After a night of physical and emotional excess, I spent the whole rainy afternoon in my bed reading Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love, a book I found in the NYRB (New York Review Books) Classics section of Book Court, a lovely little bookstore in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. I had never spent a lot of time with Genet, and was surprised to learn that he had committed so much of his energy to the Palestinian cause in the 1970’s.
It’s a beautiful book and it brought me back to my own time spent with Palestinians in Syria, remembering my very first night in Damascus around a table at midnight with Palestinian poets in exile from Iraq, feasting on Maklubah, the upside down chicken, an Arabic tradition at every celebration. This was in the midst of the 2007 Iraqi troop surge, and fierce fighting in Fallujah that brought young activists and volunteers crossing back and forth over the Iraq-Syrian border to report on the war with Alive in Baghdad and to run ambulances and humanitarian aid convoys into the besieged city. At the table that night with the poets were some of these volunteers, as well as activists from Jafra Center in Yarmouk Camp, home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in Damascus, now overrun by ISIL, but at the time, a thriving city within the city with its own distinct culture and civil organizations. At the table was also a man who was on his way to crossing back into Iraq to ransom a relative being held hostage by the Mahdi Army.
Jean Genet begins Prisoner of Love with this note, written at the top of the final proofs of his book, which was published after his death:
“Put all the images in language in a place of safety and make use of them, for they are in the desert, and it’s in the desert we must go and look for them.”
Is that why I went to Syria? Was I looking in the desert for all the images in language? I think it is why I went then and why I still go into places that feel like desert, or to use the Biblical word, wilderness. The places of extreme human experience, whether it is a conflict zone or that brutal geography of the human body and its desires. I think of Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness, the place of temptations of the flesh.
Jean Genet, is most known for the latter sorts of landscapes, the topography of the erotic and his unyielding insistence on crossing boundaries, transgressing deeper into forbidden territory. In this place, too, he was mining the image. I knew about his criminal youth and his prostitution and pornography. I didn’t know about his alignment with revolutionary political movements and with people wandering in exile. All of these parallel and sometimes intersecting streams of passion make sense to me, all terrain that will yield the image, if someone is willing to go and get it.
After reading and reminiscing, I stumbled across Tin Machine’s video for Prisoner of Love. David Bowie, sitting on the edge of the stage in perfect repose,bathed in blue light while all those boys leap off the edge into the crowd below. Those were the shows of my youth, the mosh pit and stage dive. Those clubs were where my heart was learning how to take risks, where its muscle and sinew was being strengthened so that I could pilgrimage into places where the image can be found.
I also found David Bowie’s video for the song, Jean Genie, and was surprised and happy to learn its connections to Jean Genet, subconscious or not. The song imagined an Iggy Pop style wanderer, and that seems perfect, too. David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Jean Genet, all traversing the same barriers, breaking down binaries, going in to love’s rebellion full thrust and unrepentant. They took great personal risks and what they brought us all was a larger country of love to make our home in. It’s a revolutionary work, art pushing out the boundaries, making more space for more of us in all of our human desire. Because of Genet and Bowie and Iggy Pop and countless others, my trans son now has a place at the table.