by John Canaday
And surely you recall, if I see you as you are,
how I, myself, played the good ape of nature.
—L’Ombra di Capocchio
With what glee Dante might have once pronounced
me damned, my moral dishabille laid bare
as Bocca’s skull when, in his sweet and nuanced
style, the poet yanked out fistfuls of his hair.
But in which ditch would his deliberate
bon mots have me penned? Where Mohamet’s scarred
carcass, like some haruspical exhibit,
walks with his bowels and severed member dangling
from a split trunk? Or sunk waist-deep in shit
among the flatterers? Perhaps my “sin,”
if that’s the word I want, will break new ground
in Dante’s underworld, requiring
the Mantuan to sing another round.
—But who’m I kidding? Walt’s barbaric yawp
had been there, done that, years before I found
myself in Jordan, on a whistle-stop
tour of that foreign land. What hope have I
of conjuring extravagance to top
his multitudes? I’m not that sort of guy.
But then, who is? Maybe some people fool
themselves; but there’s no need to magnify
my story; even its most miniscule
events loom large. This smacks of pride? Well, call
it that, but still I think, like Dante, you’ll
be better off (in metaphorical
if not financial terms) for having heard
my story. So I start the canticle:
How many months in Jordan had I frittered
away when Ghazi asked me to his home
in Madaba? At first, I’d felt awkward
and rarely strayed far from my hum-drum Umm
Udhayna neighborhood, with its Pizza Hut
and supermarket, liquor stores and Tom
and Jerry’s. Now I’d do the opposite,
though it’s too late. Thank God at last a soldier
in the Royal Guard dragged me from my closet—
although my Arabic was so unsure
it still strikes me as near miraculous
his invitation pierced the armature
of my dumb stare. But, like Odysseus,
I fared forth finally, with Ghazi’s scrawled
directions for a guide. I should have guessed
I’d face a trial or two. For one, he’d called
up all his neighbors. And the living room
of his small, cinderblock abode was dolled
up like some Third-world Opera. For whom?
As if I couldn’t guess. “Saba al khair,”
I muttered, shaking hands beneath an heirloom
hawk’s glass-eyed gaze. It perched with its threadbare
wings spread as if to shield the old TV
that served it as a pedestal. “From where
this?” I ventured, in my broken arabee.
A flock of hands took sudden flight, their gyres
retracing (and a bit more graphically
than narrative economy required)
how Ghazi’s father, as a young man, caught
the bird, bare-handed. It had just expired
in gory pantomime when Ghazi brought
the coffee out and mercifully cut short
the taxidermic denouement. I’d thought
to loll about on Ghazi’s davenport
and spend a couple hours making nice
like an ambassador-at-large of sorts,
sample quaint customs, and then scram. No dice.
I’d barely started feeding my own hunger
for the Orphic, when I couldn’t help but notice
they’d pegged me as a cabinet of wonders,
and everybody wanted in هل فهعثآ
A thousand and one questions—or maybe slanders
for all I knew, since now and then I glimpsed
a knot of neighbors point at me and laugh.
I smiled at everyone. The small room brimmed
with awkward pauses. At last, on my behalf
I reckoned, Ghazi gestured toward the door.
I followed, grateful as a fatted calf.
Too late, I saw that he had something more
in mind: two neighbors lay in wait outside.
One held a sheikh’s robe like a semaphore.
I didn’t like the way the other eyed
my Oxford shirt. I feigned a puzzled look,
but they were having none of it. One pried
my shirt off while the other man unhooked
my belt and stripped me to my underpants.
I wilted like a schmuck (well, let’s say schnook)
who’s duped into more confident men’s hands.
Then Ghazi dressed me in a thawb: a long,
white sheath that covered up my deodands,
at least. A black robe, trimmed with gold along
its seams, was next, and then a red and white
kaffiyeh, held on by a braided thong.
I looked a fool, which is to say I might
have been mistaken by a passerby
as thinking clothes could make the man. They fit
well, though, and as there were no passersby,
I flirted with the soothing thought they meant
the whole thing as a private honor. So I
was mortified when Ghazi, too hell-bent
on some wild scheme to notice my cold feet,
walked over to the car I’d had to rent
and motioned me into the driver’s seat.
His henchmen piled into the back; their doors
slammed shut on any hope they’d be discrete
about how easy it had been to lure
me into impropriety. “You drive,
Mr. John!” they cried. I drove. I’m still not sure
which kind god saw me through that day alive
(the one that watches over women in
tight skirts, I’d guess: the thawb wrapped like a sleeve
around my legs). I’m sure we came within
an inch of death, because the damned kaffiyeh
billowed about my head like a huge foreskin.
At least I’ll die in style, I thought—though, Allah
knows, a sheikh’s garb’s not the style I’d choose.
But we made it to the heart of Madaba
where Ghazi stopped us, dashed up to a news
kiosk, and came back brandishing a rented
camera. “What’s Arabic for ‘cheese,’” I mused,
growing increasingly disoriented,
as Ghazi’s eager cries of “Duri!” “Schmall!”
“Yameen!” led us through the garbage-scented
streets to a quaint old church. Somehow, the smell
that wafted from the overflowing dumpsters
lent the town a piquant flavor—a small,
backwards reminder of a gift of myrrh
and frankincense, perhaps—that made me feel
I’d reached the Holy Land at last. A tour
bus parked nearby confirmed it. No time to steel
myself before a large, myopic, red-
haired matron from Louisiana reeled
me in—a desert angler’s prize—and said
to her bemused husband, “Oh Dahlin’, look!”
He did. “Now take my picture with this Bed-
oo-whine!” Her tone suggested she would brook
no argument, not even from so pale
a specimen of arabness. She’d hooked
me good. So I tried to hide behind the veil
through which she saw me, fearing that she’d find
me out and blame her blunder on some guile
of mine. “Salaam alicum. Key’fik?” I mimed
something I hoped resembled dignified
assent: “Ma’andeesh mehni”—I don’t mind—
not thinking of myself as having lied,
since Mrs. Bluster never understood
a word. (And yet, her failure qualified
as my success, as if I’d tried to hood-
wink her.) After this tourist photo op,
I slunk back to my waiting friends, who would,
I thought, be gloating over what a dope
they’d made of me; but no-one even smirked.
In fact, they looked like tourists, too, who hoped
to find some sights worth seeing in that kirk
besides myself. I joined them in the aisle,
forgetting my present form beside the work
of Byzantine mosaicists: their tiles
of ochre, teal, cerulean, mimicked
the land I stood on, stone by stone, compiled
into a map of “Palestine” (sic
in guidebooks printed in the Arab world).
There were Jerusalem, Hebron, Kerak,
and the Dead Sea. A boat with its sails furled
like an empty serpent skin was rowed by two
disfigured passengers along the curled
backs of the sea’s stone swells. I wondered who
had turned these pale-skinned images of men
into a pair of speckled eggs that grew
hands, legs, a foot. And did their passive sin—
doubled by being born as likenesses
of God’s anthropic handiwork and then
reswaddled in such obvious disguises—
make blasphemous their presence in God’s home,
as Deuteronomy advises us,
because they had been wounded in the stones?
There was a thought I’d rather not explore:
such speculations cut too near the bone.
I found the others and we moved outdoors.
I thought that we’d head home, but I was wrong.
Ghazi, it seemed, had planned a full-length tour
of Jordan, sparing neither Sturm nor Drang.
I don’t exaggerate. At least, not much.
My mind is its own place, and if I longed
like a drunk dreaming of a fifth of scotch
to lose myself in its familiar wastes,
I’m not the only one who lives life kvetch-
as-kvetch-can. Aren’t we all a bit two-faced?
I am. I made the Holy Land a hell
of devils mocking me, then gained a taste
for self-demotion and began to tell
myself that I deserved their mockery.
O vain white man! O Western Belial!
And ain’t it odd that such buffoonery
should give me back a sense of the control
I’d lost when Ghazi took my dungarees?
Yet when he had me stop outside a hole-
in-the-wall falafel shop, I paid with good
grace for enough kebobs to feed the whole
damn crew and slowly felt my martyr’s mood
begin to lift. We climbed back in the car.
I drove us out of town while Ghazi chewed
the fat with his rear guard. We’d not gone far
when he decided it was time for lunch.
I eased us slowly off the road’s hot tar
and parked. We found some shade beneath a bunch
of scraggly olive trees and ate the lamb
with bread and spicy onions rolled and pinched
between the first two fingers and the thumb
of our right hands. The authenticity
of every morsel filled me with aplomb,
hardly hampered by the infelicity
of paper plates. Still chewing his last bite,
Ghazi tossed his plate aside—a nicety
I tried to imitate, but couldn’t quite.
Despite their protests and attempts to hold
me back, I couldn’t but be impolite
and gather all their trash with mine—the soiled
napkins and bits of greasy bread—and stuff
it quickly in the trunk. Then I cajoled
a few indulgent smiles from Ghazi’s gruff
display of injured pride—as if I’d tried
to clean his living room—and soon enough
our car was toiling up Mount Nebo’s side
like Moses’ ass-drawn cart. Two old school buses
followed and dropped off hoards of flashing-eyed
schoolgirls from Salt. A couple of the hussies
laughed at my frock and cried, “Hey, English!” like
they’d caught me hiding in the bulrushes
trying to be a Lawrence look-alike.
But, undismayed, I waved at them and smiled
in a way I trusted was at least lifelike,
if not quite doing justice to my style
of dress. They seemed astonished by my chutzpah,
although they stood beside a garish steel
shed (built to house the old basilica)
that showed a comparable sang-froid. Even
more gaudy was the huge, coiled replica
of Moses’ bronze serpent, mirroring the Son
of Man, His arms spread on the Cross, that marks
the prophet’s first and only glimpse of Canaan.
He may have died of disappointment: stark,
tan cliffs drop to a moiled, beige haze of hills
that undulate across a plain pockmarked
by countless stone-filled wadis’ yearly spill
of dirt and rubble. One would have to bring
little to this harsh land but the willful
habits of faith to find it promising.
The air was like L.A. (on a bad day)
or the dun smoke I pictured issuing
in spent coils from the nondescript gateway
of Hell. Then Ghazi pointed. “Jerusalem.”
A silence. It was all he had to say.
It would have been the terminus ad quem
of the day’s trials to see that holy place.
But life is hardly ever like a poem,
until we dress our dingy, commonplace
experience in the exotic rags
of metaphor. Truly, in medias res,
I couldn’t see a thing. Thick dust swagged
above the lowlands, its hungry festoons
swallowing the city whole. When Ghazi dragged
me back to the car, the Byzantine ruins
squatted there still, in such plain view it seemed
vain to have looked for anything but tombs
and ashes in this desert god’s demesne.
Oddly, now, no one noticed what I wore.
No catcalls, laughs, or jibes broke the serene
ennui that settled over me like one more
black sheikh’s robe, woven, it seemed, without respect
for such surroundings. Soon the engine snored
under the hood and Ghazi’s friends were sacked
out in the back. The sun stared blankly down.
But no, not disrespect: more like a lack
of any source of shade—outside one’s own
body, of course. The parched earth makes one’s flesh
feel like a damp oasis, overgrown
with strange fruits, weeds, and orchids, rank and lush
and alien. Only a proper scorn
for self reclaims the self from such riches;
a goat-hair shirt, forty days fasting, thorns
pushed through the plump ball of the thumb: these signs
of disrespect were each in their way born
of love—the same love, possibly, behind
Ghazi’s investment of my foreignness
in local trappings. Was it asinine
of me to entertain such thoughts? Yes,
given that I was steering us through hairpin
curves down a mountain road with something less
than total concentration. Ghazi’s chin
dropped several feet as one wide turn gave him
a less obstructed view down to Ma’in
than he’d thought possible. Strains of a hymn,
in strangled chorus, rose from the back seat
where Ghazi’s friends, bolt upright, looking grim,
no longer ambled in the fields of sleep.
Only I was calm, behind my billowing
headdress, gaily declining their repeated
offers to take the wheel. (My easygoing
attitude was absent driving home
when, sans chapeau, I saw the harrowing
descent myself.) Sharp-edged and honeycombed,
high cliffs encircled us, like some huge hive
of red clay, long abandoned. Our eardrums
popped, and we swallowed hard. As small weeds thrive
in the crevices of boulders, so I felt
only by being small could I survive
in that immense bowl, hollowed out like Hell
from the reluctant earth. I stopped beside
a stone tollhouse, marked “Thermal Springs,” to shell
out more dinars: a bored attendant eyed
my clothes and looked decidedly nonplussed.
But after just a few words from my guide,
he grinned, saluted me, and let us pass.
The parking lot was for a pseudo-swank
hotel where tourists paid to have a fuss
made over their infirmities: they sank
like souls in limbo into steaming mud-
baths, or they floated in huge porcelain tanks
of water spiked with Dead Sea salt. I should
refrain from sarcasm, of course—or mock
myself, if anyone—for even Herod
could hardly have out-Heroded the shock
I felt when Ghazi and his trusty lads,
without a word, stripped off their shoes and socks,
then shirts and pants, and stood before me clad
in matching bathing trunks. “Son of a bitch,”
I muttered helplessly, as Ghazi led
the way along the left bank of a ditch
from which a yellow, faintly sulfurous
steam clambered. Where rocks pocked the stream, a rich
gurry of algae, like a greenish pus,
coated the water. Piles of excrement
ripened in shadows where lost souls before us
had squatted, offering their compliments,
perhaps, to some foul god who’d claimed that gorge.
The heat grew more intense as our descent
brought us below a waterfall that surged
down the opposing cliff in scalding rills,
as though an ancient and infernal forge
had overheated, cracked its base, and spilled
thick braids of liquid metal down the rock.
So it was almost of my own free will
that I allowed myself to be defrocked
again and did my best to act urbane
in just my jockey shorts. The culture shock
was fierce. But once we hit the stream, the pain
of being boiled alive like lobsters proved
distracting. Simply trying to maintain
my balance was a trick when slick rocks moved
beneath my pale, bare feet. I nearly quit
when I could see they meant to climb above
the falls. I didn’t think I had the grit
to play at Sisyphus, hauling the stone
of my own body up that slope. And yet
I’d come that far. Something (testosterone?)
made me go on, although on hands and knees,
trying to save my thinly-clad tailbone.
At last, I looked up, panting, and could see
Ghazi perched above me on a ledge.
And so I inched my way up by degrees
until I reached the backdrop my alleged
comrades had chosen for the day’s climax,
which simply was to sit in our abridged
attire with the sun’s full weight against our backs
as brackish, scalding water splashed and played
across our legs. I tried to look relaxed.
Oddly, I was relaxed. This blunt cascade,
drowned out the talking that we couldn’t do
and laid to rest all need to play charades.
O differences, dissolve! Suspicions, shoo!
Awash in agapé, I rhapsodized.
And so I made my Whitmanesque debut,
with armpits bared, until a new surmise
troubled my mind (although it seemed absurd)
that what I felt was just a new disguise.
Fuck it, I thought, I’ve had enough of words.
I closed my eyes. Then Ghazi took my hand,
and for a moment, neither of us stirred.
Only the raw sunburn that dyed my bland
skin red as native desert rock announced
my stubborn strangeness in that foreign land.
* * *
Wouldn’t that make an model ending, if
I left us hand in hand, informal, sunk
in a pool of fellow-feeling, as the stiff
crease-lines of closure draped our par-boiled trunks
like flattering new suits? And did I earn
the exit of my choice? Kidnapped by lunk-
heads, dragged through half the Middle East, sunburned,
paraded like a freak in side-show togs,
then next to none . . . . What little I have learned
will haunt the margins of this monologue;
as for the rest, I hear some critics raise
their voices to object: “This waterlogged
pundit doesn’t know jack, and all he says
is condescending, boastful, or dead wrong.”
I dodge by self-inflicting their touchés—
knowing at least a few notes in this song
will hit their mark. Of course that mark is me,
or so I hope, refined by fire along
these better lines: no more the far-flung country
bumpkin or post-imperial naïf
in metaphorical Bermuda shorts. When Ghazi
reached for my hand, his touch obliged belief.
I’d felt the eastern sun convert my skin
already. So I leaned back in my briefs,
at peace, and stared down idly at the bracken
that grew along the stream, so dense and close
it cast the rocky bank in shadow. Then
the branches quivered, shook—a great hooked nose
appeared, and Dante followed. His frown expressed
disgust at how I dallied, as Virgil froze
his tongue when Dante chattered on, obsessed
with the torments some poor sinner wallowed in.
I’d not lie if I said I couldn’t rest
under his glassy stare. It seemed my sin
was coming home to roost. I’d almost swear
he spoke then, in the voice of a Bedouin:
“Get up now. Even in your underwear,
you’re still a tourist in this life; your art,
like mine, rests in not resting anywhere.
Go on, and don’t be tempted by the heart’s
fleabag hotels, oases of a finite
love for this world.” I’d have told the old fart
to shove it, but I knew that he was right.
The world lay all around me, an abundance
so palpable that only God could ghostwrite
such interwoven joy and pestilence.
Each grain of sand clamored in broken English,
calling its name, until I longed for silence,
knowing that one day I would get my wish.
About the Author:
John Canaday is an American poet. His poem “Impostors” was first published in Raritan, and then was featured in The Invisible World (Louisiana State University Press), which was awarded the 2001 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets.