Monday, June 06, 2005

Books to Know: 19 Varieties of Gazelle

My friend Marv Hoffman, a master teacher, writes in a recent book review:

If you turn to the news section of this paper on any given day, you’re likely to find a disproportionate number of column inches devoted to stories about the Middle East and reports about immigration – legal and illegal – from many parts of the world. Neither occupies a large place in the curriculum of most schools, so it is important to see how publishers of books for young readers are addressing these issues and compensating for their low visibility in our textbooks and syllabi.

Naomi Shihab Nye, one of our most prolific and engaged writers and gatherers of poetry and prose for readers of all ages, is a Palestinian-American. Out of that heritage she has been able to bring us a perspective on the Arab world that is both anguished and artful. In 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (Greenwillow Books, HarperCollins, $6.99, 160pp.), she has gathered new and previously published poems which evoke both the sensual and familial joy and sadness which coexist in one of the world’s most troubled regions.

The book opens with a poem which is an account of a bus trip through Oklahoma on that fateful September 11th. She is seated beside a man released from prison that day who may be the only person in the country unaware of the tragedy which will sear that date in all our minds forever. It is a fitting beginning for the book because 9/11 provided most Americans with an excuse to demonize a culture about which they already harbored deep misunderstandings. It establishes the author’s
mission which she imagines her long dead 106 year old grandmother to be
channeling to her:”Say this is not who we are.”

Although war and loss always lurk in the background, downstage Ms. Nye’s world is a cornucopia of figs, almonds, olives, lentils, eggplants. It is inhabited by loving, large
families which include Uncle Mohammed, who has chosen the life of a hermit,
perhaps to flee the relentless and seemingly intractable horrors of every day Palestinian life. “Laughter lived here/jingling its pocket of thin coins/and now it is hiding.” There is anger and deep sadness in these poems, but it never turns to the kind of bitterness that would diminish the author’s own humanity. Her message is delivered in the voice of a poet, not a propagandist, with an elegance of language and metaphor that is aesthetically uncompromising.

In her final take on the contested landscape of her ancestors, she asks the ultimate question: “Are people the only holy land?”

I taught 19 Varieties of Gazelle about a year ago, to a rag-tag bunch of non-majors from across my college--commerce kids, computer science kids, kids from the liberal arts--and had a curiously mixed response to the book. On the one hand, it reminded me of so many works of African American poetry from, say, Dunbar to Hughes, in its effort to give (in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s phrase) "a new face to the race." Nye wants to intervene in what Hoffman calls the "demonizing" of Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, and she puts that "elegance of language and metaphor" in service of this politics of sentiment--which may mean, on occasion, of a pretty sentimental politics. Is this a bad thing?

Nye wants to hook a new set of associations to the ethnic terms in her readers' minds, so that when someone says "Arab" or "Palestinian," we think of the hospitality of her relatives, the sweet indulgence of her father (a man "tender as butter," in Alicia Ostriker's memorable phrase), the suffering of her friends, relatives, and comrades-in-humanity in Palestine and elsewhere. That's a worthy and familiar project, and a necessary one, especially in some circles I know of, but I can't help but wonder whether some of our students--and not just those with family serving in Iraq or those who lost relatives in 9/11--won't feel somewhat manipulated by the book as a whole. My own students eagerly associated themselves with Nye at first, but by the end of the quarter, many began to wonder whether she wasn't playing to their unreflective sense that some set of ethnic Others are always more hospitable, more authentic, more in touch with the earth, than they are. Would younger students, or a class full of students of color, feel this way? I'm not really sure, and would love to know. Any thoughts from any of you?

There's no shortage of web-based materials to help you teach Nye, including poems and lesson plans, notably here. To close, why not a poem to send you off in search of them? This one was a favorite of my scattering of Muslim students, only one of whom was Arab American:

Different Ways to Pray

There was the method of kneeling,
a fine method, if you lived in a country
where stones were smooth.
The women dreamed wistfully of bleached courtyards,
hidden corners where knee fit rock.
Their prayers were weathered rib bones,
small calcium words uttered in sequence,
as if this shedding of syllables could somehow
fuse them to the sky.

There were the men who had been shepherds so long
they walked like sheep.
Under the olive trees, they raised their arms—
Hear us! We have pain on earth!
We have so much pain there is no place to store it!
But the olives bobbed peacefully
in fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.
At night the men ate heartily, flat bread and white cheese,
and were happy in spite of the pain, because there was also happiness.

Some prized the pilgrimage,
wrapping themselves in new white linen
to ride buses across miles of vacant sand.
When they arrived at Mecca
they would circle the holy places,
on foot, many times, they would bend to kiss the earth
and return, their lean faces housing mystery.

While for certain cousins and grandmothers
the pilgrimage occurred daily,
lugging water from the spring
or balancing the baskets of grapes.

These were the ones present at births,
humming quietly to perspiring mothers.
The ones stitching intricate needlework into
children’s dresses,
forgetting how easily children soil clothes.

There were those who didn’t care about praying.
The young ones. The ones who had been to America.
They told the old ones, you are wasting your time.
Time?—The old ones prayed for the young ones.
They prayed for Allah to mend their brains,
for the twig, the round moon,
to speak suddenly in a commanding tone.

And occasionally there would be one
who did none of this,
the old man Fowzi, for example, Fowzi the fool,
who beat everyone at dominoes,
insisted he spoke with God as he spoke with goats,
and was famous for his laugh.

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