Edmond Jabes, Mahmoud Darwish, and Yellow Power
My love was bound in red silk,
Thrust out forcefully to claim long-forgotten aristocratic titles
When the ships of old have
Taken on the air for water
And it is blood they inhabit, not the
On seas of rice
Spilled on red canopies
Over the grinning bodhisattva’s golden palm
Falling into the incense pits
Down the mine shafts
Into apothecaries and cabinet installations.
On March 22 of 1969, a band of Chinese American youth marched into San Francisco’s Chinatown to protest the planned conversion of a children’s playground into a nine-level parking lot.1 The participants hailed from university campuses and street gangs alike. As the day went on, the rally grew into something much more ambitious. The youth demanded the self-determination of Asian Americans and an end to imperialist war globally.2 They wore Panther berets and Mao Zedong jackets, and screened the film East is Red while providing free food to children and the elderly.3 Military tunes rang out over a sea of five-starred red flags. The radicalism of the Red Guard Party, as they called themselves, lay in their socialist, anti-imperialist agenda, but also in their melding of Communist China and inner-city San Francisco to create a homeland which transcended time, space, and language. The poverty, sickness, and violence they had grown up in were caused by the same force which massacred their brothers in Vietnam. If Heaven’s will had condemned Chinatown to death, the Red Guards were prepared to fight the Emperor himself for the survival of their people.
Such revolutionary spectacle and theatrical Third Worldism are nowhere to be seen as I walk through the streets of Flushing, on the other side of the continent. I’ve arrived fifty years too late in my own history. Plastic bags, soda cans, and styrofoam containers line the sidewalk. The only red I see is a flowerpot the size of a bathtub, which people have repurposed as a garbage can. The contents spill over the curb and are crushed under the weight of College Point Boulevard’s heavy traffic. All the drivers can see are green lights in their mad hustle to get to work on time. This has been my route every day as I walked off my lunch break. I’m earning minimum wage working as a skate guard at the nearby ice rink. We had to clean the bathrooms at the end of our shift, but it was my first job and came with free air conditioning during New York’s hottest summer.
I pass through a park where a long line of (mostly) elderly Chinese women wait with their wire shopping carts, canvas bags, and food stamps. They stare at me as I pass, probably wondering if I’d come from the nearby shopping mall or two blocks down, where boba shop lines wrap around the street corner. I stare back, daring them to think less of me just because I come from a generation of airheads with yellow faces and white tongues. They quickly look back down into their empty carts. Giant crates of cabbages, tomatoes, and carrots roll down the block. Some of the produce inevitably tumbles onto the street and is crushed into multicolored goop.
The land from which I came
Has arrived with my mother who wears the
Pearls of her teacher’s teeth, which are nestled in the wet earth
Where are my holy pillars?
I hang my shovel, my rifle, my tongue upon the altar of heresy
In the city of gold which awaits me.
I worship the false god out of fear.
For myself and many of my Asian American peers, the question “where are you from?” inhabits a nightmarish region of the brain. It has numerous questions tucked into one another. Strangers expect a straightforward answer. What happens if we stutter in our feverish attempt to produce a single word? Then the answer, for them, becomes clear. “How could you have expressed yourself, when you open your mouth only to prolong the scream?”4 writes Edmond Jabes in The Book of Questions (1963). The “scream” represents the history of suffering and victimhood which marks Jewish identity: “There is nothing at the threshold of the open page, it seems, but this wound of a race born of the book, whose order and disorder are roads of suffering.”5 Nationalist history romanticizes the nation as a cult of heroes, battles, and sacrifices for a glorious future. Above all, the survival of the people depends on the defense of a sacred homeland. The task of the “writer” is to create this mythical origin for the Jewish people, and to rise above a past of “suffering” and “disorder.” However, the writer who expresses individual truth through their art is still subsumed by the “scream” of the collective. Jabes has no definitive answer to what Jewish identity is, and neither does he try to glorify or romanticize their past. In The Book of Questions, the writer creates history and identity, but as an individual is also a product of history. How do you create a homeland when the strings that bind your people together are made of the dust of endless wandering? The walls would be made out of stutters, the soil of questions which is patient enough to last multiple lifetimes. Our banners are black, not red, because no hopeful martyr can step outside the funeral procession for a second without forgetting this land. It will take fifty years to find it again.
This paradox underlies my people’s long search for an identity. The Red Guards lived in a golden age of anti-imperialism and anti-assimilationist radicalism. But their efforts to create an “Asian America” which was powerful and distinct from whiteness has been lost throughout history, as the old generations die and new waves of immigrants wash up onto the shores of the promised land. This is why Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “Eleven Stars Over Andalusia” (1994) speaks to me. Although the poem is commonly interpreted as being about the exodus of the Palestinian people, many of the lines have universal implications:
Palm trees have become weightless,
the hills have become weightless, and the streets in the dusk have become weightless;
the earth has become weightless as it bids farewell to its dust. Words have become weightless,
and stories have become weightless on the staircase of night.6
Homelands are social constructs and therefore subject to change and erosion over time. The geographical details of my birthplace are irrelevant to me now. My China is a place of skyscrapers, western-style business suits, and giant advertisements for skin-whitening products, which hover above the narrow, cobblestone streets that still sport faded CCP posters. It would be unrecognizable to the generation of Mao’s Red Guards, who were sent into the wilderness of 1960s rural China to tame their revolutionary fervor. The Red Guard Party of San Francisco dreamed of an even more romantic “Andalusia”: dense bamboo forests, the Himalayas, and rice paddies beneath a youthful sun. But the stories and traditions of our “sacred” ancestors have been lost over time. Even the new stories of the I-Hotel, Free Huey Newton movement, and Chinatown’s Sunday Brunch have been lost within our collective consciousness as the college-bound generation tries to keep up with the latest trends in designer fashion. These histories are “weightless” not because we question their factuality, but because time has shifted the ground behind our feet and we find ourselves lost in an alien world once again. Our hearts drown in the whites of our eyes.
“You read the future. You give us the future to read. Yet yesterday you were not. And tomorrow, you will no longer be. And yet you have tried to incrust yourself in the present, to be that unique moment when the pen holds the word which will survive.”7 The struggle of the writer to detach themselves from a legacy which they don’t possess is a recurring theme in both The Book of Questions and Eleven Stars. The meaning of Jewishness or Arabness cannot be claimed by the writer, who is subject to the same temporality as all identities are. Through words, the writer has tried to give us—the rising generation—a truth and fatality salvaged from the past. In the process of inheriting memory, we become Darwish’s “conquerors.” To be Asian American is to be in a constant cycle of creation and destruction. “The stranger passed here to let the stranger pass there. In a while I’ll emerge a stranger from the wrinkles of my time, alien to Syria and to Andalusia.”8 It’s horrifying to think that one day, we’ll become strangers to our own cherished history, and the ones we love who carry this history. A hundred years from now, who will recognize me and remember who I was, and what I believed in? They’ll inherit my words, but the soul which created those words is gone. The Red Guards have died and entrusted us with the future. “‘I’ means you. You are going to die. And I will be alone.”9 Without their leadership, we are alone and scattered. One half of us has buried the hatchet, hoping that it will grow into a tree which we can climb to reach the top—a position only one man can occupy. The other half hides underground, not dead yet but rotting, as the vegetables in street vendors’ carts are. When two Asian Americans pass one another on a narrow street, they try their hardest to move aside and let the other pass. It’s good manners to make things easier for the other person so we can all be on our way and avoid unnecessary talking. But somehow they end up moving in the same direction, blocking each other’s path forward. Neither of them want to face each other, but some invisible force draws us together.
My heart years for the sunrise which
Melts the frost on these aching muscles
For the cliff is now descending into the
Heart of the sea, and I must jump with my
My love and I are bound by the same red string,
Destined for the same grave
In a world where speech and intellect travel no further than blood . . .
In our contemporary world, identities and institutions are constantly changing. People change and die and move freely. Writers and their ideas are no exception. The writer may die multiple times throughout their own lifetime. Darwish and Jabes propose a new form of belonging which is just as fluid as time itself. To be “at the threshold” means to be in a constant state of entering and leaving, but not settling in the house itself.10 Jewishness resides in this state of dynamism rather than a fixed origin. Jabes’ narrator even wanders through the desert for an entire chapter to find himself. Rather than dread the emptiness of our search for belonging, we can treat this space of uncertainty as a site of tremendous potential. As time passes, we will forget the answer, or the answer will change. But the question remains. Similarly, Darwish’s Andalusia is a cycle of “gypsies going” and “Arabs leaving.”11 Yet to be constantly in motion is to constantly be in exile. As the summer comes to a close, I’m afraid to leave the streets of Flushing, despite how dirty and decayed they’ve become. For me, this place still carries the memory of global revolution, when Asian Americans abandoned the submission and meekness of victimhood and marched to battle under the banners of Yellow Power. It is the last stop on the river which flowed from San Francisco’s Chinatown sixty years ago to the East Coast, and finally home to the Atlantic Ocean. I don’t want to be alone and weak in a world which renders my very existence as expendable as a crumpled dollar bill. I’m Darwish’s “king of waiting,” who sits on the “pavement of the estranged” and dies along with the golden age.12
The journey forward is one of danger and uncertainty, but it’s one that we must take, even if it ends in death. Death and life are necessary parts in a cycle which transcends time itself. For Jabes and Darwish, water represents this eternal cycle.
If the sea had no waves to uproot it and give it back to the sea, if the sea had too many waves (but not enough) to overrun the horizon, enough (but just barely) to disturb the earth, if the sea had no ears to hear the sea, no eyes to be forever the look of the sea, if the sea had neither salt nor foam, it would be a grey sea of death in the sun cut off from its roots. It would be a dying sea amid branches cut off from the sun . . .13
The sea is the sea because of its qualities of uprootedness, constant motion, and change. Being in “exile” gives the sea—and water—its immortality. There is power in having a national identity which is rooted in the “earth,” but the sea carries a different kind of power which is capable of overrunning the “earth” and “horizon,” which are fixed attributes. This is the power of uncertainty. As Frantz Fanon put it, “We should not therefore be content to delve into the people’s past to find concrete examples to counter colonialism’s endeavors to distort and depreciate. We must work and struggle in step with the people so as to shape the future and prepare the ground where vigorous shoots are already sprouting.”14 Although evocation of the past is significant, shared consciousness doesn’t arise from recognition of a shared past. It arises from partaking in the struggle of the present moment. Identity is like the sea because it is constantly fighting and searching for redemption.
What about the past, then? Should we let it die? “I leave jasmine in the vase; I leave my young heart/ in my mother’s cupboard; I leave my dream, laughing, in water…”15 writes Darwish. Water is the only thing capable of connecting the past, present, and future. Symbolizing grief as well as exile, water is the companion of Jabes’ “scream.” Pain and suffering alone can’t constitute the collective identity of a people, but the memory of shared suffering carries the past into the present with the continuous flow of a river. “Violins weep for a time that does not return/ Violins weep for a homeland that might return.”16 Over time, what it means to be Asian American and even who is considered Asian American changes. The suffering and pain we experience remains, however. Future generations of Asian Americans revive memories of the past, such as the Red Guards’ Chinatown rallies, because they can empathize with the emotional weight of migration, violence, and alienation. Jabes’ writer takes the scream with them into exile, in which the scream becomes a source of rebirth. “As I faced the open sea, my book became the single place where all roads cross and urge us on. But a scream went through me. And on this scream I built my suffering to sail from ocean to ocean.”17 The convergence of “all roads” is the experience of the “scream” which past and future generations of Jews share. I know that some parts of my people’s history and culture are bound to die. I have killed some of the heroes and their streets myself. But I can trust in the continuity of water, as Darwish and Jabes have. It will carry our hopes and failures onwards for the next fleet of ships to find.
The earliest Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese contract laborers who arrived in Hawaii are dead; their bonds of solidarity and resistance against white plantation owners are forgotten. The Yihetuan of the Boxer rebellion died but were reincarnated as the I Wor Kuen, the successors to the Red Guard Party and whose organization and coalition-building gives us the Asian American activism of today. One day, I will return to Flushing and get on the back of the line with my shopping cart and food stamps. My search for an Asian American consciousness will be forgotten. I will live for paychecks, not revolutions. My silent gifts for my brothers and sisters will be forgotten. Atropos cuts the red string that binds us together. One day, a girl will pass the hunched, starved women on the line. Her Thich Quang Duc is John F. Kennedy, her flag is an Ivy League education, and her dream is to make her parents proud. When she reaches the border of Flushing, her solitary road will be drowned in whiteness. But the mountain is too high for us to climb in our own lifetimes. I may never reach the top, but she can see the view for me. Until we are ready to set out on the road, I will save her in these pages, where she is closest to my heart.
- Laura Ho, “Red Guard Party,” Gidra, May 1969.
- Ho, “Red Guard Party.”
- Daryl J. Maeda, Chains of Babylon: the rise of Asian America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 87-88.
- EdmondJabes, The Book of Questions, Translated from the French by Rosmarie Waldrop (Wesleyan University Press, 1972), 34.
- Jabes, The Book of Questions, 25.
- Mahmoud Darwish, “Eleven Stars Over Andalusia,” translated from the Arabic by Mona Anis, Nigel Ryan, with Aga Shahid Aki and Ahmad Dallal, Grand Street 48 (1994), 109.
- Jabes, The Book of Questions, 32.
- Darwish, “Eleven Stars Over Andalusia,” 103.
- Jabes, The Book of Questions, 33.
- Jabes, The Book of Questions, 17.
- Darwish, “Eleven Stars Over Andalusia,” 111.
- Darwish, “Eleven Stars over Andalusia,” 105.
- Jabes, The Book of Questions, 20.
- Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 1963).
- Darwish, “Eleven Stars Over Andalusia,”110.
- Darwish, “Eleven Stars Over Andalusia,” 111.
- Jabes, The Book of Questions, 28.