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Poem and Prose in Wild River Review: The Dogs of Ashdod and Im Kamil

Deir Keifa Wild RIver Review Picture

The good folks at Wild RIver Review solicited poetry and prose from me during the most recent invasion of Gaza. I sent them several pieces and they picked these two pieces, a brave choice as these were the most hard-hitting ones. The first is a poem that is based on a conversation I had with a Palestinian boy on skype during the invasion and the second is a prose piece written in my aunt Walade’s voice (the picture that is included in the story is of her offering flowers in a field in Deir Keifa, our little village and my favorite literary subject).  In this short prose piece my aunt retells how she witness a the killing of a neighbor by an armed Israeli MK drone.  The title Im Kamil (mother of kamil) comes from the name that the villagers of south Lebanon gave to this ever present menace in their skies.

There I have a view of the olive grove and the wheat fields, all the way to the schoolhouse, and it’s a clean view. Here I can look out on this land and remember how your father courted your mother when he was working in those wheat fields in the summer.  I can remember how Rabab used to sing over there on that perched house and her voice would carry all the way across the fields, into the houses across the way.  I can think of all these things and not think at all.


Essay on Zajal (art of the poetic duel) in Jadaliyya

Image of zajal performance in Byblos from The Times of Malta

Image of zajal performance in Byblos from The Times of Malta

This is an autobiographical piece published in online journal Jadaliyya about Zajal (the art of the poetic duel that I grew up with) and how it was effected when electricity and TV came to my village of Deir Keifa in southern Lebanon. The story was shared widely and was also linked later in the Arablit blog which in turn expanded on the history of Zajal.

“We gasped every time a poet ended with an impossible word. We would whisper to each other, ‘He just ended with MULE! How are you supposed to start a stanza with mule?’ But just when we thought the combatant was stumped, a stanza would shoot back at the attacker. Soccer had nothing on zajal. In our house, the courtyard was the main arena for zajal.”

Busboys and Poets Open Mic Featuring Zein el-Amine (14th & Vst NW, DC)


December 27th, 2011

9-11pm $4, All Ages

Busboys and Poets (14th st and V st NW)

Washington, DC

Hosted by Henry Mills

Dispatch from the American Autumn

In January of 2011 I was leading a study abroad trip to Egypt as I do every year.  I had a dozen American students who knew little about the Middle East.  On the day of the Tunisian revolution I gathered them in “class” (in the form of a gazebo at the bend of the Nile) and I told them that we have to disrupt our syllabus to talk about this revolution and how it is going to change the middle east and our world.  I told them that Arab tyrants are shaking in their boots right now.  I told them to pay attention, that this revolution will cause a ripple effect across the middle east.  They asked me if I think that Egypt will be next and I said that it will take a while for Egypt to catch on and that Libya is the furthest from starting the revolution.  Of course I was wrong on both counts and the Egyptian revolution started two days after we had departed for the US ( a week after my talk with the students).  We spent the days following our departure from Egypt watching TV reportage of the crowds gathering in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

A month later, on February 14, I saw the first signs of the Arab Spring reaching across the Atlantic in the form of the workers’ struggle in Madison Wisconsin.  This was in response to a governor who wanted to strip away the rights of public sector workers in that state.  The ranks of the protestors were fed with solidarity from working people across the country until they reached numbers not heard of since the Vietnam war protests in that state.  The degree of association with the Arab Spring was debatable but one thing that was evident is that people had realized that  if the Egyptians can hold their revolution in more repressive environments then workers of Wisconsin can certainly prevail in the “democratic” United States.  There were nods to the Arab spring and in the form of signs and slogans that compared Governor Walker and President Mubarak.

I hoped that Wisconsin will host our Tahrir square but that did not happen, but it was a step towards The American Autumn.  Things have been building up since the financial crisis of 2008 with a movement that started organizing to liberate foreclosed houses across the nation. Middle class Americans were defying the legal bounds of the American injustice system in order to maintain their shelter.  Then disaffection grew, for anyone who was paying attention in 2010, when, rather than stemming the power of the corporate elements that caused the crisis, a supreme court decision gave Wall Street more lobbying and political power through the Citizens United decision that allowed Wall Street to have more access to the public’s wealth (“to occupy the public square” as scholar Bill McKibben put it).

A month ago, I saw that the Obama administration was not going to even pretend to side with main street against Wall Street, and that it became apparent that there will be another recessionary dip and that the bailout money that was given to Wall Street was pocketed by Wall Street without apologies or shame.  When it became apparent that corporate America was going to hoard trillions of dollars while 15 million Americans, and that the democrats were using the Tea Party (a corporate funded party that was posing as grassroots) to justify their further creep to the right some people, versed in the Arab Spring began to ask: “Oh Where, O Where is Our Tahrir Square” and the resounding answer came a few weeks later: Occupy Wall Street.  Before I could inquire about a place were we can meet in my hometown of DC people had are already occupied McPherson Square, which is close to K Street , the corridor of lobbyists and political power in the US.  Then another occupations started in Freedom Plaza near the square.  The reports of occupations around the country began to spring up on my Facebook page: Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Charlotte ….. until there were more than 200 “occupations” around the country.

One of the first symbolic moves by the state against the protest in Wall Street was to literally try to silence the movement by making it illegal to use any sound amplification devices. The response did not only deal with this repression effectively, but it pointed to how we have to operate within this movement:  the organizers called for a human amplification system where the people within earshot of the speakers repeat every sentence so that all can hear.  This was such poetic response by the 99 percent of Americans to the top 1% owned the loudest amplification system, that of lobbyists.

The media immediately started their usual naysaying: the message of the protestors is not unified or coherent; or: the movement seems to be leaderless.  The short-term memory of the US media prevented them from seeing that they were parroting the official medias of all the Arab dictators that have been deposed or on their way out.  One response from the movement came from Tom Engelhardt:

“It’s true, as many have pointed out, that they don’t have a list of well thought out demands, but the demand to have such a list is just their elders trying to bring them to heel. The fact is, they don’t have to know just what they’re doing, any more than a writer or filmmaker has to understand the book being written or the film shot. It’s not a necessity. It’s not the price of admission. “


Another response from the ground came from New York from friend Joshua Stephens:

‘Last night, I was part of a nearly 3hr meeting that involved coordination of direct action trainings, legal strategy education, political education, historical education, support strategies for teachers of color in NYC, skillshares & theater to combat patriarchal behavior in organizing, support for indigenous remembrance in opposition to Columbus Day, and means of putting the struggles of marginalized communities in NYC at the center of it all. This involved management of TWO google groups, multiple schedule tracks of classes, 3-4 web calendars integrated into one web platform, and fuck knows how many twitter feeds. It also involved liaising, federation, and mutual support between no fewer than five thematic working groups and adherence to principles laid out by a directly-democratic general assembly. The next time you hear someone say Occupy Wall Street is disorganized, please slap them.'”

To understand where we stand now, with these occupations, it is important to go back further than the recent developments, all the way back to the seventies.  For it was in the mid seventies that the project of the top 1% started (the lobbyist-owning-trillion hoarding-40% of American wealth-controlling minority in the US).  It was then that corporate America decided that the gains by labor and social movements has rendered America ill-prepared for the coming accelerated race in the global economy. By the 80’s they had stripped away workers’ rights and were preparing the America populous for the dismantling of the welfare state (the gutting of the social safety net).  President Reagan was very effective in the ideological priming of the American public for such an attack and it was actually President Clinton that implemented that attack (even republican strategist Newt Gingrich admitted that Clinton succeeded in a project that Reagan began).

Finally we have the fight-back, and it is fueled by the convergence of the most outrageous flaunting of democracy and political power, a deep economic crisis, and the hope of the Arab spring.  We are finally seeing the resumption of a project that started with the  1999 Seattle anti capitalist protests. That fight back inspired the world and sparked a most dynamic and ever evolving movement which was disrupted by 9/11.

Ten years and several wars later, the American public has grown tired of the exploitation of this tragedy by politicians and corporations.  Everything is coming full circle now, the fight back that began over a decade ago is resuming but this time with bouquet of ordinary folks joining and relating to the movement.  Signs of decline of the American empire are everywhere exposed: the hundreds went from the Obama administration to the lobbying field, the high percentage of congressmen that went from pretending to represent us to work for corporations, the fact that 1% of the American population controls 40 percent of the wealth, the truth that the ballot box is a bullshit box and that the slogan of Rock the Vote is a scam because the two parties continue to conspire in the seismic destruction of working people. People like Van Jones who was kicked out of the Obama administration for his coherent analysis of the state of the United States is now becoming more relevant to every day people than Obama, as he is now a thinker in a growing grassroots movement.  Bill Clinton, who fully participated in the destruction of the American dream, is saying that the dream is dead. One of the slogans of the movement has been: “The American Dream: You Would Have to be Asleep to Believe it.”  Americans are waking up every day from their deep sleep and they are forging their future without the help of “vanguard” or a previously conceived ideology.  Any individual or organization that will try to pose as the leader of this movement, because they think have a monopoly on the analysis of the capitalist system, will stand out like false street prophet.  If you walk among the people of occupation you will witness a breaking open of the parameters of dialogue, set by the media, through art and discussions sobered by the struggle for the daily bread.  I will not be speculating on how long will this movement will last, rather I will help in forging a path forward, with the knowledge gained from experience, that positive thinking creates the material conditions for the fulfillment of the goals of our movement.

Wild Thyme

On the Food Channel, an American chef dabs a cube of raw tuna in a “middle eastern spice” before searing it lightly in a pan.  He tells the audience that he had come across this spice recently and that he is finding many uses for it.  I recognize this “spice,” as it is my everyday breakfast, zaatar.  I eat it every morning with olive oil and lebne (yogurt strained through cheesecloth).  It is part of the daily diet of he Lebanese, they get it, in man’ouche form, from the corner bakery and eat it as they walk to work or school or just stand there in a group chatting and munching on the street corner. The man’ouche is basically a zaatar pizza and it was a food that we devoured in great quantities during exams because we were told that it stimulates the memory.

When I think of zaatar, I always picture Dad preparing batches of it on the kitchen table in our home in the southern Lebanese village of Deir Keifa. There would be mounds of ground wild thyme that he had picked from the land around the house and dried in the Mediterranean sun. There was the burgundy colored sumac powder that gives zaatar its tang.  There were the sesame seeds that dad would heat until it starts emitting its nutty aroma.  He would blend these ingredients and then add the salt. This mix of hearty sesame, lemony sumac, and aromatic thyme was put in bags, one for each son, and labeled. If you were lucky he would set you up with some Lebanese olive oil from our grove.  The olive oil is what sets off this potent combination.  Dab the mix with fresh pita bread and you are done for, you are addicted.  Some American friends refer to zaatar as Lebanese crack, not the most holistic description of such a natural healthy food but I understand where they are coming from.  I would describe it more as a wedding in your mouth.

There is no exact science to making zaatar but the basic formula is 7 parts zaatar, 1 part sesame seed, 3 parts ground sumac and ½ part salt.  There is a cookbook that was inspired by zaatar, and by the man’oushe in particular.  It is titled Man’oushe: Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery by Barbara Abdeni Massaad.  It is a gorgeous book that that uses man’oushe as a premise to a journey of discovery of the foods of the Lebanese corner bakery. That book has allowed me to make man’oushe using a conventional oven.

If you ever stop by DC, stop by my place on Sunday afternoons where I serve Turkish tea and zaatar and you will understand what all the fuss is about.