BWS 13.09.17: Fathima Cader


Fathima Cader‘s recent publications include creative non-fiction in Hazlitt and Warscapes, poetry in Apogee Journal and Canadian Woman Studies: les cahiers de la femme, and criticism in The New Inquiry and The Funambulist. She is interested in all manner of borders and in the migrations of war and state violence.

Fathima sent forward a small sample of her work for the blog, ahead of her Sept. 13 appearance!

Two Excerpts

As a union-side labour lawyer, my work centres on the collectivizing of social justice movements. Analogously, as a writer, my work focuses on the subtle ways that oppressions and resistances are often interlinked across ostensibly dissonant contexts. In the two excerpts below (edited for length), I use the seemingly dissonant genres of poetry and essay to explore the common threads of war and work, and how they link worshippers and labourers across Canada, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, and the US.

“The Vulture is A Patient Bird”
Apogee Journal, August 2014

This is the week of voices feathering,
this is the week of days I count like prayer beads,
knuckle past twisted knuckle,
this the week whose map will mark the five days ago from yesterday
that you die in a Chicago hospital room,
resettled there by roommates
who found you and your pneumonia
communing in your bedroom.

These are the days whose skins hang loose,
gathering in pleats around my father’s eyes,
as you die Thursday and are buried Friday,
your two decades of backroom labour,
a silenced work acceptable to the nation,
pooling emptiness around the hospital bedposts,
your blankness of paper,
undocumented –
but for the phone bills that document
in reams how you called my parents
with more diligence than I.

This is time’s greyness, and its pixelation,
its harking to the thirty years ago that you
attended my parents’ wedding,
your presence a reminder of how the country remains a continent,
amalgam of absences, each heartbreak and each loneliness a nation,
each fear an army;
you arriving in my father’s birthplace as emissary
of the island’s so close too far aways,
other relatives too distant to note the redness of my mother’s sari,
too late to smooth out the stiffness of its folds, before its golden thread
unspools under my fingertips twenty odd years later;
you, uncle per the genealogy of friendship,
entitled to the conveyance of your news,
the aftermath dreaming of you the route
my father’s transnational return home takes,
so that when he calls his sister, his niece asks after
those linkages that death, striding across intervening
years and oceans, would appear fast to be dissolving:
Does this mean you are never coming to Sri Lanka?
Are you permanently settling there?
That unresolved question, the lifelong confusion
regarding there’s coordinates,
dogging my father’s every migration,
commencing at his first leave-taking
aged ten, half one hundred years ago,
from that small town, flanked by ocean dunes
and jungle thickness, blinding of light
spilling between my shoulder blades,
solar plexus of my histories.


Still that week, still that eternal week,
how it slices into words grown slack and shapeless:
people die in various ways here,
not always performances of the country’s war,
sometimes just endings come unto themselves,
shown by one relative that week,
his gentle passing marked with qurbani and khatam-al-quran
food for the living, prayers for the dead,
funeral of honour,
crashed by government soldiers,
who, camouflage-garbed, moonlight as event planners,
generous with suggestions for these proceedings.

They propose, cradling guns in lieu of tasbih,
that two mourners of their choosing – uncles,
per genealogies of age – march
through the town’s centre
(where the streets are wider, less green
than the paths that run past
the palm tree leaf fences
of my cousins’ homes,
more crowded),
sacrificial meat on their heads,
adornment of flesh,
a so gentle stroll to the police station.

Why? (The phone collects my mystification
in its mouthpiece, turns it tinny,
a mirror pivoting hope’s kneejerk on itself.)

A small story, and telescoped
by its backdrop: those other, those countless
humiliations of ranging scope,
all the ways that people can be removed from their homes and their skins,
the quietness of murder and the neatness of mass displacement,
this one part of the substance of the everyday,
how battlelines boast the patience of vultures,
how they root, headless, scornful,
in the soil, made muddy with blood,
yoked here by birth,
home before I knew the word.

allah hummaghfir li hayyina wa mayyitina,
wa shahidina wa ghaaibina,
wa saghirina wa kabirina,
wa dhakirina wa unthanaa.

ya rahim, heed this rollcall of those
who would seek your mercy:
women and men,
elderly and young,
present and absent,
the dead, the living.

“Labor of Faith: Migrant Work and Exploitation in Makkah”
The Funambulist, Volume 9: Islands, January-Feb 2017.

On average, Saudi Arabia deported 2,000 people every day for five months in 2015. It targeted Yemeni workers, while simultaneously leading a military campaign against Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world. Using internationally-banned cluster munitions, it attacked hospitals and schools, killing over 2,100 people between March and July 2015 alone.

I returned to Makkah during this period. Born in Sri Lanka, I’d grown up in Saudi Arabia. My childhood had been filled weekends in Makkah, cowed by the poverty that so thickly ringed its lush central mosque. Now, the beggars were gone, but I had not forgotten how the street cleaners, gaunt inside their uniforms, had also used to beg for food, money, water. I returned to a city whose streets overflowed with construction workers, their backs wizened under the weight of Makkah’s explosive gentrification.

And no one was begging. I wondered how the state had managed to disappear all the city’s most indigent residents. Pilgrims gave the silent workers money anyway, their burnt eyes and leathering skin speaking loudly enough about their working conditions. The workers would receive the paper bills with little comment, as though knowing they, like the city’s swelling broods of pigeons, were the rightful recipients of the worshippers’ charity, quietly accepting the pilgrims’ unspoken prayer that these small charities, smilingly given and in passing, might compensate for the monstrosity of the city’s extreme contradictions.

Much of this exploitation is established in law: foreign workers are permitted to reside in Saudi Arabia only when sponsored by a Saudi employer. Workers cannot change their jobs or leave the country without written approval from their employers. Otherwise, they can be imprisoned, fined, or deported. This, the kafala system, is not unique. Countries with similar programs include Qatar, where mass workplace deaths led to global outcry over FIFA’s decision to host the 2022 World Cup there. Western analogues include Canada, with its controversial Temporary Foreign Worker Program, a “North-South” parallel that remains under-studied.

In these labor systems, it is easy for employers to confiscate passports, withhold wages, and force work. Workers globally have described this as indentured labor, replete with food deprivation, sexual abuse, torture, and death. With this labor, Islam’s most sacred mosque, Al-Masjid al-Haram, has mushroomed, while its surrounding neighborhoods have thickened with skyscraper hotels and designer malls, looking like a crescent-topped homage to that other famous neon desert city, Las Vegas. Construction rages around the mosque, debris and flotsam afloat in the air, caught in our lungs, trailing our robes.

Fathima Cader visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 13, 2017 in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St., Toronto, at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Nancy Kay Clark, Drew Hayden Taylor, Saidah Vassel and a special guest talk, “From Blog to Book: A Work in Process”, by Kerry Clare!


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