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A poet walks the line.

A week after 9/11, a woman in San Antonio sent off an e-mail to five friends, under the heading: "Letter from Naomi Shihab Nye, Arab-American Poet: To Any Would-Be Terrorists." Here was her message: "I am sorry to have to call you that, but I don't know how else to get your attention. I hate that word. Do you know how hard some of us have worked to get rid of that word, to deny its instant connection to the Middle East? And now look. Look what extra work we have."

Nye was born in St. Louis to an American mother and a Palestinian father, Aziz Shihab, a refugee from the war of 1948. Her first images of Palestine as a little girl were the blue airmail letter sheets he would send to relatives back home or receive in return. She recalls "how the light would come through those translucent pages! There was something magical about words that traveled so far."

Being American and Palestinian puts her at the confluence of two warring rivers, an uncomfortable position that grew only more painful during Israel's assault on Gaza and Lebanon this summer.

"Where is common sense?" she asks. "Is intensified, extended violence going to help things in the long run?" She denounces the devastating loss of civilian life and infrastructure in Lebanon, and she is grieved by U.S. support for Israel's actions.

"It is unfathomable," she says, "that we have people without empathy in positions of power affecting so many innocents."

Nye also has a hard time fathoming the silence in the United States that greeted Israel's war on Lebanon. "It shocks me how many people seem to be able to avoid mentioning 'what goes on' even as it is happening," she says.

A short woman with a rich throaty laugh, Nye, fifty-four, credits her grandmother Khadra Shihab with being her guiding spirit.

In the introduction to her acclaimed book of poetry, 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, Nye writes that she could hear her grandmother urging her to speak out: "It's your job. Speak for me, too. Say how much I hate it. Say it's not who we are."

A finalist for the National Book Award for poetry in 2002, Gazelle contains the poem "Blood," in which Nye writes about 9/11 :
 I call my father, we talk around the news
 It is too much for him,
 neither of his two languages can reach it.


Nye's own poetic language is quiet, spare, humorously conversational, and almost unfailingly kind. In her poem "The Crossed-Out Word" from her book

Robert Hirschfleld is a freelancer who writes for many publications on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. His work appears in The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Ode Magazine, the National Catholic Reporter, and other publications.

Red Suitcase, she mocks her lack of roughness:
 A letter arrives from New Fork
 advice, criticism
 "Be meaner! Tough! Spit it out!
 Poems can make us sound too nice!"


Off the printed page, Nye can be found in the classroom as a visiting poet.

"What drew me to poetry is the sense that everything is precious, and everything is worth noticing," she says. "It's important to notice the details that make up our world, that connect us. I think we need to encourage that kind of attitude in children, in the young people we meet."

She also can be found on the picket line. She joined protests against the Lebanon War, and she has repeatedly protested the Iraq War. She's driven down to Crawford to join Cindy Sheehan, who wasn't there when Nye arrived. And she's even walked the line in front of the White House. That's where she stood, all alone, with her "War Has No Imagination" sign, during the first jolts of the Abu Ghraib revelations in 2004. It was not intended as an exercise in solitude. She was expecting other protesters. At one point, an old, white-haired man stopped by to concur with her sentiment, and to offer his own: "This is the worst Administration!" Nye was eventually joined in front of the White House by her good friend and NPR commentator, Marion Winik, who used to live in Austin, Texas. Winik's sign said, "Sorry, Warmongers, Your Time Is Up."

Nye wondered, in a piece she wrote for Organica News, if inside the White House anyone was paying attention. "They didn't listen to the largest global anti-war protests in history," she wrote. "They didn't listen to the United Nations or the advice of diplomatic experts or their own weapons investigators. So why would they listen to a shaggy citizen from the sidewalk? Or a depressed middle-aged poet holding a hand-painted sign?"

A deep listening quality characterizes Nye's poetry. Her ear is pressed with childlike ferocity to the ground of the world. She does not want to miss a sound. There is also a lightness about her, personally and poetically, that in no way undercuts her commitment to taking on charged issues like the Iraq War or the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Nye, during her many visits to the West Bank, where she has relatives, has had Israeli guns turned on her and her family. But she mocks the guns quietly in her poetry. These lines are from "Jerusalem":
 Soldiers stalk a pharmacy:
 Big guns, little pills.
 If you tilt your head just slightly
 it's ridiculous.


That poem appears in Red Suitcase, where she also has the poem, "For the 500th Dead Palestinian, Ibtisam Bozieh":
 Dead at 13, for staring through
 the window into a gun barrel
 which did not know you wanted to be
 a doctor.


In that same poem, the Nye asks:
 How do we carry the endless surprise
 of all our deaths? Becoming doctors
 for one another, Arab, Jew
 instead of guarding the tumors of pain
 as if they hold us upright?


Since 9/11, she concedes, edges of rage have crept into some of her poems. It does not make her happy. You can feel those edges in a few of her poems in You & Yours, published last year. The poem "He Said EYERACK" begins like this:
 Relative to our plans for your country,
 we will blast your tree, crush your
 cart
 stun your grocery.


She is fond of quoting Shirin Ebadi, Iran's Nobel Peace Prize-winner and human rights activist: "When countries are in conflict, political conflict, it is more important than ever to share culture, to share literature."

Echoing that sentiment, Nye in her 9/11 e-mail gave this advice: "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."
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Title Annotation:Naomi Shihab Nye
Author:Hirschfield, Robert
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2006
Words:1127
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