A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
BOA Editions, Ltd., 2019
Before writing a word about Naomi Shihab Nye’s latest book—one of over thirty volumes of award-winning poetry and prose—I went online to watch Shihab Nye’s current muse, Palestinian “tiny journalist” Janna Tamimi. In an August 2017 interview with ITV, 11-year-old Janna faces her interviewer with the poise Shihab Nye describes in her poem “Janna” (“…You know gazing into a camera / can be a bridge, so you stare / without blinking. […] You know the spot is the only thing / that matters.”) Janna wears her long brown hair in one braid, pulled forward—a style Shihab Nye herself has favored. Like the poet, her delicate face and her voice are both expressive and controlled. In describing her eyewitness experiences of the Israeli occupation that has oppressed and killed her family—her people—for generations, Janna lifts long-fingered hands to emphasize her points. Her keffiyeh shines like watered silk under the lights. It is easy to see, in Janna Tamimi, Naomi Shihab Nye’s child self, a mirror casting a fresh reflection. Both Janna and Naomi, as Nye has remarked, started their careers at the age of seven.
Yet this identification is complicated, even deceptive. As a mirror shows the reversed image of a face, it is Janna and Shihab Nye’s differences—along with their similarities—that shape the narratives and tensions of The Tiny Journalist. Shihab Nye has corresponded with Janna, but never has met her; when she writes in Janna’s voice, the words are almost all her own. Seven-year-old Naomi published her first poem with the loving guidance of her second-grade teacher, Harriet Lane (whom she still considers a mentor, as she noted in a September 2019 presentation in Seattle recorded by KUOW-FM). Although in the late 1950s Shihab Nye’s father, immigrant Palestinian journalist Aziz Shihab, was to Shihab Nye’s knowledge the only Arab in Ferguson, Missouri—her mother, Miriam, was an American-born painter of European descent—the young Naomi did not feel that her life was at risk. Seven-year-old Janna, using her mother’s iPhone, started filming confrontations with Israeli soldiers—the shooting, jailing, and killing of her relatives and neighbors, the daily checkpoint humiliations of life under occupation. When the ITV interviewer asks 11-year-old Janna if she feels her childhood has been stolen from her, she answers simply: “Yes.” (“…Yes, she knows how to take a picture / with her phone. Holds it high / like a balloon. Yes, she would / prefer to dance and play, / would prefer the world / to be pink. It is her job to say / what she sees, what is happening” Shihab Nye writes in “Morning Song,” the opening poem of The Tiny Journalist.)
Some readers may be thinking, a seven-year-old Palestinian girl with an iPhone? An 11-year-old girl Palestinian girl, fluent in English, making trips to other countries to speak? A 13-year-old Palestinian girl with over a quarter million social media followers? One of the ironies of this story is that Janna Tamimi is a member of a relatively privileged and prominent family, who still live under the brutal restrictions that face all Palestinians existing in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza—as well as a family that has put itself on the front lines for Palestine. Her mother, Nawal Tamimi, is the director of Women’s Affairs in the Palestinian Ministry of Development. Her uncle Bassem Tamimi is recognized as a political prisoner by Amnesty International and the European Union for his weekly nonviolent protests in the family’s West Bank village of Nabi Salih. Bassem Tamimi has been arrested over a dozen times, and once spent three years in Israeli administrative detention without trial. But to watch Janna, to hear her speak, is to refute the notion that she is a propagandist tool. In the poem “Studying English,” Nye writes in Janna’s voice: “COURAGE / has age / in it / but I say / age is not required.”
In the August 2017 ITV interview, Bassem Tamimi’s daughter Ahed is beside Janna. Ahed has the looks of a young European movie actress, including curly blond hair, Rapunzel hair. For this interview, the top of her mane is braided into a princess coronet, and a slice of pink t-shirt is visible under her keffiyeh. She responds to English questions in Arabic—even when she appears to understand them—as Janna rapidly translates her responses into English. Unlike Janna, Ahed sits almost impassively, twisting her fingers, obviously uncomfortable in the TV studio’s glare. She tells the interviewer that she is considering studying law to represent her people.
In December of that year, Ahed “went viral” in a video that showed the 16-year-old slapping and kicking Israeli soldiers after a cousin was shot in the face with a “rubber” bullet; he had to be placed an induced coma in order to survive. (I put the word rubber in quotations because these infamous bullets are rubber-coated metal, and can be maiming and lethal.) In the poem “For Palestine,” Shihab Nye writes of Ahed: “…It was only a slap […] Karmic wheel, / great myth of fairness kept spinning / I dreamed of Ahed’s hair.” Ahed served eight months in prison in 2018, during which she completed her high school studies. Israel’s education minister Naftali Bennett—the son of American immigrants from San Francisco—was quoted in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz as saying that Ahed should have spent the rest of her life in jail.
Shihab Nye’s adolescent years in Jerusalem and in Ramallah, close to Nabi Saleh, took place just before and after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Although she made subsequent visits to Palestine, and was profoundly influenced by her grandmother, who lived to be 106—and although she is passionate about being Palestinian, retaining the shooting star (shihab) of her father’s name—the center of her adult life has been in San Antonio, Texas. She first came to Palestine knowing no language other than English. Shihab Nye’s Arabic remains limited, as she mentions in a number of her poems, including 1992’s poignant “Arabic”: “…I admit my / shame. To live on the brink of Arabic, tugging / its rich threads without understanding / how to weave the rug…I have no gift. / The sound, but not the sense.”
At times in The Tiny Journalist, it seems that Shihab Nye strains for points of connection with Janna. She reaches back to the youthful trauma of her late father, Aziz Shihab, at the time of the founding of Israel, in “The Old Journalist Talks to Janna”: “From beyond the trees / I appreciate your efforts. / I see you stand, hands up, saying / Move back! to the ones with guns. / This was never easy for me to do. / After seeing them kill my friend, / I feared them. I loved my life, / did not want my mother to grieve. / You are braver than I was. / His blood spilled over the bench / where we had been sitting.” She uses food—a touchstone for Arabs and Arab Americans—imagining the luxury of everyday decisions Janna might make in slicing cucumbers for her mother, and in the poem “How Long?” tenderly recounting one of Janna’s food dreams: “…Once there was a stuffed squash / who didn’t wish to be eaten. / Kousa habibti, pine nuts for eyes…She helped me to start my mission.” (I hear my sister calling out, “little kousa, little kousa”—a pet name for her cats.)
It also seems at times in The Tiny Journalist that Shihab Nye, a poet famous for a compassion broader than Whitman’s, tempered by the accessible style and attention to delicate details that characterize the work of her adult mentor, the pacifist poet William Stafford (and by extension, the work of her journalist father and spiritual journalist granddaughter) is weary. Weary of asking Why? and Why not? Weary of explaining that Palestinians are Semites too. Weary of the endless, grinding spirals of oppression and atrocity. Weary of Benjamin Netanyahu. In “Netanyahu,” the poet admonishes the leader: “What does it mean when one person thinks / others deserve nothing? / What is that called? / […] If you know what it is called, why keep / doing it?” and in “To Netanyahu,” she compares the man unfavorably to the donkey that her father named after him: “…Years since my father died, / his donkey still stands quietly / gazing from enormous eyes / hanging his humble head.”
There are wonderful grace notes in this book, such as the generous Syrian pistachio vendor in “One Small Sack in Syria,” who deliberately overfills the customer’s bag and speaks warmly of Aleppo; “To Sam Maloof’s Chair,” a paean to the Lebanese American modern furniture designer and “woodworker” from California, and of course, the living miracle of Janna Tamimi herself. But the final poem in the book, “Tiny Journalist Blues,” is a cri de coeur with as yet, no resolution:
Nothing to give you
that you would want.
Nothing big enough
To order The Tiny Journalist by Naomi Shihab Nye, please click here.
Copyright 2019 Angele Ellis
Angele Ellis, a regular contributor to Vox Populi, is a poet and activist who lives in Pittsburgh.