Illuminating Texts:
Pain and Hope: The Voices of Children from the Middle East

Jane Goldstein

Since 9/11 volumes have been written and hours have been spent analyzing the world situation. The future of the world is perceived to hang on a thin thread determined by the success or failure of the terrorists and their potential to destroy world order and peace. Some people are tired of it all. Some people are increasingly angry and militant.

Some people want to educate themselves more on the topics of the day. As I began educating myself through reading various sources, the prominence of poetry was a particular surprise. My purpose in this paper is to discuss the tradition of poetry in the Arabic culture, to look at the influences on the Palestinian American writer Naomi Shihab Nye, and then to examine her own poetry and some of the poetry she has collected from young poets of the Middle East.

The first book I was able to find by Nye was 19 Varieties of Gazelle, Poems of the Middle East. It was selected as a National Book Award Finalist in the field of children's literature in 2002. Like many other writers, Nye wrote new introductions to some of her books and they were reprinted after 9/11. This is a portion of what she has to say her revisions to that book of poetry:

"September 11, 2001, was not the first hideous day ever in the world, but it was the worst one many Americans had ever lived. May we never see another like it. For people who love the Middles East and have an ongoing devotion to cross-cultural understanding, the day felt sickeningly tragic in more ways than one. A huge shadow had been cast across the lives of so many innocent people and an ancient culture's pride."

She continues by reminiscing about the many beautiful and gentle people she had met in her travels in Arabic countries. She reflects on the Arabic tradition of generous hospitality as she experienced it. In pondering what she could do, she went back to a literary form she has practiced since childhood and one that has always been deeply rooted in Arabic cultural history.

"I found myself turning to poetry...Poetry slows us down, cherishes small details. A large disaster erases those details. We need poetry for nourishment and for noticing, for the way language and imagery reach comfortably into experience, holding it and connecting it more successfully than any news channel we could name."

Naomi Shahib Nye is the daughter of a Palestinian who came to the United States in 1950 after his family had lost their home and possessions in Jerusalem. He was, to quote her, a gently non-practicing Muslim. Her mother was an American who was looking for something a little more joyful than her own Lutheran heritage. Nye was exposed to many belief systems by her parents with what appears to be an attempt to make her tolerant of all people. She lived in St. Louis, Missouri until she was 14 years old. At that time her parents decided that the troubles in Israel had quieted down enough to take Naomi and her brother to meet their Palestinian relatives and to live for a while in their father's culture.

The author writes about her childhood and her family in various ways and places. Never in a Hurry is a book of essays which covers not only her personal history as an Arab American, but also the ways her parents tried to familiarize her Arabic culture in their home, her many visits to the West Bank, and her family's quick departure for the US before the Seven Days War in 1967. She also talks about her present life in San Antonio, Texas and of her experiences with the Latino community there.

If Nye were rewriting the introduction to her books today, I think that she would seriously consider using this poem from 19 Varieties of Gazelle . While many poems in her collections are from other poets, this is one that she wrote herself. Nye starts with this quote from an Iraqi friend, "We thought of ourselves as people of culture. How long will it be till others see us that way again?" The poem is called "Ducks".

In her first home each book
had a light around it.
The voices of distant countries
floated in through open widows,
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.

This poem was copyrighted in 1998, so it probably refers to the Gulf War. It could also refer to the war between Iran and Iraq. The opening lines tell of a reverence for books. All too often the perception of the Arabic countries is one of rich oil princes and Bedouins with camels while forgetting that the most commonly used number system in the world is something they developed. Petra had a water pipeline for its human inhabitants and a separate pipe system for the animals in 400 B.C. Science and medicine was so advanced that Europeans went to the Middle East to study these technologies into the Middle Ages. Places like Alexandria, Egypt and Baghdad, Iraq had enviable libraries centuries ago

At various times Arab power has extended to Moorish Spain and to Persian Iran. Strong trade routes spread their culture and bought them new ideas from places like China. It is true to say that the Arab people have been made up of many small tribes and clans and that a strong national sense is a recent and still shaky development. Yet, as Albert Hourani points out in A History of the Arab Peoples , the Arabic language has been the unifying element and as such, predates the Islamic religion. By the 6th century, a person from Moorish territory could travel to ancient Persia and communicate easily in Arabic.

Arabic poetry probably began as a rhymed language for incantations and magic spells in early nomadic communities and was part of a long tribal tradition. It developed into a more formal but poetic language that had a grammar and a vocabulary. It was used by the poets, by ruling courts, and in the markets of oasis towns. Poetic conventions emerged; "the most highly valued was the ode or qasida, a poem of up to 100 lines, written in one of a number of accepted metres and with a single rhyme running through it. Each line consisted of two hemistiches and two lines to the unit."(12) Rhyme was carried at the end of the first, second, and fourth hemistiches. The "Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam" appears later in time and is from Persia. It is probably one of the poems most commonly know in the Western cultures. It follows this rhythmic form. In fact, rubai is a two-lined stanza and ruba'iyat is a plural. The word comes from the Arabic and means "foursome".

The first poets were like the storytellers in other cultures of the world, and recited poetry in public places. (Hourani 12-13) The rhythm helped to make the message memorable. The poems usually had three sections, the first being a short review of the past history of the tribe. The second part was a journey and a conquest of some sort which culminated in the third section which was a building up of one's tribe successes within the limitations of their human capabilities. (13-14)

During the Byzantine Empire the Middles East was predominately Christian. Jewish people were often an active part of the communities. In the seventh century God inspired Muhammad to write the Qu'ran and Islam began to develop a following. For the next several centuries the Middles East was a blending of three monotheistic groups, the Jewish, the Christian, and the Islamic faiths. These groups lived in tolerance of each other along with the Zoroastrians in Persia and some minor individual cults in small nomadic groups. The three major religions shared the Mosaic code, and identification with many of the same persons such as Abraham and many of the same prophets. Muhammad had pulled from what was already familiar in the culture of the Middle East and rearranged and develop a new message. Poetry continued to be an important tool in educating the new believers. The Qu'ran is an example of this. In looking at poets like Rumi, the reader sees the intertwining of the three major religions. Rumi is a 13th century poet from Afghanistan who later emigrated to Turkey. He wrote in quatrains or (rubaiyats). He often included prose prayers to introduce a poem. In these introductions God often blessed Muhammad, Jesus, and any messenger or prophet who might be present at that time.

Nye's poetry selections often reflect the three elements, if in a somewhat contemporized fashion. Nye has used the term "genetic home" to describe that place which is part of one's ancestry. Her poems often start at this point and move forward. This forward movement and its struggles are the journey. Hope in some form is usually the final emotion and often the reader senses a reverence for the hope which spiritual faith contributes to personal life.

Many contemporary Arabic poems pull from beliefs that sound very familiar to those from a Judaic-Christian background. Nye points out this in a memorial in the introductory pages of 19 Varieties of Gazelle. It states: "If you look at the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religions, their first commandments are the same: 'Thou shalt not kill.' It's not taken seriously." In trying to find balance, Nye pulls from all three influences.

Nye has written a young adult book called Habibi. Habibi is the Arabic word for darling and the term of endearment with which her father greeted her daily. The book received many commendations when it was first published in 1997. She dedicates the book to "all the Arabs and Jews who would rather be cousins than enemies." Throughout the book the author tries to balance the good with the bad. While describing the suffering a friends in a resettlement camp, she also includes a friendship with a young Jewish boy and speaks of her relationship with Armenian Christians. The book draws from many of the same incidents in her life that are also included in Never in a Hurry using many of the very same phrases.

While the poems in her collections deal with serious issues, Nye does give us glimpses at what she calls her "genetic home." ( Never in a Hurry pg. 50) Sitti is her maternal grandmother and matriarch of the family who survives to the rich age of 106. In 19 Varieties of Gazelle she connects us to her grandmother:

My grandmother's hands recognize grapes,
the damp shine of a goat's new skin.
When I was sick they followed me,
I woke from the long fever to find them
covering my head like cool prayers.

My grandmother's days are made of bread,
a round pat-pat and the slow baking.
She waits by the oven watching a strange car
Circle the streets. Maybe it holds her son,
lost to America. More often, tourists,
who kneel and weep at mysterious shrines.
She knows how often mail arrives,
how rarely there is a letter.
When one comes, she announces it, a miracle,
listening to it read again and again
in the dim evening light.

The poem continues and the reader learn about Sitti's great faith that Allah is everywhere, even in death and that if we "listen to the words under the words" life is just a world of rough edges we can survive.

Trying to balance both sides of the Middle Eastern disputes is a challenge, even for a poet. In the poem "All Things Considered" she writes of the people dying on both sides of the conflict and suggests:

No one was right.
Everyone was wrong.

What if they'd get together
and say that?
At a certain point
the flawed narrator wins.

People made mistakes for decades.
Everyone hurt in similar ways
at different times.
Some picked up guns because guns were given.
If they were holy it was okay to use guns.
Some picked up stones because they had them.
They had millions of them...
Picking up things to throw and shoot
at the same time people were studying history,
going to school.
The curl of a baby's graceful ear.
The calm of a bucket
waiting for water.
Orchards of old Arab men
who knew each tree.
Jewish and Arab women
Standing silently together.
Generations in black.

Are people the only holy land?


The twentieth century has brought a lot of conflict to the region and much of it has been internal. For many children in the Middle East, life has been spent seeing loved ones die, living in refugee camps, or fleeing to other countries. Many never return to their genetic home, as Nye calls it. Many accept new ways and adopt strange cultures. The anthology, The Flag of Childhood, Poems from the Middle East, is a collection by various poets. They reflect on their transitions and reactions to the conflicts they experienced. Poets from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, and other countries are included. This is a sample by the Egyptian author, Hamaza El Din. As a child he lived near the Egypt-Sudan border. In his poem he writes of the displacement when the Aswan Dam was constructed and destroyed his home. His poem is called "Childhood 1948"

Do you remember our childhood?
There was the brook, there was the palm tree:
It was beautiful and the dates delicious,
Soft and you by my side.
Early mornings were red-the morning star was bright
And gone now.
Here is white milk for you, though, warm and foamy,
Drink it, dear, take the little kids and the big goatie goats
To the riverside to graze, while we bathe a while.
No! How can I forget all this? No!
You were a child and I was a child. You dripped honey
And I collected dates

He continues to talk about a lovely palm tree he enjoyed and how all this has been drowned and lost. He concludes by saying:

Oh God, forgive those who drowned it!
God forgive us, those who have forsaken it.

Some of the poems are depressing, such "Why Are We in Exile the Refugees Ask". Many are quit hopeful, such as this poem by Lebanon's Sa'id Aqi:

Once I heard a Bird,
An absorbed, ecstatic bird,
Eloquently telling
Its child:
"Fly away,
soar high:
a few bread crumbs
will suffice you,
but the sky
you need...
the whole sky."

In her family life in St. Louis and in the homes of her father's relatives in the West Bank, Naomi Shihab Nye experienced warmth and hospitality. She shares this philosophy in the poem ": Red Brocade" from 19 Varieties of Gazelle:

The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at you door,
Feed him for three days
Before asking him who he is,
Where he's come from,
Where he's headed.
That way, he'll have strength
Enough to answer.
Or, by then you'll be
Such good friends
You don't care.

She concluded the poem with a viewpoint on the virtues of hospitality and with words many in the busy world need to reflect on:

No, I was not too busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That's the armor everyone put on
To pretend they had a purpose
In the world.
I refuse to be claimed.
We will snip fresh mint
Into your tea.

In the past months the situation in the Middle East has only continued to become even more disheartening and confusing. Along with the situation in Israel and Palestine, Iraq is still an unresolved area of conflict. More lives have been disrupted and anger seems to be a virus with an increased potential for harm to us all. The world needs to remember thoughts by people like Nye who defends "many of the innocent citizens of the Middle East." Many of these people are living as best they can in situations filled with anxiety and fear. Many of them are unhappy and fed up with all the violence. Naomi Shahib Nye thinks that if children and grandmothers, like Sitti who she so dearly loved, were in charge, we would find peace in the world.

Works Cited

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. New York. MJF Books. 1991.

Nye, Naomi Shihab. Habibi. New York. Simon Pulse. 1999.

---, 19 Varieties of Gazelle, Poems of the Middle East. New York. Greenwillow Books. 2002.

---, Never in a Hurry, Essays on People and Places. Columbia, South Carolina. University of South Carolina Press. 1996

---, Selected by. The Flag of Childhood, Poems from the Middle East. New York. Aladdin Paperbacks. 1998


Works Consulted

Ansary, Tamin. West of Kabul, East of New York. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2002.

Barks, Coleman. trans. The Essential Rumi. New York. HarperCollins. 1996.

Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. Oxford. Oxford University Press. 2002.


Jane Goldstein

Volume 8, Issue 2 The Looking Glass, September/October 2004

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"Pain and Hope: The Voices of Children from the Middle East"
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