Editorials — July 28, 2015 9:42 — 0 Comments

W.A.S.H with Maged Zaher

At Women Against Street Harassment, we tend to focus, as the name implies, on women. But in 2015, with fatal police shootings approaching four hundred, in addition to the nine dead in the Charleston Church shooting, and a string of black churches burning in the south, it feels crucial that we discuss street harassment and public violence within a human context. These acts of violence and arson have left many people of color feeling that there is no safe place, not in the streets, not in their homes, schools, or churches. WASH sat down with poet and Stranger Genius Award Recipient Maged Zaher to talk about race, white privilege, and how we can begin to really make a difference.

PD: Before we begin, I’d like to address the notion of privilege—namely that I, as a person who experiences white privilege, am asking you, a person of color, to educate me about your experiences. I realize that some might see this as naïve, ingratiating, even offensive. I want to be clear that I intend to ask respectful, informed questions in order to educate myself and illuminate for readers your unique perspectives and experiences.

MZ: I think in the context of our dialogue, there is nothing wrong with two people exchanging ideas. I’m a man, and when it comes to sexual violence against women, my approach would be to open the space for women instead of my own opinion. In the absence of this, why not engage in a dialogue and see where the conversation takes us? We’ll question one another’s assumptions and as long as there is a deep intention of understanding, we can’t go wrong.

PD: We have a deal. My first question is, how would you compare race and gender as factors within the framework of street harassment?

MZ: I cannot speak for gender. But I can speak about my male privilege. In Egypt, I get to stay out in coffee shops till four or five in the morning. In Seattle, I can walk very late at night and no one will bother me like they would if I was a woman. These are aspects of male privilege that currently exist. Racially, it gets very complicated. Race is difficult to capture – for me – if you are privileged class-wise, as I believe I am a little bit. In the meantime, you’re still reminded of your race while you’re inhabiting public spaces and people can obviously treat you differently; and while that treatment acts as a reminder, it is not the same as a black person suffering the effects of direct violence.

PD: My next question is twofold. How would you compare your experiences in Cairo to your experiences in Seattle, and do you consider Seattle to be a xenophobic city?

MZ: I love Seattle. It’s an awesome city. It’s also a delusional city, a city that lives under the notion of this sense of diversity that doesn’t exist. It doesn’t take away from my love for it. I live in both Cairo and Seattle. They’re radically different cities, and you don’t inhabit a city unless you love it and hate it at the same time. Seattle is definitely a passive-aggressive city, a self-conscious and puritanical city, and Cairo is not. I have male privilege in both cities but both places are difficult at times, Cairo because it is difficult there to be a Coptic Christian and Seattle because being a poet of color also results in a lack of integration.

PD: One of the things I’m eager to ask you about is your facebook presence. Often your posts are overtly political, personal, and unapologetic.

MZ: I made a decision to do that at one point in time after certain personal experiences that I encountered. At first I was very apologetic and it took me a while to step up. I was shy, and then I started seeing very closely that the last set of violence against black people was on a minor level mirroring the experience of poets of color in the very white American poetry culture. I started feeling disappointed in many of the poets I was reading, poets who I had considered my intellectual heroes, because I discovered they were clueless about race and mired in privilege and completely unable to see it.

PD: I think the thing you do really well is confront the concept of white fragility, which is essentially the notion that white people need to feel completely safe and absolved of wrongdoing in discussions regarding race before they’ll participate in said discussions, and this perpetuates a culture in which we remain racially illiterate.

Although you posit a strong opinion, you always invite friends and readers to challenge your assumptions. In matters of race, how do you think white people and people of privilege can become allies in a real and genuine way?

MZ: Disavowing privilege is an amazing thing. There are those who say, “I don’t see color.” And I say please, see color. Please remember that typical institutions are not hiring people of color, and if they do, those people aren’t being promoted enough. Perhaps don’t see color in your personal life, but do at least see it in an institutional light, as it pertains to power. Exercise a split personality, in a way. It’s difficult for me, as someone with male privilege and class privilege, to paint myself as someone who suffers a lot. But I do. Black and brown Americans have a hard time of it for different reasons. We encounter police brutality and institutional racism and people don’t see it. I think if I were to give sincerely honest advice, it would be to familiarize yourself with important black intellectuals. I would argue that Angela Davis should be required reading for every human being. I would highly recommend for all poetry editors in America to understand what is the social composition of the world they are in, especially white poetry editors. It would help greatly if they understood their power and their contribution to the power issues.

PD: Who else would you recommend reading? Which poets?

MZ: Lissa Wolsak, and Donato Mancini from Canada. These are two poets who are very influential for me. I would put a specific book, Sarajevo Blues by Semezdin Mehmedinović. I would put Bernadette Mayer and Alice Notley. I would put also American Sesshu Foster—City Terrace a Field Manual is a phenomenal book. I want to add Salah Faik, who I translate, who is quite a profound poet and very instrumental in the history of Arabic poetry. What I would recommend is for American poets to read non-American poets. Poetry doesn’t transcend the material condition of the person who is writing the poems unless the person expands themselves and does so consciously. There is so much amazing poetry being written in the world right now and I would say listen, familiarize yourself with poetry that happens outside of America, because it expands us.

PD: Although it is not a new debate, there seems to be a lot of focus at the moment as to whether or not America, as a country, is racist. A lot of people point to our black president and say we’re living in a post-racial society. The president himself was recently quoted as saying that racism is part of our DNA, that it’s not something we’ve eradicated because it’s still part of our makeup as individuals and as a country.

MZ: Up until 1950 there was still blatant segregation. No country can get over something like that fully in fifty or sixty years. There’s a history of white supremacy that’s at least four hundred years. To think that such a history which includes slavery is something we can get rid of in fifty or sixty years, this seems to be a lack of understanding of how history works.

PD: A concurrent debate, in the wake of the Charleston Church shooting and the burning of several black churches that followed, is whether or not we should call these crimes acts of terrorism. What is your belief?

MZ: In any term there is always a power struggle on the ownership of the term. It seems like terrorism has been used exclusively to point at any attack on white people. To call an attack on black people terrorism is a serious branding problem. I am not sure if I want to call anything terrorism. It scares me, the word itself, with all the racial and political history behind it, so I don’t want to call anybody a terrorist in general. That is my problem with using it. But it feels fairly… It feels a strange zone. If you believe in the word “terrorism” as an act of killing civilians in general, then why not call the systematic acts of vandalizing black churches and killing black people terrorism? It sounds very fitting. The fact that people don’t want to call what is happening terrorism is very racialized of course.

PD: In what ways do you feel this is a unique time in history?

MZ: What makes this moment in history interesting to me is a backlash against the left, the 1960s era. After the official collapse of the socialist project and the Soviet Union (it has already collapsed unofficially much earlier than 1990), capitalism is running rampant and capitalism brings with it patriarchy and racism as companion operating mechanisms. There’s also a backlash right now which has led to the return of religious fundamentalism, which is also problematic.

PD: Your own work as a poet is often political, but always a unique and incredible marriage of the personal and political. I would say one of your major strengths is in the mastering of that balance.

MZ: There is nothing I believe in more than the saying, the personal is political and the political is personal. We like to think that politics is about elections and decisions but that is just a part of it. The reality is, every day interaction is an evolution of politics and of history. You and I would not be sitting here unless there were huge historical forces that managed to enable this interaction to happen. So the history, the politics, is completely ingrained in everything in a generalized sense.

PD: I don’t know if you’re familiar with an organization out of Brooklyn called Hollaback or the video they produced entitled “Ten Hours of Walking In NYC As A Woman”? It is exactly what it sounds like—a woman walks the streets and the camera captures her being harassed. A major criticism of this video was that white male harassers seemed, on the whole, to be conspicuously missing. And one of the arguments posited for that was that because white men feel they own public space, they don’t feel the need to prove themselves, whereas men of color who are also oppressed feel the need to establish dominance in public space. How much credence, if any, would you give this argument?

MZ: I wouldn’t give that any credence actually. Rest assured, white men and men of color are all harassing equally. There is an act of expressing it more verbally in certain contexts, but that doesn’t change that, within patriarchy, all kinds of men are doing this. So actually, that is a moment of equality. I’m not denying the video, but I am denying the finding. There is no science or data there.

PD: We are currently in the throes of an upcoming presidential election. Do you know who you’re voting for?

MZ: I’m gonna vote for a queer woman of color. I would vote only for Angela Davis at this point in time. If she doesn’t run, I will write her name and that’s good enough for me.

PD: We talked briefly about your social media presence. What do you believe is people’s biggest misconception about you?

MZ: Sometimes I sound more militant than I really am in person. I am much mellower in person but what I post makes me seem more aggressive than I really am. I do believe you use facebook to connect to people and it’s the ultimate form of confessionalism. You are confessing what your deep beliefs are and you could make mistakes easily. Sometimes I receive comments from people like, “Is that what you really think of us?” And I’m like, no, I don’t think ill of anybody. But I think what can be seen by some as radical politics is more a desire to reach out and have justice for oneself and for other people, that is all. So I think this radicalism, I hope, is compassionate.

PD: Do you have a personal philosophy by which you live?

MZ: No, I don’t!

PD: You’re always reading philosophy!

MZ: I’m always reading philosophy that I don’t understand which is very sad. I think kindness is important. Sincerely. I know it sounds like a moralizing thing to say but I really believe it. And I’m not sure if I live by that because sometimes I’m a harsh person, but I like to think that kindness is important for all of us to live by.

PD: What’s next for you?

MZ: I have a book coming out from Nightboat next year that’s called The Consequences of My Body that I like a lot. I feel like I was doing lots of ironic stuff, and now I’m avoiding irony and avoiding being funny completely and I’m touching on something that feels more important to me than just a critique of the political condition of the U.S.

PD: Do you find your work changing because of an organic personal revolution?

MZ: The Egyptian Revolution changed my work a lot. There is a wall in America—we are isolated geographically and linguistically here—and it is important to expand one’s horizons. I am interested in poets who are formally exciting. My formal work is basically following the rhythm in my body more than anything else. I do believe that my work should be accessible and enjoyable by every human being who encounters it. There are other poets who think about shocking the audience or messing with them one way or the other or challenging their assumptions—that’s not me.   I don’t do that intentionally. I like that people who come to readings have an enjoyable time and I like to think that poetry is a very exciting thing. There is so much amazing poetry being written in the world right now and I think it should be read by many, many people.



MAGED ZAHER is the author of THANK YOU FOR THE WINDOW OFFICE (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012), THE REVOLUTION HAPPENED AND YOU DIDN’T CALL ME (Tinfish Press, 2012), and PORTRAIT OF THE POET AS AN ENGINEER (Pressed Wafer, 2009). His collaborative work with the Australian poet Pam Brown, FAROUT LIBRARY SOFTWARE, was published by Tinfish Press in 2007. His new book, THE CONSEQUENCES OF MY BODY, is forthcoming from Nightboat. Maged is the recipient of the 2013 Genius Award in Literature from the Seattle weekly The Stranger.


For more information about Women Against Street Harassment (WASH):

–Read our column in the Monarch Review

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or email us at WomenAgainstStreetHarassment@gmail.com




Piper Daniels is a poet, a graduate of the University of Washington MFA program and a wonderful dancer.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney