The System Affiliates


EU/ECHO/Saber Ashor: Gaza Storm (CC)

by George Reiner

Mira Mattar
Bristol: Sad Book Press, 2021

The entangled networks of the Israel-Palestine conflict could be traced through a series of letters: between Chaim Weizmann and Arthur Balfour; Prince Faisal of Iraq and Felix Frankfurter; and the open letters supporting and condemning either side. Affiliation, Mira Mattar’s first chapbook, starts with several poems serialised as Letters from Amman followed by the titular poem, itself having the thematic meanderings of a letter, and then finishes with bibliographical endnotes. Within this triptych, Mattar explores her entanglements with family, lovers, sense of place, emancipatory desires and, to use bell hook’s phrase [1], the white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy (what Mattar calls “the System”.) In Letters from Amman, Mattar delineates a violent network of these affiliations, along which, in the titular poem, she moves between different scales to interrogate how we construct our worlds, desires and selves.

Mattar’s relating of global injustices to daily experiences performs the same time-space compression of technological globalisation where labour, capital, products and information move (relatively) freely from their point of origin. Instead of paying for international shipping or listening to ‘world music’, Mattar brings together inequalities that at first seem disparate to delineate their relational violence:

Fairuz shucks the oyster scooping
sawdust city boy
puts it to his mouth ignoring
mother while the bombs fall into his pockets
flowing with the American current

The waiter decadently serving the yuppie relates the opulence of disposable capital with the erosion of job security and American imperialism to expose how capitalism implicates all in its funnelling of resources into the “pockets” of the few. This exposure provincialises European exceptionalism, which Mattar humorously confronts:

oh Katie, oh Annabel, oh Sally Anne –
things are terrible in the ‘Middle East’ aren’t they?
Things are terrible in Putney, bitch
things are terrible in the underpass,
things are terrible in your neglected crevices

Tired of false concerns that mask opinions of cultural superiority, she reminds them of orgasm inequity and socio-economic inequality in London’s “neglected crevices”. They attempt to deflect their collective responsibility for the status quo that entangles us through colonialist, patriarchal and capitalist affiliations. These networks are relentless in connecting us all within “the System”, a rhythm which Mattar captures in her restless writing that refuses indulgent descriptive passages.

Within this complexity, the question becomes: Who do you address these letters to? She directly addresses the reader to “heed your [saviour] fantasy / today there is more blood than water in Gaza” while also taking Schadenfreude in their discomforted “squirming”.

Mattar then weaves a journalistic tone full of dates, addresses, events and statistics into her poetics. She layers these different registers to examine how we represent injustice:

where I saw my well
irrigated fromness at last
ever thirsty farmers in the Jordan Valley
their water siphoned and redirected into
a single settlement peach
contains 140 litres of virtual water
appropriated from Palestinians

Mattar correlates the appropriation of water to her removed sense of belonging, as the image of a single peach saturated with 140 litres of water allegorises the Israeli occupation’s resource extraction. This journalism, however, doesn’t try to convince the reader to believe the injustice, as if their conviction conditions injustice’s occurrence. Rather, these self-evident truths contrast to the pitying representations of Palestine. A letter is a communicative relationship between two people, but our multifaceted affiliations within “the System” makes the centralising of a singular stable interlocutor a selfish act that has historically prioritised those who benefit from “the System”. Mattar’s refusal to continually speak to those already centred opens her letter in order to redistribute creative and historical agency amongst those previously marginalised [2].

Mattar similarly deploys academic language to explore how academia engages with injustice. She chastises their marketisation and analytical methods which just add:

to the world by filling it
by pinning it
down by force
you are taking more away
to fix things as they are
is not to heal

The institution’s authoritative positions deploy coercive acts of categorisation, extraction and elitism that co-opt the Palestinian struggle for social and monetary capital to benefit the knowledge producers rather than the subjects of that knowledge. Nonetheless, Mattar still uses academic apparatuses such as endnotes, referencing and quotations: forms of affiliation that develop a network of knowledge through reciprocity and relationality in contrast to academia’s extractive appropriation. Rather than completely rejecting them, her use of academic and journalistic language is, like the tree in Peckham Rye Park:

distorting                                                       them angelically

She exemplifies the development of a multipronged approach that misuses the tools which established those extractive networks, to create new relationships of resistance.

Our affiliations thus cannot settle, but are continually changing through choice and position. The fluid structure of the titular poem graphically represents the possibility of shifting affiliations that continually re-attach and depart in reaction to new challenges, people and ideologies. We realise:

I have never been I
and you have never been you
and yet we are never we only
or ever could be always
a wild range of motion

The movement of our affiliations “balks at boundaries” established by “the System”, and begins to undo the rigidity of identity and the distinctions between self and other. Sexual desire is described as an “outside feeling” that is “housed” in the body, itself unable to be housed in Palestine or Britain. This hospitality, where the body “became a house / with all its windows open”, reclaims an autonomy which makes space for others to process their anger. A letter establishes a relation between spaces, as well as people, since as a medium it travels between two distinct places, from Amman to wherever we are reading. However, Mattar’s poetry creates a “t/here” whose indeterminacy intimately contracts and expands in accommodation of a network of persons, experiences and landscapes. Within this constant movement we choose what other worlds, imaginings and ways of being we affiliate in contrast to the myth of permanency stuck “along / the barrel of things as they are”.

There is continual striving for collective emancipation that rejects a futurity complicit in grand ideologies of technology, nationalism, procreation or deus ex machina migrations; instead it attends to the intimate, messy, fulfilling networks we inhabit. Mattar is unimpressed with the futures provided to Palestine:

what I want is never called nation
that bourgeois phenomenon
that end of imagination
a suckling son

European structures transplanted onto Palestine signify a lack of imagination that upholds patriarchal nationalism and European universality. Her desire for alternatives can however be direct:

how can we divest from this economy
that thwarts us banking
on our terror of the gorgeous void

The speculation of pain within capitalism is dependent on our fear of imagining alternatives, that “gorgeous void” which is the negative space, the doubt and questioning, such as that above, which precedes imaginative emancipation. Capitalism, however, is “eviscerating / emptiness that knows the way / that is the way” by filling that void with comfortable and consumptive distractions, thus foreclosing any affiliations outside or reflection critical of “the System”. Any imaginative potentials outside the parameters of “the System” are instead re-appropriated and neutralised through “calculating / degree of deviance and how to quell it / how to make it fecund and compatible”. We can thus only relate through its rubric of capitalist consumption, restrictive categorisations and European universality.

Despite these calls for the imaginative emancipation and criticism of “the System”, Mattar does not presume to be above these relations. After denouncing the nation-state she confesses: “where my baby heart whispers / I want I want I want” despite being aware that it “shredded your father and mother”. The invested desire is fuelled by the fear of the “unknown / other”, by the categorisations between self and other that, despite Mattar’s dissolution of those distinctions, are still present due to the System’s pervasiveness and evisceration of alternatives. The violence that excludes the other also “cuts between us”, because, as a false promise from the state, the safety never materialises so it delineates internal borders in another promise of violent fulfillment.

There are also moments of pleasure within patriarchal violence:

finding a boy
to push you too young against a wall and liking it – for freedom
instead of your own

The boy’s freedom is to perpetrate violence at the cost of Mattar’s freedom from violence which Mattar subverts to find sexual autonomy and liberation. Within this pleasure Mattar realises the implication of participating in this coercion, the exclamatory: “fuck / I willed it” plays on the pun of sex and realisation. Mattar thus develops a complex picture of affiliations to and detachments from the System’s violence and promises that inform our desires.

Affiliation is a geography of bleeding boundaries and abrupt junctures whose impossible untangling provides entry points for any reader. It highlights the messiness of our affiliations, the inability of detachment and the shifting investments we make to create a work that is strikingly honest, bold in its assertions and hopeful without idealism. Mattar keeps in focus both our entrapments in these affiliations as a condition of life as well as our only escape from its claustrophobia: our ultimate decision on how, with who and where we affiliate. It is an opening letter that shelters and confronts within its expansive envelope.

This piece was amended on November 1st 2021


[1] bell hooks. 1984. Feminist Theory: from the margin to the centre. Boston, Massachusetts: South End Press.

[2] Hamid Dabashi. 2009. Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in Time of Terror. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers.

About the Author

George Reiner is a poet, translator, and artist based between London and Birmingham. With Penny Burkett they have published ‘cruising for lavs’ that explored queer relations and experiences in Polari. He is a member of the Birmingham Hippodrome Young Poets and his poetry and translations can be found in Berfrois and Under a Warm Green Linden. He is currently working on a short story in Italian, ‘Di-Ospitare,’ that explores hospitality in the modern world as part of a residency at CasaPiena MicroCentro in Petralia Soprana, Sicily.

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