Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Uncertain Freedom

All I wanted to do was sleep; but there are only so many jumping camels to count before giving up. Lucky me, an enchanting surprise in the mailbox. A friend had been gracious enough to send quite a few hard to find poems.

Zbignew Herbert is always a joy. One of his more poignant works in particular got me thinking about our present predicament. Read carefully.

Report from a Besieged City (1982)

Too old to carry arms and fight like the others –

they graciously gave me the inferior role of chroniclerI record –
I don't know for whom – the history of the siege

I am supposed to be exact but I don't know when the invasion began
two hundred years ago in December in September perhaps yesterday

at dawn
everyone here suffers from a loss of the sense of time

all we have left is the place the attachment to the place
we still rule over the ruins of temples spectres of gardens and houses
if we lose the ruins nothing will be left

I write as I can in the rhythm of interminable weeks
monday: empty storehouses a rat became the unit of currency
tuesday: the mayor murdered by unknown assailants
wednesday: negotiations for a cease-fire the enemy has imprisoned

our messengers
we don't know where they are held that is the place of torture
thursday: after a stormy meeting a majority of voices rejected
the motion of the spice merchants for unconditional surrender
friday: the beginning of the plague saturday: our invincible defender
N.N. committed suicide sunday: no more water we drove back
an attack at the eastern gate called the Gate of the Alliance

all of this is monotonous I know it can't move anyone

I avoid any commentary I keep a tight hold on my emotions I write

about the facts
only they it seems are appreciated in foreign markets
yet with a certain pride I would like to inform the world
that thanks to the war we have raised a new species of children
our children don’t like fairy tales they play at killing
awake and asleep they dream of soup of bread and bones
just like dogs and cats

in the evening I like to wander near the outposts of the City
along the frontier of our uncertain freedom
I look at the swarms of soldiers below their lights
I listen to the noise of drums barbarian shrieks
truly it is inconceivable the City is still defending itself
the siege has lasted a long time the enemies must take turns
nothing unites them except the desire for our extermination
Goths the Tartars Swedes troops of the Emperor regiments of the

who can count them
the colors of their banners change like the forest on the horizon
from delicate bird's yellow in spring through green through red to
winter's black

and so in the evening released from facts I can think
about distant ancient matters for example our
friends beyond the sea I know they sincerely sympathize
they send us flour lard sacks of comfort and good advice
they don’t even know their fathers betrayed us
our former allies at the time of the second Apocalypse
their sons are blameless they deserve our gratitude therefore we are

they have not experienced a siege as long as eternity
those struck by misfortune are always alone
the defenders of the Dalai Lama the Kurds the Afghan mountaineers

now as I write these words the advocates of conciliation
have won the upper hand over the party of inflexibles
a normal hesitation of moods fate still hangs in the balance

cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders is smaller
yet the defense continues it will continue to the end
and if the City falls but a single man escape
she will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile
he will be the Citywe look in the face of hunger the face of fire face of death
worst of all – the face of betrayal

and only our dreams have not been humiliated

Credit: Excerpted from Report from The Besieged City and Other Poems. Translated by John Carpenter and Bogdona Carpenter. Ecco Press

Herbert’s City can be anywhere anytime. Take your pick. The spice merchants and their intellectual advisors, if outside the gates, inevitably counsel ferocity, brutality and more humiliation. If on the inside, however, their counsel is often compromise, and always the easy out.

In the long run, they might have done more to revolutionize life in and around the city. But during intervals of upheaval and turmoil, they are useless. Spice merchants make poor Saviors. And even more atrocious revolutionaries. And there are good reasons for that.

Hence the real paradox of American Mesopotamian expedition. And the dilemma of a large segment of the Iranian opposition. One and the same really.

No Romance.

“Join us,” and “help humiliate others unflinchingly.” The Battle cry in Iraq. They even do slums now. I thought even in the Homeland ghettos were off limits. Oh right, 911 changed everything.

In Iran, the shoe is in the other foot. The prospect of a more attractive life has a lure, yes, but only if the ones doing the humiliating can be forced to relinquish their hold on power.

But the same desires animating some of the most disgruntled, and loudest opponents of this Regime—the ones reading assorted American manuals on “How To Avoid Life In Two & One-half Easy Steps,” while hoping for quick and painless “liberation” via declarations of Messrs. Pahlavi ,Yazdi, et al.—those desires also preclude actively engaging others in order to achieve expected goals.

Some of those people can yell as loudly as they can how our “Iranian daughters and sisters” are being sold to those “lascivious” Arabs outside of our borders (a constant theme) but everyone inside has a clear view of who exactly (and of what nationality) roams the streets in big shiny cars looking for “action” everyday and in what neighborhoods.

I am not in the mood to translate any of our moving Persian exhortations. So we are going to have to settle for some of the more famous ones (hopefully) familiar to most. You recall hearing any of this anywhere?

Give me a shiny BMW or give me death!

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with legally purchased vodka tonic!

It is better to torment and humiliate the helpless and the vulnerable on your feet than live a lifetime on your knee!

Like I said…simply no romance!

1 comment:

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