The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

November 14, 2015

Aux Armes, Citoyens! — A blog post off the topic of the South (though Marseilles is in the South of France and Wrote the Marseillaise)

You will notice, chers lecteurs, mes semblables, mes freres  (dear readers, those who resemble me, my brethren), that there is a ball-point pen above the text of all  my blog entries for The Carpetbagger’s Journal.  I thought about the importance of this symbol when less than a year ago, the world adopted the symbol of the pencil in its mourning after the attack on the rather silly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.  The idea that people got gunned down because someone drew a crude cartoon of a figure representing the prophet of Islam — that kind of hit home for me, because as I say some silly things about the South, I am as serious as a heart attack when I talk about Southern racism, and I have gotten the occasional Klan death threat.  I take this in stride; after all, fighting racism is a noble cause whose opponents must be thugs by definition.  It is a moral duty to stand up against injustice, I believe.  I am willing to risk myself, and even the childish and crude cartoons of Charlie Hebdo are part of a truly glorious tradition of Western Civilization, that of opposition rhetoric in a democratic society.  We all said at that time, brandishing a pencil (or in my case, that ball-point pen at the top of the screen) and declared, “Je suis Charlie.”  And as evidenced by the continued presence of the pen motif that the hosting site of this blog, Word Press, has begged me to change for a newer look, I have maintained my penmanship, my eloquent luddite implement symbol because not only was I Charlie a year ago, but I remain Charlie.  Je demeure toujours Charlie.

It is more lovely than this photo allows. Turn a corner in Paris, and see another reason to be glad you are alive.

It is more lovely than this photo allows. Turn a corner in Paris, and see another reason to be glad you are alive.

I used to live in Paris, not Paris, Texas, but the actual tree-lined avenue-boasting, perennially chic yet avant-garde city of light.  I lived there for about three years in my youth.  I read my English poetry at Shakespeare & Co with much older expatriate writers for whom I was something of a mascot.  I had a job translating at a French cooking school for American tourists and professional chefs.  I studied at the University of Paris for a year, then stayed for two more, as I was intoxicated by the city.  I was on the VIP list of most of the better dance clubs in town, and I went out dancing three nights a week.  I wrote.  I had foolish relationships.  I wore revealing clothing.  I debated in cafes.  I signed petitions.  I protested with leftists.  I kissed under bridges, under mirrored balls, in front of paintings in the Louvre, along the Seine, in shadowy corners, in doorways.  I kissed a lot of frogs.  I know Paris the way a young woman who is just barely good-looking enough to get in the supermodel party (I was definitely the funny one with the slight but adorable accent, not the gorgeous one) knows Paris.  It’s my oyster, or at least back then it was.  I left because my father asked me to return to the United States.  It’s a long story, but he thought I was dying of AIDS, the way over a dozen of my gay male friends were.  In fact, I was neither seropositive nor AIDS-afflicted.  I thought he wanted to build a better relationship with me, but he didn’t.  He wanted to get me home before he would need to wrestle with authorities in a language he didn’t speak to get my corpse shipped back home.  The irony of this misunderstanding is positively French, cruel and poignant. But like Edith Piaf, in whose old neighborhood I used to live, je ne regrette rien.  In leaving Paris, I ended up finding Jesus, and my atheist father, well, he didn’t speak to me for the last ten years of his life.  Non, rien de rien. Non, je ne regrette rien.

So when yesterday, I saw that domestic terrorists egged on by ISIS attacked The Bataclan, a club I was too cool for back in the day, a Cambodian-French restaurant, and the Stade de France, I felt regret, actual regret.  I had lived through a season of such attacks in Paris, bombs not bullets, and it is horrible that plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.(The more things change, the more they stay the same).  But this IS different.  This isn’t an attack with specific demands.  This is an attack on Parisian life itself.  I am regretful.  I am horrified.  My pen, which ought to be mightier than the sword, is pointed.  My trigger finger is itchy.  Enough!  I say enough!

France values ideas, art, and has built a society that accepts individuals without regard to race who are willing to participate in its secular culture. Paris remains the best place in the world for a good meal, a kiss, a gallery visit, a fashion show, a walk in the park, and a philosophical conversation. To attack France, to attack Paris, is to attack the best things about Western Civilization itself. The Nazis knew that when Hitler danced a jig under the Arc de Triomphe. Jihadists have attacked Paris before because it represents the best hopes of our European ancestors. In shooting metal fans at a rock club, they aim at Voltaire, at Sartre, at Chanel, at Colette. In shooting people in a Cambodian restaurant, they shoot at liberal and tolerant immigration policies that have welcomed Muslim people from all over the world, provided opportunities for healthcare, education, and work and have asked that they learn to live peacefully with those of other world views by adopting some of the customs of Europeans. In attacking a stadium, they have declared that their targets are not elitists, not even satirists, like the targets at Charlie Hebdo, but just average French people, working class, middle class, just anybody, that they hate everybody equally for just being part of this established secular culture.

Everybody of every faith or philosophical persuasion ought to be at war with ISIS, a fascism that uses words associated with Islam but which is not a religion. The spirit of Paris and the spirit of Nazism are forever at war. We must choose sides; there is no compromise. We are either standing near the bouquiniste on the Left Bank, flipping through old volumes between kisses with someone who might not be entirely right for us, wearing an outfit which is cute but a bit too revealing, or we are covered in long black robes, a heavy gun hanging from our shoulders, looking for unsuspecting people to shoot, praying five times a day but torturing dissenters nearly as often.

It's not the moment for another debate in another cafe. It is time for action, not just ideas.

It’s not the moment for another debate in another cafe. It is time for action, not just ideas.

In other hours, it is possible to argue about whether the President of France should have a mistress, whether that man kissing the nape of her neck at the bouquiniste is a bad boyfriend, whether women should walk around in skirts that short, whether the book they are looking at contains shocking ideas. In other hours, it is possible to extol the value of prayer, five times a day or more, the responsibilities of gun ownership, the differences between cultures in standards of modesty. This is not that hour. Those are the kinds of conversations one has at a cafe table in the Sixth Arrondisement with a small cup and a small spoon near one’s gesturing hand. This is not that hour. It’s time to get up from the cafe table and stop theorizing for a while. It’s time to materially and practically defend who we are and what we stand for. What happens to Paris happens to the best part of our culture. What happens to Paris happens to romance, beauty, and freedom. What happens to Paris happens to all enlightened thinkers everywhere.

Back when I first moved to Paris, still a teenager, I met the French Resistance poet Jean-Pierre Rosnay, who ran a place called Club des Poetes, sort of a pre-slam cabaret poetry show with red wine and folk singers in abundance, though everyone who read was either middle-aged or older.  Rosnay had started writing while hiding out in the sewers of Paris, shooting at Nazis in the French Resistance.  Rosnay had devolved by then into an alcoholic skirt-chaser.  I had gone to him in hopes we might talk, as he did with many young male poets, about my work as a poet in English, but instead, looking at me, he saw a groupie he wanted to bang.  He made a drunken and embarrassing pass at me in front of his long-suffering wife, whom he condescendingly referred to as his “muse,” and it was just awful.  Who at 19 wants to be groped by a drunk man in his seventies, Hugh Hefner notwithstanding?

I had sought out the young Rosnay, a young man tough enough to fight Nazis and awesome enough in the Parisian way of things to write a poem like this one, which I will translate here:

NON by Jean-Pierre Rosnay

Nous valons parfois mieux que d’être des hommes
J’ai vu des gestes que je suis bien incapable de rapporter
J’ai connu des femmes qui parfumaient la rivière rien que d’y avoir baigné leur ombre

Ce n’est pas nous qui défilons au quatorze juillet
Ce n’est pas nous qui assistons au défilé du quatorze juillet

Ce n’est pas nous qui jouons au bridge
tandis que l’épidémie de faim de misère et de napalm ravage le monde sur les écrans de nos téléviseurs

Nous valons mieux parfois que d’être qui nous sommes

My translation:

NO

We are worth more sometimes than mere men

I have seen deeds that I am just unable to report

I have known women that managed to perfume the river just by casting their shadows on it

It is not we who parade on Bastille Day

It is not we who attend Bastille Day

It is not we who play bridge

while the epidemic of hunger of poverty and of Napalm ravages the world on our television screens

We are worth more sometimes than merely who we are

It is in the spirit of the young poet, not the old and lecherous poet who groped me against my will in the dark during a poetry reading, that I call on free thinkers everywhere to stand up against the forces of cultural fascism, where cartoonists who draw things in poor taste get gunned down, where fans of bands of questionable talent get gunned down, where people, just mere men, just the attendees at some random Bastille Day parade get hurt by attackers who claim the name of a false god as they maim and hurt and assassinate nameless masses.

I call upon you as DeGaulle called upon resisters.  I may be, like DeGaulle, overseas as I radio this in, but the threat is pervasive, and the forces of censorship and violence abide in every era.  We are not called to sit silently or to merely host a conversation about the problem, no.  I say, like Rosnay said, I say NO.  We are supposed to do, to materially do something about it.

We are worth more than just who we are.  We are representatives of a culture worth fighting for.  We are the cavalry we are waiting for who will save the day.  There is only us.  We are it.  We need to stand up against oppressors everywhere, and where they fight us, we fight back.  I said we fight back.  I mean we FIGHT BACK.

Aux Armes, Citoyens!  To arms, citizens of our culture!  Defend freedom!  Either this stops with us, or we become its victims.

Long live Paris.  Vive la France!  Long live the idea of Paris and of France as it imagines itself, as it aspires to be!  We are all Charlie.  We are all Jean-Pierre.  We are all Edith Piaf.  We are all Parisians today.

August 16, 2015

From Homecoming Court Member to ISIS Member — How One Young Woman Responded to Mississippi

How does a teenager in Vicksburg, Mississippi, not raised Muslim, a woman, decide to join ISIS? Jaelyn Deshaun Young recently graduated from Warren County High School on the edge of Vicksburg.  She was in the homecoming court, meaning that she was no loner; people at school liked her and thought she was pretty, which she is. She got good grades, went to Mississippi State with an eye toward becoming a doctor.  Her father was  police officer in the Vicksburg police department; he had served in Afghanistan prior to that, where he fought Al Qaeda.  He took his family to church on Sundays.  How does a young woman raised in that atmosphere decide her destiny is to join a terrorist, Christian-persecuting, woman-raping organization that beheads other Muslims and destroys precious works of ancient art?

How Could this smart young woman do something so self-destructive?

How Could this smart young woman do something so self-destructive?

It would be easy to blame her young husband, Muhammad Dakhlalla.  His father was a leader at a local mosque in Starkville, Mississippi, near the university campus.  He must have radicalized her. Except this is not what the FBI says happened. They say that it was Jaelyn who led the charge toward ISIS, according to their investigation.  Muhammad, known to most as “Mo,” was not a radical. His father’s Islam manifested itself publicly in feeding the poor.  He ran a restaurant in Starkville until he had to close it down; he was giving away more food than he was selling. This kind of religious practice is not likely to lead to beheadings. Jaelyn certainly converted to Islam while she was getting to know Mo, but he wasn’t pushing the couple into a life of terrorism.  Mo told the FBI agents posing as ISIS recruiters that he was willing to fight and die for the Islamic state, but their most impassioned correspondent, itching to get to Syria to fight, was Jaelyn.

So how does a pretty, smart, charismatic girl who grew up in Mississippi in a Christian home decide not just to convert to an Islam guided by acts of charity but to an Islam guided by acts of terror?

She must have first grown disenchanted.  Teenagers are champions of disenchantment. I know I was. When I was in high school, I wrote an angry chapbook of poetry, which I dedicated to “high school students and other inmates of society.”  I had spiky, red hair for a time.  I sneaked out to parties with lots of people wearing brightly-striped Mohawks in places like abandoned warehouses, parties with punk bands that got shut down by the cops, parties where I had to run out the back door because of a raid. I thought high school was a cruel farce. Instead of going to senior prom, I sneaked out to meet a neon abstract sculptor whom I was dating (after meeting him in a cutting-edge art gallery where he was exhibiting his work) for a night of transgression. I refused to attend graduation. Jaelyn must have felt something like this – only there are no Mohawk-punk-band-warehouse-parties in Vicksburg. She would have had to channel her feelings of discontent elsewhere.

I imagine her father, a police officer and a veteran, must be a fairly conservative, pro-establishment kind of a man. He must have told his daughter that education was the path to success.  She certainly did well in school. She surely made more friends than I did at my high school; new wave art girls do not tend to get elected to homecoming court. The social establishment was not, it seemed, particularly rejecting of her. Her revolt could not have been because of a prom scene like the one out of Carrie.

That said, Jaelyn is a woman of color, and Vicksburg is a town where there are racists.  I know because I lived there.   They talked to me about people of color in disparaging ways sometimes. Though her father is a police officer, it would be hard to watch the national pattern of police brutality against people like Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, the tanks and tear gas thrown at peaceful protesters in Ferguson, and not get disgusted, to feel as if America were terrorizing black folks.  It is a reasonable conclusion to draw. Black lives matter, and it does not seem that police forces across the country acknowledge this. How could this problem NOT strike home for a young woman of color whose father was on the police force?

But rage and disenchantment are not enough to explain the embracing of a radical form of Islam that rapes, beheads, and destroys. How could a smart young woman conclude that these were her allies? She, like so many who choose to join ISIS, must have been ignorant of what real Islamic Caliphates looked like a thousand years ago.  There, women had more freedom than they did in the Christian nations.  Medicine, science, and the arts flourished.  Religions of every stripe were tolerated. While it was dangerous to cross a caliph, the caliphs were not known for kidnapping, torturing, and brutalizing people under their power.  Nothing about ISIS suggests they are trying to build such a caliphate.  They destroy art.  They oppress and enslave women.  They kill Christians, crucifying them, killing their babies before their eyes, even desecrating ancient Christian cemeteries.  They used mustard gas on a town last week – a chemical weapon so brutal and horrid that it was banned after World War I by the Geneva Convention, that thought it ought not be used against enemy soldiers.  ISIS used it on children a few days ago.  This is not an Islamic caliphate of old.  This is a demonic holocaust.  How does a daughter of a man who fought Al Qaeda decide to join such a group?

I look into the face of this pretty girl, taken from her high school yearbook, and like her parents, I don’t understand.  The FBI agents claim that when that Islamic gunman shot a bunch of Marines recently at a recruiting office, she rejoiced that the numbers of people who agreed with her were growing. I see the pretty, demure smile on the face of this young lady, and I am baffled.  I want to ask her what could have ever made her so angry at the sleepy town of Vicksburg that she would want not just Islam instead of Christianity but this brutal form of it.  I want to ask her who hurt her so badly she thinks she needs to join a group of monsters for protection from them. I would take her to the NAACP Jackson headquarter to sign up to register voters, something I did when I lived in Vicksburg.  I want to take her to a party of free thinkers, rare as they may be in a place like Vicksburg.

I want to give her a book of Rumi’s peaceful poetry. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, he is perhaps the greatest poet from Islam who ever lived.  He lived in an Islamic caliphate that encouraged his work.

He wrote:

“’Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Jaelyn, I would meet you there.  Let me urge you, with an Islamic mystical poet, not to throw away your life to become cannon fodder for a pack of fascists, or now, where you are in America, a jail bird.  There are so many other ways to reject Mississippi culture, if you feel you need to.  Meet me there, and you, Rumi, and I will talk.

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