Happy Birthday Doris Lessing

Taq-e Gara

And now at Kermanshah the gate
Dark empty and the withered grass
And through the twilight now the late
Few travelers in the westward pass
                       from “You, Andrew Marvell”  by Archibald Macleish
Kermanshah, known as the “Gate to Asia” lies in the Zagros mountains of Iran.  It is the largest Kurdish city in Iran.  It was here, on Oct 22nd 1919 that Doris Lessing was born.
In 1925 her family moved to Southern Rhodesia and it was in Africa that the Nobel Literature Laureate found her unique voice. An Africa that exists no more, where Robert Mugabe renamed the country Zimbabwe and chaotically dismantled the productive economy.
Twice married and twice divorced she left Africa in 1949 leaving her children behind because “There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn’t the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother”.
Banned from returning to Rhodesia (or South Africa) for her views on apartheid, she was also closely monitored by the British Secret Service for her support of Communism.  A supporter of Communism who was not afraid to denounce Soviet aggression .  She was vocal in criticism of the Hungarian and Afghan invasions.  Also a lifelong anti-nuclear campaigner and vocal feminist.
My favourite thing about Lessing is that she evolved into a writer of Science Fiction.  She moulded her Science Fiction from Sufi Philosophy, a throwback perhaps to the place of her birth, and the sinful Sufi poets of Persia.
Lessing stoutly defended speculative fiction against literary snobs.  You can do that when you have won every literary prize worth having!

Oh Cherry trees you are too white for my heart; by Doris Lessing

Oh Cherry trees you are too white for my heart,
And all the ground is whitened with your dying,
And all your boughs go dipping towards the river,
And every drop is falling from my heart.’

Now if there is justice in the angel with the bright eyes
He will say ‘Stop!’ and hand me a bough of cherry.
The bearded angel, four-square and straight like a goat
Lifts a ruminant head and slowly chews at the snow.

Goat, must you stand here?
Must you stand here still?
Is it that you will always stand here,
Proof against faith, proof against innocence?

Calendar Wars III

Nizar

Nizar Qabbani : Syrian Poet

Last night was the spring, or vernal equinox.  In astrological terms that makes today the first day of the new astrological year.  The first month of the Zodiac calendar is Aries, the Ram.  We all love to make fun of horoscopes and the notion that you can predict your future from the rotation of the planet and the precession of the stars.

At the same time the human brain is pre-programmed to seek patterns in nature.  Random chance is a frightening threat, so we seek solace in order and causality.  Reading horoscopes is simply a manifestation of the real human need to make sense of our world.

Today is also the first day of the new year in the Bahá’í calendar, a religion from Iran.  Year 1 of this calendar begins in 1844 CE making this year 175BE.  Though it originates in Iran it is most heavily persecuted there.  It is sad that Islam, which was once renowned for its tolerance of other faiths, has become so prohibitive of other peoples beliefs.

So to poetry and today I have a poem from one of the most famous and best loved Syrian poets.  Nizar Qabbani was born on March 21st 1923 in Damascus which he described in his will as “the womb that taught me poetry, taught me creativity and granted me the alphabet of Jasmine“.

The suicide of his older sister when he was aged 15 had a profound influence on the young Qabbani.  She made the ultimate refusal to an arranged marriage.  All his life he advocated feminism and an examination of the relationship between men and women in Arabic society.

The defeat of Syria and the Arab allies in the 6 day war by Israel also had a profound effect on his work and shifted his focus from the poetry of love to the poetry of politics.

A lesson in Drawing; by Nizar Qabbani

My son places his paint box in front of me
and asks me to draw a bird for him.
Into the color gray I dip the brush
and draw a square with locks and bars.
Astonishment fills his eyes:
‘… But this is a prison, Father,
Don’t you know, how to draw a bird?’
And I tell him: ‘Son, forgive me.
I’ve forgotten the shapes of birds.’

My son puts the drawing book in front of me
and asks me to draw a wheatstalk.
I hold the pen
and draw a gun.
My son mocks my ignorance,
demanding,
‘Don’t you know, Father, the difference between a
wheatstalk and a gun?’
I tell him, ‘Son,
once I used to know the shapes of wheatstalks
the shape of the loaf
the shape of the rose
But in this hardened time
the trees of the forest have joined
the militia men
and the rose wears dull fatigues
In this time of armed wheatstalks
armed birds
armed culture
and armed religion
you can’t buy a loaf
without finding a gun inside
you can’t pluck a rose in the field
without its raising its thorns in your face
you can’t buy a book
that doesn’t explode between your fingers.’

My son sits at the edge of my bed
and asks me to recite a poem,
A tear falls from my eyes onto the pillow.
My son licks it up, astonished, saying:
‘But this is a tear, father, not a poem!’
And I tell him:
‘When you grow up, my son,
and read the diwan of Arabic poetry
you’ll discover that the word and the tear are twins
and the Arabic poem
is no more than a tear wept by writing fingers.’

My son lays down his pens, his crayon box in
front of me
and asks me to draw a homeland for him.
The brush trembles in my hands
and I sink, weeping.