The Fortitude of Poetry
Brother, what must I do
at this late hour
to remind you of my innocence?
I only raised some questions
to warn you of a storm coming in from the edge
But now you abandon me
and accuse me
Yet I recall that day precisely.
You and I sitting by the cafe in Abha
sipping coffee laced with cardamom.
The arc of the winter sun had settled
in the crease of your brow —
the evening light softening that hard glance
you aimed at me like a dart.
And may I say now, brother,
your judgement of this refugee is harsh.
I spoke only of my paintings
and poetry — how they mitigate
the lash of the Mutaween —
make visible the shadow world
of Sharia — this consumption
of flesh and spirit.
Yet you chose silence.
Brother, you know as well as I
how things stand
in the House of Saud.
The quiet terror spreads
like a virus
in muted streets and markets
and a new dark age brings down
with a thud the broad sword
Yes, I raised the stoning of lonely wives,
the wild tales of witchcraft and sorcery —
the fear their strict whip-hand has of women.
Yet, by the power of male decree,
the zealot makes it plain what’s on his mind:
the female form must be disfigured or hidden.
Yet you chose silence.
Here anything that reeks of love
must be routed out and crushed,
for they miss nothing, —
not one unlawful kiss
that may pass between
the lips of many lovers.
But in this stone cell mercy has its price.
Money buys the killer pardon,
and spares his helpless neck from the block.
Yet for me? The worst lies in wait
simply for the crime
of speech or thought.
They’d rather unsheathe the blade
and gild the truth with blood
than acknowledge a kingdom run by vice.
You see, brother, if I’m passing
on the road and see a man half naked
being nailed to a cross —
suspended there until the sky darkens, until
the ripe olives turn red —
I must ask you: what have we become?
Do you remember?
How the light took refuge in the hollows
of his flesh — tugging and stretching
the sagging limbs — tearing the skin
until it turned blue
and peeled like paper.
His right foot was lashed tightly
against the left —
wrought iron nails were driven in
with quiet purpose, until his cries soared above
the crowded square
silencing the gasps of tourists,
the sighs of doves,
the holy call to prayer
rising uneasily in the distance.
“Be silent, Ashraf!” you cried.
The Commission for Virtue and Prevention of Vice
will always have its way.
But my answer then, as it is now,
Is quite simple.
I sing to fill the silence rising in you.
For it condones, by the edge of a sword,
the slicing of hands and the slicing of heads —
rendering mute arbiters of law.
Brother, I sing into this silence
to break a lineage of fear
and ring in a new paradigm.
My song will fill the silence
that prevails in the courts
of kings and queens.
Conscience will not be reduced
to a cult — or a pathology
of the mind.
And know this. My voice
will resonate in the throat
of the zealot,
it will draw poison
from this bitter root
and nourish the will of the people.
This is the fortitude of poetry.
It will outlast the silence of good men
who would say nothing —
and soar above the venal stench of money —
beyond the blood-drenched square
of totalitarian kings.