I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
Langston Hughes (1901-1967)
This year marks the tenth anniversary of my writing this regular column for Al Jazeera.
Five years ago, I wrote a piece, “Why do we write?”, in which I reflected on this rare privilege of having a global audience and the moral responsibility that comes with that privilege. Today I wonder what is it that determines the discourse and directs the diction of our public meditations.
I began writing regularly for Al Jazeera during the heyday of the Arab Spring. This column and the Arab Spring, which first blossomed in Tunisia like a late flower in January 2011, grew together, you might say.
Ten years on, I’m writing this essay in the immediate aftermath of a violent coup attempt in the United States. On January 6, a white supremacist mob stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to overturn the result of a democratic election.
Today, every single racist cliche American politicians and pundits have crafted to demean and dismiss the rest of the world has come to haunt them. The scenes of violence and chaos unfolding in their own capital look just like those seen in countries they branded as “Banana Republics”, “Third-World Dictatorships” and “S***holes” to set their so-called exceptional and exemplary “democracy” apart.
Indeed, after the US’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic and inability to stop the storming of its Capitol by armed domestic terrorists, it is now impossible to deny that the US itself is a “s***hole” country.
I am not rejoicing in that fact. Quite to the contrary – my fate, the fate of my family and the future of millions of new and old immigrants to this land are, after all, tied to this country and will be affected by the revelation of its true nature for everyone to see.
When I started writing for Al Jazeera, I was engulfed in the ecstasy of the Arab Spring. Ten years later, I am submerged in the despair of the “American winter”.
The noisy delusion of American democracy
The idea of American democracy from its very inception, and as flagged by the ridiculous euphemism of its “exceptionalism”, is literally a racist proposition. It was never meant to include non-white people. It was born out of the genocide of Native Americans and built with the pernicious fruits of trans-Atlantic slavery. It was carefully designed to serve racist white settler-colonists, and racist white settler-colonists only, in perpetuity.
As a result, the white racists for whom America was built still have a sense of ownership over its “hallowed halls of democracy”. To see this sense of ownership in action, just look at the arrogance, the ease and the entitlement with which that mob stormed the Capitol. They attacked and ransacked what has been sold to the rest of the world as a “citadel of democracy”, because they see it as the alter of their racial superiority, and fear that it is being taken away from them by liberal whites to be given to liberal undesirables.
That angry racist mob was the barely repressed ego of the entire Republican Party unleashed. With that terror attack, white supremacist Republicans have done to America what America has long been doing to the rest of the world with equal ease. They attacked and briefly occupied the Capitol with the same sense of entitlement that Americans invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, and helped their fellow settler-colonists steal Palestine.
The racists who attacked the Capitol, like millions of their Republican supporters, are scared that the Democrats are plotting to take away their privilege and dismantle America’s white supremacist foundations. They are, of course, mistaken.
The liberalism that the Democrats are promoting has a different and more colourful constituency, but is no less white supremacist than the conservatism of the Republican Party. The Democratic Party allows Americans of colour, such as Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, to assume positions of power, but only after they prove themselves as defenders of the existing white supremacist order. No Black or Brown politician, for example, can come close to a position of power within the Democratic Party, or in a Democratic White House, without pleading their loyalty to, and undying support for, the apartheid state of Israel.
The drama we are witnessing unfold in the US today is merely a battle between two forms of white supremacy – one manifest and the other latent.
The Republicans falsely fear that the Democrats are working to take their privileges and give them to people of colour. The Democrats, however, will not give any privilege or power to any person of colour unless and until they fit the criteria British colonial officer Lord Macaulay set in his infamous treatise Minute on Education (1835) at the height of British rule in India:
“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”
Macaulay anticipated the rise of Obama and Harris some 200 years ago. Although the former president and the incoming vice president are both Black, they are of “a class of persons” who are white “in opinions, in morals, and in intellect”.
So there is no reason for Republicans to fear the Democrats – in the end, both parties are working for the very same goal of keeping alive the white supremacist project that is American “democracy”.
Today, the real change that Malcolm X had dared to imagine is carried only in the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement. And as the Republicans are arming themselves to physically fight those calling for real equality and justice, the Democrats, led by Obama and Harris, are working to distort and divert their message.
New York: The soul of America
This is what we write about when we write about America – the active dismantling of an illusion that has Obama and Harris on one side, Trump and Nikki Haley on the other, and the fate of an entire planet in the balance.
But the soul of America from which we write is not in the gaudy Romanesque citadels of power in Washington, DC and those who are drawn to it. The soul of America is in every listless site of every small or big city, town, or village, where people live. And for me, and millions of others like me, it is in New York City.
Like people all over this fragile planet, we too carve an actual or virtual niche for ourselves in New York City. It is from the meditative pulses of those niches that America keeps dreaming of itself in the Bronx, in Brooklyn, in Queens, in Staten Island, and yes even in Manhattan.
Corresponding to the soul of our city, the prose of our writings on America cannot be all plaintive and critical. It is by necessity also meditative and dreamlike, in exactly the opposite direction of the verbosity of Barack Obama schmoozing his prose in vain into a vacuous posterity.
It is this inner quietude of the meditative space that America allows you against the very core of its noisy newsreels. Particularly in the time of COVID-19, as you cannot go outside, you go inside. For me, the source of solace and salvation has been to read and reread a famous letter sublime Persian poet Sohrab Sepehri wrote in New York to his friend Ahmad Reza Ahmadi in Tehran, another iconic poet, in the early 1970s.
Poets from Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte and Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti to Chilean master Pablo Neruda and Palestinian icon Mahmoud Darwish have joined their American counterparts Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, and Audre Lorde to grace New York’s moral imagination. That expansive horizon has a particular Persian hue, too.
I write my columns for Al Jazeera from the heart of a simple and solid passage in Sepehri’s New York letter that today most resonates with the sheer sublimity of his soul, where he gives an itinerary of his daily chores:
“I paint, I read poetry, I see Yektai (a fellow Iranian poet and painter), and occasionally I cook at home – then I wash the dishes, and then I cut my finger, and for a few days cannot paint. The food I make is quite delicious, except you must add a bit of salt and pepper to it, and a spoonful of generosity. My mother’s cooking was so good, and still I used to find fault with it, why, for example the green of her celery stew was so dark. How late do we figure things out? How late did I discover life means ‘for the time being?’ Iran has kind mothers, delicious food, terrible intellectuals, and oh such beautiful prairies.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.