This morning, Sunday, at 3:00 am, Carlos and I round up the writers for the airport. Their flight leaves at 6 am, and I think they should get there early, since they like so much to play and linger and roam. We do get there, in fact, with not that much extra time since the airport is jammed by 4 in the morning: lines stretch for a block or two, TSA cadets run from line to line yelling instructions, cops walk about squinting as if if the sun were directly overhead. Suspicious types and criminals roam everywhere; no one is to be trusted. This is the contemporary experience of flying.
We manage to get every one of the writers through security without a hitch. And I am pleased. But, then, Carlos and I notice one of the guards holding up Soheil Najm’s passport up to the light, and gesturing for one of his colleagues. Carlos and I can hear his sentence, as if he were fishing and just caught a big one: “We’ve got an Eye-rack passport here!” My god, I think, Soheil’s here by invitation of our State Department. My god, we first bomb his country back to the ninth century, and now we have to humiliate him, to boot.
Carlos and I watch from a distance, as they take him to a special table in the rear of the airport. He takes off his jacket, his shoes, and opens his suitcases and briefcase. The guards empty everything—from each compartment of each of his bags, from every one of his suit pockets, from his shirt. They look at his notebooks. They search and they swab; they swab and they search. For me, their politeness almost makes things worse. I want to go over and read them his poems. I want to tell them about the million people we killed in his country. I want to scream at them. I want to tell them that he is a guest in our city, in our state, in our country. I want the TSA to quiet everyone in the airport and I want Soheil to read out loud to the bustling, unconcerned crowd of people, his poems of wonder and astonishment and futility.
But, of course, I do nothing but think and fume. And Soheil slowly and deliberately puts everything back together—his clothes and his books and his presents. And he slowly and deliberately walks to his gate. This is nothing for a man who has lost most of his possessions; who lives with little electricity, little water, little food; and who still possesses his will and dignity. This is just routine and official humiliation of the lowest order.
This morning, I love my Iraqi poet even more.
What a day! I leave PNCA at 9:00 am with the international five writers, Kim Stafford, and a Nez Perce guide, to look at petroglyphs at the north end of the gorge. On the way, we stop at a hatchery and watch salmon loafing and jumping in the nearby river, waiting for the rain to swell the river so they can finally swim upstream, lay their eggs, and die. So much for the writers to think about, to make into metaphor and meaning. Someone asks if there are bears around—the standard question when salmon are near. For the first time, I realize how much salmon resemble bears: when the salmon leave the ocean, for example, they eat nothing—a kind of hibernation in the water—and then they spawn and leave the world.
We next move off to see the most potent petroglyph around: “She Who Watches.” The guide tells us that women once led the tribes, made the decisions, directed the lives of their people. She may have been ousted over time, but she lives still on the banks of the Columbia, watching, still watching, with her steely eyes. Either she is judging us all, or I am feeling guilty about our behavior.
For seven years, my dear friend Francis Adams and I did research for a book about the history of slavery and race in this country. In the process, we read many accounts of, say, Portuguese merchants capturing Africans and shipping them to the new world. We read these accounts in shock and at times even horror.
Tonight, I sat next to Osman Pius Conte, a visiting writer from Sierra Leone, a proud and courageous and marvelous man, who tells me of his people and his country. He describes them as beautiful and friendly and he invites me to visit sometime. I would love his Timine people, he tells me, for they love to tell stories and they love to laugh. They would receive me graciously.
Osman knows our history well; I know his a bit—just a tiny bit. West Africa has come alive to me with this one wonderful man. I hope some of you can meet him in the remaining days. He will read at PSU Friday night, at 6:30, in the Student Union, and at Wordstock on Saturday morning. It will be a treat—and an education.
Day Two or Three or Four:
Monday evening in the Commons and the audience is filled with faces new to PNCA – writers and teachers from other schools and from the community at large. On the stage, an elegant introduction by the Academic Dean, Melissa McClure, followed by a witty and brilliant introduction by Mary Preis, Chair of Liberal Arts. For the first time, as far as I know, one could hear Arabic and Spanish and Welsh all out loud in one evening in the commons at PNCA. The commons for a flash turned into the uncommons.
We in the audience struggle to make out the words of this poem or that story, told to us by someone from Sierra Leone or Venezuela or Baghdad. And I hear people saying, oh my god it’s so hard to understand because of their accents. Which is to say that English is not their first language. Why should it be? Do we not have accents, as well, and don’t our guests struggle to understand us? The struggle is good for us, I think, as we move for a brief hour from ease and abundance to dis-ease, and make the effort to hear and understand our new friend from, say, Iraq.
What an amazing couple of days so far—riding in the van with them from airport to home and from home to Multnomah Falls and back again, it is all stories and histories of many different countries and many different and continuing wars. I realize how little history I know and I realize what abundance I live in. Someone gets shocked by Whole Foods and its sheer enormity and variety; its prices and packaging.
Anyone reading this please try to come to the Commons, tonight, the 5th, at 6:30, for a reading from all five writers. We will then have music by the Dizzy Nests and food and drink and talk and laughter.
Write to you tomorrow.