South Florida Native Launches Poetry Project Aimed at Remembering James Foley and Steven Sotloff

James Foley in Syria.EXPAND
James Foley in Syria.
Manu Brabo/Used with permission

There are children today entering their teenage years who will never understand what it was like to be an American on the morning of September 11, 2001. Personally, I’ll never forget a coworker who told me, eyes burnt from crying when I arrived at work that morning, oblivious of the world around me, that it would be a good idea to shave my beard. I was no hipster in 2001 and I certainly was not pushing any weird Arab agenda either – though I am of Arab descent; I was just fucking lazy and I had not shaved. I crossed Coral Way to the Sedano’s on 97 Avenue and purchased a cheap razor, the buildings burning on the television were enough to realize that it wasn’t about me or appeasing a coworker.

He didn’t tell me to shave because I offended him. He asked me to shave so that I wouldn’t muster the ire of anyone angry at the moment. The morning of September 11, 2001, wasn’t the time to deny things. Radical Islam and Arabs had a pretty bad record up to that point. Not counting the terrible Delta Force flicks of the 80’s, some of us remember the Pan Am bombing over Scotland and the Marine barrack’s attack in Lebanon – the morning of September 11, 2001, wasn’t the morning to remind people that the Oklahoma City Bombing was carried out by white boys.

In the end, the face of evil knows no race, creed or even sports team association. Evil is evil. This is not the space to re-educate folks either. Yet we’ve come a long way as a nation and we’ve healed considerably. 

In South Florida we have two names to remember: Pinecrest native Steven Sotloff and locally loved James “Jim” Foley. Both men were journalists covering the Syrian conflict when they were abducted by ISIS militants in 2013. Both men were executed unceremoniously last August. It has been a year since their deaths, we keep their names on our lips because their spirit will always be stronger than the cowardice of their executors. Pinecrest Gardens has recently unveiled the Steven Sotloff Memorial Garden, filled with lilies, begonias, and palms; a tangible spot for those who wish to pay their respects.

“Jim was a teacher that learned to be a writer so that he could tell stories that went beyond the authentic and the autochthonous,” says Yago S. Cura, friend and colleague of Jim Foley and founder of Hinchas de Poesia, a digital imprint of American Letters. “He was not only a journalist but a videographer, obtaining footage and completing reportage on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria in situ, documenting the complete breakdown of these societies. Regardless of whether you agree with Assad or think he's a Gila monster of hate, the reality is that over 200,000 civilians have been killed since the start of that civil war, and the world has mostly stood by and watched it happen.”

This past spring, Cura began the “Ghazals for Foley” campaign where he invited friends and writers to compose a ghazal in the memory of Foley.

James Foley and Yago S. Cura, young men at the turn of the century.EXPAND
James Foley and Yago S. Cura, young men at the turn of the century.
Provided by Yago S. Cura

Poetically speaking, this was a very romantic gesture. Stylistically speaking, it was a ballsy move. The ghazal, of Middle Eastern origin, is a type of poem governed by a set of rules that lend themselves well to interpretation, provided that a certain aesthetic meter is kept, a repetitive pattern is somewhat observed and an invocation of self is given honestly in the closing couplet or refrain. In other words, this is the geographic poetry of Foley’s captors and executors.

“There was a striking New York Times article (Feb. 21, 2015) by Jim Yardley titled, "Debating a Change of Faith Under Brutal Captivity" which really got me thinking,” explains Cura about the choice for poetic style. “It caught my attention because it gave uncanny details about Jim's spiritual life during his Syrian captivity, and even greater detail about his [alleged] conversion to Islam while in captivity. You see, most people, including myself, had always known Jim as Catholic; Jim went to Marquette in Milwaukee for Christ's sake, and even though it's a party school, it is still a school run by Jesuits, the frigging Hell's Angels of the Catholic brand.”

Following Foley’s murder, there was a question of his faith during captivity. Cura, a New York native of Argentine stock who was raised in South Florida and counts Sunset Senior High and Florida International University as some of his alma maters, was a close friend of Foley’s when they pursued post-graduate work at University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Cura, an indefatigable voice in modern American poetry has been a publisher with Hinchas de Poesia, a blogger with his Spicaresque website and an early champion of Miami’s current literary scene. Currently living in the Los Angeles area, he spearheaded release and awareness efforts during Foley’s captivity. Cura puts it into real perspective:

“As educators, Jim and I and our cadre of educator-types have stood in direct opposition to standing by and watching it happen. We've all taken our swings at positions we thought were adding to making conditions more equitable. He was a Teach for America guy and taught me how to be a teacher because we both taught Freshman Comp for the UMass Amherst Writing Program. Our favorite professor, Martin Espada (He taught a ‘Poetry of the Political Imagination’), reached out to The Care Center, a resource center for pregnant, Puerto Rican adolescents trying to obtain their G.E.D.s in Holyoke, MA. Holyoke is like the Detroit of Massachusetts: a proud manufacturing center brought down by the global market, and left to wither in infrastructure. In 2004, I joined the NYC/DOE Teaching Fellows and taught in some of the crappies high schools in the Bronx on Jim' suggestion. In addition, he taught for more than two years for the youth probation camps in Cook County (Chicago), and I've been teaching for more almost three years inside the Los Angeles County Jail. In other words, I learned my sense of social justice in education from Jim's example and his experiences teaching in inner-city Phoenix with absolutely no clue. Jim was not one to stand to the side and watch things happen; he was the kind of guy that made things happen with the things at hand.”

Upcoming Events

This past summer, Cura was able to successfully fund via a Kickstarter campaign the “Ghazals for Foley” campaign, reaching and surpassing its $1,300 goal. This “collection of ghazals and non-fiction dedicated to, concerning, or inspired by American Combat Journalist James Foley” will not bring Jim or Steven back, but it will help continue the life of their spirits. There is a huge world beyond our immediate geographical borders. There are things that go bump in the night. Sometimes those two are the same.

Hopefully their work will help educate those who weren’t there about what it is like to be an American and what it is like to stand in the brother/sisterhood of what that means, hand-in-hand in the pursuit of a great dream.


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