Salvaging The Wreckage


The Likud election results. Attacks on Israelis in Kenya. More Palestinians dead in Gaza. President Bush saber rattling about Iraq. Our unquenchable thirst for oil poisoning Spain’s beaches and sea birds. Israeli soldiers killing UN officials and getting away with it. The largest US defense budget in history passes with little protest. Henry Kissinger and Elliott Abrams, criminals from years past, return to public office. The world is spinning towards war, hatred, chaos and uncertainty.

Surveying the Reuters and UPI headlines, I’m overcome by an itch to write an Op Ed. One draft lies crumbled on the floor, and a second fizzles out as I realize: I already wrote this last April. I may as well recycle Op Eds, since the need to implement international law, UN resolutions, the Geneva Conventions, and some much-needed common sense is even more urgent now than it was last spring.

But re-running facile Op Eds is more Thomas Friedman’s department than mine, and the fact that crises of all kinds are looming while attempts to critique, warn, argue, and persuade are having little impact makes me wonder if the problems besetting us do not lie deeper than the surfaces of the average 700-word Op Ed.

For the past week, lines from a poem I last read as a teenager in the late 1970s have been resurfacing in my mind. The poem is Adrienne Rich’s masterpiece “Diving into the Wreck.” I could not remember all the stanzas, so I looked up the entire poem and quickly realized it is as relevant to the situation now confronting human rights activists and concerned citizens alarmed at the multiple disasters threatening the Middle East, from Israel/Palestine to Central Asia, as it was to the leaders of the feminist movement in the 1970s, who saw their revolutionary tasks and challenges symbolically rendered in its elegantly crafted lines:

Diving Into the Wreck (abridged)

First having read the book of myths, and loaded the camera, and checked the edge of the knife-blade, I put on the body-armor of black rubber the absurd flippers the grave and awkward mask. I am having to do this not like Cousteau with his assiduous team aboard the sun-flooded schooner but here alone.

There is a ladder. The ladder is always there hanging innocently close to the side of the schooner. We know what it is for, we who have used it….

I go down. Rung after rung and still the oxygen immerses me the blue light the clear atoms of our human air….

First the air is blue and then it is bluer and then green and then black I am blacking out and yet my mask is powerful it pumps my blood with power the sea is another story the sea is not a question of power I have to learn alone to turn my body without force in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget what I came for…. you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck. The words are purposes. The words are maps. I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail. I stroke the beam of my lamp slowly along the flank of something more permanent than fish or weed

the thing I came for: the wreck and not the story of the wreck the thing itself and not the myth the drowned face always staring toward the sun the evidence of damage worn by salt and away into this threadbare beauty the ribs of the disaster curving their assertion among the tentative haunters.

This is the place. And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair streams black, the merman in his armored body. We circle silently about the wreck we dive into the hold. I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes whose breasts still bear the stress whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies obscurely inside barrels half-wedged and left to rot we are the half-destroyed instruments that once held to a course the water-eaten log the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are by cowardice or courage the one who find our way back to this scene carrying a knife, a camera a book of myths in which our names do not appear.

– Adrienne Rich*

We are now living in a wreck–all of us, from Washington, DC, to the refugee camps of Beirut and Gaza, to the bombed out villages of Afghanistan, to the windswept coasts of California, to the suburbs of Tel Aviv. In the last few years, the world has come to represent a submerged disaster, drifting aimlessly beneath the waves of history, economy, and politics, devoid of leadership, vision, justice, or compassion. Our world, this wreck, is a huge, complex, and injured, yet precious thing; its parts are deteriorating, but still interconnected in ways we cannot know unless we investigate, diving deeper, directing our flashlights into the hull.

Most people are not willing to use that ladder (“always there, hanging innocently at the side of the schooner”) to descend to the depths; most of us in North America can still afford to ignore or deny what lurks beneath and around us. So many of us put off facing the wreck another day, another week–maybe even another year. And the evening news and televised prattle helps us to delay the inevitable, distracting our attention from the dark injustices spreading like a toxic slick beneath the not-so-calm surfaces of our daily lives.

Yet the wreck awaits us. But as Rich promises us, it contains not only horrors, but treasures, too. It may contain the maps and navigation instruments with which we can salvage our future and chart a new course. This is what she is diving so deeply to find:

“the wreck and not the story of the wreck the thing itself and not the myth…”

This is what is missing in North American media, debates, and polemics about the state of the world. This is why it seems so futile to write another Op Ed. We are too often talking around, above, beside, and in denial of the wreck. Another polemical analysis is not what is called for, now that we have reached such dire straits.

Rich’s poem bluntly names what is needed: the courage and the willingness to go see for oneself what the real story is, to take that risk, make that dive, to cut away the myths and see what lies beneath, to come to grips with what brought us to the scene of this disaster.

Where the Middle East and its increasingly lethal conflicts are concerned, diving into the wreck and getting past the myths brings us face to face with some shocking–yet freeing– truths. We might find also find the treasures, the keys, the old water-logged maps to help us get out of the wreck that the region has become, but not unless we go there. And it probably will not be an easy dive.

Living in Beirut for five years, teaching college students who had spent more time in bomb shelters than in libraries, and getting to know the situation in the refugee camps at first hand, I knew I was living in a wreck. It could not be denied. Everyday I maneuvered through a post-war society peopled by men, women, and children scarred visibly and invisibly by cruelty, violence, death, betrayal, injustice, and neglect.

Sometimes it was hard to breathe thinking of the extent and depth of the damage done to so many people for so many years. It was overwhelming to imagine what would be required to begin healing that wounded country. It felt like being deep under water.

When I first moved to Lebanon in 1993, I had nightmares of tanks ramming our apartment, bombs falling in the garden, bodies rotting in the street. All of these things had, as it turned out, happened in that neighborhood of East Beirut where we first lived. My neighbor Francine told me her war stories as we sat on the roof of our building watching the sunset. Lighting cigarette after cigarette, she related her shock– which had not yet subsided nearly two decades later–of seeing Phalangist militia men dragging bodies of Palestinian refugees killed in Dbaye camp to be burned in a bonfire in the parking lot of the supermarket where I shopped each week for my groceries.

She related that the Christian militamen checked to see which of the corpses had been circumcised. These were assumed to be Muslims, and into the fire they went. Christian corpses, Francine surmised, must have gotten the “honor” of a mass grave burial, maybe not far from our apartment building.

One day she described the smell of smoke, garbage, and rotting bodies wafting through the streets on a hot summer evening. She reached out, lightly scratched the back of my hand with her polished fingernails and said, “That is how deep civilization is, that is how thick. Scratch just a little and it comes right off. Once you know that, it’s hard to function anymore!”

But Francine did function–wonderfully. She was funny, thoughtful, kind, and lively. She was a great hostess, a devoted mother and a loving wife. And she helped me descend into the wreck that was Beirut and survive some of the knowledge that I found there, as did so many other women like her whom I came to know, love, and respect during my years in Lebanon.

Diving down to the depths of human experience, plunged there by a war they had not chosen, they had survived and come back up to the surface clutching some very precious jewels in their hands: they knew of the dangers of hatred, the perils of dehumanizing the other, preaching ideological purity, and excusing murder. They knew how absurd it was that a group of people could actually believe–no, even act upon–the bizarre belief that their religion/ethnicity/political party entitled them to kill anyone who was not like them or who did not fit into a set of neatly labeled boxes. They would have had no patience for such concepts as “axes of evil.”

These brave women had learned the Big Secret, which Osama Bin Laden, George Bush, Jr., and Ariel Sharon do not want you to know: There are no Jews, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, Israelis, or Americans in this world. There are only human beings. They cannot be boxed in, excluded out, extra-judicially killed, illegally imprisoned, economically disenfranchised, collectively deported, silently tortured, or buried in mass graves without risking a further, perhaps permanent, descent into that wreck where all of us now live.

What one salvages from long visits to the wreck, from looking at it with courage and honesty, as my wise women friends in Beirut have done, is a deep awareness that there is no “us” and “them.” Underwater, there are no borders or fences. Everything flows together: hope, horror, memory, dreams, fear and wonder.

We are in the wreck together; we are in danger of drowning in the same sea, in need of the same oxygen of justice, sense, decency, compassion, and dignity, and threatened by the same dangers: fundamentalist ideologies of all sorts–nationalist and religious alike; the insidious belief that some lives are cheap, others are worthy; and the delusion that military might and coercive force will deliver us from the disaster that is–sadly–already in progress.

* From Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 by Adrienne Rich. Copyright (c) 1973 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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