zenpundit.com » poetry of war

Archive for the ‘poetry of war’ Category

Teju Cole on Nairobi: death and birdsong, death and poetry

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — on the topic of Nairobi there’s the news — and then there’s Teju Cole ]
.

Teju Cole, left, Kofi Awoonor, right -- photo credits Teju Cole & Peace FM Online respectively

**

We’re interested in creativity as well as natsec issues here at Zenpundit, so i thought it might be appropriate to see what a fine writer had to say about the hideous attack and siege of the Westgate mall in Nairobi — and perhaps more importantly, how he chooses to say it.

Teju Cole is a writer (“award winning” and rightly so) whose insightful and skilfully deployed tweets caught my attention some while back, and have only increased my admiration for him over time. I followed his twitterstream along with others while the events in Nairobi were playing out, and today read his New Yorker blog post covering much the same ground in greater detail.

What is striking to me about Cole’s approach — the approach of a fine writer, in Nairobi at the time, a friend and admirer of the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor who died at the mall — is the care he takes to balance death with birdsong, death with poetry. In treating matters this way — and we can be sure he is every bit as deliberate in his use of 140 characters as he is in longer-form writings — he both gives a world of context to the small world of the mall event itself, and offers us hope to balance our despair and disgust.

Cole is reading from his novel Open City at the National Museum at the time the attack on the mall begins:

During the reading, as word of the attack filtered in, people answered their phones and checked their messages, but, onstage and oblivious, I continued taking questions from the audience

**

Here, then, I have pulled together most of the tweets Cole posted in recent days for your consideration, in the order in which he posted them… Together, they offer us a very different way to encounter tragic events from those presented by journalists or analysts.

.
Nature has entered the picture: next up will be death — the death of his poet colleague and friend, described first obliquely in the poet’s own words:

.
Then comes the first of two tweets in which Cole judiciously balances the tragically human and blithely natural worlds, including in his tweet a short soundscape in which those voices are woven together in counterpoint:

.

This one is grim — suitable, or a bit overstated, with its echo of the Holocaust? — a question best left to individual taste, perhaps:

.
And then his second polyphonic melding of sounds natural and human-made, joyous and terrifying:

.
He returns to his friend’s death…

.
And then again to birdsong, to the natural world, to the world in which the events of the past days are framed…

**

There is something powerfully moving about Cole’s tweeted reflections, and I believe they take their impact from the precision with which Cole himself frames and balances the horror with beauty.

Just today, my friend Jessie Daniels posted a tweet that caught my eye:

Teju Cole has gone from a tweet to a blog post on the New Yorker site in a matter of days. Here’s just a brief taster:

The massacre did not end neatly. It became a siege. In my hotel room, about half a mile from the mall, I was woken in the mornings that followed by the sounds of gunfire, heavy artillery, attack helicopters, and military planes. In counterpoint to these frightening sounds were others: incessant birdsong outside my window, the laughter of children from the daycare next door. I read Awoonor’s poems, and watched a column of black smoke rise from the mall in the distance. The poems’ uncanny prophetic force became inescapable. A section of “Hymn to My Dumb Earth” reads:

What has not happened before?
An animal has caught me,
it has me in its claws
Someone, someone, save
Save me, someone,
for I die.

.
But you should really read the whole thing: Letter from Nairobi: “I will say it before death comes”.

Nairobi tweets 2: Sun Tzu and more

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — further hints from the HSM Press twitter stream, following on from part 1 on bullet-proofing ]


Update:


As of Monday morning 11am California time:

I now think it’s clear that the twitter stream I was commenting on in this post and the first in the series was not an official Shabaab feed, and thus untrustworthy as to its statements — although it’s exact status (fan, mimic, troll, loosely connected?) is undetermined.

I am leaving the post up (a) for the record, and (b) for whatever minor interest it may still have.


Original post:


.

Okay, let’s pick up the thread from my earlier post in this series with this sheer poetry — sheer Anglo-Chinese poetry in fact, the poetry of Sun Tzu from The Art of War — Chapter 7, “Maneuvering”, # 19 in the Lionel Giles translation.

I won’t be presenting the rest of these tweets in graphical form, since that would be labor intensive and I’m trying to be conservative about my labor, but there’s one more Sun Tzu quote I noticed in their stream, and we’ll come to it.

In the meantime, HSM Press tweeted on a variety of topics, all of which seem relevant to them:

**

Let’s note first the importance given to prayer in these tweets:

  • our mujahideen just prayed salat dhuhr! #westgate #alshabaab #Nairobi
  • our mujahideen are preparing to pray salat maghrib! #westgate #AlShabaab #Nairobi
  • The Qur’an is cited:

  • and kill them wherever you find them! ring a bell? #westgate #AlShabaab
  • Their Islam is a religion of peace —

  • yes islam is a religion of peace! thats undebatable. the debate here is who hit first? #westgate #AlShabaab
  • dont blame islam! islam never told you wage war on another country! #westgate
  • — but peace comes arms-in-arms with justice.

    There are matters of logistics:

  • we tweeted arrival of 2 squads and they are replacing our first two now. hooo-ah! #Westgate
  • update: our third mujahideen squad just crossed the border, enroute to #garisa and other undisclosed locations. #Westgate #AlShabaab
  • update: 4th mujahideen squad rendezvous to undisclosed location! brace yourselves #kenya #westgate #AlShabaab
  • Here’s that other Sun Tzu quote, along with a mention of training camps:

  • the first thing they taught us in training camps: know your enemy! #AlShabaab #Westgate
  • and there, making a fine DoubleQuote, is Margaret Atwood‘s nifty variant on Clausewitz:

  • “War is what happens when language fails.” #westgate @nairobi
  • Now, about those “training camps”?

  • have we mentioned we trained in this same building months ago! our mujahideen know every corner of this building! #alshabaab #westgate
  • But also:

  • our mujahideen are all under 25 years old. 7 of them having completed training in black water facility in north california! #Westgate
  • So they train with Blackwater / Academi and in situ, eh? And they’re all under 25 — when they started naming namesa bit later, they identified at least one 27 year old, but you get the drift — and at least one is a young woman:

  • our female combatant took out 15 kenyan soldier! what an amazing woman! #Westgate
  • They count the cost — though unlike AQC in the case of 9/11, they don’t do so to show what a huge ROI they have, just to be glad it wasn’t a flop:

  • the vast amount of time, money and dedication we contributed to this operation were glad it was carried successfully! #westgate #AlShabaab
  • They call it an op here, but their view of its size and importance is pretty flexible as to scale…

    It’s a game – the “war as game meme” once again!:

  • lets see how yall enjoy this game! #westgate #alshabaab #Nairobi
  • They also call it a war:

  • this is a war and its not going to end well. #westgate #AlShabaab
  • It’s not a Jihad, though:

  • #JIHAD is a big word to use for this drill. #kneyans you will know when jihad is happening its unevitable! #westgate #AlShabaab
  • It’s gonna get worse:

  • you call few hundred death a deadly attack. well see what a deadly attack is. brace yourselves #lenya #westgate #AlShabaab
  • — and hey, it looks as though they have their eye on S Africa as a target further down the road:

  • #southafrica gere we come!!! #Westgate
  • **

    Those are the tweets I found interesting on a first read. HSM followed up with the names and home cities of three American participants, and then their feed was suspended and I was invited to return to my home timeline…

    Credit goes to JM Berger for getting Twitter to be a whole lot quicker in disabling their feeds, but it’s all a bit whack-a-mole, and I suspect they’re probably back up by now, under some variant name or other.

    Ancestral voices prophesying war

    Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — “And ‘midst this tumult Kubla heard from afar, Ancestral voices prophesying war!” ]
    .

    At 36 minutes and 12 seconds, this video of Bob Dylan‘s Masters of War slowed down “800%” — i.e. to eight times its normal length — may or may not be something you find time for.

    It’s eeeeerie, I can tell you that much. And I’m not the only one to post it either — Wired featured it in their birthday greeting to Dylan last year.

    If you have the meditative patience for Tibetan chanting, you might want to give Dylan at 1/8th speed a try.

    **

    Sources:

  • Coleridge, Kubla Khan
  • Dylan, Masters of War, eight versions…
  • Enduring peace

    Monday, April 1st, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — on peace in Northern Ireland, soldiers and Christ ]
    .

    The upper image is of the celebrated “Shroud of Turin” — in which it is thought by some that Jesus was wrapped to be buried, leaving a negative image of his features on its linen. Below it, the image of “a British soldier behind a bullet-resistant riot shield in Northern Ireland in 1973, during the Troubles” which heads an article by the novelist Colum McCann in today’s NY Times magazine, Remembering an Easter Miracle in Northern Ireland.

    McCann writes:

    PEACE, said W. B. Yeats, comes dropping slow.

    After 15 years, the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland still occasionally quivers, sometimes abruptly, and yet it holds. It is one of the great stories of the second half of the 20th century, and by the nature of its refusal to topple, it is one of the continuing marvels of the 21st as well. While rockets fizzle across the Israeli border, and funeral chants sound along the streets of Aleppo in Syria, and drones cut coordinates in the blue over Kandahar, Afghanistan, the Irish peace process reaffirms the possibility that — despite the weight of evidence against human nature — we are all still capable of small moments of resurrection, no matter where we happen to be.

    This is the Easter narrative: that the stone can be rolled away from the cave.

    Hundred of years of arterial bitterness, in Ireland and elsewhere, are never easy to ignore. They cannot be whisked away with a series of signatures. It takes time and struggle to maintain even the remotest sense of calm. Peace is indeed harder than war, and its constant fragility is part of its beauty. A bullet need happen only once, but for peace to work we need to be reminded of its existence again and again and again.

    In the twinned images above, we see the crucifixion and burial of Christ, commemorated on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and their analog in the lives we ourselves live, in a world whose body is blooded with strife and buried in the many forms of forgetfulness and denial.

    Here we should recall Wilfred Owen’s words — seeing in the soldier before him, Christ:

    For 14 hours yesterday, I was at work-teaching Christ to lift his cross by the numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirst until after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb, and stands before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.

    In McCann’s piece we may find a modern type and hope of resurrection:

    This is the Easter narrative: that the stone can be rolled away from the cave.

    **

    Image sources:

    Turin Shroud
    British soldier

    h/t @caidid

    Recruitment, poetry and tears

    Thursday, January 31st, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — Hegghammer on testing and trusting as precursors to AQ recuitment ]
    .

    I’ve been having trouble finding any of the anasheed Ibn Siqilli was posting on his site, many of which have been taken down — but this one, found in a comment of his on Leah Farrall‘s site, has somehow survived:

    Craftsmanship in search of emotion, in service to the jihad.

    Thomas Hegghammer has a fascinating article out titled The recruiter’s dilemma: Signalling and rebel recruitment tactics from which I’ll only tease you with the bits of special interest to me, viz those that speak to religion (roughly, scripture and ritual), and culture (narrative, music and poetry).

    **

    First, matters clearly involving religious piety and its expressions:

    At the same time, personal piety at the time of recruitment was certainly a necessary condition for joining. Failure to observe any of the basic rituals or engaging in sinful behaviour – by skipping prayers, smoking, or watching Hollywood films – would have constituted a very negative sign. Moreover, even at the far end of the piety spectrum there were small signs that distinguished the extremely pious from the very pious. These signs were not in material objects such as clothes, but rather in body language and habits. QAP martyrdom biographies would highlight the piety of some but not of others, which suggests some variation. Judging from texts and videos, the behaviours that were appreciated included reading the Qur’an at every available spare moment, weeping while reciting the Qur’an, frequent minor pilgrimages (umra) to Mecca, efforts to acquire religious knowledge, etc. However, to observe these signs, recruiters needed to already be in direct contact with the recruit.

    Piety, however, was not enough. Recruiters would also need to see signs of ideological commitment of a more political nature, in particular approval of violent activism.

    Particularly interesting to me here is the sentence, These signs were not in material objects such as clothes, but rather in body language and habits.

    **

    And then, culture…

    To find out whether a person had really been abroad for jihad, recruiters would solicit signs of jihad experience, either by engaging the recruit in conversation, or if in a larger group, steer the conversation toward the topic of foreign jihad fronts. They would presumably look for displays of three types of knowledge, the combination of which would be very hard to acquire for a person who had not been to any of the major battlefronts.

    The first was knowledge of people, places and events specific to the conflict in which the recruit claimed to have taken part. [ more … ]

    The second type of distinctive knowledge was weapons expertise. [ more … ]

    The third type was familiarity with ‘jihad culture’, a set of peculiar practices and artistic expressions that emerged in the Arab Afghan community in the 1980s and developed in subsequent jihad fronts. One important component was anashid, battle hymns sung a capella during training and socializing. A similar component was poetry. Arab fighters in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya would continuously compose new poems and recite them in the camps. Veterans would be familiar with at least part of this material and would share it during social gatherings in the kingdom. Yet another aspect of jihad culture was the telling of war stories from the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors. While some of these stories were part of the basic religious education of most Saudis, it required extra effort to learn many or all of them, and to be able to cite them verbatim, as custom required. In the training camps and the trenches, such stories were told all the time (Nasiri, 2006), so jihad veterans typically knew many more such stories than the average Saudi.

    Of course, non-veterans could acquire some of this knowledge if they wanted to, but to mimic jihad experience, impostors would need to emit large and consistent clusters of correct signs – a considerable challenge.

    I’m reminded of Abdullah Azzam‘s book The signs of Ar-Rahmaan in the Jihad of Afghanistan, which I quoted in an earlier post Of war and miracle: the poetics, spirituality and narratives of jihad.

    **

    Here’s how bad we are at learning the local mores of the various war zones we keep dropping in on, in the words of FPRI’s Adam Garfinkle, in Mali: Understanding the Chessboard, posted recently:

    As the article says, when the Tuareg rebellion in Mali gained steam after the denouement of the Libya caper, greatly stimulated by the return of heavily armed Tuareg brethren from that fight, these three Tuareg commanders defected to the rebels, bringing soldiers, vehicles, ammunition and more to the anti-government side. Anyone who was surprised by this is at the very least a terminal ignoramus. And anyone in the U.S. military who failed to understand the ethnic composition of the country’s politico-military cleavages, such that he let U.S. Special Forces training be lavished on Tuareg commanders, was clearly insufficiently trained to do his job. And believe me, that’s about as nice a way to put that as I can summon.

    How do things like this (still) happen, after what we should have learned from years of dealing with Iraqis and Afghans and others on their home turf? I happen to know someone who teaches in the U.S. military education system, and this person happens to be a field-experienced Harvard Ph.D. in anthropology. This person tries very hard to clear away the thick fog created by the innocent Enlightenment universalism that pervades the American mind—the toxic fog that tries to convince us that all people, everywhere, are basically the same, have the same value hierarchies, the same habits of moral and tactical judgment, and mean the same things by roughly comparable translated words.

    Now imagine how good we’d be at infiltration, getting the anasheed, poetry and stories right…


    Switch to our mobile site