the mind and heart, unaware of how needless that expending way is. Love has long been woman's empire, that power centre - often her only one, more jealously administered for lack of any other - from which she plants colonies wherever she can. It is an empire in which the Romantic-exotic has frequently played ambassador, emissary, exceeding its diplomatic role by reporting nothing but good news of beautiful things well in advance of any meeting. Only a prolonged period of actual contact, without artificial mediation, can bring a woman into the state of blending and mingling with, of passing through, the other, into the flux of the self, and ultimately to a recognition of her affective empire. That realization, painful and bitter, nonetheless empowers her in a different way. It is a new beginning.
I did not come as a colonizer
but as a friend
even though I am foreign,
not as an invader
but as a sister
though I cannot be one of you
who accepted me as I am
as you accept all.
And yet when you entered my self
did I perhaps claim of you
some mandate of the heart?
When you became for my spirit
a deep and generous well
did I set stakes about?
Or plant a flag before you signalling
"Territory of my Poetic Being"?
How strangely I've been taught to
I have no copyright on
*Kufr-Soum is a very small and very poor village in the north of Jordan
where shepherd boys still play the flute as they lead the bell-pendanted sheep, whom they call their "pupils," through the many steep and rocky "wadis," where the women wash the sheepswool in the hill streams, and where all can see in the Syrian distance the protective strength of the lovely, snow-capped Jebel Sheikh standing sentinel over the village and all her neighbours and their pomegranate orchards.
where the sweet mountain water in the wells runs dry in midsummer, where a large portion of the population is illiterate, and the young men become involved in brawls at weddings until one day a gun goes off and someone is killed and the families of the uneducated burn down the houses of the families of the educated, where the world of the cities has brought all its upheaval and disruption, and few of its benefits.
But what's this? A lyrical twist? An idyllic footnote to a poem? Or the last iota of the last article of baggage I drop at my feet before moving on, lightly and heavily, with no baggage and with new baggage.
1 . Pierre Loti, France's late-nineteenth-century, Romantic-exotic and Orientalist novelist par excellence, especially in Les Désenchantées, roman des harems turcs contemporains (1906), in which the hero follows mysterious veiled women through the equally mysterious streets and quarters of Istanbul.
2. In Islam, ideally at least, a woman may obtain a divorce on the grounds of her husband's impotence, disinterest, and her consequent sexual unfulfilment.
3 . I say "his" in allusion to Brillat-Savarin, the eighteenthth-century French author of La Physiologie du goût ou Méditations de gastronomie transcendante, translated into English usually under the title of The Philosopher in the Kitchen.
New: 13 December, 1996 | Now: 22 April, 2015