Naomi Shihab Nye reads and discusses Lisa Suhair Majaj's "Guidelines"
If they ask you what you are, say Arab. If they flinch, don't react, just remember your great-aunt's eyes. If they ask you where you come from, say Toledo. Detroit. Mission Viejo. Fall Springs. Topeka. If they seem confused, help them locate these places on a map, then inquire casually, Where are you from? Have you been here long? Do you like this country? If they ask you what you eat, don't dissemble. If garlic is your secret friend, admit it. Likewise, crab cakes. If they say you're not American, don't pull out your personal, wallet-sized flag. Instead, recall the Bill of Rights. Mention the Constitution. Wear democracy like a favorite garment: comfortable, intimate. If they wave newspapers in your face and shout, stay calm. Remember everything they never learned. Offer to take them to the library. If they ask you if you're white, say it depends. Say no. Say maybe. If appropriate, inquire, Have you always been white, or is it recent? If you take to the streets in protest, link hands with whomever is beside you. Keep your eyes on the colonizer's maps, geography's twisted strands, the many colors of struggle. No matter how far you've come, remember: the starting line is always closer than you think. If they ask how long you plan to stay, say forever. Console them if they seem upset. Say, don't worry, you'll get used to it. Say, we live here. How about you?
—Lisa Suhair Majaj
“Guidelines” by Lisa Suhair Majaj from Geographies of Light.
Web del Sol Association, 2009.
Reprinted by permission of author.
This is Naomi Shihab Nye and I’m reading a poem by Lisa Suhair Majaj called “Guidelines.”
“Keep your eyes on the colonizer’s maps”—“Guidelines” by Lisa Suhair Majaj, an Arab-American poet who currently lives in Cyprus with her husband and two children, is one of my favorite poems about identity. This poem is included in Lisa’s book Geographies of Light published by Del Sol Press, Washington DC in 2009. Her title has bearing here too. Lisa’s poem sheds a clear, compelling light on the sometimes thorny terrain of immigration, identity and belonging, and it does this in an imaginative, comfortable tone which includes us all in the conversation. “Guidelines” functions through a series of simple, potent questions and comments: advice to the listener as it were, arranged in three-line stanzas. It’s friendly. It doesn’t get irritated even when pressed. It reminds me of the power of language to ease situations of potential conflict. Instead of backfiring with fury, the poem gently engages and expands. Its playfulness and nuanced possibility ending with that most gracious turnaround—“How about you?”—suggests the peculiar curiosity of this issue. Who does belong? Does everyone belong? Do we have to do something special to belong? Do people who look like you belong a little bit more?
I like the openhearted tone of “Guidelines.” Nobody could say they don’t understand this poem. Yet it’s clever and surprising, as well as revealing and wise. Walking in Claremont, California the other day, I saw a handwritten sign on a wall: NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL. Because I live in a Texas city with a high majority of Latino residents and an ongoing conversation about citizenship and human rights, this sign caught me up. I had never seen the truth stated so simply before. It made me think of what Lisa’s poem “Guidelines” is saying. I think about the people who first lived on all our lands here in the United States and the indignities they have had to face being so often neglected in the presumptions of belonging. I think of my Palestinian refugee father and his lives in both countries—Palestine and the United States—always wanting to belong, always seeking connection.
Lisa Suhair Majaj and I happen to share exactly the same heritage, Palestinian fathers and Midwestern German-American mothers, but this is not the reason I like her poem. Her poem speaks for all of us: for bullied middle schoolers and outsider teens, for anyone who ever feels marginalized, for oddballs and wallflowers and hermits and eccentrics and, well, maybe that person who lives right next door to you. How are they doing?
"A true Arab knows how to catch a fly in his hands," my father would say. And he'd prove it, cupping the buzzer instantly while the host with the swatter stared. In the spring our palms peeled like snakes. True Arabs believed watermelon could heal fifty ways. I changed these to fit the occasion. Years before, a girl knocked, wanted to see the Arab. I said we didn't have one. After that, my father told me who he was, "Shihab"—"shooting star"— a good name, borrowed from the sky. Once I said, "When we die, we give it back?" He said that's what a true Arab would say. Today the headlines clot in my blood. A little Palestinian dangles a truck on the front page. Homeless fig, this tragedy with a terrible root is too big for us. What flag can we wave? I wave the flag of stone and seed, table mat stitched in blue. I call my father, we talk around the news. It is too much for him, neither of his two languages can reach it. I drive into the country to find sheep, cows, to plead with the air: Who calls anyone civilized? Where can the crying heart graze? What does a true Arab do now?
—Naomi Shihab Nye
Naomi Shihab Nye
Naomi Shihab Nye (1952- ) was born in St. Louis, Missouri and educated at Trinity University in San Antonio. The daughter of a Palestinian refugee and an American, Shihab Nye spent part of her childhood in Jerusalem. The author of numerous poetry collections, children's books, and essays, her many awards include the Witter Bynner Fellowship (2000) and four Pushcart prizes. Photo credit: Chehalis Hegner
Lisa Suhair Majaj
Lisa Suhair Majaj (1960-) is a Palestinian-American poet who was born in Iowa and raised in Jordan. Educated at the American University of Beirut and the University of Michigan, Majaj currently resides in Cyprus. Her essays and poems have been published widely, and her poetry collection The Geographies of Light (2008) won the Del Sol Press Poetry Prize.
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