Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Reflections on Tomás Rivera ... And The Earth Did Not Part

By Ghada Kanafani

Growing up a refugee in Lebanon, books, magazines and newspapers were censored. Printed material was blacked or cut out. As for films, imagine this scene: male and female fully clothed, a prelude to a kiss, next dark clouds, lightning and thunderstorm, the girl is pregnant and the rest is history. In Saudi Arabia, things did go as far as the dad in Little House on the Prairie, did not hug kiss or touch his daughters, because he's not their real dad, and of course, no interaction between him and the mother.

Our eyes got used to jumping screens and disconnected storylines, but our imagination grew more vivid. Along with the political censorship there was also the religious and the social. We still managed to read full texts, smuggled the original articles before they got to the censors, duplicated and distributed them. We learned at an early age critical thinking and the extent that oppressors go to halt our progress and limit our intellect.

Growing up, the mention of my identity, speaking my dialect, displaying my country's map or even the colors of the flag would have resulted in my imprisonment. Many of us ended up in torture chambers; our teachers dragged and got beaten in front of us. Some authors, parents, teachers and young people lost their lives, but we always held our ground. Now our kids and grandkids, wear scarves, pendants, bracelets and they tattoo themselves with these same icons and post them on their Facebook pages.

In 2002, for example, during the re-invasion of the West Bank, Palestinians all over flew kites from rooftops and balconies. The kites were Palestinian flags or the colors of the flag and banners that said "Free Palestine." No one and nothing stops people from pursuing their rights.

In disbelief, I read the list of the banned books. How is it possible to get away with such a thing? Why didn't we hear a national outcry that should have shaken our sterile existence?

Who's afraid of people reaching their potential? Who's afraid of people's memories? Who's afraid of words? Who's afraid of literature that addresses the human condition rather than the "minority's experience"?

I am puzzled because in these banned books as in Tomás Rivera's And The Earth Did Not Part/y no se lo targó la tierra I found parts of myself.

When I read that "every night he would drink the glass of water that [his mother] left under the bed for the spirits."
I remembered a friend who replaced the Qur'an his mother put under her pillow with Mao Tse Tung's Red Book.

When I read about the migrant farmers' kids drinking from the furrow designated for cattle, I recalled drinking infested water in order to survive. The boss's bullet that was intended to frighten the kid made a hole in his head instead. "The child didn't even jump like a deer." I will save you from similar memories of a life I once lived.

How do we explain to children unjust and harsh realities? When they are deprived from something as simple as fishing?

Have we ever left our kids home alone due to harsh work conditions? Yes we did, but we were lucky not to lose them to a fire like the García’s did in Rivera’s book. Didn't we dream of self-sufficiency and of a decent life for our kids?

Wouldn’t you be "embarrassed and angry" if "everybody stares you up and down, makes fun of you" even the teacher? The same teacher your parents told you "over and over that [they] are like [your] second parents?" How angry and embarrassed would you be if you hear the teacher say that your parents "could care less if [you're] expelled because they need [you] in the fields."? Yes, that same teacher who felt "the intensity of [your] desire to belong."

Didn't our first sights of adult sexual encounters create confusion and made us add more weight to the "sins of the flesh" that the nun was obsessed about?  And how about the priest who blessed cars and trucks with five dollars each, who "made enough money to take a trip to Spain" but did not understand people's rage?

Poor people all over the world know that they "can't get poorer" and that "the ones who have to be on their toes are the ones who have something to lose."

How many times did we question our parents’ submission to circumstances?

"How come we're like this, like we're buried alive? Either the germs eat us alive or the sun burns us up. Once the sun bears down like this, not even one little cloud dares to appear out of fear. The sun has no mercy. And every day we work and work. For what? Poor dad, always working so hard. I think he was born working. And there you are, helpless begging for God's help. God doesn't care about us. I am certain that God has no concern for us. Is dad evil or mean-hearted? You tell me if he has ever done any harm to anyone. What have we done to deserve this? You're so good and yet you have to suffer so much. Why you? Why dad? Why my uncle and my aunt? Why their kids? Tell me mother, why? Why are we burrowed in the dirt like animals with no hope for anything? Only death brings rest."

Who of us did not doubt, question and try everything?

"He got to the center of the knoll and summoned him. At first no words came out, from pure fright, but then his name slipped out in a loud voice and nothing happened." He concluded that "those who summoned the devil went crazy, not because the devil appeared but because he didn't."
“Occasionally, he felt somewhat fearful, but then he would look outside where everything was so still and serene under the silvery night of the moon and his fears quickly passed. He fell asleep gazing at the moon as it jumped through the clouds and the trees, as if it were extremely content about something."

Who of us hasn't heard a mother's prayer?

"God, I implore you, beg you, to protect [my son] that no bullet may pierce his heart like it happened to Doña Virginia's son. Since he was a baby, when I would nurse him to sleep, he was so gentle, very grateful, never biting me. I still keep his toys from when he was a child. I have put everything away until his return.

“Protect him that they may not kill him. Take care of him, cover his heart with your hand, that no bullet may enter it. He was very afraid to go, he told me so.

“The day they took him, he embraced me and he cried for a while. I could feel his heart beating and I remembered when he was little and I would nurse him and the happiness that I felt and he felt.

“Why have they taken him? He has done no harm. He knows nothing. He doesn't want to take away anybody's life. Bring him back alive.

“Here's my heart for his. Here is my heart. Tear it out if blood is what you want. I sacrifice my heart for his. Bring him back alive and I will give you my very own heart."

Didn't we cheer for a poet who "told people to read poems out loud because the spoken word was the seed of love in the darkness."?

Our young people should not miss the wisdom of Rudolfo Anaya's Ultima nor the inclusive affirmation of Elizabeth Martinez's De Colores Means All Of Us, nor the pure young love in Shakespeare's Tempest.

I am sure our young people are like Rivera's who regardless of the daily injustices, likes "to see all of the people together," and to "embrace them all, all of them together," but then he realizes that this would happen "only in a dream."

Ghada Kanafani, 50 for Freedom of Speech Kansas City, JCLC, September 21, 2012

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