Palestinian civil defense attempt to control a fire after Israeli warplane bombed a house in Tal-Hawa in Gaza city. Via Motaz_Azaiza on instagram.
Verily at the first Chaos came to be,
but next wide-bosomed Earth
— Hesiod, Theogony
If chaos was indeed
the first entity in existence,
we seem to be in a reverse course
as the 21st century unfolds,
nature doing its bit
to unleash the elements,
our fellow humans following suit
in state after failed state
and region after region
with conflicts bursting out,
enough to hurl wide-bosomed earth
back into the primitive condition
from which it first emerged.
An Eye for an Eye
An eye for an eye
and a tooth for a tooth,
the way the game seems to have been played
throughout recorded time.
Repeated attempts may have been made
through covenants and international law
to curb such practices.
But with the blood
of each side’s kith and kin
staining the soil,
one looks in vain for who can restrain
the chilling cry for vengeance.
There are the familiar ones,
seized by armed groups or hostile states,
held in dank, dark cells
for ransom or prisoner exchange,
shorn of contact with the outside world,
subject to their captors’ every whim.
Then there are populations at large,
with little choice but to obey
the dictates of those who come to power
through insurrections, military coups,
one-off elections never held again,
with scant prospects of the nightmare
coming to an end.
Finally, there is metaphysical hostage-taking,
more insidious than the other two,
where one falls prey
to the lure of demagogues or rigid dogmas,
never breaking free,
though no prison bars the way,
only the fear of daring to say NO.
A Modest Proposal
Times of trouble demand not tears but counsel.
Easier said than done,
with each side loathing the other,
the rallying cry of the hour.
It would be heavenly
to put a stop to the bloodshed,
but the gods themselves
are parties to this quarrel.
As for outsiders urging a pause,
a chance for everyone
to catch their breath
while civilians can resume their daily lives
and hostages be released,
this too seems like preaching to the angels.
So what if the Hamas leadership
along with the PLO’s for good measure
and the entire Israeli Cabinet
were transported to a desert island
or better yet the Antarctic Shelf
with UN mediators brought along
and a platoon of armed peacekeepers to maintain order
and left for weeks and months on end,
unable to return,
unless they had hammered a lasting settlement out?
La Lotta Continua
Weber dubbed us a pariah people,
living at the margins of other states and peoples,
with rites and rituals of our own.
And there were ghettos
beginning with the Middle Ages,
pogroms, expulsions, and wholesale extermination,
though also much by way of communal interaction,
intermarriage, and assimilation
in the many centuries that followed.
Which brings me to the dilemmas of today.
To be a Jew in Israel
is for the majority living there a given,
though those who do not fit the bill
have in large part become pariahs
in a land that they still claim.
Until October 7, though wars were not infrequent,
it seemed that Jews could feel far safer in this state,
a haven against an often hostile world,
than in their diasporic faraway.
No longer true, it seems,
not with more Jews,
even the most secular and open to the Palestinian cause,
done away in a single day
than at any time since the ill-famed Shoah.
So what of us living for the most part affluent lives
in an increasingly secular West,
some still practising their old religion,
albeit with variations,
others far removed from its sway?
Is there an equilibrium
between feeling Jewish at one level
and experiencing the pull,
as so many have through the ages,
to something cosmopolitan and larger,
or are we fated to discover
when conflict swirls around the Jewish state
that old stereotypes about who we really are
have a way of surfacing unannounced?
The assassins struck first,
laying low the old, the young,
and those of all ages,
fouling the ground with the maimed and the dying,
putting to shame the pride
of the Israelites.
But then came the bombs,
strafing and levelling
the dwellings and shelters,
staining the earth with the blood and the limbs
of the children of Gaza.
The blind lead the blind
and the dead mock the living
as Lucifer’s minions cheer on the combatants
and keep a close count on all who have fallen
in a battle that sounds like a tocsin
to those who wish ill to this land.
From their graves the Philistines
take note of the carnage
as their much maligned Dagon,
whom all had forgotten,
wreaks vengeance on those
who displaced him.
Of the Greeks we remember
the houses of Atreus and Labdacus,
each doomed to repeat the curse
which the founders had engendered,
bringing untold misfortune in their wake.
And what of the house of Abraham,
the one son and his mother
consigned to exile and the desert,
the other son through his mother
the sole legitimate heir?
As History Unfolds
Pictures of endless ruins,
hospitals and shelters crowded beyond endurance,
cascade across the screen,
each side digging in,
the one crying for revenge
for the barbaric slaughter its citizens have endured,
the other for the unravelling of a blockade
that has kept them prisoners in a tiny open space.
Outside powers call for a ceasefire,
replenishment of a starving populace,
humanitarian corridors, hostages to be released,
all in vain,
as the shadow of Armageddon
looms ever larger over a region
where long ago a visionary
foretold a struggle to the end.
More grim days lie ahead,
with the battle’s outcome
too early to predict,
though in this game
where death throws the dice
the living always pay the price.
As Attention Falters
We should have known it would come to this,
public opinion not known to stay the course
with so many distractions along the way,
Matthew Perry’s death,
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s spurious claims,
another fusillade in a city or school,
a Middle East out of control.
It’s all too much to keep focusing
on an overshadowed Ukraine,
on what the big bad wolf next door
may be up to with drones and ammo
from its North Korean and Iranian buddies,
with sanctions leaking like a sieve
and Kyiv’s fair weather friends peeling off,
as movement on the battlefield stalls
and a second winter of bombing
and strafing beleaguered civilians
In a chess game played for keeps,
the rogue side may yet win by default.
The incubation grounds for peregrinations and hallucinations,
for commandments from on high,
angels entrusting sleepers with grandiose visions,
warring tribes and quarrelling kinsmen,
codes and rituals to transcend the generations.
Not clear why aspiring divinities
would choose such barren places
to plant the seeds of new religions,
not one, not two, but three,
and even these with multiple permutations.
They’ve gone planetary since,
nuclear if you prefer the expression,
with much blood spilled in the process,
for such creeds in their purest form
brook zero tolerance for rivals and apostates.
To think what the future holds in store,
as croplands shrivel in the heat
with desertification the prevailing norm.
Eighty-five years since shards of broken glass,
burnt synagogues and shops,
Jews murdered, brutalized,
force marched through German streets
as onlookers jeer,
and a future colder than the polar night
looms up ahead.
Flash forward to a Middle East in flames,
Hamas massacre of October 7,
Israeli hostages held for ransom,
the anguish and the calls for retribution;
Gaza pummelled into rubble,
its population forcibly displaced,
ten thousand dead and more,
living conditions to make the long years of blockade
Old enmities and new,
patterns of killing and destruction endlessly renewed,
with little in the misnamed Holy Land
pointing to redemption.
The maple’s loom is red.
— Emily Dickinson
So it is this season,
even here on the west coast,
when conifers of every stripe
usually overshadow the maples and the oaks,
and the rain makes mush-pie of the leaves.
It has been a radiant autumn,
crisp air, lots of sun,
a deep texture to the colours on the trees,
the stuff to fantasize and give reprieve
from the devastation of this summer’s heat.
And red seems to be the flavour
of this tail end of the year,
as news of yet another war,
another deathly hurricane or massacre,
comes tinged with a colour that we dread.