Pesach Rotem was born and raised in New York and now lives in the village of Yodfat in northern Israel. He received his B.A. from Princeton University and his J.D. from St. John’s University. His poems have been published in more than two dozen literary journals including Chiron Review, Natural Bridge, Poets Reading the News, and Voices Israel.
Stayed up past bedtime
To see the moon in shadow.
Clouds couldn’t spoil it.
“Democracy is coming to the USA.”
— Leonard Cohen
2000 U.S. Presidential Election
Al Gore: 50,999,897 votes
George W. Bush: 50,456,002 votes
Bush wins the election.
2016 U.S. Presidential Election
Hillary Clinton: 65,853,625 votes
Donald Trump: 62,985,105 votes
Trump wins the election.
That’s democracy, American style—
It can make your head spin
Wondering how could the guy
Who got fewer votes win?
So to find out what happed to Clinton and Gore
We must seek higher wisdom, we must search and explore
At the site of the weirdest and most arcane knowledge:
Not Harvard, not Yale, it’s the Electoral College.
A bizarre institution of surreal education
Where reason runs backwards and befuddles the nation,
It’s where up is now down and less is now more,
Where Trump defeats Clinton and Bush defeats Gore.
But “Why?” you protest, and I think rightly so,
“Why not normal democracy?” the world wants to know.
In normal democracy, it’s the people who choose
So the losers don’t win and the winners don’t lose.
If you’d really like to find out
How things got this way,
Go back to the founders;
See what they had to say.
Go straight to the source—Federalist Paper 68—
And read there where Alexander Hamilton states
That if we left it up to the people to choose,
They’d probably just end up deceived or confused.
But election by Electoral College, he’s sure,
Would give us a process that is morally pure
And would result every time (he said this, it’s true)
In a president “pre-eminent for ability and virtue.”
And for these brilliant insights
He’s still honored today
On the ten-dollar bill
And in a hit Broadway play
While Trump reigns triumphant
And scoundrels hold sway.
Arise! Arise! Citizens arise!
Abolish the Electoral College!
Put Tom Paine on the ten-dollar bill!
Democracy is coming to the USA!
Professor Hofstadter’s Brain
A poem based on the “Ant Fugue” in Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter
Each of Professor Hofstadter’s neurons is like an ant
And the professor’s brain is like an ant colony.
That’s the conceit that this poem will prove
Based on ideas that I found in “Ant Fugue.”
ANTS AND NEURONS
An ant is not smart; its IQ is nil.
It has thought no deep thoughts and it just never will.
And of a Hofstadter neuron the same thing is true.
It does not even know the sum two plus two,
Nor the day of the week,
Nor what adjectives do.
If you asked a lone neuron please to explain
Where exactly the rain falls in Spain,
You’d find that it can’t.
It’s as dumb as an ant.
But put a million together,
You’ve got critical mass
That can accomplish great feats,
Reach the head of the class.
THE ANT COLONY
Millions of ants an ant colony make,
With high-level consciousness, alert and awake.
By working in varied well-organized teams
It accomplishes tasks beyond a single ant’s dreams.
It blazes trails, gathers food, maintains the nest,
And it raises its young to continue the quest.
It builds bridges and tunnels of complex engineering
So it can get to your picnic and taste your egg salad.
Division of labor and goal-based behavior: These are the sparks
That make a very smart whole from some very dumb parts.
PROFESSOR HOFSTADTER’S BRAIN
When millions of Hofstadter-neurons converge
In Hofstadter’s skull, then what will emerge
Is a Hofstadter-brain. That’s a sight to behold.
More precious than copper, silver or gold,
More brilliant than Gödel, Escher or Bach,
More clever than Carroll, more sly than Brer Fox,
It creates books of great depth, clarity, range, wit, beauty, and originality,
In each single chapter and in book-length totality.
Division of labor and goal-based behavior: These are the sparks
That make a very smart whole from some very dumb parts.
The Ironic Demise of Dr. Lodge
I read in today’s Times that Dr. Henry S. Lodge,
The author of Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond,
Has died at the age of 58.
The cause of death was prostate cancer.
He is survived by his mother, his romantic partner, three siblings, and four children.
I felt an immediate urge to write a satirical essay (or perhaps a poem)
That would focus on the macabre irony of Dr. Lodge’s untimely demise
And culminate in some pithy observation about best-laid plans etc.
My better nature intervened and restrained me.
It reminded me that every human life is precious
And that every human death is a sad and solemn event
And certainly not an occasion for mockery.
In the end, my neurotic compulsion to constantly show off my own cleverness
Turned out to be stronger than my better nature.
Deeply ashamed, but unable to stop,
I picked up my pen
“Dr. Henry S. Lodge,
Author of Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond,
Has died at the age of 58.
And the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
Eight Stone Three
I sketched your face in
the midst of a bleached sky
touching the cool wet sands,
barefoot and loaded tonight.
Awaiting the rising red moon
ballerinas twirl on the sea wall
eight stone three drifting away
guided by ghosts of privateers.
Eyes expressionless and blank as
swale grass upon the dune quivers.
Now you’re here; then you’re gone;
as tears in the rain, the days of fear.
I’m sinking into the charcoal sketch
a note sits in crayon upon the dash
justification simple as uselessness.
eight stone three melts into the sea.
Illusions Burned, Radiant Light Restored
Part 1 – Exiled into a Ruthless Land
Time without becoming
It won’t work.
You thought it would work, but it won’t.
Clutched jaw, vermin making nests
in your gut, melted silver pouring
over your extremities, hot-plate
your whole hand must rest upon.
And here, you are supposed to find peace,
but you can’t. You can’t even glance
at that inhospitable land, can’t even step
a toe into its puddle of spittle without sinking,
like a mad crow cawing aimlessly here, there
across the sky.
Stones here, fish there, people moving,
going where they want to, and you, stuck, perpetually,
feet locked in the mire – misquotes buzzing,
barely a light across the moor.
You hoped it would work. You believed,
and in that belief, you touched happiness
for weeks, woke up thinking this hell
was wrapped and sealed, that your freedom
could be activated and somehow
a great merciful tide would come
and clear a path.
But now you know it won’t work.
Now you know who you are,
a broken umbrella that won’t work.
Fated to feel the impossible tension
of who you are and who you wish you could be.
The birds are somebodies. Each tiny sparrow,
worth embracing. You wish you held value
like the sparrow or even a cloud
that for a moment
gives relief from a relentless sun.
You wish you could carry this weight
a little longer. But both your arms are broken.
A greater force or just
this dull aching horror of
just the pound pound plaster-cast-mould
of what could-be, used-to-be, never-really-was.
Make me a hole big enough to escape from,
to join the flight of burning gods, retreating like they did,
into myth-oblivion. Pull the seasons from my mind,
memories when I thought love would sustain,
maintain its potency in spite of age,
desolation and disappointment.
Every ideal I held sacred has crumbled,
bread crumbs now,
smaller than pebble stones scattered on patio steps,
never existing at all.
I am a placeholder substitute there to feed,
provide shelter but never home.
I am blind, unchallenged, beyond the limit for redemption.
I am fighting the sea and the sea does not panic,
its own self-directed rhythm.
The sea’s flesh is stronger than my marrow, than a war-cry,
than the binding-ties of loved ones lost and buried.
The sea will receive me, not because I am special,
but because that is what it does.
My fight is fire, but only mortal, and the sea
has my body, fills my pores and lungs,
takes me below.
This is the voice
that heralds and hardens,
far from any shore.
Colours, saturated with salt,
whose better business taken up
and bloated, dulled of any identity.
This is the rhythm,
once so exact and necessary,
fallen below, muffled, interrupted,
spliced into unrecognizable dead forms.
This is the time spent
answering a calling, a duty
of divine command, slack now
as a pierced jellyfish,
abstract enough to be ignored.
This is the voice
that burst forth from my fire,
moved with violence into the light,
showed wings, a detailed face,
survival’s thundering veins.
This is the voice
I thought would crack the sun a little,
crack the mind to let leak in
a delicious deepened dimension.
I risked a destiny but failed to germinate.
Now I take up my luggage and wander the streets
with that voice,
claiming revenge in aggressive madness,
(a quiet vapour only
when children pass by.)
Tid-bits, burnt toast, is that the substance
of intensity or is brave conviction
only recognized in another world
or in heaven?
But heaven will not have me,
no matter how hard I swing it – heaven stays
a meditation mirage, a glimpse taken in,
taking me down,
not worth a fraction of the effort
I put into vaulting for peace.
Failed as a sunrise over a prison cell in dungeon ground.
Failed as condolences to the bereaved, or a sandwich
made, placed in the hands of the dying.
I took a step and crushed a flower.
I covered myself with blankets and lost
the willpower to breathe.
Truck overloaded with debris
driving straight toward me.
I should leap onto safe ground,
but there are high cliffs on either side.
I should lie flat and hope the wheels go between,
not crush my ribs, my femur, my pinky toe.
How can I welcome the spring?
What should I do?
Over and over the cut hand
escaping the hold, briefly,
then back, barred and shackled
by fool’s gold.
Part 2 – Defeat Masked as Acceptance
Blossoms That Resist Their Bloom
the sidewalk curb,
opened up, cracked into
pieces. No sooner
the storm rains came and
washed me down the sewer drain
into pipes I’d rather not go.
But who lives here, in the invalid waters?
Creatures thriving on the potent scent and grim.
Creatures with their own rapport, societies, and even
I will be the necklace you wear in the dim corner.
You keep saying one step one step, and
I will keep afloat in this sewage substance,
to not settle among the other mutations,
subjections – the great bowing down.
But remember, once I was a ruler,
doling out punishments and gifts upon
my erratic whims.
Once I cramped my mind with violence,
brooded on the sliced-throat of revenge.
That is why I am here,
backside floating in watered-down excrement,
barred between metal pipe walls.
If mercy is available, I will take it.
If not, like you said, one step, one step.
Cherry dreams are Cherry dreams.
Courage when cornered
Biting the marrow
of obscurity, planting my wisdom
in plastic pots – passages I conquered,
steps I took, cut through the dreamy level
into the ruthless underbelly formations
tainted, untainted complexities,
trite verbiage gets attention and eternity is
sucked into a keyhole darkness.
Lightweight riders riding,
applauding the trickle made from accidental saliva,
giving credence to feel-good epigrams, lacking in literature
and monumental sway.
God said paint, so I painted. God said break, so
I broke – the canvas, my heart and sanity.
Starving in the shadowland, frozen, cast out
in the middle of a dead lake.
Fire is a world of two masters. In its light
there is a reunion of acts, a sealed equal pact
between purification and destruction.
My roots are strong, no doubt, I have grown
high and thick-trunked, gathering greenery, but
in an empty field, empty of roads and wildlife,
empty of a steady stream.
The dark part
The lost part
the found-again not-wanted part
has arrived like a package at my door.
Purgatory leaning to pick it up, shake it up
and take scissors to the outline.
Inside is a mask made of fish-skin
containing a nameless vibration,
an unshifting necessity to put on, wear
and fit in.
I want to dispose of it, crush it then
rip it into tiny pieces, drop it down a sewer grate
far far from my home – maybe even take a bus
to another city and leave it there,
deep underground where no trace of it remans.
The tormenting part
The hard-concrete-wet-prison-floor part
The chained-to-the-wall part
is again, at my door.
It is noon hour and I still haven’t
put it on, as its stench dulls my appetite,
is really too much to bear, but I must put it on.
When I know the exit sign was just a mirage
how will I hold up now?
Silent in its deathless domain?
Silent in your unending anguish?
When hope is gone but faith remains,
in this place, miracles dare to bloom.
The wrong part
is the right part
because it is playing a part
I will wear its acid peel, place its flesh
over my own face, wear the mask
hurting as I do, then
I will hold out my hands,
Part 3 – The Wound is the Answer
The Flow of Matter
Take the light,
Lose the light,
racing across a panicked terrain.
Fear is a sloping hill mudslide.
You pierced the earth with your stick,
left it there, left running, thinking
your speed would catch on fire, seed
growth on dead ground, meaning more
than just thoughts impaled in your mind.
The stick stayed. It is still there, far from
where your limping dreams have finally arrested.
Release the burden of trying.
You have lost. This stone wall.
This patch of yellowed grass and the brutal
whirlwind all around – this is yours.
Make something of it.
Take the time, because you have that too.
Dissolve your belief of a mission
up into the rays of the giving sun.
There is no light different than the darkness.
Feel it flashing, flashing far away, rising,
broad shoulders, furrowed brow
yell it out one last time
Standing in the dark bend
of a wanderer’s insight where
neither solitude nor the life beneath
the great seas will do.
Which dead body do you keep? Salting
wounds for the sake of enlightenment,
framed with things you cannot glory in
even for a time.
It is nature and it is
a passing motion.
You will mourn its starving carcass
for you know nowhere else to rest
your heart and eyes.
Stand by the fires of liberation,
join inspiration with accomplishment.
The word is NO and it is mighty and reasonable.
None of this is a problem, even the dread
that spreads like maggots above your abdomen
in your leisure time, in your working-in-chains time,
all the time, surprising you with its intensity
and burrowing, burrowing.
Hold your lips tight, buckle up, straight away be
God’s soldier, holding acceptance as
You are not impotent, You are just
one reality. Think slowly. Your life is not yours
to keep. Feeling abandoned or belonging is
just a stirring up agitation – water, moon, desert wind.
Nothing is missing.
Where you are broken,
the light steps, is captured and glows
the most colourful where it is fractured.
It is your fingerprint in holy bloom.
It might be a ritual dance, a memory of walls
and the dew collecting on steel window bars,
but it is also a fossil you have gilded to your soul,
a door keeping you in this room, incarcerated,
white-knuckled and bawling.
You think you deserve it, that many lifetimes ago,
before the monastery, you did deeds
you would now wither from,
your now vegetarian soul, conscious
when you see slabs of cut-up carcasses
in the grocery store, conscious
of the torture and fear endured.
But you deserve only the wind your prayers
are carried on, only the smiles of your grown-up children
and your husband, happy beside you,
his sail full mast.
That place where the stagnant prison waters stank
and your feet developed unhealable sores,
is over, not even a rope nor an army
could carry you across
into a sunlit field.
Part of you is still there,
living out the punishment daily, toiling
in angry futility, tied to a tombstone with vultures
Wax yourself unhooked. The animals love you:
The mother bird feeds her young
right above your head, knowing
you are safe, joined to the psychic link.
Part 4 – Between Notes, An Interval of Peace
Where The Rays of the Sun Are Blocked
They Rest, Then Warm
In the summer your wore
your loose clothes.
In the winter, your layered yourself
It is spring and the ships
are setting out under a spring sky.
Take the time to wash your stone wall,
chip out a window, keep chipping and soon
it will be large enough for you to slip through.
The dark grammar is deepening, but so
you have made a choice to break neck-to-neck
with the soothsayers of doom, then to surpass them,
turn down an unleveled path and make true headway.
The rain will come, the stormy thunder
and the wind, but you have earned yourself
the skill of withstanding.
The parameters are bleeding through and your house
for now is happy.
Take a second to be grateful:
Immortality is only that –
a moment in full recognition
of the harmony innate in eternity
and the conscious love that beads
In the fall, you put away the bird feeders.
It is spring and still the birds are singing.
They survived and their singing
brings you joy.
Changing gears in the long-held-note
of the lion’s roar,
a way forward that does not jar
against your sacred values
or block the energy up or down, in
a stagnant pool of algae larvae-laid waters.
Take a hand and listen – there is still glory
to be found, a tent to build, a tree to climb.
Take what is untouched and touch it, craft it
like spores on the moon,
or team-spirit high-five it
in the bleachers.
Right now, what is not narrow is too wide
and barren, a place where even a young horse
would get tired racing across.
You were supposed to have passed this place by now,
or so you dreamed. You have only rough-cuts on your screen,
shapes like phantoms, hardly visible.
Inside, you are always tired.
Are you dying like you did in another lifetime
from a blood disease, alone in a room?
Or are you going
somewhere else this time,
coming to your senses, full gear,
a master of your circumstance, finally, ablaze?
The order of things was simplified,
silence ensued and questions left you
folded under the Buddha-wing.
Times in the shower when you heard and learned
the worries of the day were enough,
that there never were graphics or translations,
but only the raw-hewed truth
that flamed forth its music and love
without peculiarity, pure, in charge of
everything living, there
you felt yourself a queen in the lap pool
doing dives, and finding your coronation party
full of only wanted guests.
In this calm, you lost an onslaught of examples,
but held playtime as fair-time, power-of-the-spirit-time
occupying the four corners of the shower
and all the dimensions too.
Windows became houses became homes, places
of enactment, concentrated love and many broken
unfixable edges where the greatest fault
was always indifference as default to giving up.
The order of things was reduced
to a straight and infinite line.
Excess was swept away
and a breezy sobering became elemental,
austerity, soft as kindness.
a fighter’s field, then a gate to
squeeze through, mark your territory
on the other side.
A summer on the other side
where you could will all rounds, drop
your shield and summon in the wildlife.
Mornings there to ruminate,
cultivate your calling to reach
an undiscovered octave,
craving the centre of the storm
and knowing it
like your morning shower.
Friends are far or going into surgery wards
to hunt down a destiny.
Family is fractured, engraving
your failures centre-wall.
You see a driver shouting
at a mellow pedestrian
and a bronze statue tumbling over
in a flood.
You run to the gate and it is barred tight, not a crack
to slip a finger through. Above, it is different.
Do not miss the chance,
Slaughter your past
and even your accent.
Leap up into the tornado wind and spin-sail
out of your mortal sleep, bone-picked, out in the open,
looking at, loving, the first moon ever.
Part 5 – There Will Be Movement
Commitment In The Unending Desert
In case you don’t turn
but monotony pursues you
like a patient wild cat or
your fondest dream realized
has left you tight with dread – then be
the Buddha-master in the folded
seams, be the highrise apartment
and eat bread, sip your tea.
In case it will always be a matter of
just-getting-through, and stress and guilt
flank either side of your relief, linking arms,
then remember Jesus and his words
about the wind, smile at the expectant animals, find love
in the broken and bent, remember angels exist and God is
neither cunning nor withholding, but always available.
Be available too, open as a crumbled dam, open as
the first smells of spring.
Vivid days waiting to watch the eclipse.
The hawk has circled, telling you it is coming,
but in case it doesn’t, salvation is within, tied
to your own commitment, tied to the upstairs rooms
each filled with a sleeping loved one, each
closest to your heart.
The light came like light does
illuminating the clawing hand,
stretching taut the slack conviction.
It brought to the surface the groaning ache
of anxiety, making fingertips quiver and
their pulse beat in unnatural speed.
The light exposed the tender spot,
the bandaged maul,
merciless in its thorough claim.
After that, the body was done, the full moon waned
and ideals carried the weight of serious difficulties,
no longer racing full charge.
You walked with such exposure,
and learned how to surrender, dissolve
your fears into the light.
Many times it was that way,
necessary to make the decision
to release your load
otherwise you would sink –
until you stood bare beneath the sky,
resources and water tipped over the side –
just you now and that light,
not even time traded spaces with it,
not death or the grief of memories.
The light came and did what light does.
Can you hear its vibrational hum,
burning all the flash cards, all the pyramid-glory?
Patterns that were once grafted to your biology,
patterns that defined you, patterns that after the light
are unearthed, have nowhere to belong.
Dreamer, don’t forget to dream.
or forget your gleaming split fire
masquerading as normalcy
lost in everyday bravery, getting things done
in range of the pawn shop and the dentist, shopping
for fruit, all the while a thousand yards above
the streetwalk curb, seeing shadows of celestial
beings overlap on the pavement,
dense in their other-dimensional realm.
You vault off their cloud, into a place without clouds,
your mind a keeper of their language,
draped in dread one moment, the next, exploding
in effervescent kaleidoscope floral bands
feeling anxiety like thunder, touching rocks
like touching flesh
charged by the child skipping, the tied-up dog.
The estates are weeping wine, and the ships are loaded
with fat-stores racing past starving islands.
You don’t know how to live.
You don’t know one good day.
Is it a wound or is it a vision,
roughed-in displays of immortality
for a lasting harvest?
in pure afterglow,
voyage with me
with your wealth and force,
past the Earth’s mantel into
the inner core.
Never reckless but blinded
by refined instincts unified.
Activity without labour.
Joy with no reflection.
In the thick undergrowth
slide through the parameter,
making yourself a master
who faces everything as though
it was the first time.
Take the ring and turn:
Commitment in eternal flow.
Love at last on salty lips,
a devouring release.
Smells of spring
Smells of water
No gear, no ribbons
this is glory,
and whatever else is
pales beside this bouquet of our origins,
washed your garments
under your garments
triumphant with truth.
You lifted your mask, opened your mouth
and let your tongue be exposed.
Pent-up, brewing a seizure
under your skin.
The graveyard has re-absorbed its corpses.
The paintings on the walls
are breathing again.
Boat-sailing at sunrise,
entranced by the possibilities imagination allows.
O breath – colourful anomalies!
This is your place, fortified by authenticity.
The grass is finally growing,
the fires are wooed and contained.
You love this joy, your house without a lock-chain.
You love your freedom and your secrets.
You spread out, your roots have joined,
Landscapes stirred, hot coal,
hotter in the blue flame.
Summer walks terrible into your yard,
but the wind is in the lead and you will ask for
a multitude of blessings, believing.
You will die in the change and shape yourself
a new achievement. You will be diligent,
canceling old thoughts, creating new thoughts
that snuff out the physical dread of doom that infiltrate
like poison a flower’s soft pores.
You will go to where love goes, following,
healed of all affliction, even death, by faith,
no longer a pawn of desperately doing
to hold yourself a little closer to God.
When you see, you are still,
disrobed of your past,
anchored in the burn of being.
When you feel, you feel
his hand reaching out, lifting you out
when your faith has faltered,
his affectionate mercy, love, receiving, covering your sins
as the only absolution, and then you feel his sorrow,
are in awe of his obedience, in spite of such sorrow.
When you know, you know
miracles are right as home is,
are the result of stepping into the current, aligned.
When you know, you know
Jesus is radical, never easy –
demands alertness and surrender,
devotion and doing combined,
offers one slot, one string, thin but unbreakable –
rhythm blessed, rhythm revolutionized.
Into the nonsense depths
of plywood and pull
where fairness is the fallacy seen
as it always was and courage builds
like a patio – one stone at a time.
If you mount the depths and let yourself
go, it will be love you fall into and also
heartache from this gutsy deed. You will find
whiplash, and also warmth
you will be living, not driving, but whirled away
by the wind, free of dust and accumulation
of monotonous gestures. You will go
and give the best of yourself,
another light lit to rage in the corner of your room,
strong in promise but still unsure.
into the place your worldly wisdom tells you
not to go, but you know if you don’t leap
you might as well grow up,
assent to the rotting ways and coveted fears around you,
you might as well start picking your plot and throw out
the calendar for all your days forward will be the same
one after another.
You know the centre is wide, let it widen even more.
See the centre point as mercy.
There is fear in this new possibility of joy
There are many ‘what ifs?”
Trade your coat for naked skin.
Your gift-risk is finally here.
Hold it, caress it, honour it, feed it everything
it needs, and leap.
Part 6 – Only The Wind
Only The Way
Caked in the crusted past,
spoonfed a dilemma you cannot
escape from and is bound to take you down
while clawing for freedom.
But there is glory
in the mountain’s ridge, glory
in the sewer tunnels and in the medicine you take
to kill the gnawing pain – head stretched into a whiff
of rust-dust, bolted in place, but cracking.
This is your name, your life today, not in an imagined
tomorrow. Feed the small creatures if you can.
If you cannot, remember a time when you did, and know
that moment is still going on, like all moments,
sphere-held, mighty and forever –
so be kind
and be ready to change at full strength, for the sky
is churning, you cannot see it, but every moment
is giving you a new pattern to play with.
Hold your breath, keep holding, solid in this treachery,
revolt against your own perspective,
break your debts and all your days ahead
hard against an open window
Bind the ghost
to the earth, touch
the covers and pull
out a song, a whisper
of forgiveness. Anchored
in sensual currents,
holding hands, thighs
and perfect movement.
Love, this is air, enough
to get you through
the skeleton forests of yesterday
and the milestone thicket thorns of
Still in the joy, fishing for coins, finding
coins, clean and glittering, pulled from
I love my love with the same purity
of our first gaze. I love my love, shedding our shadows,
merged in what is ours alone to know and keep.
We thought we were broken, but we are not.
Our fires have not wilted, but
have become arrows
– shot – one after another
beating on the river’s surface, leaving a mark,
then sinking, traceless,
swallowed into the flow.
You held me in the fog,
fearful I would find the fringe
and crack. I took up a broom.
You set down the broom and told me
to explore the pattern of dirt, find meaning
in its intricate vineyard, be a woman
of observation, great endurance and then of joy.
You warned me not to plunge into the reflection,
(bitterness brighter than the dubious sun)
but to hold conference with what was lacking,
sit in the open space, tie my shoes, brush my hair,
take stock of the vacancy and see
if by being still it gets smaller,
starts imploding, becomes a village of amoebas
that eventually turns into plants, then ants
and starlings, drinking at the bin.
You held me in the midnight iris
when my hope had hardened.
You told me don’t even try to comfort the pain,
because by doing so, you only make it stronger,
locking it inseparable to your vitality.
I took the stairs, following.
I took a leap and honoured its design.
And you, you honoured that deed
and were pleased.
Part 7 – Arms Once Folded, Then Slack, Now Open
Freedom By The Fires
By the fires where you saw
the hunters’ faces exposed,
the groaning darkness growing, encompassing
any trace of tender love, growing like
a foal into a stallion – strong, unstoppable,
full of wild fury.
The hunters promised to devour
every Elder tree, every animal that took shelter
in their green folds, and even the multi-colored insects,
keepers of the balance.
Then Jesus walked the Earth, offered the living waters
from a well, sprang from history, separated from
tradition, mores and the lock-step of rigid ritual.
Tearing at the sky, he folded its skin back to reveal
a new level of heaven unseen before.
Once this happened,
the hunters still ruled but now
there a way was to jump over their skilled spears,
a narrow way to redemption with no training wheels,
no handle bars.
The courage of complete surrender.
The hunters remain in the streetcars, in corner stores,
at the family table. But Jesus remains too,
a gift of God’s greatest mercy
– the master scythe and the purifying balm –
wounds are lifted, all around the hunters,
children are dancing, lovers and old people too –
you see them,
followers of the wind,
nomad gatherers, receivers
of the charge.
© Allison Grayhurst 2019
Allison Grayhurst is a member of the League of Canadian Poets. Five times nominated for “Best of the Net”, 2015/2017/2018, she has over 1250 poems published in over 485 international journals. She has 21 published books of poetry, six collections and six chapbooks. She lives in Toronto with her family. She also sculpts, working with clay; www.allisongrayhurst.com
Ibn Halal: A Man with a Vision
Interviewing Ibrahim Fakhr, the modern Egyptian TV “street” director
Last Ramadan, the drama season in Egypt was steaming with interesting series and post-modernist comedies. One that particularly caught my attention was Rasayel – Messages in which an Upper Middle Class woman’s car crashes into a mysterious rich young man’s car, they both go into a coma where she later awakens with psychic powers, temporarily connected to the man’s dark past.
Spectacular shots, stable camera movements, and adept direction of the actors onscreen, all these elements drew me to find out how director Ibrahim Fakhr’s career led him to this particular success.
Informative, highly technical with a lot to tell about his actors and directing style, Ibrahim Fakhr knows what he wants, adding a unique input to every series that he directs. Picking mostly controversial topics in his directorial projects, Fakhr has never been ashamed of rooting for the underdog. His stories made heroes out of thugs and those who lived on the margins of the society. His most successful series to date Ibn Halal – Goodfella, starred Egypt’s most controversial movie star Mohamed Ramadan as the titular character, the goodfella Hebesha, whose Scorsese-like story of a good guy gone rogue spanned icky topics such as political corruption, sexual obsession and police brutality in the Mubarak era.
“Most directors started their career plans as actors, I did not plan anything. I simply wanted to be part of the glamor but deep down I wished I could be a theater actor. It was difficult submitting to the actor life, though. I am an authoritative person, a leader by nature and hated taking orders from directors. I am a Pisces so you can imagine how hard it is to try and tame that particular personality type.
While acting, I hated remaining mise-en-scene bound; the worst discovery was that as an actor, I did not have the liberty according to how I envisioned the scene, but according to the director.”
Fakhr started his career early from his schooldays, when he directed plays for the school theater and the university theater such as Hercules and the Augean Stables by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Qaraqosh the Jester by Egyptian playwright Al-Sayed Hafez. Then he got his first job –while studying accounting in college– as assistant director with veteran TV director Mrs. Inaam Mohamed Ali, working together on one of her epic TV series, Qasim Amin in 2002; a semi-autobiography of the Islamic Modernist and jurist’s eventful life as the first feminist leader and among the most notable thinkers in the Arab world. Mrs. Ali’s resume included a myriad of similar projects. Being one of the few female directors in the Arab world, Mrs. Ali has always taken over major directorial projects; an epic, emotionally-charged War movie The Road to Eilat, a semi-autobiographical TV series chronicling the life of the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum which gained wide critical acclaim and took the Egyptian streets by storm. TV platform was a different place back in the early 2000s than it is now in 2019; with modest dramas conquering, mostly addressing conservative familial and middle-class age groups.
Mrs. Ali has not been given due proper credit yet. Throughout her career, she has made a major impact on the Arab drama, backing up projects with female-centric storylines, supporting female progress and feminism through multiple works such as Qessat El Ams – The Story from Yesterday which starred one of Egypt’s top leading ladies back then Elham Shahin in the role of a woman who ends her marriage to the man she loves because she discovers his polygamy, despite loving him. The series polarized audiences for perfectly portraying a regular Egyptian family and how destructive polygamy is to a woman’s self-confidence and the wellbeing of the average Egyptian family.
“In Mrs. Inaam’s school, I learned to excessively prepare, and pay too much attention to even the smallest detail. Shooting Qasim Amin took a year and 8 months, the overall experience was mesmerizing, she is a very talented director. She would order me to go to Al-Ahram Newspaper Archive for research and then we would start auditioning actors based on how they resembled their historic counterparts. I was assigned various books to read and research before shooting. Through her, I fell in love with the process. I found it an immersive stage where you start from scratch until imagination turns into reality. I saw the fourth wall broken when I became part of the set and witnessed the power of creating a work of art from nothingness.”
Ibrahim Fakhr with Amr Mcgyver, the famous Egyptian stunt driver, while directing the car accident scene in Rasayel TV series
For 10 years Fakhr worked on 3 TV series only; including a third assistant job (accessories assistant director) responsible for every item of accessories in the historical series Ibn Al-Haitham about the famed mathematician. Until his big break came as assistant director for veteran TV director Sherine Adel working together on Share’ Abdel Aziz – Abdelaziz Street which chronicled the life of one of the famed street inhabitants especially Eyad, the protagonist, played by audience favorite back then; Amr Saad. Abdelaziz Street is one of the most culturally significant streets in Cairo, not for the historical poignancy but more of its modern relatability to most Cairo residents; it’s your go-to when it comes to hardware, appliances, mobile spare parts and accessories. The series made the street even more iconic than it actually was and the experience for Fakhr, was also life-altering;
“This was the first time I worked in a set where the director used cinema-style in directing; using the one-camera technique instead of multiple, separate cameras which defined the traditional TV direction style. This was my first job as 1st assistant director,”
Interviewing Fakhr gave me the privilege of getting introduced to multiple terms that were otherwise unfamiliar to the non-experienced ear. He outlined the difference between first, second and third assistant director.
The third assistant director is called the accessories assistant director. His job demands a highly responsible and detail-oriented individual. He has to keep track of every item used by actors.
The third assistant director is responsible for every item from the moment it leaves the production line until it reaches the set. His responsibility also lies in keeping the Raccord – or match cut as they call it in English- which is how actors’ clothes, accessories, posture and elements in the setting should match if the same scene was shot multiple times.
The second assistant director is responsible for clothes. As for the first assistant director, his responsibility lies in being the director’s eye in the location; so while the director stays in the control room, the first assistant director handles decoupage –assembling the set of images/shots together to convey the story’s narrative, in simpler words the editing of the series- actor movements, scenes, shots manages cinematographers, follows up with the actors and reports to the director back in his lair. This is in addition to the continuity boy (script movement as they call it) who would be responsible for making sure that decoupage has been executed according to the script and the rules outlain by the director such as character movement from every single angle.
“My first time as a first assistant director gave me the opportunity to try my hand at directing. It was an amazing feeling. I was widely praised despite the tight shooting timeframe in Ramadan. I excelled because my experience with Mrs. Inaam taught me a great deal about montage, editing, learning how to edit and mix scenes so it was easy for me to put what I learned down to practice.
I play the flute professionally, so I had trained my ear to detect how each music piece fits a certain shot. I would give professional music and sound design recommendations.”
It was not long before Saad, the main protagonist and a mega movie star noticed Fakhr’s attentiveness to detail,
“I remember him telling me that I was helluva craftsman. He wanted me to direct his upcoming TV project Khorm Ebra – Hole of a Needle. It was my first opportunity to see that my vision becomes a reality. Amr was keen that I would be responsible for it due to multiple reasons; he was impressed with the results of the first two episodes –which we shot as a test- he knew that I was passionate about the story and fully understood it, and I had good communication with the scriptwriter. But my creativity was still under test.
Ibrahim Fakhr directing a scene from his 2018 masterpiece Rasayel
It was my debut directorial project and also Hassan Dahashan’s –the scriptwriter- first project. We lined an impressive cast with estimated 1300 scenes to be shot. This is almost as big as a movie. I wanted the directing style to be fast-paced, short scenes, with three or four plot twists occurring.”
Saad’s character Saeed El Brens was portrayed as a young man passionate about the New era of Egyptian music; the mahraganat –literal translation of the word is festivals- music genre which combines autotuned vocals with synthetic beats, which both support lyrics explicitly recounting the life on the streets of the narrow, thickly populated area slums.
“This is where the idea came for Amr to sing a mahragan. His brother [Ahmed Saad] is already an established singer of sha’abi music so he supported Amr and thus Bye, Bye Dough – Ma’a el salama ya floos was born as a political commentary mahragan. We featured some of the stars of mahraganat such as Gandhi, 50, and Sadat.”
What I liked about the song was that it was integral to the plot and the theme of the series. It was not some casual music number inserted to draw in fans of the –back then- growing genre.
“In this series, everything I was passionate about came true. I researched the YouTube persona Zalata and wrote a role specifically for him to play, there were also notable roles for the Lebanese megastar Nadine Rassi and a guest actor from Georgia; Mr. Leo, well-renowned in his home country. We paid him $1500 a day, which was his charge, since foreign actors require different payment strategies than ours [in Egypt]. His professionalism was a sight for the sore eyes as he worked with us 11 days, 4 hours of shooting.”
Despite all the elements of success, Hole of a Needle was a sleeper hit. It did not boom in Ramadan because a single network owned the exclusive rights to air it, which in turn decreased the number of viewers,”
After Hole of a Needle, Fakhr decided to focus on his passion project; the one he prepared specifically for Mohamed Ramadan; a low budget series titled Ibn Halal – Goodfella.
The series that establishes Mohamed Ramadan’s start persona “Ibn Halal”
Ibn Halal was a political drama as far as political dramas could blend action, emotionally charged storylines and a horrifying tale of power abuse and sexual obsession.
“The project was titled El sekaa el e’wga – The Dark Side. It was different back then, people did not believe in Ramadan’s capabilities as an actor, as well as a bankable TV star. He was not that famous in 2014. I wanted to take him out of his comfort zone and give him a different kind of heroism than he was used to,”
Ramadan has only been playing thugs and rogues who go astray with no motif or a well-defined character arc or development. In Ibn Halal he was treading unfamiliar territory, one that does not comply with his brand persona; or the image that he supposedly was beginning to build as a star.
“Throughout the reading sessions, Ramadan hated the first version of the script. He did not want to portray an imbecilic character, but more of a naïve hero. His experimentation had its limits, and I attribute that to his star image which he was afraid would be shaken if he completely shed off the skin of the gangster/strong guy subject to injustice. He did not have a history so he could not gamble a future with a possible wide target audience of TV viewers.”
Not only has Fakhr been always rooting for the underdogs in his works, he was rooting for himself. He took the stairway to popularity and respect as a director one at a time, preferring to stick to the characters he believed in most and the stories he was passionate about.
“My dream cast [in Ibn Halal] included Ahmed Hatem, Ahmed Fouad Selim, Hamza Eleili –of theater fame, playing a character onstage similar to Messakar who appeared in Ibn Halal. It was not originally in the script but I added it to showcase a different side of the main protagonist Hebesha.”
Despite the major success that Ibn Halal met, the environment was not that friendly for a TV series starring Mohamed Ramadan back in 2014.
Ibrahim Fakhr directing a key scene
“The production company was unsure of how audiences would receive it. The series was bloody, violent and daring. But I could not stray from what my fans expected of me. I did not want to lose my target audience so we were pressured by production to reduce the budget. It was a bit of a frustrating matter to me, Ibn Halal was their least costing series, yet it was sold to three major TV networks; MBC, Al-Nahar and Al-Hayat.”
Fakhr helped create the modern image and star persona of Mohamed Ramadan. The script was very well-written, every side character had a dramatic significance and a character arc, and the director polished every side character to fit a grander scheme that serves –ultimately, as is the case with most Egyptian films and series of the day- the star of the show. The main storyline is usually focused on the main protagonist, the star for whom the bell tolls and the money talks.
“Unfortunately feedback was only directed at the star [Ramadan], critics either praised his performance, ignoring the series as a whole, or slammed him. The idea of a series based on a true story drew criticism, and critics attributed the success only to the original source that it draws inspiration from. This is a problem that I believe persists in the Egyptian TV and movie platform. Either we glorify a star or we push them down to the gutter. I received most of the negative criticism.”
I was particularly surprised with the criticism directed at the series for using a real-life tragedy to build a work of art. Since when was this a drawback? Fakhr was just as incredulous,
“The Assassination of John F. Kennedy and Titanic were both major successes based on true stories, this does not mean they are anything short of great works of art.”
Back to Rasayel, Fakhr talked me through how he handled the script from the time he met writer Mohamed Solaiman Abdelmalek until it landed in the diva Mai Ezz Eldin’s lap.
Ibrahim Fakhr in Georgia while shooting Khorm Ebra
“I met Mohamed Solaiman Abdelmalek and he told me about his vision for the script. It was not that well-structured, then. But I became so passionate about it and delivered it myself to Mai who is a close friend of mine. She was pretty skeptical about taking up a role that would deviate from her regular target audience,”
Talking to Fakhr, it seems that he knows how to make a star shine, without shedding off the image that enhances their star power. With Mohamed Ramadan, he established the image of the good guy gone rogue without losing the Robin Hood-like justice. With Ahmed Hatem, he helped in creating the modern bad boy who escaped to the dark side. With Mai Ezz Eldin, her career path was handled by Fakhr from A2Z.
“When I met Mai, her most famous TV series to date was Girls Having Fun – Dala’ el banat where she played a low-class, vulgar girl. I guided her on how to target different social classes through her art, and from then a successful and fruitful work partnership was born. With The Case of Eshk – Halet E’shk, she found a way to attract middle-class TV viewers, playing an Upper Middle Class girl suffering from multiple personality disorder which resulted from a childhood trauma that she could not remember. Starting from this stage, her star status as a fashion icon was beginning to be implemented. The following year, Mai wanted to explore a love story, so I suggested Wa’ad which was in reality based my own past teenage love story, with a foreign woman whom I met on the Internet.
For a year and a half we chatted online, then she visited Egypt and we spent amazing time together. I thought we would eventually get married, then she uncovered the sad truth; she would never be able to live with me in Egypt.
The story ended and I used it for inspiration in making Wa’ad. I drew some details from my own experience; how I collected her fallen hair from the pillow after she left. The longing that the character Youssef – played by Ahmed El Saa’dany who starred alongside Mai- had for Wa’ad, and the details of the scene where she leaves him for the first time and he listens to I’m ready for Love. These are all inspired by my real-life experience. The realistic ending surmises my point of view on how that particular love story should have a conclusion.
Mai Ezz Eldin in Wa’ad, Fakhr’s most personal project to date
I believe that even remembering the pain of love creates beautiful memories. I walked the series with Mai step by step, starting from a storyboard and until the actual shooting. It was a tiring shoot. Too many locations, and in every location there would be more than one scene to be shot. But I loved this series, and I knew that it had to be done right or not done at all.”
Wa’ad introduced Ezz Eldin to a different target audience all-together, the A+ class TV fans. Through Rasayel, she could attract the attention of a class that she had not even tried to tackle; the intellectuals.
“The script for Rasayel had to be modified to match my directing style. I wanted to make it closer to people. Apart from the intellectuals, I wanted to broaden the target audience circle to include teenagers, housewives and mothers. I added some action sequences to draw the attention of teens. To include the average female viewer, script modifications had to be made in order to match my directing style and vision. Mohamed [Solaiman Abdelmalek] and I worked on the script, in order to make the characters more religious. I requested that Hala’s –the main protagonist- father get a background as an Arabic language teacher. I also wanted her sister to be less educated than her in order for a broader section of the public to sympathize with her. The script in its original format was too elite for the average Egyptian audience, which firmly believe in two things: religion and heritage. So I tried to tie the general theme of the series to Joseph –the prophet in the Islamic scripture- and his dream interpretation skills. I also made sure that every side character had a resala – message rather than simply Hala and Sameh. Mai was more interested in the commercial side of the series, while I was trying to find the link between Mohamed [Solaiman’s] script and her star image. Throughout the series, I used dynamic shots excessively, which Mohamed loved while Mai hated.”
Ibrahim Fakhr with his longtime collaborator actress Mai Ezz Eldin
Fakhr has a deep understanding of the average Egyptian TV viewer. He knows how to target specific audience groups and demographics according to their needs and tastes. He remembers every small detail and pays careful attention to every shot.
“In my work, every shot should have a significance in the grander picture. You also have to be specific with the type of shot and the camera angle, a long shot cannot be a close-up. In Rasayel most of Hala’s solo shots had to be top ones –the Eye of God shot- so that it resonates with the sufism of her character. In Ibn Halal I always shot Ahmed [Hatem] –who played the titular villain- from a low angle to make him imposing and scary, every time he appeared onscreen the audience would feel a little off, like something was not right. The iconic object of his obsession, Yosr, played in the series by one of the hottest actresses at the time Sarah Salama, had to wear extravagant makeup and clothing to appear sexier than her already beautiful fellow actresses. But one problem faced me; I am conservative and I did not want to sexualize the actress, but the character herself. So I made her iconic through showing her from a wide angle. She looked tiny in the shot so that the focus was not on her body; but viewers could also see that she’s dressed in a sexy way. The scene would remain in wide-angle for 10 seconds, then I would cut to a close-up on her innocent face.”
On directing actors, Fakhr gave a hint from one of his favorite scenes in Ibn Halal,
“What has always helped me as a director is that I have been an actor before, only abandoning it because I seek truth of movement, and only through directing do I achieve that. When I shoot the scene, I try to see it from the actor’s perspective as well as the director’s. I seek great composition while maintaining a dynamic scene, with people constantly moving like it happens in real life, as opposed to how most scenes are shot within the medium of television.
In the scene where Hebesha kills his sister to avenge for his honor, Mohamed [Ramadan] was anxious as he did not know how to work it out through movement. So I guided him through the scene; he would place his sister’s corpse on the bed then he would try to sit down, stand up then move back and forth. His movement mirrors his internal monologue;
How can I sit down? Where do I sit down?”
This year, Ibrahim Fakhr did not stop with the controversies. His collaboration with Mohamed Ramadan resulted in Zelzal – Earthquake a drama about his favorite social class, those living on the margins of society, the clash between neighboring social circles and doomed love stories.
Ibrahim Fakhr with Khorm Ebra crew
What does he have to say about the series?
“I was offered the chance to direct Zelzal this [Ramadan] season. I was not a huge fan of the script, since it was too mushy for Mohamed Ramadan’s persona. People are used to seeing Mohamed’s character with melodrama, fighting and wreaking chaos. This was more of a drama for the middle-class families gathering around the TV, in other words, not suitable for Ramadan’s target audience. Since the production company insisted on using this script for Mohamed, I decided to play it with my own rules. I took the risk and added spices to the script so that people become more interested. I asked myself;
If not for the action and thrill factor, how do we get people more interested in Mohamed Ramadan?
So I decided to use two elements; nostalgia and agricultural laborers. Nostalgia was an integral factor for Generation Y of 1990s fame, and it was not explored before, which is why I tried to adapt my own voice as a 90s kid and even gave the titular character in Zelzal the same birthday as mine. This gave the character a personal aspect through which I could reflect on my own childhood and teenagehood. I inserted all the details from the nineties; the Walkman, cassette tapes, the creative advertising, the 90s crew cut (kaborya), etc.
In terms of the agricultural laborers, I added certain details from their lives which most people are not aware of such as how laborers go back and forth from their hometown to Cairo and where they usually meet in their pastime. I used interactions between characters to create different dynamics from what people are used to in Cairo such as how the village schoolteacher has a close relationship with the whole family of the student and how that affects inter-character relationships. I come from an agricultural laborer family, from Shibin Al-Qanater city in Qalyubia Governorate. So I knew exactly what I was talking about; what I was researching.”
I was so taken by Fakhr’s vision and attention to detail, that I wondered what he might envision for a more successful future;
“Cinema is my ultimate goal and dream. I wish I could make a successful film career similar to my TV career. All my life I have envisioned the premiere of my debut film, to watch people’s reactions to my film; how they laugh and cry and interact with the actors on the big screen. I try to capture the feeling with the pilot episodes of every series that I direct. I invite my friends over for a private screening of the pilot and watch their reactions. Finally I have the chance to reciprocate that feeling on the big screen.
Actually I am currently offered the opportunity to direct an important action film, with an amazing cast which has been my dream, with a release date –hopefully- by Eid Al-Adha in August.”
A dreamer, a tactical professional and a rebel of sorts, watch out for Ibrahim Fakhr, who –despite what anyone might think of his art- never fails to dazzle, surprise and provoke.
Buenos dias, Estimados Senores.
Yo tengo nueve anos, y…
(Psst! Ingles, por favor!)
Okay. Nine years old.
Behind bars como animales peligrosos.
Been here a week or two.
The angry guards,
they do not give us much food.
All night I am so hungry.
Bright lights all day, all night.
I do not sleep much.
Dirty cement is a cold bed.
I curl up next to little Diego,
to keep him warm.
But he has no diaper.
Sometimes he pees on us both.
We stink. We itch. We shiver.
He cries for his Mama.
He cries because he is hungry, too.
I hug him and pull bugs out of his hair.
Back home we had warm water.
We could wash with soap.
We had a blanket.
We had a toilet to use.
Abuela would brush my hair and braid it.
I was una nina.
Now I am Mamacita.
We ran away in the night
because the bad people were coming.
Maybe the bad people caught us.
Maybe that is why we are all here.
This cage is small.
There are so many on the floor,
I can not walk without tripping on an arm or leg.
Someone threw up.
We step around it.
I think about Mama, Papa, Tia Rosa,
Tia Inez y Tio Guillermo, y mi Abuela.
When Diego is not looking, I cry a little, too.
Where did they go?
Maybe the bad people killed todas las familias…?
Poor Diego, he is just a baby.
And he is hungry.
Okay, I told my story.
LOVE AND LIES
Even though I dwell in the world of man,
Where love is as a drop of water in an open dessert,
Love has become uncherished and vain,
And though my heart is open and forgiving,
And take life as is,
And fate as to be,
And will to take it all and more,
But without all this,
Dwelling in the world of now,
Pain is just a breath away.
Even though I suffer for the world of man,
Take the pain for another,
And have not a drop of love,
I am as an empty barrel.
Love takes all without judgement,
Love doesn’t boast of its power,
Love is meek and acepts all,
Is precious and dwells in thoughts of good,
It endures all the doings of man,
Love never fails, but where there is darkness and unforseen evil,
Love is not fully known,
It is mystery in itself,
But where Love is fully worshiped it shall blossom and cleanse.
Lies is like the other side of the world,
Where man finds power,
And sees as a source of hope.
Lies is just like a pandora’s box,
When reaveled all the stains of the world and man,
Is open and stoned,
Lies takes all and gives none,
That is why love is the spring that washes away all filth of man,
And is the light that guides the world into solace and eternal peace.