Category: Civil Rights

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis, Poet and Human Rights Activist, interviewed ...


Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis, Poet and Human Rights Activist

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Charles Jensen’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Your work deals heavily with the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Recent escalations in the region have contributed to rising tensions, both in the emotional and physical sense. While rants and diatribes may be a common feature on the news, poetry is a timeless art and requires, often, days, weeks, months, if not years of contemplation before a writer can successfully address any given topic. How do you, hence, deal with the schism on an immediate emotional level, and, yet, at the same time, find the composure to put this plight onto paper?

LZZ: While growing up in downtown Detroit, then the suburb Redford Township, Michigan, and subsequently in Noe Valley, San Francisco, in the early ’70s, my parents did not educate me on our history, the politics around the “Question” of Palestine, the displacement of our people, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the occupation, etc. The occupation of historic Palestine is now seven decades long, and although we’re now dealing with “recent” escalation in the region, such escalations, violence, and turmoil are constant variables under the extremely oppressive and uncompromising regime. It’s possible to do a separate interview on this topic alone, so I won’t ramble on about the conflict/occupation and the brutal and racist policies imposed on Palestinians by the state of Israel. I would urge readers to think critically and learn the “other” story through books, blogs, articles, and websites. There is a sea of misinformation on the web, and trolls do not help the matter, so the best sources are books and reputable online sites. There are many Israeli historians doing good work on the topic—Ilan Pappé and Avi Shlaim, just to name a couple. It is not easy being Palestinian, and not easy to write about Palestine/Israel without feeling tormented, angry, and desolate; however, it is the suffering, creativity, and resilience of my people that has kept me motivated; it has inspired me to write and publish my poetry, and to endure chronic agony, which really is inevitable for all poets, at least in my view. It is poets who speak for the dispossessed, underrepresented, oppressed, and silenced. That is not a task/journey/undertaking I chose really, but I feel like it chose me—the poetry and the activism that is. Ultimately, I have accepted my role, my calling, if you will, as I do believe in God, and the power of the universe. I also believe that one person can make an impact. Collectively an impact is phenomenal, but I do strongly believe in every person doing his or her part, working for the common good; all this can help bring about positive change—not only in one’s self, but universally. I don’t buy into the lazy ideology—that apathy-filled cop out when people say: “I am helpless. My words and actions alone can’t bring about positive change.” Or when they say: “I don’t like or engage in politics.” I also do not believe that everything is in “God’s hands,” so to say. We need to take charge of our own individual fate, as much as each individual can—using any creativity, any power we can muster. I also believe that God often gives us challenges we are strong enough to survive! If God believes we can handle some challenges, he assigns them to us, and it is our duty as humans to overcome them—however grueling and burdensome the challenges may be. Why does this seem like a parable? I am not a student of theology, but I have a keen intuition, and I am quite spiritual. Given that there is constant violence and aggression in the Holy Land, there is always something to write about; poetry, to answer your question, must work to break down stereotypes and dispel myths about this difficult, skewed, and emotionally charged topic. If only mainstream Western media could be as honest and brave as poets, peace could arrive sooner. And still, those media outlets, journalists, and writers who dare to speak out truthfully deserve all the praise they get, because their job carries with it many risks.

The human rights violations associated with the occupation, along with the lack of knowledge about the hidden and silenced Palestinian narrative, not to mention the constant, wide-spread propaganda, creating a sort of informed apathy here in the US—and elsewhere—has taken a huge toll on my physical and emotional health. It is not easy work—Palestinian solidarity, working towards peace, towards justice even, and the writing, of course. Some Palestinians are not as affected, but personally, I live and breathe Palestine and Israel, and I feel the suffering in every part of my physical and mental being. I would like to see a one-state solution—to see all people of the Holy Land live together in a homeland, but this will only occur if the US and the other major superpowers hold Israel accountable for its wrongdoings, but also put pressure on the Palestinian leadership to reach more solid agreements. We need the global community to act as honest brokers—willing to accept the terms from both sides fairly, objectively, realistically, and especially, we need the international community to acknowledge that the indigenous people of the land, the Palestinians, are human beings and deserve respect; they deserve dignity and basic human rights. The US is the most powerful country in the world, and it is also Israel’s biggest ally; ultimately, it has made no consistent or even significant attempts to solve the conflict. Furthermore, other major powers, like the EU and The Arab League, have really not made any substantial attempts either—everyone has an agenda and the sacrificial lamb is the Palestinian. We have evolved as humans, perhaps, but our evolution on the political level is almost non-existent, in my opinion. That is very sad to me. Powerful countries love to give hand-outs and put bandages on problems—offering mainly lip service and unrealized rhetoric, but they do not get to the root of the problem, to solve it holistically and sustainably. I believe this conflict could be solved very easily if politicians had more compassion, vision, courage, and the political will to solve it. Incidentally, there is much written on the topic of a one state solution, as the two-state solution is no longer a reality, and perhaps never was—that topic is for another day.

I am extremely sensitive about the suffering of Palestinians. I deal with my emotions by writing about them and then reading my work in public, when I get the chance. Publishing also helps, along with working as an activist to heighten awareness through my art—I draw stamina from the desire to improve my country’s situation. Ultimately, I empathize with all human suffering. In this respect, I do feel upset and angry when an Israeli is either hurt or killed; at the same time, through my art and poetry, I am trying to convey that the violence against Palestinians is largely ruthless and always disproportionate. In other words, we do not have an Iron Dome (capable of intercepting ninety percent of incoming rockets), sophisticated military equipment, and the backing of the strongest country in the world. There is criticism on the other side as well, but mostly it is the occupation, land encroachment, and ethnic cleansing that bothers us. My aim is to bring attention to this plight, reveal the violent, racist, and oppressive policies that worsen as we speak, without impunity for the perpetrator. B’Tselem is an Israeli human rights organization that has done a lot of work to document the atrocities. Al Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization, is another one. There are many, but to keep it short, I only mention two.

DG: At the moment, you’re working on a science fiction novel, along with God’s Hill and an Angel In Her Midst, a collection of vignettes about your mother’s life in Palestine, and a book about your brother’s mental illness, My name is Ten O’Clock. Without giving too much away about either project, it would be fascinating to hear a little bit about each endeavor. Are you working on them concurrently, or do you focus on each one separately for a while and then move on to the next?

LZZ: Unfortunately, I am not a full-time writer, as I have two jobs which take up enormous time and energy, both during the day and in the evening. My husband is from Greece and we work together, running a family business we founded in 1967. I have raised two children, and for the past five years have been caring for my mother in my home, along with assisting in the care of two siblings for most of my adult life. If I had been writing and publishing full-time all these years, I would have published a larger body of work, but life has its own way of making decisions for you, even if you are a good decision maker yourself. Moreover, I am my own worst critic. Although I began writing poetry at the age of thirteen, and subsequently began publishing my work in the ’70’s and ’80’s, I am kind of a closet writer, as I have hundreds upon hundreds of unpublished poems and prose pieces. My goal going forward is to submit more to literary journals, and  publish my poetry anthology, Faces—The Nine Stations of Pain and Joy. I am grateful to Interlitq for publishing four of my poems online, as prior to that publication, I had little online presence. I am fortunate to have been published in fourteen anthologies, and to have released a chapbook of my own from in the late 80’s. Sadly, I do not spend much time on my craft, and that is not by choice; rather it has to do with life constantly taking over. I hope all this will change when I retire. The good thing is that I do get invited to read quite often, and I vowed to myself decades ago, that I would produce new work for readings, or at least, edit old pieces; that has been a good habit, and it has kept me in the creative loop—in a productive way. Not having enough time for my writing makes me melancholy, but I do the best I can, without beating myself up too much about it. Retirement will help me dedicate more time to my craft. I am contemplating, also, returning to college, something I did a few years ago, but this will not be easy in the midst of a pandemic. Several years ago, I took two classes with Tupelo Press, and this has helped me further hone my skills. I consider myself a late bloomer. I also do sketches and have a general interest in art—scribble art, pencil and pen art, and watercolors as well. I do have a children’s poetry collection I would like to publish someday, but that is last on the totem pole. I helped develop and teach children’s poetry workshops for a few years, at a local elementary/middle school.

Regarding God’s Hill and an Angel in her Midst, I have been documenting my mother’s stories for decades, and I am weaving together a collection from her storytelling. The book will begin from her birth in 1932, up to our departure from Palestine in 1964. God’s Hill is the name given to the town I was born in, Ramallah. My mother is a hardworking, loving, selfless, kind, caring and a remarkably strong woman, who has had an unbelievably difficult life; she inspires me daily and is my role model. From her I’ve learned and continue to receive perseverance, unconditional love, hard work, and resilience. She never complains and has endured unbelievable hardship since birth. This is a story I am longing to tell. She touches everyone she meets in a special way, and will turn 90 in March. I began this project as vignettes based on true stories, sprinkled with my imagination, along with facts and events from our lives. I have many original vintage documents and photos to be included. Below is my mother’s birth certificate.

I want this book to weave in also stories of Palestine, to make it truly a piece of historical fiction. During an extended visit many years ago, I conducted a lot of research in Ramallah, and did some research in places where relatives reside. My mother’s Alzheimer’s has in many ways been a blessing in disguise because she is living in the past and her memory from the past is excellent—much better, in fact, than her pre-Alzheimer’s recollections. Her Arabic vocabulary doubled, so I am learning a lot, even though I already speak colloquial Arabic. Each day she blurts out a new word or phrase I have not heard before. It is remarkable to witness the mind with dementia. Here, a photo of me as a one-year-old.

Many years ago, I completed a historical fiction children’s book, which still needs to be published. After 9-11 I feared writing political poetry as an Arab American, so I changed genres for a while. I wanted to write a series of books for young readers, on the subject of the ancient world. I asked a friend to collaborate with me. We wrote Asham and the Smart Ox, a work about the Natufians who lived in ancient Jericho about 10,000 years ago. Jericho is one of the oldest cities in the world. I myself lived there for a short time when my father worked as a waiter. I am hoping to find a publisher for this project soon.

I tend to work on many things at once. I love the writing—all of it, all the genres, but do not care for the administrative, technical, and business side of the enterprise. Luckily, I have a fantastic friend/neighbor, Carmel Weiler, who is a life saver and helps me with the technical aspects of formatting and also the submission process.

With regard to the book I am writing about my little brother Simon, who has tragically been suffering from schizophrenia for three decades, My Name is Ten O’Clock will become a tribute for not only him, but also for all others afflicted with this condition. As is often true with Palestine, people tend to shy away from mental illness as well—it seems fate has chosen me to deal with misunderstood and painful subjects. I already have many poems that will be in this book, but I have not begun writing the actual narrative section yet. I had an older brother who sadly passed away about seven years ago, at the age of 60, and he too suffered most of his adult life with schizophrenia. This horrid and debilitating curse of a malady has no cure. My little brother has an uncanny memory, and supposedly there is a name for the type of memory he has, but that escapes me now. My little brother sings and plays his guitar, mainly to help his auditory hallucinations, and he used to sing to me this tune he’d made up called, “My Name is Ten O’Clock!” I’ve asked to interview him, but he refuses.

DG: You were born in Palestine, but left at a young age for the US with your family. Although each immigrant story is unique, there are nevertheless similarities in the Italian, Irish, Chinese, and German experiences, just as examples. In this respect, what are the challenges and rewards of living as an Arab-American, and how was your own story different and perhaps even similar to what most people either went or go through?

LZZ: In the early stages of our life as immigrants (we arrived in 1964), our challenges were mainly survival—assimilation, finding work, learning the language, getting food on the table, navigating a completely different culture, making friends, and that sort of thing. We had relatives in Detroit, New York, and Florida, so we had support, especially in Detroit, where we first settled. My parents did not drive, so I learned to be very independent and gained the so-called “street smarts” right away; in fact ,I was a courageous and adventurous tomboy. I always joke that I was held back in kindergarten because of my poor English. I was five when I arrived in the US, and personally, I have thrived here, despite the many obstacles I have faced—there is enough material to write a separate memoir. It has not been easy living as an immigrant, and especially a Palestinian Arab woman with strong opinions, but also an outgoing, bubbly personality—to be a woman who is seldom shy about confronting issues or topics head on, whether in poetry, activism, or conversation. However, I have had it easier than immigrants who arrived later, at an older age, not having ample time to assimilate, learn English quickly and proficiently. I did not keep my accent, so I appeared and continue to appear American to many, especially since I was not as dark-skinned as some of my family members, relatives, and friends. As a result, I have encountered less racism than others, but nevertheless, racism, discrimination, and the occasional hate mail did not escape my life entirely. I try my best to fit in with my community and circle of friends, but also I have learned that I often feel much happier, more confident and when I can simply be myself! I have been blessed to have an amazing and supportive husband who has not stifled my writing, activism, and art, despite the fact that I have so many other responsibilities at work and at home with the kids, and so on. I am extremely fortunate to have such a great support system, my husband and two remarkably productive and creative children. My kids are extremely proud of me, and always give me accolades to encourage and assure me I am on the right path; this helps me stay strong and insightful.

Early on in our life in America, we were taught to say we are “Syrian,” and then much later we began to say “Palestinian.” I don’t know what that was all about, but perhaps it is because of our Orthodox Religion—we are “Syrian Orthodox.” Palestine is part of the Levant region—meaning Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, so perhaps it was natural to just say Syrian. I am not sure if this had anything to do with the negative image of the Palestinian at the time, and the stereotyping that subsequently escalated, especially when, in the early years, there were revolts taking place against the “settlers” coming in from Europe and elsewhere. But such designations as “Syrian” could also have been born out of the desire to “fit in,” to be “liked,” and the fear of being labeled negatively, something people do quickly and easily—with a wide brush stroke. Below, our family in 1964, when I was five (it excludes my father as he was already in the US).

I married a Greek Orthodox man thirty-eight years ago, so religion is one of the few things that has remained constant throughout my life, but I am always proud to say I am a Palestinian. I think being Christian made it easier for me to be an immigrant, as Muslim Arabs have a much harder time—and sadly still do, in America and elsewhere. To this day, it is a constant struggle having to educate people that it is a big mistake to automatically assume I am a Muslim when I say I am Palestinian or even Arab. At the same time, this allows me further opportunity to talk about Palestine, Islam, Christianity, Judaism—all of it! People don’t realize they open Pandora’s box when sparking a conversation with me. I have learned when to talk and when to refrain from “opening” up about certain subjects. I enjoy discussing topics related to the Arab World, along with history and religion—taking people’s mind off the labels, racism, and stereotypes. Below, the Zarou family passport from 1964.

Many people do not know that Palestine exists, or what historic Palestine even was, and often people say “Pakistan” when I say Palestine. I am grateful there has been some shifting of the tide in recent years. Social media, citizen reporters, independent journalists, photographers, and filmmakers have helped bring a new perspective to the conflict. Much of our history has been erased from the map—literally. Most say “Israel” when the subject is discussed, but what they should really say is “Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.” It’s been frustrating trying to educate people that there are Christians, millions of them in fact, in the Arab World. I try not to be presumptuous—it is a simple matter of trying to clarify what most people don’t know. Many people are not educated enough to know about other cultures, religions, traditions, and that is not their fault—if they were not taught this in school or at home. There has been, for decades, I think, a rigorous campaign to stifle activities, students, and professor that want to heighten awareness about Palestinians and their untold, hidden story. Again, that could be another interview.

When I see a wrong, I want to make it right; in this respect, being Arab American and trying to educate people about Palestine has been difficult, and it still is, as most people don’t want to talk about the subject, for fear of being labeled anti-Semitic. Propaganda is strong, and when it is repeated over and over again, falsity morphs into a truth. Once that “false” truth is imbedded into one’s psyche, especially a narrow-minded one, it is often impossible to “extract” it out. That is why I strongly believe in critical thinking as a skill that should be taught in every grade, just like math and reading, starting from the first grade with very simple exercises. Fearmongering and brainwashing have worked very well for those interested in creating false narratives discourses which they later spew out to the gullible, ignorant, and likewise ill-informed. People forget that Arabs are a Semitic race too and speak a Semitic language. Judaism is not to be equated with the state of Israel, as I have nothing against any religion or any culture. I was born in the land where three monotheistic religions flourished—not one—and so we are all children of Abraham, as he is the father of these three monotheistic religions. I have Jewish friends and relatives, so being pro-Palestinian is not being anti-American, anti-Israel, or anti-Semitic. I consider myself a pacifist warrior for the common good.

When the US is criticized in relation to Israel’s policies towards Palestine, it is easy for many to stereotype Arab Americans, particularly Palestinians, as being too political, too radical, and too anti-American. I believe, however, that true patriotism is about the ability to offer constructive criticism—to fight for the change one believes in. I try to engage people—to inspire them to be critical thinkers; this is not anti-American—it’s intelligence, patriotism, and ultimately love. Ignorance has been tough to deal and it’s tough to fight against racism, misinformation, and propaganda because it’s everywhere, consciously and unconsciously hypnotizing minds.

DG: In the late 80’s you did numerous readings in San Francisco with Etel Adnan, the renowned Arab-American poet. She has quite an interesting history and background, to say the least. How did you come to meet her and what was it like to collaborate with her?

LZZ: It is quite remarkable that you ask this question, as I always think about Etel, and how our relationship shaped who I am as a poet and artist. I am so pleased I am able to share this history. Unfortunately, as you know, she recently passed away at a very old age, while I was writing this interview. I missed her last art exhibit (in 2019 at the SF Museum of Modern Art) but I was fortunate enough to attend an art exhibit of hers in the 90’s at Sonoma State University. Her art has truly evolved, as it was much simpler in her earlier days, and she now leaves behind a remarkable collection of stunning art and writings. May her memory be eternal, and it most certainly will, as she has gained enough recognition to be considered one of the most influential artists of our time. She is very well known for her poetry, but also fiction as well. I first met Etel (who is part Lebanese) in the late ’80s when I was invited to read alongside her at Small Press Traffic on Guerrero Street, in San Francisco. There is actually an advertisement for the reading that was published in The San Francisco Examiner on August 14th, 1988.

Small Press Traffic no longer exists as a brick and mortar location, but still operates as an institution, and, in fact, it gave her an award. Recently I was looking at their Instagram page and they sent me an amazing piece of history, which I’d like to share here; it is a photo of the reading with our names. On the evening of the reading, I picked up Etel from her home in Sausalito, and drove her home afterwards. I visited her and Simone Fattal (her lifetime partner) at their home. After this, our friendship blossomed and she began to mentor me for some time. I did a few other readings with her over the years, and one was at Stanford—at the invitation of a lifelong friend who still teaches there, Professor Khalil Barhoum. In fact, I ran into Etel in SF at an art exhibit in the late ’80s, and she introduced me to Khalil and Ann, and we have been great friends since. Etel had a big impact on my life as a poet, especially when she made me believe that it is all right to go at your own pace and take your time. I also heard her and Naomi Shihab Nye read SFSU, my university. On numerous occasions, she advised me not to feel bad about not working hard enough, or producing enough; she told me to focus on raising my children and that my time would eventually come. I think of this advice all the time. Etel and I corresponded for a long time—some years more frequently than others, but we always exchanged Christmas cards. Receiving cards from her was so euphoric for me. I recently found out about the Etel Adnan Poetry Series Prize, and will hopefully submit to that someday. Below are some of my correspondences with Etel.


(Monday, August 13th, 1989)

Dear Lorene,

I like your “Embroidered Memory” very much. It’s good you read it at A.A.U.G. There is Poetry Week coming. You should attend the readings. I am in charge of “International Poetry” afternoon: October 21, from 3 to 5 p.m. at Fort Mason, Pier 2 in the new Theatre. It’s about poets born outside the U.S. I will read with them. It will be good that you follow as many events as possible in that week. Herman has the schedules. Do you know the magazine “POETRY FLASH”? It is distributed free. You can get it at bookstore at the beginning of each month at City Lights, among other places. But don’t get dizzy with it, it has too much information, sometimes, and it is anguishing. I am feeling better, although we lost a very dear friend in the Beirut fighting. A rocket hit her room and she died. We’re extremely upset about it. She was one of Simone’s closest friends. Hope you find moments of calm in this maelstrom … How is the little girl? Give her a hug from me.

Hello to David.

Love to you all,

Etel

 


Dear Lorene,

These last days have been hard, but we will not give up. The best way is to do what we can do best; for you, to continue to write. Was happy to see the picture of your daughters. They are beautiful. Athena has grown and the little one is charming. All my wishes for a brand new year. Be well. Wishes for the whole family.

Love,

Etel

 


Dear Lorene,

Palestinians will get peace. They are paying for it in heroic terms. Miriam Kaiya is most welcome to our imperfect Earth. We should see you after the holidays.

MERRY CHRISTMAS for the three of you,

Love,

Etel

DG: Who are some of the Palestinian poets you enjoy reading and which ones would you, firstly, recommend that have already been translated, and, secondly, are there some writers who are still only read in Arabic but deserve a greater audience?

LZZ: The highly celebrated Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, comes to mind immediately. I truly love Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, and one of the poems, “Inside Your On Short Story As I Read to You,” which I published in Interlitq’s Californian Poets is about him. I know the question is about Palestinian poets, but I am in awe of the Lebanese writer Gibran Khalil Gibran. It is my pleasure to say that I have poem about him in my own anthology Inquire Within, published in the late 80’s. In fact, I found a poem that he wrote which is almost identical to mine. It was a spiritual moment for me when I discovered it one day, reading to my mother—Gibran poems on a calendar. I froze and ran to get my poem, and I was astounded. I believe he is my true muse and guardian angel, as I had never read this poem when I wrote my own. Here are only a few of the dozens and dozens of Palestinian poets I recommend, Fadwa Tuqan, Samih al-Qasim, Nizar Qabbani, Salma Al-Khadra’ Al-Jayyusi, May Sayegh, Annemarie Jacir, just to name a few. There are so many. In recent years, I have read work by my Palestinian-American colleagues, friends, and poets that have included me in their anthologies, like Naomi Shihab-Nye and Nathalie Handal. I also read other Palestinian American poets like Suheir Haddad, Hala Alyan, Deema Shehabi, Nathalie Khankan, Susan Abulhawa, Philip Metres, Lisa Suair Majaj, and so many more. There are more Palestinian poets that I would like to list but I would fill pages.

DG: In your recent contribution to Interlitq’s feature, Californian Poets, we were very fortunate to receive four poems—three of which dealt with the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in both subtle and direct ways; among these well-written works, however, there was also “Commute Home,” a poem about the beauty of San Francisco and California in general. In this respect, your work is strongly tied to place and belonging, and the challenges of writing about your birth country are immediate and apparent. Despite having lived in the US for most of your life, it’s nevertheless true that most immigrants form different attachments to the people and geography of their new “home.” In other words, they have the privilege of seeing the US from a perspective that native-born people really have no access to. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this, and if, as a poet, you compose in a different mindset when writing about Palestine, as opposed to your second home?

LZZ: Actually I often feel cursed for having been born in a land with so much strife and suffering, and that my life would have been so much simpler had I been born in the US. Having said that, I would not be who I am had I not been born in Ramallah, Palestine; as I mentioned earlier, it’s the strong connection to my land and its people that fuels my creativity. At the same time, I am very fortunate to have experienced life in Michigan, but most importantly, California, as I love California and truly adore the San Francisco Bay Area—it is really the place which has shaped me the most, as I moved here at the age of twelve or so. This area is endowed with natural beauty, wonderful institutions, museums, a vibrant culinary scene, moderate weather, and like-minded individuals. In the Bay Area, it is like living in an artist’s colony—even more, it is like living in one of those old French “salons.” In my younger years, I had more time to mingle with artists, but as I got older and responsibilities began keeping me increasingly homebound, I began to miss the “salon” life of SF. I still do venture out from time to time, but not as much as I used to. I love being out in nature, hiking, exploring, and going to museums. The Bay Area has so much to offer with its stunning landscapes, and the poem “Commute Home” is one of my favorite pieces, expressing the beauty of California while simply driving home and partaking in the spectacular views we’re blessed with.

It was my great fortune to have been dear friends with the late Jack Hirschman, who often invited me to readings, and who was also one of my publishers in the Revolutionary Poets Brigade anthologies. Jack recently passed, and he too was a great supporter of my work, and a mentor too. He was once a poet laureate of SF. I lost two of my mentors a few months apart. I am feeling old. For year, Jack invited me to read annually at Readers Bookstore at Fort Mason Center on the SF Bay, a collaborative reading with the Friends of the SF Public Library. He also invited me to read at the Beat Museum in North Beach and at all the RPB events.


Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis with Jack Hirschman

For a long time, I also read each year at a historic bar in North Beach (and still do), Specs, with the Maintenant Journal out of NY. I read each time I publish in the journal. I really need to venture out, go to museums, literary and music events more often, as that is how I feel more alive and connected to other artists. Covid has made it tough to connect. I have turned down several Zoom readings, as I don’t feel ready enough to read on that platform. Perhaps I will someday. Ultimately, if I had not spent most of my life in America, I would not have met all the wonderful and supportive people that helped me become who I am. Yes, I have two homes, two histories, two cultures, two of almost everything, including two sets of problems, and that’s a double challenge, but as I wrote earlier, I try to not dwell on the problems, but focus on the solution. And I am grateful I can snap out of my negative thoughts, most of the time. Art helps accomplish this.

DG: If you had to recommend one Palestinian dish, what would it be?

LZZ: I have so many that come to mind, but given how I love the smell of sumac on chicken, musakhan is one of my favorites. The chicken is smothered in this tangy, lemony, and burgundy colored spice, along with olive oil and other spices, a ton of onions, also smothered in sumac, then baked atop homemade bread—it is just delicious. It must be topped with toasted pine nuts, of course, to be complete and beautiful—like many other Palestinian dishes. I will never forget the first time I returned to Ramallah, since emigrating here, we ate this delectable dish cooked the best way, in a “taboon.” A taboon is an ancient oven built in biblical times and still used today, and it cooks like no oven can cook. It resembles a fire pizza oven. My grandmother on my father’s side cooked in our taboon, mainly bread. Our family lived with my with paternal grandparents. My mother told me that it is like a full-time job for my grandmother to keep the eternal flame going in the taboon, and to collect so many materials to fuel this fire. The bread is unlike any bread you will taste.

 

About Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis

Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis is a Palestinian-American, born in Palestine and emigrated to the US when she was 5 years old. She is a poet, writer, and human rights and peace activist. She writes poetry, prose, historical fiction for children and adults, short stories, and science fiction. She self-published a poetry chapbook, Inquire Within, and is published in at least 15 literary anthologies—notably, The Poetry of Arab Women, Food for Our Grandmothers, The Space Between our Footsteps, War After War-SF City Lights Review #5, and A Different Path, Radius of Arab-American Writers. She is most currently published in three Revolutionary Poets Brigade anthologies, and three Maintenant Dada Poetry & Art journals. She is currently writing an historical collection of stories about her mother’s life in Palestine, as well as an anthology of poems entitled Faces, the Nine Stations of Pain & Joy. She was a finalist for two poems entered in the 2011 Indie Writing Contest—(Author Solutions, Inc., the San Francisco Writers Conference, and San Francisco University Partner). The anthology, Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology, edited by Nathalie Handal, includes two of her poems, and was the Winner of the PEN Oakland Literary Prize.

 

 

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Lynne Thompson, Los Angeles Poet Laureate, interviewed by David Garyan


Lynne Thompson

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Lynne Thompson, Los Angeles Poet Laureate

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Lynne Thompson’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: It was a great pleasure to hear the news of your selection as LA’s new poet laureate. Given the power of your work and your steadfast connection to the city, it’s hard to think of anyone who deserves this honor more. Along with a discussion of what makes LA such a fascinating literary epicenter, what are some of the initiatives and projects you have begun developing to build on this legacy in your own way?

LT: The first project I launched was a podcast hosted on the L.A. Public Library’s website (lapl.org) as well as Apple Podcasts and Spotify. The podcast is named Poems on Air. Every week, I read the work of a particular poet—some L.A.-based, some not—and give a little background on the poet. It’s been very well-received and that makes it worth all the effort.

I am also in the process of collecting poems written by students in the hopes of publishing them—possibly in e-book form or at a minimum, on the Library’s website.

Finally, as I write this, I’m starting to explore the possibility of reading to and writing about members of L.A.’s senior population in the belief that if we fail to take down these stories, they’ll be irretrievably lost to our culture’s detriment. And of course, I continue to give readings and conduct workshops as often as I can.

DG: Your newest collection, Fretwork, published in 2019, was praised by many individuals, including Major Jackson, who called it a “masterful collection” which will “resonate widely into the 21st century.” This particular work is both highly personal, dealing with adoption, emigration, and the Caribbean identity of your foster parents, but also very near to the heart of all those who’ve lived through similar experiences. While immigrants today, driving from Chicago to Los Angeles, do not have to worry about their journey like your father did in 1930, life, in other respects, nevertheless remains difficult. Do you write with the belief that poetry can be an instrument for change, or is the act of creation a type of remedy for pain?

LT: I think poetry can do both: i.e., bring about a basis for changes that argue for new directions in our culture such as a need to address the effects of climate change, and, in addition, it can supply a recognition of the challenges and pain we all encounter as individuals which must be addressed, such as the subtle—and not-so-subtle racism, homophobia, and discrimination that exists in this country.

DG: Do you find it more difficult to start a poem or to finish it?

LT: On balance, the finishing of a poem presents the greater challenge for me. I start out thinking I have a great idea—and it’s only a “maybe” I do!—and start scribbling away. Then that positivity gives way to a concern that the poem is too didactic, too unfocused, ends with too much of a “skillet” which leaves the reader thinking she’s been hit over the head instead of leaving her with that “ah” feeling, that feeling of sudden and personal recognition. I’m always looking for a way for the reader/listener to feel him-or-herself into what’s being conveyed, to feel there’s more to learn or understanding left to them to discover.

DG: You received a degree in law from Scripps College in 1972 and went on to have a successful career in this field. Many people, subsequently, discouraged your activities as a poet because writing verse is supposedly not what serious adults should do. It’s fortunate that you never shared this view. Indeed, it seems to me that the best laws resemble the most effectively crafted poetry, in that they both attempt to seek the ultimate truth. In this respect, how did your work as a lawyer go on to inform your poetic development, and do you think poetry can be a similarly powerful vehicle for justice as the law?

LT: First, I want to say that I received a BA from Scripps College and a JD from Southwestern Law School. In my case, I can’t say my work as a lawyer informed my poetic development because a lawyer is trying to convince a particular audience of a particular claim whereas a poet seeks to speak her truth as she sees it then leave it to the listener/reader to determine whether or not that truth resonates. I do believe, however, that a poem can be a powerful vehicle for social justice and change. I’m thinking, among others, of Marilyn Nelson’s collection A Wreath for Emmett Till, or the poems in Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting, or the political poems of Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, Kofi Awoonor, and Wisława Szymborska.

DG: Wallace Stevens once said, “Money is a kind of poetry,” while Robert Graves said, “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.” If we substituted “money” with “law,” would you side with Stevens or Graves? In other words, do you believe in poetic justice or is all justice poetic?

LT: Can’t we have both poetic justice and a justice that’s poetic?

DG: If you were tasked (let’s say by a mysterious stranger) to write the quintessential poem about LA, would it be more difficult to compose a short piece or long one, and why?

LT: If it’s going to be “quintessential,” it would be harder for me to compose a short piece for so many reasons, including the physical size and geographical layout of the City. And a subcategory that grows from that physicality is the labyrinthine ribbons of highways that challenge all but the most knowledgeable of drivers, but are a necessary evil. It might take several poems to write about the Hollywood, Santa Monica, Santa Ana, San Diego Freeways (as well as the “smaller” freeways I haven’t mentioned!) I’ve only tried one: “Red Jasper.”

Another important feature of the City is its substantial diversity. At one time, I read that there were more than 140 languages spoken in L.A. and we see those languages and cultures reflected in the restaurants, shopping venues, and cultural offerings available across the City. For these reasons and so many others, L.A. deserves nothing less than a crown sonnet to capture its matchlessness!

DG: Where in LA would someone find the most overwhelmingly beautiful place? The one that would require ten pages of poetry.

LT: If you were to ask 10 different people, you’d get 10 different answers but two of the places that I find quintessentially (there’s that word again) L.A., and which I love, are the Griffith Park Observatory and the Getty Center. On clear days, you can take in almost all of the City from different vantage points as well as the Pacific Ocean. Plus, the physical grounds at both are stunning. Oh, and I have to include the Watts Towers created by Simon Rodia, a truly unique feature of the City. At least 10 pages of poetry is needed for each!

DG: On the other hand, where’s the quietest, most understated location? The one so abundant with the beauty of silence that wasting superfluous words on it would be a sin.

LT: The Exposition Park Rose Garden. Centrally located, adjacent to the Natural History Museum, and easily accessible by public transportation, is a space that’s almost cathedral-like in the silence it commands and the beauty in the variety of roses there is beyond stunning. Period.

DG: Would the world be a safer, more comforting place with poets who tell white lies, or lawyers who communicate inconvenient truths?

LT: Now you’ve put me on a spot between my two loves! Both of these options present problems but given the times we’re living in, I’m concerned that what were once thought to be “harmless” white lies have spun out of control and into full on disinformation campaigns which are dangerous to the well-being of so many, particularly marginalized communities. Give me an inconvenient truth any day (although I suspect those will come from the poets!)

DG: How have your writing habits changed, if at all, since the pandemic?

LT: Poets often complain that there isn’t enough time to tend to their work. Given how isolated we’ve all had to be, especially during the early days of the pandemic, you would have thought we would have gained time for that compelling witch, poetry. In my case, however, I was, like others, so stunned and overwhelmed by what was happening or not happening with Covid—coupled with the horrifying political scene playing out before our eyes—I didn’t write any more than I did pre-pandemic. An opportunity lost certainly.

DG: What’s the most recent thing you’ve read, and did you find it interesting?

LT: There are books you buy that get buried underneath other books you buy and, as a result, you don’t get to for sometime. One of those books for me was Emily Jungmin Yoon’s A Cruelty Special To Our Species. The poems concern sexual violence against women, most particularly Korean women who worked in Japanese-occupied territories during WWII and who were demeaningly called “comfort women.” My education is sadly lacking on this topic so the poems were an eye-opening exposure to come across the topic in Yoon’s beautifully written lines.

 

About Lynne Thompson

Lynne Thompson is the author of Start with a Small Guitar (What Books Press, 2013) and Beg No Pardon (Perugia Press, 2007). She received an Artist Fellowship from the City of Los Angeles in 2015. Her newest collection, Fretwork, was published in 2019. She was appointed Poet Laureate for the City of Los Angeles in February 2021.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Clint Margrave, Poet and Novelist interviewed by David Garyan


Clint Margrave

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Clint Margrave, Poet and Novelist

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Clint Margraves’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Let’s begin with your novel, Lying Bastard, published last year in May; this is a daring work, abundant with satire, philosophy, and piercing observations on the tediousness of quotidian life. Through the eyes of the protagonist, Berlin Saunders, an adjunct instructor at Long Beach City College, we encounter a world that resembles our own; it’s quintessentially American—cutthroat, competitive, and unforgiving, and at the same time, the characters are written in such a way that defy any regional or even national stereotypes. As an American living in Italy, I’ve likewise encountered many a Berlin Saunders on these shores, perhaps not as hell-bent on suicide, but nevertheless similarly disenchanted with not only their jobs (whatever those may be), but also life in general. Along with your own background as an adjunct instructor, can you describe, perhaps, the inspiration behind Saunders, along with the overall essence of the book, and how these themes ultimately transcend the American way of life you’ve so richly described?

When I started writing the novel in 2007, the literary books being published at the time all seemed to have these earnest “likable” characters, flat, humorless, and boring to me. I had written bad drafts of a couple novels like that myself and I wanted to write about a different kind of a character, a kind I hadn’t seen in a while, a character people might consider an “unlikable bastard,” who had no interest in doing “the right thing,” an absurd anti-hero, like the protagonists in some of my favorite novels from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground to Camus’s The Stranger to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I don’t think Berlin Saunders ended up being this character entirely, but I wanted him to be someone who perceived the world in at least an honest and authentic way (even if he himself isn’t honest to others or himself). It was also a response to the institutional deadness of academia, not that much different from the corporation, where everyone wore masks long before the pandemic, regardless of tenure status. That question of authenticity ended up being one of the major themes of the novel and Berlin Saunders is somebody who both seeks it and questions if it’s even possible. Though the work is not overtly autobiographical, other than Berlin’s career choice, this concern with authenticity was no doubt also inspired by the imposter syndrome I felt when I first began teaching college.  On top of that, school shootings on college campuses began to ramp up around 2007, beginning with Virginia Tech, which influenced the darker less satirical elements of the book. Suddenly, being a teacher on a college campus became a more literal kind of existential battle, not just the battle for one’s soul. But a novel won’t be confined to simply one theme and as I wrote it, the characters and ideas expanded to be about many other things beyond academia or the life of an adjunct. It is in this way that it hopefully begins to transcend the American experience and touch on more universal themes.

DG: America is the embodiment of a consumerist culture, and many parts of the book capture that essence. One of the funniest instances of this is when Tom, a colleague of Saunders, vehemently defends his reasoning for using an anti-plagiarism detection software called “Copycat,” saying “it’s another thing to add to my résumé. It cost the department $12,000 just to have the account. They want us using it.” Here, we get the sense that it’s ultimately money which dictates why things are done or not—ethics are another matter, and, indeed, before readers get this dialogue, the narrator states: “What differentiated the act of plagiarism from any other of the countless lies being spun around the nation? Didn’t plagiarism equal patriotism? Wasn’t it the American way to copy somebody else’s work?” These outlooks you’ve captured are indeed American, but in what way are they also quintessentially European, for example? Did Rome not copy from Greece? And was the Renaissance not, in fact, a rediscovery of those traditions, rather than a trailblazing institution? After all, much of Europe really looks the same as well, which makes me wonder: Is this book, in fact, a criticism of America per se, or is it actually critique of modernity through the prism of American values?

CM: Elite progressive hypocrisy was invented in universities. A lot of lip service is given these days to catch phrases like “inclusivity,” “diversity,” and especially “equity,” because it makes people in power sound virtuous while not actually having to do anything. But in action, the university today is not much different than the corporation, except that it still sees itself as more noble (and let’s hope for at least a morsel of truth left in that). For all the talk, whether it’s from administrators, department chairs, or tenured faculty, there is very little self-awareness and recognition that the university operates on the backs of a second-class citizenry, namely its 75% adjunct faculty. Tom, like many adjuncts, plays the game because he really wants to be part of this elite class who snidely looks down on him. Mostly, he wants it because he’s financially insecure, but also because working within this tiered system can weigh on one’s self-worth. He is humiliated, alienated, and depleted by this demeaning system. He doesn’t realize it’s never going to happen for him, partly because he’s a weirdo, but also because he’s not really their type no matter how hard he tries. Saunders, on the other hand, has given up this dream long before, figuring it’s better to be disillusioned than delusional.

As for the other part of your question, I agree, I don’t think these outlooks are quintessentially American nor even European. I think they are quintessentially human. I’m not even sure if I’d call it a critique of modernity, but I can see how the novel touches on some of the same themes the modernist writers addressed a hundred years ago regarding the atomization of society and the alienation of the individual. But I don’t have a romantic notion of a time before “modernity” that would have been much better. I’m fairly certain there were individuals who lived in caves thousands of years ago who felt alienated by the human condition. To be human, in a way, is to feel some sense of alienation.

DG: As a poet, novelist, but also writer in general, you’ve never shied away from controversy. Given the far-reaching nature of social media, it’s easy to be attacked and even cancelled outright for exercising your freedom of speech. Although this right is a fundamental cornerstone of democratic life in every aspect, why is it especially important to protect this value in the sphere of art and literature, even perhaps during pandemics and times of war?

CM: I decided long ago this is my one life and nobody is going to silence me. As Christopher Hitchens once said, the grave will provide plenty of time for silence. Unfortunately, it’s a resolve that isn’t easy for most, and with good reason. For myself, I haven’t yet decided if I’m just crazy or naïve. Most of us have to worry about making a living, myself included, and the last thing we want is to find ourselves in the midst of some social media controversy. This has caused a chill on speech. Most would prefer to be silent and who can blame them really? Even if at times, I find it cowardly and disappointing. What’s also disturbing about this era though, is that a lot of threats to free speech come from other writers, artists, and publishers themselves, who participate in these online heresy mobs, and in the case of publishers, meet their demands to remove somebody’s work. Where do we go from here? It used to be the artists and publishers were the ones who stood up to the government. Who needs the government or big tech to do the censoring when people who are supposed to be defending it, are perfectly willing to go along with them if it suits their ideology. And yes, it seems even more important to protect art and literature and our democratic principles during vulnerable times, because as we’ve seen, the human instinct for power and control of others is alive and well.

DG: Let’s shift the discussion to poetry—your new collection, Visitor, is scheduled to be released soon. Without giving away too much, what can we expect from the new collection that might resemble the best aspects of your previous work, but also, how might it be a departure from what you’ve done before, given that most likely some of it, or perhaps even most of it was written during the pandemic?

The new book is a culmination of about four years’ worth of poems (and maybe even a few older poems) so it is a mixture of pre and post pandemic stuff. In fact, there are not a lot of poems written about the pandemic or even written during that time, but I must say that the pandemic has altered the way some of the older ones might be read. I’m thinking of one poem called, “When Death Travels,” that was written two years before, but now seems to have taken on an eerily new presence.

As for what you can expect, I think you will still find some of the same mix of serious and humorous, familiar themes, but maybe, if anything has changed it’s that I’ve learned to trust the reader a bit more and leave a little more mystery to the poems.

DG: You were good friends with Gerald Locklin—not only the larger-than-life figure of Long Beach, but also the archetype of what many would consider the exemplary poet. His work embodied masculinity, uncompromising humor, and the courage to describe life in the way most of us live it—the glorification of the everyday experience, so to speak. Your poem, “Toad Dies and Goes to Heaven,” is a wonderful tribute to him, also mentioned in the LA Times. Along with your favorite poems, do you have any interesting Locklin stories to share, and why is his work especially relevant now—at a time when elitism, censorship, and woke culture seem to be not the exception, but norm?

There is so much I learned about writing from Gerry. I say that, by the way, without ever having taken his writing class (I did strangely take a contemporary lit theory class with him). Just reading his work over the years taught me to strive for clarity, simplicity, humor, and brevity without dumbing anything down or shying away from being intellectual. Gerry was very much someone who embraced life in every aspect. He always said that a writer shouldn’t just read poetry or fiction, but everything, history, science, philosophy, etc. Nor should a writer confine oneself to reading, but should be fully engaged in the pleasures of living. I remember at some point in my twenties, I stopped by his office and was contemplating whether I should travel or stay home and write, and he made it a point that Hemingway didn’t write while he was off living those experiences. That it was as important to go out and engage with life, to gain experience, as it was to stay home and be disciplined at your writing desk. As sad as his death is, it’s not sad in the way that he was someone who lived his life fully in every aspect. He savored this world. He was of another era, informed by existentialism rather than despairing postmodernism. He had dared death in middle age when he had some health issues, and recovered and embraced life even more fully it seemed. He was an amazing cultural aficionado and critic too. He probably has written more ekphrastic poems than any American poet and maybe more than any poet period. These are some of my favorite poems of his for their insight not just into art, but the connection between art and life. He was also the kind of academic you don’t see anymore.  I don’t remember who said it, maybe somebody in the LA Times article, but they said Gerry was “the rebel among academics and the academic among rebels.” I thought that was great.

I do think his work is relevant now in that it presents a counter to today’s zeitgeist, which tends to be dogmatic, neo-Victorian, and infantilizing. Gerry stood against all forms of fundamentalism. He disliked dogma and puritanism. Coming out of the university and having read all the theorists who spawned a lot this “woke” stuff, Gerry had been fighting against it for decades by the time it went mainstream. He saw the dogmatism and rigidity within postmodern theory early on and despised it from the beginning. He was a modernist to the core. And yeah, if he were writing and working in academia today, he’d be cancelled. I don’t think he could’ve survived the rigidity of modern academia.

DG: You travel frequently to Europe. What are some of the countries which have made a particularly strong impression on you and how has this influenced both your personal and literary sensibilities?

It’s a cliché to say, but I do believe that spending time abroad wherever it might be, can open you up to learning about yourself and where you come from. Not only that, it’s good to feel a little awkward and uncomfortable as you do when you are in a foreign country. Discomfort creates new ideas and can teach you something about yourself. I definitely think anyone who wants to write should travel the world or try to live abroad as much as they can afford to, which isn’t always possible (I did it on credit cards and school loans when I was young). I love to travel and yes, I no doubt had a romantic affiliation when I was younger with visiting places in Western Europe, particularly I have memories of riding trains through France, Italy, Spain, the kind of stuff I think everyone should experience but can also be a bit cliché. As a young man who’d eaten up Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, as well as the poetry of Baudelaire, or the philosophy and fiction of Jean-Paul Sartre, and had studied the French language for as long as I can remember, I romanticized Paris and for a long time it held a mythical power over me as it does for many people. I lived there as a student for a short time in my twenties and as Hemingway said, one never forgets such a thing. That being said, as much as I still love the city, it’s mostly just a museum these days. Because my girlfriend is Bulgarian, as you know, we spend a lot of time in Bulgaria and Sofia particularly, which is a city I love, and one that is still artistically alive in ways that much of Western Europe doesn’t feel to me anymore, much less the United States. Eastern European poetry (not that it is one thing) has been a huge influence as well. Has there ever been a bad Polish poet? What I love about a lot of Eastern European writing is the dark humor and love of the absurd, conveyed in a clear, minimalistic style.  This sense of the absurd and dark humor seems to fall to the wayside in so much American writing, especially American poetry. I do think this has influenced and informed my work.

DG: If you had to pick only one American and one foreign writer to serve as inspiration for the rest of your life, who would they be and why?

Wow. That’s a tough question because I am a fan of so many. Living or dead? I know the minute I say one name, I will later think of multiple others I should have said. It also depends what you mean by inspiration. Style wise or philosophically? I guess I’d say Albert Camus for foreign writer then. Even though I haven’t read some of his work in years, style-wise, he’s an amazing writer, and philosophically I feel very aligned with his worldview. If not Camus, I’d probably say Dostoevsky (these two very much informed my youth so it tells me something about their staying power throughout my life). And since I only get one…for the Americans, maybe I’d say Herman Melville as I can read a book like Moby Dick over and over again and find inspiration and poetry there.

DG: Are you working on anything at the moment?

I am writing poems, finishing up a short story manuscript for what may be a forthcoming book, and contemplating whether I dare attempt to write another novel. Also, speaking of Locklin, I am in the process of putting together a manuscript for what will be the first posthumous selected poems, put out by NYQ Books in early 2023.

 

About Clint Margrave

Clint Margrave is the author of the novel Lying Bastard (Run Amok Books, 2020), and the poetry collections, Salute the WreckageThe Early Death of Men, and Visitor (Forthcoming) all from NYQ Books. His work has appeared in The Threepenny ReviewRattleCimarron ReviewAmbit (UK), Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac, among others. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

Coronavirus: The Governmentalization and Medicalization of Safety, an article by David Garyan

26/08/2021
Trento, Italy

 

Coronavirus: The Governmentalization and Medicalization of Safety

Today, thanks to the miracles of science, along with the generosity of the Italian government, I was able to receive my second Pfizer COVID shot at no charge. While I do feel eternally grateful to all the men and women working in the scientific and governmental sector who’ve made vaccination for all possible, I nevertheless have hesitations about the direction our society is taking. To be clear, this article will not engage in debates about the pros and cons of vaccines because there’s really just one stance a responsible person can take in the midst of a pandemic: Whatever risks these substances may pose—and they certainly do pose some as the recent deaths of these young individuals demonstrate—the threats presented by the actual virus will always be far greater than any given vaccine trying to prevent the spread of said virus. In short, more people have died of COVID than COVID jabs; at the same time, it must be admitted that long-term effects are difficult to measure and it’s often impossible to tell whether something years down the line was caused by a jab, by the virus itself, or whether any manifestation was simply due to the natural progression of a person’s physiology, regardless of vaccination, virus, or other variables.

In short, despite trying to avoid a discussion on the safety of vaccines, we’ve nevertheless managed to go off-topic—let’s get back on track and state that it’s not science and government which are the problem, but an overreliance on medicine and politicians. Before I get into a discussion about what I mean precisely, it’s important for me to go on record and state the following: Firstly, as a student of human rights, my appreciation for honest, paradigm-changing world leaders runs deep, and, secondly, my parents (father a medical profession, mother an engineer) were and continue to be sensible people who both ensured that I had all the proper vaccinations done as a child.

So, what’s the problem here? Let’s start with the fact that governments, along with their respective nation-states are only interested in protecting their own skin; the wealthiest and most powerful don’t really care about your health and well-being—they’re only concerned with it insofar as it either corresponds with promoting their treasured agenda, or, more importantly, they strive for “safety” because any degree of uncertainty in the public and private sectors can seriously damage not just their reputation, but also the depth of their pockets.

It seems that the most powerful figures on the planet have fixated on coronavirus at the cost of everything else—they’ve done this to such an extent that your health and well-being paradoxically no longer matter. What do I mean? Well, simply that at the height of the lockdown one year ago, when millions of people were forced to endure months of isolation, no politician or police officer cared to inform themselves about the various problems that such measures could inflict upon the individual. We were told that by isolating ourselves from each other, we would all become “responsible” citizens who would ensure that this particular virus wouldn’t spread, and somehow, in the midst of all the frenzy, we forgot all our other needs; more importantly, we failed to remember everyone else who perhaps wasn’t capable of such feats, whether due to financial reasons, or psychological ones. Just for clarity, below is a picture not of India, but of a ghetto in Camden, New Jersey, meaning this problem ranges far and wide.

Let’s, however, forget for a moment, these oft-discussed places, where the combination of geography, population, and economics, makes it difficult for poor city workers living with twelve other people in one apartment to self-isolate. Instead, let’s talk about things which have been rarely discussed: When the pandemic peaked, and even now, there were and there continue to be almost no studies which focus on the correlation between isolation and physical well-being. In other words, if before the pandemic it was someone’s habit, and perhaps even with the recommendation of his doctor, to take a one-hour or two-hour walk after dinner, why was this essential need repeatedly denied to many people by those in the highest spheres of government, and why were these policies so strictly enforced? Aside from the fact that mental health is also an aspect of well-being, and the effects of isolation on rising depression rates have been well-documented, it’s already becoming clear that the elite aren’t interested in protecting the fragility of the human body and spirit when those measures may not only expose, but, more importantly, threaten the fragility of their respective nation-states. In times of crisis, the safety of the flag will always supersede the safety of the bodies which carry it and represent it, metaphorically speaking, because it’s after all the masses who ensure its security.

The government, ultimately, isn’t keen on being creative; during the most desperate moments of the pandemic, it wasn’t interested in the well-being of the poet, who simply wanted to walk the street alone at night and look at the stars; it wasn’t interested in the claustrophobic athlete who yearned to jog in the early hours of the morning; it wasn’t interested in the artist who suffers from panic attacks if he spends too much time in the tiny studio he can barely afford; it wasn’t interested in the old widow—that surely must exist somewhere—who’ll incur a nervous breakdown unless she visits the grave of her husband every week to lay flowers, but florists are inessential and all shops are closed until further notice; it wasn’t interested in the single mother with three young kids who would surely drive her crazy if they couldn’t spend at last two hours at the park, which was located far across town, where no supermarkets could be found—ah, the excuse of going shopping; it wasn’t interested in the countless Alberts, Jacks, Sophies, Amandas, or whoever else it may be that had heart conditions and lived in the heart of the city, but couldn’t do their usual walk because it didn’t fall into the category of “essential” activity. No, with the well-being of these people the government wasn’t in the least bit concerned—they did what they needed to do, and, in many cases, placed individuals in far greater danger than COVID could’ve ever presented.

Other than the rising and falling coronavirus numbers, there was and continues to be hardly any data on which illnesses or diseases people may have contracted as a result of following the lockdown strictly as prescribed. For my own safety, mental health, and overall well-being, I’m not ashamed to say that I broke curfew laws many times, and had I not done that, perhaps the effects of the quarantine may have manifested themselves in more serious psychological, and God forbid, physiological ways. Thus, it was only a small inconvenience to be stopped occasionally, to have my paperwork checked, just to know, at the end of the day, that I was still human—a person with feelings, needs, and emotions who considered looking at the night sky an “essential” activity (despite what the government might tell us) not only for my creativity, but for the vitality of my body and spirit. I’m not ashamed to admit this.

This is the freedom I’m talking about—the human right to exercise one’s individuality, to know what’s best for you and your body, mainly because a generic measure to stay at home can’t possibly apply to everyone. Responsibility in this sense, then, isn’t just about making sure other people are safe, but also about making sure that you can likewise protect yourself while looking out for others. If our leaders had been more creative, many governments around the world could’ve instituted measures like designated meeting areas with specific dates and times for everyone, configured with an app or QR code system, for example, but they didn’t do that. For students, they could’ve introduced initiatives to hold classes in parks or even stadiums, which naturally weren’t being used, with respect for social distancing rules, but nothing of the sort was attempted—and not only because these things are difficult, costly, and time-consuming, but, more importantly, because the elite don’t really care about your well-being, unless it threatens their own status and pocket. Words like safety, responsibility, and health are hollow catchphrases, thrown around to give the illusion of compassion, concern, and duty, all things which the ruling classes supposedly embody, but most of this rhetoric is meaningless at best and dishonest at worst.

It seems to me that progressively-minded thinkers, something I consider myself to be, aren’t consistent in the way they apply the doctrine of choice: Why is it that we view abortion, more correctly, a woman’s right to decide what’s best for her body, in very positive terms, while the decision regarding vaccines can’t be left to the will of the individual? In both cases, we’re dealing with matters of life and death, and while irresponsibility in either scenario must not be tolerated, we should ultimately settle the issue of who has ownership over our bodies— individuals themselves or the bureaucracy of the state.

Having spoken about government, it’s now time to discuss science, and my opinions about the topic are really not much more positive, despite the supposed altruism of the field. For one, science, like government, has made us believe that it alone can solve our problems; whereas politicians claim this right in the sphere of social issues, scientists, arrogantly, claim it on the medical front. Vaccines, as I wrote, are safe and effective, and especially during pandemics, they’re an indispensable element in containing the spread of a virus—but that’s just it; they’re only one small part of the matter, not the whole substance. Just like government alone can’t eradicate mass poverty or even a single person’s destitution without individual initiative (hard work, education, proactiveness), so too science, let alone vaccines, can’t eradicate pandemics or even one person’s disease without our freedom to choose what’s best for us (the perfect diet for each individual body, appropriate exercise for every person, proper rest, pleasure, and other activities); in amount and duration, all these requirements will naturally vary, depending on psychology and biology, and this is precisely why people must be given the freedom to choose—responsibly—when it’s best for them to go outside, eat, play, and so on, without the government placing blanket restrictions on its subjects.

Science has become so powerful that it has miraculously been able to solve most of our problems, but that’s precisely its flaw. Those who believe that a vaccine will eliminate the coronavirus are deeply mistaken, and, likewise, forcing people to get jabs shows, in fact, that we’re interested only in the easy way out—we encounter a difficulty and we aspire to kill it immediately, without examining its root causes or underlying motives that are driving us towards such behavior. There’s no vaccine for the complications of global poverty, intolerance, ignorance, and greed. Unfortunately, while there’s also no vaccine for depression, thankfully, at least, there are drugs, and so, if you’re in bad shape, take something immediately without thinking about why you may be feeling that way—for the love of God, just take a pill and don’t worry about whether you could’ve recovered more creatively with the help of music or friends, perhaps. Science, in this respect, has come to dominate our lives to such an extent that the totality of the individual is being sacrificed for the benefit of the nation state—the classic definition of fascism.

It’s precisely this aforementioned medicalization of safety that I have a problem with—unlike the East, we don’t believe that art, prayer, and meditation, just as examples, can really solve the most difficult issues plaguing our society. Yes, we have incredible venues for art in Europe and the US; there are magnificent churches in which people still conduct prayers to this day, but these things, ultimately, are considered “inessential.” In other words, we don’t take artists and religion seriously—most of us engage in these activities mainly because they add decorum and entertainment to our lives, but the belief that art and prayer are in fact necessary to make the functioning of a harmonious, prosperous society possible isn’t really genuine; the proof for this lies right in the fact that art and faith were the first to suffer during the pandemic.

Instead of the government reaching out to creative individuals with the hopes of finding unique solutions, they shut them down in the name of safety because it doesn’t pay to have a “healthy” public when the goals of that healthy public don’t align with the values of the status quo. The attempt to build the complete individual as envisioned by the Ancient Greeks, for example—strong body and mind through the study of art, philosophy, and sports doesn’t seem to be a priority in the modern world. Depression and pandemics are better cured with drugs and vaccines alone, than with the holistic combination of music, healthy lifestyles based on individual choice, art, and a little self-reflection (perhaps even philosophy); these measures are inconvenient, time-consuming, and expensive, and, most of all, they can even threaten the elite, which is why no one cares to implement them, and why also politicians stipulate to their citizens that “responsible” people can only win the fight against the coronavirus with quarantines and vaccines—everything else is a conspiracy designed to discredit government and science. How convenient for them! We must demand more accountability and creativity from our leaders, and those who speak out regarding such matters, demanding precisely those things, shouldn’t be labeled as anti-vaxxers, agitators, right-wing fanatics, or any other disparaging epithet, because you may find that they aren’t any of those things.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He recently graduated from the University of Bologna with a degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage. He lives in Trento.

Looking in From the Outside: The Arab-Israeli Conflict, an article by David Garyan

12/05/2021
Ravenna, Italy

 

Looking in From the Outside: The Arab-Israeli Conflict

For a sensible person, aware of history’s complexities, it should not be difficult to feel sympathy for the plight of the Jewish people; aside from the well-known atrocities committed against them during WWII, the more “obscure” cruelties, such as those perpetrated by the Russian Empire, for example, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are mostly topics for academics; in other words, everyone knows places like Auschwitz or even Dachau, but rarely do you ever hear about the Odessa pogroms, which, starting in 1821, occurred on average every twenty years or so until 1905.

In addition, the historical persecution of Jews, which, according to some scholars can not only be traced back to a place in antiquity, the Roman Empire, but also be given a specific date, 38 CE—the advent of the Alexandrian riots, which began under Emperor Caligula when he sent the King of Judea, Herod Agrippa, unannounced to Alexandria, something that angered the Greeks, causing riots to break out. Subsequently, the more brutal 66 CE riots of Alexandria reveal a continuation of tensions between Jewish inhabitants and their neighbors. A primary account by the historian Josephus describes the following: “The Romans showed no mercy to the infants, had no regard for the aged, and went on in the slaughter of persons of every age, until all the place was overflowed with blood, and 50,000 Jews lay dead. And the remainder would have perished as well, had they not put themselves at the mercy of city’s governor, Tiberius Julius Alexander. He felt pity and gave orders to the legionaries to retire.” A gruesome picture and it only gets worse four years later, when Emperor Titus together with that very same governor, Alexander, at his command, go on to capture the city of Jerusalem, totally razing both the city and its Temple (indeed, this is that destruction which many Jews to this day view as the ultimate catastrophe for their people because, for one, unlike the first time under Nebuchadnezzar II, it was never rebuilt, and secondly, in many ways, the Jews once again became an “exiled” people).

Throughout the Middle Ages, things don’t change much for the better. Jewish communities are blamed for the Black Death, accused of witchcraft or poisoning wells, and many innocent people are killed as a result in massacres such as those which occurred in the German city of Erfurt in 1349.

Indeed, right down from antiquity, the Jews have not had the most pleasant historical legacy, and this by any stretch of the imagination. Consequently, the curious question we must ask ourselves, hence, is the following: Why do Jewish authorities in Israel now subject Palestinians to experiences which aren’t radically different from the ones they themselves suffered living under the Roman Empire, and later all across Europe? With poverty rates as high as eighty-five percent in some Palestinian areas, the conditions depicted below not only rival but exceed those of the historical Jewish ghettos.

After the 2007 Battle of Gaza, the narrow stretch of territory with access to the sea, bordering Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, fell under the control of Hamas, which can be considered the more “militant” wing seeking Palestine’s liberation, and things have not improved one way or another; the problem is that, precisely, in some ways, it may not really matter who ultimately governs Gaza—saints or sinners, for lack of better words; the area, although under de facto Palestinian control, remains utterly dependent on Israel. According to a recent article in Al Jazeera, Gaza “relies on Israel for most of its energy needs. Its population of two million currently receives about six hours of electricity followed by a 10-hour power cut.” In addition to this, Israel has exacerbated the situation by closing “its lone commercial crossing with Gaza and banned sea access, shutting down commercial fishing.” Routine actions like this are naturally a response to Hamas’s occasional escalations of violence; these phenomena, however, can likewise be interpreted as a reaction to the frustration of living under Israeli occupation, and it would be rather hard to believe that the only thing Hamas really wants to do is harm innocent Jewish civilians.

Aside from electricity, water sanitation is another major problem. As with electricity, Palestinian water resources are largely controlled by Israel, and, according to a report published in 2017 by the Rand Corporation, “a five-year-old boy died in the Gaza Strip after swimming in seawater polluted with sewage.” Further, the report states that incidents like this, unfortunately, are more common than we want to believe. While the West Bank certainly fares much better in terms of the aforementioned issue, “less than 11 percent of Gaza’s population had access to safe drinking water through the public network,” according to the same report. In addition, the highly-prized Area C of the West Bank, where, according to the UN, Israel retains near exclusive control,” is precisely the place in which most of the “West Bank’s natural resources and open spaces, including the sparsely populated Jordan Valley, are located,” according to a National News article. And yet, according to a 2013 World Bank report, less than “one percent of Area C, which is already built up, is designated by the Israeli authorities for Palestinian use; the remainder is heavily restricted or off-limits to Palestinians, with 68 percent reserved for Israeli settlements, 21 percent for closed military zones, and 9 percent for nature reserves.” Having access to Area C, hence, would perhaps not cure all of Palestine’s economic woes, but it could “expand their struggling economy by a third and halve their budget deficit if Israel allowed them to use the 61 per cent of West Bank territory that is now largely off-limits.” The image below from Gaza summarizes the entire situation quite well.

It can thus be said that the majority of Palestinians living in Gaza and some of those in the West Bank as well have nothing but poisonous water to draw from their wells, literally and metaphorically speaking; this is unacceptable and regardless of which position we may choose to take in this conflict, the dignity of people must be protected, but this is merely the humble opinion of a human rights student.

Being Armenian, I sympathize greatly with Palestine, mainly because of Jerusalem, which, as many know, is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Christian, Armenian, and Muslim (listed in no particular order of preference); appropriately, then, we can say that the city is neither Jewish, nor Christian, nor Armenian, nor Muslim, but it’s all of those things at the same time. In this respect, the easiest way for Christians, let’s say, to best feel the plight of Palestinian people is to be told that Jerusalem is entirely Jewish in character and has no connection to Christianity whatsoever. Just for a second, take a look at this photo—it depicts the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and it has stood there since approximately 335 CE; this, however, isn’t the most fascinating part. In the most unexpected fashion, the main caretakers and guardians of this church, for over a thousand years, have been the Nusseibehs—an aristocratic family of neither Christian, nor Jewish origin, but, followers of Islam, capable of tracing their roots back to Jerusalem more than 1,300 years, all the way to the prophet Muhammad, that is. As you may have noticed by now, Jerusalem is complex, and it belongs to everyone who has a genuine claim.

It’s infuriating, hence, to hear Israel tell not only Palestinians but also the entire world exactly the opposite—indirectly for years and now overtly with the 2018 Nation State Law, that Israel is a country “that is different from all others in one way, that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people.” And yet, even the most ignorant simpleton strolling through Jerusalem’s Armenian or Muslim quarter will somehow sense that Israel isn’t just the nation-state of the Jewish people. For thousands of years, different people have inhabited the Holy Land—some are still there while others are gone—and telling Palestinians that Israel is a Jewish state is precisely like telling me, an Armenian, for example, that I have absolutely no connection to Jerusalem, even though there’s a quarter there. A well-written Reuters article from ten or so years ago describes how with gradual measures such as refusal of identity cards and withdrawal of residence rights, Israel is slowly trying to edge out its Armenian presence as well.

The 1980 Jerusalem Law, which is nothing but a covert guise for East Jerusalem’s annexation—utterly and totally unrecognized by the UN—is an ideology that not just politicians hold in high regard. Initially-innocent-looking, well-meaning, but really rather ridiculous articles such as this one from 1975, by what must’ve been, and probably still is (if alive) a disgruntled rabbi by the name of Yakov Goldman have attempted to use words instead of missiles or rather a missile of words to achieve their political objectives.

Ah, fascinating! Indeed, quite fascinating, Rabbi Goldman. So, you’re telling me that if other people live in the Armenian Quarter and we call it the Armenian Quarter that, somehow, is a travesty? Well, if that’s the case, why don’t we go ahead and stop calling Jerusalem a Jewish city, and, while we’re at it, let’s also stop pretending that Israel is a Jewish state, because, clearly, the Palestinians have and continue to live there, and if, by God Almighty, it has to have a name, as you’ve so correctly pointed out, let’s find a different moniker for your state—isn’t that a more wonderful suggestion? I think so.

Both the American historian David Howard-Pitney and US President Barack Obama (two figures whose level of fame is diametrically opposed—nothing we should hold against one or the other) believe that history is a burden. “For both of them,” according to Jennifer Mercieca and Justin S. Vaughn, authors of The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations, “it was as much a burden foisted upon them by tradition as one taken up by choice. And for both of them, this burden inspired action. Whether it is the divine history of the Exodus or the divinized history of the Founders, the memory of the past functions as a goad to social action, a profound investment of political agency.” History, in this sense, has been precisely that burden for both the Israelis and Palestinians; for the former, the Holocaust was and continues to be viewed as a great tragedy and yet it was exactly this event which at once and finally convinced later Zionists of the key tenet in Herzl’s philosophy—that anti-Semitism will always exist and, thus, the only resolution is a Jewish state, which was eventually formed.

For Palestinians—a people fortunate enough never to have experienced the horrors equivalent to such destruction—the burden of history has paradoxically been far less kind than it has to the Jewish people; as of today, they’re individuals of a nation without a state living under the occupation of a nation who for the longest time didn’t have a state themselves, but were forced to create one precisely on those territories which the current people without a state had historically inhabited, and the reason for the creation of this state had to do with the persistent historical persecution of those people who had lacked statehood before but are now inhabiting precisely those territories on which the current people without a state feel they have a right to establish their own.

It’s all very complex and the history isn’t something that will be dealt with here, but what isn’t complicated at all is something I’ve not only hinted at but have said directly: Human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and Israel, being the occupying power, has largely not lived up to those ideals. Problems largely stem from Israel’s aggressive expansionist and annexation policies, most of which, if not all, are considered illegal under international law. To be fair, as part of the peace plan with Egypt in 1979, along with agreements in the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel did dismantle many of the settlements in Palestinian territories, but since then, it has largely continued its previous modus operandi of encroaching on lands which aren’t meant for them. When Israel annexed the Golan Heights (territory internationally recognized as part of Syria) only two years later, along with Trump’s subsequent recognition of that annexation in 2019, it was under the guise of providing a safety buffer for its actual borders, but, in reality, such encroachments are merely strategies to give Israel a more Jewish character; tactics like this may seem appealing in the short-run, but given that no nation state is really composed of one homogenous population, the subjugation and repression of minority voices is always bound to backfire, and, indeed it has.

Not only have the decisions of Israel and Trump led to an escalation in the conflict, but they have also seriously crippled whatever diplomatic channels may have existed in helping to foster dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017 has formally brought an end to what was achieved during the Oslo Accords in 1993—the PLO’s recognition of Israel and its right to exist, along with Israel’s recognition of the PLO as the sole voice of the Palestinian people. Since those most recent events two and four years ago, respectively, the PLO has withdrawn its recognition of Israel and cut ties with the US; in addition, Palestine threatens to sever relations with all those nations which move their embassies to Jerusalem, a move which could potentially further isolate Palestine, as some US allies will invariably choose to go ahead anyways.

Most news outlets, naturally, portray the conflict with broad brushstrokes—Palestinian “terrorists” launch rockets from Gaza and Israeli “forces” defend against this “aggression.” No subtlety, little historical awareness, and even less understanding, in many ways, also of current events—strangely. For some odd reason or other, no one is really quick to point out that Netanyahu’s constant, and, more unfortunately, blatant disregard of international law is a type of terrorism—indeed, there are no guns or rockets fired, but people’s lives are uprooted and metaphorically disfigured forever. Why should Palestinian residents freely give up their homes to illegal Jewish settlers in Sheikh Jarrah, for example? In addition, the (not) good PM’s pledge to annex all Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories have led a major Jewish newspaper to label him the “undertaker of the two-state solution.”

It’s no secret that this so-called funeral director for all non-Israeli ambitions has repeatedly stated, according to The Guardian, that no Palestinian state will ever come into existence so long as he’s in power; this, ladies and gentlemen, is terrorism in its most white-collar form, and yet the only thing that most major credible news outlets besides Al Jazeera choose to focus on are the horrible actions of perhaps some frustrated Palestinian “terrorists” in Gaza who’ve somehow managed to get a rocket past Israel’s incredibly sophisticated air defense system (the notorious Iron Dome in service since 2011); when the rockets, however, start flying the other way—to a place which cannot shoot down 90 percent of trajectories coming their way, it’s all for the sake of defending the state, all because Palestinians simply don’t have one, and, thus, have nothing worth defending.

In response to a friend’s despair that General Burgoyne had been defeated at Saratoga, which effectively brought about the end of British ambitions in Colonial America, Adam Smith said the following: “Be assured, young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” The quote has been interpreted in a number of ways—from strong countries can cope with poor policies to it takes a whole lot of work (in this case bungling) for political leaders to bring down a country which is prosperous and powerful. Despite what Smith may or may not have meant, I prefer the following interpretation: For a new nation to rise, it must first be ruined in order to be truly born anew. It’s hard to deny that Israel has done anything but bring Palestine to that brink. If Palestinians can hang on long enough, I truly believe that like all people who’ve ever wanted to be free, they may not get everything they wanted, but they will eventually find their freedom.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.