Finding a Place Where Hate Won’t Grow

Naomi Shihab Nye

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
it’s ridiculous.

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.

Added Note

For a previous post on Nye about how she explores the wisdom of her Palestinian grandmother, go here.


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  • farida

    I love this poem Robin. It works both as converstation with the reader and a story. And as she says poetry takes us inside a situation. I love the connectdness between nature, ourselves and language. I think Mary Oliver is one of those poets who moves seemlessly between those connections and Shihab Nye does it here as well.

    “Each carries a tender spot: Something our lives forgot to give us”. I kept wondering what the “each” was ..and then realised it was a reference back to the pears and then of course ourselves.

    And I love the imagery in the last three lines of the second stanza. “Later his friend who threw the stone/says he was aiming at a bird./
    And my father starts growing wings./”
    As she listens to her father’s story and her imagination takes hold, Shihab Nye wonderfully reveals how children have the ability to see through to certain truths, which we so easily forget as adults and which truths poetry gifts back to us.

    “Something pokes us as we sleep”. (a reference to guns as well?)

    Why indeed are we “so monumentally slow”?

    Hope it was a fun evening of poetry.

  • Susan

    I agree with Farida (nor surprising!) but am also caught by the last line.
    “It’s late but everything comes next.” How hopeful when we think about the conflicts around the world, when we think about environmental concerns, the economy, political stalemates. It does seem very late to be getting around to these world-threatening issues. And yet, everything is next. Our life is in front of us, and we must move into it with hope, forgiveness and creativity.

  • Powerful indeed, wow, even backwards wow. It wasn’t to long ago I had a conversation about 9/11, and a statement was made similar to Noami’s-(I’m interested in people getting over it), is to why people hasn’t, or have not, that is complete power, and people can take that the wrong way, it is not to forget, but to forgive, to begin the healing, on both sides. This reminds me of that saying- Sticks and Stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me, and that there is a complete lie, because words do hurt, and to contain them is a skill all itself, then you have, actions speak louder than words, and there, we are in a situation. This poem surely takes us out, not completely, some sanctuary indeed, so in that sanctuary there is time to reflect, heal, and sort to say prepare for the worst, and surely prepare for better living, and better than that, better judgment, not of character, but as in defense.
    Truly a masterpiece, thank you Naomi Shihab Nye, and Mr. Robin Bates.

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  • Robin Bates

    It’s great to hear from you again, John. I learned, in seeing Naomi at the reading, that she doesn’t just talk the talk but walks the walk. She is a kind person who refuses to hold a grudge. I was impressed with how open she was to student questions and how respectful she was of her audience. She was like a walking reproof of those who demonize Muslims.

  • Robin Bates

    I was counting on you two to help me with this poem, Farida and Sue. I’m struck by your connecting her with Mary Oliver, Farida. I know that Lucille knew them both and so I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a triangle of sorts there. In her reading, Naomi talked a lot about how children see the world, and she has a number of poems where she opens her ears and listens to them. (At one point she said that a poet doesn’t have to be always creative–just a good listener.) When we do, often we realize the stone wasn’t meant for us. I’m not sure, but I wonder if “growing wings” is stepping beyond one’s instinctive hatred into a place of forgiveness and understanding.

    I too love the last line, Sue. The words of an eternal optimist. Even though she admits that we are monumentally slow.



  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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