The Enemy Bears Thorns: Power & Resistance in Efadul Huq’s “Straightmouth”

“Straightmouth”

There is no God except one God, and that God is mine.
If in His name I live, in His name I die,
I will have peace and happiness infinite
That is what I learnt, but this is my life:

The devil smirks sitting on a thorn-bush
As his hell-hounds bark confusing questions:
Is there a God? Do you have freedom?
Aren’t you free-willed? Why then this servitude?
This is always the way they delude blind asses
In fact: they have misled a nation already:
Those bickering and belligerent bandits,
Those glittery Goldilocks and Richie-riches,
That nuclear nation,
That united tribes of righteous citizens!

Their bomber-birds weed out villages in my Afghanistan,
Like puny and pesky wildflowers unsuitable for white picket-fence gardens
Their tanks trample towns with no WMDs in my Iraq,
Like obese war-elephants, fed by McDonalds, TacoBell and cheap Chinese,
Squashing a mushroom-sea into white puddles
They parent Pakis, Indies, Aussies, Africis, Europis
Like Kronos swallowing his own seeds
They are scriptureless prophets of democratization
Like Moses incarnate with a staff of humanitarian intervention
They pile up deaths and ban non-proliferation
Like Jesus lobbying for im-nuclear-moral actions

Shamelessly, they enter our territories and forget their limits
I don’t care what they do to themselves,
Whether they put two men to marriage or celebrate feticide,
But we want no stench of their piss in our gardens
Yet their locust lots in uniform swarm in,
Promising to take away our plights – What hypocrisy!
Who sees my tears when I can’t go to school,
Nearly exist by half a meal, crack and shrivel in winter and die
through famine and floods, by kicks of hunger?
I don’t want their burgers or coca cola or baggy jeans!
I can’t buy those anyway

My people are content with rice, water and cotton
But now UN comes to our towns to feed us as if we were beggars!
While our lands are left burned, barren and barricaded;
We don’t know what’s ours anymore!
When I point to these precious points, and blast their bubbles
I become a laughingstock, a lunatic
They call me a terrorist. How ridiculous! Really –
I am only a resistant, a drop of democracy in democrazy
I would be mad to apologize and even madder to compromise,
It is my land, after all!
Where are the AK-47s they donated during super-cold war?
Where are the bombs they taught us to bake?
Isn’t the only way to fight a thorn to poke another at it?

*****

Nine years ago in October of 2001, George W. Bush, who was then President of the United States, initiated an all out war of agression against the people of Afghanistan. The mainstream press heralded Bush’s decision as a noble ambition to “bring democracy” to the Middle East while the President himself lauded his war aims as a “messianic mission” to bring peace to people of the region. Against the unfettered barbarism of these “radicalized” militants, Bush and the United States assumed a Christ-like image, demanding that the thorned crown of ages be placed atop the head of the imperial state. How could one forget the coronation, that cold autumn night when bombs illuminated the sleeping city of Kabul, launching the counter-terrorism strategy that would come to leave the entire nation in ruins. Looking back at that night, it’s difficult to tap into the mindset that would inspire such international recklessness yet this should not deter us from investigating our faults as the deeply immoral foreign policy that possessed us then is the same which possesses us today under the Obama administration. Sure, the rhetoric has changed but the crown of thorns is still firmly placed atop the head of the imperial state, no matter how undeserving we may be of wearing it.

While the narrow confines of official ideology erect barriers against investigations of this kind, the intellectual wealth of the arts, in particular the art of poetry, can sometimes unearth these questions and hold them up to the world for examination. This unearthing quality of poetry is found in such abundance in Efadul Huq’s “Straightmouth”. In this poem, a deeply philosophical examination of free-will and the divine is used to confront the realities of injustice; in particular, the injustices directed against those who are victimized by foreign invaders in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Africa. This laserlike focus on the victims of military agression forms one of the main themes of his poem. The theme of perspective. The straight-talking speaker of this poem is a hybrid between the uncompromising tone of the imperialist and the very real grievances of the resistor. Given this internal conflict between tone and substance, between power and pain, a character emerges who figures that the only way to fend off the guns and tanks of his agressor is to internalize the agressor’s ideology.

But what is the significance of the thorn? The thorn in this poem assumes a dual function. For the agressor the thorn is a crown, a bastardized theology that uses the suffering endured by Christ and transfigures this suffering into an emblem of power. Essentially, turning symbols of the oppressed into symbols for the opressor. For the agressor the thorn is the badge of honor for what German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, would call a slave morality. How could we ignore this as Moses weilds his “staff of humanitarian intervention”, a phrase that beautifully fuses the altruistic aims of humanitarian aid with the authoritarian symbol of a staff? Moses, the man who led his people to the Promisedland, unwittingly whips his followers into a state of servitude. Echoing the second stanza you can hear the critic ask “aren’t you free willed? Why then this servitude?”.

Indeed, at the heart of the servitude that the resistors must endure is their lack of protection, their lack of power. Because of this lack of power they too must make use of thorns. But the thorn of the resisitor is markedly different in that his thorn is the thorn of the critic. Unlike the missiles and bombs that their occupiers so casually drop on their homes, the thorniness of the critic not only repels agression but disarms aggression. Ironically, this disarming criticism is voiced by none other than the terrorist (at least those who the U.S. designates as terrorists). By simply asserting the will for self determination, the resistor immobilizes the “bickering and beligerent bandits”, the “glittery Goldi-locks”, and “Ritchie Riches” to show that “he is only a drop of democracy in democrazy”. More than proclamations of war, these proclamations of human complexity are used to hold the gunboats at bay . . . at least for a little while.

Yet there is a tragic underside to this poem, namely the fact that the method of the resistor ultimately falters under the weight of the agressor, so much so that the resistor becomes a kind of miniaturized version of the agressor, the small town crook to the agressor’s mafia don. The resistor retains his thorn but it no longer represents his ability to level a critique. Rather it signifies his ambition to detonate his own bombs, fire his own bullets, and build his own army. In short, to engineer his own destruction. This tragic predicament is responsible for the speaker’s concept that “the only way to fight a thorn is to poke another at it”, the erroneous idea that the only way to stop terrorism is to out-terrorize the terrorist. In view of this defeat,what can one say about this poem and it’s bleak but honest illustration of international affairs? Are those who we call terrorists born terrorists? Is their God somehow diametrically opposed to our God or are they just individuals who have reached the same level of brutality and thoughtlessness as us but only after a shorter trajectory? A man incinerates hundreds in a crowded marketplace after twenty odd years of misery and we call it terrorism while a nation incinerates millions across the globe after centuries of relative prosperity and we call it “keeping the world safe for democracy”. Dichotomies of this kind should not be overlooked nor the thorns that gave rise to them. Despite the apparent differences which exist between ourselves and our enemies, when the homes are rebuilt, and the tanks have departed, when the agreements are signed, and the thorns are removed, no one, absolutelty no one, is above the task of examining their own wounds.

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One thought on “The Enemy Bears Thorns: Power & Resistance in Efadul Huq’s “Straightmouth”

  1. That picture is awesome. I know it’s supposed to be ironic and symbolize America as being evil, but really look at it.

    What first catches the eyes is the giant banner, saying that America intends to make the world a freer place. Sweet! And it’s not like there’s a guy in a cape with a twirly mustache behind the sign; there’s no hidden message; there’s nothing about that banner that it isn’t 100% serious.

    The next thing you see are the barrels on that holy MAMA tank. You’re supposed to think ‘violent abuse of power’ when you see that God-like tank, but notice how its not firing anything, it’s not even aiming. This doesn’t symbolize that America is destructive and abuses its power; it symbolizes that America HAS power, a LOT of power, and that she wields it with peace and control, and to liberate people. And that you better not screw with her.

    Look at the giant, sweeping searchlights, and the flags pinned up everywhere. Again, where is the evil cackling fat guy? In what way is this epic America warship doing anything to hurt the innocent? It looks glorious and wonderful to me.

    Wait a second… does that thing have WINGS? It’s a FLYING double-deckered industrial production bureaucratic chopper dispatching missile launching tank?

    Of course, then there’s the way that machine uses natural resources and turns them into stuff–just like every living organism that has ever existed–for to be turned into the world-changing technology that every person alive either has or desperately wants. And then they’re putting down moon-sized oil rigs, oh no! They’re gonna use that to make stuff like plastic hearts that keep the disabled alive!

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