Seeking consolation in a shaky world, Arab-American writer Naomi Shihab Nye finds wisdom in the melodies and memories of the people she loves.
I'm idling in the drive-through line at a fast-food franchise in Texas, the kind of place I usually avoid, because my hungry teenager needs a hamburger, when a curling strand of delicate violin rises from National Public Radio. I know immediately it's Simon Shaheen, the Arab-American virtuoso violinist, an elegant man who wears starched white shirts and black suits and plays like an angel.
A calm washes over me that I haven't felt in days. The commentator says his name. I raise the volume; our car fills up with grace. I place my head on the steering wheel, tears clouding my eyes.
"Mom! Are you all right? You are so weird!"
No. I am simply an Arab-American in deep need of cultural uplift to balance the ugliness that has cast a deep shadow over our days.
Play Ali Jihad Racy, Um Kalthoum, Marcel Khalife, Hamza El Din, Matoub Lounes...any melodious Middle Eastern music to counteract the terrible sorrow of this time! With so many precious people and lands grieving and no way that we, simple citizens, can solve it or get our full minds around it, what shall we do with our souls?
I grew up in St. Louis in a tiny house full of large music—Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson singing majestically on the stereo, my German-American mother fingering The Lost Chord on the piano as golden light sank through trees, my Palestinian father trilling in Arabic in the shower each dawn. He held single notes so long we thought he might faint.
The world rang rich counterpoint, mixed melodies, fragrances, textures: crushed mint and garlic in the kitchen, cardamom brewing in coffee, fabulously embroidered Palestinian pillows plumped on the couch. And always, a thrumming underchord, a hovering, hopeful note: Things had been bad, but they would get better. Our dad had lost his home, but he would make another one. People suffered everywhere, but life would improve.
I refuse to let that hope go.
Because men with hard faces do violent things, because fanaticism seizes and shrinks minds, is no reason for the rest of us to abandon our songs.
Maybe we need to sing them louder.
I hold in my heart so many sorrowing individuals. All families and friends of innocent victims everywhere. All dedicated advocates of peace—keep speaking out wherever you can! All people related to the Middle East who despise bad behavior. All gentle immigrants—how much harder their lives may be now. All citizens who trust the great potential of humanity. All children who want to be happy. All mothers and sisters of violent men.
I wish for world symbols more than SUVs wearing American flags like hula skirts—aren't images that embrace all humanity, all nations and variations, the only thing that will save us now? My friend Milli makes me an exquisite peace bracelet with a miniature globe on it, alongside an ivory dove and beads from many countries. I wear it every day.
A friend I don't know sends an e-mail: "It is our duty to be hopeful." Her words flicker inside me, a small torch penetrating gloom.
The words of children console us, not the other way around. During a local poetry workshop with fourth-graders, a girl hands me a folded note: "Poetry is eating all my problems." My great-niece stomps her foot. "Adults are forgetting how to have fun!"
I keep thinking, we teach children to use language to solve their disputes. We teach them not to hit and fight and bite. Then look what adults do!
I read about the Seeds of Peace teenagers, Arabs and Israelis who come together in Maine and Jerusalem for deepened dialogue and greater understanding. Their gatherings are not easy. They cry and fear and worry. But they emerge from their sessions changed. Every weapon on earth betrays their efforts, but we need them desperately, to balance the cruel tides.
Condolence cards fan out on my table—kind women I haven't seen in years, writing "We care." Everyone advises me to stay balanced, practice yoga again, eat well, laugh out loud. They understand that an Arab-American might be feeling sicker than most people these difficult days. I grip these lovely messages as if they were prescriptions from the best doctor. My wonderful Japanese-American friend Margaret in Hawaii is particularly vigilant, writing "How are you? You are strongly in our thoughts" every single week.
I treasure the welcoming world of women...laughing, tending, nourishing, mending, wrapping language around one another like a warm cloak. I try to think of supportive women in my community whom I could surprise—friends who might be able to use a bunch of red ranunculuses, a plate of hot gingerbread when it is not even their birthday.
Next: Finding solace and comfort in poetry
We Hear You!