Hayan Charara: Animals--On the Role of the Poet in a Country at War
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As a teenager, Hayan Charara was thrilled to see his first published poem a few pages away from a piece by influential beat scribe Allen Ginsberg. The experience energized and inspired the poet, who ultimately would author two books and emerge as a dynamic literary voice.
Now a doctoral candidate in the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program (CWP), Charara was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Literature Fellowship fin 2009. Charara wrote 2001's "The Alchemist's Diary" and 2006's "The Sadness of Others." Common themes and topics presented in his works focus on Arab American culture, family relationships and loss of loved ones.
A poet since his teens, Charara grew up in Detroit and moved to Houston in 2003 to hone his talents at UH's renowned Creative Writing Program.
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where it hid during
eaten by other dogs
there are also people.
As is usual in any war, civilians die more quickly and in larger numbers than soldiers, and the war waged by Israel in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 was no different. I, like thousands of others during that long month of July, asked my government to bring an end to the violence—at the very least to call for a ceasefire. It had the power to do this. But it chose not to. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations at the time, John Bolton, said he was “damned proud of what we did.” What we did was to support the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon, which went on for 34 straight days, and which led to the deaths of more than a thousand Lebanese civilians. The people of Lebanon, like the people of Afghanistan, and Iraq, and Palestine, and so many others on this earth, were again stripped of their humanity, and they were treated accordingly.
My grandfather, who was eighty-two years old at the time, hid in the cellar of his house. He was not a militant, nor a terrorist. He was a retired restaurant owner who, very quickly, ran out of water, and then food, and then medicine. At one point, Israeli soldiers entered his house, saw him—weak but alive—yet they continued on without helping. They left only their footprints at the door. After seventeen days without food, water, or medicine, an Arab news film crew found him. He was not well, but he was alive. He was taken to a hospital. He was videotaped. His story was broadcast across the world. He was made a hero. The message of his survival: “You cannot defeat us.” The very next morning, in that partially wrecked hospital in his hometown of Bint Jbeil, my grandfather died.
The July War, as it’s known in Lebanon, created in me a deep sense of helplessness greater than I had ever known. A single word—just one word—from my government could have saved the lives of so many people. One word could have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, when we take into account our other wars.
What we take away, I try to return, as a poet. Not lives. Obviously, I cannot do that. Not homes, or schools, or innocence—I don’t have the power to give back any of those. I mean, an individual’s humanity. I mean, for us to know these people not as policies or interests or allies or enemies, but as human beings, who are like you and me, and in many cases who are you and me. This is one of the many ways in which I have arrived where I am as a poet. Just one.
I was born in the most powerful country on earth; I don’t have to be this way—that’s what America tells me time and again. After all, America does not apologize. But, as Walt Whitman proclaimed, we contain multitudes, and not all of America is the same.
A year after I wrote “Animals,” I turned again to my government for support—this time, for my poetry. Every two years, the National Endowment for the Arts awards a fellowship—it is a large amount of money, and it is a prestigious, highly competitive award. Since 1996, I have been submitting my poems to the National Endowment for the Arts, and each time, the poems have been denied. I figured I had a snowball’s chance in hell of receiving a fellowship from the government of the United States, but I thought at the very least I might make someone in the government read my poems, because certainly my countless letters to the White House, to the members of Congress, and the petitions I signed, and the boycott statements, these were all being ignored. Maybe at least the poems would be read.
I sent them “Animals.” I also sent in a poem titled “Usage,” a very long poem about language and violence, and a poem titled “You,” which examines what history has made of us—what we think of ourselves and our relationship to others. Taken together, these poems are in part a long list of indictments, which includes the Sabra and Shatila massacres, the September 11th attacks (which I watched from my window); it includes the aftermath of the September 11th attacks when in response to that horrifying act of violence enacted against us, we sent an army of 150,000 soldiers armed with the deadliest weaponry known to humankind to bring devastation to Afghanistan, and to Iraq; and it includes the enactment into law of discrimination, and the legalized dehumanization of the military tribunals, and it includes what happened in Lebanon, and what continues to happen in Palestine. These are the poems I sent.
So, what happened? What does one expect to happen when an Arab sends a package with highly sensitive materials to an address in Washington DC? Apparently, at least this once, he is given an award. I did not believe it. I want more out of my poems than they can possibly achieve, and because of this the most enduring and common expectation I have for them is one of failure. While I aspire for my poems to be read, and to be recognized, with these especially I seriously doubted they would be. My wife thought I was crazy—for at least a week after learning about the fellowship, I was convinced something was wrong; that soon agents would knock on our door.
If you ask me how I found my voice as a poet, I have many answers. What I tell you depends on what poem I am thinking of at the time, or what part of my life I am willing to talk about. The death of my mother is as significant in my formation as a poet as are the wars I have been discussing or the poets I have read over the years or the fact that I am an Arab, and an American, and a Detroiter, a New Yorker, and now a Texan, or that I am a male, or that I am the son of a schoolteacher (my mother), or that I am my father’s son, a man who did not finish the fifth grade, a man who loved poetry, a man who wanted his son to become a doctor.
The best answer I can give to you now, on why I am here, on how I arrived here as a poet, is the statement I gave to the National Endowment for the Arts, which asked its fellows to answer the question, “What does this award mean to you?” I leave you with my answer:
“The poems I submitted to the National Endowment for the Arts grew out of an enormous sense of helplessness over the ways my government—and the governments it supports—used and misused language toward violent ends. As a result, my grandfather died a victim of war, as did many family friends, old neighbors, and some animals. So while this award is especially meaningful, its irony is not lost on me. Too often, my government’s loudest voice endorses violence. That an endowment exists for writers and artists is sign of hope. And where there's hope, there is at least the capacity for change. This is a start.
“Of course, I trust poets more than politicians, and I have more faith in poems than in policies. And while I don’t believe that poems will keep bombs from falling on schools, or bullets from entering bodies, or tanks from rolling over houses, or men or women or children from being humiliated, poetry insists on the humanity of people, which violence steals away; and poems advocate the power of the imagination, which violence seeks to destroy. Poets change the world. I don’t mean literally, though some try. I mean with words, with language, they take the many things of this world and make them new, and when we read poems, we know the world and its many things differently—it might not be a better or worse place than the one we live in—just different—but without the imagination, without poetry, I don’t believe that the world as most of us know it would be tolerable.”