This evening the Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye visits our college for a reading. Given how both Israeli-Palestinian and Christian-Muslim relations play a significant role in our charged American politics, Nye is an important voice for moderation.
Nye’s father immigrated to America after the 1948 war and Nye has many relatives still living in Palestine. Although she spent some of her teenage years there, she was born and raised in the United States (her mother is American) and currently lives in San Antonio. The aim of much of her poetry is to humanize those that headlines turn into caricatures. This is a job, she believes, that poetry does very well. After 9-11, when anti-Muslim sentiments ran high, she wrote,
Read Rumi. Read Arabic poetry. Poetry humanizes us in a way that news, or even religion, has a harder time doing. A great Arab scholar, Dr. Salma Jayyusi, said, ‘If we read one another, we won’t kill one another.’ Read American poetry. Plant mint.
And again, this time in a statement to reporters:
As a direct line to human feeling, empathic experience, genuine language and detail, poetry is everything that headline news is not. It takes us inside situations, helps us imagine life from more than one perspective, honors imagery and metaphor–those great tools of thought–and deepens our confidence in a meaningful world.
Here’s a poem from her 1994 collection Red Suitcase (BOA Editions, Ltd.). The man is her father who came to America, the woman her grandmother who stayed in Palestine, the child maybe herself. Nye wants to find “a place in my brain where hate won’t grow.” Note how the poem uses small details to make people three-dimensional:
By Naomi Shihab Nye
“Let’s be the same wound if we must bleed. Let’s fight side by side, even if the enemy is ourselves: I am yours, you are mine.” – Tommy Olofsson, Sweden
I’m not interested in
Who suffered the most.
I’m interested in
People getting over it.
Once when my father was a boy
A stone hit him on the head.
Hair would never grow there.
Our fingers found the tender spot
and its riddle: the boy who has fallen
stands up. A bucket of pears
in his mother’s doorway welcomes him home.
The pears are not crying.
Later his friend who threw the stone
says he was aiming at a bird.
And my father starts growing wings.
Each carries a tender spot:
something our lives forgot to give us.
A man builds a house and says,
“I am native now.”
A woman speaks to a tree in place
of her son. And olives come.
A child’s poem says,
“I don’t like wars,
they end up with monuments.”
He’s painting a bird with wings
wide enough to cover two roofs at once.
Why are we so monumentally slow?
Soldiers stalk a pharmacy:
big guns, little pills.
If you tilt your head just slightly
There’s a place in my brain
Where hate won’t grow.
I touch its riddle: wind, and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.
It’s late but everything comes next.
For a previous post on Nye about how she explores the wisdom of her Palestinian grandmother, go here.
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