Zoe Artemis - ESSAYS

POETRY WITHOUT BORDERS:Another View of the People's Poetry Gathering


There was politics, poetry and performance art aplenty at the People's Poetry Gathering; for me, the non-political poetry was the highlight of the program.

Not to minimize the horrific treatement of the Gypsies throughout the world or the value of contributions of people like Paul Polansky, a man who writes with such urgency in 'Not A Refugee,' wherein Polansky writes about the experiences of the Kosovo Roma, the Gypsies, after the 1999 war.

During the Kosovo war the Romas struggled to survive the crossfire between the Serbian and Albanians and NATO. The KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) accused the Gypsies of spying and collaborating with the Serbs though Polansky asserts there was no evidence to support this. Paul Polansky was living in a Gypsy Refugee Camp in Kosovo. He was sent there by People In Need, a humanitarian organization in Prague.

Paul thought his job would to advise the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on the Roma. But the UNHCR and the British Forces of NATO asked him to spy on the Gypsies in the camp to see if there were any guns or grenades in their tents. Paul said he didn't find any, only depressed, abandoned people, victims of the Serbs, Albanians, NATO and the UNHCR.

Romany culture is probably the most Indo-European of all cultures in the European matrix. Gypsies migrated from India about l,000 years ago, caravaning to Persia, the Middle East, Turkey, Spain, the Mediterranean and Europe. As for the Roma of Kosovo, they are the most unique Gypsies in Europe. Many have retained their original Hindi language and also the caste system they brought with them from India.

The Roma have been in Kosovo for 700 years, the men primarily working in the mines. In June of 1999 there were 19,000 Romany households and by September of that year there were 4,000 homes left. During the NATO bombing of Kosovo most of the civilians that were killed were Gypsies. The triumphant Albanians killed, tortured, raped and burned down the houses of the Roma. The KLA were bent on wiping out the Romany population, as they were also in the business of ethnic cleansing; it has been said that their goal was to create a Greater Kosovo that would also combine Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia. During this time about 30,000 Gypsies fled for their lives, many were given two minutes to pack and leave or their entire family would be shot. Many of them went to Macedonia where refugee camps were set up, but the conditions were horrendous, no water, no milk, no shoes, hardly any clothes were offered. Those who fled to Europe were turned away and had to return to Kosovo where they faced torture and death. It is said that humanitarian organizations have been largely indifferent to the Roma, and when aid is given it goes through the Albanians for distributionm -- and the Gypsies never receive anything.

These tragedies are captured in Polansky's "Not A Refugee"in a forthright manner. Consider the following three poems:


'We're not Gypsies,the darkskinned man pleaded,
trying to save his family.
'We came from Egypt
over a thousand years ago".

'Then go back
to your pyramids.'
the KLA soldier yelled.
"Kosovo is only
for Albanians."


Gazman showed me the camp
where the Serb army
had held several thousand Gypsies
until the end of the war.

The barbed wire fence was gone.
So were the old newspapers
and flattened cardboard boxes
the people had slept on
for more than two months.

Gazman's eyes
turned away
from the field now covered
in ankle-high grass.

"It was too cold," he said,
"to remember any details,
I tried to keep a journal,
but my mind was too numb
to move the pen."


is now Kosovo's July 4th.

People parade in open-top cars
waving red Albanian flags.

Shots are fired into the air
while hand grenades are thrown
into homes where
Gypsies still live.

Independence Day fireworks
in Kosovo

are for real.

My love for Turkish, Greek and Spanish music with Gypsy influences knows bounds, but in contrast to Polansky's rhetoric, the charm of 'Poetry Across Borders - the Middle East in Poetry & Music' was its non-political orientation. Ammiel Alcalay, a poet, critic and scholar who teaches at Queens College read a variety of poetry from Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Algeria, Syria and Turkey. Some of the poets included: Mose Astel, Mamadosis, and Mona Saaidi. Alcalay was accompanied by Palestinian oud player Najeeb Shaheen.

In the end, this particular reading was the highlight of the entire three day event for me, precisely because it lacked political rhetoric, rage, harshness and a victimhood mentality. Instead the audience was refreshed with an array of images of lush colors, fragrances, natural landscapes and rustic elegance. The thread that ran throughout the poems was a constant longing for beauty, tenderness, kindness, love, God, and a deep respect for nature.

The suggestion here? That in spite of hardships, poverty and wars the average Middle Easterner maintains faith and commitment to daily rituals. They seldom withdraw into a western despair, because they see the larger picture, putting aside ego, transcending the material world in order to vibrate at a higher plane, while remaining grounded to the earth. As one Syrian poet put it "we accept the hovering cloud, like a slave accepts his chain." Their hearts may be broken, they may have been dealt some difficult cards, but they are not bitter, instead forgiving, not sentimental, but poignant.

By way of example, here are two poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), translated by Naomi Lazard.


Before you came things were just what they were;
the road precisely a road, the horizon fixed,
the limit of what could be seen,
a glass of wine no more than a glass of wine.

With you the world took on the spectrum
radiating from my heart: your eyes gold
as they open to me, slate the colour
that fall each time I lose all hope.

With your advent roses burst into flame:
you were the artist of dried-up leaves, sorceress
who flicked her wrist to change dust into soot.
You lacquered the night black.

As for the sky, the road, the cup of wine:
one was my tear-drenched shirt,
the other an aching nerve,
the third a mirror that never reflected the same thing.

Now you are here again - stay with me.
This time things will fall into place;
the road can be the road
the sky nothing but the sky;
the glass of wine, as it should be, the glass of wine.


This is the way that autumn came to the trees:
it stripped them down to the skin,
left their ebony bodies naked.
It shook out their hearts, the yellow leaves,
scattered them over the ground.
Anyone could trample them out of shape
undisturbed by a single moan of protest.

The birds that herald dreams
were exiled from their song,
each voice torn out of its throat.
They dropped into the dust
even before the hunter strung his bow.

Oh, God of May have mercy.
Bless these withered bodies
with the passion of your resurrection;
make their dead veins flow with blood again.

Give some tree the gift of green again.
Let one bird sing.

It is interesting to note that Faiz' work focuses on human emotional issues despite his reputation as a social revolutionary, and political involvement in Urdu/Pakistani affairs that at one point led to his political imprisonment. How does he justify this transcendance? In a very real sense, Faiz' own website resolves this issue somewhat for us. Here's what the poet's web chroniclers have to say about that very issue: Faiz, having joined the people in their rebellion, and having adopted the collective cause as a poet of the revolution, made the transformation of the individual human being and his passage through the infinite variety of situations and moods in this process, the subject of his poetry. He is concerned, above all, with the experience of the individual human soul in the long and arduous journey of revolutionary struggle. And yet love is the leit motif of his poetry. Faiz is one of the great lyricists who seems, from one point of view, to have sung of nothing with greater passion than love. Faiz takes Ghalib's plea for a deeply philosophical coordination of the poetic profession as his premise to refute the arguments of the aesthetes of his time for whom poetry was merely peripheral activity. But he goes further and comments that Ghalib's definition of creative vision is incomplete, because the poet is not only required to see the ocean in the drop, but also has to show it to others. That is why, apart from being a great revolutionary poet, he was a great love poet, and there was no distinction between the two, love and revolution had become identical in him.

Faiz speaks for himself to the matter as well, in an incomplete introduction he created for the website. Prison life, like love, is itself a fundamental experience which opens up a new vista of thoughts and insight he writes. The first thing is that, like the dawn of love, all the sensations are again aroused and the mistiness of the early morning and evening, the blue of the sky, the gentleness of the breeze return with the same sense of wonder.

Poems like those of Faiz and other Middle Eastern authors have the power to elevate my consciousness and allowed me to see the grace of acceptance and the simple gift of taking each day as it comes. I was swept away into a joyful state of mind and my heart opened wide because of the sweetness, tenderness and elegance of the poetry.

As Paul Bowles put it: 'the Moroccan is satisfied with his solution of the problem of life. Their complacency comes without asking questions, accepting existence as it arrives to their senses; fresh each morning seeking to understand no more than what is useful for the day. Simple living and trusting implicitly in all things and Allah. Allah meaning surrendering to a greater power."

Zoe Artemis is a Mediterranean New York Sufi, who writes, chants and gathers. She especially loves to dance. Zoe performs and teaches Romany, Near Eastern and women's ancient dances in New York and the UK. She recently did the choreography for the play: "In Praise of She, the Muse."



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