Friday, July 18, 2014

Happy Birthday, Nelson Mandela -- Day of Action and Tears

Today Nelson Mandela would have been 96 years old. The United Nations declared July 18th an international holiday in 2010 but I am just learning of this today. Nelson Mandela remains my only political hero. He managed the impossible with a huge heart, a keen intellect, and 27 years in jail so that he came out of the anti-apartheid struggle with his hands clean.

Mandela also believed that non-violence had not been effective against the South African Apartheid government although the ANC had tried this path for more than two decades.

According to friends in the anti-apartheid movement, what finally worked was when the ANC presented maps to De Clerk of all the nuclear sites in the country and told him they were prepared to start bombing them which would leave no South African for whites or blacks. I can't verify its veracity but since living there in the 1990's, it seems highly plausible to me.

Today we in the global community celebrate South Africa as a model of reconciliation. We love the messages of love that Madiba and Archbishop Tutu provide. We forget the war that was fought with blood and abuses on both sides --- but clearly one side -- the Afrikaans government -- perpetrating over 85% of the crimes.

The news today is filled with the invasion of Gaza by Israel. I have spent time in both Israel and Gaza --- working for Amnesty International and as a visitor. My heart is breaking. And I am angry that my government is funding this war. But today is Mandela's birthday and in his honor I am posting a poem of my time in Gaza. A peaceful and hopeful time just after the Oslo Peace Accords in 1995. During my ten days in Gaza and Ramallah I was treated with an enormous amount of hospitality and respect. I can't help but think of the women and men I met in the market, in the classroom, and at a wedding I was invited to. Where are they now? Are any of them still alive?

What would Mandela do today? What can we do? All I have is a poem that tells something of my stay in Gaza City and it's connection to my home. The poem seems incredibly naive given today's world but in that moment I was just one Amnesty International trainer working with other Amnesty International supporters --- men, women, young and old. When I see the footage on TV, I look for their faces.

The Filigree of the Familiar

                        Gaza City, Gaza

Here, all the men wear mustaches
which decorate their faces
in soft curved designs.
Mornings they bring me tangerines,
faux French bread,
and the daily day-old news.

The mustaches shift in color, shape, and size
depending on the wishes of each man
to expose his better self; to project his own
combed landscape: a miniature scissors,
a mirror in his hand.
So many mustaches! Such strange lands!
Some thick as kitchen brooms,
smooth as the Negev sands; Ibrahim's
opaque as winter light
brushed from the rim of the moon.

In laundry rooms, in stairwells,
in cities, on continents, there are periscopes
and clocks, garbage cans and front door lights
that whisper shyly if we just stand still
a warrantee will be provided
with instructions for our lives:
how to settle for less, how not to grow old.

Do I leave to take a stand?
Or circle around the globe,
passport in-hand to get away from the incessant
no-win scenes, the frantic filigree of the familiar
pressing like dead dreams inside my head?

And is it right that I speak of the women of Gaza
in their hijabs and long sleeves,
to imagine stories of their domestic breathing?
Must I turn away from Ramallah, Hebron,
the East Gate entry way? Decline sweet offers
from Yusef and Samir ---
not dance at Omar's wedding
but keep my body alone?

But then, if I describe only what is already inscribed,
I'd never see the black man on my street
who sweeps with an imaginary broom,
never see the Indian Ocean
assert itself, then recede. We move about the world
watching for signs of what we  already know
is best;  a parentheses of photographs to pause in,
an isolated palm lined beach to rest.
And at what point do I become the souvenir?
A faceless history set in amber?

Must  I write only of home town corners
swan boats, street cars, Boston Harbor ---
to stay in the odd intersections
New Englanders call Squares?
And which house is the home where I remain?
Juggler Meadow Road or Edinburgh?
Devon Street or Chelsea?
Home or travel, and which is which
and whose choice is it to say?

And if home might be any dot on the map ---
maybe the one which is furthest away,
then I'll find mine only with a telescope.
Somewhere there's a life with tethered satellite
linking the outbound voyage to the every day.

Susan Rich / The Cartographer’s Tongue ~ Poems of the World


  1. Thank you, Susan.

    To continue to be witness, to speak out, matter. I so want to be able to imagine that the people of Gaza and the Israelis could open the doors of their homes, walk into the streets, meet each other, and embrace. May Mandela be their model.

    1. Thank you, Maureen; I appreciate your support more than I can express.