Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Giving Poetry a Bad Name

I first came across the following poem on Michael Danby's website. (Before you leap to the conclusion that Danby's a lover of verse, let me stress that it is the one & only poem on his website):-


The Public Morals Unit of Hamas
Saw Yusra al-Azzuri, bold as brass,
In Gaza City, walk with her betrothed,
Her sister also present. Half unclothed.
All three behaved as if beyond the reach
Of justice. Laughing, dancing on the beach,
They almost touched. They thought to drive away.
The Unit followed them without delay.
Her young man drove. Beside him as they fled,
Yusra died quickly in a hail of lead.
The other two were hauled out of the car
And beaten senseless. With an iron bar,
The riddled corpse of Yusra, as the worst
Offender, was assaulted till it burst.
She would have prayed for death. It can be said,
Therefore, it was a blessing she was dead
Already. Thus we look for just one touch
Of grace in this catastrophe. Too much
To bear, the thought that those young men were glad
To be there. Won't the memory drive them mad?
Could they not see the laughter in her face
Was heaven on earth, the only holy place?
Perhaps they guessed, and acted from the fear
That Paradise is nowhere if not here.
Yusra, your name too lovely to forget
Shines like a sunrise joined to a sunset.
The day between went with you. Where you are,
That light around you is your life, Yusra.

It was written by expatriate Australian poet and UK TV wit Clive James and published in The Australian's literary supplement The Australian Literary Review of September 7 2007. To the best of my knowledge, apart from Danby's website, its only other airing has been in James' recently published collection Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958-2008. Thank God for small mercies.

At first blush, one might assume, as reviewer Benjamin Lytal of the Los Angeles Times did, that Yusra has some basis in fact: "Others, like Yusra, take a name out of the headlines in order to saddle current events with James' metered chivalry." But, like Lytal, you'd be wrong. Yusra al-Azzuri is pure fiction and Hamas has no 'Public Morals Unit'.

The closest I can find to a 'PMU' in the Palestinian territories is a 'morality police' unit set up by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah following Hamas' successful pre-emptive coup in Gaza in 2007. Its job is reportedly to "comb the streets of central Ramallah to maintain 'public order' and 'tradition' [and] bust anyone caught violating the fast during Ramadan..." (Fatah uses 'morality police' to burnish image, Joshua Mitnick, Christian Science Monitor, 11/10/07) And that's "bust," as in take offenders down to the station for a talk - not riddle them with bullets and beat their corpses to a pulp. While noting that the PA's establishment of a 'morality police' unit was designed to compete with Hamas' reputation among all Palestinians for piety and lack of corruption, Mitnick writes that "no such morality squad exists in Gaza," and adds that "local observers say that in a territory known as more traditional than the West Bank, Hamas has been careful not to give its critics a justification for allegations that it is a Taliban wannabe."

James' fabrication cannot simply be excused as poetic licence. Yusra is blatant black propaganda, pure and simple. It tells us nothing whatever about Hamas, Palestinians, or Gaza. Just look at those young lovers: taking the (sports?) car for a spin along the coast as though they were the Gazan equivalent of middle class Lebanese twentysomethings on a jaunt to Beirut's Corniche, for God's sake. The fact that blockaded, impoverished, fuel-starved Gaza has been virtually carless for years, is simply not on James' radar. No, what Yusra is really all about is James and his lurid, post 9/11 orientalist fantasies.

In the unlikely event that James ever chooses to write about the real thing, of course, he could always draw on the actual case of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish divorcee who was beaten to the point of requiring medical treatment in her Jerusalem home by thugs in the pay of an ultra-Orthodox 'modesty patrol' because she had allegedly "stopped maintaining an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle and had relationships with men." The mercenaries who carried out the attack had been, in the words of the Israeli judge who sentenced one of them to 4 years jail, "hired to beat and abuse, to curse and threaten, to humiliate and brutalize" the woman. (Modesty patrol 'mercenary' gets 4 years for assaulting woman, Yair Ettinger, Haaretz, 16/3/09) Fat chance!

But there's another twist to this story. George Orwell, who once opined that "during times of universal deceit, telling truth becomes a revolutionary act," would no doubt be turning in his grave if he knew that James had been awarded the 2008 Orwell Prize for political journalism. Here's Jean Seaton, chair of the Orwell Prize and professor of media history at the University of Westminster: "Clive James is a master, in the Orwell tradition, of the essay. Whether written or broadcast, his words are sharp but humane."(Hari & James take Orwell prizes, Stephen Brook, guardian.co.uk, 25/4/08)

Ever read a James essay? One such appeared in The Australian of 10 April 2004. Written in bad blood is James' take on the history of the Palestine -Israel conflict. Unsurprisingly, considering he's the author of Yusra, he manages to get just about everything wrong. For reasons of space, I will deal only with the slanders, distortions, and errors of just the first half of this appalling diatribe:-

According to James, the Palestinians are possessed of "the mad idea that the Jews have no right to exist... and the equally mad idea that the state of Israel can somehow be eliminated." That's "the Jews" anywhere and everywhere, folks, not just those who flooded into Palestine. A bit like asserting that indigenous Australians were not only opposed to those who invaded and colonized their homeland but also opposed the very existence of each and every European in the lands from which the invaders and settlers first issued. For James, the Palestinians weren't simply opposed to the handover of their homeland by a European colonial power to a bunch of European settlers who wanted to turn it into an ethnically exclusive state at their expense - no, they just hated Jews. Full stop. End of story.

This outrageous slander of the victims of the Zionist colonial-settler project in Palestine came about, according to James, because the "Arab nations never studied at the University of the Holocaust [and] saw nothing wrong with Hitler's determination that as many potential colonists as possible should be dealt with at source."

Studied at the 'University of the Holocaust'?! Presumably, "the Arabs" (but not necessarily the Europeans) should have been alive to the fact that another European colonial power, other than the one forcing the foreign settlers on them, had 'issues' with certain European 'tribes' to its east and was intent on rolling them. And not only should they have twigged to that - they should also have jumped for joy at the prospect of helping out the most persecuted of those European 'tribes' by a) prevailing upon their own colonial master to open the gates of Palestine to said 'tribe', and b) prevailing upon the Palestinians themselves to shower its members with rice and rose petals before promptly handing over their house and car keys and then decamping across the Jordan.

Apart from the odd reference to this or that Zionist primer, James appears simply to make things up as he goes along: "Ben-Gurion was ready to accept a partition of Palestine: even though his resulting portion would be tiny..." Oh, really?If 56% of Palestine is "tiny" for those who had bought up a mere 6% of it prior to 1947, how then would James describe the 44% alloted to the Palestinians? Teensy? How, moreover, would he describe a Palestinian state on a mere 22%? Teensy weensy? And how would he describe a Palestinian state on 22% minus Jewish settlement blocs, apartheid wall, Jews-only roads, army bases, etc? Microscopic?

James makes basic errors such as in "when the new state was attacked [by the Arab states] from all sides... the Irgun teamed up with the Stern Gang to massacre over 300 Arabs at Deir Yassin, and the exodus of the Palestinians ensued." The Deir Yassin massacre occurred over a month before the Arab armies entered Palestine, and just over 100 Palestinians were butchered. Moreover, the Palestinian "exodus" was well under way by the time the Arab armies intervened.

Crucially, he glosses over David Ben-Gurion's key role in planning and implementing the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, using the Irgun and Stern Gang as fall guys: "Although [the Palestinians'] disappearance suited Ben-Gurion's purposes - already embattled on a half-dozen external fronts, he would probably have lost the war if he had been forced to fight on an internal front as well." As Zionist historian Benny Morris has pointed out, Ben-Gurion was a "transferist... He understood that there could be no Jewish state with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst... Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here." To which I would add this from Israeli historian Ilan Pappe: "On 2 November, ie, almost a month before the UN General Assembly [partition] Resolution was adopted... the Executive of the Jewish Agency, Ben-Gurion, spelled out for the first time in the clearest possible terms that ethnic cleansing formed the alternative, or complementary means of ensuring that the new state would be an exclusively Jewish one. The Palestinians inside the Jewish state, he told his audience, could become a fifth column, and if so 'they can either be mass arrested or expelled; it is better to expel them'." ( The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, p 49)

And check out these bizarre sentences: "The Jews were suitably sorry at the time. But the Palestinians were sorry forever." Run that past me again. If "the Jews" were in fact "suitably sorry" at the time, all they had to do was facilitate the return of the refugees - as opposed to what they actually did (and have continued to do ever since) - block it and confiscate the refugees' homes and lands. And if the Palestinians, as a consequence of their dispossession in 1948, then became in James' ridiculous phraseology "sorry forever" would that not be sufficient to account for their rage without all that nonsense about anti-Semitism?

Nowhere does James' cluelessness come through better than in this outrageous statement: "There is enough oil money in the Arab nations to give every refugee a hotel suite with 24-hour room service. Instead they have been obliged to remain in camps that are display cases, so that they can testify with their desperation to Jewish inhumanity." If the goose had bothered to find out what the refugees themselves thought about their plight, he'd have discovered that nothing short of a return to what is rightfully theirs is acceptable to them. But face it, research or no research, if you've got a modicum of empathy for anyone who has been rudely shoved aside by those more powerful, you wouldn't even entertain such a callous and insensitive idea in the first place.

Poet? Orwell-Prize-winning journalist? You've got to be joking!

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