Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
“Can you imagine? He will be the face of America now. To the whole world. We will have to hear his voice. It’s just terrible.” My new friend J from Dubai shakes his head solemnly.
He greeted me yesterday saying softly, “I really hope Hillary wins. Trump is so – annoying.” When I nodded, he didn’t hold back. “I don’t understand this mystery – how he came so far. Why anyone likes him. Do you think newscasters gave him too much time? He contradicts himself everywhere on the internet. What does he really believe?”
Now it’s the next day – like millions apparently, I couldn’t sleep all night and turned on the TV at dawn to see American voting counts being tallied – tidal wave of stunned shock. When I see J again in his long white robe, red and white keffiyah wrapped around his head, he looks mournful. “We’re in shock too. Do you think he was cheating?” An Australian says, “Maybe it’s not true,” keeping an eye on his phone screen. When it appears Hillary has won more votes but lost the election, he grimaces. “We’re messed up in Australia these days too.”
J says, “And can you imagine your new First Lady? She couldn’t even write her own speech!”
That’s the least of it. When I go back to my room, he says, “Don’t turn on the TV.” A Sudanese trainer approaches me later where I am watching the sun set over the sea. “You are American? Does that Trump like anybody but blonde ladies? No one who looks like me, for sure! This will be bad for all your minorities. Can you please explain?”
Well, no I can’t. Next day when an old Arab vendor at the wildly bustling Sharjah International Book Fair hands me a New York Times with the word TRUMP boldfaced inside the headline TRIUMPH, I almost don’t want to touch it. “Take this,” he says grimly. At that moment I catch my shoe on a step and fall on the floor. It’s perfect. Everyone rushes to help me get up.
Billboards with drawings of giant pencils balancing light bulbs on their tips abound in Sharjah – iconic image of the Book Fair. UNWIND FROM YOUR STRESS – READ MORE. WIDEN YOUR ANGLE – READ MORE. Even the water bottles have READ MORE printed on their sides.
It was always hard to picture Donald Trump reading the Bible (didn’t he say that was his favorite book?) backstage at a Beauty Pageant.
It was hard to imagine his narcissistic behavior, which wouldn’t be attractive in a first-grader, appealing to anyone. When I walk among the hardworking sad-faced booksellers from Palestine, Syria, Jordan, India, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan…I wonder, does he know any people like these? Would he appreciate what they do? Men and women from war-torn countries selling cheerful children’s books, rearranging displays of Montessori children’s toys. A young Palestinian grips my arm. “We have to stay positive when politics are bad. Look at us – finding joy in nothing – almost 70 years! It’s our human destiny.”
By the end of this 12-day Book Fair, more than 1.5 million people will have visited it. People in other countries talk about Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but Sharjah may actually be the friendliest of the three opulent, gleaming cities – emphasis on culture, education, parks. There’s a Minister of Happiness in the Emirates now. May we please have her counsel? The US embassy booth with a life-size cardboard President Obama inexplicably hands out electoral college explanation sheets. Gee thanks. I still don’t believe in it. A Syrian book fair guide blurts, “He was so ugly about China! Doesn’t China do some wonderful things? Aren’t they an ancient culture? How can you talk ugly about people, then be the person selected to deal with them?” An Australian librarian hands me a yellow post-it note – TRUMP WON – WTF? I check e-mails, messages rippling with horror and sorrow. Someone says her hair is on fire but her heart is frozen. People in at least 8 states write that they are crying. A friend in Japan – Do you have any TUMS?
Children dance and parade all over the Expo Center in school uniforms, pawing through mounds of books, eating nachos in little circles all over the floor. Their spirits will always be the great reviving tonic – yesterday as final votes were coming in, not one child in the schools I visited mentioned slogans or candidates. They wanted to write! They wanted to know more about my turtle!
It’s a reckoning moment. Big power feels fraudulent, somehow embarrassing. How do we revive any sense of small human power, things we can touch and uplift in our own realms? What can we improve?
A young Arab man whose dream is to hike in wild natural places all over the world shrugs and says, “It happened. Voting is over now. I know he is disgusting, but maybe he will surprise everybody and do something good.”
Copyright 2016 Naomi Shihab Nye. All rights reserved.
Naomi Shihab Nye’s recent book The Turtle of Oman won the Middle East Book Award and was cited for best depiction of an older character in literature for young readers.