Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Thoughts on Katrina's Aftermath by poet Suheir Hammad

After and Before the Floodby Suheir Hammad

September 16, 2005

If I ever forget what I have seen, I do not know if I will be a blessed or a cursed woman. I begin with what I brought with me. Loot. Clothes, money, napkins, poetry books, nail polish, vitamins, hope. These I left in Algiers, in the West Bank. I brought a pretty pair of pajamas. That I left in Baton Rouge. I brought with me an innocence I did not know I possessed, until I left it in the toxic ravined streets of New Orleans.

My homegirl Jacquie and I got into New Orleans yesterday. She had her camera and I drove the car. She’s never been to the Crescent City. She will never see what it was. The Mayor’s press conference announced that this was the first time in the history of the city that it has been drug and crime free. We listened to his speech during one of the long hours spent in the car yesterday. Beware, he said, those of you planning on returning to do no good. The city has police even more invested in protecting property. Army, National Guard, M16s, M4s, night vision, and even bazookas, he chuckled, for special people.

The smell is not human, though humanity did manufacture the chemicals and structures that have dissolved into nature, to create it. Hurricane Katrina did not destroy this city or her poor. Human planning and human response did. The streets of New Orleans are peppered with so many military vehicles, it appears a film. The 9th ward, which has just been drained of its flood, is empty of its people and heavy with menacing air. The cars that had been underwater are parked, salted. I drove the streets I’d walked down, and knew what hell would look like. What it would smell like. Hell is not just fire, it is water as well. People lived here and made love here and fought here and ate here and slept here and birthed here and built here and whispered here andc ried here and danced here and danced here and danced here and died here and finally they fled here.

It will take me moons and cycles to begin to craft the language I need to transform these words, and myself, into something more than a simple reflection. Jacquie, Jordan and I then entered the River Center in Baton Rouge to talk with evacuees/refugees/survivors/victims/people. I am a poet. I entered through an exit. I brought with me my ancestry and the knowledge that displacement happens internally and externally. Within countries. Within bodies.

The River Center has several shelters set up within it. The one I entered did not allow cameras. We weren’t allowed in at all, actually. We said we were press. We were pressed. An evacuee outside, watching a TV set up by TV people, said, just tell them youl ive here. You don’t really need no wrist band. I followed her lead. The lights are bright. The noise a constant din. A loud speaker announces things no one understands. People are set up by exits, by communal televisions. Girls are placed in the center of groups of tired adults. There are sick people. There are women who are trading what they have for extra food and blankets. I am a poet, I said to the Haitian woman folding and refolding her clothes. A classmate had molested her eight-year-old daughter on the school bus earlier in the day. I asked the pretty brown girl with six braids blooming out of her head if she screamed. I don’t know how to scream, she said. A woman has to know how to scream, I told her. Her mother nodded. The father is still in Algiers. I asked if they’d heard the Mayor’s announcement early yesterday that Algiers would be open on Monday. Oh, thank you, thank god.

A Red Cross worker came over to our huddle. The boy who wouldn’t stop touching the girl would be put on a different bus. He and his family are still in the shelter. What is your name again, she asked the mother. I told you my name so many times, she gritted creole. A three year old girl with cavitied teeth and a runny nose took my hand. Kamani. Her mother was folding and refolding her clothes. Her thirteen-year-old sister taught me a game of cards with me called Pitty Pat. The family is from Jefferson Parish. Twenty of their neighbors had paid a Red Cross person to drive a bus over to the parish. They left her and her three kids behind. I asked what happened, were they late, was there no room? I don’t know, I just want to go home. She cried so easy. Like curtains gathered back to view a storm. Kamani is by her mother’s leg, rubbing it with no words. This girl looks into me and I give her some of my soul willingly, all the while she is rubbing her mother’s leg. They have been here for two weeks. I leave with Kamani a pretty yellow luggage tag shaped like a chick. Andrew had gifted it to me before I left. I tell her to write her name in the lines, and her address, and attach it to her things now, so when she goes home it can look official.

Next to this family is another one. Next to that one is another one. Next to this one is that one. There are pregnant women in here. One, from Honduras, is due in a week. Her belly is pressing against her shirt as if to breathe. She has been here since August 31. My sister is pregnant, I tell her. How many months? One. She says the baby is the size of a rice in the sonogram. We laugh. People are so relieved to laugh, it is painful. Mrs. and Mr. Brown never thought they would ever be in a shelter. He is 82 years old. She gently warns him to not say her age, then says she is a few years behind him. Black don’t crack and brown don’t frown, I say to them. This laugh is a surprise. I was born and reared in New Orleans, she says. I left my car parked in the street, I thought I’d be back. Her home of thirty-seven years is in Mid-City. I never thought I’d ever be in a shelter. Trina is scrubbing her white Nike sneakers, her hair half braided, her lip-gloss thick, when I ask her if I can sit down. She finally tracked down her two children last week. Girl, I am fine, now. Around her are diapers and bottles, which she brought with her thinking her kids would be close by. They are in North Carolina with her mother, and she is fine now.

There is every age here. Every hunger. There is no privacy. The showers are outside in tents and they are no more than 5 minutes long, from walking in with your clothes on, to walking out into the street. There are monitors who shout down the seconds so no one takes longer than the allotted time. There are three or four people in there at a time. There is a cough in the shelter I have never heard before. It escapes the mouths of children as if the earth is shifting inside of them.Willis is dressed fly. Of course he is from Brooklyn. Of course he got game and wants to pick me up. Then he begins to talk about the flood. Then he begins to say, very carefully, know what I mean,there is something more than storm that killed folk. Know what Imean. We could see water so high right here in one section, know what I mean, and right there, where the other income folk live, know what I mean, it was dry as nothing. Know what I mean?

Everyone I spoke to believes the levies were not destroyed by the storm.No one I spoke to had heard any of the Mayor’s comments about there construction of the city. No one within the shelter was watching the President’s news conference. Outside, where folks smoke and breathe, a few gathered around the TVs the TV people had set up. They laughed when he talked about Jazz Funerals and New Orleans culture.Cher is 32 years old and her husband wants to move them to Dallas, where he can get a job. She has two children and they need stability, she said. It makes sense. I don’t know how anyone could leave New Orleans, I told her. Then her face and heart opened. I don’t want to go, she whispered. Girl, I know. My people are Palestinians, I told her. Once you leave, you won’t be allowed back. She knows. She knows. The rest of the stories will have to be told in poems. The rest of the voices will have to speak to me over and again in my sleep. I will fold and refold these visions in my mind until I can place them in a corner where they will not be forgotten. Right now, I see nothing else. After the streets of New Orleans and the aisles of the shelter, I feel as if I have never danced. As if I have never been touched. As if I will never be touched again. If I am ever touched again, who will be able to secure this levy? Who will catch this flood? What will grow from this water?


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At 2:49 AM, Blogger TheDevilIsInTheDetails said...

Be prepared for the next fact hurricane katrina or find another one that's similar. As the Boy Scouts say: "Be Prepared"!


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