Or How Reading Agha Shahid Ali Changed the Way I Write
“In the Name of the Merciful” let night begin.
I must light lamps without her – at every shrine?
God then is only the final assassin.
On a hot summer afternoon, I find out that the eighth world of Super Mario Bros. is laid out like a labyrinth. The earlier seven Bowsers that have been killed were false bowsers. The real Bowser must be found and defeated in this last world. It is almost impossible to find a way out of the dark underground with dangerous Koopa Troopas keeping a careful watch, Goombas that must be trampled upon, and a sea of lava flowing beneath – at the end of which stands the ultimate enemy. The king of the kingdom possesses immense strength, is almost indestructible, and has mastered the occult arts. He almost always conspires against Mario but in the RPG series he occasionally collaborates with Mario to defeat evil greater than himself.
“Who is god?” my grandmother reads aloud from a newspaper at a distance while peeling baby potatoes.
In the yellow time of pollen, in the blue time of lilacs,
in the green that would balance on the wide green world,
air filled with flux, world-in-a-belly
in the blue lilac weather, she had written a letter:
You came into my life really fast and I liked it.
When we let go the basket of the good-luck birds
the sky erupted open in the hail of its libation;
there was a gap and we entered it gladly. Indeed the birds
may have broken the sky and we, soaked, squelched
in the mud of our joy, braided with wet-thighed surrender.
In the yellow time of pollen near the blue time of lilacs
there was a gap in things. And here we are.
The sparrows flew away so fast a camera could not catch them.
The monkey swung between our arms and said I am, hooray,
the monkey of all events, the great gibbon of convergences.
— from “Totem Poem” by Luke Davies
I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates—
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.
God’s vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar—
All the archangels—their wings frozen—fell tonight.
Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken;
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.
Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities
multiply me at once under your spell tonight.
He’s freed some fire from ice in pity for Heaven.
He’s left open—for God—the doors of Hell tonight.
The grey ships come from the north,
The snow-white ships come from the pole,
The ships of the south are all broken down.
O Harbourmaster sitting on the cloudbanks,
O Harbourmaster walking on the water,
Tell those leaping on the equator line
How their flesh might turn to wood,
How their bones might turn to steel,
Until from out their bodies comes a ship
Its black pushing through the swell.
It is said that Qasmuna’s father, Ismail, enjoyed improvising verse with her. One day he said: ‘Finish this poem’.
I had a friend whose rare delight,
Though it rewarded care with spite,
Qasmuna thought for a moment and replied:
One of my favourite insults to the person of Macbeth comes towards the end of the play, when the aggrieved Macduff calls out to him: “Turn, hellhound, turn!” It is a testament to Shakespeare’s prowess that even after we’ve witnessed all the atrocities committed by Macbeth, the line jars. “He’s not a hellhound!” one feels like shouting back. The insult agitates us. By then we had already tried to alienate ourselves from Macbeth and his deeds, but we’re too intimate with the depths of his anguish to do so, an anguish not mysterious and beyond our grasp, like Hamlet’s. Macbeth is well within our understanding, his dilemma is laid bare for us to ponder and weigh.
The suggestion that in reading Macbeth there are things to be learnt about Bashar al Assad, Saddam Hussein, or al Qathafi, is often laughed to scorn whenever I dare mention it in polite company. It is generally assumed that the characters of these men do not rise to the complexity and elevation of a Shakespearean villain, as if villainy excludes finesse. I am told they are mere butchers, with no depth of feeling or capacity for insight. Yet it is exactly that, insight, that I feel the likes of Saddam have, and which allows them to reign in terror for such elongated periods. One can hate Saddam and everything he stood for, but can we in good faith dismiss him as a brute, or deny his sophisticated methods of intimidation? A viewing of the Al Khold Hall footage – where Saddam solidified his grip on power by effectively staging a play, one where murder was unseen, like Macbeth, but real – demonstrates Saddam’s credentials as a connoisseur of terror. His methods of breaking the wills of men require nothing less than a terrible talent.