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.”

whites jews and us cover.jpg<

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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