November 8, 2001

Professor Examines Politics, 'Poetics of War'

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From the shadows of violence and the ravages of war has emerged a new genre of poetry which frames itself in the topsy-turvy view of an individual accustomed to a world awash with horrors and politics.

Especially since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, Ammeil Alcalay begins, “you think of yourself as an oasis in a sea of madness. Reverse this and think of it as normalcy.”

For Alcalay, a world free of terror and cruelty is often the norm. A professor of Classical, Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Culture at Queens College, Alcalay spent years in the former Yugoslavia translating and editing Bosnian papers and literature, serving among other functions, as a primary source for providing the American media access to Bosnian voices.

“In Sarajevo, people just lived [through the Bosnian civil war] as civilians, it is part of the way things are thought about,” Alcalay explained.

In his readings of Bosnian, Hebrew, and Arabic poetry during a talk titled “Politics & Imagination: Transmitting the Poetics of War,” Alcalay portrayed a different world, whose poetry and literature uses the vocabulary of its environment: a language of bloodshed and tragedy — a world which had largely existed outside of American imagination.

“What we find politically retrograde is because of the limitations of what we imagine. We can’t place it, so we don’t know what it means,” Alcalay said.

“In the U.S. we create nations, and people look to us. We don’t translate many things – so it makes it especially hard to find that space where [the translated work] will be accessible.”

However, with increased American involvement in these other cultures, more space (and thus more opportunity) for translations are becoming available.

With this opportunity, however, comes a responsibility, Alcalay adds, “Taking text and giving it to the world that caused this, [the challenge for the translator is] how can you make for that text an afterlife and not let it become absorbed [into the dusty recesses of scholarship.]”

Alcalay’s solution was to publish works of other cultures in small presses, where, “they are read and where they can challenge the writers to conceive of a different imagination — otherwise the works will disappear,” Alcalay said.

The importance of these works and the Bosnian tragedies cannot be trivialized, Alcalay said. “What happened in Bosnia was the destruction of a civil society, which can easily be replicated anywhere. It’s truly a global calamity.”

Alcalay spoke on the literature and poetry of war-torn Bosnia, where politicians manipulate and generalize the destruction of war to the extent that it seems, “a thing is true only if blood is dripping from it,” Alcalay said.

“Politicians make gains by consolidating [tragedies], and saying that those things are just like another,” he added.

Regional literature breaks with the ubiquitous drum beat of politicians and reporters listing statistical representation of the war’s horrors. Instead, it reclaims the individual. Reading poems speaking of a silent soldier’s voice elocuted through the shrapnel of a shell and of unflinching images of corpses, Alcalay explained, “[the poetry] proclaims the ability to name things for yourself and not letting others claim these things for you.”

The readings spoke personally to Nabil Saad, grad, who was born in Croatia, and lived in Lebanon for 28 years – including during the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1991 and Israel’s 1982 invasion.

“Listening to this account of war was d