A Mantra for the Mujahedeen
Gospodi, gospodi pomilui / mujahedeen relentlessly echoes in my head. I’m caught in a convocation of languages in the cracks between tongues as I watch the World Trade Center towers fall again and again in slo-mo, and I can’t seem to make sense of it in my native tongue. It becomes a mantra: gospodi/ mujahedeen /gospodi. Why is it that Old Church Slavonic is colliding with Arabic mid-thought? God have mercy on us/ a holy war. Say jihad. Say it over and over again until it makes sense. Gospodi/mujahedeen. But it will never make sense.
I have no skills to comprehend the images of those who held hands as they plunged to their death. I cannot grapple with the word jihad or the rhetoric of Psalm 23 in any language. Say it. Say it again. Does it ease the burden of grief? In Arabic numerals the victims dial 9-11 — all circuits are jammed. Those still trapped beneath 100 floors of rubble are calling their loved ones one last time for a final goodbye – to say: “I’m fine,” before the batteries fail and the building shifts. Yea, though those who leapt unto the shadow of the Valley of Death – to say, “I love you.” Je t’aime, or Te amo to perfect strangers during freefall, and really mean it. What went through their minds?
Arabic: the names of stars. Aldebaran, zenith, zero, zealot. The sky, so silent, no birds flying. Mea maxima culpa. Gospodi. There are no words in any language that will do justice.
I’m studying ancient manuscripts and I am reminded that it was medieval Arabs, in love with knowledge who saved the writings of the classical world after the Vikings destroyed the Irish copies. In media res. In the middle of things. An Irish monk scribed in the margin: We walk in one another’s shadows.
Across the centuries, Shadowlands and Second Comings cannot ease the burden. We grow old with grief. We attempt normalcy, resurrect schedules. We dust off the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, unspoken since childhood – in my case, nearly 40 years ago. Dressed in red white and blue, thousands of Americans line up to donate blood. Even those in other countries are giving blood: Yasser Arafat among them.
In front of Sproul Hall at Berkeley, I pass a girl who nervously fingers her dove-grey hijab. Her pale eyes reflect a palpable fear. Already there have been acts of violence against Middle Easterners bearing American flags. It’s like a bad dèja vú of the ’60s at Berkeley. In San Francisco, an Armenian-American greengrocer is mistaken for the enemy. Animal blood is spilled on his doorstep. But he was born here. A Middle Eastern woman holding an American flag shops for dinner, in the pram, her baby wears a flag. A beefy man with a flag the size of a bedsheet strapped to his Harley with a broomstick vigilantly patrols the parking lot. An elderly Mexican man gives away red, white & blue roses to women. What else is there to do?
In class, we trade war stories: Five years ago, I witnessed an Israeli cargo plane fall out of the sky, a harbinger of things to come. The engine exploded, and I heard it fall into the sea. A mushroom cloud of fuel consumed a refugee complex. I thought Armageddon had begun. I still can’t shake images of debris draped from a tree – was it the pilot’s seatbelt? A mangled Barbie doll amid fuselage and ashes. The Israeli linguist remembers last year’s sniper who missed her twice, as she stood on the terrace overlooking the Arab Ouarter. A half-hearted attempt at a simple target. We deconstruct words as our world, buried beyond recognition, offers little solace.
On TV, we watch rescue workers gather round a fire truck, burned beyond recognition – an altar for the more than 300 dead firemen. One man recalls driving over too many body parts to count. Numanistics: I want to slide into the perfection of absolute zero. At Ground Zero, cabbies rip the seats from their cabs to carry the dead. New lines form at blood banks – solace from the living. Barges carry the dead across the River Styx because the island can’t contain all her dead. The living flee across Brooklyn Bridge. or escape TO New Jersey, of all places! Anything to get off the island.
How many degrees of separation are any of us from the dead? We are all at Ground Zero, because on that Tuesday, each of us died a little. I am one degree of separation from Alan Beavans, who was on Flight 93. I cannot think in abstractions, I can only understand this atrocity in terms of individuals. At midnight I find myself chanting a kaddish of the names of my Middle Eastern friends. Among them, Oleg. Where is Oleg, my Armenian friend who took me into the churches of Kiev where we listened to the choir singing gospodi?
Today, I learn a new word: Taliban. And another: jihad. This jihad is like Ireland in that the memory of hatred is older than the civilization that raised it. I can’t help but think of the gyre of the last plague-ridden millennium where, thinking that the end of the world was buried in the calendral equation of zeroes, Anglo-Saxon crusaders stormed Jerusalem – annihilating both Arabs and Christians alike on the temple steps, making all religion null and void. Armageddon resurfaces amid the pond scum of right-wing fundamentalists and racists exorcising rites of free speech, and latent seeds sprout in a new field, fertilized by the blood of civilians. The president’s myopic message is about an eye for an eye, but nothing is black and white – especially not blood.
The sky, so quiet, even the birds are not flying. A raven lands in front of us, sharpens his beak. Another joins him. War birds of the Irish, come to remind us they are hungry for eyes. My grandmother said that when the wild birds enter the house, it is a sure sign of death. A hummingbird stops to eye me. He sways and dips as if in benediction – making a sign of the cross – and takes off. Without a metaphor in common with the terrorists, I imagine I am blessed by birds, but tell me why is it that the wrens are huddling around the bird feeder, and fluttering at the windows as if to get in? Too late I remember that in Aztec mythology the hummingbird, Huitzilipochtli, is the god of war.
At candlelight vigils, we learn a new term: asymmetrical warfare, as if geometry were a country of refuge. In this way, we also learned terms from the Gulf War: collateral damage, and friendly fire. I’m afraid that in the weeks and months ahead will be full of such euphemisms. The city is on “yellow alert.” On the steps of City Hall, we gather for an interfaith memorial service. A Baptist preacher prays, “Oh Lord please help the President to make the right decision – not the one he wants to make.” It is also Jumnah Sabat: What are they praying for at the mosques? A Muslim-American says, “This has nothing to do with our religion that teaches tolerance, peace and harmony.” I want to believe him but what about the fundamentalists on both sides? I am lost in the biblical equations that come tumbling down. I find a pair of gilt harem slippers dumped on the street and worry about the woman who last wore them: her foot, the same size as mine. I am that woman behind the veil as well.
Gospodi God have mercy on the unholy warriors, the mujahedeen, for we know not what they do, for the word of Allah is not their witness. Written on the wind, the names of the innocent dead, Muslims among them. Say their names 5000 times, say them again until it becomes a mantra. Gospodi pomilui, mujahedeen, Islam, shalom, salaam. As God is their witness, may the gates of heaven always be beyond the reach of terrorists.
How silent is the sky. Huddled around the bird feeder, even the doves are refusing to fly.