Friday, November 30, 2007

In a war such things happen

War poetry. Something many of us wish we had no need for, but a literary genre of immense significance nevertheless. When you think of war poets, you might recall Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, John McCrae or others. In my view, one of the most moving poems on war is by someone not regarded as a war poet, or indeed known for writing war poems. I'm referring to Ishmael Reed, an American poet, essayist and novelist born in 1938. Tucked away in the middle of his wide-ranging New and Collected Poems 1964-2007 is a poem titled, "In a war such things happen," whose provocative images and keen insights are worth reflecting on as we travel to a contested and war-ravaged region of the world....

We were eating black bread and
drinking goat's milk when your
missile hit our house
I am the only survivor
and when I asked you why
you said well this is war
and in a war such things happen

They gave us ten minutes to
leave because your army
was within the city limits
the young one got lost and
when we found her she
said that eight of your men
took turns with her and now
all day she stares into space
and takes pills whose names
I can't pronounce and when
I asked you why you said
well this is war
and in a war such things

You said that if we surrendered
you would give us cigarettes and
chocolate but instead
you put us in a place fit for
hens and when I asked why
you said
well this is war
and in a war such things happen

You bombed a bus because you
said your enemy was inside but
when we told you that they were
simple farmers instead you apologized
and said, well this is war and in war
such mistakes happen
You told a press conference
that these men had engaged
you in a firefight. You
lied didn't you. When
we did the autopsies we
found that their throats had
been cut and there were no
weapons in their possession
and when we asked you why
you said, well this is war
and in a war such things happen

You hit those twin towers
because you wanted to address
the powerful, but you killed
secretaries, waitresses, janitors
busboys, dishwashers and civil
servants and when we asked you
why, you said, well this is war
and you wanted to make a point

She had just graduated from college
and was about to be wed
You sent her into a
restaurant. She blew herself up,
killing families who were enjoying
a Sunday afternoon and when
we asked you why you said well
this is war and such things happen

You said that your weapons
were so precise that you could
land a missile in a coffee cup
yet scores of people lie wounded
dying and dead in the market
and when we asked you what
happened, you said that this
is the nature of war and in a
war mistakes occur

After 20 hours of digging we
removed the rubble
We found the bits of rotting
We knew it was a child
from the size of its rib cage
We knew that it was my son
from the red Nike sneaker
You said you were after suicide
He was 3 years old
You said that this was war
and in a war, such things happen

A million years passed
Herds of rhinoceroses, elephants
and lions roamed the African
There were more cheetahs than
you could shake a stick at
You could see to the bottom of
the rivers with the naked
Snow had returned to Kilimanjaro
The oceans were filled with
whales, tuna, swordfish, sharks
The glaciers were once again
solid and imposing
The Amazon rainforest was
chirping away
Trees covered the city where
glass buildings once stood
A bear met a wolf
in the thick forest and
the bear asked
"What became of those creatures who
used to shoot us for sport
furnish their wives with the
fur off our backs
terrorize our young
put their saws to our homes?"
"They had a war," the wolf said
galloping off, "and in a war such things happen."

Ishmael Reed, New and Collected Poems 1964-2007 (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2007), pp. 355-359. [text appears above exactly as published]

"I know what it's like...."

If you pay attention to mainstream news services, you'll be aware that there are important - some would say fundamental - differences between people (and groups) in the Middle East. There are differences and divisions on the grounds of geography, ethnicity, culture, language, age, religion and politics.

Symbolic of the deep divisions that currently separate Israel and Palestine is the recently erected security wall (pictured), isolating Israel from the West Bank, and analogous to the infamous Berlin Wall. There are good reasons for the existence of this wall, but the symbolism of isolation and separation remains.

One of the tasks of visitors, it seems to me, is to seek to understand the perspectives of others rather than seeking to be understood, and to express empathy rather than judgment. No one suggests this is easy, but it has proved to be most helpful.

With this thought in mind, here's a question: Who allegedly said these words earlier this week?
I know what it's like to hear that you can't use a certain road or pass through a checkpoint because you are a Palestinian. I know what it is like to feel discriminated against and powerless.

Was it Ehud Olmert? Mahmoud Abbas? David Ben-Gurion? Martin Luther King Jr? George W. Bush? Bernie Banton? Julia Gillard?

None of the above. It was US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (see today's Jerusalem Post).

Now that's empathy. The truth is: I don't personally know what it's like to experience the kind or degree of discrimination, powerlessness and persecution faced daily by many in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

But as our Australian group heads into the region this weekend, I hope we come to listen and learn, to seek to understand ordinary people's stories, and come to express empathy and solidarity with those who suffer from conflict and injustice.