Poetry Against the State

14 March, 2021

“Carousel” oil on can­vas, 110cms x 150cms, 2015, from the exhi­bi­tion “Flow­ers of Lebanon” by Tom Young, 2016 (cour­tesy of the artist)

A Bib­li­og­ra­phy for After Jews and Arabs, by Ammiel Alcalay
punc­tum books, 2021
ISBN 9781953035349

Gil Anidjar


A Bibliography for After Jews and Arabs  is available from  punctum books  and completes a classic,   After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture  .

A Bib­li­og­ra­phy for After Jews and Arabs is avail­able from punc­tum books and com­pletes a clas­sic, After Jews and Arabs: Remak­ing Lev­an­tine Cul­ture.

In the long for­got­ten con­test between poet­ry and his­to­ry — Aris­totle’s ear­ly take notwith­stand­ing — it seems today obvi­ous that his­to­ry has won. This may appear a strange asser­tion to make at a time when fables have become facts, rather than the oth­er way around (“facts into fable,” Ammiel Alcalay reminds us, was Charles Olson’s rec­om­men­da­tion, the neces­si­ty of turn­ing his­to­ry into poet­ry). But that is pre­cise­ly it: We Amer­i­cans are not mere­ly igno­rant of his­to­ry. Instead, we have made a fable (our his­tor­i­cal inno­cence, the atom­ic bomb, the free mar­ket, or the fair and secure elec­tion process) into a hard­ened fact, a series of hard­ened facts. Like every­body else, we delight in the com­plete works of J.K. Rowl­ing (and in the for­get­ting of vot­er sup­pres­sion), but we remain res­olute in our attach­ment to his­to­ry. Thus, we argue over the fables we keep insist­ing are fact while agree­ing to have and to hold stone mon­u­ments and muse­ums — his­to­ry in (in)action — and mere­ly dis­pute their con­tent (“This is not who we are!”). We cor­rect each oth­er’s fables, but remain obliv­i­ous to their mean­ing. The fable, the mean­ing­less (real­i­ty TV) series of fables we call fact (or “Amer­i­ca”) remains ground­ed and bound­ed (bound­ed, not free) to and by mul­ti­ple walls and bor­ders (walls as bor­ders), which must, of course, be guard­ed and pro­tect­ed (the South, espe­cial­ly the South). How­ev­er lim­it­ed we might be in our appli­ca­tion of pro­fes­sion­al stan­dards (a strange expec­ta­tion to have in our bombed-out edu­ca­tion sys­tem), we demon­strate a uni­ver­sal attach­ment to a con­cep­tion of his­to­ry — to geog­ra­phy and demog­ra­phy — that is, more than any­thing, lack­ing in poet­ry. Our prob­lem, at any rate, is what we have in fact learned, the his­to­ry we know and trust we know. Our prob­lem is that we have stopped lis­ten­ing to the poets. Nor are we igno­rant of that fact, either. Still, we think our images and effi­gies, stat­ues and mon­u­ments, straight out of his­to­ry text­books. And on this at least, we are not wrong.

Ammiel Alcalay makes it very clear that the bib­li­og­ra­phy he com­piled and con­struct­ed but was unable to include in the orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion of After Jews and Arabs is a poet­ic con­tri­bu­tion, “a cre­ative act pen­e­trat­ing the fog to make avail­able the ground upon which oth­er real­i­ties can be imag­ined and enact­ed.” True to Ed Sander­s’s own response to Charles Olson (in Inves­tiga­tive Poet­ry: That Poet­ry Should Again Assume Respon­si­bil­i­ty for the Descrip­tion of His­to­ry, City Lights, 1976), Alcalay has long prac­ticed “inves­tiga­tive poet­ry” (which Sanders also calls “the dance of free­dom”), the method­i­cal gath­er­ing of sources and ref­er­ences span­ning mul­ti­ple lan­guages, loca­tions, archives, gen­res, fields and dis­ci­plines — “a form of world­mak­ing.” By reveal­ing new and old ground, con­nec­tions and pro­vid­ing the means nec­es­sary to explore them, fath­om their depth, the bib­li­og­ra­phy, and its two attend­ing essays, pro­vides us with alter­na­tive resources to begin again, as Sanders has it, “a voy­age into the descrip­tion of his­tor­i­cal real­i­ty.”  

Our prob­lem is that we have stopped lis­ten­ing to the poets.

But what is poet­ry? Like his­to­ry, poet­ry is knowl­edge. But what it knows is not only events, facts, or “the pre­car­i­ous nature of archives” (here­after all unmarked cita­tions are from Ammiel Alcalay, A Bib­li­og­ra­phy for After Jews and Arabs). Poet­ry rather teach­es such pre­car­i­ous­ness, the fragili­ty that affects all “liv­ing repos­i­to­ries of cul­tur­al mem­o­ry.” Like his­to­ry, poet­ry may thus nar­rate events and cir­cum­stances, but what it reveals is “the elu­sive nature of the cul­tur­al record.” Poet­ry, in oth­er words, writes in and around the shad­ows, there, where sense and mean­ing reside and emerge, fade and dis­ap­pear. And Alcalay is explic­it about “the shad­ow Pales­tine casts over” his work. Yes, Pales­tine. Jews and Arabs, as we keep nam­ing it with unbear­able casu­al­ness. But poet­ry is about mind­ful and thought­ful nam­ing. It is also what helps “to remap [our] own geog­ra­phy and see old­er sites with new eyes.” Where­as his­to­ry is about the mak­ing of fact, poet­ry is, to repeat, “world­mak­ing.” With it, one encoun­ters things, “one encoun­ters many more things one was­n’t look­ing for.” 

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It was Brooks Adams who, as Alcalay not­ed, explained that, “a fact in itself has no sig­nif­i­cance; nei­ther have a thou­sand facts.” And it was Olson’s feel­ing — a poet­’s sen­si­bil­i­ty — “that the record of fact is become of first impor­tance for us lost in a sea of ques­tions.” Let the record then show that Alcalay is first and fore­most a poet (“Put it on record / I am an Arab,” wrote Mah­moud Dar­wish, cit­ed again and again). And After Jews and Arabs, just like A Bib­li­og­ra­phy for After Jews and Arabs, now final­ly pub­lished, is poet­ic mak­ing at its best. “My inten­tion,” writes Alcalay, “was also to make a poet­’s book.” This book, “the col­lec­tive endeav­or I had under­tak­en,” is thus by a poet and for the poets (and indeed it is “a book that has seri­ous­ly been read by a lot of poets and used as the tool I had meant it to become, because it has a poet­ic and musi­cal struc­ture”). And poet­ry, “the method of poet­ry,” gath­ers. It col­lects and brings togeth­er in what the schol­ar and poet Mana Kia, in Per­sianate Selves: Mem­o­ries of Place and Ori­gin Before Nation­al­ism (Stan­ford, 2020), has called “com­mem­o­ra­tion,” a col­lec­tive and col­lect­ing prac­tice that brings togeth­er texts and events, absence and pres­ence, per­sons and things, col­lec­tives and individuals. 


Alcalay is explic­it. The ini­tial endeav­or, the orig­i­nal inten­tion guid­ing the entire project, was “to cre­ate a mas­sive anthol­o­gy by gath­er­ing writ­ing by Jews from the pre-Islam­ic peri­od to the then present” and that would encom­pass “an enor­mous vari­ety of mate­ri­als, includ­ing lit­er­ary, folk­loric, sci­en­tif­ic, exegetic, his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal works” across time and space. For the poet, “the will­ing­ness to iso­late qual­i­ties that seemed to hold true across a dras­ti­cal­ly vari­able range of polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and com­mu­nal con­di­tions” is no “essen­tial­ism.” It is to offer an alter­na­tive to his­to­ry as the mea­sure of all facts. 

“Do not write a his­to­ry now,” asks Mah­moud Dar­wish. “When you do that, you leave the past behind, and what is required is to call the past to account. Do not write a his­to­ry except that of your wounds. Do not write a his­to­ry except that of your exile” (quot­ed from Jour­nal of an Ordi­nary Grief, Arch­i­pel­ago Books, 2010). At the heart of poet­ry is indeed the frag­ile mat­ter — the wounds, the exile, the mean­ing — of “his­tor­i­cal con­tex­tu­al­iza­tion.” It seeks to remind us that “our ways of access­ing infor­ma­tion from the past con­tin­ue to change.” 

Poet­ry gives us the means to acknowl­edge, if per­haps not resolve, “a cer­tain dis­cur­sive impasse we have come to in pub­lic expres­sion.” Poet­ry describes, yes, but, as com­mem­o­ra­tion — a bib­li­og­ra­phy — it is meant to “emerge as a form of world-mak­ing, an offer­ing that pro­vides an exam­ple of how mate­ri­als from the past can be arranged to per­fo­rate the caul too often obscur­ing our vision, pre­vent­ing us from see­ing a ground we can actu­al­ly stand on.” Elab­o­rat­ing on the nature of this offer­ing (“an offer­ing to some as yet unde­fined enti­ty,” he writes), Alcalay recalls that he tried to “recal­i­brate the rela­tion­ship between Jews and Arabs with­in an ‘old world’ geog­ra­phy cen­tered on the Mediter­ranean.” He fur­ther explains that “the pub­li­ca­tion of this bib­li­og­ra­phy is an exam­ple and a record: an exam­ple of the kind of gath­er­ing that can cre­ate a new field of force and the record of a strug­gle that, at least for the time being, end­ed in defeat but nev­er­the­less may have much to demonstrate.” 

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Poet­ry’s defeat is per­haps most vis­i­ble in anoth­er, unan­swered offer­ing by anoth­er poet, C.L.R. James: “These are my ances­tors, these are my peo­ple. They are yours too if you want them.” Inspired by James, whom she quotes in her book Whites, Jews, and Us: Toward a Pol­i­tics of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Love (Semiotext(e), 2017), Houria Bouteld­ja draws an impec­ca­ble con­clu­sion: “Your patri­o­tism forces you to iden­ti­fy your­self with your state. You cel­e­brate its vic­to­ries and lament its defeats. But how are we to make his­to­ry togeth­er when our vic­to­ries are your defeats? If we invite you to share in Alger­ian Inde­pen­dence and the vic­to­ry in Dien Bien Phu with us, would you agree to break your sol­i­dar­i­ty with your war­mon­ger­ing states?” Could Viet­nam become a vic­to­ry? Jim Crow our defeat? Vic­to­ries and defeats of free­dom? Could they become com-memorations?

After Jews and Arabs, and the bib­li­og­ra­phy that has now been restored to accom­pa­ny it, does not con­sti­tute anoth­er mon­u­ment, and cer­tain­ly no mon­u­ment to excep­tion­al­ism, par­tic­u­lar­ism, or tri­umphal­ism. It is an explo­ration, a com­mem­o­ra­tion of rela­tion­ships, of “the rela­tion­ships between Jews and Arabs on the lit­er­ary, cul­tur­al, social, and polit­i­cal planes … and the rela­tion­ship of the Jew to the Arab with­in him or her­self.” This being-togeth­er with one­self, this com­mem­o­ra­tion, has lit­tle to do with fact, and every­thing to do with fear. Between and with­in Jew and Arab, between and with­in white and black. James Bald­win describes this unflinch­ing­ly in the remark­able poet­ry of his prose. Pic­ture this as inter­nal dia­log­ic mono­logue. “You are afraid that you have been here with me too long, and are not real­ly white any­more. That’s prob­a­bly true, but you were nev­er real­ly white in the first place. Nobody is. Nobody has, even, ever want­ed to be white, unless they are afraid of being black” (from Just Above my Head, Delta Trade Paper­backs, 2000, 536). Poet­ry strug­gles, then, it fights against the “means of man­ag­ing dif­fer­ence through con­tain­ment and lim­i­ta­tion.” It fights against the numer­ous forms of coer­cion that, Alcalay goes on, are “forc­ing peo­ple to divide along var­i­ous lines of iden­ti­ty through dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns and insti­tu­tion­al­ized forms of treat­ment accord­ing to cat­e­go­ry of per­son.” Poet­ry, in oth­er words, seeks to “allow our imag­i­na­tion to acti­vate … the unscript­ed alliances we might make with both the liv­ing and the dead.” 

Writ­ing about a bib­li­og­ra­phy he had assem­bled over decades and which he revis­it­ed for pub­li­ca­tion only now, Alcalay con­fess­es that he is still “try­ing to under­stand what I might have learned from it.” He teach­es us that he is still learn­ing and in the process shows us how to turn fact into fable. With Alcalay and oth­ers, we encounter what we weren’t look­ing for, the fact of Pales­tine (of Viet­nam and of Bosnia, still) with­in the fable of Amer­i­ca. As Alcalay writes:

Wait­ing in line at a tiny kiosk for music cas­settes from Iraq and Alge­ria brought back from Paris; see­ing a once great musi­cian in tat­ters beg­ging in the mar­ket­place; watch­ing smoke rise from burn­ing tire bar­ri­cades near Jerusalem’s grim hous­ing projects; tak­ing tes­ti­mo­ny from impris­oned Pales­tin­ian chil­dren, see­ing peo­ple dragged in shack­les from the tor­ture cham­ber just a hun­dred yards from the Cen­tral Post Office; stand­ing in vig­il with friends whose rel­a­tives were starv­ing in the Lebanese camps war because of an Israeli Navy block­ade; see­ing the col­lec­tive courage of a tru­ly pop­u­lar upris­ing dur­ing the first Intifa­da; all had to be weighed in the bal­ance — like the feath­er of jus­tice — with every book or doc­u­ment I encountered.

Poet­ry commemorates. 


Gil Anidjar lives in New York and teaches in the Dept. of Religion at Columbia. He is the author, among other books and articles, of Our Place in al-Andalus’: Kabbalah, Philosophy, Literature in Arab Jewish Letters (2002) and The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy (2003). His most recent book is Qu’appelle-ton destruction? Heidegger, Derrida (Montreal, 2017).


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