sorry for the silence
alternatively: you're welcome!
I haven’t felt comfortable sending out my silly little essays about media I like in the midst of the numerous humanitarian crises happening across the globe — I thought about writing something about how it feels to be Arab American at a time like this, but, frankly, I’m at a loss for words. It feels bad.
So instead of more words from me, I thought I’d share a poem from Khalil Gibran. I put this on my Instagram story last week and people seemed to dig it—if you haven’t read more of Gibran’s stuff, you should. GOAT-status.
War by Khalil Gibran
One night a feast was held in the palace, and there came a man and
prostrated himself before the prince, and all the feasters looked
upon him; and they saw that one of his eyes was out and that
the empty socket bled. And the prince inquired of him, “What has
befallen you?” And the man replied, “O prince, I am by profession
a thief, and this night, because there was no moon, I went to rob
the money-changer’s shop, and as I climbed in through the window
I made a mistake and entered the weaver’s shop, and in the dark I
ran into the weaver’s loom and my eye was plucked out. And now,
O prince, I ask for justice upon the weaver.”
Then the prince sent for the weaver and he came, and it was decreed
that one of his eyes should be plucked out.
“O prince,” said the weaver, “the decree is just. It is right that
one of my eyes be taken. And yet, alas! both are necessary to me
in order that I may see the two sides of the cloth that I weave.
But I have a neighbour, a cobbler, who has also two eyes, and in
his trade both eyes are not necessary.”
Then the prince sent for the cobbler. And he came. And they took
out one of the cobbler’s two eyes.
And justice was satisfied.
What I love about this poem is that it is unrelenting in its allegory. Most readers reach “justice upon the weaver” and pause—wasn’t the weaver the victim? But in the logic of black-and-white justice, the thief is the one who has suffered.
Makes you wonder if Gibran ever had a career in American health insurance . . .
The “point,” of course, is that this binary view of justice will prevail all the way down, until the cobbler loses an eye. “Justice was satisfied” — who is justice, here? I can’t help but think of the United States and our hero-complex.
Another thing I love about this poem is it plays with the specter of orientalism. We’ve all heard about the law of hudud from the Quran (the penalty for theft is the loss of a hand) — in the Western world, this is often used as an example of the “barbarism” of the East. Easterners are inherently violent, and they need the gentle guiding hand of the West to save them from themselves, right?
I’m not going to waste my breath explaining to you why that is all kinds of backwards and racist. Instead, I’ll just assume you get it, and skip ahead to the part where the Gibran’s poem goes beyond simple tit-for-tat justice and carries the punishment back to the poor cobbler, who I think we can all agree was innocent.
If I was a 10th grade English teacher, I’d ask my students to write an essay on why the poem is titled “War.” But I’m not, so I’ll just tell you for free: This justice is twisted. That’s war.