January 8, 2004
Key West, Florida
My dear friends in the north
Perhaps the first thing one notices in Key West are the wild hens and roosters. You see them on most of the side streets, walking one after another, across your path. They project a sense of entitlement, of belonging. There are about 2000 colourful feral chickens in the city. They have no predators. Dogs and cats fear them.
Or perhaps the first eye-catching items are the greenery. Palm trees everywhere, thick flowering bushes around all the properties and all the tropical plants which grow indoors up north are outdoor perennials here.
And yes, it's warm.
Tonight I went to the first event of the Literary Seminar. <http://www.keywestliteraryseminar.org/index.htm> The theme is "Crossing Borders" and the guests are American writers who were either born in another country or whose parents are from another country. The Executive Director, Miles Frieden, introduced the conference saying that it was ironic that on a day when we are celebrating the contributions of immigrant writers, President Bush gave a speech suggesting changes to immigration laws which would welcome immigrants who would do the jobs that Americans just don't want to do. Miles suggested George Bush saw doing those jobs as the only contribution immigrants could make.
Tonight's performance was Elmaz Abinader, an Arab-American, whose family came from Lebannon. She performed two pieces of writing, accompanied by a brilliant Lebanese guitar player. These pieces are from a one-woman show -- a series of performance stories -- called Refugees from Under the Ramadan Moon.
The first story talks about how she tried to understand her father who she describes as thunder, a volcano, an earthquake: someone she was always afraid of. She recalls how every month from as early as she could remember, he'd sit the family down and read to them a letter he received from the family in Lebanon...how these letters, this connection to the old country, were for her father -- the most important thing. In 1974, when Elmaz was 20, her father reads to the family a letter describing the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war. She has never seen her father look so sad, so heartbroken, so human. She goes back to university and writes her father a letter asking him to tell her the first time he can remember crying. He writes her back a long letter describing a time during World War One (her father was a boy then) when the Turks, who had joined the German side, were starving the Lebanese in order to supply the Germans with supplies for the war effort and how his father, a village sheik, had to flee, leaving his wife and six children, because the Turks saw him as a threat, had trumped up charges against him, and were set to kill him. One night his father returns secretly...
Elmaz's second performance piece was a poem called, "So how has it been for you -- since 9-11? This was a bitter, angry piece powerfully performed. She describes a friend asking her the question above. She knew at that moment that her friend was not asking her how has it been for you -- a poet, or for you -- a teacher... The friend meant for you, an Arab. She says, why don't you ask me how it was for me before 9-11 -- and she describes all the racist incidents and comments people have been making to her all her life even though she was born in the US. Hmmm.
Well if you want to hear more from me here in Key West, let me know. I'd love to hear from you.