As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Khaled Mattawa in response to a video of him reading his poem “Beatitudes” aloud. Khaled Mattawa wrote a general response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Dear “Dear poet” readers,
Your letters are perhaps what poets to live for: highly intelligent readings of our work that assure us that we’ve touched someone’s imagination, and that poetry is in safe hands. I can’t tell how gratified I am for your attentive, empathetic and curious readings of my poet “Beatitudes.” The poem will appear in my new book Fugitive Atlas which should be out in early October.
I have put several aspects of letters together and I’m hoping to address them, or as many of them as possible, in one letter. You had many interesting questions about the source of the poem and how it relates to my real life. You also wanted some clarity about the ideas presented in the poem and its process as a text. In my discussion below, I will proceed section by section beginning with section I of the poem.
To begin with, I indeed have a daughter. Her name is Salma and she’s thirteen years old. The poem is based not entirely on real life conversations with Salma, but with a mode of questioning that she brought forth into my life and that necessitated that I offer answers. The idea that adults ought to be answerable to their children is both literal and metaphorical in that I have had to literally answer many of my daughter’s questions, and being a father makes me answerable in my behavior, be it in issues of politics, or the environment or in my interacting with others. Children have a highly tuned moral sensibility and being aware that I have to explain my choices to my daughter, now and in the future, has added to my self-awareness.
The poem’s drama of dialogue, if you will, covers many aspects of our life. My wife and I are Muslim and we raised Salma to identify as Muslim. The Islamic story of creation is basically the same as that in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The first humans are Adam and Eve and they lived in the garden until they disobeyed God’s command not to eat from the tree of knowledge.
But according to Islamic belief, God asked his creations about being stewards of the world. Here’s the passage that describes that particular story:
“Truly, We did offer al-amanah (the trust or moral responsibility) to the heavens and the earth, and the mountains, but they declined to bear it and were afraid of it. But man bore it. Verily, he was unjust (to himself) and ignorant.”
The Quran, 33:72
So, as the Quran tells us, God asked his other creations if they wanted to bear moral responsibility, or free will, and to take charge of the world. They, however, refused it fearing that they would fail and disappoint God. But “man,” represented in Adam, accepted the responsibility. It’s interesting that God calls “man” unjust and ignorant for taking the responsibility that He offered to his creations.
I’ve always found this story deeply fascinating. Reading it ecologically now, I found that it does emphasize humans’ responsibility toward the earth and the rest of creation. Our failure to do so indeed underlies our unjustness and ignorance.
In Salma’s case, her curiosity about the story, was both theological and ecological. Why did God offer Adam this choice? Why did the other creatures refuse? Could the world have had a different history altogether? Indeed.
The poem, as you all noticed, along with many other poems in the book, does preoccupy itself with the ecological dangers that surround our planet as well as the political circumstances surrounding our family’s particular life. These political circumstances include a few years that we spent in Libya after the fall of the dictatorship of Muammar al-Qaddafi. We had always traveled with Salma, but with the move to Libya, we traveled much more, to Qatar, Tunisia, and Jordan. We returned to the U.S. for Salma’s second grade and then moved to Egypt for two more years. While in Egypt, I conducted research on the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean and Salma became aware of the suffering of the immigrants who crossed the Mediterranean to secure safe and prosperous lives in Europe. Her questions in the second section of the poem, cover the gamut of her discoveries about the turmoil that surrounded her, from the death of Qaddafi to the migrant crises that ensued.
You can say that the third section of the poem covers our experience in America in between our travels and after we’d settled back in the States. It’s only in America that Salma thought about her racial category, and very early on, perhaps as early as the age of four, and later at seven, when we were Stateside. It’s also in the U.S. that she spoke to us in Arabic as a secret language, and expressed a great deal of pride at knowing another language and being an Arab Libyan-American.
These dynamics began to change as Salma entered her teen years which have been lived in the U.S. She began losing interest in Arabic, and seemed less invested in her differences from others, cultural, racial and religious. The pressure for conformity is immense in the U.S., and as you may have experienced it yourselves, it is incredibly powerful, and in many cases painfully so, starting middle school.
I’d known this in the abstract, but also from experience. I came to the U.S. at the age of fifteen and attended an all-boys boarding school in the South for the last three years of high school. It was a tough place in some ways and racism was definitely part of the struggle that I faced there. At that time, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism was casual and not particularly threatening. In the last two decades, Islamophobia has become much worse. Although Salma is native-born and speaks English fluently, her name and look mark her as non-White and a potential target for racism.
Those of us who’ve experienced racism, as well as others who’ve experienced abuse or discrimination because of our differences, know that it leaves a mark, but not a new mark. Rather such incidents seem to reopen old wounds. Even before someone hurls a racial slur at us, the culture has somehow marked us as different and inferior through many subtle hints. When the racial slur or overt abuse comes, there’s a sense of inevitability about it because such incidents make us aware of how much we may have internalized these negative ideas of ourselves. We feel the pain of the sting, but also of being exposed, or rather confronted with a reality we had foolishly assumed was no longer real. Incidents of racism makes angry at those create them, but to some degree we are angry at ourselves, feeling confused and desperate. This is what I mean about reopening wounds, sometimes wounds we did not know existed within us. This is how pervasive and insidious racism is.
This section of the poem (section III), ends with a sort of solution or consolation. To pass through the confusion and despair, we call on the power of love, our love of humanity as a whole, our belief in people’s capacity for love, and our love for selves, of our origins, inheritances, and what we have become as people.
Finally, the fourth section of the poem functions as many of you have noted. It is the handover of the world from the parent to the child. Instead of asking questions, or childishly trying to allay fears, the child here is teaching the father, telling him where they should go and points to things they should observe. In our real life, Salma was much more curious about the natural world than I or my wife, her mother, ever were. Our early education did not instill in us much curiosity about nature, and we were both delighted about Salma’s knowledge and curiosity about plants and insects, etc. Hence, she really was teaching me about the natural world when we went out walking in nature.
I should also mention that some of the details are particular to our experience as well. When were in Egypt we traveled to Kenya and Madagascar, and it was in Madagascar that we saw the tiniest chameleon ever. It was at night and the creature was almost the size of a beetle as the poem says. Salma saw it first. She had known that such chameleons existed and she and the tour guide proceeded to inform us all of them.
This last section, and the poem as a whole, end with this scene of the handoff. As a parent, there is much that I want to protect my daughter from. It’s a very tricky business. A parent wants to shield his child from the cruelty of the world, but also feels responsible that they eventually learn the truths of life, both the painful truths and the many undeniable joys of existence. In reality, the handoff from child to parent is never ceremonial, never occurs in singular incident. For the sake of the poem, the moment had to be ceremonial and formal whereby the child says it clearly to the parent. And with that the poem closes with a note of continuity, and some assurance that the new generation will hopefully be better than us.
A final word about “beatitudes.” I’ve always loved the word itself; I had an alternate meaning of it as a combination of beauty and attitude, or beauty as an attitude, which struck as a rich and stimulating concept.
But in life, I also love the Beatitudes section the New Testament. As some of you noted, my poem is an instructional text but where the person being taught ends up being the teacher, thus emphasizing the idea of education as a two-way street.
I also like the idea of a Muslim writer, me, drawing on a Christian text as his model. Religious texts such as the Hebrew psalms, the Hindu Upanishads, as well as ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian hymns have been deep sources of knowledge for me in the spiritual and poetic sense. Prayer as a form of speech, where we stand in awe of existence and with complete clarity with ourselves, has taught me a great deal about how a poet ought to speak, intimately, honestly, and with a deep yearning for love and peace.
Thank you again for reading my poems, and more importantly thank you for reading poetry. Your attentiveness warms my heart enormously, and as I felt at the end of “Beatitudes”, I feel assured in handing this beautiful, careworn world to you.
Love, peace and joy to you and your loved ones,