Curiouser & Curiouser

Mirrors and Windows:
Providing Perspective: "A Way of Seeing Is a Way of Not Seeing."

Maggie Parish

"There's only one river.
There's only one sea.
It's flowing through you,
And it's flowing through me.
We are one, we are one.
We are one, we are one."

The song above was taught to me by Sufi friends several years ago. It's easy to sing ; it's easy to say . How easy is it to live? One has only to look at news stories on the BBC and New York Times web sites, or to listen to National Public Radio or read The Economist , to understand how much trouble people all over the world are having walking the walk of peace. Even talking the talk seems to be an almost unimaginable challenge if one lives in the place that the journal named Tikkun (a word which translates as "to mend, repair, and transform the world") carefully calls "Israel/Palestine."

People on both sides of "the wall" (if you are Palestinian), "the fence" (if you are Israeli) or "the barrier" (if you are an international optimist who imagines that the World Court can summarily pry apart an historical complexity of taut, painful, festering knots) - people on both sides are mourning, suffering, struggling, dying; in ways that most of us mostly- comfortable American must stretch across our own dense barrier of culture and space and experience to even begin to understand.

"I'm not interested in/who suffered the most./I'm interested in/People getting over it," wrote Naomi Shihab Nye in a poem entitled "Jerusalem" collected in The Red Suitcase . Still, that was then (1994), this is now (late February, 2004). Now the newly erected fence/wall/barrier winds through Palestinian territory, cutting off village from village, villager from villager. Palestinians call it a land grab. On the other side of it, Israelis dread the mortal danger that a trip to a coffee house or a ride on a bus can suddenly bring them. They call the wall "security."

And while Israelis shrink from warily anticipated sounds and sights, the crashing of a bomb exploding, the sirens and flashing lights of ambulances, Palestinians shrink from both the actual and the anticipated retaliation: houses destroyed, leveled to the ground by tanks. Homes, lost.

It's easy to despair of there being answers, even when one reads in the newspapers about a country far from Palestine, the new Ireland: Eight hundred years of murderous conflict, and now, finally, when many of us had no faith at all that it could ever happen, a steady, healthy healing process that might possibly be able to resist efforts to destroy it. Did that happen because so many people were determined to make it happen, I wonder, or because of economic change? Or were there combinations of these and other forces too complex and too far away to understand from this side of the ocean?

We seem to have need of writers of double vision to interpret the conflicted world of the Middle East for children and young people, to show them that there is more than one way to understand what happens there, to give them double vision. Naomi Shihab Nye's acclaimed book, Habibi , does that extraordinarily well. As autobiographical fiction, Habibi tells the story of Nye's family's return to Palestine in the early nineties and tells it not only poetically, but also with humor and irony and warmth. Liyana's father is a believing Muslim, for example, and when Liyana asks him if he once prayed on prayer rugs the way his family on the West Bank does, he replies, "in my heart, always." (This is from the Simon Pulse paperback, page 56.)

Before they leave the United States, Liyana relates that "her friend kept saying how great it was that they were going to live in 'Jesus's hometown.' Liyana didn't think of it that way. She thought of it as her dad's hometown." (P. 19) It also turns out to be a "hometown" that is extraordinarily moving to Liyana's mother, who is evidently a Christian. She takes very careful note of each of the sites there that connect with Jesus' life and death. Liyana doesn't seem to see Jerusalem quite like either her father or her mother, or her brother or her grandmother, Sitti (about whom Nye has written a lovely picture book) either.

Double (multiple?) vision is everywhere in the book. When Liyana's father seeks to enroll her in an Armenian school where instruction is conducted in Armenian, Arabic and English, the priest who is the headmaster interviews her in a "careful, formal voice." Then Liyana tells the priest how much she has enjoyed reading William Saroyan's stories; she says that she wants to know more about Armenian culture. The distance between them narrows: "Above their heads invisible angels started clapping." (p.73).

Angels enter the story, too, when Liyana's immediate family takes her new young friend, an Israeli, to visit Sitti, her ninety-six-year-old grandmother. At first, no one in her extended family knows who this new friend, Omer, is; he might be some one visiting from St. Louis, perhaps. But when he earnestly tries to communicate in Arabic, the family suddenly does know. An uncle gets up abruptly and leaves the room then, but Sitti is charmed (as I was throughout this book). She tells Omer that she believes he is the angel of someone she once loved. Sitti's belief system is quite different from Liyana's, or her son's or her daughter-in-law's, yet we have no difficulty appreciating her many strengths when we look at them through her granddaughter's loving eyes.

Wanting to read more of Nye's work, I ended up begging, borrowing or buying most of it. I love her poetry and the way that it infuses her prose. I'll quote here from what Nye wrote on the last page of 19 Varieties of Gazelle, which was published in 2002.

I call my father, we walk 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?

Nye includes an anguished letter written after 9/11 in 19 Varieties of Gazelle; in it she addresses "any would-be terrorists," saying that she knows no other name to call them, and lamenting the harm she believes they have done--to everyone, around the world. She writes of her father: "He has written columns and stories saying the Arabs are not terrorists, he has worked all his life to defy that word.... There is no one like him and there are thousands like him - gentle Arab daddies who make everyone laugh around the dinner table...." And Nye writes of her mother, too: "My hard-working American mother has spent 50 years trying to convince her fellow teachers and choir mates not to believe stereotypes about the Middle East. She always told them, there is a much larger story...."

"WAKE UP!" Nye writes in her letter.

There is an equally pained letter in Tamin Ansary's West of Kabul , East of New York : An Afghan American Story, a book that young adults might especially appreciate. Ansary's letter began as a hastily drafted email, one which I, like many others, received when a few of the author's friends forwarded it and it quickly spread via the internet to millions of people around the world. The letter/email is an impassioned plea to spare a vulnerable and beleaguered Afghanistan any further devastation.

Here is how, in West of Kabul, the author describes himself, the man who became instantaneously famous by inadvertently sending a message to the world. "I was born and raised in Afghanistan, and I know Islam intimately, from the inside, in my soul. Yes, I learned to say my prayers from my Afghan grandmother; yes, I know the flavor of sundown on the first day of Ramadan, when you're on the porch with the people you love, waiting for the cannon that will mark the moment when a white thread can no longer be distinguished from a black one and you can put the day's sweet date in your mouth" (p. 9).

But then Ansary goes on to give us a completely different perspective on himself; he tells us that his mother was a feminist, secular American and that he "moved to America at sixteen, and graduated from Reed College...and missed Woodstock by minutes, and revered Bob Dylan back when his voice still worked." (p.10)

Here then is yet another writer who sees with double vision. But it is a double vision different from Naomi Shihab Nye's. Ansary is not, as she was, some one who left a privileged American childhood to visit Islamic roots. Rather, he is a man raised by an American mother (indeed, the first American woman to live in Afghanistan) and an Afghan father in an almost self-contained network of kith- and kin -compounds near Kabul. He is a man who spent his childhood years in places where thick walls protected a comfortable extended family that endlessly re-invented the same stories of connection in ways that bound them together as a group, a group which seemed almost to live one life, almost to breathe one breath. Reading his book, I could barely believe in the degree of closeness they experienced. I also noted how, in Ansary's early years, the Islamic religion surrounded him with a kind of softness. People prayed or didn't pray; if they did, others were careful not to disturb them. Ansary attended schools where he memorized the Koran, but nothing in his book indicates that he felt forced to believe or observe in a particular way at home.

When Tamin Ansary returns to the Middle East in the eighties during the Iran War, he is on a journalistic assignment to discover the attraction of Islam for young converts - but more importantly, he is on an only half-conscious personal quest to discover what meaning Islam has for his own identity. We travel with him through sometimes friendly, sometimes treacherous territory, speaking an Afghan- accented Farsi, carrying an American passport, discovering that the warm and loving sense of brotherhood his story of pilgrimage elicits from followers of his faith can sometimes turn to dark dislike and suspicion when it is learned that he is an American. We are concretely shown cultures of hospitality and generosity and, alternatively, a recurring pattern of frightening fundamentalist intolerance. Later Ansary's brother comes, himself, to identify as a strictly observing Muslim, leaving a ragged painful gap between the brothers that they are never able to close. When, much later, Ansary meets his nephew, his brother's son, who he immediately likes, his nephew has never heard of him.

Like his parents before him, Ansary makes, upon his return from his pilgrimage, a "mixed marriage." He unites with Debbie, a woman who is both American and Jewish, and who he knows well from the many close conversations they have had over time as members of an almost-family kind of communal household. Their simple marriage is followed by a cornucopia of parties that spill out from their generous friends and their different cultural heritages. The pair live their lives together happily, raising two children. Afghans, Ansary reminds us, like to marry their first cousins.

West of Kabul, East of New York seems to me a book worth reading more than once. And, thoughtfully. I put it down with an increased awareness about all that is happening in our world every day that many of us Americans do not have the background to easily understand. We read about such struggles as the French banning of head coverings and other religious symbols in the schools, to cite only one recent example, perhaps comprehending to some degree the history and depth of French secularism, but probably understanding far less the history and significance of that highly charged symbol of Islamic identity.

We must stretch our imaginations to comprehend what it is like to be forced to "wear the veil," as Azar Nafisi tells us she must ultimately do in her gripping and enlightening adult "memoir in books" Reading Lolita in Tehran . But we must perhaps stretch them even further to understand what it is like to be forbidden to do so, as the BBC tells us that Muslim women in (now) seven different countries are today. As Emily Dickinson once wrote, in an entirely different context, we cannot, sometimes, "see to see."

With what kind of vision, I wondered, was I seeing when I first read Diane Stanley's Saladin: Noble Prince of Islam. Eloquently written and beautifully illustrated with art inspired by the Islamic tradition, the book nevertheless initially raised skeptical questions in my, perhaps inevitably somewhat ethnocentric mind. If Saladin was truly such a great and noble leader, I conjectured, how is it possible to spend almost one's entire life since the age of four in school- teaching or studying or both - and never hear of him? (This might, of course have something to do with taking such required courses as Western Civilization and choosing to study such Western languages as French and classical Greek.) Curious about the universality of Saladin's fame as a leader of his people and a courteous and compassionate general and victor, I set off on a quest to find out who around me had actually heard of him.. The answer, interestingly (since I understand that Saladin is considered to be a very important hero in the Middle East) turned out to be almost no one.

Over a three-day period I asked more than thirty professional people (including a primatologist, an optholmologist, and a political scientist) whether they had ever heard of Saladin; only two of them said yes. An anthropologist with a strong interest in history told me he had learned about Saladin decades ago in school as a "Saracen" who fought the Christians ("he was demonized") but never met Saladin in school again. A Canadian scientist told me that she knew that Saladin had fought Richard the Lionheart and they had both behaved in a "courtly" way in their military interaction. I mentioned I had read in Stanley's biography that while Saladin was trying to meet the terms of surrender for the city of Acre, Richard the Lionheart grew impatient, "had the prisoners roped together and led out of the city, then ordered the systematic slaughter of all three thousand men."

"That does sound like King Richard," she replied. "His brother John might have been worse."

Like Diane Stanley's many other books, such as Michelangelo or Good Queen Bess , Saladin has won both praise and prizes for its fine illustrations, careful research and lively style. It surely does give a different view of the Crusades. The following sentences are but one example: "The Muslims had never forgotten the shocking massacre that marked the Christian takeover of Jerusalem back in 1099. Yet Saladin did not seek revenge. He posted guards around the city to make sure his soldiers behaved in an orderly and respectful manner."

I turned from the story of Saladin to an eye-filling biography of Muhammad. It surprised me that some critics objected to Demi telling Muhammad's story, in her lovely biography of that name, as if everything written had actually happened in the way it is presented. (A believing Buddhist, she tells the story of the Dalai Lama in a similar fashion in an equally exquisite book.) I very much appreciated being taken inside the Islamic religion, seeing Muhammad portrayed only as a shining outline, in keeping with Islamic belief, and discovering scraps of verse from the Koran interspersed in calligraphy with the illustrations. What is it that millions of Muslims believe? We can read about it in an encyclopedia, so there is no sense in my summarizing it here, but it seemed to me much more meaningful to find the story revealed to us through beautiful text and illustrations in the style of Persian miniatures than to try to absorb a collection of cold facts. Muhammad is a book that one could find pleasure in looking at over and over again. I found myself touching the pages, expecting them to have some sort of texture.

What You Will See Inside a Mosque by Aisha Karen Khan, who is not only a writer and teacher but also the principal of an Islamic school in New York's mid-Hudson valley, also gives the reader a strong sense of what Islam is about from within. The details are concrete and meaningful; the photographs by Aaron Pepis, who is an award-winning commercial and portrait photographer, are both beautiful and enlightening. We learn at the beginning that the traditional Muslim greeting, "as-salum' alaykum," means "God's peace be with you" in Arabic, a language that all Muslims learn to read and understand so that they can read the Qur'an, which has not changed since it was first written down. On other pages we learn about the importance of the pilgrimage to Mecca, or fasting during Ramadan, or sharing with others. This book is a basic primer for those of us who come from other faiths and wish to understand some tenets and traditions of Islam. The way that it is designed makes it easily read - and seen. Islam , a DK Eyewitness book, accomplishes a similar task in a different fashion, by offering image after image, complete with brief factual descriptions, from which we might choose during our repeated excursions into the book.

As I revise this column several days after writing it, events around the world seem to form increasingly articulated patterns of relentless violence. The peace process in Israel/Palestine has been abandoned. If reading is one way that we can begin to understand each other, then it would seem that we cannot be reading fast enough.

Thoughts on Feed

Alan Hahn
This was a beautiful, thought-provoking essay. Julia Michaels is to be commended on her insight. I really hope to read more from her in the future.

Jane Dougherty
I agree with Ms. Michaels' thoughts in her review of "Feed". I have not yet read the book (I am ordering tonight from that same site) and I believe the world of science fiction will soon be science fact. We have become self-serving people with more concern about how we dress than about how others in the world even eat! As long as we can afford to eat out 4 times a week at a trendy restaurant we believe all is well with the world. I am happy to read of a young person who is obviously well aware of the flaws I our current status. Three cheers. Where can we find more like her?

Volume 8, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, April, 2004

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"Providing Perspective: a way of seeing is a way of not seeing"
© Maggie Parish, 2004.
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