Naomi Shihab Nye ‘s World View

By nature and as a result of fighting in the Vietnam War against an enemy who was not my true enemy, but who was the enemy, or at least the imagined enemy, of someone in my government who may well have been my true enemy, at least if “true enemy” is defined as someone who is trying to get you killed, I am not very political. I do vote semi-regularly, or at least I vote semi-regularly against those who I do not want to vote for, but I do so with little faith that my vote will have much effect or will, indeed, insure that the person I would never vote for will not get elected. Witness the election, or rather, non-election, of our present president.

Still, I cannot help but care about the world and the people who live in that world, and the Middle East is certainly one of many places on the earth that needs everyone’s good will if it is ever to transcend the hatred that has engulfed it. Though I seriously doubt that there is much I can do that will affect the situation there, including writing a weblog that, realistically, affects very few people’s thoughts at all, much less influences their political thought, I wish all of the people there the wisdom to overcome the problems that threaten to destroy them all. Philosophically, I support Meryl Yourish’s campaign to ensure that there will never be another holocaust, but I also suffer for the Palestinians who must endure an unending war. To do less, seems to me to be less than fully human.

That said, I find Nye’s poems on the Middle East even more moving than her domestic poems discussed yesterday. As the American daughter of a Palestinian immigrant and an American wife, she offers insights into the Middle East that seem particularly relevant in these troubled times. It is impossible from the poems themselves to determine if Nye is a Christian or a Muslim, but it is quite clear that she is a loving, caring person with great insight into the complexities that await all who venture into this area.

The poem “Half-and-Half” is a great place to start looking at her insights since she is certainly half-and-half herself, as perhaps we are all half-and-half:


You can’t be, says a Palestinian Christian
on the first feast day after Ramadan.
So, half-and-half and half-and-half.
He sells glass. He knows about broken bits,
chips. If you love Jesus you can’t love
anyone else. Says he.

At his stall of blue pitchers on the Via Dolorosa,
he’s sweeping. The rubbed stones
feel holy. Dusting of powdered sugar
across face, of date-stuffed’ mamool.

This morning we lit the slim white candles
which bend over at the waist by noon.
For once the priests weren’t fighting
in the church for the best spots to stand.
As a boy, my father listened to them fight.
This is partly why he prays in no language
but his own. Why I press my lips
to every exception.

A woman opens a window — here and here and here
placing a vase of blue flowers,
on an orange cloth. I follow her.
She is making a soup from what she had left
in the bowl, the shriveled garlic and bent bean.
She is leaving nothing out.

Which of us doesn’t know about “broken bits, chips?” Whose life is whole? Certainly anyone who works with glass would know about them. If you love Jesus, you have to love someone else, don’t you? Isn’t that the essence of Jesus? Are the priests who are “fighting in the church for the best spots” really fighting for Jesus, or are they half-and-half? How many Christians can manage more than half-and-half? And is soup, the ultimate comfort food, anything but half-and-half, “leaving nothing out.” Most of us live our lives “from what has been left in the bowl.”

As a lover of books, I find “Ducks,” with its discussion of the Iraqi reverence for books particularly moving:


We thought of ourselves as people of culture.
How long will it be till others see us that way again?
Iraqi friend

In her first home each book had a light around it.
The voices of distant countries
floated in through open windows,
entering her soup and her mirror.
They slept with her in the same thick bed.

Someday she would go there.
Her voice, among all those voices.
In Iraq a book never had one owner – it had ten.
Lucky books, to be held often
and gently, by so many hands.

Later in American libraries she felt sad
for books no one ever checked out.

She lived in a country house beside a pond
and kept ducks, two male, one female.
She worried over the difficult relations of triangles.
One of the ducks often seemed depressed.
But not the same one.

During the war between her two countries
she watched the ducks more than usual.
She stayed quiet with the ducks.
Some days they huddled among reeds
or floated together.

She could not call her family in Basra
which had grown farther away than ever
nor could they call her. For nearly a year

she would not know who was alive,
who was dead.

The ducks were building a nest.

I wonder if the light around the books was real, just as a work of art is often illuminated in our country, or if it is a virtual light, as in a “holy” work? Rather reminds me of the light around spiritual objects in a Morris Graves painting. And again, the image of the soup. Too bad I don’t like soup better than I do; it’s hard to keep the proper symbolism in mind when you don’t react to soup, that stuff made from leftovers, as most people do, isn’t it? Still, it is a comforting image.

How delightful to think that “a book never had one owner – it had ten.” Does a book ever really belong to anyone once written? Still, it’s delightful to see the respect which books, and knowledge, were held by some people. It is a startling contrast to America where books have become so common that they are no longer esteemed. It makes one wonder why books are not checked out more often from American libraries, and whether it is the best books, the poetry books, books only a librarian can love, that are left on the shelves in the local library.

How sad to watch the three ducks build a nest while you are torn between your two countries and your family that is now part of both countries. Obviously, one duck must have been as lonely as the person from Iraq, a duck caught up in a traditional three-some, where one party is doomed to be left out.

The final poem here is a poet’s poem, one tied to the very meaning and power of words:



I break this toast for the ghost of bread in Lebanon.
The split stone the toppled doorway.

Someone’s kettle has been crushed.
Someone’s sister has a gash above her right eye.

And now our tea has trouble being sweet.
A strawberry softens, turns musty,

overnight each apple grows a bruise.
I tie both shoes on Lebanon’s feet.

All day the sky in Texas that has seen no rain since June
is raining Lebanese mountains, Lebanese trees.

What if the air grew damp with the names of mothers?
The clear-belled voices of first graders

pinned to the map of Lebanon like a shield?
When I visited the camp of the opposition

near the lonely Golan, looking northward toward
Syria and Lebanon, a vine was springing pinkly from a tin can

and a woman with generous hips like my mother’s
said, "Follow me."


Someone was there. Someone not there now
was standing. In the wrong place
with a small moon-shaped scar on his cheek
and a boy by the hand.
Who had just drunk water, sharing the glass.
Not thinking about it deeply
though they might have, had they known.
Someone grown, and someone not grown.
Who imagined they had different amounts of time left.
This guessing-game ends with our hands in the air,
becoming air.
One who was there is not there, for no reason.
Two who were there.

It was almost too big to see.


Our friend from Turkey says language is so delicate
he likens it to a darling.

We will take this word in our arms.
It will be small and breathing.
We will not wish to scare it.
Pressing lips to the edge of each syllable.
Nothing else will save us now.
The word "together" wants to live in every house.

The first section is dominated by images of the narrator’s discontent that flows from her memories of Lebanon. Although her life is not ruined, nothing seems to go quite right. The tea tastes sour, the strawberry goes bad, and the apple is bruised.

The second section takes us back to that visit to Lebanon and the bad memories that is the cause for her summer of discontent in Texas, and although it’s never quite clear, it seems that someone who had shared her life for a short while has been killed, “someone not there now.” Of course, it’s also the narrator who is not there now.

The third section is the critical one, though, the one where the precious word “together,” almost a prayer rather than a word, a “darling” word because it is such a fragile word in Lebanon. And yet, it is such a precious idea that it, and it alone can probably “save us.”

We, as a nation, are blessed by the constant infusion of talent from abroad, talent that in the long run helps us to realize our true potential. We need to do more to foster these younger poets who can help us to understand ourselves and the problems our society faces more clearly.

There’s a good set of links at The Academy of American Poets