Accompanying the launch of Decades of Fire: New Writing from the Middle East and North Africa, a special Spring issue of MQR dedicated to the documentation of political, social, and cultural transformations of the past three decades, MQR Online is featuring additional non-fiction, poetry, and fiction not available in the print issue. We have gathered work here that, as Guest Editor Huda Fakhreddine writes in her introduction to the print issue, confronts the Middle East and North Africa as a bind, one that the writing presented here and in print might “begin to unravel in the mind, by some rearrangement, some association or unexpected juxtaposition, some turn of phrase, some wild metaphor.”
Translator’s Note: “The Torrential Blood” is Qassim Haddad and Amin Saleh’s statement on the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990 and its aftermath. Arguably Bahrain’s best-known modern poet, Haddad found himself collaborating yet again on a manifesto with Saleh, his compatriot, and an experimental writer of high renown in the region, though much less celebrated internationally. In 1984, Haddad and Saleh had already penned one of modern Arabic poetry’s lasting statements of purpose, entitled “The Death of the Chorus,” which was published alongside the Syrian Adonis’ “Manifesto of Modernity” and the Moroccan Mohammed Bennis’ “Writing Manifesto” (cf. Al-Bayanat [The Manifestos], Tunis: Saras Publications, 1995). The decade of the ‘80s saw Haddad and Saleh jointly write Al-Jawashin, a mythomorphic poetic narrative of cosmic dimensions, which among other themes explores the odyssey of the “People of Dispersal” (“شعب الجهات”) from earth to sea, where they arrive to witness the birth of a burning phoenix.
First published in the literary journal Kalimat (Vol. 13 (1990), 10-17) under the title “The Scandalous Blood” (الدم الفاضح) and reprinted in 2017 in an anthology of Qassim Haddad’s writings under the revised title which will be adopted in this translation, we find in “The Torrential Blood” another allusion to the People of Dispersal. The first section begins: “Is yet another people being pledged to dispersal?” Immediately the reader notes the centering of humanity above and beyond the narrow claims of ideology, staking a position that may be interpreted as quietist in its refusal to take sides, but which was sure to be sneered at by both the victimizing and victimized regimes, on either side of the August 1990 invasion. The text, further, provides a reflection on “the self-critical turn” broadly characterizing Arabic arts and letters after the wholesale Arab defeat at the hands of Israeli forces in June 1967: “A bridge of successive defeats extends from June to August.” The post-1967 moment has also been associated with the crystallization in modern Arabic poetics of what the abovementioned Bennis calls “open writing,” which happily abandons poetic demarcations, traditional and modern, opting instead to orient itself toward the pursuit of aesthetic ends unencumbered by any preconceived notions of form or genre — a most significant example of which being the writings of Haddad and Saleh during this period, of which “The Torrential Blood” is an instance.
The Torrential Blood
The human, that being awash with fear, surveys from his pallid caves the delirium of oncoming fragmentations, then raises his head in supplication.
Is yet another people being pledged for the dispersal? Is yet another people being promised diaspora, forced to wade through the traces of elusive maps? Must the nation witness another uprooting another expulsion another exile? How many shades of blood does this nation require to finally announce the end of the collapse and the onset of the great awakening and the exalted uprising? This noble blood, we know it well. It has one language, one scent, one identity… yet it bears many names: Palestinian Lebanese Kuwaiti Arab blood, with which the ruler burnishes his throne every morning, and in whose name, he openly announces the terrorism of the state. And no one is innocent of this blood. Neither water nor sand. A scandalous blood that defrocks the betrayals and tears through the night of collusion and conspiracy. A blood that brandishes the scandal / Will one gouge out one’s eyes to avoid looking? We see it –this blood– traveling from pupil to pupil, adjoining shame to shame, announcing that yet another crime has been committed. We see it –this blood– escorting a people displaced by brutality, wallowing through the cinders of hell toward a long nightmare that blossoms with groans and horrors. And the earth blushes and lowers her gaze for lack of water or pasture in the vast expanse of this tragedy. Blazing deserts, their flames intensifying whenever another worn out and hopeless body collapses. Inter – O grimacing earth– your dishonor and the dishonor of nations, and grant us a glorious death, if we must die… here or there. And you, telltale blood, you who stood up to the ravages of tyrants without hatred, only to be treacherously spilled, who is that who will guide you to your first root? Who will accompany you back to shelter and ensconce you in safety and tranquility? Except that, surely, you know that no deliverance awaits you, nor will you know any peace between the interstices of betrayal and treachery, unless you shield yourself with violence and confront animosity with animosity.
Over there, over there the glimmering green of the massacre, and here, nothing but the wages of transgression and self-immolated scarecrows. One day she calmly spread out her vistas and wellsprings and signets, and embarked upon the meadow’s palm, dallying carelessly, naked and vulnerable. How could this being, cloaked in tranquility and approbation, have known to inspect and examine the snares day after day, to keep abreast of all the secret stratagems being devised against her? (But innocence kills) For the serpent has sharpened its fangs and slithered through the villages’ stairways, and the ravenous blades have been erected all around the cities: only the eyelashes of the tender gates quivered, but no one noticed. The Iraqi invasion came to a secure and peaceful land, dragging behind it a deceptive and fluid language of fraudulent pretexts: It labeled invasion, “revolution;” occupation, “salvation;” plunder, “the just redistribution of wealth;” rape, “protection;” murder, “jihad;” displacement, “cleansing;” uprooting, “unity.” Does it make a difference to the lamb what language the butcher fabricates to describe the slaughter? As if the language of such blathering would enhance the beauty of the corpse. Thus, they are able to call bombardment, “a rose;” murder, “a picnic;” the bullet, “an orange.” They can also describe their crime as resplendent and exalted. An empty language that never discloses, but only entraps and paralyzes the mind. A mendacious, deceptive language that warps consciousness, sabotages knowledge, and deforms awareness. A verbal prostitution that plunges us into confusion and unmeaning. No, the Iraqi regime did not require a veil to conceal its fascistic, dictatorial face. The regime was forthright in announcing it, without prevaricating or dissimulating. Everyone knew, and everyone feigned innocence and held their tongues… out of fear, or a sense of allegiance, or outright collaboration. Even monstrosities have humble beginnings. They nourish themselves one day through extortion, the next through solicitation. No one objected. “Leave him be, the valiant guardian of the Eastern Gates,” they said and felt at ease. Yet there were no Eastern Gates to speak of; they were deluded. Certainly, every monstrosity is subject to growth, and as it grows it requires ever more to satisfy its taste for domination. Because it lacks human sentiment, characterized as it is by treachery and betrayal, one expected that its threats would be taken seriously. But they were not, until after the monstrosity had planted its teeth in the fraternal flesh. This regime exceeded all limits of opulence, bribery, corruption, and militarism (and it was not alone in this). Not once did it direct its energies, capabilities, or resources toward the establishment of justice and welfare for its people, or toward bringing about unification, or toward the liberation of the Occupied Territories (and in this, it was no exception to the other regimes). Instead - from the very beginning - it disclosed its fascistic tendencies, its repressive and terroristic practices, its bellicose policies, and its mad adventurism (and it was not unique in so doing). Now, only now, they recognize that the fêted regime has turned into a tyrannical monstrosity threatening the security of the entire world. Only now, everyone rushes to expose the secrets that were never secret. There was no double-dealing. It was a murderous silence. And the thundering of bombs that shook the corners of fragile capitals ruptured the cosmos of our sleep-entranced old age, dragging us into an arena that swarms with afflictions and the chaos of interpretation. Welcome to the thundering, welcome to every blast that shines a light on us and raises our ravages high for all to see. Over there, the earth sheds massacre after massacre. And here, nothing but cities overburdened with shame, tainted with transgression. And as the cataclysm stares into the chambers of the festival, we glimpse a fleeing homeland wading through blood-drenched pathways.
The mules drag the corpses at ease. As death is shattered in the mirror of forgetfulness. What would the violent man, steeped in his primordiality, have done if there were no victims to inspire his cruelty and inaugurate the butchery? … if there were no despots resting their heads on their personal interests as they concoct the next devastation, or recite the hymns of disorder? Here they are, the knights of conquest, the most famished, the least aware and knowledgeable, lifting up the sidewalks - like bedsheets - to scavenge for food. The plundering had come to an end and there was not a date or a loaf of bread to be found. They have become more vicious than hellfire, and more ravenous, but their souls suffer. The Leader, glutted with loot, had goaded them toward the neighbor's furnaces, without supplies or cover, and ordered them to spill the blood, saying: that is a lawless land, do what you will. He permitted them to kill. Thus, they spread mischief through the land and did not shy away from what was forbidden, wading through the blood of innocents whose only transgression was that they were victims. The victim tempts her executioner. We know that. The victim entices the executioner - with innocence and beauty and fear - inducing him to murder. And the executioner, who does not understand such noble traits (because he lacks them), finds in them a dangerous threat to his very being and existence, not to mention the doctrines he has long imbibed… willingly or by force. Thus, he proceeds immediately to exterminate her. He is smashing the mirror - which possesses an outstanding capacity for seduction - so that it will not bewitch and enchant him anymore. Upon that, he discovers how ugly and brutal he is, that he is no more than an impassioned bullet, teeming with violence and resentment for no reason. In order to colonize consciousness, suppress it. The little soldier stands feebly before his master, the tyrant, who scrubs his brain clean as thoroughly as an agile and highly experienced wet nurse. Next, he grinds his conscience with his iron boot, desecrates his emotions through rituals of violence and humiliation, and destroys the slightest seed of learning inside of him. He rips out of the soldier’s depths everything human and implants the beast in its place. Then the master unleashes his creations - the little soldiers - upon the clamoring arena, devoid of consciousness and agency, dead of sense and sentiment, mere killing machines. The more exceeds in brutality, the more he endows his creator with grandeur and substance. The little soldier is a victim. And each victim selects another victim, weaker and more submissive, to oppress and censure. But the little soldier does not know that he will die before his time… with no glory and no elegies.
The specter of freedom You need to have a living conscience to raise your voice in protest and point your finger at this occupation - which has no other name - in indictment and condemnation. All pretexts and justifications collapse in front of a child’s tear, a widow’s weeping, an old man’s dejection. No, we are not safe. All the more we are horrified by the voices echoing here and there, without sympathy or feeling, without principles or values. Metallic sounds that cheer the invasion on, welcoming its effects and showering its slogans with accolades. Has disinformation reached such a pitch? Or is it a simple transaction? Or is it the absence of consciousness? Or is it delusion? Or is it despair? There is a gnawing despair and blinding illusion: the invasion may be a substitute for struggle, that uprooting and expelling a people will pave the way for total revolution, that overthrowing regimes through external military power (even if it is fascistic) is the ideal means of accomplishing the great unification and securing the welfare, felicity, and freedom of peoples. The miracle is finally within arm’s reach! What despair is it that makes us long for a miracle, any miracle, in an epoch that no longer believes in them? Populations are no longer trustworthy. They are not fit to enact change. They are lazy, incapable, and cowardly. Ergo, it is best for us to await the miracle, to seek the supernatural, for that is the sole refuge that will save us from our destructive despair. And here is the miracle, within reach at last! Armies flush with brutalizing iron. Rape and pillage. Uprooting and erasure. Hunger and expulsion. Murder and exile. Disgrace and humiliation. Clay for human dignity. Morass for honor. A cage for freedom. What a miracle! O fire, queen of time, where shall I hide you when ashes rule the scene? The adage goes: you are not free if you confiscate or accept the confiscation of another’s freedom. The adage also goes: you are not worthy of life if you seek to negate another’s life. The adage also goes: you will not be democratic if you glorify a dictator. But the voices that applaud and welcome the invasion do not listen to wisdom. Instead, they spit in our faces, demean our intellects, and stab our consciences, as they continue to claim that they are defending the most noble of causes. Whoever supports an occupation is an occupier.
Wherein snares surround us like bracelets. Certainly, the Iraqi regime is neither fit for nor worthy of achieving the purported revolutionary goals it proclaims. A regime that sets out from such premises, not to mention its authoritarian constitution based on dictatorial rule, hero worship, and terroristic, fascistic behavior, could never be democratic and could never be revolutionary. Hitching one’s wagon to such a regime can only mean that delusion has metastasized, despair dominates, and that such a position could only be described as opportunism. The rush to condemn the American presence in the region: another form of manipulation and trickery. An embarrassing attempt to pass over the reality of the invasion and create a fait accompli, suggesting that the event was merely a historical occurrence that needs to be accepted before we move on and forget it like any other historical question or event. The truth cannot be blotted out or circumvented. It is blindingly bright. As a reaction to the invasion and occupation, it was expected, indeed inevitable, that a foreign intervention would take place, due to economic and political factors doubtlessly known by everybody. Playing dumb or denying the inevitability of such an escalation means that one side is setting out from a position of political adolescence and feeblemindedness, and another that maliciously colludes with it and insolently urges it on. And woe to us from the rhetorical Left. We are not for foreign presence in the region. However, the Iraqi regime has prepared the banquet and invited all stripes of naval fleets and armed forces to a sumptuous meal. Meanwhile we sit like spectators in an auditorium—this is the wish of our great custodians—and watch the scenes of the tragicomedy unfold.
When a rag can conceal the map no dishonor is enough to shame all these denuded states. How can we come to an understanding of what is going on in our Arab reality without connecting it to an uninterrupted chain of collapses on every register: politically, economically, and culturally? A bridge of successive defeats extends from June to August. Right here, and not anywhere else, every defeat finds a means of flourishing and rejuvenation, while the inhabitants of these nation-states retreat into their pallid caves and drop their jaws in horror. We say it at the top of our lungs: Our cities are glutted with untold collapses. Thus, we open our arms to welcome the onset of the all-encompassing collapse. From the bowels of a nation in a state of collapse, the serpent’s egg was hatched, and from the delicate eggshell the Leader reared his head, armed to the teeth with the most damning of contradictions. It is not only the blood that scandalizes and exposes. The Leader, too, scandalizes and exposes. He exposes the tumors and beautifies them simultaneously. He embodies all that should remain concealed and hidden, raising it to a fever pitch, such that repression becomes explicit, violation public, and terrorism a daily routine. The fact that the Leader exists is a scandal unto itself. But his existence is a necessity dictated by the nature of things, being a natural secretion of political fragmentation, economic chaos, the absence of democracy, dictatorial rule, hero worship, sectarian strife, civil wars, and all manners of fission, disintegration, division, and disunity. In a word, the Leader is the fruit of collapse.
Against war. There is no salvation through war. Total destruction. A wasteland. Human remains lining the streets. Black rain. Mouths as wide open as death. Catatonic sky. Poisoned air enraptured by the stench of corpses. Piles of corpses that have experienced the lust of sulfur. Prostrate houses implore the surrounding aridity. A mute prayer. Cribs populated with missiles. Lambs mauled by smoke. A world returning to the primal state of indeterminate matter. Because of that we are against war, the infernal machine that will crush whatever is alive. But on the other hand, and just as strongly, we are not for any solution that seeks to cover over the ugliness of the invasion, seeking to instate a fait accompli, effectively rewarding the knife with ever fresher wounds.
The erasure of memory Examine the Arab map closely and you will see fragmentations that came to be called borders. How bloody they are. What other name shall we give the inter-Arab slaughter? The capitals move like pawns on a chessboard, outlining the shape of a graveyard for the Arab dream. Many words and concepts will seep through memory and end up submerged in oblivion: unity, nationalism, uprising… And who knows, perhaps in the very near future, we will hear the thunderous cry of the enslaved: Down with freedom!