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
And I keep thinking of my Palestinian grandmother, who lived to be 106 years old and didn't read or write, though she always said she could "read the sky" and the tea leaves in the bottom of everyone's cups. She claimed she didn't want to die "until everyone she didn't like died first." We think she succeeded. The truth was, she was very popular. She liked everybody and they all loved her. The Israeli anthropologist who did an oral history project in her village found me years later to say, "Her warmth changed my life—I consider her my grandmother, too." Even though she had lost her home to Israel in 1948, she said, "I never lost my peace inside."
The only place she ever traveled beyond Palestine was to Mecca, by bus. She was proud to be called a hajji, to wear layered white clothes afterward. In her West Bank village, she worked hard to get stains out of everyone's dresses—scrubbing them with a stone over a big tin tub in the courtyard, under her beloved lemon tree. If we told her, "You are very patient," she would joke, "What choice do I have?"
I think she would consider the recent tragedies a terrible stain on her religion. She would weep. She never fussed at my father for not praying five times a day in the traditional way. As she excused herself from our circle for her own prayers, he might say something like "I'm praying all the time, every minute," and she would grin.
She wanted people to worship in whatever ways they felt comfortable. To respect one another, enjoy one another's company, tell good stories, sit around the fire drinking tea and cracking almonds, and never forget to laugh no matter what terrible things they had been through. Laughter was the power.
What wisdom did she possess that other people can't figure out?
I thought I was done writing about her—for years she starred in my essays and poems. But after September 11, she started poking herself into my dreams again, kindly, sorrowfully: "Say this is not who we are."
Apparently, the entire United States has taken to reading more poetry, which can only be a good sign. Journalists ask, "Why do you suppose people are finding strength in poetry now?" Those of us who have been reading poetry all our lives aren't a bit surprised. As a direct line to human feeling, empathic experience, genuine language and detail, poetry is everything that headline news is not. It takes us inside situations, helps us imagine life from more than one perspective, honors imagery and metaphor—those great tools of thought—and deepens our confidence in a meaningful world.
I feast on The Poetry of Arab Women, a contemporary collection published in 2003. Deema K. Shehabi wrote, "And where is that mountain / that will fold us inward slowly / ...enemy of melancholy, ally of life / glistening darkly / in silence."
Nazik al-Malaika wrote, "How do we forget pain, / how do we forget pain? / Who will light for us / the night of its memory?"
From Fadwa Tuqan, the brave Palestinian who has lived all these difficult years in Nablus on the West Bank: "Give us love, so we may build the collapsed universe within us / anew...."
Then I read Coleman Barks's vibrant translations of Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi poet who has for the past few years been one of the best-selling poets in the United States. It's rumored he's also the poet most often read aloud on the radio in Afghanistan. Open The Soul of Rumi anywhere and find something helpful. On page 158: "Why am I part of this disaster, this / mud hole for donkeys?" Later in the same poem, "I ask / a flower, 'How is it you are so wise so / young?'"
Yes. I breathe deeply, closing my eyes. And how are we educated human beings so old and so stupid?
Now that I have tears in my eyes even while making baba ghanouj, our famous eggplant dip, so what? This is my cultural sorrow—not the first ever in the world. Admit it and move on. There is still so much good work to do.
When a gentle man I don't know approaches me in a crowd at a literary conference to say, "I am afraid for my daughter to admit she is half-Arab now. What should we do?" I am momentarily tongue-tied.
Later I wish I had told him, "Tell her never deny it. Maybe Arab-Americans must say we are twice as sad as other people. But we are still proud, of everything peaceful and beautiful that endures. Then speak beauty if we can—the beauty of culture, poetry, tradition, memory, family, daily life. Each day, live in honor of the ones who didn't have this luxury or time. We are not alone."
More on the Impact of 9/11
Printed from Oprah.com on Tuesday, March 11, 2014
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