Monday, March 31, 2008

Thinking in Poetry

"Anyone who feels poetry is an alien or ominous force should consider the style in which human beings think. 'How do you think?' I ask my students. 'Do you think in complete, elaborate sentences? In fully developed paragraphs with careful footnotes? Or in flashes and bursts of images, snatches of lines leaping one to the next, descriptive fragments, sensory details?' We think in poetry. But some people pretend poetry is far away."
-Voices from the Gaps

Saturday, March 29, 2008

more on poetry, and the power of words

Here are some excerpts from a 2002 interview with Naomi Shihab Nye on PBS. She talks about the power of language, and the significance of life's small details -- those everyday activities and objects that remind us of our shared humanity.

BILL MOYERS: Eight years ago, recovering from heart surgery I found deep comfort in poetry, especially the poems of Naomi Shihab Nye. Her poems speak of ordinary things -- things we take for granted until it's almost too late. In her new book, 19 VARIETIES OF GAZELLE those are again her subject. Even when war, politics, and terrorism put them in jeopardy.
Naomi Shihab Nye, is an American, an Arab, a Poet, a parent, a woman of Texas, a woman of ideas. The daughter of a Palestinian father and an American mother, she's lived in old Jerusalem, in St. Louis, and now with her own family in San Antonio, Texas.
* * *

BILL MOYERS: Poetry is a form of conversation is it not?
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Absolutely: conversation with the world; conversation with those words on the page, allowing them to speak back to you; conversation with yourself.
I think for many of us, language [is the fuel that feeds us] in the sense that language can carry us to understanding, and connect us to things that matter in our lives. For those of us who trust poetry and the power of linkage that poetry gives us, it's a way of sitting quietly with words and letting them lead us somewhere.

A little girl said to me, last year, "Poetry has been eating all my problems." And I said, "What do you mean by that?" And she said, "It just makes me feel better when I read it, or when I write it." And I think that's been true for many people in this country.

* * *

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Well I had written so much about [my Palestinian grandmother], both in poems and in a novel called HABIBI that I thought to myself a couple of years ago, "I probably won't write about her anymore. I've said all there is to say." But after September 11th I felt her poking me again saying, "No there's more you need to say for the women who believe in peace, for the children who want to live together. For all of us who would never, never believe anything like that could be a good representation of our religion, or our culture."

One of her final lines she ever spoke to me was, "I never lost my peace inside." And I think through living very sensibly, calmly, close to home, paying attention to what was right around her, she was able to maintain an equilibrium. Although she had lost her home and everything she had. She still maintained a sense of humor too. And an interest in other people. She was fascinated by other people's stories.

* * *
BILL MOYERS: You write in here about what it means to be half and half, where love means you breathe in two countries. Help me to understand that.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Well I think whenever you love something or somebody it means that you have to extend yourself, you have to grow -- get a little larger. You can't stay in your little comfortable spot. It's a risk, and whether it's loving another culture far away that suddenly has been represented by an act of violence, or whether it's loving another person -- and that always involves all kinds of growing -- we're challenged.
And so every time you care about something or somebody that relates to a different place in the world, then your empathy grows. And for example, for all Americans who have friends from Iraq, I'm sure they're thinking about it not only in political terms, but in human terms. You know, what will that mean for their friend's families, or what will that mean for all the children of Iraq?
You know during the Gulf War I remember two little third grade girls saying to me -- after I read them some poems by writers in Iraq -- "You know we never thought about there being children in Iraq before." And I thought, "Well those poems did their job, because now they'll think about everything a little bit differently." They'll feel closer to that place in a different way.

[After September 11th] life became more difficult in that way. And I think we all needed to work harder to maintain a feeling of openness to anyone we might identify as the "other." Now, that's what interests me. How can we keep bridging the gap that sets someone apart from us and finding a way to know them that will help us all.

* * *
BILL MOYERS: You write this one line in which you talk about "The men who have so much pain, there's no place to store it." Who are you writing about?
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: I was thinking about Palestinian refugees, and the people of my Grandmother's village when I wrote that. And my father in his own life. And all the people of different countries in the world who have lost things that many other people can never understand.
You know those of us who leave our homes in the morning and expect to find them there when we go back -- it's hard for us to understand what the experience of a refugee might be like.
BILL MOYERS: But how do people deal with such immeasurable loss in their life?
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: How do they maintain any shred of dignity and balance? You know those are the courageous people to me. All the simple people of the earth who don't lose their sanity in the face of constant disease in the world they live in. Who keep sending their children to school, who keep combing their children's hair. How do they do that?
BILL MOYERS: I assume [that's why] that so often in your poetry you are taking small and ordinary words -- words about ordinary things -- and holding them close.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Because they have a weight that I recognize that helps me stay balanced. And I think other people too.
BILL MOYERS: Is that why you write about button-hooks and onions and all kinds of things like that?
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Those little things?
BILL MOYERS: The tea that your grandmother drinks?
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Yes. That's why. It keeps me focused on things close to us. The material world that gives us a sense of gravity. And that we'd all like to be free to enjoy in our world.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Jews for Justice and Peace

Here are some websites to visit. Voices for peace from the other side -- Israel, and Jews living abroad. Gush Shalom has a whole page of links to similar sites, so if you're interested, check it out.

Bat Shalom: an organization of Israeli women working for peace. Here's their declaration of principles.

Jews for Justice for Palestinians: this site is based out of Britain, and has some good information on the conflict (the causes and abuses) in their fact sheets.

Jewish Voice for Peace: a group that seeks to affect U.S. foreign policy as it relates to Israel and Palestine.

These next two are run by Israeli soldiers, or ex-soldiers, who are speaking out against the violence and abuse leveled against Palestinians by the Israeli army.

Breaking the Silence: offers testimonies from soldiers about their experiences in the Occupied Territories during the Second Intifadah.

Courage to Refuse: a site created by officers and soldiers in the Israeli army who are refusing to engage in the oppression of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Over 280 soldiers have been court martialed and jailed for their stance.

The Combatants Letter, which began this movement, is as follows:

  • We, reserve combat officers and soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, who were raised upon the principles of Zionism, self-sacrifice and giving to the people of Israel and to the State of Israel, who have always served in the front lines, and who were the first to carry out any mission in order to protect the State of Israel and strengthen it.

  • We, combat officers and soldiers who have served the State of Israel for long weeks every year, in spite of the dear cost to our personal lives, have been on reserve duty in the Occupied Territories, and were issued commands and directives that had nothing to do with the security of our country, and that had the sole purpose of perpetuating our control over the Palestinian people.

  • We, whose eyes have seen the bloody toll this Occupation exacts from both sides,

  • We, who sensed how the commands issued to us in the Occupied Territories destroy all the values that we were raised upon,

  • We, who understand now that the price of Occupation is the loss of IDF’s human character and the corruption of the entire Israeli society,

  • We, who know that the Territories are not a part of Israel, and that all settlements are bound to be evacuated,

  • We hereby declare that we shall not continue to fight this War of the Settlements.

  • We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.

  • We hereby declare that we shall continue serving the Israel Defense Force in any mission that serves Israel’s defense.

  • The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose – and we shall take no part in them.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Poems About Homeland Lost

Here are a few selections from The Space Between Our Footsteps (mentioned in the previous post). The chapter is "Pick a Sky and Name it." The notes in italics were added by me.

Why Are We in Exile the Refugees Ask

Why do we die
In silence
And I had a house
And I had . . .
And here you are
Without a heart, without a voice
Wailing, and here you are
Why are we in exile?
We die
We die in silence
Why are we not crying?
On fire,
On thorns
We walked
And my people walked
Why are we Lord
Without a country, without love
We die
We die in terror
Why are we in exile
Why are we Lord?

-Abdul Wahab al-Bayati
(translated by Abdullah al-Udhari)

But I Heard the Drops

My father had a reservoir
of tears.
They trickled down
But I heard the drops
from his voice
like drops
from a loosened tap.
For thirty years
I heard them.

-Sharif S. Elmusa
Born in 1947, and became a refugee the next year. Meanwhile, the thirty years has turned to sixty.


Anxious, anxious am I for a homeland,
The windows of my longing are open.
How tired I am of moving around
The walking stick of travel
is nearly broken
So I take refuge in my dreams
I sing my songs
I travel in my imagination
to the shores of my homeland
Oh, how much I long for a homeland

-Balkis Saleem Zaghal
A sixth grader living in the West Bank.
(translated by Aziz Shihab)

Anthology of Middle Eastern Poems and Paintings

I am currently on spring break, visiting my beautiful older brother and his beautiful wife. Jordan has been my best friend for many many years, and we have had many discussions about pacifism and Israel and feminism and life. He has challenged me in ways that have been painful and powerful -- always needed and good.

Anyway. The point is that he just gave me a beautiful collection of poetry, selected (and sometimes translated) by Naomi Shihab Nye. The authors are all Middle Eastern (or North African) ranging from Turkey to Tunisia, and back again. It also includes some Israeli authors. There are beautiful illustrations accompanying the text, and information on all the poets in the back. The anthology is called The Space Between Our Footsteps: Poems and Paintings from the Middle East.

In her introduction, Nye writes that the Middle East is possibly the most negatively stereotyped place on earth. "I can't stop believing," she states, "that human beings everywhere hunger for deeper-than-headline news about one another. Poetry and art are some of the best ways this heartfelt 'news' may be exchanged." She goes on to recount her gradual exposure to the world of Arab poetry, and the vast heritage art and literature have in the Middle East. She concludes, "This is what I want a book of poems and paintings to be -- a surprising spring waking us from our daily sleep. A feast of little dishes. An unexpected walk along the rim of a majestic city. Ahlan Wa Sahlan -- You are all welcome!"

As she has mentioned elsewhere, if we read each other, we won't kill each other.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Poem for Palestine

Hm . . . I started work on this poem over five years ago. I think I am going to let it go now. It is odd — not exactly a poem, but not exactly anything else either. The punctuation seems haphazard, as do line breaks and grouping techniques. But then again, this is Palestine we're talking about — Eretz Israel. I think I shall leave it be . . .

For Palestine,
My home:

Seraphim weep as children die:
a tooth for tooth
an eye for eye
promised land? a piece of sand.
understand? don’t even try.

guns of death
stones of hate
a twist of fate

devils laugh
the children die
mothers cry out
why, why, why?

God is just
and God is good
God just loves
the ones he should

Jacob love
and Esau hate,
Ishmael—the Devil’s bait

hear them cry
watch them die—
or, content, just pass them by

blood-drenched sand
atoning hand

God, oh God,
why, why, why?

Judgment Day
time to pay
innocence washed away
holy land
a piece of sand—

leave the bodies,
let them stay

in the land for which they died
with their brothers, side by side

a fence of wire
to kill the hope
the worlds conspire
the youth do cope:

this one dies, and that one dreams,
this one prays, and that one screams.

are they Arab, are they Jew?
God can’t tell—
why can you?

the words of peace

but then the burning of release

and pain sears flesh like edge of fire—
God hears our hearts, and death desire.

hope runs dry
as children cry
“A tooth for tooth
An eye for eye!”

but blood drenched sand,
from God’s own hand,
will be the justice in the land

as shadows cross
and pierced lambs die

how long oh Lord, must Seraphim cry?

Peace Studies

I was recently awarded the Hazel Steinfeldt Peace Studies Scholarship at George Fox University. This is the essay I wrote for the application:

Peace and Justice
1 February 2008

Peace. It’s a simple word. Five letters, one syllable. And yet, it’s probably the most complex concept I’ve ever encountered. And one of the most controversial.

I’ve been a pacifist for as long as I can remember. Why, exactly, I’m not sure. None of my family members share this conviction, and I was not raised to be a Quaker. And yet, the aggressive pursuit of non-violent justice has always made sense to me—always seemed an intricate part of being a Christian, and following Christ. From the time I was a child I have not been able to read the Sermon on the Mount without believing that Christ was, and is, calling us to a different way of living—a different form of existence. Calling us to selfless sacrifice, and costly, uncalculating, love. And no matter how hard I’ve tried, I have never been able to reconcile these values with war, violence, or force. I believed, and still do, that Christ was giving us the right (and perhaps the imperative) to lay down our own lives for others, but never to take their lives from them.

In tenth grade I was faced with the challenge, and privilege, of grappling with the pursuit of peace and justice in the context of a very specific conflict: the Palestinian-Israeli issue. My parents are anthropologists, and my whole pre-college life was spent in the Arab world, from North Africa (Tunisia) to the Middle East (Egypt and Lebanon). Because of this, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has always loomed very close on the horizon, casting its shadow over much of life. However, it was not until the middle of high school that I truly encountered the issue head on. That year, my father, a professor at Bethel University, created a curriculum for me to study the conflict in depth. And I did, reading books from every perspective imaginable: Christian and non-Christian Zionists, liberal and conservative Jews, Muslim and Christian Palestinians, and Arab Israelis. I was thoroughly confused, thoroughly frustrated, and thoroughly ready to grant apathy my soul.

But then I met the children. I went to Lebanon to volunteer in a refugee camp for two weeks, and I found my passion. I looked into the face of Palestinian children—children who would not cry or laugh or dance or be children—and I saw Christ looking back. By the end of my time there my heart was utterly broken—torn for a people most of the world, and most of Christianity, seemed to have rejected. My family moved to Lebanon the next year, in part so I would have greater access to the camps, and I spent most of my time working with the Inma Center—an NGO created to help restore hope to a desperate people. I returned to my studies, but this time with purpose, seeking to understand the people behind the conflict, and through understanding to somehow restore justice to a broken land. I wrote papers about Christ’s love for Palestinians, and chose to attend George Fox University because of its Peace Studies minor, Quaker heritage, and heart for the oppressed—a heart that I passionately believed mirrored God’s.

And that is why I am here, studying writing and literature, and preparing to return to the Middle East to pursue reconciliation and peace. It is the calling I have felt on my life since I was fifteen-years-old—a calling I do not believe God has released me from. I have no expectations that it will be easy, and I know it will not be simple. But I do believe that love is powerful, and that sacrifice is God’s calling on the lives of believers. And so I go forward in faith, to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God. My life is Christ’s, may He do with it as He pleases.

for Easter


Send some rain, would You send some rain?
'Cause the earth is dry and needs to drink again
And the sun is high and we are sinking in the shade
Would You send a cloud, thunder long and loud?
Let the sky grow black and send some mercy down
Surely You can see that we are thirsty and afraid
But maybe not, not today
Maybe You'll provide in other ways
And if that's the case . . .

We'll give thanks to You
With gratitude
For lessons learned in how to thirst for You
How to bless the very sun that warms our face
If You never send us rain

Daily bread, give us daily bread
Bless our bodies, keep our children fed
Fill our cups, then fill them up again tonight
Wrap us up and warm us through
Tucked away beneath our sturdy roofs
Let us slumber safe from danger's view this time
Or maybe not, not today
Maybe You'll provide in other ways
And if that's the case . . .

We'll give thanks to You
With gratitude
A lesson learned to hunger after You
That a starry sky offers a better view if no roof is overhead
And if we never taste that bread

Oh, the differences that often are between
What we want and what we really need

So grant us peace, Jesus, grant us peace
Move our hearts to hear a single beat
Between alibis and enemies tonight
Or maybe not, not today
Peace might be another world away
And if that's the case . . .

We'll give thanks to You
With gratitude
For lessons learned in how to trust in You
That we are blessed beyond what we could ever dream
In abundance or in need
And if You never grant us peace

But Jesus, would You please . . .

-Nicole Nordeman

Friday, March 21, 2008

Refugees, Afghani and Otherwise

While I'm on the subject of children, and my experiences in the Bourj-el-Barajneh camp, I thought I might as well include this excerpt from a paper I wrote this February. The essay was for a class on the modern novel -- specifically, a response to Khaled Hossini's The Kite Runner (a book about Afghanistan that I would HIGHLY recommend). My paper's first several sections dealt with migraines and Tunisian friends, and were otherwise irrelevant to the present topic, so I've excluded them. The text in italics is from Hosseini's book.

Fragments of a Broken Life:
Intersections with Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner
The Talib, looking absurdly like a baseball pitcher on the mound, hurled the stone at the blindfolded man in the hole. It struck the side of his head. The woman screamed again. The crowd made a startled “OH!” sound. I closed my eyes and covered my face with my hands. The spectators’ “OH!” rhymed with each flinging of the stone, and that went on for a while. When they stopped, I asked Farid if it was over. He said no. I guessed the people’s throats had tired.

I’d never seen the children so happy. So engaged. For days they had sat at tables. Moved little. Smiled less. Now they were dancing. Twirling tiny fingers to the sound of an Arab drum. The darbooka.

I sat watching. Stunned by what I had seen. The remnants of the puppet show still stood behind them. The background bloody with tanks and dying Palestinian martyrs. Small pieces of crushed paper littered the floor. I could hear the man cheering. “Throw the rock! Throw the rock!”

It wasn’t violence. Not really. Asking children to throw paper at cloth puppets. No one had died. And they deserved a game. Had enjoyed it.
Why, then, did I feel so sick?

I felt a presence next to me and looked down. It was Sohrab. Hands dug deep in the pockets of his raincoat. He had followed me.

“Do you want to try?” I asked. He said nothing. But when I held the string out for him, his hand lifted from his pocket. Hesitated. Took the string. My heart quickened as I spun the spool to gather the loose string. We stood quietly side by side. Necks bent up.

It was just a little boy and a glue stick. Hardly what I expected my life’s climax to entail. I was there to make a difference. To change the world. Instead, I watched a child refuse to touch me. Talk to me. Smile. Day after day.

I always hoped they’d place me in a different room. Somewhere where I wouldn’t see his eyes. Dead. Flat. Empty. The eyes no three-year-old should ever look through.

But every day, I’d go to the Bourj-el-Barajneh camp, in Beirut, Lebanon, and have him waiting for me.

No. Not waiting. Sitting.

By the end of two weeks, I didn’t care anymore. Not about Palestine. Not about Israel. And certainly not about the living-dead that inhabited that preschool. There was no hope there. Not for them. And not for me, as long as I stayed with them.

So I decided to leave. To go home. To do the sensible thing, and preserve my sanity. To scour my memories until I saw no child’s eyes. Watching. Accusing.

My feet were skipping that last day. Counting the seconds in my head. To oblivion. To freedom. We were helping the children make a craft of some sort. Gluing something to something else. The boy was looking down at the table, dazed as usual. I barely noticed. Offered him a glue stick. Because I was supposed to. Preparing to do his craft myself.

I wasn’t even looking. My hand held out to him. Prepared for nothing.

I felt fingertips. Brushing my palm. Moving the unwieldy yellow block. Attempting to lift it.

I went back the next day. And the next.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Rant Against Apathy

I warn you, this is a rant. A rant driven by deep anguish, but a rant nonetheless. I wrote it during my senior year of high school, while applying to colleges. Westmont (in California) asked me to write an essay about something I was passionate about. This is what they got.

It may seem over-the-top. After three years in America, with distance and language between me and those children, I may agree. But at the time I wrote this, after six months of centering my life around that camp, these emotions were burned into my skin. It's hard to explain now, with essays due and finals looming, exactly what it was like then. When a harsh word against Palestinians, or a careless remark about the greatness of Israel, would send me into racking sobs. Have you ever looked at a child, and realized that they've experienced more pain than you can imagine? That they have no hope? I don't think heartbreak is ever more real than in that moment.

I wish I could revive this passion. Feel it as more than a memory. But America is deadly to real conviction. Of this I am convinced. What is it about this place that breeds apathy? Is it because we are so far removed? Because we are too comfortable? Too rich? We are so blind to misery -- and that, I think, is killing us. We take our own lives, not because we feel pain too strongly, but because we can't feel any anguish but our own. And that was never Christ's intent.

Karith A. Magnuson
Westmont College Application
Essay 2 (a)

Introductory note: I have grown up in the Arab world my entire life and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has always been a major issue of discussion. In tenth grade I studied the conflict intensively and read many books and arguments from both sides. I also did two short term service trips to the Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon to work in a preschool/kindergarten there. Last year (in eleventh grade) we moved to Lebanon (spring ’04) and I worked weekly in the same camp, a major part of which was still in the preschool. I know that there are two sides to this story, but this paper was not written for the purpose of arguing those sides. It is simply my response to what I have seen with my own eyes, and is meant to be nothing more, and nothing less.

* * *

Heavy drops of tears run down my cheeks. Life isn’t fair and don’t just say it’s true. I’ve seen the eyes filled with tears, I’ve kissed the faces that won’t smile. Don’t tell me God intended it to be this way. Don’t say that He just loves some people more, and others less. They’re beautiful, they’re perfect, the tiny hands, the tiny feet. God made us all and yet we get things with our birth that they can never have. Why do we learn to love when they must learn to hate? Why are we born with hope, when there isn’t any left for them? Must it always be this way? Must childhood be stolen along with heritage and dreams? My soul cries, “No!” My heart bleeds, “No!” And I long to scream, “Oh Lord! How long must it go on?”

Aren’t we all children of God? Weren’t we all created in His image, with the ability to think and reason, the capacity to love, and a soul to long for greater things? Why must one people always strive to destroy another? Why do they succeed? Why have we learned to look the other way? I was always raised to believe that there were certain things that every person had a right to, things like education, liberty, and hope. Why didn’t someone tell me that it was all a myth? Why didn’t anyone explain that the colors of one’s flag are seared into one’s skin, and that the faster one withers and dies the sooner one need not feel the pain?

Over forty thousand people live in one square kilometer, unable to work and denied education. They have no citizenship and yet the name of their nation has branded them forever inferior, dangerous, and hateful. They have no electricity or running water, or even streets on which to play the greatest sport in the world [1], and so they play marbles instead. A whole generation has grown up in this camp, with no hope, no identity, no voice, no future and no way out. Their children and grandchildren are now learning the lesson too—learning what it means to be associated with their history and their pain. By three years old many of them have forgotten how to smile, or maybe it’s simply that they never learned. And what about the rest? Those few children who refuse to give up, who still laugh and play and fight for their right to a childhood. What of them? What will become of them when they discover that the world will not have them, whatever their potential and their dreams? What will they say when they realize that they, just because they are different, have been denied what others are born with? How will they say it? What if it’s with rocks and hate, guns and bombs? I suppose then we will know that we were right.

In the gathering darkness I see the silhouette of a cross and the wood is drenched with blood, and every precious drop was shed for them. What would He say to us if He saw what we, the world, have done? What will He say to us? I don’t think He will say a thing. I think He will just weep, a silent drop for every moment of their pain. They are His children, whatever we have let ourselves believe. They don’t belong to us, or to hate, or to terrorism, or to despair, or even to Palestine. They are His alone, and I fear the cost for the pain they have suffered will be dreadful indeed.

[1] All Arabs everywhere play soccer, or real football, no matter how poor they are. If they don’t have a court they play on the street, if they don’t have a ball they make one with tape. Not being able to play football is a huge blow to Palestinian boys

Palestinian Refugee Children

Hm . . . I'm not sure when I wrote this piece. I think it was revised from the beginnings of a college application essay, written a few years ago. Anyway. A reflection on my time in the the Bourj el Barajneh refugee camp -- Beirut, Lebanon.

Red Tears

There are so many faces. Some are streaked with tears, others roar with laughter, all are smudged with dirt from the streets on which they live. Tiny faces for tiny people with tiny hands and tiny ears. Little people that Jesus died for, but have probably never heard his name. They’re beautiful: some dark, some lighter than myself—an attribute of crusader blood that still flows in their veins. Little people, dancing people, crying people. Three-year-olds, four-year-olds . . . some are even five. All are children.

* * *

One small girl dances to the music she loves, swaying her hips and turning her small fingers. Dark eyes shine with joy as she moves to the rhythm of Arab drums and Arab cymbals. A child watches from where she sits, her legs unwilling to mover her, her spirit unwilling to break. Solemnly she looks, and lives on her dreams. The boy in the center giggles and flirts, golden curls adorning his head. He’s witty and gay and smart as can be . . . not that it matters much. Two dark heads bend together, troublemakers both, bright eyes gleaming with mischief. And there he sits, the boy in the corner, who won’t move or laugh or speak, but only look with eyes that dimly remember their tears.

* * *

On the blue door of the building, large for all to see, the Dome of the Rock is present, like a symbol of hope that yearns for faith. It does little to keep out the cold, or even the rain, and the penetrating chill, which seeps between the bullet holes, reminds us all that we are still alive. And there on the wall of the dilapidated school, in a refugee camp in the center of Beirut, hangs a flag. The flag. The flag that keeps them here—separate, alone, and dangerous. The flag that has replaced their future, and is the only manifestation of their pride. Its stripes are black, white, and green—vibrantly declaring an allegiance to a nonexistent nation, but it is the red that draws my eyes. Red, that color that flows beneath humanity’s skin, and at crucial, penetrating moments, emerges to stain the world. It is the color that reaches across history to bind the ovens of Auschwitz to the bombs of Hebron, and entangles them both with the memory of a dying God hanging on a cross. It is the color of Palestine—land of death and restitution. Land of the dancing children.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

the slow, human, road to peace

One last one, and then I'll try to post something different.

One of the reasons I love Nye's work so much, I think, is that she captures that blending of the domestic and the public. The interconnectedness of life. The way that pain cannot be separate, and war will never touch only the "enemy." Everything spills over -- how we live our lives, stir our lentils, teach our children, becomes our path to peace or death. There are no lines, so don't bother with the chalk, or stones, or barbed wire fences. We -- all of us -- are the face of humanity. And the only possible future.

How Long Peace Takes

As long as a mirror opening its eye
to stretch a room lengthwise

As long as the slow crawl of loosening paint
and the bending of slim wax tapers

As long as blue thread spinning
a vine of birds up one seam down the other
and the bodice don't forget the bodice
doubly thick with wings and hidden treasure

As long as my Sitti twists her hanky
around two small gold coins
in the bed in the bed
and says she is not tired

As long as the bed
and all the people who slept in it

As long as the spitting of almonds
the stirring of lentils
the scent of marimea
and the Universal Laundry

As long as the question -- what if I
were you? -- has two heads

As long as the back of the skull is
vulnerable and the temple and the chest

As long as anyone feels exempt
or better and one pain is separate
from another and people are pressed flat
in any place

And longer

If every day the soldier slaps
another cousin's face

-Naomi Shihab Nye
(19 Varieties of Gazelle)


Once I get going with Nye, it's hard to stop . . . :)
This is just a portion. Snippets from her poem called "Arabic."
If you've never spoken a second language, you may not understand. How the world changes with the words you use. How "Insha'allah," breathed with every sentence, ushers in a world where nothing but God is certain. "Salaam alaikum." In a region of conflict and war, praying peace upon your neighbor's life is more than a nicety. It is a necessity born out of urgency and need.

The man with laughing eyes stopped smiling
to say, "Until you speak Arabic,
you will not understand the pain."

"Once you know," he whispered . . .
"Music you heard from a distance,

the slapped drum of a stranger's wedding,
wells up inside your skin, inside rain, a thousand
pulsing tongues. You are changed."

I thought pain had no tongue. Or every tongue
at once, supreme translator, sieve. I admit my
shame. To live on the brink of Arabic, tugging

its rich threads without understanding
how to weave the rug . . . I have no gift.
The sound, but not the sense.

-Naomi Shihab Nye ("Arabic," 19 Varieties of Gazelle)

A Letter to Terrorists

Ooh . . . so, I found Naomi Shihab Nye's letter "To Any Would-Be Terrorists." READ IT.

Here's a portion of her powerful conclusion:
We will all die soon enough. Why not take the short time we have on this delicate planet and figure out some really interesting things we might do together? I promise you, God would be happier.

I beg you, as your distant Arab cousin, as your American neighbor, listen to me. Our hearts are broken, as yours may also feel broken in some ways we can't understand, unless you tell us in words. Killing people won't tell us. We can't read that message. Find another way to live. Don't expect others to be like you. Read Rumi. Read Arabic poetry. Poetry humanizes us in a way that news, or even religion, has a harder time doing. A great Arab scholar, Dr. Salma Jayyusi, said, "If we read one another, we won't kill one another." Read American poetry. Plant mint. Find a friend who is so different from you, you can't believe how much you have in common. Love them. Let them love you. Surprise people in gentle ways, as friends do. The rest of us will try harder too. Make our family proud.
And here are some more of her comments on creativity vs. violence. They may not all make sense out of context, so like I said before, read the original!
We believe in the power of the word and we keep using it, even when it seems no one large enough is listening.

And it will be peace, not violence, that fixes things.

When people asked [my 106-year-old Palestinian grandmother] how she felt about the peace talks that were happening right before she died, she puffed up like a proud little bird and said, in Arabic, "I never lost my peace inside."

A Jewish professor tracked me down a few years ago in Jerusalem to tell me [that my grandmother] changed his life after he went to her village to do an oral history project on Arabs. "Don't think she only mattered to you!" he said. "She gave me a whole different reality to imagine."

We would like to stop the terrifying wheel of violence, just stop it, right on the road, and find something more creative to do to fix these huge problems we have. Violence is not creative, it is stupid and scary and many of us hate all those terrible movies and TV shows made in our own country that try to pretend otherwise.

Iraqi Civilian Deaths

Along the lines of language, and the power of words on peace and war, here are just a few lines from one of Naomi Shihab Nye's poems:

But I cannot pretend
a scrap of investment in the language
that allows human beings to kill one another
systematically, abstractly, distantly.
The language wrapped around 37,000,
or whatever the number today,
dead and beautiful bodies thrown into holes
without any tiny, reasonable goodbye.
-Naomi Shihab Nye
("Why I Could Not Accept Your Invitation," You and Yours).

The actual body-count now, for documented Iraqi civilian deaths from violence, is between 82,249 and 89,760. As of 16 February 2008.

Five Years In: Iraqi Words

In honor of Saint Patrick's Day, a long war, and the nameless, faceless, dead:


Relative to our plans for your country,
we will blast your tree, crush your cart,
stun your grocery.
Amen sisters and brothers,
give us your sesame legs,
your satchels, your skies.
Freedom will feel good
to you too. Please acknowledge
our higher purpose. Now, we did not see
your bed of parsley. On St. Patrick's Day
2003, President Bush wore a blue tie. Blinking hard
he said, "reckless aggression."
He said, "the danger is clear."
Your patio was not visible in his frame.
Your comforter stuffed with wool
from a sheep you knew. He said, "We are
against the lawless men who
rule your country, not you." Tell that
to the mother, the sister, the bride,
the proud boy, the peanut-seller,
the librarian careful with her shelves.
The teacher, the spinner, the sweeper,
the invisible village, the thousands of people
with laundry and bread, the ants tunneling
through the dirt.

-Naomi Shihab Nye (You and Yours)

The only command: Jesus, Christians, and Mercy

"If you look at the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religions, their first commandments are the same: 'Thou shalt not kill.' It's not taken seriously." -19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (I'm not sure where the quote is originally from)

Interesting, isn't it? Except, our first commandment isn't to not kill -- it's to love. To love God, and to love people.

I Feel Sorry for Jesus

People won't leave Him alone.
I know He said, wherever two or more
are gathered in my name . . .
but I'll bet some days He regrets it.

Cozily they tell you what He wants
and doesn't want
as if they just got an e-mail.
Remember "Telephone," that pass-it-on game

where the message changed dramatically
by the time it rounded the circle?
People blame terrible pieties on Jesus.

They want to be his special pet.
Jesus deserves better.
I think He's been exhausted
for a very long time.

He went into the desert, friends.
He didn't go into the pomp.
He didn't go into
the golden chandeliers

and say, the truth tastes better here.
See? I'm talking like I know.
It's dangerous talking for Jesus.
You get carried away almost immediately.

I stood in the spot where He was born.
I closed my eyes where He died and didn't die.
Every twist of the Via Dolorosa
was written on my skin.

And that makes me feel like being silent
for Him, you know? A secret pouch
of listening. You won't hear me
mention this again.

-Naomi Shihab Nye
(from You and Yours)

"If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent." -Jesus (Matthew 12:7)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Language, the Weapon of War

Here's a link to one of Kohleun's poems, A History of Domestic Violence. Again, I think it says a lot about where conflict comes from -- what fuels it. And what needs to change if we're ever to get anywhere on this long road to peace. The way we talk and think. Only then will it matter how we act. Only then can anything change.
The poem uses explicit language (the reason I'm not posting it here), but then, as I once told Megan, real life has content. So just be warned.

Megan's Writing

If you've enjoyed the reflections, poems, and fiction written by Megan Buff that I've posted, I'd encourage you to check out her new blogsite (Reflections of an Odd Duck).
If you don't know what I'm talking about, check out this selection of her work:
The Other One
Standard of Measure
My Jesus Wears a Hejab
The Beauty of Religion

Fiction and Fact

This is a short piece of fiction based on a suicide bombing that took place in Israel on the 3rd of February.

Here's a short blurb on the event from the

The Middle East peace process suffered a setback today when a Palestinian suicide bomber killed an Israeli woman in the first such attack in more than a year in Israel.

The attacker blew himself up in Dimona, the site of Israel’s nuclear research reactor in the Negev desert, killing a woman and injuring 10 others.

An accomplice was shot by a police officer before he was able to detonate his explosives.
The Other One
by Megan Buff

I walked the market with my mother. Every morning we took to the streets, her chatter shrill above vendors’ calls and the bustle of friends. Vegetables, fruit, bread for the day while she gabbed on about my father, my latest boyfriend, the government’s incompetence. Can you believe the row they had at the checkpoint last week? What a pack of fools!

The explosion knocked us down. We tumbled over a fruit-stand and onto the startled vendor. Figs and shrapnel rained down on us. My mother screamed and covered her head.

I untangled myself from the wreckage first. An injured man lay nearby, blood pouring from his leg and side. A shopkeeper reached him a moment before I did and ripped open the man’s shirt to stop his bleeding. He exposed an explosives belt around the man’s waist.

The man looked up at us defiantly, frightened. He held my gaze a moment. I saw him. A tear ran down his cheek. A tear of what? Pain? Failure? Fear? Abandonment?

The shopkeeper backed away, calling for police. I saw the man’s eyes lose focus. His hand twitched and for a moment I feared we would be blown apart. Together. His lips moved in a prayer I could not hear, a language I did not understand.

The man’s eyes met mine again. Even that bit of focus seemed to hurt him. He smiled a cynic’s smile, a smirk of desperation – how crazy is this world.

Two soldiers rushed up, guns bared, pushing me away. I heard the crack of bone as one stomped on the man’s wrist. The barrels of their guns brandished inches from his face. His expression turned from failure to fear. How could he have seen anything but impending death? Even I, standing back, did not see the soldiers’ faces. He shouted but was drowned out halfway through his first word.

Four clean shots rang through the marketplace. Four shots fired into his face. His blood spattered my clothing. His face distorted with the explosions of bullets.

I could no longer see his eyes.

Monday, March 17, 2008


sorry about the odd sizing for the last post. my formatting tools started freaking out, and the more I tried to fix it, the worse it became.

you shall love your neighbor as yourself

Another borrowed work. I like this for the way it combines macro-peacemaking with micro-peacemaking. Our lives [I'm making assumptions, of course] in America, with the death toll in the Middle East. Humanity, bound together.

Standard of Measure
by Megan Buff

Jesus said, “By your standard of measure it will be measured to you; and more will be given you besides. For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.” Mark 4:24-25

She is angry with me.

We no longer talk. Only static pervades the once-open channel between us.

I blamed her. How could this be my fault when I nearly pulled out all my hair – nearly collapsed on the floor of our apartment with hyperventilation – nearly forgot about her – trying to make it all work out? She did not work as hard, she must be the cause. What did she do for me?

She blames me, I am sure. She has not said so, but I know her well enough. We are each equally convinced this whole fiasco is the other’s fault.

I refuse to do her dishes until she apologizes. She can clean up after her own damn self – I’ve had enough of taking care of her. Perhaps I won’t even do mine. The dishes in the sink pile as high as our unspoken words.

She has virtually locked herself in our room. Her things have gone everywhere. Her books overtook the floor, a barricade against vacuuming. Her clothing invaded my bed. Every night I must oust them to sleep; every day they return, just as neatly folded. I refuse to ask what has occupied my desk.

This morning it was covered in a poster. Rosie the Riveter, defiant grey eyes staring out at me from behind her bulging arms. I gave my roommate that poster for her birthday last year. There was no note, no explanation. It seemed to have magically removed itself from her wall and arrived on my desk. I put it back. When I got back from breakfast, it had found its way to my desk again. I rolled it up and put it away before heading off to morning prayer service.

In the car, the radio squawks of the latest bombing in Israel. Israeli forces shot missiles at a Palestinian minivan. In retaliation, the Palestinians sent rockets into Israel. Six people died. I do not understand how this is the best strategy. Peace cannot be produced by retaliation, by strategic elimination of the other side. Peace can only be produced by conversation, co-operation, compromise.

I enter my apartment again. My roommate has taken her books from my shelf and moved them to her desk. If that’s the way she wants to be, well then, two can play at that game. I dig through her closet and retrieve my two shirts she borrowed last month. I don’t like them myself, but I sure won’t let her have them anymore.

The television jabbers on about a car bomb in Baghdad. Compromise, I think. That’s what we need. Some understanding in this world.

My roommate comes in the door behind me. I skulk out of the room. She doesn’t deserve conversation. That’s different. She hurt me.

a last thought on perfection

And one last thought, before I call it quits for the evening. I went to see Penelope last night, with a few roommates. It was light and fun—a fairytale story about a daughter born cursed, and bearing a pig's snout. Her family (most notably her mother) spend their lives trying to protect her, and living for the day when the spell will be broken (supposedly on the event of her marriage to a "blue-blood"). Penelope, on the other hand, goes on a journey of self-discovery and acceptance. Acceptance of herself for who she is, nose and all (she is continually reminding her mother "but it is my nose").

The disturbing thing about all of this, is that even as the movie is attempting to spread the message that beauty is not about society's standards, it ultimately buys into the system and presents us with a perfect Penelope. Because perfect is the only way to be beautiful, no matter what we may want to believe.

Grrrr . . . .

I'm not sure how well I'm saying this, or how much sense I'm making.

In The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver (a book I'd definitely recommend for its fascinating look at/critique of culture, missions, gender, and Africa), Adah, a one-time cripple who's been healed by modern medicine, puts it this way:
"If you are whole, you will argue: Why wouldn't they rejoice? Don't the poor miserable buggers all want to be like me?

Not necessarily, no. The arrogance of the able-bodied is staggering. Yes, maybe we'd like to be able to get places quickly, and carry things in both hands, but only because we have to keep up with the rest of you, or [bear the consequences]. We would rather be just like us, and have that be all right.

How can I explain that my two unmatched halves used to add up to more than one whole? In Congo I was one-half benduka the crooked walker, and one-half benduka [two dots on the "e"], the sleek bird that dipped in and out of the banks with a crazy ungrace that took your breath. We both had our good points. Here there is no good name for my gift, so it died without a proper ceremony" (p. 493).
Does anyone understand what I'm driving at?

Hejab Pt. 2: Another Thought on Hair

Here is a somewhat-companion to Megan's piece. This one I did write—last semester, for a class on writing for publication. Why do I put it here, amidst reflections on peace, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and writing? Because, as I've mentioned before, there are many kinds of peace, and many kinds of conflict. Christ came to set us free from it all. "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free" (Galatians 5:1). And I think, through this, I was trying to touch on the issue of pain . . . devastation . . . war . . . and the way our society hides from those things. From the reality of sweat and blood, behind the facade of perfection. I believe in beauty, but it is a very different type of beauty than the ideal my culture is trying to force down my throat. It is a beauty that comes through the ashes—the marks of living—rather than by denying them.

Bare—An Ode to Beauty Bald

I want to shave my head. It’s one of those crazy ideas that terrify my parents. They interpret it, I think, as a sign of my slowly dissolving faculties. The warping of my brain by too much study and feminist theology. After all, why would anyone want to destroy all sign of womanly beauty? The golden ringlets that grew into longer curls. Shear them off in humiliation and shame.

I try to explain. How a boy I liked, once told me that he liked my hair. Liked it down. Said it made me beautiful, those strands of tarnished gold. Strands that are not me.

And I rebel. I will not be my hair. I will reclaim my womanhood from a Bible that proclaims me, and my head, to be man’s glory.

I want to be known for the mind that lies beneath the hair. For the part of me that thinks and yearns and ponders. For the passion and the life, under the meaningless wisps that grow and die, without my consent or say-so. That require nothing of me. Reflect nothing on me.

I want to shave my head in honor of those who never had the choice. In solidarity with the broken. The women at Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Those who survived, and those who didn’t. To honor a humanity that was not taken, cannot be taken, with our hair.

To celebrate survival. From cancer. Leukemia. Radiation and chemo. The women who wear headscarves, and wigs. Afraid to show the scars of battle. The sign of loss, and life. Proof that they’re still here.

I want to join the ranks of men like Yule Brynner and Michael Jordan. Of human beauty unadorned. Skin, and sweat, and age. Unafraid to expose the blue veins that pump life, blood and oxygen, through membrane and golden tissue. The sandpaper texture. The shape of their skulls.

I want to demonstrate a different kind of beauty. Sleek and sexy elegance that denies hairspray and color dyes, styling products and curling irons. Proclaim freedom from magazine images and picturesque perfection. From Barbie dolls and Disney princesses, long silken tendrils, hair to their knees. Coiffured and flowing expectations. Stop hiding beneath the mask of color.

I want to wear henna on my head. Make patterns of tribal beauty. Declare myself at home with earth and sky.

I want to stop running from the feel of my own skin. I want to be myself, free of pins and clips and rubber-bands. And I want to love it.

I want to inhale wind and rain through the pores on my skull. To taste life and pain. To deny the acceptability of pretence, to destroy the masquerade, the papier-mâchéd perfection. To mourn injustice with the women of Beowulf—heads bare, weeping to high heaven. Sackcloth and ashes, and shorn hair.

And most of all, I want to be a nun. Set apart for unreserved worship. To return to child-like innocence, and feel nothing between my head and God, but air and sunlight. To be uncovered before my maker, not in shame, but in the humility of a newborn, and beloved, child. To remember my humanity in the presence of a genderless God. A God who created my soul before she created my hair.

I want to feel my prayers rise out of the top of my skull. Float along air currents. Be breathed in by the Almighty (hairless) God.

the POWER of the written word

What is the point of writing in the midst of conflict? Why do I, who care about peace, bother with a degree in writing and literature? It's a question that rages with validity, and will take a lifetime to answer.
Naomi Shihab Nye, in an interview conducted by Robert Hirschfield ("Naomi Shihab Nye: Portrait of a Palestinian American Poet" for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2006), said this about the importance of what she, and other writers, do:

[Nye] writes about the Southwest, a lost parrot, an old love, Mother Teresa and other subjects, as well as about Palestine and the Palestinians. She sees her words as her contribution to Palestinian resistance.
“Many people would say that words do nothing, she noted. “Others, like myself, believe that language, whether it be poetry, like [Mahmoud] Darwish’s poetry, or song, can fortify and rejuvenate the spirit.
What poetry can do, Nye believes, is to transport people “across the gap,” beyond tribal borders. Israeli poets Yehuda Amichai and Dahlia Ravikovitch are long-time residents in her pantheon of poets who matter. “Presence and truth” were the checkpoints they had to pass through to get there.
The article continues:
In her open letter “To Any Would-Be Terrorists,” written after 9/11, Nye begins by saying how very much she hates using the word “terrorists.”
“Do you know how hard some of us have worked to get rid of that word, to deny its instant connection to the Middle East?” she writes. “And now look. Look what extra work we have. Not only did your colleagues kill thousands of innocent, international people in those buildings and scar their families forever, they wounded a huge community of people in the Middle East, in the United States and all over the world. If that’s what they wanted to do, please know their mission was a terrible success, and you can stop now.”
A scolding mother, she mentions her own American mother, who has worked so hard in her life to undo people’s poisonous stereotypes about Arabs.
In tones of an exhausted friend, Nye ends her letter by saying, “We will all die soon enough. Why not take the short time we have on this delicate planet and figure out some really interesting things we might do together? I promise you, God would be happier.”
She suggests they read Rumi, even American poetry, and quotes the Arab-American writer Dr. Salma Jayyusi: “If we read one another, we won’t kill one another.”
Nye detects an edge of rage in some of her own post-9/11 poetry. It doesn’t please her. She likens poetry to a lever that keeps trying to flip up a lid so one may discover what lies beneath it. Rage, she knows, kills wonder.
Rage kills wonder. May we, who aspire to art, always remember that.

Jesus and the hejab . . . ?

Hmm . . . it's been a while since I've posted.
Here's something a little different. It was written by a good friend. See what you think, but more importantly, ask yourself why. Whether this resonates with you, or you find yourself hating it, confused by it, offended . . . I don't really care. I just care that you think.

My Jesus Wears a Hejab
by Megan Buff

I am not a Muslim. I am a Christian, though I do sometimes distance myself from mainline and evangelical Christianity. Occasionally, I wear a hejab. This symbol of Muslim femininity sets me apart from the women who run about in immodest clothing, who worry incessantly about what others think about their appearance, who spend twenty minutes in front of the mirror in the mornings. It is a symbol of modesty, in part – but more so, it is a reminder to both myself and others that my appearance is not what defines me.

Hair is crucial to our society. A person’s haircut says much about them. Buzz cuts for the military men, dreadlocks for the anarchist hippie rebels, long flowing hair for the women (unless you’re a butch lesbian, in which case you must cut your hair very short). This is how we are supposed to look. Hairstyles can make or break a “look.” I cover my hair; my hair does not matter to who I am.

When I first wrapped the hejab around my head, I felt an unexpected change. I felt like a real person. Cares, worries, the awkwardness of life slid off my shoulders, ousted by the folds of fabric. I felt peaceful, as I rarely ever do. I saw the beauty of the world when the hejab slipped into my peripheral vision. Somehow, without realizing it, my body acknowledged that covering my hair meant one less un-necessary stressor in my life. It no longer mattered what others thought of me. I could be myself – and when I allowed myself to be myself, I allowed myself to be a person again.

. . .

A large painting of Jesus sits in the prayer chapel. He is pale white, his long black hair matted into his face, his beard covering his chin and some of his neck. Red and blue streaks mark his face – Blood? Tears? He is suffering yet noble. His eyes may bleed, but his face holds loving dignity. He looks off to the side, his face in profile to the viewer, as though looking elsewhere. He wants to show off the blood and tears, the scars of the trials on his face, but he does not want to see. He does not want to accept, to acknowledge, to understand.

This is not my Jesus. My Jesus is loving. My Jesus is kind. My Jesus wears a hejab.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

West Bank Story on iTunes

It appears you can also download West Bank Story from the iTunes store for $1.99.