Did Obama Write Anti-Semitic Poetry?

As a 19-year-old sophomore, Barack Obama had two poems -- "Underground" and "Pop" -- published under his name in the spring 1981 edition of Occidental College's literary magazine, Feast.  If Obama wrote any other poems after that, they have not emerged.

"Pop," the more sophisticated of the two poems, has attracted the most attention.  As I argued in my book, Deconstructing Obama, "Pop" dissects Obama's relationship with his communist mentor, Frank Marshall Davis, and was most likely written by Davis himself, a skilled poet.

"Underground" struck me as Obama's own handiwork.  It is as different in style and substance from "Pop" as Obama's early published essays are from his memoir, Dreams from My Father, with which he also had help.  "Republishing this poem may have been the cruelest swipe an otherwise friendly media took at Obama during the campaign," I wrote dismissively in my book.

Jim O'Hagan, who has made a study of the poem, believes that I may have been too hasty in my dismissal.  He may well be right.

First, the poem:

UNDERGROUND
Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.
Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.
The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance,
Tumble in the
Rushing water,
Musty, wet pelts
Glistening in the blue.

One friendly critic described the poem as a "vivid if obscurely symbolic description of a tribe of submarine primates."  I countered, "Although arguably the best poem ever written about submarine primates, most of Obama's literary acolytes have largely -- and charitably -- chosen not to notice it."

O'Hagan, however, chose to notice.  He points out that both of the poem's most conspicuous symbols, apes and figs, are mentioned in the Qur'an.  Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis has argued that although Muslims were relatively tolerant of Jews, there are at least three passages in the Qur'an in which Jews are denounced as "apes."  In sura 5.60, for instance, the Quran reads, "[Worse is he] whom Allah has cursed and brought His wrath upon, and of whom He made apes and swine."  "Swine" is apparently the epithet of choice for Christians, but "Underground" is not about swine.  It is about apes -- belligerent, boastful apes at that.

In 1981, when Obama submitted this poem, he was plotting his forthcoming summer trip to Pakistan, a Muslim country.  By all accounts, given his education in Indonesia and his choice of friends in America, he was a knowledgeable fellow-traveler in the world of Islam.  By 1981, too, Israel had emerged as a source of evil in the eyes of both radical Muslims and the international left.

The reference to "figs" strengthens O'Hagan's case that the "apes" refer to Jews, or at least to Israeli Jews.  He cites the 95th sura of the Quran, "At-Tin," which translates as "fig" or "fig tree."  It reads in part: "[I Swear] By the fig and [by] the olive/ And [I Swear by] Mount Sinai/ And [I Swear by] this secure land [of the city of Makkah]."

Writes Muhammad Asad, author of The Message of The Qur'an, "The 'fig' and the 'olive' symbolize, in this context, the lands in which these trees predominate: i.e., the countries bordering on the eastern part of the Mediterranean, especially Palestine and Syria."

Readers of "Underground" are left with only two real choices.  They can write it off as a silly undergraduate poem about apes that step on figs, as I originally did, or they can interpret it as an allegory.  If the latter, it seems altogether possible that the poet believes that these warlike apes, the Jews of Israel, are exploiting, even despoiling the land in which they have settled.  Note that the apes both "eat" the figs and are "stepping on" them.

O'Hagan make a case that the "grottos" in question refer to the famous Rosh HaNikra grottos in Israel, located on the Mediterranean just south of the Lebanese border.  The grottos are known for their startlingly blue waters, but blue is also the traditional color of Israel as manifested in the Israeli flag.  In 1981, the year the poem was written, Israel was almost continuously involved in repelling PLO attacks from Lebanon, a country it invaded in 1978 and would invade again in 1982.  Given this background, a second look at the poem's closing refrain might be in order:

The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance,
Tumble in the
Rushing water,
Musty, wet pelts
Glistening in the blue.

The apes don't jump in the water, the "blue."  They "tumble" in, but only after howling and baring their fangs, a gesture of war.  Consider Isaiah 9:12, New Living Translation: "The Syrians from the east and the Philistines from the west will bare their fangs and devour Israel."

"Was it a wish, a dream," O'Hagan writes of the poem, "a prediction that the Palestinian Arabs would rise up in Israel and drive the Jews into the Sea?"  It might well be.

Now if the Los Angeles Times would only release the tape from the infamous Rashid Khalidi dinner, we might just find out for sure.

As a 19-year-old sophomore, Barack Obama had two poems -- "Underground" and "Pop" -- published under his name in the spring 1981 edition of Occidental College's literary magazine, Feast.  If Obama wrote any other poems after that, they have not emerged.

"Pop," the more sophisticated of the two poems, has attracted the most attention.  As I argued in my book, Deconstructing Obama, "Pop" dissects Obama's relationship with his communist mentor, Frank Marshall Davis, and was most likely written by Davis himself, a skilled poet.

"Underground" struck me as Obama's own handiwork.  It is as different in style and substance from "Pop" as Obama's early published essays are from his memoir, Dreams from My Father, with which he also had help.  "Republishing this poem may have been the cruelest swipe an otherwise friendly media took at Obama during the campaign," I wrote dismissively in my book.

Jim O'Hagan, who has made a study of the poem, believes that I may have been too hasty in my dismissal.  He may well be right.

First, the poem:

UNDERGROUND
Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.
Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.
The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance,
Tumble in the
Rushing water,
Musty, wet pelts
Glistening in the blue.

One friendly critic described the poem as a "vivid if obscurely symbolic description of a tribe of submarine primates."  I countered, "Although arguably the best poem ever written about submarine primates, most of Obama's literary acolytes have largely -- and charitably -- chosen not to notice it."

O'Hagan, however, chose to notice.  He points out that both of the poem's most conspicuous symbols, apes and figs, are mentioned in the Qur'an.  Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis has argued that although Muslims were relatively tolerant of Jews, there are at least three passages in the Qur'an in which Jews are denounced as "apes."  In sura 5.60, for instance, the Quran reads, "[Worse is he] whom Allah has cursed and brought His wrath upon, and of whom He made apes and swine."  "Swine" is apparently the epithet of choice for Christians, but "Underground" is not about swine.  It is about apes -- belligerent, boastful apes at that.

In 1981, when Obama submitted this poem, he was plotting his forthcoming summer trip to Pakistan, a Muslim country.  By all accounts, given his education in Indonesia and his choice of friends in America, he was a knowledgeable fellow-traveler in the world of Islam.  By 1981, too, Israel had emerged as a source of evil in the eyes of both radical Muslims and the international left.

The reference to "figs" strengthens O'Hagan's case that the "apes" refer to Jews, or at least to Israeli Jews.  He cites the 95th sura of the Quran, "At-Tin," which translates as "fig" or "fig tree."  It reads in part: "[I Swear] By the fig and [by] the olive/ And [I Swear by] Mount Sinai/ And [I Swear by] this secure land [of the city of Makkah]."

Writes Muhammad Asad, author of The Message of The Qur'an, "The 'fig' and the 'olive' symbolize, in this context, the lands in which these trees predominate: i.e., the countries bordering on the eastern part of the Mediterranean, especially Palestine and Syria."

Readers of "Underground" are left with only two real choices.  They can write it off as a silly undergraduate poem about apes that step on figs, as I originally did, or they can interpret it as an allegory.  If the latter, it seems altogether possible that the poet believes that these warlike apes, the Jews of Israel, are exploiting, even despoiling the land in which they have settled.  Note that the apes both "eat" the figs and are "stepping on" them.

O'Hagan make a case that the "grottos" in question refer to the famous Rosh HaNikra grottos in Israel, located on the Mediterranean just south of the Lebanese border.  The grottos are known for their startlingly blue waters, but blue is also the traditional color of Israel as manifested in the Israeli flag.  In 1981, the year the poem was written, Israel was almost continuously involved in repelling PLO attacks from Lebanon, a country it invaded in 1978 and would invade again in 1982.  Given this background, a second look at the poem's closing refrain might be in order:

The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance,
Tumble in the
Rushing water,
Musty, wet pelts
Glistening in the blue.

The apes don't jump in the water, the "blue."  They "tumble" in, but only after howling and baring their fangs, a gesture of war.  Consider Isaiah 9:12, New Living Translation: "The Syrians from the east and the Philistines from the west will bare their fangs and devour Israel."

"Was it a wish, a dream," O'Hagan writes of the poem, "a prediction that the Palestinian Arabs would rise up in Israel and drive the Jews into the Sea?"  It might well be.

Now if the Los Angeles Times would only release the tape from the infamous Rashid Khalidi dinner, we might just find out for sure.