2016/08/24

Inconvenient Numbers



The video is a slightly shortened version of the following poem.

When a tower falls elsewhere, the ash settles in my city.

I study how heavy the air becomes. I try to make peace with war; instead I learn lessons in rupture. What it means to not know.
How to be okay with not knowing.
How to search for answers through the past.

In the year 1978 —
          soft brown shoulder-length curls
          big eyes and a milky complexion —

my mother is ten years old when a nun at her convent dies.
She is buried in a black cloak.
          With school closed for the day,
          death comes wrapped in a caravan of joys.

When my grandfather tells her God listens to the prayers of children,
she prays for a nun to die every night
so she can stay home from school.

In the winter of 2001,
          I am ten years old.

The city my mother once knew sits on an altered map.
The planes have changed direction —
the high-rises my grandfather built
          have crumbled into debris.
          The clouded smoke that stood around New York
                    has long dissipated into Lahore, and Islamabad, and Karachi,
                    all across the playgrounds of my mothers childhood,
                    into the sanctity of my grandparents home.

A generation later,
I have no need for wishing stars —
bomb threats become routine and keep me home from school.

Back in 1978 my mother would spend her nights stargazing:
          It used to be so quiet, she tells me.

But in 2012
God watches over a different city —
          the drum of dulled heartbeats shines brighter than the most vibrant skies,
          the night is girdled with funeral processions
          and there is a faint rumbling over the mountains targeted as terrorist bases where civilians live.
                    Their screams are a backdrop melody,
                    a ripple in an ocean full of water:

we are told to ignore the white noise.
          Their bodies become sites of target practice —
          blindfolded and bound
                    they are dropped to the ground like lines of dominoes
                    They are torched into embers without warning
                              and the night burns,
                              somewhere a cricket chirps,
                              and still,
                              it is a hollowed silence.

In a few years when the numbers are tallied
          and the ash cloud dissipates,
the dead will be statistics on charts we will study when regret won’t matter anymore.

          In the year 1978 my mother did not know
          when you wish death upon someone else
          you begin to write your own eulogy
                    you are asking God
                              to turn your gardens into battlefields
                              to bury your nation
                              as you watch your city’s skin wither into ash —

ash skin is not a prayer that ever falls onto a wishing star from the lips of those who have something to lose.
          My mother didn’t know how much she had to lose once.

Now no matter how hard she tries she cannot take back her wish
          or bury it beneath a black cloak —
                    black cloaks cannot hold the scars of our sins:

                    our mistakes become unholy
                    when we choose to hide them.

So listen to the white noise;
                    it is the sound of a people burning,
                              torched by those who never realised
                                        a wish once made can never be undone.


Zainab Syed (Western Australia / Pakistan)

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