Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Courage in the Streets

"People here are actually articulating: 'They said we were divided, extreme, ignorant, fanatic--well here are: diverse, inclusive, hospitable, generous, sophisticated, creative and witty'....This enormous revolution that is happening in our streets and our homes is the Egyptian people reclaiming their state, their heritage, their voice, their personality. Be with us." Ahdaf Soueif, from "Protesters Reclaim the Spirit of Egypt," BBC News, 21/2/11

All we do here is against the backdrop of the forefront of the people's courage in the streets of Libya. In the morning after writing this, I turn on BBC news and see the flickering images of the protesters pushing forward in the darkness of night, flames lighting up the streets, the people surging forward, the sounds of gun shots, the cries of pain, history once again carried on the unarmed body against the armed state. Soueif's words makes me realize how the demonization of the Arabic collective self for so many years had become standard public discourse and how these collective dismissals of peoples is another kind of warfare, another face of tenacious colonizations, that eats into the soul, into the imagined possibilities of  peoples, of the young who must make a life out of the thin gruel of Western caricatures. I question myself--when I write about Israel and its population or about American Jews, I must never forget those who stand in opposition, the many groups formed to monitor and to intercede, to expose and announce the cruelties of the State, so effective that the Israeli government has launched a campaign to harass and eventually silence the Israeli human rights organizations in its midst. Out of the horrors of the Libyan nights of State violence, we must seize the other light, those bodies surging forward, many to their own death, demanding new air to  breath. Here in London, Libyan students climb to the balconies of the Libyan Embassy and tear down the old flag and fly a new one, unmolested by the embassy officials. How long before the UN steps in to end the killings? How long before all those States that have profited from the oil of Libya, shaking the hand of a madman, take the behind the scenes action to put an end to the suffering? Quick to embrace a dictator for profit, slow to embrace a people's dreaming, this is what makes for historical disgrace.

Last night two young women we met at the Brighton conference, one from Sydney, the other from New York, Astoria in her roots, come to our flat bearing flowers and home cooked lemon slices. We go across the street, the night soft but cold, to our Italian restaurant and talk and talk. La Professoressa has these glories of intergenerational exchanges every day because of her university life, but to me now they are the rare gifts of moving around the world. On the corner of Tavistock Place and Merchant Street, in the warmth of a neighborhood eating place, we talk of many things--the need to keep feminism alive in the romance with queerness, A. speaks of her love for the work of Adrienne Rich and I tell them stories of my encounters with the great poet, I can hear my voice, the voice of age, dusting off and offering my tales of other times, friendships that have become
historical. They lean into the table, beautiful lesbian women in their early 20s, far from homes as so many of the younger people I meet now are, working on their idea horde. A. is leaving for Sydney on the morrow, another year of separation, sadness marks their faces, but the ideas still pour forth. I think this is what is owed our young of all nations, the openness of change, of movement, of difference, freedoms of the heart and mind and good stories from a still living but more humble past.

I have tales to tell of my visit to the Treasure Room of the British Library and our visit to "Threads of Feeling," an exhibit at the Foundling Hospital, an exhibit growing out of the extreme histories of the poor women of London, prostitutes, servant girls, women who had been raped, women who brought their babies or young children to the gates of this two and half centuries old institution of social charity. From the catalog: "The charity has, from the beginning, endeavored to keep the fullest possible records of the children in its care. Its archive is consequently vast...Yet even in so large an archive it comes as a surprise to discover 5,000 small textile items dating from the middle decades of the 18th century, pinned to the registration documents that recorded the entry of each baby to the Hospital." Each child marked by a textile tag, most made by the mothers, using what scraps of fabric they had, some cut from the diaper or swaddling cloth, some mothers included a token woven into the fabric, a coin or a button, as their last touch, bits of fabric and ribbons, each different, each bearing the history of loss, of the economic realities of a woman's life and the history of the intimate relationship between textiles and human experience. Many women standing in front of the exhibits, the actual pages with the fabric tokens pinned into the corner, sometimes the ribbons falling over the hand written document, "girl, three months old," many 2011 women weeping in front of the letters of mothers explaining why so long ago in the grips of women's destitution, they had to relinquish their children: "Tommy, I will be back when I can,"; "Please keep Ruth on the breast."

When I am on the arm of my Red Head I can go any where. On Saturday night with Sue, our old friend here in London, we attended the Feminist Library Birthday Benefit, celebrating 35 years of archiving and activism--at the Round Chapel in Clapton. We met with an old friend from my 1988 trip here when Sheba Press brought out an edition of "A Restricted Country," Jean and joined the 200 plus women and men listening to women's music and readings. At the break, I was asked to address the group bringing the congratulations of the Lesbian Herstory Archives to this sister endeavor. As I moved through the packed room, women kept coming up to me, telling me of their visit to LHA in the years past, many to 13A. I had not known we had touched so many. Jean so kindly gave us a ride home through the late night streets, and as she stopped at the lights, she pointed to a bike, painted white, gleaming in the street lamp, leaning against a street railing, "that is a ghost bike, " she said, "marking where a bicyclist had died." A ghost bike, a city creating its own poetry out of its losses. Another kind of fabric.

AS I take leave of you today, and I want to thank all that read these words, my writing now is a lifeline for me, moving me beyond a failing body, I hear the news of the earthquake in New Zealand. The earth itself shaking itself loose. We send our thoughts to those suffering in what is now my part of the world, one of the parts of the world whose beauty I have been privileged to get know.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Joan. As a NZer with beloved friends and family in Christchurch, or now as refugees, in other parts of the country, thank you for your thoughts. When I read your post, I thought you might enjoy this one from Christchurch, by Cheryl Bernstein: http://cherylbernstein.blogspot.com/2011/03/song-from-under-floorboards.html. And the post after it, pointing the way to a wonderful 'long drop' site. Humour keeps everyone going, along with generosity!