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October 19, 2005
Vol. 3, No. 25



Jeff Severns Guntzel Enough of punditry

Jeff Severns Guntzel, NCR staff writer

I had big plans for this column: an Iraqi friend, badly wounded (almost killed) in the twisted metal of a freeway car accident near the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib, spends a day in a Baghdad hospital. He was headed to the airport for a flight to New York where he was to begin a graduate program in civil engineering. Instead he was laid up, bloody and broken, in the badly strained Yarmouk Hospital.

There he lay among the victims of a morning triple suicide bombing. There were the afternoon victims, too -- all Iraqi police burned from face to foot in a fourth attack. There was a doctor for whom the emergency medical concept of triage was not a first wave coping strategy but a cruel and daily practice.

My plan was to exploit my friend's experience here to make some political point or another.

I started writing last week but didn't get far. Something happened: my friend wound up in the hospital again. This time it's a Manhattan hospital. He is living on Manhattan's Lower East Side now, still healing from the accident two months ago, and working towards a two-year degree he may or may not take back to Iraq.

It's a blood clot -- big and deadly, a complication from the accident -- that has him under the watch of an endless parade of nurses with needles and resident doctors with questions but never any answers. He is disoriented. He is tired. And though no Baghdad hospital knows the peace (or the machines) of this hospital in New York, he aches for home.

Visiting him last night I asked what he missed the most -- friends and family, of course, but what specifically? "I miss just sitting with my friends," he said. "Just sitting with my friends and talking about the conditions."

It's a curious thing to say. He was silent for a minute and then he sort of created the situation he was missing: he started talking about "the conditions." He talked about the bombs, the blast walls, the blackouts, the constant turnover of flawed leadership, the occupation. Then silence again. Then a distant, sad smile as he stared at his feet (lifted to the level of his heart by a mechanical bed), and with wet eyes let out a laugh that was really a grunt. Shaking his head and turning to me he said what he always says when we have this conversation: "This is the life for us."

For now, my friend is resigned. Unlike the endless and interchangeable suits and comb-overs of America's punditry class, he offers no self-assured, sound bite prescriptions.

Enough of punditry -- even as the opportunity tempts me now. There is no heart in punditry. It's all head. There is no poetry. "This is the life for us": It sounds like the beginning or the end of a poem. It reminds me of something the Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuquan wrote. In "Face Lost in the Wilderness," the poet writes:

In the mirror of my heart you can find no shelter,
only my country's disfigured face
her face, lovely and mutilated,
her precious face ...
And it reminds me, less directly, of a poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca called "How We Carry Ourselves." It's a poem he dedicated to prisoners. It is no stretch to understand Iraq as a prison and when my friend was still living there, sending me e-mails between power outages, I thought often of Baca's beautifully hopeful poem. As I read the poem again this morning, I am thinking again of my friend who sleeps now in an East Village hospital bed and I think of the life he will return to when he is finished here. I have not told him this but he is my hope for Iraq. If I had to explain to him what that means, I would do it best by reading from Baca's "How We Carry Ourselves":
If you can take the hammering, they will give,
if you can hold on while they grip you
and hurl you ragefully at the ground,
if you can bite your teeth when they bend you,
and still, you do not fit,
you can be who you are.

You can see and breathe in God's grace,
you can laugh at sparrows, and find love
in yourself for the sun, you can learn
what is inside you, you can know silence,
you can look at the dark gray machine around you,
souls going up like billows of black smoke,
and decide what you will do next,
you who are the main switch, who turns
everything off.

But you, breathing, smiling, struggling,
turning yourself on. ...

I don't pray. But when I read this poem and think of my friend and of Iraq, I come awfully close.

Jeff Severns Guntzel's e-mail address is jguntzel@ncronline.org

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