Our Girls: Notes on Poetry and Palestinian Motherhood

by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha | Contributing Writer

This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. At 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 19, Naomi Shihab Nye will read in celebration of her new collection The Tiny Journalist at Town Hall. 

1. Warning: Rough Edges Ahead

In middle school, my eldest child had a homework assignment about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It was a fill-in-the-blank worksheet, and had my daughter completed it according to the choices available, would have her required her to say that Palestinian refugees simply left their homes in 1948. After a painful evening of unpacking this language, in class the next day she suggested to the teacher that the worksheet didn’t reflect her family’s experience. The teacher’s response was to draw a line down the middle of the board, to write the words “Israeli” and “Palestinian” on either side of it, and to ask her to speak on behalf of Palestinian history. At age 12.

Most Palestinian-Americans have a story like this. A story of the day they were deputized by American adults into the role of spokesperson for—depending on the decade or the news cycle—Palestinians, Muslims, the Arab World, the Intifada, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas. It happens as early as the classroom, the school bus, or the playground. Elected officials running for president recycle the racist trope that we don’t exist, an occupation and its attendant wars rage on, and the US media keeps us simultaneously very present and profoundly invisible in the American imagination. In this landscape, discovering a Naomi Shihab Nye book at the library or on a bookstore shelf is one of the most healing and humanizing experiences. If a “normal childhood” is the prayer, Nye’s poetry is our Hallelujah.

No one taught me her words. I found Nye’s books on my own, in the pre-Google era. My eyes fixed on the name Shihab—that shooting star—among the words on the bookshelf where I expected no Arabic words to appear. When I pulled the volume off the shelf, the cover image of a Palestinian fallaha in her richly embroidered thobe and white veil transfixed me. As did these lines from the title poem of the book Words Under the Words:

Answer, if you hear the words under the words—
otherwise it is just a world with a lot of rough edges,
difficult to get through, our pockets full of stones.

2. Grace in Our Brokenness

This summer we drove to Portland to hear Palestinian teenage journalist Janna Jihad speak. She was touring the US with the help of a South African organization to raise awareness about the apartheid Palestinians endure. The trip was a birthday gift for my youngest daughter who is a huge Janna fan. When I handed her Naomi Shihab Nye’s new book, The Tiny Journalist, inspired by Janna’s life and work, she settled in and read it cover to cover. “Let’s check on Janna,” she’ll say from time to time, asking to view Janna’s Instagram account from my phone. When she got to meet her at the lecture, she was overwhelmed, blushing through Janna’s compliment: “I love your kuffiyeh!” and later chiding herself for losing her words. 

In The Sound of Listening: Poetry as Refuge and Resistance, poet Philip Metres writes: “Poetry is not a mere throwback, some atavistic practice for the vestigial few. On the contrary, poetry’s discipline of entering into our minds and bodies—our restless bodies, our roiled souls—is an ancient practice that invites grace to enter our brokenness, to hold us together, to wake us again.” I was thinking about daughters as I entered the church where Janna spoke. I was thinking about Ahed Tamimi, Janna’s cousin who survived interrogation and eight months of incarceration for resisting the Israeli military’s incursion on her home. I was thinking about Rachel Corrie, a Pacific Northwest daughter, who was mowed down by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to stop a home demolition in Rafah in 2003. In “Israelis Let Bulldozers Grind to a Halt,” Nye demonstrates the speaker’s palpable frustration and disappointment:

“Deadline for demolition”
as if cruelty had its own calendar
a banker or a businessman.

I return to the possible definitions of grace as I consider the poem, which include: “simple elegance or refinement of movement.” The poem does just that, it moves elegantly, and with a grace that is characterized by an economy of words, short sharp lines, and a trust in the power of the list. These are refinements of language that poets spend a lifetime perfecting. Neatly designed and arranged, they imbue the speaker of the poem with both lucidity and plain-spokenness. Another possible meaning of “grace”: to do honor or credit by one’s presence. The speaker continues: “I am mad about language/covering pain/big bandage/masking the wound.” The poem is not a detached or charitable act of witness, it has vital work to do—to honor by seeing and saying fully what it sees, to be entirely present. The apparent simplicity of the statement gives way to the capaciousness of the utterance, the concision with which so much landscape, literal and figurative, multiple generations and heritages of pain, are evoked. The wounds in the room are singing, but so is the beautiful resilient hope of our girls. This book, with its Janna-persona poems and direct address and insistent elegance is a book by one of and for our girls.

3. Courage or Something Like It

My own daughters have returned to Palestine a few times, most recently in December 2017, during my book tour. American friends often tiptoe around the question of “safety” when we travel back. One said, “It takes courage to bring your kids there, doesn’t it?”

has age
in it
but I say
age is not required

says the speaker of Nye’s “Studying English.” From the tender age of 7, Janna has grown up in the shadow of an apartheid wall. Her village, Nabi Saleh, is under Israeli military occupation and is surrounded by settlements. The subtext beneath “occupation” and “settlements” is colonization. Slowly, as we speak a more honest language for this country’s mass destruction of indigenous communities and the erasure of their histories, it becomes possible for people to see this. When I try to answer my friend, I think of the settlers who move from places like Brooklyn to the hills of Palestine and believe they are on a god-sanctioned mission to drive out and replace Palestinians. I think about the courage of Janna’s mother, who doesn’t keep her daughter locked indoors and lets her record what happens around her. “It’s a way to give her strength,” she says in an interview.

A man from Scotland came to visit,
brought us square, buttery cookies,
repeated Steady at the tiller,
when he wandered our streets.
I had to search for the meaning. Keeping control
of a situation, staying firm,
phrase often used in seafaring context,
though we have no boats, no rudders,
but originally the phrase connected to
a felled tree, of which we have plenty.

“Felled trees” might be a reference to the hundreds of olive trees uprooted each year by Israeli settlers, crimes extensively documented by Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations alike. It also evokes the tall trees of Janna’s village, the subjects of her coverage; the uncles and aunts and cousins, the parents rooted in the land of Nabi Saleh, who stand tall in the face of intimidation and violence, and who are sometimes cut down when they resist. The poem, though it speaks in Janna’s voice, is typical of Nye’s spare and evocative style. Like a small stone dropped in a pond, it ripples in ever growing circles that bring more and more of us in.

4. What Do We Call It?

My first return to Palestine with children was in the summer of 2006. Israel’s war on Lebanon had burned through July, while we were next door in Amman. The war loomed large and it was—as always—a madness with which we co-exist because what else is possible? Nonetheless, “the situation,” a catch-all word used to describe the weather of protracted war, was stable enough for us to go to Ramallah and Turmusayya and Jerusalem, the places in Palestine we call home. And so we crossed the Allenby Bridge, and like many Palestinian-Americans do, tried to enjoy the company of loved ones, indulge in late-night walks and too many servings of heavenly knafeh to count. We prayed in Jerusalem. We were stopped at checkpoints, our American passports ultimately granting us passage. In “ In Northern Ireland They Called It ‘The Troubles'” Nye asks with understandable exasperation: “What do we call it? / The very endless nightmare? The toothache of tragedy? / I call it a life no one would choose.”

At a checkpoint on the way from Turmusayya to Ramallah, a soldier—who looked to be twenty years old at most—smirked at my girls in the back seat of the van, flipped through the pages of our passports. My then-three-year-old fixed him with her hazel eyes. It was his machine gun she was staring at, as it dangled from his shoulder, brushing the edge of her seat. His slouch, the sneer, his delight in holding us there for a few minutes for no reason other than he could were all part of her Palestinian education. No one had ever spoken to her father the way that kid with the gun did. A few days later we flew back to our home in the United States. Our safety is a privilege braided with the guilt of tax dollars spent—despite our voting and writing and activism—to pave the roads and build the settlements those young soldiers patrol. And in the Palestinian villages and cities throughout our homeland, girls like Janna Jihad are left with the unfathomable work of resistance and survival.

5. Let’s Make It Bigger

I think about Naomi whenever I teach poetry. I bring her into my own classrooms as often as possible, and in so many of our conversations about teaching poetry, two of her words echo: Love and Respect. Enter a room with poems you love. You can teach a kind of respect for the moment, she says.

In Amman, in January, 2009, I’m teaching a 9th grade creative writing class. The first of three wars on Gaza has just come to an end, and we’re all reeling from the images of white phosphorus drenching buildings that look very much like the one we’re in. We all think we have seen the worst that can possibly happen because we don’t know what 2012 or 2014 have in store. Several of the kids in my class are originally from Gaza. The first writing project we did, Heritage Poems, sent them to their grandparents to ask about the story of their family names. This week’s writing prompt comes from a Nye poem, from her collection Honeybee. After reading “To One Now Grown,” the students draft letters to a parent, an invitation to remake a moment that disappointed them. Nye writes:

In one scene you are screaming
and I stop the car.
What do we do next?
I can’t remember.
It’s buried in the drawer of small socks.
Give me the box of time.
Let’s make it bigger.
It’s all yours.

One boy writes to his father: You’re too hard on me. I want to go back to the moment you took away my guitar. I don’t care how bad my math grade was. A girl writes to her mom about dating: It’s not an American idea. I think you must have liked someone when you were young, too. Did you? In the comfort of a room filled with poems I love, we put the news away and write, we enlarge the stiflingly small space we are granted.

6. Asking Why

“If you are a child of a refugee, you do not / sleep easily when they are crossing the sea / on small rafts and you know they cannot swim.” These opening lines of “Mediterranean Blue” might be the flag of the country Naomi has built for us in this book. The flag’s color is a sorrowing azure, with bright flecks of sunlight and fathoms of shadows. Throughout her books, and especially in The Tiny Journalist, she writes as the daughter of immigrants, of refugees, that sensibility informs every poem. Poet Billie Swift says of wonder: “It’s when you are vibrating in the middle space between not knowing and wanting to know.” Naomi Shihab Nye’s poems (and stories and anthologies) appeal to readers of all ages because she lives comfortably in the space Swift describes. She is in a constant hum of reaching towards, of genuine inquiry. Naomi wonders—aloud and in quiet moments—and we are invited to carry her questions with us, as she carries Janna’s voice, that “folded document of hope, unfolded flag, / unburdened alphabet, asking why.”

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, essayist, and translator. Her first book, Water & Salt (Red Hen Press) won the 2018 Washington State Book Award for Poetry. Her first chapbook, Arab in Newsland, won the 2016 Two Sylvias Press Prize. Her forthcoming chapbook, Letters from the Interior, will be published this fall by Diode Editions. In 2017-18, she served as inaugural Poet-In-Residence at Open Books: A Poem Emporium in Seattle.