Whereas it could take as long as 16 seconds betweenFrom Solmaz Sharif, Look (2016)
the trigger pulled in Las Vegas and the Hellfire missile
landing in Mazar-e-Sharif, after which they will ask
Did we hit a child? No. A dog. they will answer themselves….
Race can seem like an elusive concept. For some, it is hard to comprehend when plainly presented. For others, its presence is everywhere to be found.
On the opening page of Solmaz Sharif’s Look this predicament is introduced with a direct question. As a query it points to the monster haunting the twenty-first century. Made centuries ago it has a wide-ranging purpose. Sharif’s brilliant book of poems plays on the double meaning of its title as noun and verb, a look and to look, appearance and gaze. In a devastating critique of the twenty-first century conventions of violence, Sharif describes drone warfare as technological racism. Frantz Fanon once described this gaze as the making of blackness in which the white world declares, “Look, a Negro!” In this announcement, race is constructed as a process of naming through the act of seeing. Naming the racial object, the declaration itself, is a framing of what can be, and what one can become.
At first, these lines of poetry describe remote-control death and long-distance murder. Underneath a certain matter-of-factness is the racial monster, that is itself an aesthetic production of war. Without needing to say it, the War on Terror exploits religious and racial connotations. A human/nonhuman dichotomy based in hierarchical reasoning: was it a child, a dog, is one more important than the other, does it matter? A problem that unravels in geography, names, places, and the liberal concept of humanity that purports to save some humans from other humans. In the modern disenchanted worldview of the contemporary nation state, the United States military is a deity that names weapons to symbolically justify violent horror. So much is said in just the name of a place: Mazar-e-Sharif. Imagine Hellfire being dropped upon where you live.
In these verses, the declaration that a child might have been killed is more matter of fact rather than concern. Such banality is part of the everyday life of war in a technological age based in algorithms and risk. The tyranny unleashed in the power of this monster is the fascism enabled under the War on Terror that has become normalized. That Muslims are the target of such warfare goes without saying. This is the demonization of an entire worldview that is ascribed a religion that goes by the name of Islam. Whether this is actually existing and practiced Islam is another question.
The racializing mythology that represents Islam and Muslims is based in folktales, rituals of nationalism, the racist gaze, and the construction of supposedly opposed values, ideas, beliefs of ideological structures. The system of white supremacy that uses this racist monster-making is the fairytale of a supposed threat from a long time ago in a faraway land. In other words, this is white supremacy’s Muslim. Monsters serve many purposes: they scare us, we scream at them, they validate our horror, they create radical difference. “They are not like us, we must save ourselves from them,” one can hear repeated in the consenting corners of empire.
Not everyone believes in monsters, much less the mythologies and folklore of the present. Those sixteen seconds between trigger and landing must have felt like the world was so small. And yet the gap in seeing a human in the crosshairs made the distance so vast.
* * *
Whereas I cannot control my own heat and it can take
as long as 16 seconds between the trigger, the Hellfire
missile, and A dog. they will answer themselves;
Whereas A dog. they will say: Now, therefore,
Let it matter what we call a thing.
Let it be the exquisite face for at least 16 seconds.
Let me LOOK at you.
Let me LOOK at you in a light that takes years to get here.From Solmaz Sharif, Look (2016)
There is a prevalent folk theory that racism is only colorism. Race as a concept of social categorization merges ideas of kinship and appearance. Meaning, what you look like is where you are from, and who you are. Based on divisions of culture, history, and language, the broader definition of race is embedded in social hierarchy and classification. The Muslim monster is a capacious racial construction. It is an old one that seems new. Muslims, in this system of racial reasoning, stand in for a number of racial demons, genocides, wars, ecological disaster, climate crisis, global pandemics, and death. It is not just that Islam is characterized as a violent religion that necessitates deadly military force by the state; it is that the monstrosity expands itself beyond Muslims and to others across the planet. It is a fear of contagion, literally and metaphorically. The monster is called a subspecies through fantasies of dehumanization. It is precisely because the monster is adaptable and flexible that fears easily map onto others. This is not only a representation issue but one that appears in laws and policies. Ban them, detain them, kick them out is the immigration history of racism in the United States. Making racial monsters out of Muslims is a weapon of ethnic cleansing across the globe.
What is so remarkable about Solmaz Sharif’s poetry in Look is the piercing diagnostic of war. Sharif expresses the intimacy of the everyday to the larger than life problems of displacement, violent death, and anti-Muslim racism that encapsulate the poet’s anger, outrage, and sense of grief. To look and see something is also a reflection of light, providing evidence in the moment of what will soon be past. To look is to see what is being done below the surface of a thing, a face, a body. Looking comes in many forms—some deadly, others affirming.