Monday, October 19, 2009

'Give Back the Human'

. . .What kind of weapon impedes the soul/ from its soaring?. . .
    ~ from "The Tragedy of Narcissus" by Mahmoud Darwish


Give Back the Human

Give back my father, give back my mother;
Give grandpa back, grandma back;
Give me my sons and daughters back.
Give me back myself.
Give me back the human race.
As long as this life lasts, this life,
Give back peace
That will never end.
        ~ Toge Sankichi

"Give Back the Human" is a beautiful, elegiac poem I read in translation for the first time a few nights ago. I found it entirely serendipitously, the result of my endless curiosity to find out what lies behind the name of a Website.

The poem is carved in Japanese and English on the front and back, respectively, of a monument in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park to the peace movement leader and Japanese poet Toge Sankichi. Sankichi, at his home in Midorimachi three kilometers from the hypocenter, survived the dropping of "Little Boy" on Hiroshima in 1945; he died in 1957, age 36, from the leukemia that multiplied uncontrollably in his body as a direct result of exposure to atomic bomb radiation.

Reading this fragment stopped me cold.

You see, this poem is as relevant today as the moment Sankichi wrote it. It is no longer just about what happened in Hiroshima.

For me, it is about what happened today in Afghanistan, yesterday in Uganda and Rwanda, two days ago in Iran, last week along the border of Pakistan, a month or so ago in North Korea, years now past in a stone prison called Abu Ghraib, before that on a bridge in Fallujah, Iraq, before that in a meeting room where a vice president of the United States spoke so persuasively for torture, the word he would not utter publicly; decades ago when a spray of napalm sent a child, naked, arms held out at her sides, screaming down a highway in Vietnam.


Poet Darwish asks, ". . . What kind of weapon impedes the soul / from its soaring? . . ."

On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 in the morning, the streets filled with schoolchildren and mothers and fathers on their way to work, the weapon was a pica don — Japanese for, literally, a "flash-bang": what, at some 500, maybe 600 meters above ground, an observer of atomic testing in Nevada only the month before had described as "brighter than a thousand suns".

A sun of death.

It left a skeleton upright in a barber's chair, dead babies on mothers' backs, a child nursing at the breast where no breath exhaled, only an outline of a person, such as is drawn when an accident happens.

In Japan that morning that began serenely, the next weapon was fire, which at its center burned 5,400 - 7,200 degrees Farenheit. Those unsuspecting enough, who failed to take cover within a radius of 2.8 miles of the hypocenter, suffered severe flash burns; anyone unlucky enough to be in a wooden structure within 1.2 miles of the center's blast, obliterated.

In supreme irony, it later began to rain that day in Hiroshima, and for those whose throats were more than parched, whose bodies had turned coal black from being on fire, whose forearms and hands, out and raised to protect the eyes, took the brunt of flash-burning that left skin hanging, the rain had seemed a blessing. Water, after all, is elemental. This blessing, this kuroi ame was, however, black, and it left black streaks on walls, and on what clothing remained on Japanese backs, and because it was so elemental and therefore drunk, it piled radioactive debris on the insides. Debris that later made itself known to its ingestors in the form of nausea, bloody vomit, hair loss, inexplicable red bruises, nose bleeds. . . . cancers for years in the future.

That same day that "Little Boy" was delivered, some two dozen American POWs were in prison somewhere in Hiroshima. Theirs, too, was an unspeakable fate, rendered by the dead who survived.


In the Northern Hemisphere, in places like Guadalupe, Mexico, in some places in Central America, and in the U.S., in Mesa, Arizona, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, for example, "el dia de los muertos" — "the Day of the Dead" — is celebrated. Hundreds of years ago, the Americas' Spanish (and Catholic) conquerors, believing death to be an end to life, appalled by the ritual practice of indigenous people, who saw death as rebirth and thus continuation of life, first tried conversion. Failing to fully exorcise the Aztec spirits, the Spanish, giving in, ultimately moved the date, making the Day of the Dead coincide with our All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, November 1 and 2, respectively. Today, in rural Mexico it is not uncommon on "el dia de los muertos" for celebrants to enjoy picnics on loved ones' gravesites, or, in homes in the U.S., for ritual observers to light candles and transform a room into an altar to the dead, complete with flowers, music, a departed loved one's favorite foods. More recently, some altars are dedicated to the memories of family members who, given to dreaming, died while being smuggled across the Mexican-U.S. border.

Did you know that Japan also observes an All Souls' Day? There, the observance falls either in mid-July or mid-August, depending on whether the lunar or solar calendar is followed. Celebrants first welcome back their lost loved ones with folk dances and then "see them off" again in the evening by letting loose on rivers or other bodies of water floating paper lanterns, their insides lit by candles, their exteriors painted with pictures or words. The words are prayers for the souls of the dead. They are prayers for peace set loose on rivers that in 1945 had filled with the bodies of ghost-souls, arms upraised to heaven. As if heaven had the answer.


The poet Darwish asks, ". . . What kind of weapon impedes the soul / from soaring?. . ."

Today's weapon is 23,000 nuclear bombs more than the one needed to spell our end. Improvised explosive devices that cut armored vehicles in shreds and leave remains of human beings untraceable. Cars that won't stop at checkpoints because, being killing machines, they're not made to drive. Children wearing belts that when pulled on just right light up a cafe in Tel Aviv. A truck filled with fertilizer guaranteed to take off the front of an office building in Oklahoma where children are at play in daycare. A fully fueled plane sent into first one, then another tower in New York City. A man with cancer given a hero's welcome in Libya, having succeeded in freeing himself from the bonds of those to whom he gave no second thought.

Today's weapon is the lie we accept in the name of our peace and security, wrung out of terrorists who know to play the game until they're waterboarded for the 300th time.

Today's weapon is below ground on our subways in England and Japan, shooting at us as we stand, waiting, at a bus stop, walking through the door of an Indian hotel or along the platform of a train station, addressing us in videos made in caves, photographing us with cell phones that pinpoint the time of day we're on a street in Tehran demanding our rights, taxi-ing on a fake license through a tunnel in New York, opening fire on us in a Baptist church for espousing a view not our own.


Give me back myself.

Give me back the human race.


Following are some sites that may interest you:

* Mahmoud Darwish, "The Tragedy of Narcissus The Comedy of Silver",  Translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah (Copyright 2009 by Fady Joudah), from Darwish's If I Were Another: Words Without Borders

* No Nuke Network: Students of Hiroshima Against Nuclear Weapons

* "Ground Zero 1945: A Schoolboy's Story, A First-Hand Account by Hiroshima Survivor Akihiro Takahashi ("I gazed at the rain and wondered if black rain had ever fallen before on this Earth.")

* El Dia de los Muertos: and

* "Day of the Dead History: Indigenous People Wouldn't Let 'Day of the Dead' Die" by Carlos Miller, The Arizona Republic

* James Nachtwey's Searing Pictures of War (Nachtwey is a 2007 Ted Prize winner.)


L.L. Barkat said...

Quietly here.

Thinking about my Littlest Child's favorite lines from an old song... how many times...

I tell you, I love my humanity. And I don't. Because we are contradiction... beautiful love, terrible destruction.

M.L. Gallagher said...

And this is a beautiful, elegiac essay.

Thank you.

"Give me back peace
that will never end."

Balm for the soul

Michelle said...

Such a powerful piece. I am in a state of shocked silence, pools of tears in my eyes as my soul bleeds for humanity.
You have an incredible voice. Thank you for sharing it with us.


Kathleen Overby said...

This passionate creatively rebellious big voice of yours is resounding, echoing, re-echoing Red. Blue. Black. And Blue, again. Perhaps your finest piece ever?

Hayley Solich (aka WomenCan & The I Can Woman) said...

I find this whole part of our history, in fact every genocide unfathomable. I remember crying my eyes out through Hotel Rwanda and Shooting Dogs, but I think if they actually made a film about Hiroshima the nations would weep at the incredible cruelty.

Thank you for sharing, Maureen. We must stop these attrocities.