I got a better sense of Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye last Thursday when she came to our campus to give a reading. Or rather, she confirmed for me through her presence the sense that I get of her from her poetry. She is a loving person who believes deeply that people have it within them to get along, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
She owes this optimism to her father, who immigrated to the United States after the 1948 war that established the state of Israel. A journalist who grew up in Jerusalem, he believed until the day that he died (four years ago) that Arabs and Israelites were brothers and sisters and that eventually they would get tired of disagreeing. He also believed deeply in the power of dialogue and would respond to the anti-Muslim racism he encountered in Texas with the words, “I think you could use a little more information.”
When I asked Naomi how poetry helped her maintain her bearings given all the grim news coming out of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, she said that she reads William Stafford, W. S. Merwin and Lucille Clifton to fortify herself with positives. “I try not to get too angry,” she said. “One can get angry just to be angry. Poetry is contemplative, a long loving look even when it is just four lines. It is a caring gaze, which is necessary in a world full of headlines.”
She noted that in a single Sunday edition of the New York Times there is more information that her grandparents would encounter in a year. Literature can help us process what is important.
Later she said, in response to a student question about her sense of humor,
Writing gives us a power of detachment, allowing us to stand back from reality a little. This makes humor possible.
Art and culture have so much to comfort us with if we will let them.
Nye talked about how she had visited the campus once before to visit Lucille Clifton (for some reason I missed her) and she talked of the importance of Lucille’s poem “The Blessing the Boats (at St. Mary’s),” which I have written about in the past. “It is so important,” she said quoting the poem, “to sail beyond the face of fear.” She also quoted approvingly the words of the Norwegian prime minister following the Anders Breivik murders: “We are shaken but we will not give up our values. Our response is more freedom, more democracy but not naïveté.”
Looking back at 9-11 (Nye’s reading was part of a semester-long program devoted to the suicide attacks), she said that out of the tragedy has come “a wider spirit of knowing that links us to the global family.”
The poem I post today is Nye’s response to the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre that occurred in Palestinian refugee camps in Beiruit during the Lebanese civil war. The killers were Christian Lebanese Phalangists, who may have been allowed in by the Israel Defense Force, which surrounded the camp. The poem describes her feelings of helplessness as she and her father flail around for words, but it occurs within a poem that pleads for intercultural understanding. We are none of us faceless strangers but individuals who sometimes would rather catch a fly than kill it. Some of us bear names that are borrowed from the sky.
Think of the poem as a prayer for strength:
By Naomi Shihab Nye
“A true Arab knows how to catch a fly in his hands,”
my father would say. And he’d prove it,
cupping the buzzer instantly
while the host with the swatter stared.
In the spring our palms peeled like snakes.
True Arabs believed watermelon could heal fifty ways.
I changed these to fit the occasion.
Years before, a girl knocked,
wanted to see the Arab.
I said we didn’t have one.
After that, my father told me who he was,
a good name, borrowed from the sky.
Once I said, “When we die, we give it back?”
He said that’s what a true Arab would say.
Today the headlines clot in my blood.
A little Palestinian dangles a toy truck on the front page.
Homeless fig, this tragedy with a terrible root
is too big for us. What flag can we wave?
I wave the flag of stone and seed,
table mat stitched in blue.
I call my father, we talk around the news.
It is too much for him,
neither of his two languages can reach it.
I drive into the country to find sheep, cows,
to plead with the air:
Who calls anyone civilized?
Where can the crying heart graze?
What does a true Arab do now?
Even in the face of evil, this true Arab writes poetry.
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