The following poem is from my Burning Archive collection.
It had its origins in a strategic leadership program I attended some years ago at the Australian and New Zealand School of Government. We, the participants, sat in a large circle of maybe 30, and were invited by the facilitator to declare something about ourselves, some thing we aspired to do, but had not. It was an exercise in getting out of our comfort zone, and into the kind of psychodynamic group space beloved by the Tavistock Institute.
There were some dull confessions and rote ambitions, and then it came to my turn. I said, “I had always wanted to be a poet, but never had fully given myself over to it.” I was teetering on the verge of the perpetual crisis of my career – a dichter lost in the maze of power. I heeded the call of the strange gods that I serve, and set out on my unique path.
Later in the leadership program, we were asked to develop a policy response to the immigration and refugee problem in Australia. We were shipped around Melbourne to meet various stakeholders, including one remarkable community leader of the Afghani refugee community in Melbourne. Nouriel was her name – I have forgotten her surname over the years.
When we presented our proposals to the group we were invited to be as imaginative as possible. I closed out our presentation, with an improvised story about Nouriel’s shoes, the gifts she gave to her home country in the hope that women would be educated, and her society would find peace and no longer need to be a source country for refugees.
Here is the poem.
Nouriel does not know time wasting.
She does not know carelessness.
Asylum seekers – she cannot forgive them,
For buying their way to freedom,
For walking past crying millions in the camps.
And the lawyers, who parade
Their bookish rights, like flash cars,
She fled Kabul in ’79,
An educated woman in a liberal society
that just did not take.
Paris schooled her for a time –
Just like Khomeini, another exile –
Before the Great Southern Land
Gave her freedom,
But not a home.
She remembers Kabul:
Its ordered streets and fruit-trees,
The women laughing in the sunshine,
The children dressed in fine cottons,
Playing in the gardens.
Then, the tanks, the shells, the war, the hatred
That brought Afghanis to this kitchen,
At the other end of the world.
Here she returned the gift:
Making scarred men into kitchen hands;
Running English classes for the women;
Outwitting the men who would wrap
Their women in silent ignorance
To cocoon their cards and drink and faith;
Nouriel’s freedom must be worked for.
To those many who do, she gives all that she can.
Now she returns to Kabul,
after the Taliban
Have fled her city for now.
In abandoned parks, children play bare-footed
Between rubble and shells.
Schools barely hold their girls against poisoned faiths.
To these schools she decides to give;
So no more Afghanis will flee to her wealthy refuge,
But stay in her remembered home.
She buys the children shoes,
Hundreds of boxes of shoes.
One summer she visits a school with her gifts.
Watching as the children begin their long walk home,
She sees one girl carrying her box,
Still bare-footed, in the hard dust of the street.
Nouriel asks: “Why don’t you put them on?”
The girl replies: “I must wash my feet first.”
Image source: Getty images