Scenes From a Pandemic: 54

31 05 2021

by Hira Nabi

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

View of the Ravi from inside Kamran’s Baradari. (photo: Hira Nabi)

News From Home, and Other People’s Homes

Lahore, Pakistan

I write to friends in India and receive from them messages of fear, of fatigue, narrating incidents of death and helplessness. I write to friends in Palestine, and they tell me that they are not okay, not safe, and they want the world to do something. I receive news from a friend who used to live in Kabul, and he tells me that the school bombings took place in his old neighborhood. I have become an antenna, receiving news of heartbreak and destruction, and the collapse of all sense of order. I transmit what I receive back into the world, not sure who might be listening.

Where there were homes in Deir Yassein, you’ll see dense forests—

That village was razed. There’s no sign of Arabic.

I too, O Amichai, saw the dresses of beautiful women

And everything else, just like you, in Death, Hebrew, and Arabic.

They ask me to tell them what Shahid means—

Listen: it means ‘The Beloved’ in Persian, ‘witness’ in Arabic

Agha Shahid Ali made an art form of writing ghazals in English. It isn’t lost on his audience that he, an exiled Kashmiri poet, was writing about disappearances and occupation elsewhere—in Palestine. Witnessing becomes a charged act, filled with radical possibility. 

There is nothing else to talk about but Palestine. There is nowhere else to look but Palestine.

There is everything in the world but hope. There is nothing in the world without hope.

* * *

Eid was marked in this way. It wasn’t an occasion to celebrate, and I didn’t leave my house to visit with friends, but perhaps it was enough to be grateful to receive food, and be together with my immediate family. The weather was kind, and we took our tea in the garden. To preserve some shade of normalcy, my mother prepared kheer—made with milk, sugar, vermicelli, khoya, cardamom and slivered almonds. The trick is to keep stirring without stopping while it cooks. The constant movement prevents the milk from curdling; instead, it thickens, letting the sugar bind with it, absorbing and sweetening. 

* * *

(photo, detail: Mariam Tareen)

* * *

A friend recently remarked about the recurrent loop of history: it is doomed to repetition, yet it erases itself at the same time. Is there a way out?

Pondering his question, I went to the oldest known monument of the Mughal Empire in Lahore—Kamran’s Baradari, which was built by Kamran Mirza, son of Babur, the first Mughal emperor, in 1540. Although some accounts state that its cusped arches allude to a later construction date, possibly the seventeenth century. 

What is known for certain is that it was originally built at the edge of the Ravi, but over time as the river changed course, the land on which this pavilion stands became an island, accessible only by boat. BaraN means twelve, and dar means door, hence a pavilion with twelve doors. Its ancient method of ventilation allows air currents to pass freely through those twelve portals, refreshing and cooling the structure during the summer months. Its inner walls have been covered with graffiti. I glimpsed candlewicks on ledges, and blackened arches where smoke from burning candles had risen. A funeral of wishes, I thought idly. 

I stood on the banks of the Ravi waiting for a boatman to ferry me across. A maximum of two passengers: we had our masks on. Even beneath it, I could smell burnt rubber coming off the water. The river allowed a city to rise up on its banks, and swallow it up. 

* * *

Most of Pakistan is currently in a semi-lockdown. My brothers went to buy flowers on Mother’s Day, and it was the most bizarre exchange: formally, the florist had closed his shop, but his assistants crawled beneath the partial shutter bringing out flowers, showing customers images of the inventory on their phones, and illicitly selling bouquets. I had ordered some books to gift my nephews on Eid, but the delivery is delayed. I don’t think they mind; over this past year, long pauses entered our lives and readjusted our expectations. Days and nights pass with nowhere to go. In the midst of this, I try to grow a garden on my windowsill: I watch for signs of overwatering, and underwatering. I am trying to learn plants, to understand them. 

What kind of times are these? Adrienne Rich’s poem comes to mind:

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled

this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,

our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,

its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods

meeting the unmarked strip of light—

ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:

I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you

anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these

to have you listen at all, it’s necessary

to talk about trees.

It is not just the trees, the land, villages, rivers and fish that are disappearing at an alarming rate. So are people. Families of missing persons (mainly from Baluchistan, but increasingly journalists from all over the country, and young Pashtun men) continue their vigil outside press clubs in cities across Pakistan, plan long marches to the capital to demand the return of loved ones or their appearance in a court trial. In Karachi, informal settlements at GujjarNala and OrangiNala are being demolished, the people evicted, to make way for new developments. It is a universally established tale of land grabbing and dispossession. The Supreme Court has ordered a stay order until June 1. 

(photo, detail: Awami Workers Party & Karachi Bachao Tehreek)

And so we wait, and watch. But solidarity is not a passive state of being. It is a ringing call to action. Demolitions in Karachi, demolitions in Sheikh Jarrah, and now Gaza being razed to the ground. I recall Mahmoud Darwish’s writing, poetry turned prose—broadcasting pain from Gaza.

The enemy may defeat Gaza. (The stormy sea might overwhelm a small island.)

They might cut down all her trees.

They might break her bones.

They might plant their tanks in the bellies of her women and children, or they might toss her into the sand, into the sea, into blood.


Gaza will not repeat the lies.

Gaza will not say yes to the conquerors.

And she will continue to erupt.

It is not death, and it is not suicide, it is Gaza’s way of announcing she is worthy of life.

Hira Nabi is an artist and filmmaker currently based in Lahore. She was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp in 2011.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on May 26, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: ‘Ah, the Good Old Days…’

Things are pretty terrible, it’s true, but here, as an antidote to any creeping notion that once upon a time, the children were all good, the families all safe and the country not in a state of obsession, scandal and ‘alternate facts’, we present a clip from a short documentary by former Film Camper Immy Humes, about Lizzie Bordenmore aptly, the legions who have done their own research and must tell the tale.

Immy just got a grant from the NEA for her continuing work on a full-length documentary on avant garde filmmaker Shirley Clarke—”one of the great undertold stories of American independent cinema,” according to the NYTimes.

Scenes From a Pandemic: 53

24 05 2021

by Gina Womack

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

Improvising in the shadow of man-made disaster, black residents memorialize the history of what was once the commercial and green-space heart of Tremé and use the underpass of Highway 10 for gatherings and parties. (photos: Gina Womack)

‘We Shouldn’t Have to Be so Resilient’

New Orleans

I have been working at home since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in 2005. So has the rest of the staff at Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), the organization I co-founded in 2001. One man-made disaster was followed by another, as gentrification raked the city. The building FFLIC was renting in a historically black community was sold, and we were forced to do what has become commonplace everywhere since Covid-19 was allowed to run wild. We telecommuted, since much of our work involved outreach and out-of-office meetings. To maintain connection to the community, we rented a small office in a neighborhood building with co-working space, so staff and families could meet in its conference room. At first, working this way was emotionally and logistically difficult: not to see everyone’s face, to catch up on one another’s life, or pop in for a quick question or support; not to have the physical space that, for many youth and families, had become not just a place to address an immediate need but a home away from home. The chatter, laughter and freedom of our own space were lost, transformed suddenly, just as life had been after the flood, when the streets went silent because people were displaced, some never to return. As native New Orleanians, we are constantly forced to be resilient; true to our saying Laissez les bons temps rouler (“Let the good times roll”), we made “gumbo,” something out of not very much. We used group texts and plenty of emojis and memes to bring levity to working remotely. We scheduled more staff retreats and utilized other community spaces to meet with youth and families. It’s still not the same; “our lives were forever changed.” People say that a lot now.

Some 230 youths, aged 13 to 20, are held in state prison in Louisiana today. More than 90 percent of them are black or brown, and more than 40 percent are there for nonviolent offenses. Typically, they are poor and were burdened by social inequities, lack of quality education, and mental health care, meaning shrunken opportunities and support. (In the pandemic, a Save the Children study ranks Louisiana last in the nation in protecting children from hunger, educational disparities and family economic insecurity.) Parents and other caregivers seek help from government and find none due to systemic disinvestment. Their children feel ignored and invisible, and end up acting out: fighting, stealing, breaking into cars, things not at all unique to these children. If they were the children of elected officials or of white parents of means, they would probably never see the inside of a prison. Such infractions would be regarded as acting out; the youngsters would be sent to diversion programs and kept at home. For children incarcerated for violent offenses, being locked in a cage doesn’t lead to rehabilitation. Prison is a violent environment. Eventually, they will return home, again to little or no support. The cycle is made, and often continues.

* * *

Bottom line: “Try imagining a place where it’s always safe & warm.”

Working virtually over the past year was an easy transition for me. Personally, I am an introvert, so the worst period of the pandemic gave me an unusual opportunity not to worry about going out of the house. It gave me the chance to slow down and hang up my superwoman cape. The March 23, 2020, stay-at-home order allowed me to spend more time with my elderly mother, who lived with me; to care for her safely at home until her death, unrelated to Covid, on December 20.

A month before the lockdown, I had some friends in town. Mardi Gras was early last year, February 25, and my friends wanted the full experience. I took them to all the parades; we walked from uptown St. Charles Avenue to the Faubourg Marigny area, which is on the other side of the French Quarter, about four miles away. At every opportunity, we grabbed good food, took in the scenes, and drank hand grenades—a specialty cocktail served frozen or on the rocks at only two licensed nightclubs. We had a blast. Not long after that, I was blessed to be able to hang out with my daughter, who had flown home from Philadelphia. Little did any of us know then, or even after the lockdown order came, how long it would be before we could see friends and family again, or enjoy the city’s pleasures, or even spend some quality girl-time together, but at least we had those experiences.

* * *

When Governor John Bel Edwards put the state on lockdown, emphasizing that to stay safe we had to stay home, the order should have applied to the children incarcerated in state and private facilities. Ironically, when Covid-19 took over our lives, FFLIC was beginning to examine how our children were doing 15 years post-Katrina. In our assessment, it’s as if the laws and policies that were put in place in 2003 to reduce incarceration and treat children humanely were never passed. Despite all the work of advocates, fighting so that our children’s youthful mistakes might be met with programs and treatment in their communities, not with shackles and cages, it’s as if reform were never promised. Promises and reforms don’t seem to transfer from one administration to the next. During the pandemic, we have continued to hear loved ones’ cries for their children, who, instead of being with their families, were held in isolation, unable to see visitors for a year.

On March 25, 2020, we learned that three youths locked in Louisiana prisons under the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) had tested positive for Covid-19. Our children literally had no way to protect themselves from infection, no way to avoid contact with others. By the summer, Louisiana ranked fourth in the country per capita for all children in prison who had tested positive, almost twice the national average. In juvenile prisons, workers were testing positive as well. They were replaced by inexperienced probation officers, who often resorted to tasing children (an illegal practice) to calm their outbursts of anxiety. Because counseling and education services were canceled, children were, in addition, left with nothing to do. “I don’t want to die here, not in here,” one said.

FFLIC joined with the Youth First Initiative and more than 22 organizations across the country to call for Freedom for Our Youth. We wrote letters to the governor and other elected officials demanding that they follow the CDC’s best practices. We petitioned the governor and made phone calls, lots of phone calls. We organized an emergency town hall meeting to hear parents’ concerns. We continued to provide support and advocacy for parents, who were desperate to hear from their children.

The governor never budged. Children were not sent home. To date, 61 youths tested positive for Covid-19, according to the OJJ’s website, and 61 have recovered; 105 staff tested positive, and 102 recovered.

We shouldn’t have to be so resilient, but we are. Our organization and families continue to love and care for each other. We continue to find places to meet and ways to socialize. We continue to educate our lawmakers. We continue to build leadership of our youth and families. We continue to be community, no matter how many man-made disasters try to separate us.

Gina Womack is a mother of three children, and co-founder and executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. She was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp in 2010.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on May 19, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: A Pre-Pandemic Scene From Iraq

Faisal Laibi Sahi, The Cafe 2, 2014Acrylic on canvas, 124 x 315 cm. (Image courtesy of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah)

A few installments ago (No. 50), we ran a piece by Vijay Prashad, in which he recounted a phone conversation with a journalist friend in Baghdad, wherein news of the day, of personal situations and the pandemic, quickly turned to news of global affairs. Vijay had suggested this image as an illustration for that piece, but it wasn’t possible to get permission in time. The good people at the Barjeel Art Foundation did reply, though, allowing us to reprint The Cafe 2, which, with thanks, we are happy to share with you now. Barjeel is an independent UAE-based foundation dedicated to the exhibition and appreciation of Modern and contemporary Arab art. You can peruse Barjeel’s extensive collection from throughout the Arab world at its website, linked above.

Scenes From a Pandemic: 52

17 05 2021

by Thomas McKean

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

The morning after: remnants of barflies’ casual violence upon the author’s sunflower garden in summer (photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)

Sometimes I Miss the Lockdown’

New York City

I feel guilty about it, but I still feel it: there’s a part of me that misses the darkest days of the lockdown.

I live in Manhattan, in the East Village. And, no, I don’t miss the wail of ambulances threading their way up First Avenue, day long, night long, rushing north, carrying the stricken to nearby hospitals. I don’t miss walking by portable morgues and their makeshift barriers, erected so we wouldn’t see bodies being brought out a hospital’s side exit.

I do miss the quiet, the strange peace, the empty streets, the feeling of solidarity among those of us who stayed, who don’t have country houses or parents or fancy friends with guest rooms. Perhaps this is because it reminds me of the East Village I moved into forty years ago, when streets were deserted at night; when you could make out on your doorstep for an hour and not a soul would pass to catcall; when you knew your neighbors, knew the shopkeepers. We’re all in this together, that was the feeling. Despite the dirt, the rampant crime (one block west boasted one of the city’s highest murder rates, as drug gangs fought for turf), we were a community. Just by buying bread at the bakery around the corner (sturdy semolina, nothing fancy), I was invited to dinner at Phyllis’s, the counterwoman’s, house and later to her granddaughter’s wedding. The block was bustling with seemingly indestructible old women—Polish, Sicilian, Irish, Spanish—who would, before sunset, drag folding chairs to the sidewalk to watch another day dwindle. Just by befriending one of them, my downstairs neighbor Marie, I was invited to her sister Annie’s for dinner, out in Jackson Heights.

This is how it felt during lockdown. Passers-by might be few, but those of us remaining, we were in it together. Fear of crime might be replaced by fear of contagion, but if fear doesn’t drive people apart, it can drive them together.

There was one figure who brought us together just by his very essence: Ali. He was our pharmacist, and like shopkeepers from years past, he knew and greeted every customer by name. Ali would give advice, deal with recalcitrant insurance companies, unresponsive doctors. It was to him we went for home remedies and preliminary diagnoses. As I said, he knew our names.

It was early days in the pandemic. We were rushing around in a panic, desperate to buy gloves, masks, hand sanitizer. So it was that one Saturday afternoon I went to Ali’s for acetaminophen. None was on the shelves. “I knew there’d be a rush on this,” he said. “But I ordered a massive bottle! It came today. Come back Monday and bring an empty bottle, and I will fill it up for you for free.”

On Monday the pharmacy was shuttered. It was shuttered the next few days, too. Then we heard the impossible: Ali, our wonderful Ali Yasin, had been stricken with Covid. His sons sounded optimistic. He was on a ventilator, but he was strong, he would make it. At 68, his energy had never seemed to flag before. He was in the hospital for months—at one point well enough to go off the ventilator.

But then he was put back on.

He died in May.

A neighbor broke the news. We stood in my apartment crying, too afraid to hug.

Perhaps Ali’s death was symbolic, because life felt harder after that. A new landlord, intent on renovating and increasing rents, emptied half the apartments in my building and commenced dusty renovations as soon as indoor construction was allowed again. Most of my other neighbors fled for more peaceful pastures.

(MetroCard collage: Thomas McKean)

In August the noise from the street began. This had been the bright light of lockdown in a loud city—the relative quiet: fewer cars and trucks, fewer shrieking-into-cell-phone throngs of bar-hoppers stampeding at all hours. By necessity, we were spending more time at home, so at least our homes really were a refuge (if one ignored that endless stream of ambulances). I could sit in my living room, gazing north at the Empire State Building (my calm watchtower for decades), and after banging pots at 7, feel cocooned in quiet, safe in silence.

But, as I said, then the noise began. From across the street. A newly reopened restaurant decided to have a live band play full-blast in its open storefront four hours a night, six nights a week. I couldn’t even make a phone call. The electric guitarist might as well have been on my fire escape: the racket echoed back and forth across the narrow side street, and by the time it stopped I’d be frantic.

I was trapped in the city, trapped in my apartment, cornered by relentless racket. I told myself that being blasted out of my apartment was better than being on a ventilator, the way Ali had ended, but that’s a false choice. We shouldn’t have to fear an invisible foe, a sneaky virus. We shouldn’t be driven insane when home. We shouldn’t have to teach people how to be neighbors. Adding to the feeling of helplessness was the fact that the police, the mayor’s office, our councilwoman, did nothing.

After four months of this, the restaurant had to shut down (Covid clusters). Now reopened, it seems to have got the message: play all the music you want, but keep your doors shut so a few hundred people aren’t forced to listen.

But that feeling of helplessness has not gone. Part of this is due to Covid: although vaccinated and cautious, I see crowds of the merrily maskless tromp by and wonder how long it will be before, as in Mumbai and Marseilles and Montreal, our rates rise again. And I wonder how long it will be until the doors of the restaurant open and our apartments are no longer our own. And I know Ali will never return.

It’s like walking on thin ice, trying to convince myself that those aren’t cracking sounds I hear.

Thomas McKean is a writer, artist, and musician, living in New York. His most recent book is A Conversation with Ruth Pitter (HappenStance Press, Glenrothes, Scotland). He is a friend of Kopkind.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on May 12, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: ‘Music Is the Only Language That Needs No Translator’

On May 14 the new documentary Los Hermanos/The Brothers, by former Kopkind/CID Film Campers Marsha Jarmel and Ken Schneider, began being screened live in theaters and streaming online. The film tells the story of two Cuban-born virtuosos, Ilmar and Aldo López-Gavilán, brothers separated when Ilmar went to Moscow to study violin and then immigrated to New York, where later he became a founder of the Grammy-winning Harlem Quartet. The younger Aldo studied music in England and returned to Havana to teach and play, becoming an internationally renowned pianist and com-poser. The two reunited and played together for the first time in decades as a result of the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba, a policy reversed by Trump. The film tells their personal stories and follows their electrifying performances in New York and on their US tour. Below, a video about the brothers and the film. Click here for more information about the film, including, how to watch it live or virtually, and for the official trailer.

Scenes From a Pandemic: 51

10 05 2021

by Elizabeth Emma Ferry and Stephen Ferry

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

David Ferry, poet. (photos: Stephen Ferry)

Hello, Poetry, You ‘Lamenting Pleasure’

Brookline, Massachusetts

For years before the pandemic, our father, the poet David Ferry, accepted invitations to read in public on any pretext: an academic conference, a bookstore benefit, indoors, outdoors, for large groups and small. He organized family poetry readings, and had lunch so often at Matt Murphy’s, a pub in Brookline, accompanied by friends and a glass of whiskey, that the place saw him as a kind of bard-in-residence. Lines from his poem “Lake Water” are stenciled on the wall.

Then Covid came galloping, and with it came extreme isolation. Things changed so abruptly, just as family and friends were preparing to celebrate his 96th birthday at Matt Murphy’s. We canceled the party, the pub shut down, and our father was sequestered in his retirement home, allowed almost no in-person contact. That was in March of 2020. We were relieved that his place took the danger seriously—in a state where one in seven residents of elder care facilities died of Covid as the months passed, it lost no one to the virus—but we were anxious too. Reading poetry over the phone became our father’s antidote to loneliness.

He reads constantly with family and friends: Stephen and he read every day; grandchildren and three nieces, every week; and Elizabeth and her husband and kids, also each week. He reads with his good friend the poet George Kalogeris, with other pals and former students. Old-school, our father prefers the telephone to video calls. At first, we wished we could meet him over Zoom, but the phone concentrates our attention to the sound of our voices and the rhythm of the lines.

Before the pandemic, in 2019, David Ferry with grandson Sebastian Wood.

Covid has made us all think a lot about mortality. In his poetry, David Ferry often faces the unbargainability of death, as in these lines from his translation of Horace’s Ode ii.14, “To Postumus”:

Behaving well can do nothing at all about it.
Wrinkles will come, old age will come, and death,
Indomitable. Nothing at all will work.

Sometimes he has fun with the fact of his own mortality. In one of his “found single-line poems” published in Bewilderment, he wrote:

Turning Eighty-Eight, a Birthday Poem
It is a breath-taking, near-death experience.

The next one-line poem on the page reads:

You ain’t seen Nothing yet.

That wry attitude recalls an incident in his life at the age of 93. Dad choked on a piece of meat in a restaurant, fell to the floor, and both his heart and breathing stopped. Fortunately, there was a doctor in the house who revived him. Afterward, he had a good time shocking his friends by asking, “Hey, did you know I died last week?” In the next beat he’d say, “And I’m here to report, there is nothing there.”

In our own family’s history, we have seen how the writing and reading of poetry has provided a way for our father to grieve. Our mother, Anne Davidson Ferry, was a scholar of poetry who often edited and guided David’s work. For almost half a century, they were inseparable. After her death, in 2006, friends who knew them would remark with amazement at how, despite such a loss, our father was able to go on with seemingly the same energy. Perhaps such resilience came from a lifetime of looking death in the face.

While she was suffering from the illness that would take her life, he translated Virgil’s poem about Orpheus descending into Hades to rescue his wife, Eurydice (Georgics IV). Here, Eurydice speaks the moment after Orpheus looks back, causing her to have to return to the realm of the dead:

“The cruel Fates already call me back,
And sleep is covering over my swimming eyes,

Farewell; I am being carried off into
The vast surrounding dark and reaching out

My strengthless hand to you forever more
Alas not yours.” And saying this, like smoke

Disintegrating into air she was
Dispersed away and vanished from his eyes

And never saw him again, and he was left

Clutching at shadows, with so much still to say.

He alludes to these lines in “Lake Water,” on the death of our mother. The last stanza reads:

When moments after she died, I looked into her face,

It was as untelling as something natural,
A lake say, the surface of it unreadable,
Its sources of meaning unfindable anymore;

Her mouth was open as if she had something to say;

But maybe my saying so is just a figure of speech.

In an interview published as “A Conversation with Poet David Ferry on the Occasion of His 96th Birthday,” our father talked about writing and reading poetry in relation to grief:

I do think [poetry] is therapeutic as long as one doesn’t think it provides easy answers to taking away the pain. A poem about a real-life painful situation is therapeutic because it actually intensifies the pain by confronting it directly, but talks about it by, so to speak, singing about it, and therefore the pain is presented to oneself and to others as a kind of pleasure, not happy pleasure, but often a lamenting pleasure, often very dark, but transformed into art.

More than a year into the pandemic, our father is now vaccinated and we can see him in person, but we keep reading together, still mostly on the phone.

We’ve asked our Dad about how poetry can help us think about death. “We are always knocking on the door of the dead,” he replied, “but there is no one there to answer.” On the other hand, “communicating with the living is really something.”

David Ferry is an acclaimed American poet, professor and translator. In addition to his translations of the Gilgamesh epic, the Odes of Horace, and Virgil’s EcloguesGeorgics and Aeneid, Ferry’s own poetic works include On the Way to the Island, Strangers, Dwelling Places and Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations. Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2013.

Elizabeth Emma Ferry is an anthropologist and teacher. Stephen Ferry is a nonfiction photographer. They are co-authors of La Batea (Icono/Red Hook Editions). The Ferrys are friends of Kopkind.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on May 5, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: A Note From Scot Nakagawa

Our friend, adviser and two-time Kopkind mentor turned 60 on May 7. To get himself organized to stay in the fight, Scot has started a Substack subscription newsletter called We Fight the Right. He’s been loading work produced between 2016 and now (by bits; you can see that content for free as a visitor). He will be producing new content at least twice a month, including short essays, video presentations and interviews. It will be, Scot says, “an online peek into my process of learning as I attempt to sharpen my analysis of the right and create strategic organizing and communications frameworks. If you feel moved to subscribe, it’s $5 a month. Subscription fees go to ChangeLab, my activist home. Please subscribe! I would love to have you in my little Substack community.”  Happy (belated) birthday, Scot! Below, some thoughts he sent along on the far right and political life as a forest ecosystem.

(photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)

My obsession with finding easy ways of helping people understand the threat of authoritarianism and the far right while promoting the bigger matrix of strategies needed to win genuine economic and social equity led me to forest ecosystems. It’s a subject that I’ve been teaching myself about recently that is endlessly fascinating … but to me. I’ll spare you the details.

Sans all the detail, it may be helpful to think of the far right as a bunch of powerful toxic elements in a managed forest ecosystem that was originally designed to cause those elements to flourish. That makes them dangerous for a lot of obvious reasons, including the harm they can do to the more beneficial elements of the forest. But they also constitute a constant threat to the survival of the whole ecosystem. History shows that those toxic elements—fascists and authoritarians, especially of the ethnic nationalist variety—cannot survive alone. Left alone, they choke each other out, and the whole forest fails. But history also shows that scorched earth attempts to eliminate everything that’s considered toxic, in fact, scorches the earth and leads to autocratization, a ten-dollar word for sliding into authoritarianism. And that slide leans, again, in the direction of failure.

Put more explicitly, authoritarianism is, at its core, limited pluralism, so attempts to deploy law enforcement, say, to eliminate dangerous right-wing radicals often create martyrs of some rightists while contributing to the conditions that radicalized them in the first place. The work of winning equity and justice is the work of creating the conditions that favor the best elements of the forest so they flourish in ways that shade out the bad stuff until those bad elements die out or at least can’t compete effectively anymore and are contained.

But just doing that work of promoting the good stuff is not enough, because the forest is, at base, a favorable environment for those particular toxic ideas. They have a natural advantage, and sometimes, actually pretty regularly, broader circumstances will cause those toxic elements to gain an even stronger advantage, causing them to surge. And, again, both the surge and the most likely reactions to it may threaten to destroy the ecosystem. Constant vigilance is necessary.

We need people who are watching those elements specifically, making sure we all know what they are. That’s a tracking and reporting function. Then we need people who are keeping us from accidentally spreading the seeds or eating the toxic fruit. That’s mostly a political education project. And we need those who are dedicated to containing the bad stuff through counter-organizing. The overall goal is to cause those toxic elements to die out eventually. But that work keeps getting baffled by the toxins getting out of control because we’re not investing enough in the specific work that is required to keep them at bay all the time, including when they aren’t surging as strongly. I could go on about mother trees and fungi and … but I like you, so I’ll be kind and keep it to myself. The point is, we need a more robust way of understanding how we’re doing this work, and ecosystems may provide a good way to get there.

Scenes From a Pandemic: 50

3 05 2021

by Vijay Prashad

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

In the pandemic year, artists from 30 countries have created posters reflecting the defining crises of our time. (collage: Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, from its Hybrid War poster series with International Week of Anti-Imperialist Struggle)

Waiting for Catastrophes

Chatting with a friend in Baghdad

I’ve been calling friends around the world to ask them how they are doing in the pandemic. Abbas, a veteran reporter in Baghdad, says that there have been over a million confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Iraq, and he does not know anyone who has been vaccinated. Journalists, we joke, using Trump’s phrase, are “enemies of the people” and not essential workers. “Not sure when I’ll get a vaccine,” Abbas said.

Conversations with Abbas meander into the necessary topics. US troops are pulling out from Afghanistan. There are only 2,500 of them left. What will remain when they’re gone are all kinds of mysterious assets: trainers, private contractors, ghost advisers (namely, from the CIA). No one knows how many of those there are, and few talk about it. Abbas tells me that after the Iraqi Parliament refused to let US troops linger in Iraq, such contractors (and the CIA) remained, many of them in the Kurdish-dominated north. This past February, a missile strike that hit Erbil airport was directed at these US assets. “Two strategic defeats for the United States,” Abbas says. In Iraq’s case, the advantages of the US withdrawal certainly went immediately to Iran, which has close relations with a large section of the Iraqi government; but the advantage also came to Iraq, whose confoundingly compromised government is nonetheless trying to exert some sovereignty over the fractured country. In Afghanistan, who will be in charge? Certainly not the titular leader of the country, Ashraq Ghani, who is—as they used to say about Hamid Karzai—merely the mayor of Kabul. There is a lot of jockeying for influence: among the Muslim Brotherhood states of Qatar and Turkey, and of course India and Iran. There’s been little mention of China, but it has an interest in a stable Afghanistan so as to build its Belt and Road Initiative linking China’s Pacific coastline to Europe. “These are the Vietnams of our time,” Abbas says.

Nothing is so clear. As we talk, the muezzin from the Razavi Mosque calls the faithful to prayer, his loudspeaker jarringly near. Abbas lives in what used to be called Saddam City, the bulwark of the old Iraqi Communist Party. It is now largely beholden to forces loyal to the Sadr movement and its many factions. Older left orientations have dwindled away over the past two generations. There is a 1951 report written by Haji Yousuf Chang to the US government asking Washington to finance an insurgency against communism not only in China but across Asia. I quote it in my book Washington Bullets. A decade later, Saudi Arabia’s royal family would do just this (with CIA backing) through the World Muslim League. There was large-scale attraction to left-wing ideas then. The promotion of a Saudi variant of Islam was used to divert it. This is exactly what undermined the communist movement from Lebanon to Iraq, and now into the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

Two friends on the phone talking, their ‘how are you doings’ sliding into politics, the world, Afghanistan, war and the dangers of ‘falling for it’.

The muezzin’s call, beautiful in its resonance, carries our conversation along, to the new information war about Xinjiang. Abbas laughs, “Never thought I would see the day when the United States becomes the defenders of Muslims.” I remind him that Ronald Reagan called the Mujahideen “freedom fighters.” These are the worst elements in Afghanistan. “Yes,” he says, “we fell for it then, and we keep falling for it over and over again.”

Falling for it. Yes. During one of my first conversations with Abbas, more than a decade ago, we spoke about an event that has receded from public consciousness. The Human Rights Caucus of the US Congress held a hearing on October 10, 1990, on the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. The most powerful testimony came from a young girl named Nayirah. She spoke about seeing babies removed from incubators, left on the cold floor, as the incubators were whisked to Iraq. It was a searing image. The story was repeated by the press and by politicians to drum up support for bombing Iraq in 1991. A year after the Gulf War, John MacArthur revealed that the young woman, Nayirah al-Sabah, was the daughter of Kuwaiti Ambassador Saud al-Sabah—and the entire atrocity had been cooked up by a Kuwaiti government front group called Citizens for a Free Kuwait and the pr firm Hill & Knowlton (with help from the CIA). There was good reason to oppose Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, but this was not one of them. This was a pack of lies.

Something in the story about atrocities in Xinjiang smells like that public relations operation in 1990. The man at the center of the latest “information” is connected to the US-backed Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and to the Jamestown Institute, which has links with US intelligence. His evidence looks detailed and rational, but even a slight inspection shows great anomalies. Whereas until yesterday no one in the West knew anything about Xinjiang—the world’s largest cotton producer, two and a half times the size of France—now everyone spits out ‘genocide’ and ‘forced labor’ without hesitation. Abbas and I think about the shallowness of media concern for the way information is managed. “Remember the time when they said Qaddafi was doing genocide in Libya?” he says. After the Libyan war, human rights groups studied the facts on the ground and said there was no evidence for that. Words like ‘genocide’ are routinely weaponized in the wars of our time.

The United States is notionally pulling its troops out of Afghanistan at the same time as it seems to be deepening its commitment to military action against China. Abbas laughs. “If they could not subdue us,” he says, meaning Iraq, “how will they fare against China?” It is true. But we are dealing with callous people who have contempt for world health. If they want a war, they might get a war.

Vijay Prashad is chief correspondent for Globetrotter, director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, and chief editor of LeftWord Books. His most recent book is Washington Bullets: A History of the CIA, Coups, and Assassinations, with a foreword by Evo Morales Ayma. He was a speaker at Kopkind in 2010.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on April 28, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: After May Day

Our dear friend Peter Linebaugh wrote an appreciation of the late Noel Ignatiev, a steel worker and scholar, for May Day. It’s also a story about steelmaking and consciousness, elemental things, and unfinished business.You can read the full story, “In the Smithy of His Soul,” on CounterPunch. Below, a bit of it.

Iron ore. (detail: Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals)

The archaeologist and historian V. Gordon Childe explains that the metal worker was the first crafts person in human history preceding even the potter and the weaver. The craft involved discoveries of geology and chemistry and transformation under heat. Smelting and casting were not simple procedures. The abstruse knowledge or craft lore was bound with magic, and eventually the workers formed a “mystery” or guild.

Iron ore originating in the Mesabi of range of northern Minnesota was shipped from Duluth in freighters upon Lakes Superior and Michigan. Here I must make another digression. Well so it seems. Actually it gives us two clues as to our unfinished business.

Many of the miners in the Mesabi range were Finnish, specifically ‘forest Finns’ who migrated at the beginning of the last century. Oral poetry maintained the memory of the mythic origins of the world. My colleague, Mikael Lövgren, explained to me that in Finland these became the Kalevala, the national saga. And were brought to the Mesabi iron range of Minnesota by Finnish miners and metal workers. A blacksmith and shaman, the archetypal artificer, named Ilmarinen forges Sampo, a wealth-making machine, or talisman, often interpreted as the sun. Ilmarinen is akin to Daedalus. There are many stories of his search for a wife and his failure, until he forges a woman of gold! With bellows, forge, and ore he fashions cross bow, skiff, heifer, and plow. These creations do not please. He then creates Sampo, solar like source of energy and power.

The eternal magic artist,
Ancient blacksmith, Ilmarinen,
First of all the iron-workers,
Mixed together certain metals,
Put the mixture in the caldron,
Laid it deep within the furnace,
Called the hirelings to the forging.
Skilfully they work the bellows,
Tend the fire and add the fuel,
Three most lovely days of summer,
Three short nights of bright midsummer,
Till the rocks begin to blossom,
In the foot-prints of the workmen,
From the magic heat and furnace.


Leave my native fields and woodlands,
Never shall I, in my life-time,
Say farewell to maiden freedom,
Nor to summer cares and labors,
Lest the harvest be ungarnered,
Lest the berries be ungathered,
Lest the song-birds leave the forest,
Lest the mermaids leave the waters,
Lest I sing with them no longer.

The clues here are first, gender, and second, meaning myth. The steel worker for all his brawn, bravery, and bull cannot have whatever woman he chooses. Certainly not if she must leave the harvest and the birds. He may be allied with the fire, she is allied with earth and air. The problem of climate change will not be solved without smashing the patriarchy. She simply will not have it. Such is the meaning supplied by the tale of Ilmarinen. Superstition or class consciousness? It was part of the lore of the Finns. The other clue may also be found in West Africa.

The Yoruba deity, Ogun, was the orisha, or spirit of iron and metal working. Among the Mande of West Africa the forge was an altar and sanctuary as well as a place of craft. Iron smelting was active in Dahomey and Benin cultures from six centuries B.C.E. Children were apprenticed to learn the nyama, an axiom that knowledge is power if property articulated. The weapons and the agricultural implements upon which material subsistence depended were made by these iron workers. They are also strict gender regimes. Robert Farris Thompson writes, “Thus, across the Atlantic, iron instruments are all, in the end, the children of Ogun, carried on his broad and mighty shoulders…. Oguin marches only with the spiritually vital and the quick of hand.” It was Ogun who throughout African America, Bahia to Haiti, accompanied the liberation fighters against slavery.