BOOKS by NAOMI SHIHAB NYE and MOHJA KAHFCATHERINE WAGNER Reviews
19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East by Naomi Shihab Nye
(Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), New York, 2002)
Emails from Scheherazad by Mohja Kahf
(University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2003)
[First published in MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Winter 2006 (31.4) Special Issue: Arab American Literature, guest-edited by Salah D. Hassan and Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman ]
The Empathetic and the Impudent: Two Approaches to Activist Poetry
Two new books by Arab-American poets offer surprisingly different methods of pursuing similar political agendas. 19 Varieties of Gazelle collects famous Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s elegiac poems about the Middle East for young adult readers (though the book is just as appropriate for adults). Emails from Scheherazad, a first book of poems from Syrian-American poet and scholar Mohja Kahf, is probably too racy for kids: it’s a bold, sexy book that attacks common (and restrictive) wisdom about gender and cultural identity. Both books are political acts that set out to represent and celebrate and build political capital for a particular group. For Nye, that culture is mostly Palestinian, while Kahf focuses on Middle Eastern women living in America.
Nye’s poems amass everyday emotional details of Palestinian lives so that her readers can identify with them, see their humanity and, Nye hopes, recognize their plight. She sees poetry as a powerful tool for peace. One knows what to expect from a Nye poem—a graceful, empathic rendering of characters in pain:
Even on a sorrowing day
the little white cups without handles
filled with steaming hot tea
in a circle on a tray
and whatever we were able
to say or not say,
the tray would be passed,
we would sip
it was another way
lips could be speaking together . . . (105)
This poem, like most of Nye’s, emphasizes the characters’ everyday, ordinary dignity in order to remind us of our shared humanity.
Kahf’s poems celebrate humanity, too, but they aren’t often in pursuit of dignity. They’re deadpan or passionate by turns; they present a cast of characters from goddesses to babysitters to painted odalisques, and they’re formally quite varied. Though the bulk of Kahf’s poems are casually conversational, her frequent use of anaphora (along with certain images and literary references) invoke traditional Middle Eastern poetries. Kahf’s poems, like Nye’s, describe the details of Arab-American and Middle-Eastern lives, and often to similar effect, sparking understanding and compassion in the reader. Kahf’s characters feel edgier than Nye’s, though. They’re emphatically doing their own thing. They don’t need your empathy, and they expect your respect; they’re presented as a welcome threat to conventional American cultural assumptions. Many of Kahf’s poems are enjoyably hyperbolic: ancient Middle Eastern goddesses such as Ishtar romp through American cities, raising havoc and hackles as they exercise their confidently sexual, provocatively destructive and creative feminine powers. Such poems suggest Kahf’s hopes for an expansion of the possibilities available to women, Middle Eastern and otherwise, in America today.
I’m not suggesting that these poets are actually at contraries. Kahf, the younger poet, probably admires Nye enormously. Still, the differences in their work are significant. Nye, who lived in Jerusalem as a teenager, avoids aggressive language entirely, while Kahf’s poetry riskily uses violence as a figure for a powerful force in American society that we ignore at our peril—energetic and daring Middle Eastern women. Kahf’s stance is complicated. Her poems evidence a strong affection for the American everyday, its mishmash of stores and driving and peoples—that’s simultaneous with a fervent disdain for American cultural and political ignorance and ethnocentrism. Kahf writes a sex column for a progressive Muslim web site called www.MuslimWakeUp.com, and she sometimes wears the hijab. I told a friend about Kahf’s progressive attitude, adding that the picture of Kahf at the end of Emails from Scheherazad shows the author wearing a headscarf. My friend said, “Don’t Muslim progressives want to get rid of that kind of restrictive headgear?” Kahf vigorously combats such assumptions: she’s a feminist, she writes sexy and aggressive poems, and she’s a Koran scholar who wears a headscarf. If you thought you knew what a feminist was or what a Muslim was, Kahf insists that you think again.
The anger Kahf’s poems express is much more aggressive than the poignant hopefulness in Nye’s work. Nye’s poems frequently try to comfort, to provide by the end of the poem some enlarging image to connect suffering to a larger stability. In her poems as in her eloquent letter “To Any Would-Be Terrorists” (www.arches.uga.edu/~godlas/shihabnye.html), Nye maintains that anger is not the answer; she uses personal details to explain that we are all people, that we must recognize that and stop hurting one another. Nye hopes and trusts that knowledge will bring empathy. Kahf offers us similarly evocative details about Arab-American lives, but her poems often simply allow the details to inhabit our minds. “Just another driver on the demographic edge of New Jersey,” ends one poem (33). The poems don’t often call upon the closing strategy Nye’s poems employ: locating some tiny comfort or universality in the difficult situations she describes. In Nye’s description of luncheon in a park in a town shredded by war, the characters are still able, gracefully, to make a toast to “you”:
. . . who believe true love can find you
amidst this atlas of tears . . .
[P]eople moved here, believing
and someone with sky and birds in his heart
said this would be a good place for a park. (37)
Though the poem certainly doesn’t suggest that the problems of war can be erased by a brief and generous meeting over lunch in a park, Nye concentrates on the positive: let’s celebrate the moments we can, and our celebration may do some work toward bringing us together.
Whereas Nye’s work focuses on the peaceable wisdom her characters have in common, Kahf trusts that we’ll be attracted to the assertive, jokey energy of her characters, and perhaps hopes that we’ll be galvanized into taking a stand against sexism and bigotry by their raucous calls to action and rowdy threats. One of Kahf’s most daring poems, “Copulation in English,” describes an aggressive sexual encounter: the Arabic language seduces the English language, making English “hoarse with the passion we will have taught English to have” (72). The poem ends:
after this night of intense copulation,
we may slaughter English in its bed and redeem our honor,
even while pregnant with English’s bastard. (72)
A hyperbolic image, to be sure, but the poem serves both as desire and warning. Kahf is claiming that Arab-Americans are part of America—more so every day—and other Americans had better learn to enjoy the ride or get out of the way. I’ll quote one poem in full, one in a series of poems about bigotries Muslim women encounter while wearing headscarves:
Hijab Scene #7
No, I’m not bald under that scarf
No, I’m not from that country
where women can’t drive cars
No, I would not like to defect
I’m already American
But thank you for offering
What else do you need to know
relevant to my buying insurance,
opening a bank account,
reserving a seat on a flight?
Yes, I speak English
Yes, I carry explosives
They’re called words
And if you don’t get up
Off your assumptions
They’re going to blow you away (39)
The poem, written before 9-11, is prescient: as our government continues to make decisions that alienate Arabs around the world, our assumptions become more dangerous. Kahf’s language is confrontational in a way Nye’s is not: it calls for audaciousness on the part of progressive Arab-Americans, for a move away from conciliation and toward bold self-definition. Kahf’s poems take action from a new and evolving perspective—threatening, cajoling—and where oppression is perceived, Kahf unapologetically counters with aggression. The aggression, of course, is not literally violent; it’s embedded in language. The aggressive quality of Kahf’s work comes from its sometimes-shocking assertions, its feisty attitude and sexy sense of fun, and its occasionally violent terminology. Kahf isn’t literally calling for violent action (though “Hijab Scene #7” hints that oppression breeds violence). Her poems call for community—for acceptance of different kinds of dress and behavior, loving acceptance even of the Arab machismo she occasionally complains of; however, when a loving attitude doesn’t seem an appropriate response, Kahf freely expresses anger.
For Nye, it seems, a loving attitude is always an appropriate response. Her effort is always to locate common ground. Though she’s not as contrarian as Kahf’s speakers, Nye can be critical, too. In the following poem, she wonders what can be in Israeli soldiers’ minds when they abuse Palestinians:
On the steps of the National Palace Hotel
soldiers peel oranges
throwing back their heads so the juice
runs down their throats
This must be their coffee break
guns slung sideways
They are laughing
They know what sweetness lives within
How can they know this and forget
so many other things? (32–33)
Though Nye is reproaching the soldiers, her approach remains empathetic. She wants to understand them emotionally, and though she fails, her honest attempt to feel what they feel makes her criticism of them feel even sharper. In the preface to 19 Varieties of Gazelle, Nye says she believes that her beloved dead “wise grandmother” wants her to speak for those the soldiers abuse: “‘Speak for me too. Say how much I hate it. Say this is not who we are,’” the grandmother says (xviii). Nye hopes to persuade Americans and Arabs alike that the Arab tradition isn’t about fundamentalism or terrorism—that Middle Easterners are good people. Honoring them is part of her role as a culture worker, an effort to move us toward mutual understanding, toward peace.
Kahf isn’t interested in persuading anyone of the goodness of Arabs, though she does give us a sense of Arab and Arab-American culture’s diversity and verve. Her Arabs are everybody: flawed or brilliant, hip or angry, sexist or beautiful. Arab-Americans, she seems to think, though they’re as imperfect as anyone else, have perhaps even more to offer and say than most; anyway, they’re here, and we’d better pay attention. Reading Kahf, I find myself relishing the raffishness of everyday culture. When I read Nye’s images of exquisitely patient Palestinians, on the other hand, I worry that she risks depicting an unlikely Palestine that would be entirely perfect and loving if only the horrible wars would go away. Criticisms of Arab society are almost absent in Nye; Kahf, on the other hand, rails against what she sees as Arab men’s sexism—while simultaneously confessing respect for and sexual attraction to the same men. The complexity of her relationship to Arab and Arab-American culture is best represented in the poem “My Body Is Not Your Battleground,” which insists that women’s bodies remain independent from those who would use them for political purposes:
My breasts do not want to lead revolutions . . . release them
so I can offer them to my sweet love
without your flags and banners on them . . .
My hair will not bring progress or clean water
if it flies unbraided in the breeze
It will not save us from our attackers
if it is wrapped and shielded from the sun . . .
My body is not your battleground . . .
Is it your skin that will tear when the head of the new world emerges? (59)
Kahf isn’t inclined to speak politically for others; she does write poems in others’ voices, but the poems represent multitudinous difference, not just of background but of attitude. The people in Nye’s poems say a great variety of things, too, but their words all point in the same direction. They represent patience and intelligent optimism and grace amidst huge destruction and pain. Nye claims the value of the small and daily and human—always, for her, associated with wisdom—in the face of large, inhuman political stupidities that kill:
I support all people on earth
who have bodies like and unlike my body,
skins and moles and old scars,
secret and public hair,
I support those who have done nothing large,
sifter of lentils, sifter of wisdoms,
speak. If we have killed no one
in the name of anything bad or good,
may light feed our leafiest veins. (56)
The small and daily is always separate from killing, and the way the two keep getting mixed up in one another is a source of mystery for Nye. After a description of a marvelous feast and party, one poem adds:
Where does fighting
come into this story?
Fighting got lost from somewhere else.
It is not what we like: to eat, to drink, to fight. (60)
Those who eat and drink and work are not those who make war: those who make war are other, are evil and not to be understood. Such a view does make sense in view of the Palestinian situation, one of the saddest stories of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but it is oddly simple, as if those who eat and work and drink are never prone to violence themselves, not part of any cycle of violence. Central to Nye’s vision of the Middle East is a sense that it is always “they”—that is, others—who are violent. “Who made [the bombs]?” she asks. “Do you know anyone who makes them?” (61). When people pick up guns, it is “because guns were given” (134). Violence is imposed on unwilling victims. Nye’s poems do not represent those victims who turn violent; she restricts herself to representing the wise multitude who abstain from violence. Her poems thus depict a bifurcated world of evil killers and innocent victims in which violence is an incomprehensible evil and its victims are always wise and good. Nye is probably right when she says in her preface that the grandmothers and children of this world would never permit the outrageous violence that ravages the Middle East (xviii). Perhaps this is one issue that is exactly black and white: violence is bad and those who suffer from it are good. I can’t help suspecting that the moving simplicity of Nye’s representation of the Middle East is a valiant effort to encourage us all to identify with what is right and to reject violence, an effort that—perhaps forgivably—ends up tidying the messy borders between good and evil. Nye takes seriously her grandmother’s urge to her to “speak for” others. She feels responsible to her Palestinian-American background and to the millions of Palestinians whose voices have been silenced; she has decided to be their stateswoman here, and in a way her sense of responsibility limits her: she must always be positive, she must always offer comfort with her poetry. Poetry may succeed in healing when all else has failed:
We will take this word in our arms.
It will be small and breathing. We will not wish to scare it.
Pressing lips to the edge of each syllable.
Nothing else will save us now. (67)
Despite Kahf’s punchier attitude, the poem “Affirmative Action Sonnet” makes clear that she, too, believes it’s up to language-workers to close the distances between us:
Where is the salve? We write.
—we must—each other . . .
or we will die from what we do not know . . .
I came across the world to write for you. (92)
Catherine Wagner's books are Macular Hole (2004) and Miss America (2001), both from Fence. Her latest chapbook is Everyone in the Room is a Representative of the World at Large (2007), from Bonfire Press. She teaches at Miami University in Ohio.