Alongside the two poems which he has written for the Information and Cultural Exchange, writer and poet Omar Sakr, one of Australia’s foremost public thinkers, and the first Arab-Australian Muslim to win the prestigious Prime Minister’s Literary Award (2020), has spoken with Daniel Nour on the challenges of these unprecedented times in a wide-ranging interview.
Why is poetry so important to our national wellbeing?
I don’t know what a national wellbeing is, what it looks like, sounds like, or feels like: the nation is a myth and I am often trying to kill it with poetry, in large part because it has felt like the nation has been trying to kill me all my life. Let me suggest instead it’s important for our wellbeing. I find in poetry the truest sense of history, which is forever personal, forever current. Good poetry, as with any art, allows you to enter time: it enlivens, evokes, questions. My poems are always an outstretched hand, inviting the reader to grasp a part of me, to know I’m here with them, alive and afraid and loving, warped as any possible weapon, and trying my best to resist the role set out for us. I’m also the reader; I’m trying to reach myself. I don’t always succeed. I record my failures as well as my successes. I think this imperfection, this wholesale allowance of complex compassionate humanity, is vanishing from our culture, not because we are asking for accountability, but because the asking has been met with militant refusal by the status quo and we don’t know where to go from here.
In your work, you’ve spoken about how your experience as the son of Turkish-Lebanese migrants is suffused with trauma and violence. This Sydney lockdown has involved helicopters wheeling overhead and military in our streets. Can you speak to the impact of this surveillance on migrants and on migrant trauma?
Migrant communities in Western Sydney have been the subject of extra police surveillance and harassment, as well as public and political hostility, for decades. I was sixteen when the Cronulla Riots occurred, and thousands of angry white people gathered to chant “Fuck off Lebs!” and to attack every brown or vaguely “Middle Eastern”-looking person. There were sporadic acts of vandalism and violence by Lebs in the days that followed. Of the two phenomena, only one lead to the formation of police unit in response: the Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad. A taskforce that operated for over a decade after the riots, given a publicly funded mandate to target us. This is not unique to our community, either: there was the Asian Crime Squad before it, and the ongoing targeting and incarceration of Indigenous people, which needs no name, no specific squad, as the default state of colonial institutions is their dispossession and death. All the cruelties of the State have been honed on Indigenous peoples, including military intervention.
This is one of many reasons it was deeply distressing when the Prime Minister involved the army recently. The Northern Territory intervention, which required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, saw the military used to abruptly seize control of Aboriginal communities, under the guise of administering health and safety outcomes, and which in effect only further traumatised people who were already suffering. It was there the government tested its gross “cashless” welfare policy, a punitive and ineffective system designed to further shame and oppress the impoverished, which has subsequently been expanded nationwide. Similarly, the spectre of the Arab/Muslim Other has been used to justify all kinds of expanded state and police powers, as well as military action overseas, the invasion of other nations, a horrific array of war crimes, and a despicable refugee detention regime. In the public and political imaginary there is no endpoint for the suffering of certain Others, no low which is intolerable—genocidal practices against Indigenous peoples are ongoing and these violences are every bit as viral as infections; they spread far beyond their initial targets, and replicate long past the point where harm is visible.
The impact on a personal level is one of ingrained resentment, depression, and paranoia, in addition to the disadvantage that comes from being so relentlessly demonised and publicly designated as criminal, as untrustworthy based on your background. Needless to say, a public health emergency in our communities requires a complex set of social policies and support which we arn’t getting, instead, we’re seeing the usual blunt instrument of force and cruelty used.
How has poetry, especially Arab-Muslim poetry in the diaspora, reckoned with the xenophobia and prejudice of the Trump era?
I don’t think it’s our responsibility to reckon with xenophobia and prejudice in this or any era; it’s everyone’s responsibility. It is as necessary to note our loves, our joys, our deep and abiding desires, as it is to contend with the harmful forces at work in society. To that end, I encourage everyone to read more poetry—locally, from the likes of Sara Saleh, Maryam Azam, Evelyn Araluen, Alison Whittaker, Sam Wagan Watson, Ouyang Yu, and abroad from poets like Hala Alyan, Marwa Helal, Natalie Diaz, Roger Robinson, Patricia Smith, Eduardo C Corral, Kwame Dawes, Danez Smith, Tommy Pico, Najwan Darwish, Andrea Abi-Karam, Khaled Mattawa—I could go on all day, and no, these are obviously not all Arab Muslim poets. I am informed by the work of poets from many different communities and in defiance of the borders that seek to crush us. Together we weave the song of human history, which also shows us the path forward.
Dislocation is another ongoing theme in your work. What has this pandemic meant for our sense of togetherness and connectedness to each other, as a country?
We were already in a state of deep division and mistrust fostered by a predatory, hostile media. Ours is in an unequal society that lacks a clear vision for the future and is ruled by powerful institutions that aren’t acting in our best interests. The pandemic has only exposed these flaws, it has not created them. The reality is that we are governed by a conservative party that has demonstrated, time and again, that it favours profit over health, security theatre over sensible policy, and sensationalism over expert guidance, all while pandering to its anti-vax, anti-science, anti-intellectual base. In the middle of a global health crisis, our tertiary education system has been deliberately devastated—tens of thousands of jobs lost without support and new budget cuts announced, which comes on the back of a decade in which our scientific capabilities have been undermined, and every bond of trust worn away thanks to a government plagued by corruption scandals.
It’s easy to see why people are so mistrustful when we’re governed by a political class that acts with impunity, and without integrity. We live in a time where the scientific consensus on the calamity of human-driven climate change has been met by our leaders with corporate-funded contempt. We live in a time where the public and expert consensus on big pharmaceutical companies is that they routinely wield their enormous power not for the sake of public health but for profit, to the detriment of us all. In short, we live in a system that is killing the world and killing us for the short-term benefit of the few, and now we’re routinely being scolded by wealthy politicians whose income has not been impacted and whose healthcare is total, to do the right thing for the good of everyone. If ever there was any doubt about the lie in “for the good of everyone”, there isn’t any longer.
Now that so many of us are being forcibly kept from our families and loved ones, now that the distance between rhetoric and action is so clear, I sincerely hope that we can come out of this pandemic with a renewed sense of purpose to transform our punitive systems, to redirect our energy toward caring for everyone and the environment. I worry, though, that instead we will continue down the path of cruel force, fast profit, and easy hatred.
For further information about I.C.E’s work with marginalised communities to meet needs the system doesn’t cater for, email Manager, Marketing and Communications Daniel Nour at [email protected]