Although it is a children’s picture book Sitti’s Secrets is a nostalgic journey for any Arab-American, especially those of us who arrived to the United States from the seventies on. It describes how Mona, an Arab-American girl, goes on an emotional journey to visit her grandmother back in Palestine. Upon her return to the US, she writes a letter to the US President in which she says: “I vote for peace. My grandmother votes with me.”
Naomi Shihab Nye wrote Sitti’s Secrets in 1994. She followed it with another book in 1997. Habibi is also set in Palestine. It is the story of 14-year old Liyana who moves back to the West Bank with her family, falls in love with Omer, a young Israeli and goes on to relate how these two young people might reconcile this “Romeo and Juliet” dilemma.
Writing about the Middle East is a recurrent theme for Naomi Shihab Nye whose father is a Muslim Palestinian, mother is a Lutheran American. Her religion is spirituality, which does not adhere to any organized religion. “There is something very comforting about ritual,” she said. “I have friends who go to church or sit at the Zen Center. I respect that. The ritual of writing fills that need for me. Writing has been a kind of spiritual devotion for me. Listening to language, feeling stories unfold and poems arrive, being present to the page – I do not think of it as a career. I think of it as a devotion. That is a big difference to me.”
Having grown up in the United States, Naomi never strayed too far from her Arab roots. In fact, after the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, Naomi became an active voice for the Arab-American cause speaking out both against terrorism and racism, combining her experiences in 2002 into a beautiful book of poetry: 19 Varieties of Gazelle: poems of the Middle East. When asked by Kim Rosen for an interview in Spirituality & Health about what effect she would like to have on the readers of her poetry, she said: “More peace. I would hope that a poem about the Middle East, for example, would make anyone who read it less willing to place a group of people into the enemy category. And also, a sense of peacefulness – in people’s lives, in society – a sense of possibility, that things can work out.” That is the essence of Naomi’s writings: everyday life where she is at ease in her relationships with the earth and its people, as well as writing and being conscious of the pains of war and the beauty and diversity of cultural issues. She has travelled a lot and portrays this in her anthologies by showcasing poets from many places. In this aspect, she is a universal writer with universal concerns. One of her best known poems is: Kindness written after a personal traumatic experience in which she so poignantly says:
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
Naomi is one of our most prolific Arab-American poets and writers, a terrific embodiment of all the true values carried from her roots in both the Middle East and the United States. She has written Poetry, Essays, Novels, Anthologies and Picture Books for which she has won numerous prizes and acknowledgements. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1952, and is considered one of the leading poets of the American Southwest. Today, she lives in San Antonio, Texas with her husband, Michael, a photographer.
Sitti’s Secrets and Habibi are a terrific gift to give to our children and grandchildren. With the Holidays coming up, what could be lovelier than including Naomi’s books, or books by our other Arab-American writers, on your Holiday gift list?
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