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Remembering James Foley

September 10, 2014

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight:  A poet recalls the life and legacy of his close friend journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by a member of the Islamic State group in Syria in August.

Daniel Johnson is the founding director of 826 Boston. It’s a writing center for disadvantaged youth.

DANIEL JOHNSON, 826 Boston: I met Jim in 1996, when we signed up to become teachers through Teach for America.

And we were both assigned to teach in Phoenix. Jim was teaching middle school history, and I was teaching fifth and sixth grade bilingual students. And so we trained together. We taught together for three years.

We really became fast friends and connected around literature and a deep love of books. I had some of the greatest adventures of my life with Jim, from traveling to Cuba in 1999, to, you know, trekking through the desert. We lived in Arizona, went through the Grand Canyon in winter.

And so I think there was a thirst for adventure, this real curiosity. When he went to Libya, he was taken captive and held by Gadhafi’s forces for 44 days. And it was an incredibly trying time for his family, for his friends.

When he was captured, you know, the second time in Syria, I wrote a poem over the course of a year or so, and finished it in the spring. We made a pact long ago to become writers. And that really felt to me like one of the most direct ways to communicate with him.

“In the absence of sparrows, rockets concuss. Guns rattle off. Dogs in a public square feed on dead horses. I don’t know, Jim, where you are. It’s night, cold and bruised, where you are. Plastic twine binds  your hands. You wait and pray, pray and wait, but this is where the picture goes gray. We don’t know, Jim, where you are.”

One of the lines of the poem is, when was — when did you last see birds?  And, you know, during his captivity, I mean, he was cut off from the daylight, from his books, from — you know, from his family and friends, from the things he loved.

“Don’t get me wrong; we expect you back. Skinny, feral, coffee eyes sunken, but alive. You’ve always come back, from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, even Libya after Gadhafi’s forces captured and held you for 44 days. You tracked time scratching marks with your zipper on prison walls, scrawling notes on cigarette boxes, reciting the Koran with other prisoners. In the absence of sparrows, the front page story says you have been missing since November 22, 2012. Everything else, it doesn’t say. In the absence of sparrows, you simply wandered off past the Sonoco, pockets stuffed. The door to your apartment is open still.”

The last line of the poem is, “The door to your apartment is open still.”  And, you know, it doesn’t end. There’s a dash. And it’s a poem that — well, I stopped working on it — I felt like it’s a poem — on some level, it’s intentionally unfinished, because we were waiting to — for Jim’s return.

I plan to continue writing about Jim and about his plight, because writing for me is one of the ways that I make sense of the world.

I look at August 19. I actually wrote that morning a poem entitled “Open Letter to Journalist James Foley in Syria.”  And we got the news on — on that day Jim had been killed.

Hear the full interview here.

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