Randall Horton
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 Gregory Orfalea

Ethelbert and I met in 1979, I believe, in Washington, DC, after he had invited me to read poetry at the Folger Shakespeare Library with the young poet named Elizabeth Alexander.  (How wonderful it was to hear her give the inaugural poem at the swearing in of President Obama in 2008!)  Back then, the Folger noon poetry series was hosted by Ethelbert.  I had not yet published my first book; I was a late bloomer, publishing my first collection, "The Capital of Solitude," in 1988, after about 15 years of writing poetry.  By then, Ethelbert  and I had become good friends.  In fact, the title poem of that collection is dedicated to Ethlelbert.  He was very supportive of my work, particularly that dealing with my Arab American roots and Middle East injustices.  I wrote at a time when very few poets were addressing or could address in public the Palestine tragedy.  Publishing such work was extremely hard to do.  But Ethelbert kept my candle lit; he encouraged me to apply for DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities grants; I won two of them over time. 

In 1986, I was able to says thanks concretely when the al-Merbid Poetry Festival in Baghdad sought advice on U.S. poets who might attend.  I recommended Ethelbert (and Robert Hedin and Pablo Medina, as well) and he was invited.  We had quite a time.  This was in the middle of the vicious, decade long Iran-Iraq War.  People forget at the time, but the United States was tilted heavily in favor of Iraq, fearing a fundamentalist takeover of a Shiite but secular Iraq by its Shiite but Islamic revolutionary neighbor, Iran.  I recall one morning hearing a loud bang out the window of our hotel.  There I saw smoke rising from the streets of the city, blocks from us.  A knock came at the door.  It was an Iraqi steward, who said, "That was Khomeini welcoming you to Baghdad!"  It was a Scud missile fired from Iran, one of many exchanged in that tragic war between the cities of Tehran and Baghdad.  Shortly after this visit, another knock came.  It was Ethelbert!  He was a little shaken by the missile attack and, no doubt, was wondering if we might just want to swim back to the United States.  I informed him that it was a very long swim and the two of us repaired to the lunch room, determined to hang in there.  Later, we read our poems with 10 other American writers before an audience of 1,000 Iraqis.  It was quite moving.  An Egyptian poet had translated a poem of each of us in Arabic so that the crowd understood at least something.  Of course it was we who were in for more understanding.  We toured the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf and the gorgeous mosques there, but we also sensed significant tensions in the society, not the least, understandable Shiite hostility towards Saddam Hussein.  Invited later to another al-Merbid, I declined, citing the horrific gassing of the Kurds by Saddam that had occurred in the intervening period.  But our experience in 1986 was indelible:  moving, troubling.  I will never forgot over a long makeshift table of chicken and rice on the Iraq-Iran border, an Iraqi colonel looked at me and said in perfect English, "You don't know it, but we are fighting your war." 

Back in DC, my family and Ethelbert's socialized on occasion.   I got to know Denise, his wife, and he my wife Eileen; our kids--Jasmine and Nyere Gibran, as well as our Matt, Andy, and Luke--played together during these dinners.  Andy and Nyere Gibran went to the same high school together, Gonzaga.  And who was there the night I received the Arab American Book Award for my memoir,"Angeleno Days"?  Ethelbert Miller, of course.  

For someone like me, who was writing against the grain and not at the time in Academia (I was a federal government worker, though later I taught at Georgetown and am currently at the Claremont Graduate University teaching Fiction), Ethelbert's friendship writer-to-writer helped me keep the faith in my own calling, and not despair.  It could be lonely in Washington for a writer of literature; it's a political town, owned by lawyers and lobbyists.  But Ethelbert's supporting friendship cut that loneliness.  He is a man of principle, literary achievement, and family.  I much admire his latest memoir, "The Fifth Inning."  It's not easy to write about middle age, but Ethelbert has captured the anxieties and frustrations of that period of life with great honesty, poignancy, and originality.  Over time, Ethelbert's generosity to so many of us transplants to Washington was and is exemplary, and, of course, my good grace.

Gregory Orfalea, Author
October 2010

 

 

Gregory Orfalea, Author

October 2010
 

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