A Detroit writer brings poetry to a war-torn zone
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Published: May 30, 2012
Anyway, I had them create short, imagistic poems with no more than two-to-three words a line, just like Williams. They did nice work, and then I hit the hip-hop loops for the background. The kids were geeked and excited to stand up "in the name of Allah" (as is their tradition) and recite to music. I got them moving and jumping to the beats, and I could see many of the students, both male and female, coming out of their usual reserved and quiet selves.
The teacher and I were both amazed at their uninhibited participation, and it felt like a worthy break from the much more traditional and ordered Afghan classroom. I'd meet up with some of these students later at a debate and they were excited to see me again.
The next day would be a major adventure that involved wearing body armor, Army helmet and flying in military-issued machine-gun manned helicopters to the city of Jalalabad just to the east of Kabul. For some reason — and with all of the fears of possibly getting mowed down by machine guns, or blown up by an IED (improvised explosive device) — I was at peace with all of this. I knew this was all part of an adventure that I would never, ever forget. I also know that God is good. Just for good measure, I got my prayer on by attending mass at the Italian Embassy down on Masood Road that Sunday night.
Tuesday morning we boarded a helicopter to travel out to orange blossom country in beautiful Jalalabad in Nangarhar Province. Jalalabad is a stone's throw from the famous Kyber Pass, which is the gateway to Pakistan. We helicoptered in from Kabul passing over the beautiful snowcapped peaks of the southern slopes of the Hindu Kush Mountains heading east to Nangarhar. We landed at a military base that was once a Soviet R&R spot and later (rumor has it) a Taliban retreat where Osama bin Laden and his posse once stayed. Nobody knows if this is 100 percent true, but it certainly looks like old-school Soviet housing to me, and I have stayed in my share of old Soviet-style hotels in my several visits to Mother Russia. We were, also, near the famous Tora Bora caves where bin was allegedly hiding when Dubya famously, and stupidly, said "I don't know where he is. Frankly, I don't spend a lot of time thinking 'bout him anymore." This wasn't long after 9/11.
My roommate, and host, at the old Soviet R&R spa was a Detroit native and Wayne State University urban studies and planning masters graduate and U.S. Agency for International Development worker from Plymouth, Michigan. His parents are still there, and he gets home every so often to catch a Tigers game and live the Detroit life. When he attended WSU, he lived in a loft down on the river. He actually told me that out of all his degrees (from University of Michigan, etc.), it was his WSU M.A. that has been the most valuable in his work in Afghanistan. Go Warriors!
Anyway, Mike D. (I have withheld his name for security purposes) showed me around the compound and pointed out the dusty, empty swimming pool where the "urban legend" (Hey now,— Jalalabad's a big ass city in these here parts!) is that the Taliban executed people there. It now has a basketball hoop with a hand-painted three-point line around it. I think the Taliban executed in the deep end — in more ways than one.
I was given three assignments in Jalalabad over two working days there. First, I did a workshop with 30 English Access micro-scholarship students from the area and their teachers. I turned the workshop into a lesson and poetry-writing session based, again, on William Carlos Williams' short poems.
The students were all Pashto school kids who were very reserved and very polite. I knew I had to quickly change that scene. Five minutes into our two-hour session, as can be typical in Afghanistan, the electric generator went out and left us with no A/C or lights. We were in what they call a container without windows, and it was over 90 degrees and sunny outside. Oy! Oy! Oy!
I had the kids write their poems on big white sheets of paper that we hung all around the room. I then had them get up and rap the poems to the instrumental music of Eminem's "Lose Yourself." I heard one of the soldiers in the back of the room yell his approval for my musical taste. These youngsters had never heard of hip-hop music — ever, but they loved it. The look in their eyes must have been similar to my own when I first heard the Beatles on AM radio in 1963. They were excited. I told them to jump around and "free form" words with the music. They did. They like! They like! This experience was one of the coolest overseas educational ones I have ever had. Young students enthusiastically reciting poetry to a beat while jumping and running in place. This was cross-cultural poetry heaven to me. This workshop is exactly why I do this in unusual places around this world.
The next day in Jalalabad, I was going to first meet with college students and professors from Nangarhar University. To get there, we had to suit up in full body armor and load into MRAPS, which are, essentially, Humvees on steroids and built to withstand roadside bombs, bullets, grenades, etc. It took four of these to get me to the location in downtown Jalalabad. Two led the way, I was in the third tank, and a fourth backed us up just in case any of those nasty insurgents lay in wait for a goateed Detroit poet passing by in a tank. Once we arrived, we had to exit and stand in the middle with our flak jackets while several heavily armed soldiers walked us to the lecture hall.
I 'll say right here that all of these men are extremely well-trained and are some of the most dedicated people I have ever met. Seeing them in action here makes me feel both proud and very safe. I know people say crap like that all the time, but I am telling you the truth. I have seen them work up close and personal, and they saved my life every minute of every day I was in Afghanistan.
Anyway, the students and professors wanted to talk contemporary American poetry, so I walked them through a little Dickinson, Whitman, Williams, Hughes and some Ginsberg. The discussion was full and meaningful. I perfected a couple of pieces for them, and they seemed to like the "M.L. music and poetry thing" quite a bit too. We had a super great session followed by a traditional Afghan lunch (they gots some great pita over there, people).
After lunch, I met with a good-sized group of young poets, and we talked, and some of them read their poems in English and others in their native Pashto. We had decent translators at various programs who offered solid translations — according to what some of the bilingual poets in the audiences told me. We talked about the importance of poetry in our lives, its importance in our respective communities in Jalalabad and Detroit.
On Thursday morning, we got back in our body armor and helicoptered back down to Kabul for a meeting with Kabul artists and writers at the Afghan Cultural House. Upon arrival at this very contemporary cultural center, I met some very hip writers, filmmakers, painters and musicians. I'd say this is Kabul's version of our own Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.
I performed a few poems to start for them, to which they said, "We like! We Like!" I did some "Blood in the Moon" (they seem very big on both "blood" and the "moon" over there). We talked Afghan poetry, fiction, artwork and music. I turned them on to some Whitman, Langston Hughes and Canada's Four Horsemen (long live bpNichol.
I encouraged all the artists there to think outside the box for collaborations between different types of artists. I told the established writers and artists in the audience that I sincerely believed there would be a market for their work in America where there is a conspicuous lack of literature and art from a country we have been so connected with for nearly 12 years. They seemed encouraged by my words. I gave them some of my CDs for themselves and the Cultural House's library.
As I was leaving for the armored SUV, a young Afghan woman artist stopped me to show me her paintings on slides on her iPhone. They were very impressive and intriguing and quickly grabbed my attention. The paintings were colorful, and each included pieces of human hair inserted into the acrylic. She asked me, through our interpreter, to collaborate with her by putting some of my new poems to her paintings. She said that she was ready to "how you say 'think outside the box'?" I enthusiastically agreed to the project. She told me that she created all of her work as a statement on behalf of women's rights to help empower all the women of Afghanistan. This is very brave for her to do where women are treated as second-class (or less) citizens. I told her I was eager to collaborate with such a fine artist for such an important cause, and I thought we could get the book published over here in the U.S. by some forward-thinking publisher.
Friday is their Sunday in Afghanistan. It was, also, my day off for a little R&R American style. The cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy (my crib when in-country), a very cool dude and major Rolling Stones fan, took me to the weekly Friday bazaar on the nearby NATO compound. I found some less than legit DVDs, bought several Pashto hats, cool Afghan scarves for my bride, and for my longtime band mate and poetry partner Faruq Z. Bey, I picked up some genuine amber prayer beads and a cool new Muslim lid, which I am sure he'll sport the next time you see him playing in Motown. I watched a little of the embassy softball team play in a field on the other compound (the Tigers were on the Armed Forces Network every morning there live from the West Coast — O Yea!), and I headed back to my hooch to relax because the next day we were heading to the wild, wild south in Kandahar.
We had to get up at 4 a.m. to allow time to drink my requisite pot of Starbucks before heading on the journey of a lifetime to the Taliban stronghold Kandahar. (I have long traveled exclusively with Starbucks. I have to brew it in some pretty unusual places, such as a sleeping car on the Trans-Siberian Express, a broken-down Soviet hotel room, a Hong Kong Nunnery Hotel, not to mention my embassy hooch in Kabul.)
The travel plan to this gig consisted of a State Department small jet, a Chinook helicopter ride with machine guns that were tested — en route — into the side of a mountain, and a four tank/MRAP convoy to an undisclosed location to meet the 30-plus primo poets of the Kandahar poetry scene. We had a wonderful two-hour session reading our poems to each other and discussing the importance of poetry in Afghan and American societies. I told them all about the hip scene we have in Detroit. One poet dude even looked just like Smokey Robinson. He had never heard of Motown or Smokey, so I sang a chorus of "Being With You" and "Tears of a Clown." They liked that.
I can tell you all that poetry is really important there. I performed my spiritual piece "Deliver Me" with Coltrane's "Love Supreme" riff as a loop, and they went bonkers because religion is huge there, and they thought it was very cool that an American poet was willing to display his faith in God/Allah in a public setting, which is way normal and acceptable in Afghanistan.
I taught them to click their fingers after poems were read aloud and to say "dig that!" There was much "clicking" and "digging" later during the rest of the workshop. As we were offering concluding comments (there's a tradition here at public gatherings for the guest to make a small speech), the head of the educational-cultural organization that hosted us stood up and said in Pashto: "Your visit here today as an American poet is more important than 500,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan." Needless to say, I was moved very deeply when I heard the translation. I told them that we, as poets and as Afghans and an American, were all meant to meet in this location on that Saturday in Kandahar long before we were all born, and that day was allowing us all to fulfill our destinies.
After the gig, we were hustled out to the tanks by a team of professional Army staffers, heavily armed and ready for anything that might happen. They circled us, walked us into the tanks, and we drove back to the base. At the base, we had pizza for lunch, discussed the very positive experience and event, and suited back up with our body armor and helmets to head back to Kabul by Chinook, by plane, and by armored SUV. All in a day's work on the Afghan beat. Does stuff like this really happen to a working-class kid from Motown?
It is still very hard for me to believe it happened.
Now, with the Kandahar, Jalalabad, Kabul and the other Afghanistan experiences behind me, and in hindsight — most of these visits had elements of serious danger for members of the audiences, for the military who assisted us at each location, and, dare I say, for me. But I was warmly welcomed in very loving ways by each of my hosts and my audiences and the high school and college students along the way. I found all of the Afghan people I met to be supportive and appreciative of Americans and American culture. I did not sense even a slight hint of hostility toward myself, the military escorts, the USAID staff members or Embassy staff members. According to recent speeches by their president and other politicians in Afghanistan, I do get a sense that it is close to the time we need to turn over all security to their military and withdraw most of our troops. Right now, Afghanistan appears to be a fairly secured place, but I think your average citizen on the street is fairly happy that we helped them get rid of the Russians and later the Taliban. Most Afghan people want to live in freedom and safety, and it is my sense that they respect us for helping them with that. The people here are strong, kind and creative. Hopefully, they will find their way home once again to an Afghanistan of peace. They have had it before in their long, long history, so it is not impossible. I hope I made at least a small cultural and humanitarian contribution to them and for my country.
Maybe the dude was right in Kandahar? Maybe 500,000 poets would've solved this problem quicker than war, fighting and death. I don't know — I am just a Detroit poet. However, I think America can and will continue to play a significant diplomatic role in Afghanistan as we do with our other embassies around the world. There will likely always be a need for cultural and educational exchanges between artists and educators, between America and Afghanistan. Frankly, I see my job as a working-class artist and educator in the way Allen Ginsberg once wrote:
Well, while I'm here, I'll do the work —
and what's the work?
To ease the pain of living.
As I headed back to the U.S.A. by way of Dubai and Amsterdam to my sweet, sweet Motor City, I knew I was leaving part of my heart and soul in Afghanistan with poets, students, and artists I met in my short time there. I promised them all that I would carry their poems, their many kind words and overwhelming love and goodwill back to America and to Detroit. No Americans (or foreigners) stay in Afghanistan forever. Most of us are "short-timers," but what a week it was over there.
Like my fellow Detroit poet Em' said, "Look, if you had one shot / or one opportunity / To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment / Would you capture it/or just let it slip?"
I'm here to say that I "captured" and embraced every moment I was given in Afghanistan, and I took a good, long ride on the Kabul beat. I think I brought something to the cultural and educational table that worked here and might just last for at least some time to come.
As that best-selling novel The Kite Runner states, "We have a chance to be good again." We do, America. We do Detroit! Keep the faith. One thing that I noticed there was that the people of Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad loved their cities just as much as many of us love Detroit. To the outside world, both places seem broken and unfixable, but it's the people who can and will make the difference. They can't destroy hope, love and faith. They got it there, and we have it here too. Let us all stand up for each other and continue to fight the good fight.
The Afghan people matter, and what happens to them is a symbol of what happens to all of us whether we understand it or not. After 12 long years, their lives are now forever intertwined with ours, and these lessons of war and struggle can teach us in Detroit how to "rise from the ashes" once again. Hey Detroit, we've got "one opportunity," and another chance "to be good again." I plan to capture it and not let it slip away!
As the plane took off from Kabul International Airport in a light rain, I put my earphones on, pushed my seat back and pressed play on my iPod. I closed my eyes, thanked God for this important time, and for returning me safely to Detroit. At just that serendipitous moment, my good pal Blair's voice sweetly washed through my ears and over my soul:
And every raindrop falling from the sky
Is like a tribute to the blue skies following behind
And every raindrop falling to the sea
Is like a testament to a new life that will come to be.
(from the song "Every Raindrop" by Blair from his CD The Line).
M. L. Liebler is a Detroit-area poet, Wayne State University faculty member and founding director of the National Writer's Voice Project in Detroit and the Metro Detroit Writers organization. His new CD with Moby Grape's Peter Lewis and Eddie Baranek is just out on The Detroit Radio Company label. His Made in Michigan Literary Walk at Wayne State University takes place Saturday, June 30, from noon-5 p.m., featuring Jim Daniels, Anne-Marie Oomen, Maria MazziottiGillan, Susan Whitall, Brett Callwood, Bill Harris, Philip Sterling, Melba Joyce Boyd, Dorene O'Brien, Francine Harris, Rev. Robert B. Jones and more. He is online at mlliebler.com. The Afghan Cultural House is at ach.af.
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