Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Not-So-Lonesome Death of Faris Bouhafa

Faris Bouhafa was, as Bob Dylan would phrase it, a friend of a friend of mine.

After a lifetime of battling "half-wracked prejudice," promoting the forgotten, comforting the afflicted, and occasionally tilting at windmills, Faris, the media relations manager for the Arab American Institute, finally succumbed this month following a 12-round fight with the relentless bastard that is lung cancer.

A veteran of the student battles at Columbia University during the late 1960s, Faris managed, at Columbia Records, some of the artists who have most inspired me over a lifetime, such as Bob Dylan and Springsteen saxophonist Clarence Clemmons, whose solo in "Jungleland" still makes me shiver so much that I could seriously consider believing in God once again. Before I get too far, Faris, thank you for promoting men of heart in a country that has become a desert of indifference.

In 1984, as his obit in the Washington Post notes, Faris became a media director of the Arab American Anti-Defamation Committee. You might have noticed that, since 9/11, the notion of defending Arabs and the Islamic faith has been less popular than John Mark Karr. Faris, I gather, was fearless, and stood as a sane voice against the Michael Savages and Ann Coulters and all the other hatemongers. He joined the Arab American Institute in 2000 as a consultant and continued to fight the tremendous American bias against the Arab world until his final days.

It is a sad footnote that so soon after Faris' death, Pope Benedict chose to join the Muslim-bashers. Benedict quoted, without contradiction, a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," and in particular his alleged "command to spread by the sword the faith." I remember when I was a child and growing up Catholic, I was proud of my heritage. Before me were priests and nuns who sat in on lunch counters protesting segregation and getting hauled away in handcuffs for resisting the Vietnam War. I remember being taught that the church fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the prisoner and befriended the friendless. I remember being particularly stirred by a quote I read attributed to the Rev. Martin Neimoller:

"In Germany, they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, but by that time no one was left to speak up."

Such a beautiful quote. I was so thrilled that the Catholics stood with the oppressed, the Jews, the trade unionists, the Communists. Of course, the quote was a lie, another empty urban legend. Neimoller never said it. In Germany, where the southern part of the country is dominated by Catholics, Hitler had signed a Concordant with the Vatican, as had Mussolini, and the Church and the Fascist states had agreed to mutual recognition and support. Catholics were much more likely to shove Jews into ovens than hide them in their basements. Catholicism was the God who failed. This revelation made me a bitter atheist by adolescence. The church has since become the sick safehouse for pedophiles, abortion clinic bombers and homophobes. I was without faith and so desperately sad.

Yet, I still remember when I was in high school, and I was being harassed and beaten, and hated for being literate, for crying at "To Kill A Mockingbird," being despised for being passionate over things as silly as art and politics. I was one year from being a voting citizen, and I was driven near tears by a gang of thugs in one class who made fun of my glasses, my clothes, my acne and any other sore point they could jab. For some reason, when I was a senior, the varsity quarterback I had made laugh during one cafeteria lunch decided to become my guardian angel. This quarterback, who I had made fun of as a "dumb jock," came to me and said, "Don't worry. They won't pick on you any more. I talked to them." And, mercifully, they stopped.

I wanted to tell that quarterback that I loved him for looking after me, but my masculinity was already sufficiently compromised to prevent any honest gratitude to another man. But Faris reminds me of that quarterback. If some gods fail, others wait in the wings. There are always unacknowledged heroes unafraid to embrace the despised.

I wish, Faris, that I could have met you face-to-face, and shared a few beers, and told you how my three-year-old son listens over and over again to Bruce Springsteen's 'Seeger Sessions" and sings "Eyes On The Prize" like a sharecropper's son. As stupid and arid as the world is now, I would have liked to remind you that it is created anew with each generation.

I weep as the world notes with scarcely a sigh 2,600 American girls and boys who have been murdered in Iraq and 100,000 Iraqis. Every semester, I try to convey, however inadequately, how much the world loses with the death of every soul. I read from the old Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poem "People," because I have yet to find words that so deeply convey my sense of loss when I lose friends and fellow travelers, both embraced and never encountered:

"No people are uninteresting.
Their fate is like the chronicle of planets . . .

In any man who dies there dies with him
his first snow and kiss and fight.
It goes with him.

There are left books and bridges
and painted canvas and machinery,

Whose fate is to survive
But what has gone is also not nothing . . .
Not people die, but worlds die in them.

. . . They perish. They cannot be brought back.
The secret worlds are not regenerated.

And every time again and again.
I make my lament against destruction."

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.


The Bushophobic said...

Amazing tribute. Faris would have loved you, and vice versa. Here's hoping that there's an afterlife, so he can get the party ready for all of us, and have the drinks waiting!!! said...

Michael, this is Mary Lou Hoffman of First Unitarian-Dallas & Dallas Area Interfaith (iAF). We talked when you wpoke at the church. I'd like to visit with you & show you some books, now that you are in the Dallas area.

Phillip Collins, curator of the African-American Museum, would also like to meet you.
Mary Lou 972-231-3816

nealhugh said...

Very wild... I knew and worked with Faris at Columbia in '68-'69. A lot to say but call me 212-666-6217...
There is a book coming out from Columbia U Press and I am considering how to deal with Faris there...

Best, Neal NY NY Medellin Israel