Playing Bridge

After September 11, lots of Americans wanted blood. They plastered their cars with bumper stickers that read "Let's Roll!" and sported T-shirts showing Osama bin Laden's face obscured by a gun target. Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye was enraged, too. But she didn't want to kill, she wanted to talk. So she wrote a letter to would-be terrorists and posted it on the Internet.

"I felt that since I could imagine the perpetrators of the crime more personally...just by way of ethnicity," she says, "I had this personal feeling of wanting to sit them right down, and sit their colleagues down, and anybody else who might be dreaming something up, and just have a chat with them. An angry, furious chat."

The letter urges that "it will be peace, not violence, that fixes things." But it's brimming with more personal information too, about her father and his love of figs, her Lebanese grocer and her mother's choir group. Nye believes that the personal is the political, and to get at both she explores the minutiae of daily life.

Nye's latest collection of poems, 19 Varieties of Gazelle, gathers the works she's written over the years about the Middle East, peace and being an Arab-American. One of them, "The Small Vases from Hebron," about the Arab-Israeli conflict, asks, "And what do the headlines say? / Nothing of the smaller petal / perfectly arranged inside the larger petal / or the way tinted glass filters light."

"We don't live in an abstract reality," says Nye. "We live with coffee and buttons." But people in war-torn areas lack that kind of normalcy. "Daily life at this moment would be the greatest luxury that people in Gaza can imagine...The political horrors affect their personal lives. They're murdered, bulldozed, tortured, terrorized. Israelis walking to the market might have the same feeling. How have they come to this horrible impasse?"

As a Palestinian-American, the poet hopes to help disparate groups understand each other. "Long ago, what I saw as part of my dedication and devotion to writing," she says, "was to find ways to bridge cultures and diverse opinions."

Hence her enthusiastic participation in the State Department-sponsored collection of essays, Writers on America. The book is being distributed at U.S. embassies but won't be available within the States because of an old antipropaganda law. Since its publication, many of the contributing writers have distanced themselves from the collection, worrying that their inclusion will make them look pro-Bush or pro-war. Not Nye.

"I'm not ashamed to have a simple personal essay appear in that book," she says of her work on free speech. "I want people overseas to read it, somebody who might have negative feelings towards the U.S."

Nye also has agreed to take a government-sponsored international tour to promote Writers. That way the self-described "documentarian of the miniature and forgotten" can tell the world in person about "the secret hide-away between pine trees, the cedar scent of my grandmother's closet, the sad, forgotten alleyways...the blossoming redbud trees..." And, between the lines, politics.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Cathy Matusow
Contact: Cathy Matusow