As one of her many admirers it was a great honour for me to introduce Naomi Shihab Nye at Cúirt. And what a pleasure it was to sit with her and talk, make connections as if we were old friends. ‘We start out as little bits of disconnected dust’, she says in the introduction to her poems of the Middle East 19 Varieties of Gazelle. But listening to her poetry and sharing stories with her helps gather those separate pieces of us all closer together and make us deeply aware of our need to cross borders.
Born to a Palestinian father and American mother 4 years after her father's family lost their home in Jerusalem she has a very strong sense of exile, describing herself as a wandering poet and has lived in St Louis Missouri, Jerusalem and now San Antonio, Texas and travels extensively throughout the world to read and teach.
She became a poet at a very early age because of her hunger for language to take her to meaningful and visionary places. Believing that we all need to be rooted somewhere she holds herself to the earth through poetry and whether lyric, narrative or prose, the work has the power to unharness us from our blinkered views and carry us into a larger human experience. We travel with her through the world of Paul who wishes that somebody would touch him on the shoulder, or the man who gave two skunks to his wife for a valentine. We see the daily rituals of Jews and Palestinians, her patriarchal grandmother, her father who died with two languages tucked inside his head. We see the aubergines and peaches in the garden of Abu Mahmoud across the valley from the gleaming white military settlement.
She shows us the hospitality of The Sweet Arab, the Generous Arab. In language that is never strident, or shrill, her work consistently connects with a vast circle of witnesses in war-torn areas where experience is the real authority. Drawing on all those years of experience that attest to our shared humanity, she asks the simplest, almost childlike questions that carry the greatest profundity and force us to consider the answers. In ‘Lunch in Nablus City Park’ she poses: Where do the souls of hills hide when there is shooting in the valley? What makes a man with a gun seem bigger than a man with almonds?
A bridge builder, she echoes her favourite poet William Stafford where her writing teaches us to listen harder, to listen to one another in ways we might have missed and bring light to the sorrowful things of our lives that are regularly misrepresented in the media. This is best demonstrated in the poem where the parents of a murdered Palestinian boy donate his organs to Israelis. Because of the enormity of their life-giving gesture of their son’s kidneys, liver, heart she urges us.’ We must, we simply must be bigger, too.’
In the poem Cross that Line she records how Paul Robeson, the American singer and activist was denied a passport to sing in Vancouver the same year as she was born. Here we are given another powerful image of a man who refuses to be quietened and instead stands on the boundary between US and Canada and sings across the border to over 25,000 people sitting on folding chairs on the other side. It is what Naomi does time and time again, continues to cross the line as she limns her two cultures with great heart and illumination that brings us to that moment of connection.