“I know the terror of being torn away from people and places I love, time and again, and the anguish, shame and self-alienation that come from injuring others. Though I moved to Greece mostly out of a desire to live and write in this part of the world, I also came as a sort of spiritual refugee, urgently wanting to escape all those forms of violence I grew up with—personal, familial and social; wanting, as well, to escape my own self, to become a different person.”—Don Schofield
By Don Schofield
“As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,/you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.”—From “The City,” by Constantine Cavafy
THESSALONIKI Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—January 2020—Recent mass demonstrations in Lebanon—the so-called “Lebanese Revolution,” in which weeks of largely peaceful protests have toppled the current government and promise to bring about even more fundamental change—have gotten me thinking about the time I visited that country in the middle of its civil war, a conflict which raged from 1975 to 90. Once again, I’m wondering, what made me, back in 1981, sojourn into a war zone?
Growing up in America I never experienced war, though once came close. Near the end of my senior year in high school, because I had stolen a car, I was told by the court to go into the army. Either that or go to jail. So, in the fall of 1967, two months after I graduated and just a few months before the Tet Offensive, I took a bus from my home in Sacramento to the Oakland Army Induction Center for my physical. I failed it, one of the few times in my life my 20/400 vision was a blessing. Classified 1y, I was unfit to serve except in case of a national emergency.
During my college years I, like so many others, was an avid protestor against Vietnam. Five decades later, I still have strong anti-war feelings. In my psychic make-up, however, something else is at work when it comes to violence. I’ve never been imprisoned for my political beliefs, never sent into exile, tortured by some junta or shipped off as part of an ethnic purge. But, like many in America, I’ve experienced lots of violence, in my case, abuse at the hands of foster parents; corporal punishment from nuns, priests, and others charged with caring for children; bullying at school; gang fights in parks and city streets. Worse, I’ve inflicted intense pain—physical, psychological, and emotional—on others, especially in my teens and early twenties. I spent time in juvenile hall for my outbursts and indiscretions, acts rising, more often than not, out of the fury and hurt I grew up with. I know the terror of being torn away from people and places I love, time and again, and the anguish, shame and self-alienation that come from injuring others. Though I moved to Greece mostly out of a desire to live and write in this part of the world, I also came as a sort of spiritual refugee, urgently wanting to escape all those forms of violence I grew up with—personal, familial and social; wanting, as well, to escape my own self, to become a different person.
But, as Cavafy understood, wherever we go, who we are and all the actions of our past—including the harm we’ve done to others and what they’ve done to us—goes with us. Moreover, with such a past, violence can draw us to it. Which is why, after discovering the work of the Greek poet George Seferis, I became eager to understand what he calls the “mechanism of disaster,” that human propensity for destructiveness that swept his life along, catastrophe to catastrophe, from childhood until his death in 1971. In 1950, when he returned to the ruins of his family home in Smyrna, destroyed in the Catastrophe of 1922, he wrote in his journal: “I feel not hatred; what prevails within me is the opposite of hatred—an attempt to comprehend the mechanism of catastrophe.”
As a writer, I too wanted to understand how and why my life had been shattered so many times, sometimes by my own actions. I struggled to comprehend why such destructive tendencies were a part of my psyche. Where do those impulses come from and what keeps them alive? A poem I wrote a couple years after moving to Greece takes a look at some of the emotional parallels between my life and Seferis’.
Homage to the Wheels
Homage to the Wheels
Just as if one night
you happen to enter
the city that reared you . . .
Laying down his journal, I think of his life.
Exile and birth, he spoke of them as one. He escaped
with his parents to this city, where I too fled
years later, from the opposite direction. In his time
whole empires collapsed, cities razed, his people
driven into the holds of ships, all they managed to save
grabbed from their hands. My upheavals are nothing
next to his, yet I feel that emptiness he describes,
that yearning for a past I had to escape . . . .
I too want to know the mechanism of disaster.
. . . When he died the crowds rioted as they carried his coffin through this city
never his, his body their symbol of outrage at the despots.
Exile and birth . . . .
I wonder at my world
where power changes hands with a smoothness he’d envy,
yet I’m battered like him, broken by oppositions
personal, invisible, in the stretch of body on body, its ramifications.
The dust of events covers what we’ve lost. Wheels pass over.
Something new will be ground, I should say, but I won’t. This is praise
without hope of renewal, pause in awe of the paths
we take. I fled my country and wound up not far
from the crossroads where Oedipus killed his father.
Those roads, like the roads of my childhood, are lined
with eucalypti, olives, cypresses. Here and there
a patch of fur ground into the asphalt.
The wheels grind.
It just happens.
Coming to Greece brought me close to a land and a people who have experienced, much more intensely than I ever had, those grinding wheels of catastrophe. In the early 20th century alone, Greeks lived through the Balkan Wars, World War One, and ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, which led to the forced exodus of over a million Greeks from Thrace, the Black Sea, Constantinople, and Asia Minor, including the flight of the Seferis family in 1918. In mid-century, the country endured a military dictatorship, World War Two and Nazi Occupation, and, immediately after, a three-year civil war, the latter of which resulted in over 100,000 citizens being imprisoned, executed or exiled. Later in the century, Greeks suffered through yet another dictatorship.
A refugee in his childhood and, as an adult, a career diplomat, Seferis experienced almost all those events firsthand. Though I never lived through the kinds of turmoil he suffered, I can relate very powerfully to the constant sense of exile he describes in his writings, his despair and compassion for everyday people (whom he often likened to Odysseus’ companions), and his intense belief in imagination and the possibility of redemption. My hunger to understand the nature of violence, however, went beyond the emotional equivalents I found in the writings of others. During my first decade in Greece another civil war was raging nearby, a terribly destructive conflict that displaced over a million Lebanese and Palestinians (already displaced from their homeland). Many sought refuge in Greece. A few became my students and colleagues at the American university I taught at, and some became friends.
When I first came to Greece, I wound up in Kifissia, near Kefalari Square, renting a room in one of those hotels that used to service wealthy Athenians who, in summer, would flee the city heat for the cooler climes of the northern suburbs. By the early 80s, though, almost all those resorts had decayed considerably, some completely abandoned. The Old Mill, where I stayed for several months, managed to stay afloat by renting cheap rooms to foreigners like myself. A few Lebanese exiles, mostly working at international schools, wound up there as well. I got to know them and so learned in detail, from both Christians and Muslims, the gory details of that conflict, the kinds of suffering individuals, families, and whole communities were going through. All of those I got to know yearned to return, yet knew how impossible that was, since, once home, they would immediately get sucked back into that intensely factional conflict. The more I heard, the more curious I became. So, in December of 1981, when Zaina, a Lebanese Christian who was planning to go back home for the holidays, no matter the risk, half-jokingly invited me to come visit her in Beirut, I did. A few days after Christmas, I found myself at the Beirut airport, mobbed by taxi drivers while waiting for Besaam, Zaina’s Muslim boyfriend, to pick me up.
I still don’t know why I decided to spend Christmas in a war zone. Maybe, once again, I was seeking equivalents. As the poem below suggests, I found a strong correspondence between the violence in my youth and the destruction I witnessed in Beirut. “Angel” is based on an image by the renowned war photographer Don McCullin, whose work I came across on the trip I took to my old hometown right after leaving Lebanon. McCullin describes the genesis of that photo as follows: “This young boy is playing on a stolen lute. He is celebrating with his friends as if at a picnic in front of the dead body of a Palestinian girl in puddles of rain. Only minutes earlier I had been told to stop taking pictures or I would be killed. The boy called to me: ‘Hey Mistah! Mistah! Come take photo.’ Frightened for my life, I shot off two frames. Soon afterwards I learned that the Christian Phalange had put out a death warrant for me for taking this photo.”
Six boys just turning the corner,
one playing the oud, one firing
his Kalashnikov, one twirling his scarf,
all of them laughing at the woman
face-up in the street. It’s funny
how her arms flung straight out,
the sleeves of her robe trailing
in mud, look like wings.
With each bullet this angel
jumps a little.
Back in America,
thumbing through a book of photographs,
trying to fathom what impulse leads us to shoot
even angels and corpses, I was listening
to my old neighborhood,
heard nothing that helped.
Then the garden greyed over
with rain, the hissing of passing cars
pulled me toward sleep, so I laid down
on my childhood bed. Donnie
whistled in my dream—
Come to the schoolyard,
there’s a fight!
That boy’s head
Donnie jerked back
and I slammed with my boot—
I woke wondering
at my own cruelty,
how we laughed and clambered
over a fence, forgetting those eyes
staring from the blacktop
where we left him. What lack
and illusion turned that to fun?
riding to the Beirut airport,
I was astonished to see Howitzers
hidden in a schoolyard—Besaam
grabbed my finger—
Don’t point! They’ll think
you’re shooting. You’re only asking
for trouble. But now, awake,
I can’t stop pointing—
at those guns,
at that boy on the blacktop,
at these ones emptying a rifle
into a dead woman,
toward laughter down the street
I only now barely hear . . . .
Through writing about my time in Beirut and putting it up against my own experience, I came to see that the violence inside us corresponds with the violence around us. The microcosm equals the macrocosm, so to speak. Brutal acts—those we commit on others as well as those perpetrated on us—lodge themselves deep into memory and imagination. Though I had moved to another country, I still carried my old baggage of anger, hurt and trauma. Writing about war became a way to work through those emotions. Consciously or not, I wanted to witness the mechanics of catastrophe at work, to see how violence manifests itself in the world at large, how cruelty on such a massive scale impacts individuals, especially those I knew and cared about, my Lebanese and Palestinian students, colleagues and friends.
As time passed and that war raged on, I got to know more victims of that conflict. And I continued wondering about equivalence. My childhood experience of an alcoholic foster father’s belt or a Sister of Mercy’s slap across my face, my yearning for a mother who sent me away and a father who refused to care for me, were nothing compared to the suffering my exiled friends and colleagues were going through. Not even close. It was audacious and egotistical to even think so. But I couldn’t ignore what I felt. The emotions they described were the emotions I grew up with.
“Conference,” written a few years after my time in Lebanon, looks at this issue head-on. When I wrote the poem I was thinking about two different meanings of the title—conference as a meeting of professionals, in this case writers, and conference as a meeting between professor and student, here between myself and a Palestinian student, a victim of the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
I’m tired of words. Of making subject
and verb agree. Of searching for the right
metaphor for pain. Want pain? I give you
Georgette, my student who wrote how Phalangists
broke into her family’s home, shot them all,
each killer with an icon of the Virgin
glued to the butt of his Kalashnikov—
Mother. Father. Two sisters. Brother. Dead.
And I had to correct her prose, tell her
a sentence is a unit of meaning,
how conjunctions can balance ideas,
colons throw our attention forward: My father
in my first memory is throwing a lamp
across the room at Mom. I, four, stare numb
from the couch. I didn’t tell this to Georgette,
my pain seemed paltry next to hers. I simply
dropped it into the conversation last night,
my story no worse than the others
we told, sipping cocktails in a hot tub,
another writers’ conference ending.
Mike described his father’s way of throwing
him out, how his mother would leave him
at the depot, bound for one new family
or another, give him a roll of dimes
for the Tractor Scoop, and drive off. He could
pull those plastic rocks from synthetic earth,
pile three or four at a time up onto
a dump truck—how fascinating to a child
this occupation that can kill a man
or make him an angry father. Like writing,
I suppose. So Celan. Mayakovsky.
Pavese. Crane. Schwartz. Karyotakis . . . .
Once, on a beach, I watched a man play catch
with his son, then sit, unscrew the lower part
of his left leg. He had the boy hold it
as he rolled into the waves, strong arms pumping,
a single kick in his wake. If it were me,
would I cradle that stub, quiet, patient,
a good son to a good dad, or toss it
away, let him live his own damn life, care
for his own rotting parts? If he swam so far
he couldn’t come back, for sure I’d raise it
like an exclamation point, say to Mike,
or Georgette, or anyone else who cared
to listen: This is a unit of meaning.
During my week in Beirut, I stayed with various friends and relatives of Zaina and Besaam, all of whom were eager to host me but hard-pressed to find things for me to do. With various militias roaming the streets and the Syrian army manning checkpoints throughout the city, it was too dangerous to go out. So, like the locals, I mostly stayed indoors, attending parties, eating lots of Lebanese sweets and talking about America and the war. Near the end of my stay, tired of being cooped up, Besaam and Zaina decided to take me to the Bekaa Valley, to see Baalbek, an ancient city famous for its colossal Roman temples and other ruins dating back to Phoenician times. When we arrived, there was no guard at the gate and no one else at the site, except a small boy with a charming smile selling (supposed) ancient coins and, in the surrounding hills, a couple of shepherds tending their flocks. Except for them, we had the whole place to ourselves.
How clearly I remember the serenity of Baalbek that day, its wide expanse of hills with massive ancient edifices, giant columns fallen deep into the tall grass, a warm winter sun on our bare arms. How we luxuriated in the quiet and calm of that imperial Roman metropolis, so different from the cacophonous streets and war-torn apartment blocks in central Beirut.
The memory of that place makes me think of the calm that has entered my life in recent years. Have I come to terms with those churning wheels of catastrophe? I don’t yearn to visit places of strife as I once did, and don’t carry the fury and hurt that I used to. These days, I prefer Ithaca to Troy. Where did all that anger go? Maybe it’s just the sedentary drift of time. Or maybe by now I’ve settled many of those internal scores that for so long pressed me into rage and fear and guilt. If so, it’s because there are a couple things I’ve come to understand about the mechanism of catastrophe, thanks, at least in part, to reading and writing and living in this corner of the world for so many years.
First, I now realize that, because we’re all capable of violence, whether it’s teens in a schoolyard or militia men wandering the streets of a decimated city, the mechanism of catastrophe will always be at work, to one degree or another. Why we resort to violence is a complicated psychological, social, and historical phenomenon, but one thing is clear: if the environment we grow up in is filled with physical, psychological, and emotional trauma; if we and those around us, parents as well as peers, readily turn to force as a way to resolve conflict; if the people we interact with find no other outlet for their hurt, confusion, grief, and grievances except to inflict pain on others, then it will always be easy for us, children as well as adults, individuals as well as states, to perpetuate the same old destructive ways.
Second, as the recent Lebanese Revolution is showing, individuals and even whole nations are capable of turning away from brutality. Peaceful conflict resolution is possible. But first we have to cultivate a vision of something better, something life-sustaining, not life-crushing. Without such possibilities alive in our imaginations, we have little defense against those who choose brute force. What I’m saying here may sound naïve, but even the Ancients, at times, had this understanding. A few years after my Beirut visit, I came across a passage in Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Old Testament, which stipulates how a newlywed man and his bride have the right to withdraw from war for a year. When I tried writing something based on that ancient Hebrew law, my mind quickly returned to The Levant and eventually resulted in a poem that imagines a space where, in the midst of war, love prevails. Allow me to leave you with that possibility.
When a man hath taken a new wife
he shall not go out to war…
but shall remain at home for one year . . . .
All day guns pound from the Chuf mountains.
When a shell hits the arbor shakes.
The sandbags fall unless we prop them up.
Here in Besaam’s garden
my new father-in-law talks
of mists in the Bekaa Valley,
deep grass hiding the ruins.
Dust hangs in the failing light. Before eight
we go home past the searchlights.
And his words go with us through the rubble—
to be a weed in Baalbek, a stone piled
in that Roman library with field and sheep.
The Romans left that valley bitter, defeated,
to shepherds who now sit and smoke and follow
the trails of jets across the dusk sky.
Home is harsh lights, locked doors,
torn shutters, one room looking out
on an alley of burnt cars. My bride and I
leave our clothes behind the door and go into
that empty room. When the spotlights pass,
our bodies shine like toppled statues. a
Author’s Note: “Homage to the Wheels, “Angel,” and “Beirut Pastoral” are from Approximately Paradise (University Press of Florida, 2002); “Conference” is from In Lands Imagination Favors (Dos Madres Press, 2014). The passage from Seferis’ journal is from A Poet’s Journal: Days of 1945–1951, Pg. 177, translated by Athan Anagnostopoulos (Harvard University Press, 2014). Photo Credits: Image 1 is from “US News & World Report” (IBRAHIM AMRO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES), Oct. 18, 2019; Image 2 is from the author’s Job Corps ID Card, US Office of Economic Opportunity, August 1, 1968; Image 3 is from The Photographs of George Seferis, Cultural Foundation of the National Bank of Greece, 2000; Image 4 is by Dinos Kouris, as published in Greece Is, January 27th, 2017; Image 5 and the quoted passage preceding it are by Sir Don McCullin, as published in Gentleman’s Journal Image 6 is by Karam al-Ghossein, as published in LookLex Encyclopaedia ; and Image 7 is from “Radio Farda,” October 20, 2019.
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