We Have a Voice
“You would think the fury of aerial bombardment
Would rouse God to relent”
While letter writing as an epistolary art form has unfortunately fallen by the wayside, digital communication’s benefits are speed, a wider audience, and a speedy rejoinder.
The personae: Mary Evangelista, 84-year old New Yorker of American-Jewish background whose friendship evolved after her reading my January 23, 2013 CounterPunch posting; Johnny Wink: a dear friend and colleague I met 41 years ago this summer; Randal O’brien: a dear friend, former colleague, and now president of Carson Newman College (Wink and O’Brien are cited in an October 2, 2012 Counterpunch posting) ; Muhammad Musallam: a Gaza artist and art curator at the just bombed Gaza university; L: A new Yorker, a Jewish -American professor I met at a Palestinian art exhibit in NY.
[Mary: Sunday, July 20/ 2014]
I have been so taken up with the wellbeing or lack thereof of my Gaza friends that my correspondence with you has taken a back seat.
I am writing now to ask your advice.
Need /want your … counsel [on notes to show donors]
xxxx to you and Rachel
[Raouf: Sunday, July 20/2014]
We just came in from church and lunch and just finished reading your email. Your undertaking the Herculean task of curating a Palestinian art show in New York was most magnanimous. And the handful of critics should be ashamed of themselves. Dear Mary, my estimation of you before, during, and especially after the show, reception, and art talk went to stratospheric levels. And, after we came back from NY, you shared in an email your mother’s name and her having worked for the State Department. It was then, and only then, that I discovered that your mother was Jewish. I choked up. That Mary, a Jewess, would undertake such a monumental task to promote Palestinian art and artists as a means to help Americans better comprehend the plight of Palestinians was, without a doubt, the noblest of gestures. …
You asked for my counsel. … Please do not let the pettiness of the few get in the way of your noble work. … I so wish I could be by your side at this very moment to embrace you and to hold you close to my heart and to affirm the dignity of your noble cause. Instead, I will just say I Love You, Dear Mary. I admire what you’ve done lo these many years to utilize art as a bridge of understanding, and I will partner with you on future shows.
Fondly, Warmly, and Lovingly, Raouf
[Mary: Sunday July 20/2014]
Your words always work magic on me!
I feel so much better after reading your email. And yes, let’s continue talking and planning our next exhibition.
Now that we have the ground work of fiscal sponsor, donors who gave and Whitebox which I’m sure would welcome us putting a new exhibition together would be relatively simple.
[Mary: Monday , July 21/2014] My artist -friend Mohammed Musallam whose orange pierced with screw [Counterpunch, March 28, 2014] served as the cover for our catalog is back in Gaza after two weeks in New York. He couldn’t make it in time for the exhibition. Got stuck in Gaza [in April] as the borders are closed. We became friends and now during this horrible siege, he phones me daily to report on the wellbeing of his family. I’ll forward a photo.
My best warmest hugs to you and Rachel. I feel so much better from your email, mary (sic.)
[Mary: Tuesday, July/29/2014]
Dear Mohammed: It is hard for us here in NYC to imagine your life right now -and although we can sit and worry and send emails and watch tv coverage, we are helpless to help.
I can’t bring myself to write you again asking how are all of you as I watch, read, know that nothing has ended and that Netanyahu and Hamas are out to wipe out the human race in Gaza.
I hope when this all ends as it must—that your kids—can return to a normal life and not be affected in their lives by memories of these days.
I wanted to phone you but hesitated as it may be dangerous for us to speak?
[Muhammad: Tuesday, July 29/ 2014]
Tuesday night was a Black night since the beginning of the war.
Incessant bombing of heaven and earth and sea
I felt I was in World War III.
Also no electricity in all of Gaza City
Israel yesterday bombed the main generator of the city
I do not know when it will end this madness.
I’m living the worst days of my life.
Dearest Muhammad, Even though we’ve not met, I feel as though I know you very, very well. I love your art; your work moves me. I so enjoyed writing about it, and no doubt Mary sent you a copy of the show’s program.
I think about you and your family, Ya Habibi, as I think of every Gazan living through the hell imposed by the US and its client. I feel as though my hands are tied and am rendered immobile, helpless, anguished, pained, angry, and hopeless.
Please know that you will be in my prayers as will every Gazan. At times like this I wonder how I can keep my faith. Where is God? Why doesn’t He step in?
Just a short note to let you know that I am fighting with my pen, writing letters, sending tons of emails, and writing, writing, writing. May God protect you and yours.
Salamaat and Prayers.
Sincerely and Salaam,
Raouf J. Halaby
[Raouf: Wednesday July 30/2014]
Dear Mary and L,
To get your minds and my mind off the unfolding tragedy and as a means of hanging on to a shred of hope, albeit very fragile, I am sending something uplifting.
Late last year I was asked to write an intro for the university literary journal. It was published recently. I was also asked to submit a photo for the journal’s cover. You will find the photo and the essay in attachments. Venice, the Blushing Bride of the Adriatic will forever be in my heart and mind. Sometimes we have to escape the horribly real world in which we live.
[Mary: Wednesday July 30/2014]
Loved seeing Venice through your eyes. A great pleasure.
[Mary: later same day] Dear Raouf: Thank you for sharing this beautiful and moving essay on Venice-which as you so eloquently put it, shimmers in its unique beauty at all times of day and in all seasons.
I have visited it on assignment for ARTnews to review modern and contemporary art works, even to include Guggenhiem, P.s [Picasso] masterpieces.
You, however, have such a special gift for seeing and writing about this Adriatic bride—I stop and marvel over your many talents. Sad that I only now in late life have met you.
Agonizing daily and nightly phone “visits” with my artist friends in Gaza have preempted my energy.
Love to Rachel.
[L: Same Day]
Dear Raouf and Mary,
Thank you, Raouf, for your beautiful words and the lovely image. I agree. It is necessary to take a break from the harsh realities and to seek temporary shelter in beauty of expression. I returned from Jerusalem on Sunday night and am still processing everything I saw and heard there. …
[Mary: Saturday, August 2/2014]
HI Raouf: Watching tv reports and speaking to friends in Gaza, my urge to rush over and “help” haha what can an 84yr old do? keeps coming back to me.
And then I also ask myself, did our Whitebox exhibition in any way aid and/or assist the Palestinian cause in their justifiable demands for fair and humane treatment- open borders, privileges that we here take for granted?
Can you help me answer this without saying things just to make me feel better?`
[Raouf: Saturday, August 2, 2014]
My Dearest Mary,
If it were possible, Dear Friend, I would want to hug you and hold on to you for consolation, for strength, and for affirming that God does exist. You are such a decent human being, a rare and very unique person placed in this world for a purpose. And because what you stand for, I see God’s goodness in your actions.
I fear that the madness will go on for several weeks. Netanyahu and his party have gone fallen into the abyss,, and so have Hamas who keep firing back. You asked me to be honest, So, here it goes: at the moment the only way to help is to make phone calls, write letters to newspapers and TV, and mobilize friends to make phone calls, Facebook, and send emails to force Obama to stop the carnage. He had no business replenishing the weapons that have been used.
What you wrote to the donors is perfect. I am keeping a copy : “There are no words to express my gratitude for your generous contribution to the exhibit by Palestinian artists. While the exhibit helped give voice to Palestinian artistic expressions and while it did address the difficult conditions under which Palestinians have been living, recent events in Gaza have been very agonizing; the death, suffering and the destruction have no doubt affected you as they have affected me, and I am at a loss to find the proper words to express my deep pain and sorrow.
Because of my deep belief that art can be a means to give voice to the weak and oppressed, I am committed to undertaking another exhibit of Palestinian art right here in New York. Art helps build bridges of understanding and can be a weapon to fight prejudice and injustice. Your support has been and will continue to be very important to help ….”
Please stay in touch.
[Raouf: Sunday, August 3/, 2014]
Dear Randall and Johnny,
God’s people are getting good at genocide. Deir Yassin 1948, Qalqilya 1956, Gaza 1956 ,1967, 2008, 2012, 2014, Lebanon 1982, 1987, 2006, Jenin 2002, and too many other genocides to count. And what are our Christian Southern Baptist brothers and sisters doing???? This Sunday numerous Southern Baptist and Pentecostal churches across the nation have had Stand up for Israel rallies and special Pray for Israel day events. And the enabler, Obama? He replenished all the weapons the mad pyromaniac used to pulverize Gaza and destroy lives forever.
Tell me, please, is there a God? Where is He? He sure is acting like a coward or, is He getting old and senile????
Helpless in Gaza, Palestine and the US
[Randall: Sunday, August 3/2014]
My dear brother, Raouf,
God is the little girl blown to pieces by Israeli tanks. God is the young Palestinian infant dying in his wailing mother’s arms. God is the bleeding young boy dying in his bombed school never to make it home to his parents.
God is on his cross again. My question is different. My question is not where God is. My question is, “where is humankind?” My guess is all of us players are right where we’ve always been.
Crying with you,
[Johnny: Tuesday, August 5/2014]
Dear Raouf —
When faced with questions I cannot answer, such as the anguished one you asked me and Randall a day or two ago, I usually go running to the poets. I don’t run to them for the answers, for I know they don’t have them. I generally go there for company. I go to the poems that ask the questions in compelling ways.
Here’s what came into my mind after getting your recent letter. It’s by the late Richard Eberhart.
The Fury of Aerial Bombardment
You would think the fury of aerial bombardment
Would rouse God to relent; the infinite spaces
Are still silent. He looks on shock-pried faces.
History, even, does not know what is meant.
You would think that after so many centuries
God would give man to repent; yet he can kill
As Cain could, but with multitudinous will,
No farther advanced than in his ancient furies.
Was man made stupid to see his own stupidity?
Is God by definition indifferent, beyond us all?
Is the eternal truth man’s fighting soul
Wherein the Beast ravens in its own avidity?
Of Van Wettering I speak, and Averill,
Names on a list, whose faces I do not recall
But they are gone to early death, who late in school
Distinguished the belt feed lever from the belt holding pawl.
Van Wettering and Averill were two men in the army with Eberhart in WWII. They were in gunners’ school together.
In the spirit of Eberhart’s closing stanza, I attempt a tentative answer to your question with a small parade of names that bring me closer to belief in a benevolent when I need to be closer than I currently am: Rabbi Lerner. Donnie Bettis. Beth Polo. Jane Quick. Shirley Freeman. Fred Martin. You.
Much Love, Hanna
[Mary: Monday, August 4,2014]
Oh Raouf: You have no idea what confidence you offer me and how I need the sort of encouragement you provide.
I feel I am such a lone voice in a wilderness of New York Jews all shouting obscenities at “arabs” (sic.) — well we know they mean Palestinians.
And why aren’t the “Arabs” helping those in Gaza?
I will send out requests for letters immediately and a big hug for being my encourager and supporter love, mary (sic.)
[Raouf: August 4, 2014]
Dear Mary, You are a very courageous person. When I think of you, I don’t even think of you as a person of Jewish background. Rather, Mary, I think of you as a human being in the best definition of the word. You have drawn on the deep well of the “goodness,” “humanity” and “decency,” values that are the bedrock of the sacred Talmudic tradition. And all Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and people of myriad faiths — those who draw on the essence of their sacred teachings and promote and practice love, harmony, and peace are, in my humble opinion, children of the God who made us all. I know many of my Southern Baptist friends will want to excommunicate me from the denomination for such an utterance, have me wear the shameful Hawthornian AC (Anti-Christ) on my chest, and a few might demand that I make a public confession of my transgression, my “universalist” tendency, this sin of believing that all of God’s creation are entitled to the pursuit of Life, Liberty, and Happiness. But I refuse to be ethnocentric, and ignorant, and a hypocrite. And the Christianity I know was not “concocted” by an American of a southern, rural background who’s distorted Christianity with a narrow Made in America definition/brand as brothers Hagee and Huckabee might want to us believe. (They are no different from Chaucer’s Pardoner. Just follow the money trail.)
You asked about the Arabs, why they are not helping Gazans? A few comments on the subject: The oil has corrupted the filthy-rich oil sheiks; they hide behind Islam to maintain their grip on the wealth of their nations, living high on the hog and keeping their serfs, the ignorant masses, pacified and at bay with guns and generous payola subsidies. By supporting Egypt & Jordan (both of which are ruled by corrupt tyrants) and making them dependent on the dollar payola compliments of the US taxpayer, the US has set the following rules for them: Behave and follow our hegemonic policies, including your tacit approval of everything- Israel demands, you will get the subsidies to keep you in power and allow you to enjoy the life of Riley in your fortified villas and palaces. Misbehave, and we’ll shut off the tap. The fratricide between the different sects of Islam (made more acute after the Iraq war compliments of AIPAC and the dim witted Texan) has deflected attention from the Palestinian problem. The endemic corruption of Arab governments is yet another factor. The killing of Hussein and Qadafi , and the attempts to topple Assad (all of whom were/are brutal tyrants and, ironically, were/are secular and protectors of the rights of Christian Arabs) has exacerbated the fratricide in the region. I shudder to think what fiendish monster ISIS will grow into — with financing from the fanatical Saudi Wahabis. Who would have thought that Israel would be sleeping in the same bed with Saudis, Kuwaities and Emiraties???? It would take several hours merely to outline this sinister Machiavellian plot, or plots, should I say?
Goodness, Mary, this is a macabre Greek and Shakespearean tragedy (with ignoble upstarts for heroes) so interwoven we can’t even discern the characters on the hazy and murky stage because of the carnage, blood, hatred, and the machinations of America and her litter of European poodles . And, instead of acting responsibly, Obama and Congress have provided munitions to replace and to replenish what has already been used to pulverize Gaza and her citizens into stone-age sinews, blood and rubble. They are the pyromaniacs aiding and abetting a pathologically sick serial murderer whose behavior is no different from the serial killer or rapist who, pardon the expression, “gets off” by initiating periodic genocides such as the 2008, 20012, and now the 20014 genocide in the tiny strip of land called Gaza, once on the crossroads between the ancient Mesopotamian and Pharaonic civilizations. Just think of it: place a mad man in a large stadium, then place a 3×3 foot aquarium in which the water is invisible because of the sardine-like compactness of fish to over-capacity. The fish are armed with firecrackers. The megalomaniac is armed with Bradley tanks, French U-boats, F-15’s, armed drones, and full access to all the gold in Fort Knox. He is urged to fire away indiscriminately and at will –err, Palestinian old men, women and children. In the meantime, standing on the sidelines, the referees – err, Obama and his litter of EU poodles, acting as cheerleaders and sponsors, are scared-silly to step in and stop the madness. They repeatedly cheer him on by affirming his right to defend himself. The lunatic gets more emboldened getting “his jollies off” by suggesting that what the stadium’s spectators are observing is an honest to goodness slug fest between the forces of good and evil, between the civilized and uncivilized worlds, between the godly and the heathen worlds, between Judeo-Christians and Muslims.
Obama is no different from the defense attorney who accuses the rape victim of bringing the heinous violation on herself by dressing provocatively to snare the serial rapist to commit his fiendish crime.
To succumb to the diabolical desire for retribution will have me Bibbied and afflicted with the barbarously malevolent Israeli Settler mentality/xenophobia that has unfortunately taken hold of a vast majority of Israelis . But the sane side, that side injected into my core beliefs (during my pubescent and teen years), that decency to love all, no matter what their religious, racial, social backgrounds or lifestyles are, was instilled in me by a mother and uncle with Quaker values, by the values of a-now 89 year old Southern Baptist missionary, and by a Greek Orthodox priest.
Take heart, Dear Mary, justice is sometimes slow, and we might not see it in our lifetimes, as my sister keeps telling me. And even though I sometimes fall into the abyss of despair and question whether the Man Upstairs is still around, I come back into the fold when I meet people such as you, such as Randall Obrien, Johnny Wink, James Kirkendall, Judge Wendell Griffen, John Ragland, and Malcolm Rigsby. A standing ovation to Counterpunch staff and the scores of gutsy contributors and numerous others such as Gideon Levey, Amira Haas, Uri Avneri, Matti Peled, Norm Finklestein, Noam Chomsky, Rabbi Lerner, Anna Baltzer, Barbara Lubin. And a salute to the millions of Palestinians, dead and alive, who’ve exhibited Sumud (perseverance), dignity, courage, faith, and resilience in the face of 67 years of overwhelming tsunamis that keep hurling themselves on them in repeated, vengeful tremors by an ungodly faction claiming exclusivity to Him, who made us all. And finally, because of a more accountable media with better access to the world, millions around the world have been awakened to the madness of not one, but many mad men, at home and throughout the Near East, who invoke the name of God with their mouths while deploying their butchers’ knives with their minds, hearts, and hands. Try as he may to squash these sordid violations of international laws and try as he may to whitewash this ghastly onslaught on innocent civilians, history will mark Netanhayu with the blood of helpless children, women, and old men.
Rachel’s and my love and hugs headed your way, Sweet Angel, Dear Mary, my Dear, Dear Jewish Friend, whose love for all things human, and all things decent has earned her a spot in that Promised Land.
And, as always, Sincerely and Salaam, Raouf
[Raouf , Tuesday, August 5, 2014]
Dear Mary, I hope that I did not say anything offensive in my last (yesterday’s) email to you.
I am in the process of writing something for Counterpunch that includes three email communications I have had with friends, one of whom is a clergyman and a president of a university. I asked him to tell me if God does exist, more rhetorical question than anything. His and a colleagues’ responses were perfect. May I have permission to use your emails to me (no mention of the show at all) and I will merely refer to you as Friend M?
Let us hope that the ceasefire will hold.
As Always, Sincerely and Salaam, Raouf
[Mary, Tuesday, August 5, 2014]
Dear Raouf: Your email was so beautiful -I have read it over and over and rejoice in its contents.
By all means use anything I have written and feel free to say who wrote it.
I am overrun today with a house full of grandchildren and their playmates and their hunger-seemingly endless.
But I do enjoy having them visit.
I spoke at length with Mohamed and he reports that just after the 72 hour ceasefire a bomb exploded in his neighbor’s yard.
I am encouraged to receive responses to your text asking contributors to write and phone and speak out. I believe that people are beginning to realize that they have a voice in all this.
And rather than sit back and hand wring, take an active position.
Salaam to you and love to you and Rachel
Yes, Mary, I believe that people are beginning to realize that they have a voice in all this.
Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor of English and Art at a private university in Arkansas. He is a peace activist, a sculptor, a photographer, and an avid gardener. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org