For the “angry Arabs” who won’t let anyone catch them crying – Jess Rizkallah

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For the “angry Arabs” who won’t let anyone catch them crying

Jess Rizkallah

I’m sitting with Teta and we’re watching the Lebanese news channel. Jido’s parakeet, Aziz, is in a cage on the porch whistling at honeybees or traffic or the air becoming his body. He lives in my ear closest to the door, but the television in here is still louder. Now the journalist is standing in front of rows of cages full of bulbul birds. It’s an art thing. Teta, how is this art, those poor birds, they’re just in cages? Then the artist is on screen, talking about how he brought all these bulbuls together to calibrate themselves to the metronome of each other. He’s going to release them over his city. Call and response filtered through wrought iron windows and creaking trees. Their music will always be descending somewhere from the sky, filling in the chasms that metallic screams once put in the atmosphere—those wounds in the sky that gave birth to children who still carry the shriek of war like a phantom limb where the light can’t reach, but the bulbuls still sing.

We had a bird like that back home, Teta tells me, we’d leave its cage door open, it would fly around the house, singing into every room before it made its way back through the bars to rest.

I don’t ask what I know to be true: that the house in this story is the same house in another story where they were huddled in a basement, bricks for pillows while the whistles leaking in were less feathered and more cracked through the barrel of a plane held to the sun’s temple. The bulbuls in cages, still singing, or crying, at the air about to become them, but everything else still louder. I don’t ask what happened to the birds.

Jess Essay Quote 1

I think this is how my people talk both in poem and obituary. Bird song and elegy. Sunrise and sunset, but always the penultimate one, because last sunset is the one that brings the lid of your coffin down with it. I close my eyes and think about the last dead body I saw, organs pulled out by the tumors, his blood siphoned out, his bald head cold under my lips, his mouth wired into a smile that wasn’t his, but still the same mouth that sang to the bulbul he claimed lived inside me. I wish I could tell him what I’ve learned from the erasure of him. From the feathers still falling into the space he left behind.

I’ve learned that when we are lowered into the ground, we push the worms of us back up like fingers reaching for heaven. Then we die again between the beaks whose music once woke us every morning. But this is how we get wings before hatching again as song from the mouths of these birds. I think that is the next life—much closer to the ground than we thought, because maybe there is no heaven. Or maybe this is heaven: how we will always become sound that aims for the void that keeps coming for us, and our children, and their children, and all the trees we bury them beneath, and all the heavy apples that the worms reach up for.

And now the news station somehow transitions into a report about the latest political tension in this president-less country, third year running. Now my father is in the room. Voice rising at the television. Look, he removed the pin from his lapel. A sign of what’s to come. The alliances he to’s and from’s like they are branches when we need to protect the whole tree. And Arabic is how you speak yourself alive every day both in anise root and burning bush. A fire inside us we like to tell ourselves God put there, and not the colonizers.

My father doesn’t write poems but in his dreams he lights candles for a dead man who once shared our blood but now lives in the ground. Single flicker to light a darkened room. This silent whistle Pops holds in his fingers and uses to light cigarettes upon waking. It makes the turkish coffee go down smoother, smokes out the bird in him that repeats these dreams through his teeth and into the muddy porcelain like these grounds might be his future.

The cup readers say And now stamp your thumb into the grounds, now let yourself want, now lick this future from your finger. And this is how you look for God inside of dirt. This is how you pray with the fear living under your tongue, same one America mistakes for venom. So sometimes, you’re afraid to open your mouth, to speak slow enough for anyone to see.

Jess Essay Quote 2

I feel like I need to talk about the times I found myself or my family backed into corners. You want to hear about when our neighbors called us drug dealers or terrorists at stop signs and little league games. Not sure where they’re from, but they’ve always got music on, prayers of some sort, probably, and some other language, windows open, cars in and out, lawns a mess, there goes the neighborhood. I tell ya. All this in the sunlight. You want to know that I was fourteen. That my cousin was up to bat. That this white man was red from something that wasn’t the sun when I turned around, hand extended and said Hey there, I think we’re neighbors. I’m Jess. The sweetest victory, the tartest lemonade on a summer day, all ice to cool the burn I did not put inside me. But you can swallow anything if it’s cold enough to fool your taste buds. You welcome the mouthfuls of ice, rage erupting in your gut, you tell yourself that this fire is your legacy, that your genetics first struck the flint to light their way into the first person who spoke the language that brought you here.

I’ve never questioned this narrative. It helped me survive for a long time. Pops always said Don’t let anyone push you around. Never let anyone forget you are Lebanese. You tell them I COME FROM CEDARS. BURNING ALL THE TIME, BUT I COME FROM A COUNTRY THAT IS A PHOENIX. I internalized this ember, let it glow behind my navel, let it keep me warm when everything else about me was fair game for the American kids around me to twist in their mouths, between their fingers, under their shoes. Splattered on the asphalt, but not in ways that left any marks I could see. But this, this was mine.

I could tell you how proud my dad was when I recounted what our neighbor said, and how I extended my hand again to show him how exposed my palm was to this white man who knew where we slept. That’s right. Habibt ‘albi, teach him what it is to be a person. But the story is not in how that man’s kids vandalized our house or car or continued to talk shit. It’s not in how they called the police in broad daylight an hour into a family party after we turned on the Arabic music. It’s not in the racism my darker family members face all the time in a country that didn’t like them long before 9/11. It’s not in being Arab and still looking this country in the eye while shaking its hand. Or maybe it is.

It’s in the way my father still smiles at the white man when they are both getting the mail. It’s in the way he laughs and jokes with him, plows his driveway when it snows because that’s just what you do. The story is in the tightening chests as police cruisers pulled into our driveway, and then the accusation of too loud, too much, too bright, too burning, because did we really think ourselves the sun and not just burning ships? And then my father: arms extended into invitation, yalla it’s fine, we’ll be quieter, but please do join us, there’s plenty of food, today you are family.

And the man in the ground once said be the balsam to the serpent’s venom / be as sweet as another’s bitterness / as their burnt. / Expect no reward for this.

Jess Essay Quote 3

Once, my dad picked up a call that was meant for me. When he handed me the phone, my American friend asked me why is he so mad? I looked over to where he sat at the table, smoking a cigarette and drinking orange juice. He’s not, I said. He wasn’t. I remember this. But you know, sometimes he is. And sometimes I am. And sometimes all any of us can talk about is colonialism and sometimes we forget that some of our people once colonized other people, too, and that’s something I’m still learning about. Something I need to be louder about.

And I’ve grown up to learn that we are always making our own salve. I’ve learned the flames inside us are not some legacy tucked behind our navels. They fool us into thinking that the birds inside us are phoenixes, and not gentle songbirds inside creaking trees. But that is a beautiful thought, isn’t it? That we were born to be resilient and not just born to be. I want so much to call this narrative my country so I can keep it safe inside me. But I know it’s just some old poem we claimed so we could call our bodies sunset. To avoid talking about the tender tissue of our histories, why it is so red. Even when we watch our blood drained from the body of someone we love.

And the man in the ground once said America is responsible for every child who falls asleep crying. The man in the ground fell asleep that last night, crying. The same man once called America his new mother when his own mother stared down the barrel of a gun, all eyebrows and incense for the children she would never be ready to bury. So the man ripped out his hair, tore his shirt down the middle, tried to rip out the bird, too. It’s easier to be all rage and nothing that makes the night soft, and you’d like that wouldn’t you? But we are always more soft underneath the parts of us that are louder and easier for you to hate. And now America responsible for his body. Held it down while he died, now holds it like a breath. I still hear his whistle when I stop to touch flowers, but all the earth around him is louder.

Jess Essay Quote 4

I ask my dad about his own grandparents, his childhood, the first dream he remembered Please Jessica / you are opening all my wounds / جروحي / and his voice lined with feathers, something whistling even though everything else about him is louder. Because maybe it’s too late to save the bulbul? Maybe one day we won’t be able to speak both in poetry and raised fists. Maybe one day I won’t be able to talk about the man in the ground before falling to it myself. And the last time my father said he was proud of me was when the man in the ground was not yet the man in the ground but the ground was an opening wound, waiting for his body. You are stronger than I thought, you are stronger than I’ll ever be, you are the softness unflinching against the knife. And you are the knife.

And America refuses to see that. And America wants us to bury our softest parts and the hatchet, too. And America holds its sleeping foster children, every one of them crying. This country’s many arms making many cages and we call this home. But under the hiss and spit America calls our only face, we recognize each other. We sing to each other in the night. We calibrate to the metronome of us where light can’t reach, but the bulbuls can. Our music always descending from the skies, feathers filling in the spaces our dead leave behind.

I wish I could tell the man in the ground what else I’ve learned, but instead I pour it into his absence: Maybe poetry is a knife born from the fertile crescent / a finger aiming for heaven but we tucked it under our tongues / and when the colonizers came / our mouths became wounds for the earth to crawl into / to bloom / to bite / we are both garden and snake.

What I mean to say is: stop separating Middle-Eastern people from the lutes and ouds, the Gibrans and Rumis, like they are softer or more civilized than we are. Like they too wouldn’t be consumed by the rage you set to the earth after they were lowered into it. Like their corpses aren’t still pushing up knives aimed at every drone you put in the sky. Like the glint of their blades aren’t candles in the night for every crying child. Like the languages behind their translations aren’t softer arms raised to a God who helps you sleep at night.

When I am gone, stamp the ashes of me like a thumb into the ground. Let everything I want become flowers at your feet. A future you can bend down and feel between your fingers. Something soft to stick into the barrel of their guns.

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Jess Rizkallah is a Lebanese-American writer, illustrator, and coffee slinger living between Boston & New York. She’s an MFA candidate at NYU & founding editor at Maps For Teeth magazine / pizza pi press. She’s a pushcart prize nominated & nationally ranked WoWPS poet. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Word Riot, Nailed Magazine, HEArt Online, Alien Mouth, and on her mother’s fridge. Talk to her about whales & find her at

We Need You To Show Up To The Riot, Well Rested – Keno Evol

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We Need You To Show Up To The Riot, Well Rested

Permission Politics
Keno Evol  
Poet, Activist, Educator, Independent Scholar.

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“When you really get at the complicated core or the mediated essence of Ella Baker it really has so much to do with this kind of democratic gratitude of being in a tradition of struggle… You don’t need messianic leadership; you don’t need a revolutionary party; you don’t need professionals and experts coming in from the academy and telling you x,y,and z. You are in conversation with them, but they don’t need to have an elevated status.”

-(p. 96-97 Black Prophetic Fire Dr. Cornel West w/Christina Buschendorf)

On Authority
In terms of building and cultivating resistance work we can learn a lot from our dreams.
I am not only speaking to the content of our dreams, I am referring to the ways in which they interrupt our lives. They do not wait until we are ready to receive them, nor do they wait for permission from our bodies or our consciousness. They come in full force, and when we wake, we have to figure out, if we have the patience, what to do with the dream work that was just delivered to us.
I believe the same spontaneity and interruptive nature that power dreams can be applied to social justice work and activism.  
Dreams do not ask for their power...
Dreams are the work we do to build resistance and the dreamer is society, the collective people galvanized to take part in changing their condition. I believe dreams and imagination are knowledge projects that require our interrogation to make sense of the world. Dreams enter our bodies and stir up the subject in spite of our age, ability, class position, nationality, sexual orientation or health status. They perform their duties in delivering us information regardless of our opinions of them. Dreams do not ask for their power; they simply are powerful. We cannot forget in social justice work to be dream–like.
As Angela Davis articulates brilliantly, “Individual memories are not nearly as long as the memories of institutions, and especially repressive institutions.” (Angela Y. Davis at the University of Chicago – May 2013)
This is to say that dreams are impermanent, and rarely do we remember them. It takes mental labor to remember a dream; you have to force yourself, it takes effort. The institutions of which Angela speaks are the American house or American institutions we sleep or participate in. People may come in and throughout the house or the institution. However, the institution has a relationship with the world. The house begins to develop a memory much longer than anyone who dreams or participates in it. Dream–like tendencies are valuable to social justice work because dreams simply “do their work” and so must the people. Often times, we do not tell ourselves to simply do our work, we say wait a minute! Who’s your grant writer? When/Where do you plan to get a permit for this protest? Where are you getting your funding? Where did you graduate? How long have you been an organizer? What non-profit do you represent? It is a regularity of hierarchy to ask for credentials, especially in social justice human service work. Credentials are by–products of authority. This however isn’t to say one should be without standards, it is to say any credentials should be second to standards based on how we as struggling people relate to one another.

Radical imagination is crucial in social justic work

As I see it, Permission Politics, as it relates to authority, is the halting of direct action, organizing, and resistance work due to the absence of confidence or credentialed authority.
Radical imagination is crucial in social justice work. We need to be able to radically imagine power and authority to not be synonymous. What happens when the organizer(s) becomes another form of authority? Then do we lean away from community being self sufficient, self determined because the community relies on the organizer so much so they are incapable of organizing themselves?  
The passage I pulled from speaks volumes to the ways in which Ella Baker as an organizer was exemplary in the way she galvanized community power away from authority. Holding the same community accountable to their own brilliance and possibility as her organization S.N.C.C was collapsing, she said to the young faces staring back at her who wanted authoritative direction, “It’s up to you. It’s all up to you. You all got to work it out.” (West, p. 98) In this we see a potent example of unauthoritative grassroots leadership that truly puts people up to the task of laboring over their dreams. Laboring over the task of deciding who exactly they want to be.
I also feel the need for demystifying conflict as activists; this is also necessary in resistance building. Being that we are living under multiple supremacies, the default of our country is normalized violence and any eradication of that violence, which is the aim of social justice work, has an immediate need for confrontation. This need for demystifying conflict goes beyond what we imagine conflict arising with a police officer may be. It is also necessary in the way we relate to each other as activists and community members. Passive aggressiveness is cruel, immature and substantially counterproductive to activism. We live in a country drenched in it, especially within the work. Frankly we don’t have time. We must get into the practice of leading with love within our communities to address grievances. If this is relational work, let the quality of those relationships be presented by the way we massage and remedy tension. Accountability cannot become a buzzword.  
We also need to not let tendencies of capitalism interweave within the work, by which I mean disposability politics. Capitalism turns everything and everyone into an object/thing that has use until it doesn’t. Disagreement is real and differences on how to “properly do the work” tend to emerge when we are passionate; however, we have to urge against purity and dogma, the idea that this particular way of activism is the only way. Often the way we see transforming the world doesn’t immediately come from the consensus of our intellect. We learn, we stumble, we grow. We must give ourselves radical permission to change our minds and be wrong in order to be right, yet if our community disposes of us before we are able to critically develop in our own timeline, we will never be able to live up to the full potential of our contributions. We are athletes in activism—the intellect is a muscle, which we have to exercise and which is also imperfect. This is not to say that we must cater to our offenders’/oppressors’ comfortability or tone police ourselves; I also do not want this to come off as some sort of “keep predators present” rhetoric. The greater goal is always collective safety. I am suggesting a protocol of accountability, cultivating a culture of eye contact and deliberate communication outside of the virtuality of social media.
Within the confines of virtuality, we can stifle our ability to demystify conflict. The landscape of facebook/twitter/instagram allows for inflammatory language that amplifies conflict. Ultimately, social media/virtuality doesn’t hold for a listening or healing space, more so a space to reinforce our own already-established beliefs. Social media, though it can connect us,  can also pull us very apart from each other and actually prevent us from holding ourselves truly accountable.
In other world(s) absent of capitalism, we will no longer have “professionals” or “organizers” based out of “authority” and “leadership” whose merit is determined by how much they’re compensated, what degree they managed to obtain or grant they were able to receive; instead, we will have guides who simply help us achieve our full humanistic development. Hierarchy does as capitalism does, which is to disempower and desert human beings. These systems of power and individualism frame success as escapism from hardship rather than collective survival.

On Advocacy

“We need you to show up to the riot well rested” – Keno Evol, /picking and digging/

“My work has always been bigger than my job” – Patricia Hill Collins, author Another Kind of Public Education

Permission Politics, I find, also lives within advocating for oneself. Within this work we are constantly digging, getting deeper within ourselves. Self examination, while living under supremacy trying to shift/transform/transport our societies to other worlds, is an exhausting assignment. We must participate in self care and give ourselves permission to do so. In the age of the 24-hour news cycles with journalism that goes for the extravaganza of conflicts, especially with social media, it is easy to get wrapped in the chasm of catastrophe. We must unwind and unwrap. This work creates both exhausting memories and exhausted muscles, and it’s no joke. Especially for those of us who carry black bodies and identify as activists and organizers.
we are regularly engaged with social ills
The other night I was having coffee with a friend at a cafe where the chai has gotten me through a lot of emails, and we began to expound on the state of disparities for black residents in Minnesota. While talking, we started to talk about the local history of the Ku Klux Klan, and the lack of education on local white supremacist traditions as well as the whereabouts of the 4 million robes that were stitched in this country for the Klan. It was a very fueling conversation. I left it to attend to another meeting. Once the night concluded, I left activated by the previous conversation. I had a curiosity, wondering why aren’t we invested in conversations that frame the actual positioning of white supremacy? For example, knowing that being accepted into the Klan was to be accepted into what was known as a “prestige organization” at the time. Though I left ignited, triggers and sensors I may not have even been aware of within my body transported themselves into a nightmare I had later that night of the Klan breaking into my apartment. It wasn’t the first time this transference of white supremacy occurred; police brutality, which comes out of the same traditions that birthed the Klan, has also had a transition into my dream spaces. I couldn’t have and don’t have the privilege of having a conversation with a friend on local history without being affected six hours later unbeknownst to me in a dream.
We who are regularly engaged with social ills, who also carry the bodies of those targeted, bring into our dream spaces the luggage created by the consistent engagement with terror and injustice that might not be affecting our allies in the same way.
We do need you to show up to the riot well rested. We need you to show up prepared, beautiful and activated. Preparation is the objective of activism and otherworldly visioning. We have to prepare for when the next officer will take one of our kin as a result of fear and indoctrinated power tripping. We have to prepare for the daily nuanced microaggressions. We need to prepare for the revolution. This preparation is the work of organizing.
Permission Politics as it relates to self care recognizes self preservation not as an allowance to “Bow out gracefully” or “check out” (since in this work, there is none), but rather as an immediate “check in” to a different protest scene, our actual bodies. Me, for example; not wanting to go to the protest, the rally, the meeting, I am not disengaging from organizing, but rather granting myself permission to re-engage with my primary organization and collective, myself. This is in fact anti-capitalist because it steers away from addressing my body as a thing to be used until it can’t. Instead I am allowing my work, which for us is our bodies, to travel outside of the capitalist “workplace”, which again for us is our entire lives. Permission Politics as it relates to self care reconnects the “workplace” to the being who is doing the work. If our bodies are our workplaces, let’s tend to them. Let’s insure they are getting the laughter, joy and pleasure that are necessary ingredients to cultivate happiness in any life, especially a life that is targeted.

Permission Politics recognizes “the work day” as something that is continuous and never ending. Being so, the healing work has to never be under prioritized.
Permission Politics says allow yourself to travel. Too much in activism, we are asked to travel vertically, through lists, bullet points, deadlines, agendas and applications. We must also allow ourselves to travel horizontally, i.e cafes, beaches, vacations, spontaneous walks, spontaneous reading and also interdimensionally within our dreams. We need to get proper rest. Giving ourselves permission to participate in moments of stillness and reciprocity is something that we as activists often don’t indulge in because such a thing would require a check out from “the work”, but again aren’t our hearts, our bodies and our lives our sacred workplaces?
We do need you to show up to the riot
Often we are encouraged to see freedom as a location, i.e the mountaintop, the promised land. I would like us to conceive freedom as a forever transforming and shifting process that is happening in society rather than something that has happened or will happen. I would like us to conceive freedom as something that is and isn’t always happening. I would like us to conceive freedom as a social relationship we have with one another. The notion of freedom as the relational reoccurrences we have within our community. If we are afraid of a police officer or to walk home at night or to walk during the day, aren’t those experiences evidence enough of being unfree? Permission Politics, whether we are talking in relation to authority or self advocacy, is the process of grappling with the long-haul struggle to become more free. The struggle continues because our bodies must continue; with them, let’s carry as much joy as we can memorize. And there is so much joy to memorize.

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Keno Evol is a six-year educator having taught at nineteen institutions across the state of Minnesota. He is the board chair of the Youth Advisory Board for TruArtSpeaks. Evol has received numerous grants and competed nationally as a spoken word artist. He is a blogger for Revolution News, an international group of independent journalists, photographers, artists, translators and activists reporting on international news with a focus on human rights. Evol has been published in Poetry Behind The Walls and on platforms such as Gazillion Voices Magazine and Black Girl In Om.