Friday, July 29, 2016

Civilization's Garden: We Are All Aleppo

[photo by anjci -, CC BY 2.0, ]
Shakespeare's audience was likely to appreciate the geographical reference in the last sentence of Othello's powerful, horrible, final speech, as he acknowledges the horror of the act he has just committed in killing his innocent wife, after his mind was treacherously poisoned against her.

"I have done your masters some services, he tells the Venetians, for whom he serves as commander and warrior -- though he is not a Venetian himself, but a Moor -- to report the whole truth of the crime he has committed "with no extenuation."
Then he states:
"And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduc'd the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him thus."
          On that final "thus" he thrusts his sword into his own heart.
          Aleppo: An ancient city in Syria where Christians and "Turks" (meaning Muslims) once contended for control, during the time of the Crusades. 
            Today that city is being wiped from the earth by the so-called President of Syria and his allies, the perfidious Russians, its people destroyed by cluster bombs dropped from the sky with the intention of killing whoever remains in the city. As the Western democracies who the county's freedom fighters were certain would come to their aid continue to sit on the sidelines and cluck their tongues.  
            Today's newspaper reports that the so-called Syrian government (two words that make no sense together) has offered an amnesty corridor allowing people to leave Aleppo safely for other parts of the country controlled by the government. But the people there say 'What amnesty can we possibly expect when all the men in this place are 'wanted' by the government?'
            With a population of more than 2 million, Aleppo is (or was) Syria's largest city, and one of the largest in the Middle East. Historically, it was the third largest in the Ottoman Empire. But it's history goes back long before. According to the experts, Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, showing signs of human settlement possibly back as far as the 6th millennium BC. The Old City of Aleppo is designated as a World Heritage Site -- once you say that about a place, any place, what else do you need to say about its value?
           Yet the same designation applied to another ancient Syrian city, Palmyra, whose irreplaceable historic monuments have already been destroyed by the war caused by the murderous gang that runs Syria today, though Palmyra's execution was carried out by the despicable terrorist gang known to us as ISIS, who took advantage of the war to add to the suffering of Syrians and Iraqis.
            A Silk Road trading center before the invasion of the Mongols, Aleppo became was a major point of contention during Middle Ages when the European crusaders sought to wrest it from the Muslim population. Crusaders besieged it in 1098 and in 1124, they failed to take it. Syrian Christians (a significant Christian population remains in Syria today), however, established their own quarter outside the city walls in 1420.
            The dictatorial Baathist Syrian government, which has ruled Syria since 1970 (with its capital in Damascus) has presided over decades of economic decline in Aleppo. Ironically, the decline may have helped to preserve the Old City of Aleppo, its medieval architecture and traditional heritage. 
            Since 2012 that heritage has suffered series losses, souqs, mosques, and medieval buildings have been partially or wholly destroyed in fighting for the control of the city. Worse is happening today.  
            So how does Shakespeare's reference to Aleppo in Othello's about-to-self-slaughter speech help us understand the city's importance? Othello, as we are told repeatedly in the tragedy that bears his name, is a "black" Moor, that is to say a Muslim from Morocco. The Moors invaded Europe in the 8th century, conquering all of the Iberian peninsula and spreading into southern France before their advance was halted. 
            This real significance of this incursion was that while most of Europe languished for a millennium in "Dark Ages" ignorance, cultural fragmentation, and disconnection from the classical civilization of the ancient Rome and Greece, cities in southern Spain became centers of culture, art and learning, because the Islamic Empire retained the learning and preserved that civilization's books and contributed to classical traditions of learning in fields such as mathematics, science, music and poetry. And, in the most important of Spain's medieval kingdoms did so in harmony with its Christian and Jewish population.
            Nevertheless, times change, and Othello became a mercenary soldier serving the Christian power of Venice, the most important rival to the empire now ruled by the Turkish-dominated Ottoman Empire -- hence Othello's to the "malignant Turk." Who interestingly is also called "a circumcised dog."
            (Should we think of Othello as a self-hating Muslim?)
            When Othello chose to throw in his lot with Venice, a late-Medieval and Renaissance Mediterranean power, Western civilization had been centered for millennia upon the Mediterranean coast of Europe, North Africa and what we now call the Middle East. Even at the time he wrote, Shakespeare's England was still a relatively insignificant island redoubt, a minor player in world affairs though it has managed to fend off the aggression of the Spanish Empire and the secede from the Roman church -- both of which were then strongly among major players.
            And as we trace the roots of Western Civilization further back in time, we see that everything goes back to the cities and settlements in places we now call Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. Agriculture, the essential basis for that bastion of civilization, began in Mesopotamia (Iraq), the first cities and codified legal systems were found in Babylon; religion, art, monumental architecture go back to Egypt and the other cities of the Middle East. Monotheism first appears in the Zoroastrianism of Persia, and took root in Palestine.
            The Greeks learned the alphabet from Byblos, a Phoenician city on the shore of what is now Lebanon. Quite possibly they also learned the seafaring and trading business which provided the economic foundation for their civilization from the sea-faring Phoenicians. And they they were much impressed by the dramatic careers of the gods of Egypt. The Romans learned from the Greeks, and from everybody else who came before. That's what they were good at -- along with imperial infrastructure building. The Romans planted cities, including a few in England.
            This is the cultural and intellectual ancestry of the West, our roots. These early nations provided the great fore-running monuments of our civilization, we are watching be destroyed.
            Othello, a Muslim, chose to serve a Christian power that fought and competed with Ottoman Islamic empire, helping to slow its westward expansion. Somehow the divisions of medieval Europe versus the Muslim "East" still bedevil us. We were still barbarians when they were learned, studying the Greeks and writing books, up to the time of the Renaissance, the recovery of classical learning, and the Enlightenment and rebirth of science in northern Europe. From that time on Europe learned fast and countries such as England and the US jumped to the head of the line and pranced as dominating characters on the world stage.
            But as civilized peoples, nations of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East all have the same roots. Everybody in the Western Civilization comes from the same source. 
            And I can't understand how we can stand by, year after year, and see the treasures of that inheritance destroyed.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Garden of Verse: Mysteries in Plain Poetic Sight

            There are many mysteries among the poems that delighted me in July's Verse-Virtual ( 
             Michael Minassian's poem "The Fortune Teller" reads like a deep parable with too many possible meanings for any of us to sort out simply. It features a Korean fortune teller, a finch who apparently understands Korean (and performs gymnastics in a cage), an angry exchange not simply or words but of roles, a mysterious neighbor, and a finale in which the poet carries a bird on his tongue. 
             Well, doesn't he? You have to read it.
             In another poem, "Three Days After the Fourth of July," we meet a neighbor (the neighbor of the foretelling? I don't know) getting publicly drunk on his lawn. In a fitting gesture for a national holiday the poet's waving notebook becomes "a white flag,/
spreading across the wide continent." 
           It all fits together, mysteriously, poetically, so.

            "One Time," anaffecting poem by Susan Deer Cloud, tells of her mother, who grew up during the Great Depression and sought solace in the fields, the earth and the "black breathing" beyond.
"She thought
she could ignore hunger,
forget her father’s claim
their people were no different
than the extinct panthers."
The poem's stunning last line suggests that 'her father's claim' may not be the whole story.

Joan Mazza writes of another mysterious guest in "Filamentous Algae," a new arrival in a local pond, following the sometime residence of lotus and bullfrogs and herons.
"Uninvited, you arrived in late spring. I spied
you from my office window, weaving mats
on the pond’s surface with your long hair."
As the accompanying photo suggests, long hair this thick can be dangerous. The poem concludes with an unexpected change in frame of reference, from environmental to personal, that leaves us surprised and thoughtful.

Ryan Warren's "Wind Horses" captures a perhaps universal human feeling and makes us feel it, in our animal selves. Watching those wind horses drive though the frigid ocean, the poet writes:

"Oh, how the ancient
mammalian map
within me yearns so
to curl up tightly,

to wrap my long tail
around my wet nose
and sink down into
some dark winter cave.

I love this poem's descriptive imagery -- "Each cresting curl
streams a white mane..."; "The gauzy curtain
of rain undulates..." We will grow tired of witnessing the world.

Then we come to DeWitt Clinton's incredible series of contemporary adaptations of poems by Tu Fu. What a project! I like all of these efforts in the July Verse-Virtual.
I find them naked, vulnerable, moving, witty, open and unsentimental. We're tempted to think of concretely descriptive, contemporary first-person poems as "confessional," but the confessional approach may be a mask, the adoption of a persona, the way Tu Fu adopts a face for certain poems. Maybe we should think of the "I" of these poems as a Tu Fu descendant. I love the titles of these poems, such as:
"Hanging in Rope Sirsasana, and Later, Lying in Supta Baddha Konasana,

I Realize How Eager I am to open the Page to Find Tu Fu’s 'Visitors'”
... a poem in which, if I have the right one, Tu Fu subtly takes down the pretensions of an official visitor by emphasizing the spare homeliness of his own dwelling and way of life while employing the language of courtesy. Clinton's poem begins:
"It’s been so long now, I wonder about all who
Come for tea, and why so few find their way..."  
And ends with the poem's speaker praising the quietness of his own nights, with no apparent irony:
"Spies, lovers, medical examiners,
Aliens, all stop by to wish us a safe and dreamy night."
Brilliant line; I think I've been there.

This is followed by "Sunday Afternoon, Northern Hemisphere After Travelling 36 Miles Nowhere on a Stationary Bike
I Peer Out the Window and See Tu Fu
Sipping Wine, Composing 'Sunset'" 

Tu Fu's poem, in its Kenneth Rexroth translation, consists of a mellow description of sights by a riverside and ends with the observation that one good, thick glass of wine can dispel all your worries. Clinton's poem, a minor key reply, ends with remembering those you have lost.  

In "After Watching Another NCIS Episode, I Retreat to My Office To Read ' Pass the Night at General Headquarters' by Tu Fu,"
the speaker is a Vietnam veteran following the news of the war in Afghanistan. "Sometimes," he says,
"I wonder if I’ve ever left my post, still
Shouldering an old rusty M16, long out
Of ammo, stuck on Hill 477 in camouflage."
All of these are beautiful, and leave us with mysteries to contemplate.