Professor’s New Book Addresses Culture in Middle East

Tom Haviv, using the hamza flag to address dichotomy in the community. / Photo courtesy of Tom Haviv

English adjunct lecturer Tom Haviv has expanded his second chapbook, “Island” into a full-length book of poetry entitled, “A Flag of No Nation,” available to the public as of June 2017.

The former M.F.A. student is now including a set of instruction for performance pieces around a “nationless” flag that he designed. It also includes oral history transcripts about his family experiences, navigating its move from Turkey to Israel in 1948 and then to the United States in 1990.

Haviv said the book was in part a journey exploring history in which life experiences of displacement and diaspora described in the story were lived by his grandparents.

At the time, they were diplomats that traveled the world. Through the lens of their particular international experience, Haviv said the book explores “what happens when culture shifts and even collapses.”

For Haviv, a critical piece of that formation and collapse is based in language and “linguistic community.” His grandmother spoke Ladino, a dying language that was used to connect the Sephardic Jews who lived in Turkey, Greece and North Africa.

Of the central questions in his writing, two were “how does language create community?” and what poetry can do as a “meditation on history and how we shape future culture?”

As for the flag, the hamsa on it is an ancient symbol shaped like a palm with an eye in the center. It was worn by people of different cultures in the Mediterranean to ward off “the evil eye.” The symbol predates judaic culture.

A symbol he saw growing up with his Israeli family, Haviv remembers when he first thought “instinctively” that the hamsa could hypothetically be the symbol for a future utopian community in the Middle East. It began when he read an op-ed in the New York Times titled “The One-State Solution.”

Gathering that the idea suggested that “future Israel and Palestine would not be distinct,” he saw that the new community would need a symbol of its own.

On some level, Haviv is currently thinking about the idea that the “‘false dichotomy” between Jewish and Arab cultures may have been created by different societies to stall the process of a more sophisticated community.

Haviv addresses that idea with the hamsa flag and creates a new landscape in which Jews and non-Jews, including people from hybrid diasporas, can create work together. Initially, that was started in the Kaf Collective, a performance and publishing collective founded by Haviv and other poets and artists, internationally.

In the Kaf Collective, “communities that aren’t supposed to intersect,” can, and it allows artists to attempt, “exploring a community that doesn’t exist” just yet. With an upcoming project in 2018, he hopes to encourages the growth of that discourse.

There is a dictionary called “Geneword,” which Haviv has worked to create with fellow artist, Owen Roberts. For Haviv, the dictionary “creates a whole new landscape,” by creating nine million new words.

Roberts and Haviv have taken every Greek and Latin prefixes in the English language and applied them to every noun in the English language, in the hopes that poets would eventually contribute to an anthology using those new words.

Inspired by his current environment, Haviv said Brooklyn College has introduced him to many students who come from similar hybrid cultures and lets him continue to think on what has come and what has passed in relation to his family’s history. “I think it’d be really cool to do a performance at BC,” he said. The book’s publisher is still “The Operating System.”

Haviv also said he hopes the book both brings awareness to changing communities and promotes hope while promoting the Geneword online at http://indexindexindex.com/. His book can be purchased at https://squareup.com/store/the-operating-system/item/island-tom-haviv.

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