Tuesday, August 11, 2009

September 11


On this fifth anniversary of the September 11th attacks I’m posting something I wrote in the aftermath. One of the people mentioned is Naguib Mahfouz, who died just a couple of weeks ago.

October 8, 2001

Ever since September 11 I have been thinking about writing to those teachers from Egypt who came to Meadowcreek in the late 1990s. The letter would be a general expression of friendship, goodwill. Maybe I would include the line from Auden's "September 1, 1939:" "We must love one another or we must die." I would have to avoid saying anything contentious: one of the things I remember about the Egyptian teachers was how eager they were to recount for me Egypt's military exploits against Israel. Furthermore, I read recently that anti-Israeli feeling in Egypt is still very high, despite the treaty between Sadat and Begin. So I would just say something like, "What happened September 11 had made all of us very sad and has made me realize the importance of maintaining friendships and good will across national boundaries." Leave it at that.

Thinking about the Egyptians reminded me of Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for literature. I happen to have a copy of the Georgia Review that included profiles of all living Nobel laureates in literature, plus their acceptance speeches. I looked up Mahfouz's speech.

He ends his lecture with these stirring words:

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In spite of all what goes on around us I am committed to optimism until the end. I do not say with Kant that Good will be victorious in the other world. Good is achieving victory every day. It may even be that Evil is weaker than we imagine. In front of us is an indelible proof: were it not for the fact that victory is always on the side of Good, hordes of wandering humans would not have been able in the face of beasts and insects, natural disasters, fear and egotism, to grow and multiply. They would not have been able to form nations, to excel in creativeness and invention, to conquer outer space, and to declare Human Rights. The truth of the matter is that Evil is a loud and boisterous debaucher, and that Man remembers what hurts more than what pleases. Our great poet Abul-'Alaa' Al-Ma'ari was right when he said:

A grief at the hour of death
Is more than a hundred-fold
Joy at the hour of birth.

Further back, he invokes Alfred Nobel:

I beg your pardon, ladies and gentlemen, I feel I may have somewhat troubled your calm. But what do you expect from one coming from the Third World? Is not every vessel colored by what it contains? Besides, where can the moans of Mankind find a place to resound if not in your oasis of civilization planted by its great founder for the service of science, literature and sublime human values? And as he did one day by consecrating his riches to the service of good, in the hope of obtaining forgiveness, we, children of the Third World, demand of the able ones, the civilized ones, to follow his example, to imbibe his conduct, to meditate upon his vision.

I was reading all this and thinking about it, feeling stirred, but also troubled, because we are at war. I had put on the soundtrack from the film Glory. Maybe that music is a bit on the treacly side - the Harlem Boys' choir, timpani, bells, crescendos calculated to give you chills - but I don't care. I love the story of the 54th Massachusets, fighting on the side of right in a just war, embodying the cause itself. In his poem "For the Union Dead," Robert Lowell examines St. Gaudens' monument to Colonel Shaw and his black soldiers, contrasting their heroism with the venality of contemporary Boston: "Their monument sticks like a fishbone / in the city's throat." I hope that our current fight remains true to that kind of heroism, that we make a point of fighting for more than just economic prosperity and our own safety. It hope it will be possible for this to be a war of liberation. That's part of what I was thinking about, and the music from the film, stirring as it is, made it easy for me to think that way. But it didn't shake me out of my fear, the helpless fear so many of us are trying to keep at bay every moment of the day: Will my children have a chance to live? This is a fear that hangs over all other thoughts, a cloud of dread, a suffocator of hope.

I was so preoccupied with these fretful thoughts that I didn't notice that my daughter Josie, who is almost three years old, had decided to style my hair. She was standing behind me on the sofa with a tiny comb and brush, her little body leaning against my back. Josie knows that part of being a hair stylist is getting to tell the customer which way to turn his head. So she started giving me instructions, in her softest, gentlest voice. Without knowing it, she led me on a tour of every evocative thing in my field of vision.

"Look at the trees."

I looked out the window at the trees. She combed.

"Now look at the grass."

I looked out the window at the grass.

"Now look at the mailbox."

I looked at the mailbox.

"Now look at the books"

I looked toward the bookshelves.

"Now look at the pictures."

I looked at the pictures of our parents.

"Now look at the clock."

I looked at the clock.

"Now look at the candle."

I looked at the candle.

"Now look at the light."

I looked at the light, feeling more under the care of a loving God and better able to go confidently into the dark unknown of the days ahead than I have felt in a long time.

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