Friday, March 4, 2016

The War Room: Notes from Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here DC 2016

Saturday, March 5, marks the 9th anniversary of the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street -- the street of booksellers, scholars, poets, translators, readers for hundreds of years -- in Baghdad by a car bomb. Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here DC 2016 celebrates the culture of the word in Iraq, and offers attendees an immersion in the glory of contemporary Iraqi and Middle Eastern literatures and arts. 

Join us for the commemorative reading Saturday evening, and read on for an inspiring meditation on the power of literature and of this festival to move a heart.

Ninth Annual Commemorative Reading
Saturday March 5th, 2016 from 6-8:00 p.m.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, McEvoy Auditorium

8th and F Streets, NW
Washington, DC 20004

Distinguished Iraqi poets Amal Al-Jubouri and Dunya Mikhail and project founder and coordinator Beau Beausoleil, along with musicians and other speakers, will commemorate the March 5, 2007 bombing of Baghdad's historic book selling street. Book signings will follow the reading. 

Click here to learn more and to RSVP for the event.

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 The War Room

... to take my own power and harness it
By Shatha Almutawa

Last night, in a packed room at the Old Naval Hospital in Washington, DC, now used as a cultural center in Capitol Hill, the Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail described what it was like to live in Iraq during Desert Storm, the 1991 US invasion of Iraq. Dunya talked about the room her mother designated as the “war room,” where the windows were taped over in case they shattered after a bombing. Dunya’s family rushed when they used the bathroom, an unsafe room, her mother wishing that they all stay alive or all die together in the “war room.” My experience of that war was in Kuwait the previous summer—and it matches Dunya’s experience in these details. Our “war room” was the basement of my aunt’s house. I remember vividly my aunts and uncle taping the windows, and my six-year-old sister waiting to hear a bomb explode before venturing out of the basement to use the bathroom.

What struck me about that common experience is that we were supposed to be enemies. We—Kuwaitis and Iraqis—were supposed to be at war. But in that packed room at Hill Center there was one person I felt most connected to, and whose experience mirrored mine. It was Dunya. Both of our lives were in the hands of others; we could only respond to what others had decided our fate should be—that we should be hiding in a “war room,” doing what we can to remain alive, because some men somewhere decided that there should be a war. The injustice of this reality, that some people in this world get to say when and how our lives should be disrupted, endangered, ended or saved, hit me in a new way. I was fed up.

Earlier that day I was teaching a Peace Studies class, and the assigned reading was by a rabbi who wrote about assertive nonviolence. He quoted Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish philosopher who lived through the Holocaust and still somehow asked about the personal responsibility of the Jews in what happened. I read Heschel’s statements and asked my students if it is fair for him to ask the Jews “Where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed? I did not think it fair. I pointed out that we cannot address every injustice every day, that we should take personal responsibility, but that we should also place limits on that responsibility. But then I walked out of class and asked myself, if Heschel, whose entire family was killed in the Holocaust, could ask what the Jews could have done to change the course of their history, how can I not ask myself what it is that I can do to stop ISIS?

I asked myself this as an Arab, but after I went to sleep and woke up, I asked myself this as someone who lives in America, and someone who lives in this world. That feeling of being fed up with others starting wars that create thousands of “war rooms” and families hiding and hoping to survive turned into resolution. I will not be powerless, and I will not deny my personal responsibility. I might not be able to singlehandedly stop ISIS from killing any more innocent people, and I might not be able to stop the hateful rhetoric that has become too common in America, but I can do my part.

If we are not powerless, then we can take our power and do something with it. Having worked with Split This Rock this year, I have seen how power can be harnessed and used for good. I have seen young people take their feeling of being fed up and transform it into poetry. These young men and women do not write flowery language that describes the golden locks of the beloved. These young poets, most of whom are African American in an America that is painfully racist, speak and voice anger, they speak the unspeakable on stage, they describe gut-wrenching realities, and they stand formidable, challenging these realities. I notice as I watch them the absence of Arab Americans in their midst, and yet poetry flowed through the veins of our ancestors.

To witness the destruction of Arab heritage, cities, and lives every day, even from afar, even if only through the occasional Facebook link, is not an easy thing, even if we avoid the noise of the news and choose to be apolitical. There is indescribable loss and trauma in this reality, whether we feel connected to the Iraqis, the Syrians, and the Yemenis, and the ancient cities of a civilization that is or was ours, but whose contours we do not know, because we are told we are not civilized. Whether we tell this to ourselves, or are told through the thrillers and TV series we watch, to be told that you are not civilized is a whole other trauma in itself. We have so much to be fed up with, so much to feel strongly about, but how do we talk about the loss, the powerlessness, the horror, the sadness? I have not known how, all of these years. I feel the sadness and try to push it aside. I see the images and feel dismay, then try to move on with my day.

Our power is in these feelings, the young poets have taught me. And it is these feelings that define personal responsibility, so we cannot afford to cast them aside. To change the course of my history, to take my own power and harness it, must be through these feelings, which connect me not only to my Arab, Arab American, and Muslim brothers and sisters, but to all the people who would end up in “war rooms” in their own houses if they let others take their power from them.

Each person will have her or his own individual role in refusing to have a “war room.” Some will use art and others poetry, many will and do imagine what I cannot imagine. For my part, I want to connect young Arabs, Arab Americans, and Muslims to teachers like Safia Elhillo, Jonathan Tucker, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Joseph Green, who can help them find their voices. I want young Arabs, Arab Americans, and Muslims to be connected to each other and to other young men and women who are standing up to injustice, and showing us who have forgotten what it is to be young and mighty. I want our sadness to be expressed, I want our losses to be named, and I want our existence to be acknowledged. I want to hear the power in the voices of my peoples.

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Shatha Almutawa works with Split This Rock to put together Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here DC 2016 literary programming which began in January and ends on March 20. She is a scholar of medieval Muslim and Jewish philosophy, and a lover of Arabic literature. She currently teaches at George Washington University and is working on a translation of the Arabic novel Wa islamah!

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