Friday, June 29, 2007

Nour Escaped!

On a morning flush with bad news and disappointments there is a ray of sunshine. An email from Lisa Ramaci-Vincent joyfully announces that Nour al-Khal, Iraqi translator who survived the assault and murder of journalist Steven Vincent, has at last arrived safely in the US. Her story is a tawdry reminder of the catastrophic and tragic policy failures over the last four years in Iraq.

Lisa writes:

She will be living with me for the foreseeable future, and I will help her get set up here; tomorrow we go for her Social Security number, Medicare, and a work visa.

She is incredibly happy to be here - she keeps repeating, "I am safe. I am not afraid." in tones of astonishment, as if it has been so long since she has not had to be she no longer remembers what it's like - and this morning she told me that, for the first time in years, she is sleeping well.

Thank God she is safe. She has been through hell. Her survival is a mathematical exception to the fate of many, if not most of the patriotic Iraqis who have been involved with the US adventure in her country. Not all have been supportive, but all associations with the American presence have put their lives at risk.

She arrives in America exactly when our elected representatives have once again failed to come to terms with the question of how best to handle a tide of immigrants that is basically keeping the US economy afloat in a competitive global economy. It is significant that it took the orchestrated efforts of a number of key people in high places to get her to safety.

It remains to be seen what will happen next in the lives of Lisa and Nour. Their story has all the elements of the most dramatic of documentary or entertainment films, but my guess is that both of these brave and determined women will be more focused on substantive goals than turning the death of Steven Vincent into yet another drama du jour.

Welcome to America, Nour! I hope the time will come when I can have the privilege of seeing you in person. The story that you and Lisa have to tell is a microcosm of how the best of good intentions can result in the worst of tragedies. But that is only the opening chapter. What happens next can illustrate how those who survive tragedy can, in the words of Faulkner, prevail.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Faulkner, writing in 1950, was referring to the threat of thermonuclear war. Those were the days of "duck and cover," of demagogic politicians looking for Reds behind every tree and fellow travelers who were really Communists disguised as ordinary people. It was a time when reputations and careers were being destroyed by high-profile fear-mongering power seekers in positions of authority.

I heard a story recently about an auction of some previously unpublished letters of John Steinbeck, several of which document a prescient understanding in 1948 of television as a revolutionary medium. He actually wrote a few scripts and formed a company with a view of being a part of the future. But he later changed his mind, not because he thought the venture was unworthy, but because he understood that just the association of his own name would stain the enterprise and make the public not want to have anything to do with it. He was among those many writers being targeted by Washington zealots whose misguided effort at patriotism destroyed the careers of so many people. We will never know how the input of one of the country's most famous writers might have affected the course of what Newton Minnow later famously called "that vast wasteland."

Today's Global War on Terrorism has displaced the shapeless menace of an international Communist Conspiracy, and today's super-patriots are wearing different outfits, but the dynamics are very much the same. And countless numbers of well-meaning ordinary people who look to their leaders to tell them what to do and think rather than doing their own tough homework assignments are being led blindly down some of the same trails that the public was traveling fifty years ago.

If the War in Iraq has done nothing else it has produced a host of martyrs in the cause of seeking truth. Steven Vincent was one of those martyrs. The output of his individual efforts may only merit a footnote in the finished narrative. He was published in the New York Times but was not, as I understand it, a staff reporter. But his insights about what was about to happen at the time of his murder proved to be even more threatening than he could imagine. He was on to something very big and very important. And that is why he was killed.

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