“. . . My tunes arise from my heart . . .” (Mahmoud Darwish)

1-useless

Useless?

In his essay “National Music” Ralph Vaughn Williams says that the “chief glory of music is that it is absolutely useless”―or something like that. I’ve quoted him often enough that I ought to be able to find the statement in my copy of the book, but―believe me―I’m not going to read the book until I find it. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

Or if you know the page or that it isn’t there at all (go ahead, prove a negative!), leave me a comment.

By useless, he means, of course, that music serves no scientific or utilitarian purpose. He did not know the work of Oliver Sacks and other neurologists, of course, who have discovered how important music is to the functioning of the brain―not necessary, but more helpful than any other activity (do you hear that, you home-schoolers and student test score junkies?).

In the long run I think he is right. Delight, mental acumen, expression of emotion, communication―all of those things are useless, particularly in a materialistic pseudo-capitalist society. I made a stab at proving him wrong a few times by teaching college courses in “Music as Propaganda,” but that was almost always about words coupled with music. There are precious few musical statements that “mean” anything or serve any purpose politically. “Finlandia,” “God Save the Queen,” Ein Feste Burg, and a few others do, of course. “The Star Spangled Banner” does not rise to that level because it is an anthem to a piece of cloth, not to a nation―we sing our allegiance to a picture rather than to the nation, but don’t get me started).

Since I retired from regular work as a church organist, I have come to understand the glorious uselessness of music. The music I make very seldom serves any purpose except to “invite my soul,” the value of which is unclear.

Playing the organ in my living room is not my only useless pastime. I watch “Death in Paradise,” “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” “Antiques Roadshow,” and “Property Brothers” quite regularly on TV. Notice none of those are binge-watchable hit show on cable TV―I don’t have a clue how to download and binge watch and, since watching TV serial shows and going to the movies are both “social” activities in my mind, I probably never will learn how to sit by myself and watch hour after hour of ongoing stories.

But that’s a discussion for another time.

I read quite a lot of useless poetry.

And I play Sudoku on my iPad. That, of course, is not only not useless, it may well be detrimental. I began that habit because someone told me that someone had told them that they had heard on Dr. Oz or some such show―probably one of those “self-help” shows PBS has been playing for twenty years when they are asking for money―that doing puzzles is a good way to keep your mind active. I’ve ignored neurologists’ admonition that you should find another game when you’ve mastered the one you’re playing. Always work a puzzle or play a game you can’t finish, or it doesn’t help your brain.

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Always work a puzzle or play a game you can’t finish, or it doesn’t help your brain.

Actually, playing Sudoku is sometimes not completely useless. I sit in front of the TV watching “Property Brothers” or “Fixer Upper” and play Sudoku when I need a nap in the afternoon and can’t fall asleep. It’s great fun to fall asleep in mid-afternoon with visions of Jonathan and Drew or Chip dancing in my head. (Tarek on “Flip or Flop” doesn’t make the cut.)

I spend a great deal of time virtually every day posting on my other blog. It usually takes 1.5 to 2 hours daily.

I started that blog in February of 2015 because I discovered the wealth of poetry (useless stuff?) written by Palestinian poets. I was enamored of the useless poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye, the Palestinian-American poet who lives in San Antonio. I discovered that she has translated a great deal of Palestinian poetry from the Arabic to English, and because it was she, I started looking into it. Soon I owned 22 hard-copy volumes of Palestinian poetry and about a half-dozen more on my Nook (iPad).

As I read more and more poetry by Palestinians, I began to realize that the nobility, the anguish, the grief, the defiance, the passion of the Palestinian poetry was the same whether it is by Rashid Hussein (1936-1977) writing first-hand about the Nakba, Tawfiq Zayyad (1929-1994) giving voice to the suffering of the 1967 War, Salem Jubran gently striving to express the relationship between Israeli Jews and Arabs, Fadwa Tuqan (1917-2003) disclosing the devastation mothers and daughters have experienced from the Nakba through the Second Intifada, or Yusef Abu Loz and Abdel Rahim al-Sheikh writing of the precarious situation of their people today.

Standing apart (and, it is almost universally agreed, above) in its passion and clarity is the voice of the Palestinian-American Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008).

Inspired by these (and dozens more) poets, I began to try to give a context for their work―or is it to use their work to give context for the news from Palestine? I don’t know. I don’t really know what it is I do every morning. It may, in fact be a useless enterprise―and I think it most likely is. I don’t have any real idea if anyone reads it or who they are.

What I know is that I must do it. I have no choice. This poetry and these (sometimes related) news stories must be together in Cyberspace for some reason I do not know, and I am the only person who can make it happen. Perhaps it is as absolutely useless as Vaughn Williams says music is.

Which is, after all, probably not useless after all.

“A  DIALOGUE  WITH  A  MAN  WHO  HATES  ME,”  BY  MAHMOUD  DARWISH
Rome was burnt, O crazy man
· Rome is more durable than Nero
Rome will not grasp your poems
· She can recite them by heart
Rome will slice your strings
· My tunes arise from my heart
Your voice echoes a miserable past
· My voice echoes a rocket rage
Your path is long
· I shall not tire
Yehuda** sold you
· I shall not be crucified
My ancestors were cremated in Auschwitz
· My heart is with them
· Pull out the wires from my skin
And the wounds of yesterday?
· A shameful scar―in the face of the executioner over there
What do you carry in your head
· A little wheat
What’s in your chest?
· A picture of a wound
Your face reflects a rancor color
· My face reflects the color of the earth
Then convert your sword into plowshare
· You did not leave me land to plow
You criminal!
· I did not steal―did not kill―didn’t oppress
You Arab! You are a dog!
· O man, may God cure your soul
· Why don’t you try the taste of love
· Why don’t you make way for the sun!!

** The Israeli town of Or Yehuda was established in 1950 on the lands of the depopulated Palestinian villages of Saqiya and Kfar ‘Ana. Jews from Iraq and North Africa settled there.

1-IMG_2984The Village of Lifta, Jerusalem, depopulated in 1948. One of a handful of Palestinian depopulated villages where the homes were not destroyed. (Photo: Harold Knight, November, 2015)

 

“. . . They sip at their longing for God. . .” (Samih Mohsen)

Like mother like son

Like mother like son

I bought an iPad about three years ago. I’m not exactly sure why, except that the (more than) friend I was hanging with had one, and it looked so convenient and fun. I discovered it will do almost everything I ever want to do on my computer.

The thing goes with me nearly everywhere these days. About all I do with it is check email and Google to find answers to questions (actually, it’s Safari, not Google) I want immediate answers to. Once in a while I take pictures. Probably the most time I spend on it—shall I admit this public?—is playing Sudoku. I’ve gotten so I can hardly sit and watch TV without playing Sudoku, and the iPad is much easier to see than my iPhone.

The most useful App I have is my Nook book app. All of the books I’ve bought for my Nook, I can read on the iPad. I haven’t picked up the Nook since I bought the iPad.

I hear women occasionally talk about how they have become their mothers (is there a famous book about that?), but I never hear men talk about how they have become their fathers. I have.

My father became interested in computers in the ‘80s when he was in his 70s. He owned one before I did. Now I’m in my 70s and trying desperately (hardly at all, in point of fact) to keep up with technology. I am my father. I am amazed at all of this stuff. My computer knowledge is stuck somewhere in about the ‘90s. I can’t do anything technological. I have a big flat-screen (not THAT big) “SMART” TV that I can’t watch movies on because I can’t figure out how to make it talk to my wireless modem.

And things go downhill from there.

All of the messages from one of my very closest friends (there are many of them) were ending up in the spam file in my email. I was checking the file for messages of his and dutifully moving them to my inbox when I noticed that the “spam” icon at the top of Outlook turns to “Not Spam” when I open the spam file. I clicked on it when I had one of his messages open, and voila! Problem solved.

I’ve been using the same Outlook email for 20 years.

You can extrapolate from that little example to the larger world of GPS and iTunes and. . . . to understand how limited my ability is.

My dad bought his first computer when he discovered he could have the pictures he and Mom took on their 50th anniversary trip to The Holy Lands in 1987 scanned and printed out on a computer. It was pretty crude and rudimentary back then, but it was possible. He had to have one.

I had no clue then.

But when I was part of a delegation of the Inter-Faith Peace Builders (Fellowship of Reconciliation) to Palestine/Israel in 2003, I bought a digital camera. I have hundreds of pictures. Unfortunately, they are on 3 ½ inch floppy disks, and I have no way to read them. But that began my love affair with digital pictures. I use my phone and my SONY camera to take zillions of pictures, as everyone else does.

Wonderfully strange that my father and I both learned about digital photography through trips to The Holy Lands.

There was one huge difference in our experience there, however. He went with a Baptist church group, and the only place they went in the West Bank was Bethlehem—even though the Apartheid Wall was only a gleam in Benjamin Netanyahu’s eye at that time.

My dad’s group could have wandered anywhere they wanted, but they went where all tourists went at that time (and still today). Mom and Dad never saw a Palestinian Refugee Camp or the ruins of a Palestinian village covered in pine trees planted by the Israelis to make the ruins disappear.

Somewhere I have a digital picture of my mother terrified and angry on a camel—she had no idea it was going to stand up suddenly once she got on. Of course, that was at the Great Pyramid in Egypt, but the same trip.

I have such a picture of myself taken on my second visit in 2008—except I was having the time of my life, and not solely because of the hunky young Palestinian man who owned the camel—riding in a little walled-in yard in Jericho.

The Baptists did not know the Al-Aqsa Mosque is on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem or that the Dead Sea was becoming a resort for Israelis which the Palestinians who live within walking distance are not allowed to share.

Etc.

The latest download on my iPad is Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory. Ahmad H. Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod, editors (Columbia University Press, 2007). It is a collection of essays about the Palestinian “Catastrophe” of 1948—the year those villages were plundered and the planting of camouflage trees began.

My father, having been two miles (or less) from a couple of those destroyed villages never knew the word “Nakba.” I know because I asked him.

My parents were a stone’s throw from Deir Yassin, one of the first villages to be depopulated by the citizens of the newly formed Israel, and he never saw it or heard of the massacre. (Some of the buildings are still there—used as a state-run Israeli mental hospital.)

I was hoping last week when I heard about it to find a Nook Book version of the book A Bird is not a Stone: An Anthology of Contemporary Palestinian Palestinian Poetry, edited by Henry Bell and Sarah Irving (Glasgow: Freight Books, 2014). Of course, there is no Nook version. But I ordered the paperback edition.

I’d suggest that you get it. That is, if you have any desire to know Palestinians as persons, as a nation, as a people loving and longing for life in their homeland.

“Lamentation,” by Samih Mohsen

At Manger Square, at midday,
The chairs outside the cafes
Are taken by Western tourists, in September
They sip at their longing for God
The streets teem with passers-by
And foreign languages
We tread on the shadow
Of an old man stretched out on the pavement
With his arm and a tattered shoe for a pillow
His mattress was a story. . .
We pass by his wounds without seeing
Beer tickles our bellies to laughter
And telling inane anecdotes
We try to release the child within us
We stand in Manger Square
And mimic the dance-steps of Zorba the Greek
We step
We laugh
We step into the ring of lamentation.
–translated by Henry King

Samih Mohsen was born in the village of Naqour in Nablus, Palestine (Occupid Territories) in 1953, and has published two collections of poetry, Exiting the Narrow Rooms and Kingdoms & Peril.

From a book review of A Bird is not a Stone: An Anthology of Contemporary Palestinian Palestinian Poetry in which this poem is published:
“It is poignant and grimly amusing to read of the Western tourists who ‘sip at their longing for God’ in Manger Square and ignore ‘an old man stretched out on the pavement’ (‘Lamentation’ by Samih Mohsen, trsl. Henry King). It is hard not to feel something of a tourist oneself when reading a book of poems like this written, as it were, from Emily Dickinson’s ‘great pain’. As Iain Crichton Smith wrote in his long essay about the Hebrides: ‘Real people in a real place’; the Palestinians are also real people in a real place. And the land itself which is the subject at the heart of most of these poems, guarding the bones of their relatives and ancestors, is sacred to them.” From the online magazine, “The Bottle Imp.”