1. The Whole Truth by Don Noel
2. Failing Thoreau in the Year 2000 by Benjamin Lawrance Miller
3. I Made It Out by Karen Wolf
4. Strip to Freedom by Richard Miller
5. Migrant Villanelle, Sweatshop Inferno by Catherine McGuire
6. The Keymaster by Rebecca Henderson
7. Arts et Métiers metro, Hangin with Paradox, Her by Malik Ameer Crumpler
8. Say, Praise God! by Maryah Converse
9. Art of the Taiwanese Workers - Interview with Chieh-jen Chen by Q. Lei
10. Divided We Stand, Together We Fall by Lucy Holden
11. Women of Independence Press Release by Stephen Jackson
12. Exclusion Zone by Mantz Yorke
13. The Unannounced by Lavinia Abbott
14. Contributor Biographies
Photograph by Reelika Romat
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
“I’m sorry, young man. I affirm.”
“I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, sir. We’re supposed to refrain from taking the Lord’s name in vain. Aren’t you supposed to refrain, too? You’re a district attorney, for goodness’ sake.”
“Never mind. Do you swear or affirm to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help. . . . Do you so affirm?”
“I do, young man.”
“You’re not holding your hand up, ma’am.”
“That’s because I’m not taking an oath.”
“Will the witness speak up, please? The stenographer needs to keep a complete record of what’s said, and, to be honest, the Court is a bit hard of hearing.”
“I’m sorry, your Honor, I was just explaining to the district attorney that I have a religious objection to swearing an oath. I don’t see the point, anyway.”
“I said I don’t see the point. Isn’t it a crime to lie to a grand jury, Your Honor?”
“Say again, please? Speak a little louder.”
“Sorry, your Honor. I asked if it isn’t a crime to lie to a grand jury.”
“Even if I haven’t said all this nonsense about the whole truth?”
“Nonsense? Is the witness mocking the Court?”
“Sorry, your Honor, I shouldn’t have put it that way. I just mean, I’d be guilty of perjury if I lied up here on the witness stand, whether or not I took an oath, or affirmed, or in any way promised to tell the truth. Wouldn’t I?”
“Even if I had my fingers crossed behind my back?”
“Your Honor, the witness is trifling with us. May I get on with examining her?”
“In a moment, Counsel. How old are you, Madam Witness, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I don’t mind at all. I’ve had a long, full life, and proud of it. I’m 74, your Honor, but you might say that’s not the whole truth.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I mean, tomorrow is my birthday, and then I’ll be 75.”
“Your Honor, let’s wish this witness a happy birthday and get on with it.”
“Be patient, Counsel. We’re having a little civics lesson here. Madam, you’ve lived long enough to know that appearance before a grand jury is serious business.”
“Of course, your Honor. I ought to know. I went to jail, fifty years ago, because a judge like you thought I was being fresh.”
“It was during the Vietnam War, your Honor.”
“Yes, and . . . ?”
“I’d been arrested in a protest, your Honor, and I was wearing a flag that we’d smeared with blood. Draped around my shoulders, I mean. The judge wanted me to take it off, and I wouldn’t. That may have been before your time.”
“Madam, it isn’t your place to be exploring the Court’s age. You risk being found in contempt of court.”
“That’s exactly what the other judge said. Would you put me in jail, your Honor, if I had that flag here in my purse, and draped it around my shoulders right now?”
“That’s enough. The Court is not going to be drawn into a needless controversy. The District Attorney will please proceed with questioning the witness.”
“Thank you, your Honor. Madam, just so the record is clear, do you affirm that you will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”
“Sonny, I thought we’d established that already.”
Photographs by Reelika Ramot
When I decided to drop out of college for a semester to read books, I wanted to be different than my friends, to be changed, to be extraordinary, and for some reason, I thought the only way to do this was to abandon society as much as possible and live in a shack in the woods of West Virginia. It was a time to come of age, and I knew it, and I thought I could accelerate the long process of obtaining self-knowledge by engaging in some extreme living. Was all this born out of an acute self-understanding or a sincere utopian impulse à la Thoreau? Was I a sensitive soul with a mission to study nature in an age of impending ecological disaster, or most likely, was this merely a plot to piss off my parents?
The plan was to join my friend Cody and build shacks on land, privately owned by a mutual friend, near our hometown of Wheeling, a town off I-70, in what we call the northern panhandle of West Virginia. Cody and I were highly motivated learners, but we had not adjusted well to college life. We had become disillusioned and disappointed with our schools and all the vapid social posturing required to excel. We hated the bureaucratic pressures that college required of students, and we wanted a more “authentic” educational environment. We were convinced that the schools we had invested our time and money were not places of higher education, so much as places of distraction -- training centers for a bureaucratic life, which in many ways they were of course, and we understood at some level that a reductionism calling for a simpler way was what we needed. This was a worldview calling us to action. It probably didn't help that we were very interested in philosophy.
When peers of ours were getting summer internships, seizing opportunities, and showing unbridled excitement to enter the adult world, Cody and I chose to reject that world and its conformist pressures. We were going to embrace our alienation and retreat to the woods, to dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of knowledge. In the woods, we enthusiastically envisioned living off the land, reading and studying all day, and destroying our reliance on banal comforts like television and mattresses. Like many aspiring intellectuals, we were impressed with ourselves, convinced of our own exceptionalism. We thought that because we were interested in books and grew up in West Virginia, where most people didn't seem to be interested in books, we were somehow destined to be geniuses. We were reading a lot of Ayn Rand at the time.
After spending five minutes with Cody, almost anyone would be convinced of his intellectual talent. As a precocious twenty-year-old, he could engage in stimulating conversations about literature, philosophy, mathematics, psychology, or religion, at the same time he might play you his intricate electronic music, with layer upon layer of unrecognizable samples, challenging melodies, and cryptic lyrics. Cody was the kind of guy who could be a leader of men if he wasn't so suspicious of leadership itself. Born with the body of an offensive lineman, he ended up being an offensive lineman for a bit in college, even though I know for the most part, he hated it. Often seen wearing oversized shorts and hiking boots, Cody was the friend who custom built your PC in 1999, talked about the superiority of Linux, loved Neal Stephenson, and let you know about conspiracy theories before you even knew conspiracy theories existed. He liked the Pogues, They Might Be Giants, and J.R.R. Tolkien. He introduced me to David Foster Wallace and Aphex Twin, and I remember one time he explained the Illuminati to me while smoking a pipe. Before we moved to the woods he wrote me an email that expressed his unbridled enthusiasm to drop out of society, a pep talk for our adventure, and at the time, it was what ultimately convinced me to join him.
Ben, You and I are self-actualized individuals, and our search for transcendent experience has naturally led us to the one place where it can still be found: nature. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not some kind of pseudo-spiritual Geia worshipper. I don't stare into crystals and light rings of candles when the moon is in the eighth house (hehee). I do think that humans were, and still are animals in many ways. We are slaves to our instinct, and modern life is suited in NO WAY to be an outlet for our instinctual motives. Think about it: traditionally, men are the breadwinners, the hunters, the survivalists. But as life has become more comfortable, as the act of breadwinning has diverged from a physical, manly act, to spending eight hours a day sitting on one's ass in a cubicle, man has become lost. Our biology tells us to live life as if there were no tomorrow, to hunt, to kill, to build and to destroy, but the demands of modern life are diametrically opposed! We are taught to conform, to be accommodating, to kiss ass and to be polite. To be good, law abiding citizens (heaven help us, NO!), and thus we will win bread. Thus we will have a suburban home, three cars in a three car garage, and procreate 2.8 children. Thus we will have a safe and happy retirement. Thus we will LIVE COMFORTABLY. It is no wonder our society is as fucked up as it is! Where, pray tell, are we to appease our biological motivations? Nothing good has ever come of comfortable living. Comfort breeds complacency. Only from discomfort is creativity born. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. Can you ever begin to fathom the sheer, unadulterated NECESSITY that a life in the woods will bring? The learning curve will be astronomical! We won't need to spend five years in college traipsing between majors, attempting to “find ourselves.” Ourselves will FIND US.
So in the late summer of 2000, I took my gear to West Virginia to join Cody who already had begun building a shack on the land. Our plan was to stay for the rest of the year at least. We were given permission to build dwellings for ourselves if we respected the land and didn't throw parties while the owners were away. This wouldn't be a problem because, if given the time and space, we would be too focused on the experiment and what we might accomplish. It is probably not surprising, but we were extraordinarily single, so there would be no worry of excessive social activity or any activity involving other people anyway.
We chose a plot of land in a small wooded valley near a family farm. There was a natural spring on the top of the hill near a barn where we could collect drinking water. Our camp was just a short hike downhill. When I arrived at the property sometime during August, Cody had already been there for at least a month. He had turned me on to Tom Brown's Wilderness Survival guides, and we would ultimately get our shack building ideas from these books.
On that first day, I could make out the skeleton of a circular structure from cut saplings, a kind of wigwam with a teepee in the middle. At the base of the teepee was a fire pit, surrounded by a ring of rocks. On the top of Cody’s shack was a translucent plastic that served as the roof, cut in the center so the teepee could poke through and allow smoke to escape. His original idea was to build mud walls, but he never got the right consistency of mud and straw, so there was enough trial and error to lead him to fit store bought plywood for the walls. The result was a wigwam like structure of more than twelve feet across.
As purists, we originally wanted to build our shacks with no nails or other store bought materials. We thought we could become as equally skilled as self-sufficient people of the 17th century or something by will alone. Cody showed me how to lash saplings together with jute twine. This proved to be amazingly effective. But of course, there were tools on the ground all around his shack: saws, hatchets, hammers, shovels. He would later equip his shack with bookshelves and an innovative pulley system that allowed him to lie on his bed, which was made from massive amounts of plastic bags, and pull a rope to open the door outward. Perhaps most impressively, behind his shack there was painter's plastic suspended by intricately placed jute twine tied to tree trunks that trailed up the hill in a kind of labyrinthine zig zag. Cody explained to me that he grew tired of hiking all the way up the hill to collect water, so he decided to build an aqueduct with the plastic. He showed me that if you dipped the plastic in the water at the top, it would drip in a bin right next to his shack. Cody, inspirational genius and college dropout, was experimenting with Roman technology just to confront his own laziness.
Of course, people would ask us “What are you guys doing this for?” If you asked that question you didn't get it, you didn't understand how important it was to reject society, how rigged it all was, how your choices were prefabricated. Maybe one of the reasons Cody and I got along so well was because we were both focused on process rather than results. We were trying to live better in the quotidian existence, to live more in the present.
I searched for a place to build a shack for myself. Nearby, I found a spot that would be dry about three hundred yards up the hill from Cody. I found three trees that were close together, almost in a perfect right triangle. I dug a few holes to make the fourth corner, and this is where my door would be made with simple hinges. I lashed cross beams, followed Cody’s lead with the plastic roof and the plywood, but I put in a single center pole to support the roof. The result was a rectangular structure, more bourgeois, with a fireplace on the outside rather than in the center. This was the most obvious difference from Cody’s design, which allowed for the fire to exist in the center and the smoke to escape upward. The danger of my design, I soon realized, was that at any moment I risked having my whole structure burst into flames. I also used river rocks to build my fireplace, which is beyond stupid because once the rocks dry, they expand and can explode. Basically, I managed to masterfully build a somewhat haphazard, smaller and shittier dwelling. There was a problem of insulation for both of us. We knew that the coming winter months would be a challenge. The idea was to build debris huts, to pile three or four feet of sticks, leaves, pinecones, dirt, whatever, on all sides of the existing structure to keep the cold out. For whatever reason, I never did this.
Inside my shack, I kept a plastic bin that contained my books. I had a good sleeping bag and read by candle light at night. I read Crime and Punishment, Walden, Atlas Shrugged, Richard Farina's Been Down So Long It Seems Like Up To Me, The Autobiography of Miles Davis, The Crying of Lot 49. Books that you would expect a twenty-year-old with a whiff of the counterculture and a youthful excitement in literature to pursue. Along with this I sat down to write for the first time and produced some horrendous writing that I would never reproduce here, as I apparently thought writing meant combining language from nature, jazz, pop philosophy and the Beats together with an obvious narcissism. Compare this to Thoreau who succinctly begins Walden with, “When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.” In contrast to our hero, Henry David Thoreau, I wasn't writing seriously or laboring very hard at all.
I think Cody and I sort of forgot the labor part. We settled into a routine that mostly involved reading all day, dinner at night together at Cody’s shelter and conversation by the fire. We loved to build fires. It became a ritual for us, in the morning, at night – try to keep the embers going, boil the hell out of coffee. Mostly we ate canned food and ramen noodles. Although we read about it, neither of us was ready to kill animals and gut them. Cody had a 22-caliber rifle that I never saw him use. We had it to protect us from black bears, which I never saw. We would sit around and talk about Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, the Pre-Socratics, whatever we learned in our 100 level college courses. The amount of obligations was fantastically lower. We didn't have to worry about making money, shitty internships, or banal responsibilities. We could sit and read whole books during the day and share our knowledge with each other at night. Often, we would hike up to my parked Subaru and listen to music. Radiohead's Kid A had just come out, and we spoke of it with awe and reverence. I remember Cody playing me Cornilius's Fantasma or the song Alberto Basalam by Aphex Twin, an instrumental track that at one point drops the melody for what sounds like a percussion bridge. Cody would speculate about the meaning of such a song suddenly self-containing itself, as if the song itself fell into a tin box. In many ways, I think we sort of did the same. We became too self-contained, too inward looking, we became comfortable too quickly, wanting to skip the labor and enjoy the benefits of woods living first. We forgot to focus on the essentials like shack insulation, the weening off store bought food staples, and the building of a more efficient water purification system. Occasionally while reading, we would be interrupted by the alarming sounds of gunshots, hunters or locals reminding us that we were not alone.
Perhaps this adventure was the result of our early education. Cody and I were both raised in religious families, and although I can't speak for him and his motivations, I know in our early college years we found philosophy and we found Nietzsche. Never underestimate the power of Nietzsche to influence an impressionable twenty-year-old. Reading Nietzsche for the first time not only seems dangerous and cool, the beginning perhaps of a predictable interest in existentialism, but it is simply intoxicating to read books, difficult and respectable books, that tell you religion is bullshit. A book like Thus Spoke Zarathustra can create a desire to be the overman, or worse can convince the undergraduate that he or she is already the overman. I wouldn't say that I convinced myself of my own extraordinariness, for I suffered like most twenty year olds from a deep lack of self-confidence, but perhaps all of this had something to do with my tendency to embrace philosophy with religious like intensity. If you learn anything from an overzealous religious childhood, you learn to attach yourself to other secular things with the same reverence. I think for me, our project was a result of what can happen when you join the philosophical and the personal. I was a young libertarian who had abandoned society for a life in the woods without ever having worked a real job.
For me, what soon developed in our “authentic” individualist pursuit was the distressing realization of just how unprepared I was to deal with the slow pace of life that the isolated woods environment provided. What is interesting about living in the woods is that time slows down to an extreme degree. Suddenly you confront yourself, and in my case, I didn't think I liked what I found. Unable to deal with solitude, I missed others terribly. The journals I've kept from this time are filled with sad romantic entries expressing unattainable love, bad poems of loneliness, and pathetic ruminations about sex and companionship. Not to risk oversimplification too much, but perhaps my libertarian adventure in the woods of West Virginia was so appealing because I was essentially just sad, and I needed a distracting project. Perhaps I wasn’t celebrating individualism so much as I was trying to separate from my parents, in what is a much more conventional, albeit Freudian way of looking at it. I could claim to not need community because I was so in need of finding community. This was not extraordinary, but predictable. In an absurdist way, I was testing the limits of individualism by taking myself hostage. By the end, I learned that I was lonely, and I didn't want to live in the woods at all.
These emotional distractions, I imagine, corrupted our project, as I constantly found excuses to leave the woods, unprepared to deal with the solitude and constant self-reflection. We often left at any time to get provisions, go to bars or concerts, or visit our families. One weekend we drove to Boston, on another we went to see a Sunny Day Real Estate concert in Pittsburgh. I began to leave every weekend, to drive to Morgantown, the closest university town, to see friends and go to parties, to interact with women, sometimes bringing Cody with me. And so began the realization that my educational experiment of life in the woods was a failure, as it was always destined to be with such idealism. What I needed to learn about was how to talk to people.
I think as I try to make sense of this woods experiment I should consider it as being a possible grappling with my home state's complicated political and cultural climate. West Virginia is often talked about as having some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, but the state often gets an unfair reputation because of the perceived backwardness of the people. It is not always portrayed flatteringly in media representations and is usually depicted in a way that reinforces the worst Appalachia stereotypes. Consider the documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites and the 2013 MTV show Buckwild. However, I am proud of the state, and I am proud to have grown up there, and in a weird way, I'm proud that at one time I was a wannabe Thoreau. I am not proud that West Virginia still struggles with racism, perhaps unsurprising to many who live there, but startling is its overtness to non-natives. Add to this the destruction of the natural landscape and commercial infrastructure because of rapacious corporate interests: coal and mountain top removal, natural gas and fracking, not to mention the slow erosion of small businesses because of big box stores – all of it offering limited possibilities for residents, and I'm left with conflicted feelings about the place. Perhaps my woods adventure and its libertarianism, the retreat to isolation, was an expression of dissatisfaction of having to witness a deteriorating society, the consequence of an already extreme capitalism. In retrospect, I didn't need to reject all of society, just the parts of it that were not for me.
In the influential book for educators When Students Have Power, Ira Shor writes of his conservative college students: “They focus on individualism and self-reliance two hegemonic values deeply embedded in a corporate society, but which they experience contradictorily as values to resist “the system”” (103). This line makes sense to me. The whole project was flawed from the start because I didn’t understand, as I now do, that the society that I was so dissatisfied with was already obsessed with individualism. I wanted to go more extreme in this direction, not because I was special and had some keen insight, but because it seemed the only way available to express my own form of individualism in the West Virginia milieu. There was no visible liberal culture to join. I didn’t need to focus on myself, so much as I just needed to listen to different viewpoints.
I would like to talk to Cody about all of this. I remember the day when I left the woods, leaving him there alone. I was going to continue college and study abroad in Spain, and I needed to get going. He was planning to persist, to persevere, and in the frigid cold, with the grey landscape as backdrop, I remember him wishing me well. Since this time, he has decided to sever all contact with his West Virginia friends for some reason. Recently some of those friends and I found a resume online with some of his contact information. He is living in Texas but didn’t return our phone calls. I’m sure if I wanted to, I could get his address somehow, drive to his house and show up on his doorstep, but I want to respect his privacy. While I needed the woods experience to appreciate society, to understand that I needed to become community literate, perhaps the beginning of my political awareness, Cody has stayed true to his original vision by dropping out. I imagine him writing code or something, scoffing at the Hollywood butchering of The Hobbit, writing music, reading Pynchon's latest novel, laughing. Maybe he is still apolitical and a visionary for alternative living. Maybe he is even living in the woods.
My head is tilted skyward with the pride of it all.
warm sunshine not blocked by city buildings
caresses my cheeks.
An uncontrollable smile is brightened by
autumn colored Maple trees
lining the smooth sidewalk.
No dodging of broken bottles, trash, and gunshot
induced blood spatters required
as I glide my son’s
stroller to the park.
I made it out.
No more meals at the center
to save tuition money or 2AM walks
home from serving drinks and
fending off drunken aggressions.
His giggles reverberate off the
wooden playground structures as
I guide him down the slippery slide,
his soft black curls blowing in the breeze.
Other mothers blurt out
“oohs” and “awes”
watching him toddle over to the sandbox and
plop down next to his little blonde- haired friend.
I relish this,
hoping as he ages that the
baby “awe” moments won’t be replaced
by black man fear.
Perhaps by then
color won’t matter.
Photograph by Reelika Ramot
'It has been very painful and particularly distressing for our shareholders.' Wallace turned the radio off and prepared to weather the drizzle on his way to his very first day of work. He'd left university with a 2.1 in Politics and Economics, a fistful of accolades and a £30,000 millstone around his neck. After thirty-seven rejections he finally landed an entry-level position with Akel Dam Associates, a global consultancy firm, as a Business Consultant Trainee. The starting salary of £21,000 per year would net him £1,440 per month. £650 went towards rent and utility bills. £135 went on bank charges and interest in service of his unauthorised overdraft.
That left him £655 or just under £22 a day to pare down his overdraft and live in London. At least he didn't have to start paying back his student loan yet. The salary was bang on the income threshold for student loan repayments, but it would kick in with his first pay rise. "I feel your pain" he said to the shareholders as he picked up his keys.
It would take an hour to walk but that was better than wasting money on the tube; even if it was raining. Wallace stood at the main entrance to his apartment building and checked the change in his pocket. He was 30 pence short of a croissant so he headed off without a pick-me-up. Straight out of Canary Wharf, right along Narrow Street, straight onto The Highway, turn left at The Tower, across the river on Tower Bridge and finally left into a side street off Potters' Field, where Akel Dam Associates had their global headquarters; then it was up three flights of stairs, straight down the corridor, third door on the left - temporary accommodation until the new headquarters where refurbished.
There was a slight wind coming off the river so he crossed over to the far side of Narrow Street in search of any shelter offered by the buildings and awnings. His mood descended step by step as he encountered others, lucky enough to have an umbrella, who exercised the
same sheltering strategy. Each time an umbrella approached it dipped just enough to cover his assailant and offer Wallace the choice of a spike in the eye or a detour into the mist and splash from the trucks thundering into the city. He tried a couple of withering glares but was universally ignored and soon gave up. Shrugging his shoulders, he jammed his hands into his pockets and let his mind drift back to graduation day. It was sunny then and his family had come up to celebrate. Afterwards his father and Uncle Percy took him to the pub where the two of them waxed lyrical over their working careers and how different and difficult it was now.
Years ago, Uncle Percy studied German and History at university, exited after an undistinguished academic performance and spent the next three years travelling around Europe picking grapes, working in bars, busking and begging. He'd discovered nudity in Munich and gushed how it encapsulated freedom. Upon returning home he picked up a job as
a customer service clerk in a bank. From there he'd landed a position in the IT department on the strength of an aptitude test score and wound up being a computer programmer. A couple of years after that he set up as an independent, worked diligently, saved his money and retired at 55 to study guitar, poetry and explore the countryside on his bicycle. "Yep" he said "Back then you could take your time to find yourself; start work when you were ready and there was still a chance of finding something you could enjoy even if you got it wrong the first couple of times. Nowadays it seems you've got to start planning for a career when you're 14 or 15, and if you screw up once you're done for."
That was the world Wallace understood. From the day he entered school he was pushed, tested, tested again and then re-tested as every school ruthlessly analysed their students to ensure only those most likely to sit exams successfully were retained. The flotsam and jetsam were cast aside into special schools or remedial groups so as not to drag the school's key performance indicators down and, possibly, jeopardise enrolment and funding. From the age of five he was propelled by teachers, pressured by heads, and forced to perform in order to avoid being squeezed into the margins and an empty existence. That was the future those, tasked with his development, painted for him every day. Every day fear of failure stalked him through his myriad of GCSE’s. Every day he shuddered through his A levels with the pressure increasing as exam day approached. Predicted results imposed by university admission placed a seemingly unscalable obstacle before him. Three quarters of his classmates failed to leap that hurdle the first time compounding their sense of failure and lowering their self esteem. Wallace scraped his knee on that hurdle but gotten over. He'd met the dictates of society, so far, but the cost had been heavy. His faith in himself and his ability was fragile. His sense of worth nanoscopic.
As Wallace turned onto The Highway, the drizzle morphed into a deceptively penetrating light shower. His shoes began to squelch. A look up at the sky confirmed that there was to be no break in either the leaden canopy or his leaden future. What was it Professor Murkier used to say? Something about the relationship between society and the individual or was it the relationship between the individual and society? Either way he used to drag all these philosophers out of the past, expound their theories and initiate a debate, but these debates were, as far as Wallace was concerned, outdated and irrelevant. Four years at university had convinced him that the individual, supposedly the basic element and corner stone of society, had been usurped. In society, as in nature, elements had drawn together to form compounds, these compounds had coalesced into complex compounds and some of these complex compounds had risen to top.
The interests of these complex compounds then cascaded down and washed away the interests of the weaker through sheer force of weight. In the very old days the complex compounds manifested themselves as religion and royalty; now they were commerce, free trade, globalisation, big business, and government - in the pocket of big business. Wallace turned left onto Tower Bridge. His trousers started clinging to his legs, rivulets trickled down his back and a constant drip formed on the end of his nose. The effect of these high ideals espoused by high rising complex compounds preyed. There they sat, secure in their internal networks of mutual benefit, guaranteeing endless reciprocal bounty, secure from want, secure from terror - walls closed around Wallace - yes, there's another thing. After every attack fearless leaders stood behind bullet proof barriers to declare 'We shall not be afraid', of course they won't be afraid - they're the best protected people on the planet. The dark grey ceiling descended, ‘not enough money to share’, that's the mantra of austerity. But who's austerity? Certainly not those profiting from globalisation and the polarisation of wealth, and what happens when they screw up? What happens when the floor of their financial house disintegrates? What happens when their consuming greed for profit threatens the very foundation of their civilisation? What do they do? They jam their hands into Billy Nobody's pocket to pay for it. They hold centrally-heated committee meetings in tailored suits spouting sound bites, and at the end all Billy gets is an insipid apology. Does an apology pay the rent? Does an apology buy food? All of this cringing vacuous apologising, what does it get? It gets the miscreants back on their path towards a free, guaranteed, fat, index-linked pension and a book deal.
Wallace knew he was trapped.
Trapped by low self-esteem and insecurity instilled by endless testing and pressure to perform from the age of five. Trapped in a rigidly bureaucratic box-ticking system where he had to decide his future before he had any idea what a future was. Trapped in long term financial slavery having to spend the vigour of his youth digging himself out of debt afraid to voice his opinion in case he loses his job and the monetary spigot gets turned off. Trapped into tugging his forelock to every idiot in a better position. And for what? For the chance to gaze at the first rung of the housing market hideously out of reach. For the chance to renounce every individual interest he ever had as he treaded the floodwaters released by the elite politico-business society, barely able to keep afloat. Uncle Percy flashed through his mind. The freedom of Munich flashed through his mind. He had to be free. He had to unshackle his chains. He had to feel the natural warmth of the sun, of friendship, of singing... of happiness. His shirt had become a strait jacket. He tore it off and threw it in the Thames. He slipped the fetters of his sloshing shoes leaving them pointing in opposite directions on the pavement. He snapped free of his belt, dropped it and walked out of his trousers. As he turned left into the side street he peeled off his briefs and his socks and balled them together and tossed them over his left shoulder for luck. He turned right into the building. He climbed three flights of stairs. He walked straight down the corridor. He pushed open the third door on the left. He stood glowering in the door way, staring, daring, breathing heavily as a puddle collected at his feet and a wisp of steam rose from his shoulders. A middle-aged lady dressed in a polyester business suit, crowned with a strawberry meringue of hair and carrying a clipboard approached him. "Ah, you must be Wallace. I'm Deidre Prescott from HR. We've been expecting you." She handed him a name badge to pin to his lapel turned and said "This way please."
They cluster, nameless, death behind their backs.
Before them – lands unwilling, churlish gates.
They’re cut adrift, their lives in canvas sacks,
just what they carry – dresses, shirts, some bric-a-brac
too precious to abandon as they have been, by fate.
They cluster, nameless, death behind their backs.
Their cities empty as hate-choked men attack.
One day cooking, the next, they must evacuate,
be cut adrift, with lives in canvas sacks.
Smuggled, fleeced and left in leaking wrecks,
Salvation spotted, but they can’t navigate.
They cluster, nameless. The death behind their backs
sneaks up, capsizes, drowns them like sea wrack.
It’s left to others – wrap the bodies, cold and tragic freight
now cut adrift – no life – in canvas sacks.
Behold these clusters – nameless death. We’ve turned our backs,
cut them adrift, more lives now canvas sacks.
Bright silk cloth, like a hundred prayer flags
drape the women in the streets – pink, aqua,
saffron – Carnival colors, like the bright posies
they're supposed to be. Their faces creased in grief,
they stand in witness to the hundreds dead – mostly women–
girls, really – burned alive while sewing
bright cloth. Bangladesh, Poona, Myanmar,
New York – there are always these fire traps,
hidden like unexploded mine fields
Always women ruining eyes, backs, lives–
transforming blood into merchandise.
Roused from submission,
these sari–draped women bullhorn defiance,
call for abolition, for punishment
of this naked – male – greed. Like prayer flags,
incense, votive candles, the cries rise upward
with no sign of being heard.
Do the charred, flaming bodies rise to Heaven
with any more ferocity?
Photograph by Reelika Ramot
A face full of whiskers and smudged with a lifetime’s worth of dirt peers back at him from the mirror-like finish. He smiles, revealing his yellowed teeth—dirty and distant neighbors—in a garish grin, the black orbs of his eyes twinkling back at the trinket in his hand. The cold metal jolts the nerves in his hands, tiny bolts of electricity spur his heart rate.
Scurrying back to his overflowing cart, his tattered rags swish along the ragged cobblestones, he opens a filthy box, once a rich purple velveteen treasure, and carefully places the key among a bed of hundreds of others. The gathered metal blinks up at him in silent wonder, and he can only return the awed gaze.
Black birds crow at him and hop along the industrial wires as he makes his way further along the street. He feels at home in the surrounding gloominess, the dark and decrepit buildings that still stand acting as the gravestones of their fallen brethren. It isn’t so much the people that he cares for, as they are as shady as the businesses that flourish in environments such as these, but rather the atmosphere of it all. He blends in as much as any man pushing a rather overweight cart does, but the questions that plague a figure such as his in any other place were left unasked here. Or rather, no one cared to know the answers.
As he makes his way towards home, the train station greets him as it always does; broken windows winking as he trundles up the gravelly path and the gaping hole left behind from the doors’ departure feeling like the biggest smile, welcoming him back from his day’s journey.
He brings the cart to a stop near one of the larger windows facing the tracks, the glass here aged yellow but still intact, somehow. Placing his face nearer to it, he lets out a heavy breath, the mist from his breath fogging the weathered glass. With grimy fingers he draws two circles, then connects them with a box. Crudely drawing in a triangle near the front, the point raking into space, he exhales once more near the top of the figure. Whispering to himself, though no one is around to overhear, he mimics the clacking and chugging noises of the great engines that once barreled along the tracks without picturing their majesty in his head, much greater in his mind than what his fingers are able to distinguish.
Continuing to chatter along as if he were an engine himself, the chu-chu chu-chu resounds off the steel frames of the station as he makes his way towards the rear of the structure, almost to the tracks themselves. Resting once more on the concrete platform, he glances down at the tracks below, the neat gravel bed they lie in and the uniformity of their resting places soothing his mind.
He follows a route only known to him, his body urging the cart forward with the practiced ease of habit. Ramps form an intricate switchback, descending into the earth with the regularity of planning and design. With each turn, he begins to slip into whistling, quietly at first and then increasing in volume as he finally comes upon his destination.
The makings of a small camp lay before him; a small cot lies rumpled in the corner, propped against the firm walls of the station’s subterranean structure, its rough blankets illuminated softly by a glowing lantern nearby. The lantern crouches low on an old produce box, the ragged boards held together by a sparse number of nails. The floor is barren except for a pit which he had scratched into the surface, most of the job already accomplished by the weathering of foot traffic long since gone. It made for a wonderful fire pit, as evidenced by the battered pans that lay nearby, his favorite bowl, plate, and utensils their only company.
He drives the cart to a nearby wall, and lets it stop on its own as if it were a tired steed, wheels coming to rest in inanimate fatigue. Carefully removing the purple box from its perch near the handlebars, he opens the lid and peers once more down upon the mass of metal within.
As he begins placing the keys onto nails he had managed to hammer into the stiff sheetrock, his mind mulls over the events of the day. With each key placed on a specific rack, in a system only known to him, he remembers its story, the way in which it had come into his life and the feelings he had experienced in their meeting.
The day’s first memory is of the last key he had found, and as he continues, the day moved backwards in his head, sometimes crossing time past as he picks up keys found before and after another. Made recently, as he could tell from the lack of discoloration, the latest key he had found that day deserved to be hung from a nail farther up, above the dirtier and older keys. He made no other distinctions between the shaped metal, but somehow it feels right to privilege the cleaner ones, their finery setting them apart from the rest.
After placing the last key and emptying the purple box, he closes the lid and steps back.
Before him, a wall of metal rises, glinting in the dusk. Hung in inarticulate rows alongside, above, and below one another, the keys trace their own lines in a pattern of jagged edges, rounded tops, and pressed bellies. He marvels at the designs of each, as even though they looked similar and performed the exact same function, their qualities set them apart as if they were living, breathing organisms, finally coming here to revert back to their natural state.
His steps are measured and graceful, he moves tenderly towards a dingy bag that hangs from one nail by a drawstring, the black nylon sheen feeling slimy after the cold yet firm surface of the metal hanging nearby. Removing it from its resting place, he walks back towards his rows of findings. One by one, laying each within the folds of the bag with the care of handling a newborn child, he places the keys together, filling the bag until it is obese with metal. Drawing the strings closed like a seal, he lays the bag down below the now-empty grouping of nails. He looks back at it fondly as he moves towards his living quarters, not without a mix of trepidation, anxiousness, and sadness. Patting his stomach as it growls for attention, he thinks to himself.
It must be done. Their sacrifice for my life.
The weight of his precious metal is the only comfort for him this day, and he feels slightly angry at the thought. The emotion is soon replaced by purpose and he lowers his shoulders somewhat, giving in to the inevitable. Soon he will be back where he belongs, the comfort of his home and familiar surroundings distant and altogether like an imaginary land compared to his current location.
The sun shines jubilantly above him, its blinding rays force him to gaze down at the street that lies perfectly before him, each stone seemingly carved into the land like the intricate scales of an ocean fish. Looking to his sides, he knows he will find buildings and structures, statues and signs that exemplify the same minute and deliberate attention to detail. In a world of perfection and sanitary divinity, he is not only alone in his expression of dynamic life, but avoided for his very antonymic existence.
Devoid of any expression of liveliness except for the looks of consternation and horror thrown like protective shields before him, the people that walk around him—and they do walk around—are no different than their creations. The sterile beauty and porcelain figures that glide along the well-kept streets elicit in him no recognition of the likewise-animate, only the disturbing lack of originality and disconcerting thoughts of possession or something of the like. Hefting his bag closer, he clutches it to his chest like a dying loved one.
His distress only heightens as he finally arrives at his destination. Two enormous and altogether menacing doors bar his way, and he feels extremely dirty, almost unwelcome by their pristine handles as he pulls one towards him. This metal does not speak to him in the way the tiny little jagged figures nestled between his beating chest and tense fingers do; instead they resist his touch, almost recoiling as if in disgust and horror.
“What in the--ahem . . . what are you doing here?!” The man, if you could call the suited and groomed automaton that marches before him that, practically spits in his face. Perfect white teeth, stationed like soldiers in neat ranks around a pink tongue bristle as the man continues to stare with alarm at the abject wretch of a person before him.
He only holds up his black bag, as if, like a mediator, the presence of an object between their worlds might act as translator.
The man spins and gestures for the security guard with a swift flick of his manicured fingers, the hardened gaze returning as he speaks once more. “Your kind are not welcome here! If you ever come—”
“Reginald, please! This man is my guest!”
A well-dressed older gentleman appears from within, and with a sigh of relief, he finally allows the door to shut behind him, thankful that he can let go of the lifeless metal. Reginald, as the man must be called, gawks as the security guard, who had been strutting towards the entrance with purpose, now eases back into his post with military-like efficiency.
“Please, allow this man to enter.” The gentleman nods in dismissal and Reginald retreats with one last backward glance.
“Now, come my dear sir, please.” The man smiles and though the results are similar to the visage presented to him not moments before, a warmth of caring softens the man’s features. “I have been expecting you, Master.”
Instantly allowing his tense posture to relax into a close resemblance of familiarity at the mention of his title, he follows the older gentleman as they move towards the back of the business. Master cannot resist looking into the large, clear, glass cases that hold metal of all shapes and sizes. These too, however, hold no interest for him, as they are even more lifeless than the handful of salesmen standing at attention behind them.
Opening a door, the glass frosted window reading “Mr. Owen Johnson, General Manager,” the gentleman places his hand out, palm upward, fingers pointing towards his enormous desk and the chair resting before it. Master nods his thanks and shuffles within, gently placing the sack of keys upon the richly-upholstered stool. He watches as Mr. Owen strides around the desk, and clasps his grimy hands before him in wait. He had made every effort this morning, before setting off, to scrub them of the dirt that seemed to cloth his exposed skin, but no amount of elbow grease and soap suds could wash away the years of living.
“Are you sure you won’t sit?” Mr. Owen knows the answer, but it feels wrong, what with the modicum of respect expected with his usual clients, not to ask. Even though he shares a small part of the clerk’s opinion, Mr. Owen has taken a liking to Master.
Master shakes his head, then inclines it towards the resting bag. Knowing his part in the silent act, Mr. Owen has already readied his scales and a waiting bag of his own, the stark differences in quality not unlike their respective owners. As Mr. Owen gestures to the waiting scales, Master moves to heft the nylon bag once more, his shoulders slumping a tiny bit as he does so.
After weighing and relocating handfuls of keys at a time, Master finally sets the last one down upon the pile, the break in contact between the piece of metal and his skin like the last kiss of a lover before parting. He steels himself; though they will be leaving his presence, their future does not end in the hot cauldron of the forge. They are to be reborn into a new life, new circumstances, and possibly, just maybe, into another experience where they meet again. Mixed together as they are, he can never know which key it is that returns to him—changed—but the prospect of a future reunion eases the grief.
After all, it is with their sacrifice that he is afforded a future, a gathering of days extra as he searches them out, again and again.
“I don’t know how you do it, Master. It is quite amazing.” Mr. Owen interrupts his reminiscences, but Master only nods. “Where do you find all these keys?”
Master shakes his head slightly. Mr. Owen, taking this as a dismissal of sorts, concedes. “Ah, right, if you told me then we wouldn’t be in business together, right? I could just find them myself, melt them down to make my own jewelry, and not have to pay you!” He chuckles, unsettling Master. Holding out his hand in the universal form of expectation, Master peers over at Mr. Owen and nods once, swiftly. As Mr. Owen places a $100 bill in his hand, the green crisp rectangle looking as if it had fallen upon bare dirt, Master speaks.
Mr. Owen watches him leave, Reginald joining him.
“That’s all he ever says, Reginald. He brings the keys, I weigh them, and he gets paid. Always the same weight, no matter what. Amazing really. Only ever says, ‘thank you,’ and I don’t see him again until he comes up with that same amount. Exactly. Quite a thing of curiosity if you ask me.”
“Why do you call him ‘Master?’”
Mr. Own shrugs, inclining his head towards Reginald. “He’s the Keymaster. Calls himself that and I see no sense in changing his mind.”
An hour later finds Master settled in his makeshift home, laden with nourishment for the next few months and the loss of the only thing in his life that brings him happiness.
Countless rows of nails hang unfettered, silently awaiting their more dazzling companions.
Arts et Métiers metro
I seen a lady in the metro today
sitting on a stained mattress, exhausted
breastfeeding her ravenous child
her crimson eyes fixed straight ahead
on a Decaux add’ of a laughing anorexic
brunette in bright white petite coulettes
seductively looking over her bare back at her
the empty bucket in front of her mattress
made it difficult to look at her husband
playing tug of war with his older daughter’s no eyed doll
her eyes never noticed her father’s eyes watching me
avoiding the fact that if I had any sense left
I’d offer him my time machine.
Hangin with Paradox
Last i hung with
Paradox was over
at Lenox Lounge right
after she got back from
fightin in those secret wars
I was too civilian back then to
ask about any of it so we just
dispassionately admired all
the new white folks in Harlem until
after her seventh double of
Bushmills she grinned,
“I’ve been murderin mirages
I don’t want to talk about it…
I just wanna sit and think
and see what happens
when I can get through one day
and night without attackin or
being attacked by people who
have more right to kill me
than I them.”
She critiques herself
in preparation for some battle
She will lose
She torments herself
with previous wars
lost time drinking drugging
She critiques her behavior
in prevention of future
wars she is afraid of
strategizing with her shame
to defeat that Dionysian self
that considers her heretic
Learning to be a gracious guest in someone else’s language
Photograph by Andy Lehto
When I landed in Jordan, settling after Peace Corps training in a tiny agricultural village, Islam was all around me: mosques, hijab, skullcaps, “Allah” and “Muhammad” calligraphy, pictures of the ka’aba in Mecca, Qur’aan atop most every television. I heard Islam everywhere, too, starting with the call to prayer five times a day.
Each morning when I walked into school, I shook each of my colleagues’ hands and they said, “As-salaamu ‘alaikum wa-raHmat allahi wa-barakaat-uhu.—Peace be upon you and the mercy of God and His blessings.” Like everyone else, I was expected to respond in kind, “Wa-‘alaikum as-salaam—and peace be upon you.” Then we would go out to the school playground, where the girls lined up by class for morning assembly, including a recitation of the fatiHah, sometimes called the Muslim Lord’s Prayer.
All day long, whenever a teacher entered a classroom, all the students rose to their feet and said, in unison, “As-salaamu ‘alaikum wa-raHmat allahi wa-barakaat-uhu.” If I failed to offer the proper response, my students would correct me.
Beyond the schoolyard, there was God-language in every personal interaction. The most common responses to “How are you?” was “al-Hamdu lillah—Praise be to God”. It was one of the first things I learned to say in Arabic, but I didn’t use it for months.
I was deeply uncomfortable with the ubiquitous presence of God in all these everyday phrases. In the humanist-centered Unitarian Universalist congregation and Wiccan-leaning religious education program where I came of age, we were actively discouraged by adults from using the Bible, invoking God, or even saying the word church. That was what “those people” did on Sunday, but we attended a fellowship. Rev. Kathy helped me understand that many of those adults had been traumatized by conservative Christianity and Judaism, as I had been bullied by Evangelicals in school.
When my Jordanian neighbors asked ‘How are you?’ in those early months, I answered any other way I could: good, fine, well, excellent…. God had been a blunt instrument wielded against me and people I loved throughout my childhood, and invoking his name with every person I met felt hollow, hypocritical, even painful.
I thought it would be subtle, that I could fly under the radar as an atheist by just avoiding the word ‘god’ in everyday interaction. Instead, it became a joke in the village where I taught. My first-grade students started to greet me every morning with two thumbs up and an overly enthusiastic “Excellent!” After John Kerry lost the election, the neighborhood girls came to me one day, faces knit in concern. “How are you really, Miss Maryah? Because you haven’t answered ‘excellent!’ for weeks.”
Umm Alaa was a tall, plainspoken woman, the girls’ school headmistress, my neighbor, and my self-appointed Jordanian mother. I was welcome in her home any time for a meal or a cup of tea. Sometimes she even summoned me to help her stuff grape leaves or paint the verandah railing. Umm Alaa taught me about my professional responsibilities at school, and about my cultural obligations in the neighborhood.
When she made social visits, she would often bring me along. Sometimes, in these neighbors’ sitting rooms, I felt like little more than Umm Alaa’s exotic prestige symbol on display, even though I knew she meant to be welcoming and inclusive. Yet, awkward as they could be, these visits were important to my integration into the community, and there was always fruit and candy and plenty of strong, sweet black tea.
Usually, there were small children hiding behind doorframes, spying on this curious stranger with short hair and no hijab, who dressed funny, talked funny, and wasn’t even a third cousin. When it got too awkward, or I just couldn’t follow the adult conversation in Arabic, I could use the universal language of peek-a-boo and big smiles to make the little ones laugh.
One afternoon, Umm Alaa brought me along to visit her father-in-law’s wet nurse, half a dozen houses down the street. I had met her once before, but didn’t remember her name, so I called her Hajjah—pilgrim. Whether or not she had actually made the pilgrimage to holy Mecca in the pilgrim month of Dhuu al-Hajj, the title was also a sign of respect for a woman old enough to be a grandmother.
Umm Alaa introduced us, and the Hajjah took my hand in her wrinkled, papery dry fingers. “It’s an honor to meet you, Miss Maryah. How are you?” she asked.
It was customary to ask this question half a dozen ways of one’s guest. I had them all and almost as many answers ready on the tip of my tongue. “Well, thank you. And how are you?” I asked.
“Good, al-Hamdu li-llah. What’s new?”
“I’m great, thank you. What’s new with you, Hajjah?”
“I’m well, al-Hamdu li-llah. How’s it going?”
“It’s going, it’s going,” I said. “And you? How’s it going?”
“It’s going, al-Hamdu li-llah. How’s your health?” she asked.
“Excellent, thank you. And yours?”
Gently shaking her head, she said, “Al-Hamdu li-llah at-t’aalah.” Praise God on high. She was an old woman, her health inevitably less than ‘good’ and more at the mercy of God than mine.
“How’s your family?” I asked, ready to move on to the next stage of ritual salutations.
“They’re well, al-Hamdu li-llah. And how are you?” she asked again.
“I’m great. And how are you?”
“Al-Hamdu li-llah, I’m well. How are things, Miss Maryah?”
The ritual seemed to be regressing, beginning to repeat, and I was running out of ways to say, “I’m good, and y—?”
Suddenly, the Hajjah grabbed my forearm, shaking it up and down and squeezing with surprising strength until I thought I might bruise. Leaning her face close to mine, she demanded, “Guli al-Hamdu li-llah! Guli al-Hamdu li-llah!” Say, Praise God!
Haltingly, I said, “Al-Hamdu li-llah?”
Smiling sweetly, the Hajjah patted me on the cheek. “Al-Hamdu li-llah at-t’aalah wa-shukr.” Praise God on high and thanks. She let me go, moving on to take Umm Alaa’s hand. “How are you?”
“I’m well, al-Hamdu li-llah. And how are you?”
“Good, al-Hamdu li-llah. How’s it going with you?”
“It’s going, al-Hamdu li-llah. And you? How’s it going, ya Hajjah?”
“Fine, al-Hamdu li-llah, it’s going. And how’s your health?”
“Al-Hamdu li-llah. How is your husband my nephew?”
“He’s well, al-Hamdu li-llah. How are your sons?”
“They’re well, al-Hamdu li-llah. How are your children, Umm Alaa? Please, have a seat. Tell me about your daughter’s tawjihi school leaving exams.”
Having finally learned my lesson about thanking God, I was served tea but effectively ignored.
So I learned to praise God first. How am I? Al-Hamdu li-llah, good; al-Hamdu li-llah, well; al-Hamdu li-llah, excellent, two thumbs up.
Years later, when I had returned to live in the capital city Amman, a Jordanian acquaintance casually referred to me as Muslim.
“Oh, no,” I said, shaking my head. I have great respect for Islam, but I don’t believe its pillars of faith. “I’m not a Muslim. I sometimes call myself a Christian here in Jordan, for convenience, but in fact I’m a confirmed atheist.”
“But you say al-Hamdu li-llah so easily. You say in shaa’ allah with such sincerity.” God willing. Cab drivers say it when you tell them your destination, and receptionists when you make an appointment, and young men pinning everything on a visa application, and fathers trying to silence children begging for a toy or an ice cream.
“Oh, well,” I explained to my new friend, “in my village, if I didn’t say al-Hamdu li-llah fast enough, some Hajjah would grab my arm and shout in my face, ‘Guli al-Hamdu li-llah! Guli al-Hamdu li-llah!’ until I did. So I learned to say it first, because it was easier that way.”
Yet, although I said these phrases often and fluently, I did not say them easily. I struggled every day with the line between expectation and intention. The Hajjaat expected me to say these things, just as they expected their grandchildren to pray and their sons to go to Mecca. Belief, it seemed to suggest, was either irrelevant or would follow naturally from practice.
Most often, I uneasily chose the path of least resistance.
I struggled for the better part of a year. I found myself returning for answers to a story from my childhood. In the Seventies, my mother’s family hosted an exchange student from Afghanistan named Fakhria. She went to high school with my mother and, together with their class, they rose each morning and said the Pledge of Allegiance. One day, my mother asked Fakria if she didn’t struggle with the ‘under God’ part.
“Oh, no,” she said, “I just translate it in my head to something that agrees with my faith.”
It was not that simple for me. For months, I silently contorted myself into theological and linguistic knots. If li-llah comes from the word ilha—divinity, then I wasn’t really saying ‘Praise God’ but ‘Praise that divine consciousness I may or may not believe in.’ If I said ya’atiik al-‘afiah and left off the subject allah, then that wellness might have been given from anywhere, not necessarily from God. Yet, all of this theological contortion felt dishonest, deceptive.
I do not wear hijab, except in a mosque, because I am not Muslim. I do not ever say the words of the shahadah, that beautiful Arabic phrase that translates to ‘There is no god but God,’ even when I am teaching about Islam. To do so is not just to speak words, but to become Muslim. I don’t take even the words and trappings of Islam lightly, because my Unitarian Universalist faith teaches me that these traditions are sacred, even if they are not my own.
To say al-Hamdu li-llah and in shaa’ allah without intention felt like violating my own values.
Then there was ‘thank you.’
It was no struggle to say. In fact, it was one of the first words--shukran—that we were taught, and I employed it liberally. Then one day, Umm Alaa’s seventh-grade nieces Aaliya and Aiat asked me, “How come you say shukran so much?”
“It’s polite. My mother raised me to always thank people when they do something nice to me or give me something.”
“But you say it a lot. Like, a lot! And you say, ‘No, thank you.’ Why, when no one has actually done anything for you? What are you thanking them for?”
I hadn’t ever thought about it. “I guess I’m thanking you for the offer, for thinking of me,” I said. ‘No, thank you’ was just an automatic polite response that my mother had always insisted on, just as the Hajjah demanded that I praise God.
This conversation niggled at my consciousness for weeks. I began to realize that, as much as I said it myself, I never heard the word shukran from others. No one ever thanked me. And I had always known that Peace Corps, more often than not, was thankless work, but it disappointed and frustrated me all the same.
Once I had started thinking about how ‘thank you’ was and wasn’t used in my community, I started to notice something else that began to grate on my nerves, and eventually I discovered a connection between them.
The women and girls I knew in Faiha’ were terrified of being alone. So was everyone they knew. To them it was clearly human nature, and obviously I must be afraid of solitude too. Especially in my first few months there, I heard this often. “Aren’t you afraid? Don’t you worry that something might happen to you?”
Consequently, I rarely got to be alone. Sometimes it was Aaliya and Aiat with their English homework or younger kids asking endless questions about my family photos. Sometimes it was their second cousins down the road, demanding that I do their homework for them or give them something of mine that they desperately wanted. An A-level student like Umm Alaa’s eldest daughter might chase out the younger ones so I could check her work on a practice test for the tawjihi school-leaving exam. Whenever I was home, there were children with me.
After a while I discovered that the constant invasion of my space had been encouraged by Umm Alaa’s sister, my neighbor on the other side. She would look out of her window and into mine, then snag her daughter or niece and say, “Ya Haram! Poor Maryah! She’s all alone in her house. She must be terrified! You’d better go over there and keep her company.”
“Just try to imagine,” I said one day to her older daughter Alya, “living all day, every day in English. Speaking it, hearing it, trying to understand, to learn it. Imagine you’re in America and no one speaks Arabic and you need English to eat, take the bus, at school, at home. All the time. Try to imagine.”
I watched Alya try to picture a life of English. She didn’t reply, but her eyes spoke volumes.
“That’s how I feel. I love you all, and I love your company, and I love Arabic and want to learn it and live it. But at the end of the day, I need two hours to myself, without people, without Arabic, just me.” To my surprise, it worked. They still didn’t understand, but they let me have my solitude if I wanted it, and it felt good to carve out that time for myself.
It also reminded me that Islam is a tribal desert religion, like Judaism, and the Bedouin are a communal culture. To lose your tribe and be alone in the desert is to be dead, and so maintaining equilibrium within the tribe—be it the Prophet’s tribe of the Quraish or the global tribe of Muslims, the ummah—becomes central to Islamic law and daily practice. Their fears and their communal life was their inheritance from desert forebears.
Maintaining societal equilibrium means caring for the least of these, but it also means humility in one’s generosity. A Muslim does good works, not for thanks or praise, but to support and uplift the community. Indeed, to receive praise might make a person too proud and draw the attention of the evil eye. Whenever I said, “What a beautiful baby!” the mother would quickly say, “Ma shaa’ allah—What God hath wrought,” deflecting attention from herself and her child towards God the Creator.
It was a Muslim fellow volunteer who helped me see that the neighbors showed their appreciation for me every day. They invited me in for tea, delivered meals to my door, took me with them to weddings and on outings … the girls even cleaned my house sometimes. When I did things for their mothers, they said, al-Hamdu lillah—praise God, and allah ya’atiik al-‘afiah—God give you wellness, but they did not say shukran. Not to each other, not to me. I might be blessed in the next world for the things I did in the Peace Corps, but my neighbors left that decision up to God.
Over time, I began to look past the religious overtones and appreciate the beauty in the words they did use. When food was served, yislamu eedayk—bless your hands, and before they ate, bismillah—in the name of God, and at the end of a meal, baarak allah—God’s blessings.
I remember clearly the day I learned the magic words to ward off a stomachache.
One of our colleagues at school had given birth the month before. One day after school, a dozen other teachers and I piled into a couple vans and went down the big hill to the next town where most of my colleagues lived, including the new mother.
Her sisters-in-law had been cooking all morning, and laid out a mansaf feast for us. This national dish of Jordan is goat or mutton stewed in a sharp yogurt sauce, served over rice and topped with roast pine nuts and fresh chopped parsley. Men typically form the mansaf into little balls they ate with their hands, though most of the women I knew used spoons. In either case, it is typically eaten from one large platter, but as was often the case for me as the American guest, I was given my own plate piled high with rice and the choicest lamb.
My mother always taught me to clean my plate, so that’s what I did. To my hostess, though, this meant that I was obviously still hungry. She gestured peremptorily to the teacher sitting next to me. “Give Maryah more mansaf. That piece of lamb there is a good one.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “It’s delicious, but I’ve had enough. Sha’baan—I’m full. Really!”
They ignored me. “Kuli! Kuli!—Eat! Eat!” urged the teacher next to me like a Jewish grandmother, while piling on more food.
I tried to keep eating. My stomach was starting to complain under the weight of all that heavy food, but my mother’s lessons in manners were too ingrained to leave food on my plate.
As I slowly forced down more small mouthfuls, I watched the other teachers. Our hostess and her sisters weren’t shouting ‘Kuli! Kuli!’ at anyone else. When they were finished, there was usually a token protest, but one by one each woman did the same thing.
When I thought I might actually puke, though there was still a massive pile of rice drenched in yoghurt sauce on my plate, I leaned back on my cushions and laid my hand over my heart. “Da’iman, in shaa’ allah, ya sid!” I declared.
My hostess beamed. “In shaa’ allah, ya’tiik al-afiah—God willing, may He bring you wellness.”
I had finally learned the magic words, though it took me several more months to interpret their meaning: da’iman, in shaa’ allah—may there always be plenty, God willing. It was as though, only by invoking God could I make myself heard by my friends in the village.
The Arabic word islam means ‘submission’ and from the same linguistic root comes salaam, peace—in Hebrew, shalom. By submitting to God, you find peace. In the words of my Catholic best friend’s mother, “Offer it up.” Relinquish your worries and your uncertain future to God’s care, and find comfort in knowing, que sera, sera—what will be, will be. Kul shi’ maktoob—all things are written. These thoughts don’t give me peace or comfort, but they are fundamental across many faiths, assuaging the fear and misery of billions.
Ultimately, I decided that I was fixated on the wrong part of my personal theology. I was so focused on rejecting dogma that I forgot my belief in religious inclusivity. I want my Unitarian Universalist faith to be a movement that embraces Jews and Sufis, Buddhists and yogis, Baptists and Quakers, theists and atheists.
This was their language, this was their culture, and I was a guest in it. This was the language that they used and expected. It was how they expressed their gratitude, and I learned to do the same with automatic ease.
The Hajjaat might be disappointed that belief did not follow naturally from practice for me, but they let me in on a rich tapestry of little rituals I still treasure. I became so accustomed to these phrases that, back at home in the States, sometimes I still yearn for them: SaHa to bless a cough, na’eeman to bless a haircut, al-Hamdu li-llah in relief, in shaa’ allah in hope, yislamu eedayk for a beautiful plate of food, da’iman to bless a feast.
Allah ya’atiikum al-‘afiah, ya Hajjaat--may God give you blessings, pilgrim grandmothers.
Images by Chieh-jen Chen
Translated by Q. Lei
QL: Would you say that the social class you belong to shapes your work?
Chen: I grew up in the martial law period (1949-1987) in Taiwan. It was a time marked by the Cold War and anti-communist propaganda. The area I grew up in was surrounded by a military prison, a sanatorium, munitions factories, industrial areas, and illegal shantytowns. It was a world divided by visible and invisible walls. The fact that I grew up in an area like this necessarily made me sympathetic to people of the lower class who were oppressed and marginalized by the society. One can also say that the lives of these people and their history have lived in my consciousness since a long time ago.
What inspired me most was how these people despite their difficult circumstances remained optimistic about life and even gave birth to a poetic sensibility. In such a small area where it seemed art could not possibly exist, they somehow still found means of self-expression. For instance, workers of my father’s generation still chanted old Chinese poems, which was a skill that most of the intellectuals at the time already lost. Another example was my mother. My mother never went to school, but she learnt to compose songs from listening to local operas. I remembered when she worked she would always hum those songs to herself. I remembered many stories like that.
I kept these stories in the depth of my memories, until one day I became increasingly suspicious of the history of modern art as it was studied in art and educational institutions, and these stories resurfaced in my mind. The forms of these local arts did not so much interest me as their ways of thinking and transforming everyday material into art. I found them inspiring. Some even possessed quite radical worldviews and views of life, which significantly influenced the art I later started to create myself as a visual artist.
QL: Your images have the conflicting quality of being very surreal and rooted in everyday experience at the same time. Where do you find your inspirations?
Chen: Everyday experience is the source of one’s sensibility, but it is also where contradictions take place. What we call “inspiration” sometimes is just a clash of contradictions.
During the martial law period, I tried to find my artistic expression in American contemporary art, as it was being imported into Taiwan at the time. But their artistic view, which was very far away from my own life experience, made me fall into a very nihilistic state, and I gradually lost my passion in art. Eight years after I gave up making art, I happened to return to where I grew up. I saw those military prison, sanatorium, munitions factories, and industrial areas again, I met again those people who were cast from different cities in China and Taiwan to live together in this small area. I realized what I saw in front of me—the so-called “reality,” which encompassed interwoven times, spaces, histories, memories, emotions, and conflicts. Everyone’s consciousness and body carry these interwoven times and spaces. As soon as I realized that, my creative passion was rekindled. What I mean is that life experience inspires new forms of art, it is not connected to art forms that are already known, but to art that is unknown.
QL: What do you think about the relations between art and politics?
Chen: As everyone knows, art and politics are two inseparable fields. I want to compare it to our cognitive system where various conflicting concepts, and both reason and emotion, coexist. These conflicting things in our cognitive system are related to art and politics, the self and the other, to govern and to be governed, at the same time. In other words, I think art and politics are interrelated symbiosis.
QL: There is always a sense of political urgency in your work. Is it your goal to inspire social movements with your art? Do you see your art as a form of resistance?
Chen: Although I know quite a few activists personally, practically my current circumstances do not allow me to participate in social movements in the long run. Whether it is social movement or the production of art, it is always about sustained effort. Hence, as an artist, I am more interested in the capacity of art to open up a new space for resistance, to find a new way of intervention when a social movement reaches an impasse.
My most recent piece, “Realm of Reverberations,” (2014-2016) is a good example of this. “Realm of Reverberations” was inspired by the “Losheng Sanatorium Movement”—it was a social movement that aimed to fight against the Taiwanese government’s forced demolition of the Losheng Sanatorium, which housed leprosy patients. The movement lasted for ten years. But by the end of 2008, over 70 percent of the Losheng Sanatorium had been demolished, and the movement subsequently reached a low point. Apart from a few activists who kept on fighting, the movement was no longer covered by the media nor paid attention to by the public. As I happened to know some of the activists, I started to invest time in the idea of rekindling the younger generation’s interests in the movement and in its extended social meanings in 2013. I spent three years creating a series of videos and activities which attempted to reopen the space of discussion for the “Losheng Sanatorium Movement.” To put it simply, I wanted put forth this question with “Realm of Reverberations”: if the forced isolation of leprosy patients was a traditional means of governance, what is the new means of isolation, what is today’s “Losheng Sanatorium”?
Three years into this art project, those activists who keep on fighting against the demolition of the sanatorium decide that they will organize a massive demonstration this April in forms different from the movement before. Of course, I wouldn’t say that my art directly inspired them, but what I want to say is that when it comes to social movements, there always needs to be new discovery of the problematic and the development of new forms of resistance. Art provides a space for imagining new forms of resistance outside of the box. In other words, for me, the meaning of resistance lies not only in resistance itself, but also in inspiring new social imaginations.
QL: There are many violent scenes and images in your work. What is your opinion on the representation of violence in visual works?
Chen: In the mid-1990s up to 2002, I did a series of artwork on the subject of torture in human history. But actually what I was really interested in was not the images of torture itself, but two rarely discussed topics. The first was “the history of the photographed or the filmed” which was rarely discussed in the history of film or photography, especially when it concerned non-Western individuals and societies. A hundred years or so after the technology of photography was invented, these individuals were merely included into the history of photography as “voiceless subjects.” Obviously, images of torture were one of the most complicated and extreme examples of the “voiceless subjects” in photography and film history.
The other issue I wanted to explore via those images was their composition. Their basic elements always include: the tortured, the onlookers, the executor, the person who created the image behind the camera, and the bureaucratic group which gave order to the execution. In other words, images of public execution or torture are also profile images of “politics founded on death” in the sense that they are composed of the law-breaker, an anonymous audience, the lower-ranked executor, the outsider who recorded the event, and the bureaucrats who ensure the smooth operation of the penalty system. I wanted to ask the question of what kind of role we play in the “politics founded on death.”
QL: What is your opinion on violence in general?
Chen: Visible and invisible violence is undoubtedly a complex subject. I can only speak about it briefly here. In modern life, in particular in the entertainment industry that you are speaking of, violent images have already become the norm. They have become a device for stress relief, whose primary function is to provide the audience instant pleasure and a temporary escape from the stress of everyday life. I often compare it to drone weapons in that when the operator of a drone weapon drops a bomb, he or she can only see the massive explosion in the operating room, which makes it as if the violence of war is nothing but video games as it causes no “real pain.”
A long-term task for artists of our time, I believe, is to make pain visible and “feelable,” and more importantly, to make the various power apparatuses who try to conceal acts of violence visible and knowable.
QL: Do you think that a lot of films and other media today work to entertain the masses, making them the passive receiver of information or entertainment? What do you think the relationship is between your work and the public?
Chen: Any technology, when it is first born, already carries with it the conflicting quality of being both medicine and poison at the same time. It will have both the positive side, which is usually widely spoken of and the negative side, which is less likely to be considered when it was first invented. It is the same for image making technology. As the capitalist system operates at a faster and faster speed, the majority of people have to give up their free time for the sake of survival in the system. Then, the entertainment industry as a device for stress relief becomes almost omnipresent in our society.
Of course, we need entertainment. But the problem is the means of entertainment, or more exactly, the homogenization of leisure. For me, the key to change lies not only in critiquing the cultural industries, but we as artists must think of and practice new social imaginations. We not only need to retrieve the leisure time that people are deprived of, but also to suggest new answers to the question of “what is entertainment?”
Perhaps what we call the “sweep-floor plays” during the agricultural period can still inspire us today. The so-called “sweep-floor plays” were plays created by farmers during their leisure time. They would sweep the floor clean of a small space in their village, usually under a big tree, and then put on a play for their fellow farmers to watch. I am particularly interested in such a self-organized cultural production. When the play is on, it is not only the moment when art takes place, but also a moment when a farmer is not restricted to his or her own identity as a farmer, but becomes a farmer, an artist and whichever character he or she is playing all at once. The space where the play takes place becomes an interwoven space-time.
The reason why I use this as an example is because I see the importance of encouraging this kind of self-organized cultural production when media technology has become so cheap and easy to use. But more so, I think we should encourage a culture of dissent where the number of likes or views is not seen as important, because only in this way the masses can turn into active citizens who are not afraid of upholding opposite viewpoints than what is accepted by the mainstream.
If you look at my own artwork as well, few people are interested in what I do. But in the past ten years or so I’ve always been working with the same groups of people: unemployed workers, temporary workers, migrant workers, foreign spouses, jobless youths, and social activists. We have become the “sweep-floor play” artists of our time. I believe in the development of a new mass culture from the collaboration of just a few active individuals.
QL: How do you view the relationship between the individual and society?
Chen: I want to speak about this with an episode that happened to me a few years ago. I was invited to attend an art exhibition in New Orleans, which was part of an effort to restore New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. When I applied for a non-immigration visa at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), I was rejected of my visa because the officer suspected me of intention of illegal immigration. Afterward, I created a blog titled “The Illegal Immigrant,” collecting different cases of verbal violence and discrimination during visa interviews at the AIT. It also served as a platform where people discussed the ways in which the relevant institutes can change the discriminating system of visa application as well as the structural problems behind it.
I developed the project “Empire’s Borders I” out of people’s comments on my blog. The video comprises two parts: the first part consists of eight typical cases of Taiwanese citizens being verbally abused and rejected of a US visa for unknown reasons; the second part consists of eight cases of Mainland China spouses also being grilled and discriminated at the airport and at the Taiwanese National Immigration Agency.
This project was perhaps the first open objection to the unequal visa systems between Taiwan and the US. In February 2010, when the AIT published their official Facebook page, many people commented on their page criticizing their visa system. The AIT deleted all the protesting comments afterward.
Being one of the US’s “allies” in Asia has led to the silence of the Taiwanese people when it comes to inequality in visa systems. However, when someone stands out to protest, there will naturally be more people who are willing to stand out as well to testify with their own experience of discrimination.
After Trump was elected, followed by a series of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim policies, I often question if the American people truly know how their government treats people who are not its citizens. I also ask myself if the Taiwanese people ever truly reflect on the reasons why Taiwan plays the role of a humble servant to the US. Returning to your question about the relationship between the individual and society, I believe that only when there are individuals who dare to voice their dissent, we can have a more equal society.