Moses Iten reviews Rattapallax 7

17 February 2004

rattapallax 7Rattapallax 7, Ram Devineni (ed)
NYC, 2003

'The only language of loss left in the world is Arabic,' begins the poem 'Ghazal' by Agha Shahid Ali, concluding:

They ask me to tell them what Shahid means –
Listen: It means 'The Beloved' in Persian, 'witness' in Arabic'.

Shahid, however, was neither Arabic or Persian, but a Kashmiri-born citizen of the world living in the US.

Although conceived in the melting pot of New York, a city often described as the capital of the world, Rattapallax Press is produced by Ram Devineni, originally from India. Crucially, as Devineni's first issue released after September 11, 2001, Rattapallax 7 deals with the horrific loss of innocence as seen through the eyes of the diverse populace of New York. While the 'Words of Comfort' benefit poetry event held in October 2001 attracted the faces of Lou Reed and Claire Danes, the most powerful poems that deal with this loss are by Agha Shahid Ali, and those featured in the segment, New Arab Poetry.

The journal also contains a tribute to mourn Shahid's death, whose words feel as alive as ever &#151 perhaps the birth of New Arab Poetry is imbued with tragedy, soaked in loss, but never defeat.

For compared to my grief for you, what are those of Kashmir,
and what (I close the ledger) are the griefs of the universe
when I remember you – beyond all accounting – O my mother?
            ('Lenox Hill')

Shahid lived as an exile in the US, the victim of a conflict that has lost all sense. Refugees flee in all directions, pursued by poverty, tortured by a lack of food or thought. America remains a shining beacon for countless millions who try to escape persecution, a nation itself settled by persecuted Europeans with high ideals of freedom. Unfortunately, we often remember America as a nation of individuals usurping the weak to feed the strong. Both are true, the black and white source of our grey, foggy world.

Egyptian Iman Mersal's 'Prosperity' begins,

You receive a monthly salary because the state exists.
And as long as the sun creates a commotion in your depressed eyes
you still have reasons to describe the filth of your surroundings…

and concludes:

…and don't worry about the future
for you don't have the freedom to die.

The beauty of Arabic voices clouds my senses, which is all too ready to fall in love with tragedy. In a foreword to a beautiful novel, Little Mountain by Elias Khoury, a story of the confusing, bloody, Lebanese conflict, Edward Said wrote how Arab literature is one of the most neglected in the English-speaking world. It is quite likely that Said, and anyone who has read the few English translated Arabic writers, had hoped the events of September 11 would move those not in pursuit of vengeance to understand, through reading Arabic titles. It is true, literature on the Arab world has proliferated post-9/11, but English-speakers are its main writers. I, for one, am waiting for more translations, and meanwhile enrolling in a Masters of Arabic Studies.

'Nothing ever happens in my dreams any more,' writes Iraqi poet Fadhil Al-Azzawi, the title of his poem in this issue of rattapallax. A few pages on, Lebanese poet Venus Khoury-Ghata writes,

She dreams the way she writes
In parallel slashes that meet beyond the page
Draw me a dream she says to her hand
Which digs a hole and fills it up with cries…
            ('Her dreams make her believe she is awake')

Rattapallax is such an international collage of words. Created by Japanese artist Takahiro Kimura, the cover of rattapallax 7 echoes this in its collage of faces so mixed up they cannot be recognized, symbolising all-encompassing humanity. A Welsh poet visualises the coming of a pre-modern age. A Florida Cuban stares longingly at the sea, yearning for his homeland, while the image flooding his mind are the bodies of those who drowned. The collage of rattapallax 7 contains other voices like Shahid's, most admirably 'Matsutake' by Latha Viswanathan, a short story about a Laotian coming to terms with spirituality in America.

In his eulogy to Agha Shahid Ali, his friend M.L. Williams writes, 'Living as an exile, Shahid chose not to play victim; he made his home wherever he was…' In his lifetime, one of Shahid's missions in the US had been to open up poets to the culture of writing ghazals, just one of the bridges he built between English and Urdu literary traditions. In memory of his life, Williams collected the rhymes of dozens of Shahid's friends to compile a final ghazal. After long deliberation, I chose this one:

Writing on water, living on air,
The poet knows how to resist land.
            ('Ghazal for Shahid', Roderick Townley)

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